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The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire


Like many other empires in human history, the Ottoman Empire seems to come from nowhere. Often the rise of a new hegemon is a result of the vacuum of power that an old empire leaves behind after entering a period of political and cultural decline. The Turks, or the future Ottomans, had become hegemons in the Middle East and South Eastern Europe not only because of their extraordinary political and military organization, but also because of the exhaustion of the older empires Byzantium and the Abbasids. 

In the eleventh century, the Turkish tribes living in Iran and western Anatolia were a constant source of mercenary soldiers for the Abbasid caliphs. Their influence was constantly growing and in the middle of the eleventh century they gradually formed a confederation in the region of modern Iran, called the Seljuk confederation. This was possible mainly because in 1055 the Abbasids invited in Bagdad the Seljuk Turkish leader to assume the administrative and military authority in the empire in exchange of protection of Caliph's vast territories. The Bagdad caliph proclaimed the Turkish leader as sultan or a temporal ruler.

Spanning more than a century of conflict, the book considers challenges the Ottoman government faced from both neighbouring Catholic Habsburg Austria and Orthodox Romanov Russia, as well as - arguably more importantly - from military, intellectual and religious groups within the empire.  Using close analysis of select campaigns, Virginia Aksan first discusses the Ottoman Empire's changing internal military context, before addressing the modernized regimental organisation under Sultan Mahmud II after 1826... 

The Turkish military power and energy were enough strong to dominate from north-western Iran to the Arab lands. The Seljuk confederation became an open door for migration of more Turkish tribes from east (the Turks were nomads originating from the region of Mongolia) to Caucasus region and Anatolia. Anatolia traditionally was a land with Greek Christian population. Slowly this territory was covered with enclaves of Turkish communities professing Sunni Islam. Later on, the Ottoman advance to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, will start from this place.

The end of Seljuk - Abbasids unity came in 1258 when the Mongols swept Asia Minor. Genghis Khan's hordes did not spare Bagdad. The Mongols sacked the city and killed the Caliph. But their expansion to Africa and Arabia was checked in a battle near Jerusalem by another successful Turkish sultanate formed in Egypt - the Egyptian Mamluks, based in Cairo. With this victory, the Mamluk Turks had assured power and influence over Syria and Egypt for a long time, well until 1517.

As it was said earlier, the real Ottoman expansion started from Anatolia, when the Turkish warlike communities in the region became more and more hostile to Byzantium -- their successful raids against the old Christian empire were inspired by religious zeal and passion for enrichment.

Turkish Islamic warriors called ghazi, or frontier warriors of faith, attacked the Byzantine's lands, and one of them, Osman, in the early 1300 achieved a number of military victories against the crumbling empire. Osman bey is the founder of the Ottoman dynasty and state. His son, Orhan, continued the Turkish expansion deep in the north-western Christian lands and in 1326 he captured the town of Bursa, located on the north western slopes of Mount Uludag bordering with the coast of Sea of Marmara. Orhan made Bursa capital of his new state. Bursa was some 57 miles (92 km) from Constantinople and it was only a matter of time for the Ottoman Turks to conquer the capital of Byzantium. Constantinople had already been experiencing decline when in 1455, after a short siege, Sultan Mehmed II The Conqueror captured the city.

In mid-fourteen century the Turks crossed Marmara Sea, gradually subdued all South Eastern Europe (The Balkans), captured Belgrade, entered in Hungary and reached Habsburg's Vienna (the city was under siege in 1529 by the armies of Suleiman The Magnificent). Ottomans built a fleet that was competing with Venice and the Portuguese, they conquered the Mediterranean Sea and the coasts of North Africa. In 1517, Sultan Selim subdued the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt, and the Ottoman Sultan was recognized as a supreme ruler of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.   

How can the swift rise of the Ottoman power be explained? The most basic reason is perhaps the weakness of the old political formations in the Middle East. During the initial Ottoman expansion the Middle East and South Eastern Europe were an "old soil" exhausted of civilizational cultivation and barbaric wars. Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Arabs succeeded each other destroying and building great civilizations there as every new period of great achievements was preceded by intermediate periods of decline. The Ottomans, as many others before them, used the opportunity to expand in the favourable for them moment of hegemonic decline.

The character of the new empire was absolutist, militaristic, bureaucratic, agrarian, universal, and very pragmatic. The Ottoman Empire rested on the following principles:

    • Expansionism - ghaza or holy war against the non-Muslims in the frontiers
    • Absolutism - imperial dynasty and sophisticated court system
    • Muslim law system - shariah (all embracing sacred law, based on Quran and sunnah) and independence of the ulamas who are the Islamic teachers, scholars, learned men, knowing the Islamic doctrine
    • Efficient system of taxation - very specific system of taxation, pragmatic and flexible, duties were different according the traditions and specifics of each province and community.
    • Division of the society - ruled (raya) and rulers (askeris)

The Ottoman sultan had a group of high rank advisers, imperial council or divan. On the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy stayed the vizier. Succession of the Sultans was a bloody process. The young princes were educated and trained in the provinces, but only one of them had the right to rule. The need for political stability required the brothers of the new sultan to be assassinated.

