Selim II

After Suleyman the Magnificent, the empire was weakened by palace intrigues, corruption and national revolts. The sultans were weak and decadent. They ignored matters of state and spent their time in their harems. When a sultan died all hell broke lose and the throne was taken by whichever son-mother combination could seize it.

Selim II succeeded Suleyman. Known as "Selim the Sot," he was the least capable of Suleyman's sons. He was fond of drinking wine from a tiny gold wine cup. When he succeeded to the throne in 1566, one of his first acts was to capture Cyprus so he could gain access to his favorite Cypriot wines. This lead to Battle of Lepanto. Selim was ugly and rude. He surrounded himself with a bodyguard of 100 dwarfs “clad in cloth of gold and all carrying murderous little scimitars.”

Murat III was not interested much in political affairs.. He put his energy into expanding the harem in Topkapi palace and was regarded in Europe as a libertine. Before Murat III died in 1695, he had 19 of his 20 sons murdered so the remaining one, Mehmet III, could ascend the to throne without plots and intrigues. When Mehmet was circumcised the celebration lasted for 52 days. ☼

Sultan Murat IV instated the death penalty in 1633 for smoking tobacco, intensifying the anti-smoking campaign of his father, Ahmed I, who punished offenders by piercing their noses with their pipestems. Murat was fond of sneaking up on Ottoman soldiers having a quick smoke on the battlefield and beheading, hanging and quartering them himself. When he was in a lenient mood he let the offenders off easy with crushed hands and feet. Murat also used to travel around in disguise to find out what people thought of him. By one count more than 25,000 smokers were killed during his anti-smoking campaign. All this simply drove smoking underground. The ban was rescinded 14 years later.

Selim III introduced European-style military school based on the French model. He thought this would help the Ottomans keep up with the Europeans but he and other Ottoman sultans failed to realize that more profound changes were occurring in European society, commerce and government that was providing their European rivals with strength. Selim III, according to the Guinness Book or World's Records, fired an arrow from a handbow 972 yards (about 1 kilometers) in 1798. According to Guinness's this record has yet to be equaled or surpassed.

Websites and Resources: Ottoman Empire and Turks: The ; Ottoman Text Archive Project – University of Washington ; Wikipedia article on the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on the Ottoman Empire ; American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century Shapell Manuscript Foundation ; Ottoman Empire and Turk Resources – University of Michigan ; Turkey in Asia, 1920 ; Wikipedia article on the Turkish People Wikipedia ; Turkish Studies, Turkic republics, regions, and peoples at University of Michigan ; Türkçestan Orientaal's links to Turkic languages ; Turkish Culture Portal ; ATON, the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University ; The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Ottomans and Europe

Ottoman Christian slave

The Ottomans had always dealt with the European states from a position of strength. Treaties with them took the form of truces approved by the sultan as a favor to lesser princes, provided that payment of tribute accompanied the settlement. The Ottomans were slow to recognize the shift in the military balance to Europe and the reasons for it. They also increasingly permitted European commerce to penetrate the barriers built to protect imperial autarky. Some native craft industries were destroyed by the influx of European goods, and, in general, the balance of trade shifted to the disadvantage of the empire, making it in time an indebted client of European producers.*

European political intervention followed economic penetration. In 1536 the Ottoman Empire, then at the height of its power, had voluntarily granted concessions to France, but the system of capitulations introduced at that time was later used to impose important limitations on Ottoman sovereignty. Commercial privileges were greatly extended, and residents who came under the protection of a treaty country were thereby made subject to the jurisdiction of that country's law rather than Ottoman law, an arrangement that led to flagrant abuses of justice. The last thirty years of the sixteenth century saw the rapid onset of a decline in Ottoman power symbolized by the defeat of the Turkish fleet by the Spanish and Portuguese at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and by the unbridled bloody succession struggles within the imperial palace, the Seraglio of Constantinople.*

