Ottoman history from 1566 -1792
has been described as The Decline of Faith and State. To Ottomans, " decline
meant dislocation of the traditional order; hence, reforms " to check or
reverse " decline " meant restoring the old order which had produced the Golden
Age of Suleyman the Magnificent. At times decline was checked but only temporarily.
Decline was not only slow, gradual, interrupted, lasting rnore than three centuries, but
also it was relative only to its own Golden Age and to the remarkable progress of its
Christian European neighbors.
It is easier to describe decline
than to explain it. Some developments which the Ottoman Empire did not take part in gave
Europe its relative superiority.
[ 1 ] Its 16th-10th c.
commercial expansion overseas enriched Western Europe to the detriment of the Ottomans.
[ 2 ] The West improved
agricultural methods while technology and industry advanced rapidly, all tied to the new
scientific experimentation and rationalist attitudes stemming from the Renaissance and
Reformation and culminating in the Enlightenment; only weak echoes of these events reached
the East before 1800.
[ 3 ] Strong, centralized,
national monarchies or bureaucratic empires appeared not only in Western Europe but also
along the Ottoman frontiers in Central and Eastern Europe just when centrifugal forces
were weakening the previously centralized Ottoman bureaucratic empire.
[ 4 ] A prosperous,enterprising
bourgeoisie on the Western model failed to appear in the Ottoman Empire to back up the
ruler; the wealthy bourgeoisie which did exist was small and composed largely of either
non-Muslim merchants and bankers, who were not acceptable as the sultans allies, or
bureaucrats, who were a part of the "establishment anxious to protect their own
interests and often resisting change.
The Ottomans were more conscious
of the dislocations in their own traditional system:
[ 1 ] Leadership : 17 sultans after
Suleyman ( from1566 to 1789) were, with few exceptions, men of little ability, training,
or experience, and some were incompetent, even mentally defective; their average rule of
13 years was less than half that of the first 10 sultans. This was no accident! Mehmed III
died in 1605 leaving two minor sons as the only direct male survivors. The elder, Ahmet I,
spared the life of his brother, Mustafa, but kept him secluded in a special apartment in
the harem of Topkapi Palace. The Sitva Torok treaty with Austria (1606) should have been a
wake-up call for the Ottomans. It was a negotiated compromise rather than a grant of peace
dictated by the sultan; in it, the Hapsburg monarch finally was recognized as the
sultans peer, as " Emperor (Padishah rather than simply King of Vienna.
Mustafa Is accession in 1617 marked the end of succession by military contest and
the practice of royal fratricide, replaced by confinement of princes in the palace
and succession by the eldest male of the imperial family. Not only were most inexperienced
and incompetent, many were minors under the influence of the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan)
and harem favorites, giving rise to palace cliques and intrigue. For several decades in
the first half of the17.th century, women of the palace exercised such influence that the
period is called " The Sultanate of the Women "
[ 2 ] Bribery, purchase of
office, favoritism, nepotism : Promotion by merit, long the hallmark of Ottoman
administration, became less common. Corruption spread to the provinces where an official
would buy his office, then squeeze more taxes from the populace to reimburse himself.
There were frequent shifts in judicial as well as civil officials, with justice also
sometimes for sale. In the mid-to-late 17th c., the great Koprulu family of viziers
attempted to root out corruption and improve administrative and military efficiency. They
were temporarily successful in arresting " decline " through traditional
reforms, and in 1663 Ottoman forces besieged Vienna for the second time. But in the 17th
c., the Ottomans were confronted by an extended arc of opponents, Venice, Austria, Poland,
Russia, and Iran, often obliged to confront several at once. In 1699, after defeat by a
coalition of all Central and East European powers, the Ottomans accepted mediation,
negotiated peace, and, by the Treaty of Karlowitz, for the first time gave up territories
in the Balkans. The shrinking of Ottoman frontiers had begun.
[ 3 ] Military : The devshirme was abandoned ( just when is
uncertain ); sons of janissaries were admitted to the corps, then other Muslims; and
imperial slavery became a legal fiction. Provincial janissaries sometimes acted as
semi-autonomous local rulers, while in Istanbul they become a disruptive force, often in
collaboration with artisans / craftsmen and students. The provincial cavalry army
was made obsolete by musket-armed European troops, requiring the Ottomans to increase
their standing infantry and equip them with firearms. This required money. The military
fief system was all but abandoned and replaced by tax-farming. The heavy tax burden was
responsible in part for revolts in Anatolia, abandonment of farm lands, and depopulation
of villages; thus the empire experienced a decline in tax revenues despite higher taxes.
[ 4 ] Economics : The
Ottoman Empire suffered from severe inflation, as did all of Europe, as New World silver
flooded in. This, together with debased coinage, fueled corruption. By the 17th c.,
Europeans and consolidated their control of new sea trade routes, by-passing the Middle
East and diminishing the transit trade through Ottoman lands. Asian spices were shipped
directly to Europe, and wars with Iran interrupted the silk trade. European manufactured
goods flowed in, undercutting local handicraft products and enriching Levantine merchants.
