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Publisher's Summary

In terms of geopolitics, perhaps the most seminal event of the Middle Ages was the successful Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453. The city had been an imperial capital as far back as the fourth century, when Constantine the Great shifted the power center of the Roman Empire there, effectively establishing two almost equally powerful halves of antiquity’s greatest empire. 

Constantinople would continue to serve as the capital of the Byzantine Empire even after the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed in the late fifth century. Naturally, the Ottoman Empire would also use Constantinople as the capital of its empire after their conquest effectively ended the Byzantine Empire, and thanks to its strategic location, it has been a trading center for years and remains one today under the Turkish name of Istanbul.

In the wake of taking Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire would spend the next few centuries expanding its size, power, and influence, bumping up against Eastern Europe and becoming one of the world’s most important geopolitical players. It was a rise that would not truly start to wane until the 19th century, and in the centuries before the decline of the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottomans frequently tried to push further into Europe. 

Some of those forays were memorably countered by Western Europeans and the Holy League, but the Ottomans’ most frequent foe was the Russian Empire, which opposed them for both geopolitical and religious reasons. From negotiations to battles, the two sides jockeyed for position over the course of hundreds of years, and the start of the fighting may have represented the Ottomans’ best chance to conquer Moscow and change the course of history.

By the 19th century, the tsar was notoriously referring to the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe”, and by the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was often described as a dwindling power, mired by administrative corruption, using inferior technology, and plagued by poor leadership. 

The general idea is that the Ottoman Empire was “lagging behind”, likely coming from the clear stagnation of the empire between 1683 and 1826. Yet, it can be argued that this portrayal is often misleading and fails to give a fuller picture of the state of the Ottoman Empire. The fact that the other existing multicultural empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also did not survive World War I should put into question this “accepted narrative”. 

Looking at the reforms, technological advances, and modernization efforts made by the Ottoman elite between 1826 and the beginning of World War I, one could really wonder why such a thirst for change failed to save the Ottomans when similar measures taken by other nations, such as Japan during the Meiji era, did in fact result in the rise of a global power in the 20th century. 

During the period that preceded its collapse, the Ottoman Empire was at the heart of a growing rivalry between two of the competing global powers of the time, England and France. The two powers asserted their influence over a declining empire, the history of which is anchored in Europe as much as in Asia. However, while the two powers were instrumental in the final defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, their stance toward what came to be known as the “Eastern Question” - the fate of the Ottoman Empire - is not one of clear enmity. Both England and France found, at times, reasons to extend the life of the Sick Man of Europe until it finally sided with their shared enemies.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2021 Charles River Editors

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