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Ottoman Society


The Ottomans: From Frontier Warriors To Empire Builders
Author: Robert Guisepi
Date: 1992

Part Three

Ottoman Empire, Islamic Heartlands, And Qing China
Author: Schwartz, Stuart B.
Date: 1992

Between The Western Powers: The Struggle Of The Ottoman Empire For Survival

By the early 18th century, the days of the Ottoman Empire appeared
numbered. In part the crisis was brought on by a succession of weak rulers
within a political and social order that was centered on the sultan at the
top. Inactive or inept sultans opened the way for seemingly endless power
struggles between rival ministers, religious experts, and the commanders of
the Janissary corps. Competition between factions of the elite further eroded
effective leadership within the empire, exposing it to external assaults by
its European enemies and weakening its control over the population and
resources it claimed to rule. Provincial officials colluded with the local
landowning classes, the ayan, to cheat the sultan of a good portion of the
taxes due him, and they skimmed all the revenue they could from the already
impoverished peasantry in the countryside. As in other preindustrial
civilizations, the peasants responded to these threats to their livelihood
with flight (if open lands or less exacting landlords were within reach),
banditry, and outright rebellions in various parts of the empire.

At the same time, the position of the artisan workers in the towns
deteriorated due to competition from imported manufactures from Europe. This
led, particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to urban riots in
which members of artisan guilds or young mens' associations often took a
leading role. Merchants within the empire, especially those who belonged to
minority religious communities, such as the Jews and Christians, grew more and
more dependent on commercial dealings with their European counterparts. This
pattern accelerated the influx of Western manufactured goods that was steadily
undermining handicraft industries within the empire, thereby increasing
Ottoman economic dependence on some of its most threatening European political

With the Ottoman leaders embroiled in internal squabbles and their armies
deprived of the resources needed to match the great advances in weaponry and
training made by European rivals, the far-flung Ottoman possessions proved an
irresistible temptation for their neighbors. In the early decades of the 18th
century, the Austrian Habsburg dynasty was the main beneficiary of Ottoman
decadence. The long-standing threat to Vienna was forever vanquished, and the
Ottomans were pushed out of Hungary and the northern Balkans.

In the later 1700s, the Russian Empire, strengthened by Peter the Great's
forced Westernization (see Chapter 24), became the main threat to the
Ottomans' survival. As military setbacks mounted and the Russians advanced
across the steppes toward warm water ports in the Black Sea, the Ottomans'
weakness was underscored by their attempts to forge alliances with other
Christian powers. As the Russians gobbled up poorly defended Ottoman lands in
the Caucasus and Crimea, the subject Christian peoples of the Balkans grew
more and more restive under Ottoman rule. In 1804 a major uprising broke out
in Serbia that was repressed after years of difficult and costly military
campaigns. Military force could not quell the Greek revolt that broke out in
the early 1820s, and by 1830 the Greeks had regained their independence after
centuries of Ottoman rule. By 1867 Serbia was also free, and by the late 1870s
the Ottomans had been driven from virtually the whole of the Balkans and thus
most of the European provinces of their empire. In the following decades
Istanbul itself was repeatedly threatened by Russian armies or those of the
smaller Balkan States.

Reform And Survival

Despite almost two centuries of unrelieved defeats on the battlefield and
steady losses of territory, the Ottoman Empire somehow managed to survive into
the 20th century. In part this was due to divisions between the European
powers, each of which feared that the others would gain more from the total
dismemberment of the empire. In fact the British concern to prevent the
Russians from controlling Istanbul - thus gaining direct access to and
threatening British naval dominance in the Mediterranean - led them to prop up
the tottering Ottoman regime repeatedly in the last half of the 19th century.
Ultimately, the Ottomans' survival depended on reforms from within - reforms
initiated by the sultans and their advisors at the top of the imperial system
and carried out in stages over most of the 19th century. At each stage, reform
initiatives intensified tensions within the ruling elite: Some advocated
far-reaching change along European lines; others argued for reforms based on
precedents from the early Ottoman period; and still others had a vested
interest in blocking change of any sort.

