former empire in Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa

See also: European history

The Ottoman Empire, also known as the Turkish Empire, was one of the great empires of the Old World, from the 14th to the early 20th century. At the height of its power, it controlled most of the Middle East, the Balkans and parts of North Africa, with a sphere of influence across much of Europe, Asia and Africa. The empire collapsed at the end of World War I, and was succeeded by modern Turkey.


The Gate of Salutation, which leads into the Second Courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, the imperial seat between the 15th and 19th centuries. No one except the officials and ambassadors were allowed across this gate. Even if you were honoured highly enough to be let pass through, you had to dismount here, as crossing on a horseback was a privilege set aside only for the sultan.

The Turks trace their origin to Central Asia. Their current homeland in Anatolia (Asia Minor) has been home to many civilizations throughout history, including Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire was not the first Turkish empire based in Anatolia, but it was certainly the most influential. Starting with Selim the Grim (r. 1512–1520) who took control of the Hejaz, the region surrounding the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, its sultans claimed the title Caliph of Islam, and declared the empire to be a Muslim caliphate.

The Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman I, after whom the state is named, in northwestern Anatolia in 1299, as one of the several Turkish petty kingdoms emerged after the collapse of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, the preceding Turkish empire, as a result of the Mongol invasion. Taking full advantage of its location on the borders of the Byzantine Empire that was much weakened by that time, the Ottoman state quickly grew, crossing over to the European mainland by taking the Gallipoli Castle in 1354. As the empire expanded into the Balkans, it also annexed the other Turkish kingdoms in Anatolia one by one, although it was briefly stalled by a decade-long interregnum, when five claimants to the throne, along with their supporters, fought against each other all over the land after the 1402 defeat of Ottoman sultan Beyazıt the Thunderbolt by Central Asian warlord Tamerlane (arguably of Genghis lineage). Regardless, in 1453, the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror succeeded in conquering Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and in the process desecrated many of the great churches and converted them to mosques. This impressive achievement for the Turks helped to spread Islam in parts of the Balkans, and was a disgrace for the Christians, giving rise to fantasies about new Crusades that in the end never materialized. Constantinople's name was changed to Istanbul, although the imperial officialdom kept calling their seat Kostantiniyye till the end, and it served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire for over 450 years.

The fall of Constantinople had decisive impact on Europe. The Turks proved the superiority of gunpowder weapons, which soon became common in European armies. Christian scholars leaving Constantinople contributed to the Renaissance in Italy and other parts of Europe. The disruption of the Silk Road encouraged Europeans to find a sea route to Asia, inspiring the Voyages of Columbus to the Americas, Da Gama's trip eastbound on the Cape Route around Africa, and Magellan's subsequent voyage westbound around the world.

Meanwhile, the Ottomans saw themselves in large measure as a multi-national, multi-religious Islamic empire that was responsible for preserving and extending the heritage of Rome, as successors of the Byzantine Empire that they defeated, and also for protecting the Islamic holy places in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. As an indication of the toleration of non-Muslims that existed during much of its history, the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jewish refugees from persecution in Spain after the 1492 Reconquista of that country by the Christians. While slavery was prevalent in the empire well into the 19th century, slaves had some legal protection, and some of them could rise to high social status, such as Mehmed Pasha Sokolović (1506–1579), a Bosnian Serb who became the Grand Vizier and the de facto ruler of the empire. As the empire restricted enslavement of Christians, Jews and Muslims, many slaves were captive pagans from Central and East Africa, although through the devşirme system, many Christian boys were also separated from their families and were forced to enrol in the military and civilian apparatus of the empire. Slaves had various assignments: for war galleys, sexual services, and domestic service. An elite of slaves could become bureaucrats, harem guards, or janissaries (the Sultan's elite soldiers).

The reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), better known in Turkey as "the Lawgiver" due to his administrative reforms, is often seen as some sort of golden age for the empire. By this time, the Sublime Porte, as the Ottoman government was informally known, was directly ruling over a good portion of Central Europe, and most of the Middle East and North Africa, and was exercising suzerainty over a wide range of vassal states in parts of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. In addition, the period saw the Ottomans exerting influence in parts of the world well beyond the imperial borders, in areas as diverse as Morocco in the west to Poland in the north, down the East African coast, and Aceh on Sumatra at the farther rim of the Indian Ocean.