In the Köprülü era, Crete and Lemnos were taken from Venice, and large provinces in Ukraine were wrested temporarily from Poland and Russia. The Köprülü family also resumed the offensive against Austria, pushing the Ottoman frontier to within 120 kilometers of Vienna. An attempt in 1664 to capture the Habsburg capital was beaten back, but Ahmet Köprülü extorted a huge tribute as the price of a nineteen-year truce. When it expired in 1683, the Ottoman army again invaded Austria, laying siege to Vienna for two months, only to be routed ultimately by a relief force led by the king of Poland, Jan Sobieski. The siege of Vienna was the high-water mark of Ottoman expansion in Europe. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

Battle of Lepanto

During the 16th century there were two world superpowers: Spain in the west and Ottoman Turkey in the east. These two great powers faced each other in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), in which the Spanish fleet, allied with fleets of Venice, the Papal States and Austria, clashed with the Turkish navy. The battle took place after the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1570 and the Venetians appealed for support from the other Christian states in the Mediterranean. Although of these states were rivals of Venice they were encouraged by Pope Pius V to unite to for the crusade-like “Holy League” against the Muslim Turks.

The Battle of Lepanto is one of the most famous sea battles and the largest naval engagements in history. It took place off Greece in the Adriatic Sea near the Turkish base of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. The Allies had a force of 84,000 men, 200 galleys, 6 galleasses (ships twice the size of galleys with much larger guns) and numerous other small vessels under the command of Don John of Austria. The Turks had 290 vessels and 88,000 men under the command of Ali Pasha. Many of the Turkish vessels were galliots, quick raiding vessels about half the size of a galley. Their flagship carried a banner with the name of Allah written in gold Arabic calligraphy 28,900 times.Don John was the illegitimate half brother of King Phillip II of the Spain. Only 24 at the time of the battle, he prepared his ships by removing the heavy iron beaks from weaponry and placing five guns on the stable bows, The Turkish ships by contrast retained their beaks and had only three cannons mounted on the bows.

Book: “Ships of Lepanto” by Jack Beeching (Scribner’s)

Fighting During the Battle of Lepanto

The decisive galley battle lasted for four hours. The two fleets faced each other in a classic crescent position. The European began moving forward with the three galleases, each leading a squadron. As the Turkish ships approached they were hit hard by the superior European firepower but managed to reach the European ships. When one galley collided with John’s flagship John “danced a galliard on the gun-platform to the music of the fifes.”

Battle of Lepanto

European fighters were armed with a large number musketeers and arquebuses while the Turkish force that was armed primarily with composite bows. There were three major engagements. In the first, one of the three European squadrons drove its Turkish counterpart into the shore and massacred it. In the second engagement, forces around the European flagship faced off against forces the Turkish flagship. Again the superior firepower helped the Europeans prevail and the Turkish flagship was captured.

The third Turkish squadron was making advances against the Europeans, who were saved when ships from the other squadrons joined the battle and outnumbered Turkish ships began a retreat. The retreated ships were attacked by the Europeans.

Consequence of the Battle of Lepanto

A total of 117 Turkish vessels were captured and 80 were destroyed while the European lost 12 vessels and 7,500 men. Over 30,000 Turks were killed, many of them by Spanish musketeers and arquebusiers who attacked during the retreat. Some 12,000 Christian slaves were freed. Cervantes called it, “the greatest day’s work day’s work, seen for centuries.”

The victory destroyed the Turkish navy, checked the advance of the Turks into Europe, shattered the legend of the “invincible Turk,” and brought the Ottoman conquest to an end, ushering in a long, slow decline that would last for 350 years. The victory was especially important for Phillip II of Spain because it kept the Turks out of Spanish territory and Spain to concentrate on plundering the New World.

The battle also demonstrated that the European powers were able to unite. They had been unable to unite against the Muslims for 400 years. The last Ottoman conquest was Crete, taken from the Venetians in the late 17th century. In 1636, the Ottomans were forced out of Yemen.

