Chapter 78

Factors Expediting the Rise of the Ottomans and the Fall of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom


In determining the importance of royal marriages for the early Ottoman Sultans, we should remind ourselves of the various factors which account for the ultimate success of the Ottoman Empire.  Consideration of these factors will provide good opportunities for contrast with the typical processes within Balkan kingdoms, the second Bulgarian kingdom in particular, and the Byzantine Empire.

  • Religious tolerance
  • Homogeneity
  • Use of Christian expertise
  • Military tactics
  • Military intelligence
  • Divisions of Imperial responsibility
  • Succession procedures
  • Enrichment of gene pool through marriage.

Religious tolerance:

What strikes any objective commentator on the development of the Ottoman Empire is the extent to which Ottoman Sultans were prepared to tolerate the varied religious beliefs of their new subjects and even their readiness to invite people from different religious backgrounds into their territories.

At the time of unrelenting persecution of the Jews in Europe and the powerful Inquisition, supported by the Christian church, the Ottomans “were the first nation in modern history to lay down the principle of religious freedom as a cornerstone in the building of their nation.3


Osman’s achievement was that he started with a small tribe of people (the reader may remember the 400 tents?), and attracted individuals of different faiths, who later were to acquire a sense of common identity.  Osman provided a state structure for these people, and Murad turned this state into an empire.  Accepting the Muslim religion and adopting its social institutions and the traditions of the Ghazis, the Ottomans set up a society, which lived communally, guided by ethical principles.  Prime examples of this were the brotherhoods or corporations, who followed the virtuous behaviour, prescribed by Islam.  They were flexible enough to embody abstract concepts and mysticism based on the practical aspects of life and to include and adapt to the needs of various merchants and artisan’s guilds in the towns.  In the border areas, they were transformed into military fraternities, like the ahis, who with their fanatical enthusiasm of both religion and war resembled the various Knight Orders like the Templers, the Teutonic Knights and others, which appeared in Western Europe. 3

Use of Christian expertise:

A major factor in the rise of the Ottoman Empire was Murad’s perception that in order to take over larger parts of the Balkans and Asia Minor, he needed to assimilate the Christian population.  In order to create an empire, which would take over from the Byzantines, he needed Christians, citizens of the Balkans, who had the knowledge and some even the experience of Government, organisational and military practice as well as a secular point of view.  He realised that he needed to move on towards Europe and started to plan aggressive campaigns against his neighbours. 4  In these campaigns he was very reliant on local expertise.

Military tactics:

Throughout their reign,  Ertru─čul and Osman aimed to wear down the enemy with somewhat incompetent irregular troops (expendable infantry), whose role was to draw the enemy out of their comfort zone and take the first strain of the battle.   Then they attacked the enemy with a large army of their best professional soldiers – disciplined and well trained.  They were united and totally devoted to their Sultan.  This became the preferred military tactic for generations of their descendants. 1

Military intelligence:

Very few historians comment on the important part military intelligence played in the Ottoman army.  This was proven time and time again to be excellent!  They were seldom caught by surprise and were always provided with exact information about where the enemy was coming from, the time of his likely attack and the size of his army.  The multi-ethnic makeup of the Sultan’s army also provided the troops with many translators and local guides. 2

Divisions of Imperial responsibility:

The early sultans avoided the division of the empire and it’s partitioning – unlike Byzantium and Bulgaria, Ottoman princes did not get their own principalities. 10 The overriding principle of the Empire was that the Sultan owned all the land.  The Sultan decided any jurisdiction over parts of the empire and posts of authority were temporary.  

Thus, the Sultan’s sons were made Governors of regions of the Ottoman Empire, but those regions were not their own – they were moved form one to another with regularity – they were there to gain experience.