As commerce shifted from the Mediterranean and the Silk Road to the high seas, the empire entered an era of slow but steady decline. The two unsuccessful sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683 were the high-water mark of the Ottoman expansion in Europe, and the following centuries were a series of alternating periods of revolts, reforms, westernization efforts, and ironically, unprecedented luxury among the ruling elite — with the parties along the Sweet Waters of Europe taking the dolce vita to a new level during the Tulip era (1718–1730) — which further strained the already failing imperial economy. The age of nationalism arrived in the 19th century, and imperial authority began to shatter in the outlying areas of the "Sick Man of Europe" where non-Turks were in majority. Nevertheless, until its spectacularly painful collapse during World War I, the Ottoman Empire was a great power, at most times a rival of the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Persian Empire. It barely outlasted the former two, but the last incarnation of the latter only fell to the Iranian revolution of 1979 — almost six decades after the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Toward the end of the existence of the Ottoman Empire, it put down an independence movement by the Armenians and systematically murdered between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians — a crime that lives in infamy as the Armenian Genocide. The modern state of Turkey denies that a genocide took place, and this issue continues to be a sore point in diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist in 1922 when the sultanate was abolished by a new republican government which, in an effort to distance itself from the imperial past, based itself in the then-remote Anatolian town of Ankara.

The Ottomans promoted arts including music, pottery, architecture that incorporated many Byzantine motifs and techniques, calligraphy and cuisine, whose styles still have a major influence on the Balkans and the Arab world as well as the modern Turkey of today.


Map of Ottoman Empire


The bulk of the Ottoman heritage in what is now Turkey rests in the Marmara region, where the empire started and grew. Curiously, the rest of the country is mostly devoid of any major monuments built during the Ottoman era—most historic sights either date back to the Seljuks and Turkish petty kingdoms pre-dating the Ottomans, or are remnants of the civilizations that called Anatolia home prior to the arrival of the Turks altogether.

  • 1 Istanbul. The grand Ottoman capital for centuries is home to the largest Ottoman heritage anywhere in the world.
  • 2 Söğüt. This small hillside town in northwestern Turkey was the first capital of the Ottoman state, where it began as a semi-nomadic principality in what was then the Byzantine borderlands.
  • 3 Bursa. The first major city that the Ottomans had taken control of, Bursa, is considered to be the cradle of Ottoman civilization and is the site of most early Ottoman monuments, including the mausolea of all sultans up to Mehmet the Conqueror, who captured Constantinople and moved the throne there.
  • 4 Edirne. There is much Ottoman heritage to see in this European co-capital of the empire, including the Selimiye Mosque, which many think is the zenith of Ottoman architecture.
  • 5 Safranbolu. Well-preserved Ottoman-era old town in northern Turkey that is in the World Heritage list.
  • 6 Iznik. Famous for its faïence pottery-making industry from the 16th century (known as the İznik Çini, whose name is derived from China). Iznik tiles were used to decorate many of the mosques, in Istanbul and elsewhere in the empire, designed by famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.
  • 7 Manisa and 8 Amasya. Two towns, roughly equidistant to the throne in Istanbul, where the favoured crown princes (şehzade) practiced their administrative skills before the luckier one of them replaced their father as the sultan — a situation which doomed the unlucky brothers to death (so that there are no other claimants to the throne) until fratricide was abolished by Ahmet I in 1603. Both towns feature lots of monuments built by the princes, as well as by their mothers (who were traditionally accompanying their sons), during their service as the local rulers. Manisa also has the distinction of being the site of the Mesir Macun festival, started during Suleiman the Magnificent's time as governor there, and inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.


The Old Bridge in Mostar. The Ottomans had many bridges built throughout their domains, both to faciliate trade and to move their army around easily.

In addition to Turkey's Marmara region, the Balkans are where you can best experience what is left of the Ottomans — almost any town south of the Danube has at least a building or two that has a connection with the Ottomans, although sometimes in a ruinous state. Below is a selection of cities that best preserved their Ottoman heritage.

