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The Peace of Karlowitz (1699)

By: Randall Lesaffer

On 26 January 1699, representatives of the Ottoman Empire signed three treaties with diplomats from the Austrian Habsburgs, Poland and Venice at Karlowitz on the Danube river, near Belgrade. Thereby, the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League (Alliance Treaty of Linz, 5 March 1684, 17 CTS 1) that had started with the failed Ottoman attack on Vienna in 1683 came to an end. With the treaties, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705) and his main allies consolidated their victory. The Ottomans had to sustain significant territorial losses, forced to cede the sovereignty over their former possessions in Hungary, Croatia and Slavonia to the emperor and over the Peloponnese and parts of Dalmatia to Venice. They also had to release suzerainty over the Principality of Transylvania, which had been an Ottoman vassal state since the midst of the sixteenth century. Moreover, they had to return Podolia, which they had wrested from Poland in 1672. The settlement thus marked an end to over 150 years of Ottoman presence in Central Europe and pushed the empire back into the Balkans. A year later, at Constantinople, the Porte would conclude a treaty with the remaining member of the Holy League, Russia, on 13 June 1700 (23 CTS 25), ceding important territories at Azov. Although the Ottoman Empire would prove resilient in the early eighteenth century, and would take back some of its losses in the 1710s, the Peace of Karlowitz marked a shift in the balance of power between the Ottoman Empire and its two leading Christian opponents, the Austrian Habsburg conglomerate and Russia. This power shift was also reflected in the legal design of the peace settlement. The peace settlement marked an important step towards streamlining the legal relations between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans under the forms and doctrines of the European law of nations, and away from the forms and doctrines of Islamic law and Ottoman legal and diplomatic practices.

Since the destruction and partial conquest of the Christian kingdom of Hungary after the Battle of Mohacs (1526), the Habsburg hereditary lands in and around Austria had been in the frontline of Ottoman attacks in Central Europe. By the early 1540s, the situation on the ground had somewhat stabilized in an alternation of wars and long periods of truce with smaller attacks and raids along a broad frontier that divided the Habsburg and Ottoman spheres in Hungary and Croatia. Hungary and the dependent kingdom of Croatia were divided into three zones. The Habsburg emperor obtained the titles to the kingdoms of Hungary and Croatia and ruled over their northern and western stretches. While the larger part of the Hungarian plains and the Ottoman conquests in Croatia and Slavonia were annexed by the Ottoman Porte, a semi-independent vassal state was formed in Transylvania, now largely north-western Romania. 

Under the Islamic legal tradition, Muslim rulers could legitimately make binding treaties with non-Muslim rulers providing these were beneficial to Islam. However, treaties, which lifted the permanent state of enmity that existed between Muslim and independent non-Muslim rulers, could only be made for a limited period of time. According to leading interpretations from the Hanafi and Safi’i schools, this was ten years.  Under the Ottoman conception of sulh¸ the state of war was thus rather suspended than ended, leading to a long-term truce and not a veritable peace. Moreover, according to many interpretations, the treaty could be unilaterally ended by the Muslim rulers if it was considered to go against the interest of Islam, at least after fair advance warning had been given to the opponent.

The first Ottoman-Austrian treaty that was concluded after the fall of Hungary (1547), was only made for five years. In the subsequent treaty of 1562, the period of duration of truce was extended to eight years, a term that was repeated in the treaties of 1568, 1573, 1576, 1584 and 1591. 

The application of the Islamic conception of sulh was not the only concession the Habsburgs had to make during the sixteenth century to Ottoman views about war- and peace-making law and forms. Throughout the sixteenth century, the Ottomans denied the Habsburgs the use of the imperial title and insisted on having them designated as kings. This implied a refusal to recognize the Habsburg rulers as equal to the Ottoman sultan, who had arrogated the title of emperor to himself. Since 1569, the title of emperor had been used by the sultan for the French king, the major strategic ally of the Porte among the Christian princes. The Ottoman capitulations, which granted privileges of security, residence and jurisdiction to the French under the Islamic doctrine of aman, contained expressions of mutual equality between the Ottoman sultan and the king of France. The subaltern position of the Habsburg rulers was further expressed in the treaties of the sixteenth century by the imposition of the payment of an annual tribute by the Habsburgs to the Porte for the duration of the truce. 

