Today (sort of) in Middle Eastern/European history: the Ottomans get started (1299, or 1302)

If you’ve read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire–and, you know, who hasn’t–then you may know that Edward Gibbon marks July 27, 1299, as the date of the founding of the Ottoman Empire. It was on this date, according to Gibbon, that Osman I (d. 1326), the Ottomans’ founder and namesake, led his fighters (it would be exaggerating to call it an “army” at this point) on an invasion (“raid” might be the better term) of Nicomedia, which was under Byzantine control at the time (and would remain so until 1337). This may have been the first Ottoman raid into Byzantine territory.

“Osman I,” a portrait by British engraver John Young (d. 1825), via Wikimedia

The date is worth marking as much as a curiosity as anything else, because while Gibbon’s work is a landmark of Enlightenment scholarship, it’s really not much of a history, even about the Romans, let alone about a side project like the Ottomans. Also, the creation of the Ottoman Empire was a process more than an event, one that even went back before Osman to his father, Ertuğrul (d. 1281). Still, the Ottoman Empire had to start sometime, I guess, and 1299 is actually a pretty good candidate. It’s around that time that Osman appears to have stopped pretending to be a vassal to the Seljuk Sultanate based in Konya (central Anatolia), though the fact that he kept the title Bey (more or less equivalent to “lord”) during his life, instead of assuming the title of Sultan, suggests that he wanted to at least maintain the illusion of obedience. Anyway, there’s a decent enough case to argue that the founding of the Ottoman house, if not the empire, happened sometime around 1299, and barring any better evidence we might as well go along with Gibbon on it.

Still, nowadays the more common academic answer to the question of when the Ottomans got started is the year 1302 (probably–you always have to allow for some error in dating), when the Ottomans stopped raiding Byzantine territory and started conquering it. Curiously enough, July 27 also factors in here, as it was on July 27, 1302, that the Ottomans defeated a Byzantine army in the Battle of Bapheus, in the Byzantine province of Bithynia (the far northwest part of Anatolia). This was the Ottomans’ first success in a pitched battle against a real army, and it opened the door to the slow conquest of the major cities of Bithynia by the Ottomans, including Bursa in 1326 (Gibbon calls this the start of the “true era of the Ottoman empire”), Nicaea in 1331, and the aforementioned Nicomedia in 1337.

So whether you go with 1299 or 1302 as the empire’s birth date, July 27 still seems to be a pretty important date in Ottoman history.

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