  • 9 Sarajevo and 10 Skopje. The capitals of Bosnia & Herzegovina and North Macedonia feature preserved Ottoman old towns. Skopje's Ottoman heritage can primarily be found in its Old Bazaar.
  • 11 Mostar. The stone bridge spanning over the River Neretva that had to be rebuilt after the Yugoslav Wars is one of the most important Ottoman monuments in the region.
    • The nearby villages of 12 Počitelj and 13 Blagaj are two rural communities with very well-preserved Ottoman architecture; Blagaj also features a Sufi (a mystical Islamic sect) lodge at the source of the local river, in an extremely scenic setting surrounded by sheer canyon walls.
  • 14 Višegrad. Another one of the important Ottoman stone bridges in the area, not least because it forms the setting of the Bridge Over the Drina, a novel by Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić.
  • 15 Niš. On one of the main routes between the imperial seat and its European possessions, the local fortress of this Serbian town was rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 18th century, with numerous contemporary buildings inside. Pleasant Kazandzijsko sokace, a pedestrianized street in the old town, is lined by cafes in buildings originally built for the local craftsmen during the Ottoman rule. A far gloomier relic from the era is the Skull Tower, a remnant of the Ottoman effort to supress the First Serbian Uprising (1804–1813).
  • 16 Pristina. The Kosovar capital features an Ottoman old town, complete with various mosques, bathhouses, public fountains and a clocktower, that were left intact through the extensive rebuilding of the city by communists. The suburb of 17 Mazgit in the outskirts of the city is the site of the tomb of Murat I, the Ottoman sultan who was killed here in 1389 during the Battle of Kosovo, fought between the medieval Serbian Kingdom and the Ottomans. His remains were later removed to the mausoleum in the then-capital Bursa, though.
  • 18 Prizren. Referred to as the cultural capital of Kosovo, Prizren maintains its Ottoman streetscape.
  • 19 Peja. Another old town in Kosovo with much Ottoman heritage.
  • 20 Kratovo. In its heyday this Macedonian town was one of the most important mining towns of the empire, and was the site of a mint which manufactured the coins of the Ottoman currency akçe.
  • 21 Ohrid. While better known for its earlier heritage dating back to the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empires, the whitewashed residential buildings along narrow cobbled streets of the old town of Ohrid are typical of the Ottoman civilian architecture, and wouldn't be out of place in Turkish heartland.
  • 22 Bitola. Manastır was a favorite of the Ottomans and considered to be one of the greatest cities of the European portion of the empire economically, politically and culturally, with such an importance bestowed upon that one of the imperial military academies and a dozen of consulates were located here. While an Ottoman clock tower, bazaars and a few, mostly derelict, mosques stand in Bitola, don't expect to find the usual Oriental atmosphere here — the local pedestrian street Širok Sokak is lined by colourful neo-classical buildings that date back to the late 19th century, when the westernization efforts in the empire reached a climax.
  • 23 Kavala. A historic Greek town adorned with many Ottoman structures. Among them is the residence of native Mehmet Ali Pasha, an Ottoman commander who later became the ruler of Egypt and waged war against the Ottoman authority.
  • 24 Thessaloniki. A city with a continuous 3,000-year history, preserving relics of its Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman past.
  • 25 Ioannina. Known as Yanya by the Ottomans, this pretty old town was the home of Ali Pasha, most likely a local Albanian. In and around the citadel, many buildings that date back to his rule as the Ottoman governor in the 18th century still stand as does the older Fethiye Mosque built in 1430. Most of the Pasha's palace, though, lays in ruins.
  • 26 Plovdiv. While Bulgaria remained under Ottoman rule for centuries (longer than some regions in modern Turkey), most Bulgarian cities underwent large-scale reconstructions after the Bulgarian independence. Plovdiv is an exception, having remarkably preserved its old town full of traditional Ottoman architecture, including the Dzhumaya/Hüdavendigar Mosque. Dating back to 1363, this is considered to be the oldest mosque in Europe except those built in Spain by the Moors, and of course, those in Turkey.
  • 27 Esztergom. The Ottomans controlled the famed Esztergom Castle for two periods, between 1543 and 1595, and later between 1605 and 1683, making it their furthest base along their much beloved Danube. The still-popular military march Estergon Kalesi tells the tale of the last, desperate Ottoman defence of the castle. The Viziváros ("Watertown") district, just below the castle and right on the bank of the river, was the main Turkish settlement in the town, with scant ruins of the Ottoman buildings scattered about and a reconstructed mosque (except for the top of its minaret) that is a museum and cafe.
  • 28 Pécs. The historic Hungarian town is the site of the Kászim pasa Mosque with a very well preserved interior, converted to a Roman Catholic church with the addition of a Jesus on the cross. West of Pécs, 29 Szigetvár is where Suleiman the Magnificent died of natural causes during his siege of the local castle in 1566. A local hilltop is widely believed to be where his heart and internal organs were buried (the rest of his body was taken to Istanbul for interment). The Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Park in town, featuring the sculptures of the Sultan Suleiman and Zrínyi Miklós, the general in charge of the castle during the siege, commemorates the Battle of Szigetvár.
  • 30 Eger. Marking the furthest extent of the Ottoman rule in Europe, the lonely minaret of this Hungarian town is the northernmost one built by the Ottomans, with the adjoining mosque long since disappeared in favour of a small square.
  • 31 Bakhchysarai. The seat of the Crimean Khanate, which, although nominally autonomous from the Ottoman Empire, adopted much of the Ottoman aesthetics and culture.
  • 32 Nicosia. Both the Turkish and Greek halves of the Cypriot capital feature many Ottoman buildings, including the Great Inn, various mosques, some of which started life as Roman Catholic cathedrals, and bathhouses that are still in operation.

