In the fourteenth century, a Turkish military leader named Osman defeated other Turkish tribes to become ruler of a small kingdom.  A dynasty is a family or group that maintains power for generations. Osman’s dynasty conquered the last remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire, which historians call the Byzantine Empire.

The Turkish Ottoman Empire, whose name derives from Osman, eventually conquered most of the Middle East and North Africa.  At its most vital point, the Ottoman Turks controlled Greece, the Balkan Mountains, and most of southeast Europe.  The Empire lasted until the early 20th century, a span of almost six hundred years.

The Ottoman Turks were Muslims but did not impose Islamic law on non-Muslims.  The Ottoman Turks generally allowed Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths to practice their beliefs peacefully, although the Armenian Massacre of 1915-1917 was a cruel exception.  Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Maronites, and Armenians maintained their cultural identities within the Ottoman Empire.

Political cartoon suggesting the weakness of the Ottoman Empire


By the twentieth century, many commentators referred to the weakened Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe.”

Two wars in the early twentieth century (the 1900s) resulted in Greece, Crete, Serbia, Romania, and Macedonia leaving the Empire.  The weakened Ottoman Empire was often compared to a “sick man.”  European colonial leaders had recently seized most of Africa and were eager to exert their influence in the Middle East.

World War I broke out in 1914.  Britain, France, the United States, and Russia were united as the Allied forces.  They fought the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.  The Ottoman Turks assumed the Central Powers would win the war and that Germany would keep Russia from taking land from their declining Empire, so the Ottoman sultans joined the Central Powers.

Russia lacked a “warm water port” to ship goods in all seasons.  All of Russia’s western seaports are in regions that are frozen for at least part of the year.  The Russian people revolted in 1917, and Russia withdrew from the war.  Even without the Russians, the Allied Powers won.

Abdul Hamid II


Abdul Hamid II was the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the last to have absolute power. He left power after a 1909 military revolt known as the Young Turk Revolution.

The Allied Powers of World War I hoped to exploit the region’s natural resources.  Oil had yet to be discovered in the region, but the Middle East and North Africa grew many exotic spices.  Britain controlled India then, and the British hoped to secure a safe route to India and their other colonies in East Asia.  Britain, France, and the United States carved up most of the Ottoman Empire, leaving what we know as the present-day nation of Turkey.


Download this lesson as Microsoft Word file or as an Adobe Acrobat file.

Mr. Donn has an excellent website that includes a section on the Middle East and North Africa.

The Ottoman Empire in 1914 (map)