The Ottoman Age of Exploration

The Ottoman Age of Exploration

The Ottoman Age of Exploration

The Ottoman Age of Exploration


In 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim "the Grim" conquered Egypt and brought his empire for the first time in history into direct contact with the trading world of the Indian Ocean. During the decades that followed, the Ottomans became progressively more engaged in the affairs of this vast and previously unfamiliar region, eventually to the point of launching a systematic ideological, military and commercial challenge to the Portuguese Empire, their main rival for control of the lucrative trade routes of maritime Asia.

The Ottoman Age of Exploration is the first comprehensive historical account of this century-long struggle for global dominance, a struggle that raged from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Straits of Malacca, and from the interior of Africa to the steppes of Central Asia. Based on extensive research in the archives of Turkey and Portugal, as well as materials written on three continents and in a half dozen languages, it presents an unprecedented picture of the global reach of the Ottoman state during the sixteenth century. It does so through a dramatic recounting of the lives of sultans and viziers, spies, corsairs, soldiers-of-fortune, and women from the imperial harem. Challenging traditional narratives of Western dominance, it argues that the Ottomans were not only active participants in the Age of Exploration, but ultimately bested the Portuguese in the game of global politics by using sea power, dynastic prestige, and commercial savoir faire to create their own imperial dominion throughout the Indian Ocean.


Imagine, just for a moment, that the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror never captured the city of Constantinople. Instead, suppose that Emperor Constantine Palaeologos and the ragtag remnants of his Byzantine army managed, against all odds, not only to save their capital on that fateful Tuesday in 1453 but also, during the following decades, to reoccupy all of the lands in the Balkans and Anatolia that had once constituted the core of their empire.

Now imagine that the dawn of the sixteenth century witnessed an even more startling rise in this empire’s fortunes, as victorious Byzantine legions marched ever further, conquering provinces like Syria and Egypt that had been lost to them for centuries and, later, spreading into such distant and unfamiliar lands as Yemen, the Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. Then, from these advanced bases, imagine that Byzantine fleets began to conduct patrols of the Indian Ocean, to organize massive expeditions against enemy strongholds in Hormuz and Gujarat, and to send crack military teams to support their allies in places as remote from one another and from the imperial capital as Indonesia and the Swahili Coast.

Naturally, such prodigious military expansion would be accompanied by equally impressive advances in other fields. Thus, picture a Byzantine treasury that began to use the spice trade to move beyond its traditional reliance on agriculture, dispatching commercial agents to the markets of India and Sumatra and organizing regular convoys of state-owned ships to bring pepper and cloves to the spice bazaars of Egypt. Meanwhile, back in Constantinople, imagine the growth of a new group . . .

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