Middle East and AfricaEdit

Sabil-Kuttab of Katkhuda, a combined monumental fountain (street level) and Quran school (upper floor) in Islamic Cairo dating back to 1744.

Already regions with a history that reaches far before the Ottoman conquest, many places in the Middle East and parts of Africa nevertheless offer something to experience for travellers seeking Ottoman heritage.

  • 33 Damascus. One of the most important cities of the empire, Damascus hosts a wide number of Ottoman-built mosques, bazaars, and tombs, including that of the last Ottoman sultan who was exiled from Turkey after the republic was proclaimed, although it is yet to be seen how many of them will escape the destruction wrought about by the current civil war.
  • 34 Aleppo. Syria's largest city was another favorite of the Ottomans. Most of the old town, including bazaars and mosques, dates back to the Ottoman rule, but as with Damascus, not much might be left intact after the civil war ends.
  • 35 Beirut. Downtown Beirut has a rich collection of Ottoman-era buildings, although many mansions dating back to the era are in an advanced stage of dereliction.
  • 36 Akko. Many Ottoman-built structures, including a mosque, a bathhouse, a bazaar, and a large caravanserai dot the historic city of Acre, enclosed by Ottoman city walls.
  • 37 Jerusalem. While Jerusalem is not Ottoman in origin, except for the walls that enclose the Old City (built by Suleiman the Magnificent), the Ottomans had taken great lengths to ensure that the buildings—including those held sacred by non-Muslims—and the community of this sacred city, that they ruled for 400 years, remain intact.
  • 38 Jaffa. Jaffa was the primary port of the area during the time of the Ottomans. This status is marked by a clocktower which was built at the command of Abdülhamit II (r. 1876–1909), whose affection for clocktowers saw many of them built in major Ottoman cities.
  • 39 Beer Sheva. Established by the empire at the dawn of the 20th century to counter the growing British influence in nearby Sinai and the rest of Egypt, the old town of Beer Sheva features a grid plan that is rather uncommon in the region, and is one of the few planned communities founded by the Ottomans.
  • 40 Mecca and 41 Medina. The sultans often viewed themselves as servants, and not rulers, of the holiest cities of Islam, and as such almost every one of them, as well as many other members of the dynasty, tried and left a mark to these cities during their time on the throne, although most of these monuments are neglected by the current Saudi authorities, to say the least; some of the most important have been razed to the ground, to the protests of present-day Turkish leaders.
  • 42 Cairo. The main centre of Ottoman power and culture in North Africa.
  • 43 Suakin. Once the main Ottoman harbor on the Red Sea and the seat of the Ottoman province of Habesh, some locals in this Sudanese town still celebrate their Ottoman roots.
  • 44 Algiers. Captured by the famed Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa in 1516, Algiers became the most important centre of Ottoman power in the Maghreb. More or less autonomous from the throne in distant Constantinople, it was put under the rule of prominent Ottoman seamen, who, using the area as a base, pursued a policy of piracy in the Mediterranean, especially against Spanish shipping. In the following centuries, these Barbary corsairs as they are known in the West, raided coastal areas as far away as Iceland and the newly emerging United States of America. Among what remain of the Ottomans in Algiers are various mosques, including the beautiful Ketchaoua Mosque in the old town. Nearby 45 Constantine also features the palace of the last Ottoman governor of the town, who served before the French occupation in 1837.