The Ottoman Empires unfavorable trade balance resulted in an outflow of gold, while
European states demanded more favorable trade treaties ( Capitulations" ) and were
guilty of blatantly abusing them.
[ 5 ] Intellectual
decline--Selim and Suleymans 16th c. victory over Safavid Shiism so consolidated
Sunni orthodoxy that Muslims in the Empire were not forced to engage in intellectually
challenging and stimulating conflict as Catholics and Protestants were in Europe. Muslim
scholars became intellectually conservative and resistant to new ideas; convinced of the
superiority of Muslim / Ottoman civilization, they were seemingly oblivious to the
advances being made in the infidel West. Meanwhile, the Ottoman religious establishment
gradually became infiltrated by the Sufi orders, producing a new sort of symbiosis which
gave greater strength to conservative religious elements.
In the18th c. more wars and
losses resulted in another attempt at reforms. The Tulip Period ( 1718-30 )
marks the first conscious borrowing of European culture and art. During the mid-century
interlude of peace on the European frontiers, Ottoman political authority was further
diffused. Provincial notables and governors barely heeded orders from Istanbul. Levantines
and Phanariot Greeks enjoyed enormous prosperity and influence. The Muslim religious elite
reached the apex of their power. In the last quarter of the century, Catherine the Great
resumed Russian expansion southward; her Greek Scheme " aimed to put her
grandson, Constantine, on the throne of a neo-Byzantine Empire with its capital at
Constantinople. Her first war ended in the Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarca (1774) by which the
Ottomans gave up the Crimea, the first time they had lost territory inhabited primarily by
Muslims. In 1789, during the second war with Catherine, Selim lll became sultan and
initiated a reform program called the New Order, (Nizam-i Cedid) with emphasis on military
and fiscal reform. But Selims failure to prevent Napoleons invasion of the rich
Ottoman province of Egypt in 1798 revealed to Europeans as never before that the balance
of power had now shifted decidedly in their favor.
reforms begun by Selim III were taken up again in the early decades of the 19th.c. by
Sultan Mahmud II. They aimed at curbing provincial autonomy and achieving political
centralization and modernization through Western-style military, administrative, and
fiscal reforms. But European intervention in the Greek struggle for independence signaled
the beginning of the modern " Eastern Question (Simply put : Who would divide the
spoils when the Ottoman Empire collapsed ? ). To counter this, the Tanzimat period
(1839-76) saw reforms center around a new concept of justice (adalet): equality before the
law for all Ottoman subjects, Muslim and non- Muslim alike. This concept was fundamental
to the prevalent ideology of the Tanzimat, Ottomanism ( patriotism but not yet
nationalism). In the 1850s-60s, intellectuals known as the New Ottomans engaged in a
liberal critique of Tanzimat policies with emphasis on fatherland (vatan), freedom
(hurriget), and constitutionalism. The Tanzimat reforms culminated in the constitution and
parliament of 1876, but the 1877-78 war with Russia and the Treaty of Berlin, by which
most of the Ottoman lands in Europe were lost and the European powers laid claim to
spheres of influence in the Middle East, allowed Sultan Abdulhamid II to bring an end to
" liberalism and proceed with reforms under an autocratic- regime. By the 1880s
Germany under Kaiser Wilhelrn had replaced France and Great Britain as friend and military
advisor of the Ottoman Empire, and new ideologies were challenging Ottomanism. Abdulhamid
embraced Pan-Islamism; his opponents, known collectively as Young Turks, were drawn to a
secular Ottoman pseudo-nationalism and some to Pan-Turkism.
The Hamidian despotism was ended
by the Young Turk Revolution(1908-09) and replaced by constitutional, parliamentary
government under the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress. Their policies reflected
a growing sense of Turkish nationalism. But in the five years preceding World War I, two
Balkan wars and a war with Italy, which had invaded Libya, brought the military element of
the Young Turk movement to the fore and resulted in the domination of the Istanbul
political scene by the Young Turk Triumverate ( Enver, Talat, and Jemal Pashas) . Under
their leadership, the Ottomans entered World War I on the side of Germany. The victors
dictated the peace to end all peace at Paris in 1919. With even the heartlands of the
Empire partitioned and Istanbul occupied by the victorious allies, the Turks of Anatolia
under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) rejected the terms of the dictated Treaty
of Sevres. Again they took up arms, fought successfully for their independence, and ---
bringing to an end the 600 + year-old Ottoman Empire - negotiated the Treaty of
Lausanne in 1923 which granted international recognition to the boundaries of the new
Republic of Turkey
Richard L. Chambers,
The University of Chicago