The Ottoman Empire was a constant for over half a millennium: nations rose and fell, but from the late Middle Ages to the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire endured. However, this was not necessarily guaranteed to happened. Over its 600-year history, the Ottoman Empire nearly fell four times before finally succumbing to the tide of history in the aftermath of the First World War.
1402: The Battle of Ankara
Saved by: Mehmet I
The Ottoman Empire had swiftly risen to be a major power in both Southeastern Europe and the Middle East in the first hundred years of its existence, having dismembered what was left of the Byzantine Empire, basically conquered Serbia and Bulgaria, and imposed its will on most of modern-day Turkey. As the powerful empire of Tamerlane, a Turkic warlord from Central Asia, expanded up to the Ottoman doorstep by the late 14th century, a conflict was almost inevitable. Ottoman Sultan Bayezit I (1389-1402) and Timur engaged their armies in 1402 at the Battle of Ankara. The Timurids crushed the Ottoman army and in the aftermath of the battle Bayezit was captured by Timur and humiliated before dying three months later. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire descended into chaos: a civil war between Bayezit’s sons, engulfing the Empire in bloodshed and division from 1402-1413, known as the Ottoman Interregnum. The Ottomans’ previously downtrodden neighbors took advantage of the chaos, and the weakened Ottoman reputation of strength after Ankara, to retake lost land. Eventually Mehmet I (1413-1421) succeeded in defeating all of the other claimants and re-establishing stability in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Interregnum ended up only being a temporary blip in the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which went on to conquer Constantinople in 1453 and reach its greatest height under Suleiman the Magnificent only 150 years after the Battle of Ankara, but it only narrowly avoided premature disintegration after the Battle of Ankara.
1640: Death of Murat IV
Saved by: Kösem Sultan
Murat IV (1622-1640) was arguably one of the more competent rulers to sit on the Ottoman throne after Suleiman the Magnificent, and he was an accomplished military commander. He was also ruthless and cruel, however, and executed all of his living brothers except Ibrahim, supposedly because their mother, Kösem Sultan, convinced Murat that he was too mentally weak to threaten his rule. However, when Murat lay dying from cirrhosis in 1640, he ordered Ibrahim to be killed. Although Murat had fathered many sons, none had survived, leaving Murat and Ibrahim as the only two surviving males from the House of Osman, the ruling Ottoman dynasty. Murat preferred that he were the last of his dynasty, which would be achieved with Ibrahim’s death. Once again, Kösem Sultan intervened, and instead of having Ibrahim killed, had him raised up to the throne once Murat breathed his last. Although Ibrahim (1640-1648) was a pitiable ruler, he did produce a son who would go on to continue the Ottoman line that would rule until 1922. If the Ottoman dynasty had simply disappeared in 1640, chaos would have ensued over who would rule and in all likelihood the Ottoman Empire would have dissolved into separate states or have, at the very least, been severely weakened, especially in the face of growing European military strength.
1808: Actions of Mustafa IV
Saved by: Nakşidil Sultan
Mustafa IV (1807-1808) succeeded his cousin Selim III (1789-1807) as emperor after Selim was overthrown by the janissaries for him attempts to modernize the Ottoman Empire and do away with the janissaries, by this time more of a liability than a useful military unit. Mustafa kept Selim alive, but when a pro-Selim army under Alemdar Mustafa Pasha began to march on Istanbul, Mustafa panicked and ordered the deaths of Selim and Mahmud, his younger brother, the only other two living males from the House of Osman. Selim was slain, but Mahmud escaped. One of the more common stories is that Nakşidil Sultan, Mahmud’s mother, hid him in the furnace of a bath. The rebels under Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, seeing Selim’s dead body, demanded that Mustafa step down, and Mahmud revealed himself. Mustafa was killed and Mahmud became Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839), continuing his line. If Mahmud had not survived, Mustafa might very well have been killed regardless, resulting in chaos throughout the Ottoman Empire.
1833: Advance of Muhammad Ali
Saved by: Britain and France
By the 19th century the Ottoman Empire had grown incredibly weak, soon to be dubbed the “sick man of Europe.” Following Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, Egypt technically remained under Ottoman rule, but in actuality became an autonomous power under its Albanian vizier, Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman pasha and later self-styled Khedive of Egypt, rapidly modernized Egypt, succeeding in many areas where Selim III and Mahmud II had failed. Soon Egypt became stronger than the Ottoman Empire itself; Mahmud was forced to call on Egyptian assistance to try, unsuccessfully, to put down the Greek movement for independence in the 1820s. In 1831, Muhammad Ali wanted to expand his authority and invaded Ottoman Syria, advancing as far as Konya in Central Anatolia, easily defeating the Ottoman forces Mahmud sent against him. If Muhammad Ali continued to advance, the Ottoman Empire would likely collapse. That was what Britain and France thought, and they forced Muhammad Ali to back down, with some concessions, in 1833 at the Convention of Kütahya.
Although the Ottoman Empire was imperiled other times during its long history, especially during the 19th century, these four times were the closest the Empire came to utter collapse. If any of these scenarios played out slightly differently, the Ottoman Empire might have very well disappeared, and world history itself drastically altered.