The Human Story – The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship

This instalment will discuss a relationship between a city, Venice at the north-eastern tip of the Italian peninsula, and an empire, the Islamic Ottomans.

This mutually beneficial relationship between two unlikely “frenemies” led directly to several significant changes but the two most monumentally massive deals for world history being the European Renaissance and Christopher Columbus “discovering” the New World.

The City

Now would be a good point to delve a little into the history of the city of Venice. In the middle of the fifth century, nearly all northern Italy had fallen to the Huns as they continued their march towards the eternal city of Rome during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Adriatic coast became a refuge for many Italians fleeing from the onslaught of Atilla and his Hun hordes. However, due to the lack of fertile soil these refugees learned to live off the sea and entire communities of fisherman and salt miners began to spring up and dot the coastline. These lagoon dwellers bounded together for mutual protection against the Huns, the Goths and later the Lombard peoples. Essentially, Europe has Atilla to thank for one of its most glorious possessions: the city of Venice.

Around 300 years after the death of Atilla when the political situation in Italy had calmed down, the Venetians convened and chose a leader, known as the Doge. Soon after, the Franks, led by Charlemagne, conquered the Kingdom of the Lombards in 774 and later recognised Venice as a sort of self-governing commonwealth under Byzantine’s sphere of influence. However, Charlemagne’s son, Pepin, launched an invasion of Venice, prompting the people to relocate to the Rialto island which proved impregnable and the Franks soon withdrew as many succumbed to disease. A new capital was ordered for construction upon this island, which soon expanded to the surrounding islands of the swampy region and the Franks and the Byzantines signed an agreement which recognised Venetian independence.

The city of Venice effectively became almost like a collection of floating buildings tied together by an intricate canal system. If ever there was a city where geography was tied closely to destiny, it was Venice. The city was literally built for sea-going trade. The city did not have much in the way of natural resources so if they wanted to grow then they had to rely upon trade.

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First, the Venetian people became experts in shipbuilding. Remember that when the crusaders of the crazy Fourth Crusade required ships, it was the port city of Venice that they headed for because the Venetians were famous for their ships. Not only could they masterfully build ships, they could also sail them to places like Constantinople and the Levant, so the Venetians formed trade treaties with the Byzantine Empire and when the city of Constantinople fell in 1453 to the Ottomans, the shrewd Venetians were quick to make trade agreements with their new neighbours.

Even before the Ottomans, the Venetians had experience in trading with the Islamic world and initially established itself as the biggest European trading power in the Mediterranean thanks, in large part, due to its commerce with Egypt in the spice trade. Due to the antics of the crusaders, Egyptian merchants were, understandably, not very welcoming of Europeans but they had all of the spice as they imported it from India and controlled both the overland and oversea access to the Mediterranean Sea. Whilst other nations and city-states cited moral and religious opposition to trading with the heathen Egyptians the Venetians found a way which opened to the door to unfathomable wealth.

St Mark's facade mosaic: Stealing St Mark's body

The Venetians employed a handy story. Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the place with the bronze horses pillaged from Constantinople during teh Fourth Crusade) contains the body of Saint Mark, author of the Gospel according to Saint Mark, who had been the Bishop of Alexandria… which is in Egypt. Naturally, he was buried in the Egyptian city when he died. However, in 828 two Venetian merchants, with the help of two Greek monks, stole the bones of Saint Mark and hid them in a shipment of pork. Since Muslims are not permitted to eat pork, the guards did not inspect the shipment too closely. A mosaic in Saint Mark’s Basilica, which can still be seen today and includes the guards’ revulsion, depicts this outlandish tale. Afterwards the Venetians agreed that they had to trade with the Egyptians as they could use it as a secret way to ferry holy relics out of Egypt.

What exactly did Venice import? Well, lots of things but most notable is that they imported a lot of grain because the area is not very fertile, and it is difficult to farm. The Ottomans on the other hand had abundant grain, even before they conquered Egypt with its fertile Nile River valley basin in 1517. Whilst trade was certainly the cornerstone of Venice’s economic success, they did have a diverse economy which produced things such as textiles, famous for their silk makers, and glass. Venice is still known for its glassware, but it could not produce such fine works without a certain type of ash which they used to make different colours. This ash came from the Ottomans.

One final thing to note about Venice and which made it special, at least for its time, was that it was a republic in a feudal world which was dominated by nobles and royal dynasties. Its leaders were elected and had to answer to the populace, or at least the property-owning male populace.

The Empire

The Ottoman Empire lasted from around 1300 to 1919, making it one of the longest lasting, as well as wealthiest, empires in world history. The Ottomans succeeded in blending their nomadic pastoral roots with some very un-nomadic empire building and some incredibly impressive architecture, making them very different from that other nomadic people who built an impressive empire, the Mongols.

The empire, or least the dynasty, was founded by Osman Gazi who was the leader of a small Anatolian tribe that was left in the post-Mongol power vacuum. Ottoman being a Latinised version of Osmanli which means House of Osman.