Succession procedures:

From the beginning of the Ottoman state, the succession was not decided until the death of the Sultan – all princes were brought up to be able to do the job of Sultan. 10 So, unlike European monarchies, where one prince (usually the oldest one) was groomed to become king, in the case of the Ottomans, no prince had any advantage until the succession actually took place.  This gave the Ottoman dynasty flexibility. In other words, the system would ensure the survival of the fittest and provide considerably better chances for success.  This is in stark contrast with succession procedures in Bulgaria, Serbia, Byzantium and Walachia.  There, a son, whose capabilities were inferior to those of his father, could succeed by right of birth alone and undo everything that his predecessor had achieved – look at the example of Stefan Dushan and his son Stefan Urosh, for instance. 7

Enrichment of gene pool through marriage:

The existence of a multiple wives and concubines in the Sultan’s household also highlights the expectation that each child will have a different mother, although at the period of the Early (Bursa) Ottomans, this was not always the case.  This genetic openness meant that the multiple female partners gave the children different genes, abilities and different cultural background – both Murad and Beyazid have been known to experience strong Christian influence from their mothers. 7, 10


Let us now look at some of the reasons for the fall of Bulgaria.

  1. Weaknesses of central control over the feudal state, led to the growing independence of local landowners/boyars, especially during the rule of weaker tsars. The granting of significant territory to rival sons further exacerbated this process.  The case of Ivan Alexander is relevant here. His granting all his 3 sons a separate area of the country to rule with only a loose link to the central government in Tirnovo meant partitioning the kingdom.  Bulgaria’s division into 4 parts at the time of the Shishmans meant that it became easy pickings to a strong, united enemy.  Geographical position became key as with the kingdom of Vidin that was so close to the Hungarian Kingdom and Catholic influence.
  2. Religious developments: The period is marked by religious controversies and an increased separation of church from state. After the foundation of the mystic doctrine of Hesycism, Gregory of Sinai won many Bulgarian and Serbian followers, amongst who were Theodosius of Tirnovo and Patriarch Euthymius.  (The reader may remember that Hesycism was a process of sense deprivation, practicing silence and retiring into oneself, in order to gain direct contact to God.)  This brought the Bulgarian church closer to the Byzantine one and so it lost it’s unique leadership role with the population at the time of the Ottoman invasion. 8  The Orthodox church behaved as just an observer, and did not play an active part in the struggle against the Ottoman invaders – the only exception possibly was Patriarch Euthymius, who did lead the defence of Tirnovo;  6 The Bulgarian ecclesiastics – like Theodosius of Tirnovo, opposed the attempt of the Bulgarian patriarch to assert his complete equality with the Patriarch of Constantinople; 9 Ivan Alexander’s religious fervour meant that no deviations were allowed in the process of religious management of the state; By giving lands and villages to monasteries, Ivan Alexander had put their population under increased burden, which made them poorer and decreased further their social status. 9 This distancing of the population from the traditional church along with the tolerance by succeeding Tsars allowed for the strengthening of the Bogomil heresy among the ordinary people, which lead to non-participation of the population in wars and reduced the number of soldiers available to the Tsar;
  3. The hatred and lack of trust between the Balkan rulers meant that there were no strong alliances made
  4. Bulgaria’s lack of understanding of how dangerous the Turkish attack from the south was – Bulgaria had always been conditioned to be attacked from the north and it assumed that Byzantium will provide a healthy buffer from the South (Prof. Vera Mutafchieva’s theory).  As a result, they were not prepared to defend the country. 6
  5. The population was exhausted by wars and it was difficult to feed everybody, when wars prevented the gathering of the crops;
  6. Factionalism, squabbles between groups supporting alliances with the Catholic west, opposing others supporting ties with Orthodox Byzantium.  Wives and former wives of the tsars often led these squabbles.  A good example is the Shishman family, where the sons of the two wives of Ivan Alexander ignored each other, instead of uniting against the common enemy.   Another good example was the descendants of Ivan Asen II, where each faction supported the child of a different Tsaritza, which lead to destabilising of the country. Mavro Orbini states that “The Bulgarians were the most powerful nation, who could have withstood the Turkish advances and sieges … and not only one enemy, but all enemies together could not have succeeded to overcome them… but in peace they lived in squabbles…” 11
  7. Interference from outside It is probably worth noting, that Gibbons points out that Ludovic of Hungary and his crusaders, as well as Count Amadeo of Savoycontributed in no little measure to make possible the conquests of Murad.” 4