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Ottoman Institutions and Reasons behind Success of This Empire

The administrative institutions characteristic of the late Ottoman Empire had already taken shape in the fourteenth century during the reigns of the first sultans. At the apex of the hierarchical Ottoman system was the person of the sultan, who acted in a number of capacities, political, military, judicial, social, and religious--under a variety of titles. Officially the sultan was called padishah. Among the Turks he was, as his nomadic warrior forebears had been, the khan, a master of the tribal ruling class. For his Christian subjects he was the "emperor"; later, among the Arabs under Ottoman rule, he was the imam, the protector of Islam. He was theoretically responsible only to God and God's law, the Islamic seriat , of which he was the chief executor. All offices were filled by his authority, and all legislation was issued by him in the form of a fireman. He was supreme military commander, and he had basic title to all land.
The Ottoman Empire inherited many Byzantine institutions that came to be overlaid with Islamic ideology and Turkish customs. It was an Islamic empire as the Byzantine had been a Christian empire--that was literally the private holding of the Osmanli family from whom the concept of the Ottoman state could not be separated. The ruling house and the empire's civil and military ruling class were considered Ottomans. For generation after generation, heirs to the throne were the product of mixed parentage, born to wives or concubines of the sultan who came from many different ethnic groups, while the ruling class was recruited from subject peoples. Three characteristics were necessary for acceptance into the ruling class: Islamic faith, loyalty to the sultan, and compliance with the standards of behavior of the Ottoman court. The last qualification effectively separated the Ottomans from the Turks in language and in manners. The language of the court and government was Ottoman Turkish, a hybrid, highly formalized linguistic concoction laced with Persian and Arabic loanwords. In time Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were also employed in state service, usually in diplomatic, technical, or commercial capacities. The elite operated within a hierarchical structure that contained five separate categories of service. The highest was the "inner-service," composed of the sultan, his family and harem, and his personal attendants. The "outer-service" included high-ranking government officials. A third category included military commanders and landholders and a fourth, the bureaucracy. Lastly, the ulama consisted of judges in the seriat courts and religious teachers. Collectively, all members of the elite, civil as well as military, were known as askeri , a term that reflected the pervasive influence of gazi mythology. But whatever their rank or background, servants of the state were considered the "slaves" of the sultan, in theory to be used and disposed of at his discretion. The day-to-day conduct of government and the formulation of policy were in the hands of the divan, a relatively small council of ministers that met regularly under the direction of its chief minister, the grand vizier. The entranceway to the public buildings in which the divan met--and which in the seventeenth century became the residence of the grand vizier was called the Babiali High Gate, or sublime port. In diplomatic correspondence, the term Porte was synonymous with the Ottoman government, a usage that acknowledged the power wielded by the grand vizier. The Ottoman Empire had Turkish roots and rested on Islamic foundations, but from the start it was a heterogeneous mixture of ethnic groups and religious creeds. Ethnicity was determined solely by religious affiliation. Muslims were thereby lumped together regardless of language or ethnic background, and Turks as such were Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims, one among many groups who were the sultan's subjects. Because of the indivisibility of Islamic law and religious practice, it was inconceivable that the seriat could be applied to no Muslims. Under the system that was introduced, non-Muslim groups, including Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, were recognized as millets and granted a degree of autonomy in their communal affairs and allowed to operate schools, religious establishments, and courts based on their own customary law.