Their role in the Middle East and North Africa was pretty similar to that of the French and British, who succeeded them. The French and British rule of their areas is generally called colonial rule, the Ottoman rule isn't. Why so?

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    I suspect the answer depends on the bias of who you ask. Likely to be closed as opinion related unless you can clarify what it means to count as a colonial power. "generally called..." - called by whom? This question should cite all non-trivial assertions.
    – MCW
    Aug 13, 2017 at 12:36
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    No they were not colonial powers because their role in the Middle East and North Africa was NOT pretty similar to that of the French and the British rule. Your assumption itself is wrong. Please provide sources to claim that your assumptions are correct
    – Sonevol
    Aug 13, 2017 at 13:23
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    @MarkC.Wallace That the term colonial power is in use for the French or British empires in the middle east and North Africa suceeding the Ottoman rule is a trivial assertion. What it means more generally to be a colonial power is not for the question to clarify, since it is the answer.
    – HannesH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 13:33
  • @Sonevol So what were they dissimilar on, relevant to my assumption that their form of rule was similar? Feel free to just provide you favourite relevant difference.
    – HannesH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 14:25
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is about a semantic distinction Dec 3, 2019 at 23:56

8 Answers 8


Colonialism in its strict and historic sense means the practice of settling a large number of colonists in subject countries, as did the British in North America, Ireland, Southern Africa, Australia, New Zeeland, the French in Algeria, the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, the Russians in virtually all of their annexed territories, and many parallel examples in the pre-modern world. In this strict sense the Ottoman Turks did not practice colonialism; they did not send significant numbers of Turks to live in conquered lands. The Ottoman Empire was, however, an imperial power which ruled a large number of foreign countries against the will of the native population

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    Ok, with this definition the distinction makes sense. I would however submit that sending large numbers of colonists isn't generally known to be a defining requiremend for colonialism. No territory held by Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands would qualify. Still, what kind of rule was it in the Kongo, Tansania or Indonesia?
    – HannesH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 13:52
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    I think there is an advantage in distinguishing "colonialism" from "imperialism". But in general parlance the two terms are used interchangeably.
    – fdb
    Aug 13, 2017 at 13:56
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    "They did not send significant numbers of Turks to live in conquered lands " Actually, they did, in the Balkans, North Africa, and the Arab world. The real problem is in OP's question mentioned as raised by Marc: how did OP arrive at the notion the Ottomans weren't a colonial power. Aug 13, 2017 at 13:56
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    @DenisdeBernardy The question doesn't arrive at the notion that the Ottomans were no colonial power, nor did Mark state that it did.
    – HannesH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 14:11
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    @DenisdeBernardy If you have sources to demonstate that the Ottoman Empire did in fact meet the requirement of sending large numbers of colonists as well (to their continetal territorys), all the better. Just that Wikipedia link doesn't.
    – HannesH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 14:20

The Ottoman Empire, like China, did not fit the "classic" definition of colonial power.

The European countries are considered "colonists" because they colonized or settled lands far from their homelands in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

The Ottomans (and Chinese) conquered areas that were outside of, but adjacent to, their homelands. I would call it a "creeping" colonization. But many people characterize these two countries as "conquerers," rather than "colonizers."

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    I do not see how e.g. Algeria is more geographically adjacent to Turkey than it is to France.
    – HannesH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 17:53
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    @HannesH: the empire was a continuous stretch of land from Turkey to North Africa at one point. Aug 13, 2017 at 18:10
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    Intersting point. But wouldn't that make the Venetian and Genovese empires colonial as well?
    – HannesH
    Aug 14, 2017 at 14:26
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    @HannesH: I would certainly make that case for Venice. In the case of Genoa, less so because Corsika is close enough to be "contiguous," IMHO, even thought technically it's not. I don't consider Newfoundland a "colony" of Canada.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 14, 2017 at 15:01
  • @TomAu: Newfoundland joined Canada after a referendum in Newfoundland on July 22, 1948. "A second referendum was held July 22 to settle the issue, whereupon 52.3 percent voted for confederation, versus 47.7 percent for a return to the pre-1934 system." Jun 1, 2018 at 22:54

The French and British rule of their areas is generally called colonial rule, the Ottoman rule isn't.

Actually, that's not quite right. You can see the Ottomans listed here at the side of other "well known" colonial powers like the US or Japan. The Ottomans were active in the Balkans, North Africa, and the Arab World.

I think it's worth briefly describing what other European colonialism looked like to put the Ottoman colonialism in context.

What one often means by colonialism is countries sending waves of settlers overseas, as occurred when the major colonial powers (Spain, Portugal, France, and the UK) colonized the Americas. State sponsored migrations like those slowed down after former American colonies gained their independence. There were a handful of major settlements outside of the Americas, for instance in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. But these were exceptions rather than the rule.

Elsewhere, the Europeans met hostile environments (deserts, tropical diseases) and densely populated areas. Colonial powers didn't settle them. Rather, they'd claim them and set up trade outposts. Improvements in travel conditions and medicine later led them to also bring in troops and administrators in the 19th century. And settlers came too, but there was no large scale state-sponsored migration like in the Americas. The number of Europeans in these colonies was very small. So small, in fact, that some observers quipped Indians could drown the Brits living there were they to spit all at once.

Lastly, there was an exception to the exception. Large scale migrations occurred in North Africa to the point where 1.6 million or so "pieds noirs" came back to France when Algeria, Morocco, and Tunis gained independence. But Algeria was special. It was a French "Département" i.e. part of France proper. Schools were teaching "Nos ancêtres, les Gaulois" (our ancestors, the Gauls) to Algerian kids. While it's also called colonialism, it's tempting to file it under cultural conversion, cultural spread, or something to that effect.