These deep divisions within the Ottoman elite rendered reform a dangerous
enterprise. Though modest innovations, including the introduction of the first
printing press in 1727, had been enacted in the 18th century, Sultan Selim III
(1789-1807) believed that bolder initiatives were required if the dynasty and
empire were to survive. But his reform efforts, which were aimed at improving
administrative efficiency and building a new army and navy capable of
reversing a century of defeats at the hands of the European powers, angered
powerful factions within the bureaucracy. They were also viewed by the
Janissary corps, which had long been the dominant force within the Ottoman
military (see Chapter 26), as a direct and vital threat. Selim's modest
initiatives cost him his throne - he was toppled by a Janissary revolt in 1807
- and his life.

Two decades later, a more skillful sultan, Mahmud II, succeeded where
Selim III had failed. After secretly building a small professional army with
the help of European advisors, in 1826 Mahmud II ordered his agents to incite
a mutiny of the Janissaries. This began when the angry Janissaries overturned
the huge soup kettles in their mess area. With little thought of preparation,
the Janissaries poured into the streets of Istanbul, more a mob than a
military force, where they were shocked to be confronted by the sultan's
well-trained new army. The confrontation ended in the slaughter of the
Janissaries, their families, and the Janissaries' religious allies.

After cowing the ayan or provincial notables into at least formal
submission to the throne, Mahmud II launched a program of much more
far-reaching reforms than Selim III had attempted. Though the ulama, or
religious experts, and some of Mahmud's advisors argued for self-strengthening
through a return to the Ottoman and Islamic past, Mahmud II patterned his
reform program on Western precedents. After all, the Western powers had made a
shambles of his empire. He established a diplomatic corps on Western lines and
exchanged ambassadors with the European powers. The Westernization of the army
was expanded from Mahmud's secret force to the whole military establishment.
European military advisors, both army and navy, were imported to supervise the
overhaul of Ottoman training, armament, and officers' education.

In the following decades, Western influences were pervasive at the upper
levels of Ottoman society, particularly during the period of the Tanzimat
reforms between 1839 and 1876. University education was reorganized on Western
lines, including the introduction of training in the European sciences and
mathematics. State-run postal and telegraph systems were introduced in the
1830s and railways were begun in the 1860s. Newspapers were established in the
major towns of the empire, extensive legal reforms were enacted, and in 1876 a
constitution, based heavily on European prototypes, was promulgated. These
legal reforms greatly improved the position of minority religious groups,
whose role in the Ottoman economy increased steadily.

Some groups were adversely affected by these changes that opened the
empire more and more to Western influences. This was especially true of the
artisans, whose position was gravely weakened by an 1838 treaty with the
British that removed import taxes and other barriers to foreign trade that had
protected indigenous producers from competition from the West. Other social
groups gained little from the Tanzimat reforms. This was particularly true of
women. Though proposals for women's education and the end to seclusion,
polygamy, and veiling were debated in Ottoman intellectual circles from the
1860s onward, few improvements in the position of women - even among the elite
classes - were won until after the fall of the dynasty in 1908.

Repression And Revolt

Though the reforms initiated by the sultans and their advisors did
improve somewhat the Ottomans' ability to fend off, or at least deflect, the
assaults of foreign aggressors, they increasingly threatened the dynasty
responsible for them. Western-educated bureaucrats, military officers, and
professionals came increasingly to view the sultanate as a major barrier to
even more radical reforms - some of which involved proposals for
constitutional checks on the rulers' authority - and the full transformation
of society. The new elites also clashed with conservative but powerful groups,
such as the ulama and ayan, who had a vested interest in preserving as much as
possible of the old order. There were also divisions within the new elite
between those who had derived great benefit from the early reforms and were
wary of further changes, and those who saw the reforms already enacted as the
entering wedge for a much more radical restructuring of Ottoman institutions
and society.

The Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid responded to the growing threat from
Westernized officers and civilians by attempting to return to despotic
absolutism during his long reign from 1878 to 1908. He nullified the
constitution, restricted civil liberties, particularly the freedom of the
press, and deprived Westernized elite groups of the considerable initiative
they had gained in the formulation of imperial policies. Legal safeguards were
flaunted as dissidents or even suspected troublemakers were summarily
imprisoned, and sometimes tortured and killed. But the deep impact that
decades of reform had made upon the empire was demonstrated by the fact that
even Abdul Hamid continued to push for Westernization in certain areas. The
military continued to adopt European arms and techniques, increasingly under
the instruction of German advisors. In addition, railways, including the famed
line that linked Berlin to Baghdad, and telegraph lines were constructed
between the main population centers, more often than not under the aegis of
German investors and supervisors. Western-style educational institutions
continued to grow, and judicial reforms continued. Under Abdul Hamid the old
bureaucratic apparatus remained largely in place and social reforms were
minimal, but the military and communications infrastructure for a modern state
was established.

The despotism of Abdul Hamid came to an abrupt end in the nearly
bloodless coup of 1908. Resistance to his authoritarian rule had led exiled
Turkish intellectuals and political agitators to found an organization, the
Ottoman Society for Union and Progress, in Paris in 1889. Though professing
their loyalty to the Ottoman regime, the Young Turks, as members of the
society came to be known, were determined to restore the 1876 constitution and
resume far-reaching reforms within the empire. Clandestine printing presses
operated by the Young Turks turned out tracts denouncing the regime and
outlining the further steps to be taken to modernize and thus save the empire.
Assassinations were attempted and coups plotted, but until 1908 all were
undone by a combination of divisions within the ranks of the Westernized
dissidents and police countermeasures.

Sympathy within the military for the 1908 coup had much to do with its
success, as did the fact that only a handful of the sultan's supporters were
willing to die defending the regime. Though a group of officers came to power,
they restored the constitution and press freedoms and promised reforms in
education, administration, and even the status of women. The sultan was
retained as a political figurehead and the highest religious authority in

Unfortunately, the officers soon became embroiled in factional fights
that took up much of the limited time remaining before the outbreak of World
War I. In addition, their hold on power was shaken as they lost a new round of
wars in the Balkans and against Italy over the Ottomans' last remaining
possession in North Africa, Libya. Just as the sultans had before them,
however, the Young Turk officers managed to stave off the collapse of the
empire with last-gasp military victories and by playing the hostile European
powers against each other.

Though it is difficult to know how the Young Turks would have fared if it
had not been for the outbreak of the First World War, their failure to resolve
a number of critical issues did not bode well for the future. They had
overthrown the sultan, but they could not bring themselves to give up the
empire ruled by Turks for over 600 years. The peoples most affected by their
decision to salvage what was left of the empire were the Arabs of the Fertile
Crescent and coastal Arabia who still remained under Ottoman control. Arab
leaders in Beirut and Damascus had initially favored the 1908 coup because
they believed it would bring about the end of their long domination by the
Turks. To their dismay, the Arabs discovered that the Young Turks not only
meant to continue their subjugation, but that they were determined to enforce
state control to a degree unthinkable to the later Ottoman sultans. The
quarrels between the leaders of the Young Turk coalition and the growing
resistance in the Arab portions of what was left of the Ottoman Empire were
quite suddenly cut short by a much larger global crisis brought on by the
outbreak of general war in Europe in August 1914. Turkish entry into and
defeat in the First World War brought about the dissolution of the Ottoman
Empire. This also gave rise to the leader, Mustafa Kemal or Ataturk, and some
of the forces that proved critical in the emergence of the modern nation of
Turkey from the ruins of the empire. However able a military commander he
might have been, Ataturk's successes would not have been possible without the
struggles and reforms of the last century and a half of the Ottoman Empire.


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