Battle of Lepanto

Ottomans Defeated at Vienna in 1683

The Ottomans under Kara Mustafa attacked Vienna for a second time in 1683 and were turned back. The decisive charge against the Turks at Kahlenbreg was led by Eugene of Savoy, the son of one of Louis XIV’s mistresses, who had escaped Paris dressed as women to help the Hapsburg monarchs. Eugene pursued the army of Sultan Mustafa II and attacked them as they crossed Tisza at Zenta, near Belgrade.

The battle ended in disaster with a headlong retreat. When it was over 20,000 Turks were dead (half of them drowned) and the rest of the army fled, leaving behind 9,000 baggage carts filled supplies and weapons, 6,000 camels and three million piasters in cash (about $15 million in today's money). The Turkish historian Mehmeny Aga described it as “calamitous defeat, so great there has been none like it since the first appearance of the Ottoman state.”

Consequences of the 1683 Ottoman Defeat at Vienna

The defeat at Vienna was a new experience for the Ottoman armies. It displayed their weaknesses and vulnerability and was the first of more defeats to come. Europeans were able to liberate Christian lands and then makes advances into Ottoman and Muslim lands. The Russians took Central Asia. The Portugese were able to create an empire in South and Southeast Asia and take over many Muslim trade routes.

The second defeat at Vienna ushered in a period of war that had lasted from 1683 to 1699, which was called the Great Retreat. By 1699 the Ottomans were driven out Hungary and Serbia namely because the Habsburg empire created a regular army that could meet them on equal terms and was able to take over territory lost by the Turks in Hungary and eastern Europe. By 1718, the Austrians had driven the Turks out of Hungary.

After the Turks retreated they left behind sacks of coffee which the Austrians were only too happy to brew and drink. This led to the establishment of Vienna's famous coffee houses. After the attempt to capture Vienna failed, Turkey was perceived less as a threat and more as a center of vibrant cultural life. Turkish influences began appearing in European fashions, and composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven incorporated Turkish elements into their music.

Battle of Vienna

Decline of the Ottoman Empire

Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “At its height, the Ottoman empire (ca. 1299–1922) spread from Anatolia and the Caucasus across North Africa and into Syria, Arabia, and Iraq. Its size rivaled that of the great Abbasid empire (750–1258)—the last great Arab-Muslim empire— and it united many disparate parts of the Islamic world. Eventually, the strain of administering such vast domains proved the downfall of the Ottomans. Although the sultans continued to rule in Turkey until 1922, battles to maintain borders against the Habsburgs in the West and the Safavids in the East eventually cost the Ottomans their European and Arabian provinces. In the nineteenth century, French forces occupied the Maghrib, and Greece won its independence in 1830. Treaties at the end of World War I officially dismantled the remnants of the empire.” [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on original work by Linda Komaroff\^/]

The second defeat at Vienna also ushered in a period of self doubt by the Turks. They began to question their own institutions and began showing more interest in the institutions and ideas of the West and emulating them. This movement was resisted by conservatives. It was then agreed that the borrowing of culture would be limited primarily to technology.

The Ottomans largely missed the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution and were way behind the West in technology and science and organizing society along democratic and secular lines. Ottoman weaponry and industry in the 16th and 17th centuries was outdated. Ottoman cites still were dealing with plagues and famines while European cities were improving sanitation and wiping out disease. The European improved education and effectively used capital. Money earned from trade and manufacturing was reinvested to build a stronger military and economy. The Ottomans remained essentially an old style illiterate agrarian society.

The Ottoman Empire was largely left out of the early development of steamships, railroads, telegraphs, factories, and machine guns. When the Ottomans decided it was time to catch up they were hopelessly behind.

Experts from Europe were brought in to offer their advise on weapons and science; the Janissary system began to be dismantled; and military schools began teaching European-style math, science and geography. The first printing press was introduced to Turkey in 1728.

