Sultan’s Spies: Inside the Ottoman Empire’s Spy Game

Ottoman Intelligence in the Great Rivalry with Spain

5 mins read
Mehmed I with his dignitaries. Ottoman miniature painting, kept at Istanbul University.

Excerpts from the author’s book, published by Georgetown University Press. Translated into English for the first time by Jonathan M. Ross and İdil Karacadağ, this captivating narrative delves into the history of intelligence practices and their influence on great power rivalries during the early modern era.

Although spread across three continents, the Ottoman Empire managed to survive for centuries. One of the factors critical to this success was the Empire’s ability to keep a close eye on the military and political developments taking place around it. Despite all the attempts it made at modernization, the Empire eventually proved incapable of holding its own against the West, which managed to bring the entire world to its knees. The resultant collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 helped to feed a historical narrative that underestimated the military and political capabilities of the Ottomans in earlier years. Within this account of history, which is tied up with the general approach to the Middle East found in Orientalist historiography, the Ottoman Empire is likened to an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. As a consequence of the revolutionary fervor of the early years of the Turkish Republic, a fixed image came to prevail, that of a country that for six centuries had displayed no interest in its surroundings.

In recent years, however, a number of studies have shown that the Ottomans were not so cut off from the outside world.1 The purpose of this book is not so much to engage in the debate on this issue as to show how the Ottomans had great success collecting information about other states. On numerous occasions, they managed to outperform their archrivals, the Habsburgs, in the intelligence competition. The fact that this went unnoticed until now was due to the scarcity of documentation related to espionage in the Ottoman archives, a dearth that is itself a product of the decentralized and noninstitutionalized nature of Ottoman espionage. Nonetheless, a comparative reading of documents from different European archives clearly attests to the Ottomans’ competence. As will be shown in chapter 4, even in times of acute crises, as was the case in the War of 1570–73, in which Istanbul lost its entire fleet against a united Christian alliance, the Ottomans managed to collect reliable intelligence. Using a variety of sources, ranging from provincial authorities to vassal states, from foreign diplomats to captured soldiers, and from agents in the field to corsairs on reconnaissance missions, they succeeded in sifting accurate information from false information and employing their limited resources based on the intelligence that they received. More impressively, they did so in a timely fashion. A juxtaposition of sources from different European archives allowed a quantifiable comparison between news reaching the Ottoman capital and that reaching Venice, the main center of information in the Early Modern Mediterranean. News of major political and military events reached the Ottoman capital as quickly as it did Venice, allowing Ottoman decision-makers to assess the situation and respond in time.

This book seeks to do more than give a performance test to the Ottoman intelligence. While examining Istanbul’s relations with the Western world, it also offers a systematic analysis of the methods and resources that the Ottoman intelligence network employed, as well as the outcomes it achieved. The sixteenth century was both the heyday of the Ottoman Empire and an era that witnessed the emergence of the centralized state and innovations in the fields of military technology, modern diplomacy, and espionage techniques. In this century, when monarchs were chasing dreams of world domination, both the Ottomans and their archrivals the Habsburgs were willing to exploit all their resources and spare no expense in their attempt to found a global empire. In chapter 1, I will explain in more detail how this imperial rivalry created conditions that were particularly ripe for espionage.

In this period, what kind of intelligence techniques were used by the Ottoman Empire? While it certainly possessed a military force to be reckoned with, can one even speak of an institutionalized Ottoman intelligence organization in this period? How did Ottoman spies conduct their operations out in the field? What kinds of backgrounds did these spies have? What kinds of methods did Istanbul develop to prevent enemy spies from operating in the Empire?

These questions may seem simple, but they are questions that Ottoman historiography has so far failed to address. Before seeking answers, a brief review of the literature will serve to highlight this book’s contribution to Ottoman and European history as well as to place the book’s general arguments within their historical and thematic context.


In the sixteenth century, modern states and the apparatuses associated with them had still not taken shape, so intelligence had not been institutionalized either. In fact, the first steps in this institutionalization process are hinted at in this book, but my focus is not so much on intelligence organizations as on the spies themselves. Indeed, in the following pages, you will encounter the fascinating lives of many religious converts, merchants, corsairs, soldiers, and sailors, and you will learn about their intelligence activities.

As I have already mentioned, the sixteenth century was the first golden age of intelligence.2 There are various reasons for the emergence of intelligence at this point. News (and consequently intelligence) became more important due to factors such as the opening up of new trade routes as a result of geographical discoveries, the Reformation, the spread of the printing press, and the development of postal services. The information boom was epitomized by the emergence of handwritten news bulletins that became widespread during this period and that can be regarded as the precursors of newspapers, which would only appear at the beginning of the seventeenth century (the Italian avvisi). It was also during this period that information stopped being the preserve of the state and became the property of an emerging public sphere. Bankers such as the Fugger family, who to protect their business interests needed to monitor developments across the world, went as far as publishing their own bulletins and—for a certain subscription—sharing with interested parties the news they had managed to collect.

Another key development in the sixteenth century was the emergence of “administrative-bureaucratic structures,” structures that would actually undertake the first steps toward the institutionalization of espionage. These timid steps, however, did not have the desired effect, and it would not be until the end of the nineteenth century that intelligence services would be entirely institutionalized. All the same, it would be fair to say that the aforementioned structures were crucial to the development of intelligence. They enabled the institutionalization of archival and postal services, which are essential for both diplomacy and espionage, and they contributed to the wider use of techniques such as cryptanalysis, cryptology, and steganography (concealed writing).

As will be expanded on in chapter 1, the imperial rivalry between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, two great empires of their time, raised news-collection and other espionage activities to an unprecedented level. For decision-makers with only a limited military budget, knowing the intention of the enemy is essential when it comes to matching military investments to potential risks. When spring comes, will the enemy’s fleet leave port? Will the enemy be able to suppress a rebellion in a remote province? Will the enemy’s wheat and barley harvest that year be enough to feed their soldiers, sailors, and oarsmen, not to mention their horses and draft animals? These are just a handful of the questions facing central governments that were constantly beset with financial problems. Decision-makers had no choice but to find answers to such questions in order to choose the correct military strategy and to find a way of distributing their resources rationally. These questions, moreover, did not pertain to just Europe and the Mediterranean. Decision-makers needed to keep track of political and economic affairs across a vast territory, from the Indian Ocean to Russia and from America to Yemen.


Emrah Safa Gürkan

Dr. Emrah Safa Gürkan is a renowned historian and Professor of History at Istanbul 29 Mayıs University, specializing in political science and international relations.

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