A 16th-century Ottoman miniature depicting the Battle of Mohács, now on display in the Szigetvár Castle

The most common elements of the imperial Ottoman architecture include arches and domes, which were strongly influenced by the Byzantine architecture. It is also possible to see some influence from the structures of the Turks in Asia adapted from the nomadic lifestyle, such as yurts. The vernacular architecture most commonly associated with the Ottomans is still visible in the urban fabric of various old towns throughout Turkey and the Balkans. It made extensive use of wood — often brightly colored timbered or half-timbered buildings that reached several floors high in the Ottoman cities. These were swept by fires of devastating scales century after century because of this. In the later centuries of the empire, there were attempts to combine the Baroque and rococo into the Ottoman architecture, but these experiments didn't spread much beyond Istanbul and the former capital of Bursa.

Traditional Ottoman visual arts include ebru/paper marbling and miniature, both developed in compliance with the Islamic ban on depictions of living things. The Ottoman miniature, known as nakış by the Ottomans, had a much different perspective understanding than that has been commonly accepted in the West, and was often seen as a way of backing up of the written material in a book rather than pure art. The Topkapı Palace has a miniature collection but strolling through the newer stations of the Istanbul Metro will reveal many modern interpretations of miniature.

Calligraphy (hat) was also a common art; Turkish calligraphy, gracing most of the major mosques, is often thought to be the most refined form of the Islamic calligraphy.

The Ottomans had a long tradition of tilemaking (çini), with the main workshops in the towns of İznik and Kütahya south of Istanbul. While visiting the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul or any major mosque elsewhere will satisfy those with a passing interest in tiles, two sites of special note are the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Eminönü, Istanbul and the Yeşil Türbe ("Green Tomb") in Bursa.

The Islamic Arts Museum in Sultanahmet, Istanbul hosts a good exhibition of woodcarving and carpets dating back to the Ottoman period.

Karagöz and Hacivat are the main characters of traditional Turkish shadow play, developed during the early Ottoman era. Once one of the main forms of entertainment, it is now more commonly associated with the night festivities held during the Ramadan in Turkey as well as in North Africa. In Greece, where the tradition is also alive, it is called Karagiozis.


Soak up in a hamam (bathhouse). The Ottomans were avid builders and frequenters of bathhouses, and as such, many locations which were once the possessions of the empire still feature Ottoman-era bathhouses that usually take advantage of the local thermal springs.

The Mehter was the Ottoman military band taken to the battlefields with the rest of the army to instill courage for the Ottoman units, and fear in the opposing army. Cymbals, drums, and especially zurna, a high-pitched wind instrument, are the most dominant instruments in the Mehter music. While many of the municipalities affiliated with the nationalist party found Mehter bands out of their staff, the real thing is a unit of the Turkish Armed Forces — which is perhaps the only one in the Turkish Army to allow, and indeed encourage, its members to grow facial hair — and performs weekly in Istanbul's Military Museum.