Islam’s Defeat at the Hands of the West

Bernard Lewis wrote in The New Yorker: “Then came the great change. The second Turkish siege of Vienna, in 1683, ended in total failure followed by headlong retreat—an entirely new experience for the Ottoman armies. A contemporary Turkish historian, Silihdar Mehmet Aga, described the disaster with commendable frankness: “This was a calamitous defeat, so great that there has been none like it since the first appearance of the Ottoman state.” This defeat, suffered by what was then the major military power of the Muslim world, gave rise to a new debate, which in a sense has been going on ever since. The argument began among the Ottoman military and political élite as a discussion of two questions: Why had the once victorious Ottoman armies been vanquished by the despised Christian enemy? And how could they restore the previous situation? [Source: Bernard Lewis, The New Yorker, November 19, 2001]

“There was good reason for concern. Defeat followed defeat, and Christian European forces, having liberated their own lands, pursued their former invaders whence they had come, the Russians moving into North and Central Asia, the Portuguese into Africa and around Africa to South and Southeast Asia. Even small European powers such as Holland and Portugal were able to build vast empires in the East and to establish a dominant role in trade.

“For most historians, Middle Eastern and Western alike, the conventional beginning of modern history in the Middle East dates from 1798, when the French Revolution, in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, landed in Egypt. Within a remarkably short time, General Bonaparte and his small expeditionary force were able to conquer, occupy, and rule the country. There had been, before this, attacks, retreats, and losses of territory on the remote frontiers, where the Turks and the Persians faced Austria and Russia. But for a small Western force to invade one of the heartlands of Islam was a profound shock. The departure of the French was, in a sense, an even greater shock. They were forced to leave Egypt not by the Egyptians, nor by their suzerains the Turks, but by a small squadron of the British Royal Navy, commanded by a young admiral named Horatio Nelson. This was the second bitter lesson the Muslims had to learn: not only could a Western power arrive, invade, and rule at will but only another Western power could get it out.

“By the early twentieth century—although a precarious independence was retained by Turkey and Iran and by some remoter countries like Afghanistan, which at that time did not seem worth the trouble of invading—almost the entire Muslim world had been incorporated into the four European empires of Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands. Middle Eastern governments and factions were forced to learn how to play these mighty rivals off against one another. For a time, they played the game with some success. Since the Western allies—Britain and France and then the United States—effectively dominated the region, Middle Eastern resisters naturally looked to those allies’ enemies for support. In the Second World War, they turned to Germany; in the Cold War, to the Soviet Union.

“And then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the United States as the sole world superpower. The era of Middle Eastern history that had been inaugurated by Napoleon and Nelson was ended by Gorbachev and the elder George Bush. At first, it seemed that the era of imperial rivalry had ended with the withdrawal of both competitors: the Soviet Union couldn’t play the imperial role, and the United States wouldn’t. But most Middle Easterners didn’t see it that way. For them, this was simply a new phase in the old imperial game, with America as the latest in a succession of Western imperial overlords, except that this overlord had no rival—no Hitler or Stalin—whom they could use either to damage or to influence the West. In the absence of such a patron, Middle Easterners found themselves obliged to mobilize their own force of resistance. Al Qaeda—its leaders, its sponsors, its financiers—is one such force.”

Weakening of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was weakened in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by British, French and Italian imperialism, nationalism in Greece and the Balkans and aggression by Austria and Russia, Ottoman tolerance and the inability of the Ottomans to modernize.

Over time the Islamic courts became corrupt under the control of local pashas; Europeans began regarded Ottoman rule as too Islamic; and Muslims regarded it as too European. Madrassahs began rebelling. The military grew undisciplined. Trade declined as a result of European competition. The was more corruption and tax abuse. The rich got richer; the poor got power.

The sultans no longer wielded absolute power and were increasingly out of touch with their subjects. The government was largely run by the viziers. The meritocracy for the military and the bureaucracy began to break down and the best and the brightest were no longer in charge. The government became bloated. The number of civil servants increased from 2,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to 35,000 at the end of the century.

