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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Greater Ottoman Empire, 1600–1800

At its height, the Ottoman empire (ca. 1299–1922) spread from Anatolia and the Caucasus across North Africa and into Syria, Arabia, and Iraq. Its size rivaled that of the great Abbasid empire (750–1258), and it united many disparate parts of the Islamic world.

Through conquest, the Ottomans gained control of many ports and had sole access to the Black Sea, from which even Russian vessels were excluded, and trade among the provinces increased greatly. As the largest city in western Asia or Europe, Istanbul was the natural center of this commerce. Cairo became the main entrepôt for Yemeni coffee and Indian fabric and spices, and was itself a producer of rugs. Businessmen in Aleppo and Bursa sold silk to Ottoman, Venetian, French, and English merchants, and North African woven furnishings were popular throughout the region. Damascus was an important stop along the pilgrimage route to Mecca and Medina, supplying caravans on their way to those cities and goods to their residents.

The armature of the empire was instrumental in spreading the central Ottoman aesthetic to many new regions. On the level of imperial patronage, artistic production and design were carefully controlled by various official institutions. The Corps of Royal Architects, founded in the 1520s, was responsible for preparing designs, procuring materials, and maintaining construction books for all buildings sponsored by the Ottoman family and their high officials. The nakkaşhane, or royal scriptorium, designed the patterns for carpets, tiles, metalwork, and textiles produced in imperial-funded workshops. Governors posted from Istanbul were also important in maintaining a certain level of stylistic homogeneity, as attested by architecture in the neighborhood around the Cairene port of Bulaq, developed under Ottoman patronage, and paintings from late sixteenth-century Baghdad, then under the governorship of Mehmet III’s chief artist Hasan.

The Ottoman presence was in many ways limited to the major urban centers, however, and local culture was sustained among the different ethnic communities of the empire, such as the Christians of the Balkans and Armenia and the powerful Jewish and Greek merchants of Istanbul. In the provincial cities, coffeehouses and the homes of aristocratic families became the new centers of cultural exchange, replacing official institutions of learning and religion.

Local traditions in the arts continued to emerge even in official projects. Although the essential ground plan of the spacious, domed Ottoman mosque transferred from Istanbul, local interpretations of the plans sent from the capital affected the appearance of the facade or the proportions of the architectural elements. Eastern Mediterranean striped masonry appears at the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex in Damascus (1554–55), and barrel vaults, rather than semi-domes, surround the main dome of the Mosque of the Fisherman in Algiers (1660–61).

Eventually, the strain of administering such vast domains proved the downfall of the Ottomans. Although the sultans continued to rule in Turkey until 1922, battles to maintain borders against the Habsburgs in the West and the Safavids in the East eventually cost the Ottomans their European and Arabian provinces. In the nineteenth century, French forces occupied the Maghrib, and Greece won its independence in 1830. Treaties at the end of World War I officially dismantled the remnants of the empire.