My admittedly vague understanding of Ottoman colonialism is that it shared traits with the three above descriptions - though mostly the third. The empire itself was culturally diverse, with the Ottomans in control of the administration and the population mostly left to its own affairs. Settlers were sent in its periphery (rather than overseas) to spread Turkish culture. Much like Russia, one might add.

Another factor that made them different is that they were considered the Sick man of Europe until they collapsed. European powers at the time were awaiting when they'd be able to partition the empire between themselves.

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    Your musing on 1,6 million people "coming back" to France is off-topic.
    – HannesH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 18:15
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    @HannesH: On the contrary... per the paragraph above it, there was very little migration from Europe to African and Asian colonies... with one exception: North Africa, where French migrated en mass. Aug 13, 2017 at 19:26

Mostly because we are talking about different times and different contexts. I don't know what you have in mind and exactly how you came to this specific comparison but the similarities do not seem that obvious and calling “colonialism” every territorial expansion to dominate culturally diverse populations is not very useful. If anything, the most natural analogies would be with the Habsburg monarchy, the Russian Empire, or Persia and those aren't usually considered colonial powers either.

  • Can you provide this difference in context? As for different times, the ottoman empire ended in 1920.
    – HannesH
    Jun 2, 2018 at 15:11
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    @HannesH Yes, around the same time as the Russian Empire and the remnants of the Habsburg monarchy (i.e. Austria-Hungary) but it expanded much earlier and was in many ways similar to these states. I am beginning to wonder whether you know anything about the history/are interested to learn or are just being argumentative...
    – Relaxed
    Jun 2, 2018 at 15:21

A colonial relationship is defined by exploitation of one territory (the "colony") by another (the "metropole"). This can involve settlement by citizens of the metropole in the colony at the expense of the colony's native population, but it is not required. More often the aim is to extract cheap labour and raw materials from the colony and to use the colony as a market for the metropole's manufactured goods. Oftentimes the colony will be restricted from direct trade with any other territory (including other colonies of the same metropole!). A good tell-tale sign of a colonial relationship in later times was that the colony would not be represented politically in the metropole's government (or only the metropole's settlers would be represented).

The Ottoman empire does not fit any of the above. It was simply a large multi-national empire, a hold-over from medieval times. An imperial power perhaps, but not a colonial one. It conceived of itself first and foremost as a guardian of Islam, defending Muslims from infidel powers and conquering new territories for Islam when the opportunity arose (though not much of the latter happened after 1600). There's no evidence that its Muslim subjects at least viewed it any differently, and in fact many Arab territories in Arabia and North Africa actively sought to join the empire for the very purpose of seeking protection from the Spanish and Portuguese.

The empire modernized and secularized considerably during the course of the 19th century but still conceived of itself as a unitary state, not a metropole surrounded by colonies. When the Ottomans experimented with constitutional government in 1878 and 1908-1913, all of their territories were allowed to elect native representatives to the Ottoman parliament.

The Austrian empire was similar. It too was a medieval holdover and conceived of itself for much of its history as a protector of Catholicism. It ruled over many nations, many of whom were not happy with its rule, but no one ever refers to them as colonies.


The Ottoman Empire was a tri-continental imperial power which, at its height-(300 plus years ago), spanned from Constantinople, to Hungary in Central Europe, to Algeria in Northwest Africa and encompassed the near entirety of the Middle East, as well as the Northern Nile River region.

While the Ottoman Empire did not have the vast amount of colonial territories that the British and French Empires had acquired worldwide, it was still, very much, a colonial power in that it was an imperial state which often conquered and subsequently, colonized foreign peoples and lands....this included, the majority of Arabic speaking Muslim lands, as well as Christian lands in Southeastern and Central Europe; (and of course, one cannot forget the Ottoman conquest and colonization of the Armenian Caucuses).

The Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire did experience a type of colonialism, though it was really throughout the Christian lands-(from Greece to Hungary, as well as Armenia), which experienced the heaviness of Ottoman Muslim colonial domination, through its disproportionally higher rate of taxation, the ghettoish nature of its Millet system and the establishment of the Janissary Corps-(which was the conscripted/ forced recruitment of Christian men into the most elite unit of the Ottoman military).

The Christian communities throughout Ottoman Turkey very much experienced life under a colonial power for nearly 500 years. It should also be noted that most of the anti-Ottoman revolutionary wars of the 1800's and early 1900's, originated in the Empire's Christian territories, helping to catalyze a 100 year period of Decolonization that would culminate in the Ottoman Empire's defeat in The First World War-(alongside the Austrian Empire and Germany).

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    This would benefit from having some references.
    – Steve Bird
    Feb 23 at 22:41
  • You can bring up a wealth of articles in Wikipedia, Brittanica and other historical sources that cover The Ottoman Empire and related topics.
    – Alex
    Feb 24 at 0:35

The answer is quite simple. As a historical researcher, the colony term is used as "if a nation or someone's aim is opening trade opportunities -> source. However, Ottoman Empire never conquered any place for the purpose of trade, rather it was all about getting other lands and so in all scientific books, you will see "conquered" term.

Ottomans was planing to get more lands for their religion. Even, their financial system was not directly related trading.

On the other hand, there have never been any evidence that the Ottoman plan was getting precious metals such as gold and silver, or diamonds.


No. Ottomans were not colonial power because they did not colonize outside the continental territories of Europe. They did not get past Aleppo in the South. Netherlands founded and claimed the New Netherlands; Dutch settlers who founded New Amsterdam (New York) and many other cities in New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

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    This answer needs developing. Why should it matter where the colonies or territories are? Jun 1, 2018 at 23:21

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