The Ottomans



   At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire was still the most powerful state in the world both in wealth and military capability. The personal style of government, however, cultivated among the earlier Sultans had gone away completely. In place of Sultanic government, the bureaucracy pretty much ran the show. Power struggles among the various elements of the bureaucracy: the grand vizier, the Diwan , or supreme court, and especially the military, the Janissaries, led to a constant shifting of government power. Islamic historians point out that the growth of bureaucratic power and the disinterest of the Sultans led to corrupt and predatory local government which eroded popular support. Western historians point to internal decline in the bureaucracy along with increased military efficiency of European powers as the principle reason for the decline of the Empire. However it may be, the decline of the Ottomans was a staggered affair lasting over two centuries. The Empire itself would exist until World War I, at which point it was finally erased from the maps by European powers.

   Perhaps the most significant innovation in Sultanic government was the preservation of the brothers of the Sultan. While Sultanic succession is hotly disputed among both Islamic and Western historians, it seems clear that the Ottomans believed that the Sultan was selected primarily through divine kut , which in Turkish means "favor." All the members of the ruling family, according to some historians, had an equal claim to the throne. This explains the Ottoman practice of killing the brothers of the Sultan and their sons; the purpose of this practice was to obviate rebellion or rival claims to the throne. In the late sixteenth century, the Ottoman Sultans abandoned this practice, yet still distrusted filial loyalty. So the brothers of the Sultan were locked away in the harem in the palace. While they lived in luxury, they were still forced to live in small rooms and often in isolated conditions. Many of them went mad, but most simply became fat and lazy, addicted to alcohol and food and lying about. All of them made bad Sultans, completely disengaged from the government. In addition, the Sultans abandoned the practice of training their sons to assume the Sultanate by having them serve in the government and the military. In both Islamic and Western histories of the Ottomans, this decline in the Sultanate is regarded as one of the prime causes of its decline.

   As a result of the disintegration of the instituion of the Sultanate, power had to go somewhere. It principally went to the Janissaries, the military arm of the government. Throughout the seventeenth, the Janissaries slowly took over the military and administrative posts in the government and passed these offices on to their sons, mainly by bribing officials. Because of this practice, Ottoman government soon began to be ruled by a military feudal class. Under the early Ottomans, position in the government was determined solely through merit. After the sixteenth century, position in government was largely determined by hereditary. The quality of the administration and bureaucracy declined precipitiously.

Muhammad Kuprili

   The most significant figure among the Ottomans of the seventeenth century was Muhammad Kuprili (1570-1661), who, as Grand Vizier, halted the general decline of Ottoman government by rooting out corruption all through the imperial government and returned to the old Ottoman practice of closely observing local government and rooting out injustice. He also tried to revive the Ottoman practice of conquest and protecting Muslim countries from European expansion. Although it didn't happen in his lifetime, this new expansionist policy would begin the steady stream of military defeats against European powers that would slowly contract the Empire.

Wars with Austria

   Shortly after Muhammad Kuprili died, his brother-in-law, Kara Mustafa, took over the military and put into practice Kuprili's new expanionist policies. His first target was the Hapsburg Empire of Austria. He wanted nothing less than the complete conquest of Austria, so he marched straight for the capital, Vienna. In 1683, with Vienna under siege, the Ottomans were defeated by an alliance of European forces and by the heavy artillery that had come into practice among European armies. While this defeat initiated a long period peace in the relationships between the Ottomans and the Europeans, it also effectively ended the Ottoman wars of conquest, and the end of conquest also began the steady deterioration of Ottoman power over European territories.

   In 1699, the Ottomans signed the Peace of Karlowitz. In this treaty, the Ottomans handed over to Austria the provinces of Hungary and Transylvania, leaving only Macedonia and the Balkans under Ottoman control, but the Balkans had begun to destabilize after the Ottoman defeat of 1683.

European Wars

   In the eighteenth century, the Ottomans fought a series of wars with European powers. Between 1714 and 1718, they fought with the small country of Venice; between 1736 and 1739, they fought with Austria and Russia in order to stop the expansion of these powers into Muslim territories. The Russians in particular continued to aggressively expand their state into Muslim territories in Central Asia; these small Muslim states had no place to turn to except the Ottomans. War with Russia, in fact, dominates the Ottoman scene from much of the eighteenth century; the two states clashed between 1768 and 1774, and again between 1787 and 1792. In all these wars of the eighteenth century, there were no clear victors or losers.

Internal Decline

   European historians tend to present Ottoman decline solely from the perspective of the wars with Europe. While these wars were significant, Ottoman decline was more pronounced internally and economically in the eighteenth century. There are two overwhelming aspects of this decline: meteoric population increase and the refusal to modernize.

   For all that we say about Ottoman decline, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were periods of relative prosperity. As a result, however, the population of the Empire doubled .This eventually produced endemic unemployment and famine when the economic resources of the country could not support such a large population.

   The wealth of the Ottomans was largely due to their presence on trade routes. The Empire stood astride the crossroads of all the continents and sub-continents: Africa, Asia, India, and Europe. However, European expansion created new trade routes that bypassed Ottoman territories. Vast amounts of revenue began to disappear from the economy. Because the state collected tariffs on all good passing through the Empire, the imperial government itself lost vast amounts of its revenue.

   In addition, the Ottomans did not industrialize in the way Europeans were doing in the eighteenth century. Remember: industrialization isn't mechanization . It principally involves a complete overhaul of labor practices. The Ottomans retained old labor practices, in which production was concentrated among craft guilds. Increasingly, the economic relationships between the Ottomans and the Europeans shifted gears. Europeans increasingly bought only raw materials from the Ottomans, and then shipped back finished products manufactured in Europe. Since these finished products were produced with new, industrial methods, they were far cheaper than similar products produced in Ottoman territories. This practice effectively destroyed the Ottoman craft industries in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-20-97