Perhaps one of the most amazing things about the House of Osman’s 600-year long history was that their empire only once descended into civil war (1402 -1413) following the death of Sultan Bayezid I at the Battle of Ankara. Five of his sons each claimed the throne for himself and they fought it out in what is known as the Ottoman Interregnum for eleven years before Mehmed Çelebi emerged as victor, crowned himself Sultan Mehmed I, and restored the empire.

The question though is why was there only ever one succession crisis in the empire’s long history? Well, the reason is particularly brutal. The official practice, until the late sixteenth century, for avoiding any future civil wars was basically state-sanctioned fratricide – “survival of the fittest, not eldest, son” as the historian Donald Quataert described it. During their father’s lifetime, all adult sons of the reigning sultan obtained provincial governorships and would gather support and upon the death of the sultan, the brothers would fight amongst themselves until one emerged triumphant to claim the throne: similar to the Interregnum but approved by the state.

Two particularly celebrated sultans emerged to take the throne and rule over the empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The first was Mehmet the Conqueror who ruled from 1451 to 1481 and expanded Ottoman control to the Balkans (which is why today there are Bosnian Muslims living in the area). However, Ottoman expansion reached its greatest extent under Sulieman the Magnificent who ruled from 1520 to 1566. Sulieman was deserving of the honorific “Magnificent”. He codified the secular and religious laws of his land to make the justice system fairer and more efficient. Sulieman also embarked on thirteen lightening campaigns in every direction, taking valuable territory in Mesopotamia, north Africa (thus securing control of the western parts of the Asian trade networks, both overland and oversea) and he defeated the King of Hungary and laid siege to the city of Vienna. Under his control, the Ottomans became a major naval power of the time. To top this off, Sulieman also sorted trade deals with another major trading power at the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea: Portugal, whose own empire was in its infancy.

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The Ottomans controlled around half of what the Romans did but it was far more valuable due to all the Indian Ocean Trade. All this land and trade brought a lot of wealth, but it needed to be managed. The Ottomans could have followed the Roman model of sending generals and nobles to rule over conquered territories or demanded the allegiance of client kings like the Persians had done. They could have developed a civil service like the Chinese, but instead they innovatively created an entirely new model of administration; a new ruling class system that some historians have dubbed the Slave Aristocracy.

One of the main problems for kings of this time was their landed hereditary noblemen, because they were always looking to gain more power and replace the king as top dog. One of the best solutions to bypass this situation is to pull them into the fold of government and make them feel included and even more important. Another solution is to simply kill them. However, the Ottomans circumvented the problem of hereditary nobles altogether by creating both an army and bureaucracy from scratch, whose only loyalties lay with the sultan. The devshirme (translated as “child levy” or “blood tax”) was the practice of recruiting soldiers and bureaucrats from among the children of the Ottoman’s Balkan Christian subjects. Soldiers would take the boys, from as young as eight years old, from their parents and force-convert them to Islam with the primary objective of selecting and training the best children for either the military or civil service of the empire. The boys selected for the military were enlisted into an elite fighting force known as the Janissaries. The Ottoman ruling class came to be ruled exclusively by the devshirme, creating a separate social class which was begrudged by ordinary Ottomans and the practice eventually died out at the beginning of the 18th century.

The Partnership

Without a doubt, Venice was the greatest threat to the Ottomans in the Mediterranean arena due to their massive navy but when the two states were not squabbling over island territories, they proved to be one another’s biggest trading partners. This fruitful, if tense, relationship made both polities fabulously wealthy. After the Ottomans captured Egypt, they pretty much exclusively controlled the flow of trade through the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. However, by this point the Venetians had centuries worth of experience, as well as lots of ships and so the Ottomans were content to allow the Venetians to continue carrying the goods and conduct in the lion’s share of trading whilst they made money from taxing this trade. This system worked so well because the city of Venice and the Ottoman Empire added value to one another.

Venice became immensely wealthy and being immensely wealthy was one of the prerequisites for the European Renaissance. All the art and learning that sprung up from the Renaissance required funding, which is why Venice was a leading city at the beginning before being eclipsed by the likes of Florence, Rome, and several northern European cities.

Additionally, this mutually beneficial arrangement that the Ottomans had with the Venetians established firm connections between the Islamic world and Christian Europe. This allowed once forgotten ideas to flow again, especially Greek ideas that had been preserved and built upon by Islamic scholars.

However, perhaps the most critical offshoot of the business duopoly held by these behemoths of trade was that it forced other European powers to look for alternative paths to the riches of the east. This desire to unlock other routes to the far east was fuelled by huge investments in exploration and helped kickstart the “Age of Discovery”. The Portuguese sailed south and east around the southern tip of Africa whilst the Spanish hoped to carve a more direct route. They instead sailed west, under the command of the Genoese born Christopher Columbus, believing that China and the Indies were much closer than they turned out to be.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade

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