The House of Osman began as one of many small noble families that ruled the Turkic peoples during their migration west around the end of the first millenia CE. The Osmans steadily accrued power and influence, and in the disruption following the Mongolian invasions established its lands as an independent power center in Anatolia. Althought he did not claim the title of Sultan, Osman I, who lived at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, is understood to be the dynastic founder of the Ottoman Empire. After securing his territory from Turkic rivals, Osman looked to the crumbling Byzantine Empire, which the Osman’s would eat at for the next two centuries. This would grant them access not only to Europe, but also gave the resources to extend their power in the Islamic world.
Critical in the expansion of Ottoman power was the victory at the Field of Blackbirds in 1389, which helped stem Serbian power and ensure Ottoman access to the corpse of the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Murad I died on the battlefield and was replaced by his son, Bayezid I. As was common custom at the time, Bayezid had his brother strangled upon his ascension in the wake of the battle. Succession in the House of Osman did not operate on the principles of primogeniture, seniority, or even on the selection of the current Sultan, but rather most often depended on a free-for-all between sons upon the death of the Sultan. The new Sultan would often, although not always, follow up his ascension with the murder of any remaining brothers. Over time this practice, which of course proved quite destructive both within the family and without, was replaced by a general preference for the principle of seniority. Unfortunately for Bayezid I, the invasions of the Tartar under Tamerlane prevented him from following up his success in Kosovo. The Tartar captured Bayezid I, and although the story is probably apocraphyl, it is said that Tamerlane used the Sultan as a footstool.
The disruptions associated with the Tartar invasions weakened the enemies of the Osman’s more than the Osmans themselves. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople, putting the Byzantine Empire (and, by extension, the ancient Roman Empire) to effective end. The last Byzantine Emperor was presumably killed in the fighting, as he was last seen throwing himself into hand-to-hand combat after the breaching of the city walls. Upon the fall of the city, Constantinople became the new capitol of the Ottoman Empire. The Osman’s continued their expansion into Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, reaching the gates of Vienna in 1529. The Empire reached its apogee under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned between 1520 and 1566. Periodically, Sultans asserted the title Caliph of Islam, although this was not used with any regularity.
Of course, ever empire that rises must eventually fall. The growing borders of the Empire extended its responsibilities beyond that which was economically and bureaucratically efficient. Ottoman military forces became victims of their own success, as tactics and formation became hidebound and increasingly vulnerable to military advances in the West. The succession process tended to leave young (and, eventually, older) men without any education or policy experience, and incited unrest and dissension. The Sultan would typically have an enormous harem with many children, which created a poor incentive structure for the training of any given successor or for vigorous political action. Although the Empire experienced several periods of rejuvenation, the period from 1566 on can be understood as one of long, slow decline. This decline accelerated in the 19th century, when the superiority of Western military practice became evident.
The Ottoman Empire slowly shed its external territories and influence over the course of the 19th century. It lost Greece in 1829, Egypt in the Napoleonic Wars, Cyprus in 1879, and various parts of the Balkans througout the century. Further efforts at reform helped lead to revolution and the curtailment of royal power. In 1908, the “Young Turks” seized the reins of policy. The Empire joined the Central Powers in late 1914, and although it saw some initial success, eventually suffered dramatic defeats in the Middle East. The end of the war resulted in the loss of virtually all remaining European territories and most Asian territories outside the Turkish peninsula. Sultan Mehmed VI accepted an Allied peace plan that threatened to partition Turkey, enraging Turkish nationalists. After much jockeying for power, the Sultan boarded the British battleship Malaya on November 17, 1922, and fled to Malta.
Seven men have headed the House of Osman since the end of the Empire. The latest is Ertugrul Osman V, ten years old when the last Sultan fled. Since 1945, Ertugrul Osman has lived in a two bedroom apartment on Lexington Avenue around 70th Street. Reportedly, he and his wife pay $350 in rent. The Sultan still has some political pull; when they roof in his bathroom collapsed, he contacted Mayor Bloomberg and a crew of city workers repaired the damage in short order. Ertugrul Osman returned to Turkey in 1992, and was granted Turkish citizenship. Chances for a restoration of the monarchy appear extremely grim, as Ertugrul Osman has demonstrated little interest in pursuing political power. Turkey also has no political movement calling for return of the monarchy worth noting, as the Osmans are understood to be antithetical to Turkish nationalism, rather than an integral aspect of it. Nevertheless, Ertugrul Osman V seems happy enough.
Trivia: What country has had only two emperors and only four years of imperial rule in the last 185 years?