The Peace of Zsitvatorok of 1606 radically extended the period of truce from the by then usual eight years to twenty years. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Porte showed increasing flexibility in its relations with Christian rulers, allowing it to design the suspensions of war according to the needs and desires of its overall political strategy and tactics. The treaty was also the first where the Porte acknowledged the imperial title of its Habsburg opponent (Article 2). The treaty was framed more than before as an agreement between equals. Article 17 made the obligations of the Habsburgs under the provisions of the treaty conditional upon Ottoman respect for their obligations. The annual tribute was replaced by a single, one-time gift (Article 12). In later treaties, as the peace of Vasvar of 10 August 1664 (8 CTS 167), which was also made for twenty years, the latter obligation on the part of the Habsburg emperor was reiterated (Article 10).

Through the peace settlements between the Ottoman Porte and the Austrian Habsburgs from the mid sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries ran a gradual shift from designing the settlement under the Ottoman doctrine of sulh as a privilege of the sultan towards a more endurable peace between equal partners, along the tradition of the Christian customs and laws of war- and peace-making.

The treaties of Karlowitz and Constantinople of 1699 and 1700 set important new steps in that direction. The main treaty, between the Emperor Leopold I and the sultan, provided for the settlement to last twenty-five years (Article 20, 22 CTS 219). A similar period of time was stipulated with Venice (22 CTS 287).  While the Treaty of Constantinople provided for a duration of thirty years, the treaty with Poland, remarkably, stipulated that the ‘peace reconciliation’ would remain ‘perpetual’, and hence did not limit its term (Article 11, 22 CTS 247).

Generally, the clauses of the treaties of 1699 were framed under the logic of equality of the parties and reciprocity of their obligations. This took them a step further towards the common practices among Christian sovereign rulers. The role of the British and Dutch mediators present at Karlowitz assuredly played a role in this formal streamlining of the texts according to Christian treaty lore and customs, notwithstanding the fact that much of the language of various stipulations was copied from older treaties with the Ottoman Porte. A significant formal concession on the Ottoman side was the disappearance of the emperor’s obligation to bestow a money gift on the sultan. Article 16 of the Austro-Ottoman treaty, which provided for the exchange of ambassadors, stipulated that the ambassadors from both sides would ‘bring a convenient free Gift in token of their friendship, which is correspondent with the Dignity of both Emperors’.

Another shift in the design of the peace clauses concerned the territorial clauses. For the first time in an Austro-Ottoman peace settlement, the treaty provided for a procedure to delineate and demarcate the new borders on land. Older treaties, such as the one of Vasvar, had already tried to put an end to raiding and small-scale warfare under the traditional Ottoman practice of ghazi warfare, which condoned private raiding by tribal and other groups, such as the Tartars, over the border.  In Article 9 of this treaty, both sides accepted an obligation to punish anybody who committed hostilities and made incursions into the other side’s lands. The more precise delineation and demarcation of the border under the Peace of Karlowitz (as in Article 5) enhanced the strength and practicality of the prohibition to raid and applied Christian European conceptions of the territorial sovereignty and of the strict separation of the states of war and of peace.


Treaties from before 1664 from Gabriel Noradounghian (ed.), Recueil d’actes internationaux de l’Empire ottoman (Paris: Pinchon 1897), vol. 1.
Gabor Agoston, ‘Karlowitz, Treaty of (1699)’ in Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire (2010) 309–10.
Khaled Ramadan Bashir, Islamic International Law. Historical Foundations and Al-Shaybani’s Siyar (Cheltenham and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar 2018).
Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 1955).
Christoph Neumann, ‘Political and Diplomatic Developments’ in Suraiya N. Faroqhi (ed.), The Cambridge History of Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006) vol. 3, 44–62.
Karl-Heinz Ziegler, ‘Völkerrechtliche Beziehungen zwischen der Habsburgmonarchie und der hohen Pforte’, Zeitschrift für Neuere Rechtsgeschichte, 18 (1996) 177–95.
Karl-Heinz Ziegler, ‘The Peace Treaties of the Ottoman Empire with European Christian Power’ in Randall Lesaffer (ed.), Peace Treaties and International Law in European History. From the End of the Middle Ages to World War One (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004) 338–64.