The scientific activities observed within the borders of the Ottoman Empire throughout six centuries displayed a unique course of development. Although the Ottomans had many shared elements from the viewpoint of historical heritage and tradition with the other Islamic societies remaining outside of the Ottoman Empire, they also had some differences due to its location.
The scientific activities observed within the borders of the Ottoman Empire throughout the six centuries of history of the Ottomans displayed a unique course of development. Although the Ottomans had many shared elements from the viewpoint of historical heritage and tradition with the other Islamic societies remaining outside of the Ottoman Empire, they also had some differences due to the geographical location, administration of the state and the dynamism of the society. Thus, Ottoman science had an innovative attribute from the viewpoint of the developments experienced, even though it shared a lot with the Islamic world outside the Ottoman lands from the aspect of its sources. Ottoman scientific tradition was formed at the beginning by being influenced from the experience of the older Islamic centres of science and culture. However, after a short period of time, Ottoman science reached a point where it could influence the old centres of science and culture and serve as an example to them. This innovative character of the Ottomans was emphasized by the fact that as of the seventeenth century the influences of Western science gradually started to appear in the Ottoman world and began to influence the other Islamic countries through the Ottomans. These developments brought the Ottomans who represented the Islamic world as a whole to a point of constituting a unique synthesis between Islam and the modern West.
The great changes in the scientific and educational life of the Ottomans had been realised over a long period of time. Consequently, it is difficult to connect the radical changes in Ottoman history to specific events or to start as of a certain date. In general, “old and new” were together and existed in parallel with each other. It will be attempted to set forth analytically the outline of the two stages of “Ottoman Science”. At the same time, the subject of the formation and development of the classical Ottoman tradition of science that was based on the Islamic tradition of science prior to the Ottomans and especially based on the heritage of the Seljuks and other Muslim and Turcic states. However, the Ottoman scientific tradition also developed with the contributions made from outside the Empire and the relevant aspects of the Western scientific tradition, which developed as the result of close relations with the West.
“Ottoman Science” is a term encompassing the scientific activities that occurred throughout the Ottoman epoch in the lands where the empire extended. The Ottoman Empire, which was established as a small principality at the turn of the fourteenth century, gradually expanded into the lands of the Byzantine Empire both in Anatolia and the Balkans. Its sovereignty reached the Arab world after 1517. It became the most powerful state of the Islamic world in a vast area extending from Central Europe to the Indian Ocean and persisted by keeping the balances of power with Europe. Following its defeat in World War I, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated in 1923.
Ottoman science emerged and developed on the basis of the scientific legacy and institutions of the pre-Ottoman Seljuk period in Anatolian cities, and benefited from the activities of scholars who came from Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Turkestan, which were the most important scientific and cultural centres of the time. The Ottomans brought a new dynamism to cultural and scientific life in the Islamic world and enriched it. Thus, the Islamic scientific tradition reached its climax in the sixteenth century. Besides the old centres of the Islamic civilisation, new centres flourished, such as Bursa, Edirne, Istanbul, Skopje, and Sarajevo. The heritage, which developed in this period, constitutes the cultural identity and scientific legacy of present-day Turkey as well as several Middle Eastern, North African, and Balkan countries. This article aims to give an overview of the formation and development of Ottoman science in Anatolia and the scientific activities, which expanded later from Istanbul, the capital of the empire, to Ottoman lands.
The Ottomans always sought solutions to the intellectual and practical problems they encountered in Islamic culture and science. But when the scientific and industrial revolutions occurred in Europe, a gap emerged between them and the Western world. Thus, Ottomans began to make some selective transfers from Western science, and gradually the scientific tradition began to change from “Islamic” to “Western”. Ottoman science should therefore be studied under two headings; the classical Islamic tradition and the modern Western one. Although it is difficult to demarcate the two traditions in a clear-cut way in the transition period, as the contacts became more frequent, the two periods were separated more clearly.
During the classical period, the Ottoman scientists and scholars showed a remarkable success in developing Islamic science and were able to produce many works in various branches of science. However, in the modernisation period, they were not able to show a parallel performance but they were successful in developing modern scientific terminology of universal Islamic character in general and the Ottoman Turkish language to a level that would enable them to express modern scientific and scholarly knowledge on various disciplines. The cultural and scientific heritage of the Ottoman period constituted the scientific and cultural infrastructure of many states founded in the Balkans and the Middle East, with the Republic of Turkey in the lead, and formed the foundation of the subsequent activities.