As for the civilian Ottoman music, the tradition of classical Turkish music (Türk sanat musikisi), a heterophonic music usually performed by a solo singer and a small ensemble, is also alive today. A varied and large number of scales (makam) form the basis of the classical Ottoman music. A full show (fasıl), ideally conducted in the same scale throughout, follows the sequence of an instrumental prelude (peşrev), instrumental improvisations (taksim) and vocal compositions (şarkı), and is ended by an instrumental postlude (saz semaisi). The classical Turkish music is said to be influenced by the Byzantine music as well, and is often associated with rakı-drinking culture in general public opinion. Catching up with the frequent public concerts of the Üsküdar Musical Society on the Asian side of Istanbul, often considered the most respected of the social clubs offering classes in the classical Ottoman music, may be a good way of entering the vast world of this genre.

Ottoman music is also performed in the Arab world and particularly the Levant, where it is considered classical Arab music, and somewhat similarly to the way Ottoman cuisine affected the cuisines of Balkan lands that were long part of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman music also greatly influenced what is now considered traditional music in lands like Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia.


See also: Middle Eastern cuisine, Balkan cuisines
The kitchens of the Old Palace, Edirne

The kitchens of the Topkapı Palace were often the source of many of the dishes that are popular in the Turkish and other regional dishes to this day, with the chefs experimenting on a daily basis with whatever ingredients they might lay their hands on, including lots of nuts and fruits.

The early Ottoman cuisine was characterized by the lack of various foods that were unknown in the Old World before the voyages of Columbus to the Americas, such as tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, that are now ubiquitous in the cuisines of the formerly Ottoman areas. Pepper dolma (large peppers stuffed with rice and various other fillings, such as ground meat) was made with quince instead, an ingredient that is almost completely forgotten now in Turkish cuisine. Other common ingredients during the early era were rice, eggplants, and some birds such as quails. There are many common aubergine-based dishes in the regional cuisines, such as karnıyarık, moussaka, imam bayıldı, stuffed eggplant dolma, and fried eggplant. This last one, or rather the small accidents happened during its preparation, was the main culprit behind the fires that wrecked Ottoman towns. As the empire was on the main trade routes such as the Silk Road, various spices were also widely available.

The Ottomans were great fans of soups; derivations of their word for soup, çorba, can be found in any language spoken from Russia in the north to Ethiopia in the south. Yahni, a stew of meat, various vegetables and onion that is common in the regional cuisines, was often the main meal.

Börek/burek, savoury pies filled with cheese, meat, spinach, potato or mushrooms depending on the location, was (and is) eaten as a quick dish at any time of the day. Pogača/poğaça, of the Byzantine pogatsa origin, is another close variety of baked bread filled with cheese or sour cream and common all over the Balkans as far away as Slovakia.

The yoghurt-based side dishes derived, or spread, by the Ottomans include cacık/tsatsiki/tarator, which often includes diluted yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and olive oil and can be considered either a cold soup or a yoghurt salad, and plain ayran, the yoghurt drink, which is salty in Turkey, but without the salt, and better known simply as jogurt in the Balkans.

Pastırma/basturma, air-dried cured beef had two types: the Anatolian type has been heavily seasoned with fenugreek, and most of the time this is the only type that is available in Turkey today. On the other hand, only salt is added to the Rumelian type, which has a far heavier "smoky" flavour and is common in the Balkans.

The Ottomans were big in desserts. The dessert from the former empire that is best known by the outsiders is probably baklava, which may have Ancient Mesopotamian, Central Asian or Byzantine origins (often amounting to layers of bread with honey spread in between in its original form), but it was the chefs of the Topkapı Palace that put it into current shape. Other desserts invented by the palace chefs and spread over the empire include lokma/loukoumades (deep-fried and syrup-soaked doughs), güllaç (deriving its name from güllü aş, "rose meal"), a derivative of baklava in which thin layers of dough are washed with milk and rosewater instead of syrup, tavuk göğsü, a milk pudding sprinkled with chicken breast meat (yes, this is a dessert), kazandibi, a variety of tavuk göğsü which had one side of it deliberately overcooked and burned, and, of course, Turkish delight (lokum/rahatluk), a confectionery of starch gel and nuts, flavored by rosewater.

Various restaurants in Istanbul and other major Turkish cities claim to revive the Ottoman cuisine — check their menus carefully to find a reputable one true to the authentic palace recipes. The more unusual they sound and look, the better.


