Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700

Book Cover

Book Title

Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700. London: Routledge, 1999


Murphey, Rhoads


This volume in the Jeremy Black edited series on Warfare and History presents a revisionist interpretation that concentrates on process rather than outcome, on how the Ottoman military system operated, and how the empire waged war, as opposed to revisiting the course of its various campaigns. Murphey rebuts older arguments that Ottoman soldiers were all religious zealots, that chronic warfare sapped the economic and general strength of the empire, and that the Ottoman Army did not keep up with, or understand, the technological and metallurgical dimensions of the ‘military revolution.’

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Murphey divides his subject into themes, examining material constraints, logistics, transportation, provisioning, manpower, finance, leadership and command, and the impact of warfare on Ottoman society, economy, and the empire as a whole. These discussions are woven around four principal arguments. First, during this period the empire reached the peak of its ability to project military power. Second, it neither fell behind nor raced ahead of other powers, especially European, in developing and deploying military technology. Third, its soldiery were no less influenced by personal, practical and material considerations, no more by abstract or ideological ones, than any other comparable force. The army was human and complex, not a collection of automata. Finally, Ottoman military success rested on the organizational skills and strength, relative and absolute, of the Ottoman state. Compared to its Asian and European foes the Ottoman Army waged war at least as well--often better--equipped, usually better supplied, and generally well led.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

From the beginning, the Ottomans waged war for as a wide a variety of reasons as any of their counterparts, ranging far beyond any supposed compulsion to expand the domain of Islam. Two consistent successes buttressed their military strength. First, they forged a cohesive army out of a collection of units raised from different regions, maintained on different terms, and relied on for different tasks. Second, the central government bureaucracy administered an empire wide network of supply depots, transportation arrangements, and provisioning contracts that added up to logistic support almost always superior to that of any enemy the army had to face. Indeed, Murphey argues persuasively that the Ottomans were well ahead of the Europeans in grappling with the physical constraints that faced all pre-Industrial Revolution armies. Even when forced to operate beyond the range of their empire-wide menzil-hane logistics network, Ottoman armies, especially in Europe, usually did not outrun their supply line capabilities. Asian campaigns could however be more difficult, due to sheer distance, climate, and terrain, especially in the Caucasus.

The elite standing units of the regular army, the Janissary infantry corps and the Sipahi household cavalry, formed a core element of both the Ottoman State and Army. They were reinforced by the timariot system of semi-feudal cavalry, raised and maintained by land grants, by local and regional forces, and by auxiliary or allied forces such as Tartar cavalry. Rather than behaving like an Oriental mob, carrying luxuries into the field and rampaging like barbarians, European contemporaries were generally impressed by Ottoman Army discipline, leadership, and mobility. Ottoman forces could inflict savage punishment indeed on an enemy, but for the most part they behaved, and fought, in ways quite similar to those against whom they waged war. Command and leadership at the formation and unit level was usually good. But the Army was bedevilled by the most glaring weakness of the Ottoman state: factionalism and feuding, especially in higher political and court circles. Such disruptions could, and did, compromise the Army in the field.

Murphey argues that understanding how to use weapons properly in the field was more important than whatever their technical specifications were. And in this respect, Ottoman weaponry, especially artillery, led the way for much of this period, and was not seriously falling behind as it came to an end. This connects to his most basic point: lying at the intersection of Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe, the Ottoman state and military system participated in a world order in which ideas, techniques, and practices of governance, engineering and warfare moved pretty freely through all these zones. Europe had so much trouble for so long dealing with Ottoman military power because the Ottoman Empire was so large and well organized, not because it was fanatically aggressive. Ottoman rulers tread warily around emotional issues of religion in their multi-ethnic state, no more prone to invade Hungary yet again because of any duty to chastise Christian Habsburgs than they were to strike too hard against the supposedly heretical Shi’ite Safavids to the east. Ottoman warfare was defined partly by such pivotal climactic moments as the sieges of Vienna, Baghdad and Famagusta, but probably more by a constant low intensity struggle, in an anarchic world, to maintain a horizontal universal empire that straddled three great geopolitical zones. For a  long time they did remarkably well, due to a state that found ways to foster an economic partnership between itself, the regions of the empire and their peoples in maintaining a military system that dealt with all comers. The Ottoman Empire at its height was not a ‘gunpowder empire’ that fell fatally behind its foes in methods of state governance, economics and waging war. It was an effective centralized state that developed an efficient and well organized military system, one which eventually compelled its European adversaries to concentrate on cutting it down to size.

Annotated by Brian Farrell