One of the most distinctive features of Ottoman state system was slave collection, or Devshirme. The sultan harvested young boys from the Christian families living in European provinces, converted them in Islam, educated and trained them, and eventually put them in service of the state. After the training, the slaves received top military and civilian posts. The Ottoman administration was run by slaves. From mid-fifteen to mid-seventeen century nearly all viziers were converted Christian slaves. The goal behind this odd system was creation of elite class of warriors loyal only to the Sultan.

The most popular representatives of Devshirme system were the Janissaries, the infantry of slave soldiers. The janissaries were the most efficient military unit in Europe in fifteen and sixteen century. The janissaries were the most disciplined corps in the world in this time; they not married, they were well paid and equiped and lived in barracks, always ready for the next war expedition. The soldiers with Turkish origin were in the cavalry, they were called sipahi, and the sultan used them as tax collectors as well. They received land from the sultan, called timar. In timar they had their own piece of land called chiflik, but this fief was not their property as it was in the feudal states in West. In any time, the sultan could take over the land and send them to another province.

Why did the Ottoman Empire enter in a period of decline in 17th century? The most obvious reason is the fact that every expansion has an end, and every empire has a life span. In the recent years, the thesis of Ottoman decline is disputed. There are historians, such as Jonathan Grant, who contest the popular understanding that the Ottomans experienced a decline, arguing that this view is just a negative Eurocentric judgement that does not help our understanding of the events that happened in the late Ottoman history. Grant is probably right about the existence (and dominance) of an Eurocentric symplistic view among the old historians in Europe, yet it is undisputable that the Ottomans experienced more decline and less transformation after the 17th century onward.

The decline was in terms of loss of territories, loss of military power, economic and political stagnation. The transformation was in terms of consecutive unsuccessful attempts of the sultans and high bureaucrats to adapt the Ottoman state to the realities of Modernity.

In a popular article, written in the end of the 1950s, Bernard Lewis argues that while in the beginning of their expansion the Ottomans had ten very able sultans, later the quality of their rulers degenerated. The Ottoman political system and army organization was superior in comparison with the capabilities of the corroded feudal Christian-Orthodox societies in the 13th and 14th centuries. People in Byzantium and Southeastern Europe, living in feudal chaos, were easy to defeat. The centralized war machine of the early sultans, the religious zeal of the ghazi warriors, and Ottoman tolerance toward religion and customs of the defeated nations was a winning combination. Once politically subdued the population was safe and loyal to the new Islamic rulers, and this fact applies either to the Muslim and non-Muslim subjects. Generally, there was no ambition among the conquered people to organize against the power of sultan.

The decline started when the expansion stopped. The expansion was in the character of the early Ottoman state, it was in the heart of Ottoman culture, and it was also the source of its energy. The early Turks had a frontier psyche. When the sultan retired at his palace in Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire changed its initial character; the Turks had to change their worldview.

Cemal Kafadar offers a much more subtle and complex interpretation of the early Ottoman period than that provided by other historians. This highly original look at the rise of the Ottoman empire--the longest-lived political entity in human history--shows the transformation of a tiny frontier enterprise into a centralized imperial state that saw itself as both leader of the world's Muslims and heir to the Eastern Roman Empire.

The decline affected the basics of Ottoman state structure. It coincided with the rise of Europe. In the 17th century, the Ottoman army start losing its power. The Europeans took the monopole with the trade with India, China and penetrated in the Ottoman markets. A number of unfavourable for the Ottomans trade agreements, called Capitulations, gave to the Europeans a footstep for aggressive trade policy. The Europeans started to sell their goods in the empire in a very high price. The empire soon became short of gold and silver. Silver-based monetary system of Ottomans was shaken with the discovery of the New World; the inflation became a serious problem. The Ottoman army, artisans and producers suffered under the new economic conditions.

The specific timar system was another source of problems. It became an obstacle to development of long-term agrarian practices. In cultivation of the land, the Ottomans remained well behind the Europeans.

The millet system, the autonomy of the communities in the frames of the empire, the inability to integrate conquered people into one Ottoman nation with Ottoman self-consciousness, was something that also played a critical role in disintegration of the empire and in formation of national feelings among the peoples in Ottoman provinces in 19th century.

There is another important factor explaining the reasons of Ottoman decline. It is the lack of receptivity. Islamic civilization was profoundly convinced of its superiority. This was a brake against the innovation and implementation of new practices. The West started to move ahead - new technologies, deep political reforms and intellectual awakening - the European transition to modernity and industrialism passed unnoticed by the ruling Ottoman class in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

When in the end of the 18th and 19th centuries the modernization of Ottoman state started, the so-called Tanzimat (or "Reconstruction"), it was already late. The reforms were slow, facing strong resistance by warlords, janissaries and conservative population.  

In the 19th century, the Ottomans fell in the net of the Metternich system of balance of power. They became a play card in the hands of the European great powers and their imperial politics. The empire collapsed completely in the end of the First World War giving the rise of the modern secuar state Turkey.

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