Osman I, also called Osman Ghazi, was the founder of the Ottoman Empire, namely the first of the Sultans. He was born in 1258 in Söğüt, in modern-day northwestern Bilecik province, close to the Byzantine border. The fact that he was born the same year when the Mongols destroyed the Abbasid Empire was an interesting coincidence that gave hope for the future. He was the youngest of Ertuğrul Ghazi’s three sons.

He participated in battles with his father, starting from a young age. During his father’s reign, he fought as an army commander seven or eight times. This was why he was given the title of “ghazi,” which means veteran soldier in Turkish, and he was well-known among the soldiers from a young age. Ertuğrul Ghazi sent him to the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum sultan in Konya as a representative several times, where he would meet the politicians and elders of the Mevlevi order.

He had a dream one night when he was a guest in the lodge of the Muslim scholar Sheikh Edebali in Bilecik in 1277. Osman always loved and respected Sheikh Edebali and attended his religious talks. In his dream, a moon arose from the breast of the sheikh and entered into Osman’s chest. Then branches of a plane tree began coming out of Osman’s navel, and its shade compassed the whole world. Rivers were flowing, and people were walking around in its shadow. The sheikh interpreted this dream when Osman told him about it the next day: “God blessed you and your descendants with a long reign. You shall marry my daughter. Your children shall be world conquerors.”

Thus, Osman Ghazi married the sheikh’s daughter. Sheikh Edebali said to be descended from Prophet Muhammad, was the first mufti of the Ottoman Empire.

Seljuk Heir

Upon the death of Ertuğrul Ghazi in 1281, Osman Ghazi was brought to power by military chiefs and guild leaders despite his young age. Thus, he became the head of the small beylik (principality) between Söğüt and Domaniç thanks to his good morals, strength, bravery and superior knowledge. The Seljuk sultan confirmed his principality by sending him a firman (edict). He continued his father’s mission and got on well with his neighbours, the Byzantine lords and governors known as tekfurs.

One day, Osman Ghazi heard about an ambush being set up by the tekfurs of Inegöl and Karacahisar from a spy. He accepted to battle in Ermenibeli, near today’s Inegöl in northwestern Turkey, in 1284, but Osman withdrew when his nephew was killed. All his troops were infantry, and this was the first military operation of the Ottoman Empire. The next year, he conquered Kulacahisar, a district near Ermenibeli, to avenge the ambush and expand toward the north. This is the first conquest in Ottoman history.

He defeated the conspiracy of the Karacahisar and Inegöl tekfurs through a victory in the Battle of Ekizce in 1288. His brother was martyred in this battle, which brought Eskişehir under the beylik. Upon this victory, the Seljuk sultan sent a tuğ (a pole with horse or yak tail hair arranged in a circular form that served as a Seljuk flag), a table (a traditional form of drum) and a firman (imperial edict) as symbols of autonomy. After that, Osman Ghazi ordered a military band to play for an hour every day in the afternoon, and he stood up for the duration of the concert out of respect for the sultan. This tradition of standing during the concert continued until the time of Sultan Mehmed II, also known as Mehmed the Conqueror.

He appointed a qadi (judge) to Karacahisar (today a suburb of Eskişehir), which he conquered in 1289. In Friday sermons, the name of Osman Ghazi had begun to be mentioned alongside the Abbasid Caliph and the Seljuk Sultan. A silver coin was minted in the name of Osman Ghazi. Since these were signs of sovereignty, a de facto state was established. However, Osman Ghazi continued his respect and devotion to the Seljuk sultan, albeit in appearance. The Ottoman principality had the status of an autonomous province.

Wedding gift

He foiled the conspiracy of the tekfurs of Bilecik and Yarhisar with a trick. The takfir of Bilecik was marrying the daughter of Yarhisar’s takfir. They also invited Osman Ghazi to the wedding. They aimed to take him by surprise and kill him. The takfir of Harmankaya informed his friend Osman Ghazi of the conspiracy.

Osman Ghazi sent a large number of lambs to the Bilecik takfir as a wedding gift. Saying that they would go to the summer pasture after the wedding, he requested that their belongings and women be taken to the castle and that the marriage be held in an open place. The takfir accepted these requests. Instead of goods, Osman Ghazi loaded the horses with weapons and sent them to Bilecik along with 40 soldiers dressed as women. The soldiers who entered the castle quickly captured it since only the guards remained. Osman Ghazi was victorious in the clash with the tekfurs in the wedding venue in Çakırpınar.

