Restoring the Ottomans: Bridging the gap in the History Curriculum

Restoring the Ottomans: Bridging the gap in the History Curriculum


Laura Aitken-Burt discusses how the Ottoman empire is often ignored in the history curriculum, to the detriment of a wider understanding of European and global history in the Early Modern period as well as modern Twentieth Century politics.

The Ottomans were named after their legendary founder Osman in the early 14th century, and their rise to power as a Turkish Islamic empire is a story that is deeply entwined with major events from the Renaissance onwards. In fact, the expansion of the Ottoman empire can even be said to have started the Renaissance itself, with Greek scholars fleeing to Italy from the crumbling Byzantine empire that the Ottomans were conquering.

The missing link between global and European history

Whilst the Ottomans are often seen as exclusively part of Middle Eastern history, looking at a map of the regions the Ottoman empire controlled should quickly dispel this myth. Extending across Greece and the Balkans, deep into central Europe to the Danube as well as across North Africa and the entrance to the Black Sea, we cannot understand European history without including the Ottomans in the story.

It is odd that the Ottomans have been left out of the British history curriculum considering that European politics was so centred around the movements of this empire for centuries, not least seven Ottoman-Venetian wars from 1463-1718 that involved a huge coalition of powers in the conflicts. The rise of this powerful and seemingly unstoppable Islamic empire was considered an existential threat, especially during the Reformation and subsequent civil wars that engulfed Europe when religious conflict was at a new high. For the Ottomans themselves though, their main rivals were further east rather than west.

The Ottoman empire was known in the Early Modern period as one of the three gunpowder empires, along with the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. The Ottomans were vastly superior to European nation states in terms of their weaponry – Mehmed II had built the world’s largest cannon to bombard Constantinople and the janissary elite troops were greatly feared as the first modern standing army in Europe, each with their own muskets and grenades. The Ottomans also had access to trade routes in the Far East, acting as the conduit through which all spices and silks entered the Mediterranean. There is no doubt that Early Modern European monarchs from Henry VIII to Charles V and Francis I all wanted to model themselves on the wealth and power that their Ottoman rival Suleiman the Magnificent held.

Avoiding Orientalism

Perhaps our modern perceptions of the Ottomans are coloured by 19th century attitudes that ‘orientalised’ them through art and literature that depicted the empire as static and overly luxurious with the nickname of the ‘sick man of Europe’. Emphasis on the continued existence of slavery and the imperial harem aimed to legitimise European political shifts that tried to carve up Ottoman regions for their own colonial control.

By looking beyond these Western stereotypes, understanding Ottoman society reveals a far more complex picture. Although slavery remained a harmful and exploitative practice, treating individuals as personal property of the sultan, the absence of racial codes allowed enslaved individuals to attain positions of power, a prospect unimaginable in the context of American trans-Atlantic slavery. Religious minorities were allowed autonomy and toleration in exchange for special taxes which contrasted with many European countries that had spent centuries searching for heretics against state religions. Homosexuality was even decriminalised during the Tanzimat reforms of 1858, something which did not happen in Britain until over 100 years later in 1967.   

Understanding the Ottoman world in its own right allows for a clearer understanding of this long-lasting empire – whilst European countries had claimed time and again that its power was waning, it was only eventual defeat in the First World War and an internal revolution that actually brought the Ottoman empire to an end after 600 years. 

 Integrating the Ottomans into your KS3 teaching

With time constraints in the curriculum, it might seem difficult to find a place to include an Ottoman unit into a scheme of work. But on closer inspection, the Ottomans can simply be integrated into stories that are already standard parts of the curriculum.

The rise of the Ottomans follows on from crusades modules as the inheritors of regions previously controlled by the Byzantines and Seljuks and shows how stereotypes of Christian vs Islamic empires continued for centuries. The story of the English Reformation can be put into a wider context of European religious fears – when England had few allies after the Act of Supremacy in 1534, the Ottomans were seen as a perfect partner against predominantly Catholic Europe. Letters show Elizabeth I was in frequent contact with Murad III, selling metal from Catholic churches to fund Ottoman weaponry to facilitate wars with her Spanish rivals. Famous paintings by Hans Holbein such as the portrait of Henry VIII or The Ambassadors can be used to identify Ottoman iconography and its importance for Europe’s elite. Enquiries on turning points in Early Modern Europe can be expanded to include the conquest of Constantinople or the Battle of Mohács in conjunction with the Reformation or English Civil War.

Understanding the Ottoman world acts as a useful component of KS3 variety for later modules on Elizabeth in the Edexcel GCSE or the Reformation in the OCR A level, or as interesting background for Edexcel Warfare through time or AQA Conflict and Tension. But most importantly, studying the Ottomans at KS3 gives students the opportunity to interact with a powerful Islamic empire that was envied and rivalled for centuries, and whose break-up in 1922 was to have profound consequences for more modern conflicts in both the Balkans and Middle East.

Resources to support your teaching

The Ottomans are conspicuously absent from most history textbooks but the second edition of Knowing History integrates the Ottomans across time periods. Unit 8 in Key Stage 3 Early Modern British and World History 1509-1760 traces the narrative story of the rise of the Ottomans in their own right from their origins under Osman and Mehmed II, exploring their society and culture as well as following the expansion under Suleiman the Magnificent and the clashes with both Europe and the Safavids. Following this, there is also a chapter in Key Stage 3 Modern British and World History 1760-1900 that traces Ottoman decline in the 19th century and Key Stage 3 Twentieth Century British and World History 1900-2020 includes the Ottomans as part of the story of the First World War and decolonisation in the Middle East.

It is evident that the Ottomans have been overlooked for too long in the history curriculum – it’s time to include them in the story where they have always belonged.

Laura Aitken-Burt is a Classics, History and Politics teacher in London as well as a practising archaeologist and historical consultant for broadcast and print media. She is the author of global units across the Knowing World History second edition series.