The capture of Constantinople in 1453 made the Ottoman Empire the world’s greatest power, thanks in part to its strategic location, controlling trade routes between East and West, as well as the Indian Ocean.
The peak of its power came during the 16th and 17th centuries under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, when it reached its greatest expansion throughout the Balkans, North Africa and the Red Sea.
Allied with France against the common enemy of the Habsburgs, they had helped Francis I to conquer Nice in 1543 and Corsica in 1553. A month before the capture of Nice, French artillery had played an important role in the Ottoman conquest of Strygonia, north of Hungary.
At Suleiman’s death, the empire was over two million square kilometers and spanned three continents, with a naval force that controlled virtually the entire Mediterranean, at times comparable to the ancient Roman Empire.
Not only that, the Ottoman sultans actually regarded their empire as the successor and heir to the Byzantine (which they understood as Roman empire) and for this reason until the middle of the 17th century the chancery of Constantinople avoided addressing the Habsburg rulers with their title of Holy Roman Emperors. Thus, for example, the letters to Emperor Charles V were addressed to Carlos, king of the province of Spainunderstood as a province of the Ottoman Empire.
But one of the determining historical facts of that period, and which would ultimately mark the decline of the Ottoman Empire, was its impossibility (but not inability) to join the conquest of America. Although it wasn’t because they didn’t try.
They possessed the requisite naval strength and the type of ships necessary for voyages of exploration. They challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and the Spanish in the Mediterranean.
They prepared a map of the New World based on another by Columbus, on which America could be clearly seen marked as its own administrative province, with the name Vilayet Antilia (valiate of the Antilles). They were determined to chase their enemies across the Atlantic and win their share of the new lands. But there was a problem, for this they first had to reach the ocean.
At the end of the 15th century, the objective of Sultan Mehmed II was to conquer Rome in the same way that he had taken Constantinople, thus restoring Justinian’s empire. When that strategy failed, his successors had to look for an alternative route to reach the Atlantic, and they found it in North Africa. At the beginning of the 16th century Selim I conquered Syria and Egypt, and then his son Suleiman the Magnificent seized Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.
They were about to reach their objective, if it were not for the fact that an unexpected obstacle stood between them and the Atlantic coasts, which stopped them dead and never gave way: Morocco. Despite the fact that Morocco, or rather its predecessor the Saadian sultanate that stretched from north to south in the center of the current country, was at that time an ally of the Ottomans in their fight against Spain, they did not see very favorably the idea of becoming one more province of the empire, and they preferred to maintain their independence.
Thus they blocked the Ottoman fleet’s access to the Atlantic Ocean and the sultans’ dreams of expanding into the New World. Had their confrontation with the Spanish and Portuguese over the new territories been successful, it would probably have changed the course of history.
By the end of the 16th century, the Ottoman naval encirclement in the Mediterranean was more than evident. One last attempt led them to seal an alliance with England, equal to the one they had with France, granting it special commercial privileges, and hoping to obtain naval support in return.
At the same time they were beginning a gigantic engineering project that was to link the Don and Volga rivers through a canal that would give them access to Central Asia and leave them at the gates of China and India.
The project was never completed because a new power was already emerging from the East, Russia, which did not give up sabotaging the works until they were finally abandoned. Curiously, centuries later it would be the Russians themselves who, this time, managed to build the canal.
The last attempts were already of an eminently military and aggressive nature, the exit through the Strait of Gibraltar, which was frustrated by his defeat in the Battle of Lepanto (1571); and the exit through northern Germany, after trying to conquer central Europe, failing at the siege of Vienna (1683) and then losing the Kingdom of Hungary at the hands of Leopold I and the armies of the Holy League.
abbas hamdaniOttoman Response to the Discovery of America and the New Route to India | C.R. PennellMorocco: From Empire to Independence | Joseph Esherick et al., Empire to Nation: Historical Perspectives on the Making of the Modern World | Wikipedia.