The bride, who was among the captives, converted to Islam by taking the name Nilüfer and married Osman Ghazi’s son Orhan Bey. Thus, Bilecik, Yarhisar, Inegöl and Yenişehir were gradually conquered. Osman Ghazi made Yenişehir the capital of the state. He redeveloped the destroyed towns. He distributed the lands not as properties but as timars (fiefs), that is, to family members and commanders to collect their taxes and feed soldiers in return. This was the first land law of the Ottomans.

Pacta sund servanda

Meanwhile, the Mongols were invading Anatolia. On Jan. 27, 1300, when Ilkhanate/Mongol ruler Gazan Khan imprisoned Seljuk Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad III, the commanders pledged allegiance to Osman Ghazi in accordance with an old Turkish tradition. Autonomous Seljuk principalities declared their independence one after another. Their allegiance to the Seljuk sultan had now turned to the Mongols.

During the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, centuries later, this event was accepted as the founding date of the Ottoman Empire. After that, many commanders and beys (princes) gathered around Osman Shah. His small principality was important because of its strategic location close to the border.

The Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II, who could not prevent Osman Ghazi’s activities through the tekfurs, this time sent an army to march on Osman’s beylik. Osman Ghazi defeated this army in the Battle of Koyunhisar (Bapheus) near Yalova in 1301. Iznik (Nicaea) was besieged. Osman Ghazi had his uncle Dündar Bey executed in 1302 since he had refused to accept Osman’s principality for a long time and worked against him by collaborating with the tekfurs.

In 1306, the takfir of Bursa and his allied tekfurs were defeated in Dinboz. That year, the Ottomans signed their first military treaty with the Tekfur of Uluabat. The takfir of Uluabat surrendered other tekfurs to Osman because he would not attack the fortress and would not cross the bridge in front of the town. Acting on the principle of “pacta sunt servanda,” no Ottoman sultan has ever crossed this bridge, and they used boats to cross the Çapraz Stream whenever necessary.

Winning hearts

Osman Ghazi took Mudanya in 1307 and reached the Marmara Sea. A naval base was established on the island of Imrali. In fact, according to some Western sources, Osman Ghazi even launched an expedition to the Aegean island of Rhodes. Due to the harshness of the tekfurs’ rule and the high taxes, the villagers living in the lands to the east of the Marmara Sea accepted Osman Ghazi’s rule with gratitude. Many of them adopted Islam and were Turkified in the process. In fact, Köse Mihal, the takfir of Harmankaya, converted to Islam and participated in many military operations alongside Osman. His lineage has continued up to this time.

From 1317 onward, Osman mainly sent his son Orhan Bey and commanders referred to as “alp” to most military operations. The main goal of Osman Ghazi was the conquest of Bursa, which was a splendid city at that time. However, attacking the fortress would have resulted in the loss of many men, and this was contrary to Osman Ghazi’s character. For this reason, he chose to have the castle besieged and win the people’s hearts.

View of the tomb of Osman Gazi in Bursa, northwestern Turkey. (Getty Images)

Osman Ghazi, tired from his active life, fell ill. He died in 1324 or 1326 from a gout attack. He was 66 or 68 years old. He ruled for 43 years. After the conquest of Bursa, his body was buried on a hill in this city. One of his sons, Savcı Bey, was martyred in a battle. His younger son Orhan Bey ascended to his father’s position. Osman’s third son Alaaddin Ali Pasha became Orhan’s vizier. His other four sons served under Orhan’s reign as military commanders. Another son of Osman Ghazi was also sent to the Seljuk Palace to be raised by Ertuğrul Ghazi.

Plain but pure logic

Osman was described as having dark skin and a round face, a man of medium height with broad shoulders, and his torso relatively long to his feet. He wore plain clothes. He wore a Khorasani turban on his head, on which a wide and long cloth was wrapped in a twisted shape on a red broadcloth cap. His flag was white. He spoke plainly and simply. During his time, Turkish ceased to be regarded as a vulgar language spoken by the common people and became a literary and exquisite language.

This undated engraving shows Osman Ghazi.