Available in most of the former empire

The coffee culture is one of the biggest legacies of the Ottoman Empire in the lands it ruled over once: whether it be called Turkish, Bosnian, Greek, Arabic or Armenian, this popular beverage, cooked in copper pots (cezve/džezva/ibrik) and served strong in small cups, is prepared more or less the same way. Yemen had been the main coffee supplier of the empire since the 16th century, when coffeehouses quickly appeared all over the Ottoman cities — indeed it was the loss of Yemen during World War I that turned the Turks to the tea-drinking nation that it is, quite unwillingly at first.

Despite the Islamic ban on alcoholic beverages, wine was widely produced by the Christian subjects of the empire, especially the Greeks and Albanians, and enjoyed by many, including the Muslim Turks, in meyhanes (Persian for "wine house"). Every now and then when a devout sultan acceded to the throne, he would ban the production of wine and shut down all the meyhanes, but these all turned out to be temporary measures. The current national firewater of the Turks, rakı, came about much later, and its production and consumption exceeded those of wine only in the late 19th century. Other anise-flavored drinks, very similar to rakı both in taste and history, are widely drunk in the areas formerly ruled by the Ottomans, and are known by the names of ouzo (Greece), mastika (Bulgaria), zivania (Cyprus), and arak (the Levant).

Şerbet, a refreshing and very lightly sweet drink made of rose petals and other fruit and flower flavors, was a very popular summer beverage. Nowadays, it is customarily served in Turkey when celebrating the recent birth of a baby and may be available seasonally at some of the traditional restaurants. Hoşaf, from Persian for "nice water" is another variation on the theme, made by boiling various fruits in water and sugar.

Boza, a very thick, sourish-sweet ale with a very low alcohol content made of millet or wheat depending on the location, is still popular in pretty much every part of the former empire. It is often associated with winter in Turkey (and may not be possible to find in summers), but in the Balkans, it is rather considered as a summer beverage. On a linguistic sidenote, the English word "booze" might be derived from the name of this drink, through Bulgarian buza according to some theories, and pora, its counterpart in Chuvash, an old Turkic language spoken in the Volga Region of Russia, might be the origin of Germanic bier/"beer", etc.

One of the major stereotypes of the Ottomans in the West might be the image of an old man, with his huge turban, sitting in the shade of a tree and in no hurry puffing away his hookah (nargile), maybe with a little bit of opium for some added effect. Nargile is still popular in some of the former parts of the empire, especially in Turkey, the Middle East and parts of the Balkans. In Istanbul, you can find nargile cafes with interior designs recalling the Ottoman days in the districts of Tophane and Beyazıt-Çemberlitaş, where you will be served hookahs of tobacco or non-tobacco (and non-psychoactive) herbs, the latter for bypassing the modern laws against indoor tobacco smoking, as well as hot drinks.


The official language of the empire was Ottoman Turkish, which differed from vernacular Turkish and is almost completely incomprehensible for modern Turkish speakers without some training. It was written in a totally different script (Persian variant of the Arabic script with some characters specific to Ottoman Turkish), and its vocabulary is very, very liberally sprinkled with Arabic and especially Persian words — in fact it can be considered a collage of Persian and Arabic words stuck onto a Turkic grammar. In most larger Turkish cities, it is possible to attend classes of varying lengths and depths for Ottoman Turkish.

However, this was the language of the palace, the ruling elite and some literary types; the common folk on the streets spoke a plethora of languages depending on the location (often the common language would differ even between districts of the same city) and ethnicity, but it was also not unusual to see a Turk speaking Greek or an Armenian speaking Turkish and so on. Indeed, the first novel written in Turkish, Akabi Hikayesi was penned in 1851 by Vartan Pasha, an ethnic Armenian, and published exclusively using the Armenian alphabet.

Arabic was used locally in parts of the empire, and was also the language of Islamic scholarship. During the last couple centuries of the empire, learning French was also in fashion among the elite. The Ottoman Francophilia left a lasting impact on modern Turkish — take, for example, the Turkish names for the ancient cities of Ephesus (Efes, derived from French Éphèse, rather than the Greek original) and Troy (Truva, from Troie).

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