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The Middle East and the West: Rise of the Ottomans

Istanbul's Suleymaniye Mosque, built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-1500s.
Mike Shuster, NPR
Istanbul's Suleymaniye Mosque, built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-1500s.
Inset of map showing the Ottoman Empire at its height.
Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR /
Inset of map showing the Ottoman Empire at its height.

For centuries after the Crusades, when Europeans talked of their conflicts with Islam, they invariably referred to the Turks, not the Arabs. The Ottoman Turks had swept out of Central Asia during the 14th century, conquering nearly all of modern-day Turkey, and then set about expanding their empire in the Arab Middle East and into Europe.

NPR's Mike Shuster continues a special six-part series on the long and turbulent history of Western involvement in the Middle East with a look at the rise of the Ottoman Empire.

The empire the Ottomans created was an Islamic state, and for a time the challenger to European control of the Mediterranean.

Many in Europe 400 years ago feared the Ottomans because they were Muslims, says David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio. But he says that's not how the Ottomans perceived the nature of their conflicts with the Europeans.

"Obviously they saw value in spreading religion," Lesche says. "But the Ottoman Empire saw itself as very much, even more so a European empire than a Middle Eastern empire. And they took a very tolerant view toward non-Muslims since for most of the Ottoman Empire -- especially when it was at its largest -- most of its population was non-Muslim. It was in fact Christian."

Rulers on both sides pursued the same goals, despite their different religions, says historian Richard Bulliet, of Columbia University. "It was basically power politics of powerful states, and the Ottoman Empire was part of the European system of strong states struggling for territorial gain," he says.

The Ottomans were defeated decisively after launching their second assault against Vienna in 1683. By the end of the century, they had signed a peace treaty with a coalition of their European adversaries. They would never be as powerful again.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.