In the chronicles, Osman is described as a generous and just person. He had food cooked in his kitchen every three days and distributed it to people experiencing poverty, widows and orphans. He had no fondness for the property. “He sought nothing but the consent of God and the prayers of the people,” the chronicles say. When he died, Osman left behind a few Arabian horses, swords, armour, oxen, and sheep, leaving no property or money.

Osman Ghazi was both brave and devoted. He was modest. He wouldn’t take any action without getting the opinion of those around him. He respected scholars and Sufis. He was just. By appointing a judge to each town, he eliminated the intervention of local administrators in justice. He established a system that would save the Muslim people from their misery. He was a simple Muslim, devoted to his religion, far from pretence.

In the conquest of Karacahisar, someone from Kütahya appeared before him and demanded that he be given the authority to collect the market dues (octroi). Osman Ghazi, apparently over his plain and pure logic, was surprised. “Do the traders owe you money from which you want to get money?” Osman Ghazi asked. When he learned this tax was paid to the government in return for the town’s security, it was not against the Sharia. It had been the custom of the Seljuk sultans for a long time, he gave permission. This was the first law made in the Ottoman Empire. After that, the sultans made it a habit of making laws contrary to Sharia in matters not regulated by Sharia.

Strategy genius

Osman Ghazi is not an ordinary medieval hero but one of the greatest figures in history. His state, the smallest of the Anatolian beyliks (less than half of Switzerland), became the largest state in the world in a century and a half. Undoubtedly, this was due to Osman Ghazi being a remarkable strategy genius, as well as to the efforts of his successors. In order to survive and rule in this sensitive geography, he acted as carefully as if he were playing chess. His military life is not about fighting the tekfurs and taking random castles.

Osman divided the lands of the gradually disintegrating Byzantine Empire like a wedge. His whole goal was to reach the sea. Thus, he held the southern shores of Iznik and Uluabat lakes and positioned his beylik between the Porsuk and Sakarya rivers. Finally, his beylik reached the Marmara Sea on the shores of Mudanya and the Black Sea at the mouth of the Sakarya River. There is no doubt that this genius ruler and his distinguished successors were bestowed with the windfall at the time.

Osman Ghazi’s beylik of 4,800 square kilometres (1,853 square miles), which he inherited from his father, had grown to 16,000 square kilometres by the time he passed away. It included the cities and towns of Bilecik, Domaniç, Eskişehir, Geyve, Taraklı, Akyazı, Hendek, Mudanya, Yenişehir and Inegöl in today’s Turkey. He appointed a governor to each of them from his family or one of his commanders. He tried to get on well with the enemy and kept his promises unless he got attacked.

Ottoman ‘constitution’

The bequest Osman made to his son, which is almost like the constitution of the Ottoman Empire, is narrated in verse in the history books. Its meaning is as follows: “In the end, everyone will die. I pray you forget about anything other than serving the religion. Our aim is to work in the way of Allah and to spread his religion. Otherwise, ours is not a case of useless fighting and conquest. Uphold justice in the country. Respect the scholars so that the affairs of the Shariah are in order. Do not be proud of the abundance of soldiers and possessions. Do not even aspire to work that is against religion/law. Be kind to everyone. See your country’s affairs in full. Work day and night to protect your people and their welfare. This is how you gain the grace of God!”

Herbert Adams Gibbons (d.1934), an American author known for his theory about the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, favours Osman Bey above the rulers who rely on the support of an entire community, such as Attila, Genghis or Timur. “Osman’s work is more permanent and more influential than theirs. While others wreaked havoc in the sounds of pipes and trumpets, he has operated calmly and built a state.” Alphonse de Lamartine (d.1869), the French writer who travelled throughout the Ottoman country, characterizes him as simply logical, yet ingenious, impartial and truthful, saying: “He went step by step in his conquests, stopping after each victory. He progressed slowly but never withdrew. This is the secret of all great statesmen.”

Osman Ghazi’s cautious progress, his encouragement of those around him and his subjects to a sacred goal, and his kindness to the scholars and Sufis were inherited by his successors. The society he left became a centre of attraction both materially and spiritually. The honour of the idealist and enterprising men of Anatolia and even of the Islamic world gathered around this goal, which made his beylik one of the most powerful states in the world in 50 years, belongs to Osman Ghazi.

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