Threats from the West presented great challenges to reform that had never existed before. For the first time the Ottoman and the Muslim world felt threatened by the West. There was a great deal of soul searching within the government and religious community on how this threat should be addressed. Reforms were made but they were generally too little, too late. Even though Turkey was in a bad state, the empire stayed in place and sultans continued their reign into the early 20th century.

Ottoman sultans

Köprülü Era

Ottoman imperial decadence was finally halted by a notable family of imperial bureaucrats, the Köprülü family, which for more than forty years (1656-1703) provided the empire with grand viziers, combining ambition and ruthlessness with genuine talent. Mehmet, followed by his son Ahmet, overhauled the bureaucracy and instituted military reforms. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

Under the leadership of the Köprülü family, the empire made its final push into Europe in the seventeenth century. The siege of Vienna, which was lifted in 1683, marked the farthest extent of Ottoman penetration into Europe. In the years that followed, a multinational European force drove Ottoman troops southward and eastward, forcing the empire to cede substantial territory in Europe in the Treaty of Karlowicz (1699).

The last of the Köprülü rulers fell from power when Mustafa II (r. 1695-1703) was forced by rebellious janissaries to abdicate. Under Ahmet III (r. 1703-30), effective control of the government passed to the military leaders. Ahmet III's reign is referred to as the "tulip period" because of the popularity of tulip cultivation in Istanbul during those years.

European-Style Reforms Under Sultan Mahmud II and Abdülmecid

Marika Sardar of New York University wrote: Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–39) was among the century's most important reformers. He enforced a new dress code consisting of a fez, frock coat, and fitted trousers to replace traditional forms of clothing that differentiated the rank and religion of each person. Mahmud also refurbished his palaces with European-style furniture to accommodate the European diplomatic procedures that he had adopted in place of Ottoman ceremonial. These changes visually signaled a new regime and were paralleled by changes in the arts. [Source: Marika Sardar Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Mahmud's son Abdülmecid (r. 1839–61) implemented modernizing reforms even more rapidly than his father by issuing the groundbreaking Rescript of Gulhane. It both acknowledged the equality of all his subjects and established a legislative council to rule alongside him. During Abdülmecid's reign, the Balyan family continued to guide the empire's architectural development. Krikor's descendants Garabed (1800–1866) and Nikogos (1826–1858) designed the Dolmabahçe Palace, built in 1853 on the shores of the Bosporus in Istanbul. Its exterior was a neo-Baroque composition; inside, its 285 rooms were lavishly decorated with wares from all over Europe, including a four-and-a-half ton British chandelier in the throne room.

Abdülmecid's reforms culminated with the formation of a parliament and the drafting of a constitution enacted with the accession of Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909). After a series of setbacks in 1878, however, Abdülhamid did away with these attempts at liberal rule.

Russian and Ottoman empires in the area between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea

Ottomans Versus Russia

In the early eighteenth century, Russian Tsar Peter the Great (Peter I) initiated a long-lasting goal of Russian foreign policy, to gain access to warm-water ports at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Peter first moved to eliminate the Ottoman presence on the north shore of the Black Sea. Russia's main objective in the region subsequently was to win access to warm-water ports on the Black Sea and then to obtain an opening to the Mediterranean through the Ottoman-controlled Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. Despite territorial gains at Ottoman expense, however, Russia was unable to achieve these goals, and the Black Sea remained for the time an "Ottoman lake" on which Russian warships were prohibited.*

During the next two centuries, Russia fought several wars to diminish Ottoman power. In a ruinous sixteen-year war, Russia and the Holy League — composed of Austria, Poland, and Venice, and organized under the aegis of the pope — finally drove the Ottomans south of the Danube and east of the Carpathians. Under the terms of the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the first in which the Ottomans acknowledged defeat, Hungary, Transylvania, and Croatia were formally relinquished to Austria. Poland recovered Podolia, and Dalmatia and the Morea were ceded to Venice. In a separate peace the next year, Russia received the Azov region. In 1774 the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kaynarja gained Russian ships access to Ottoman waterways.

The Ottoman Empire fought three wars with Russia in the nineteenth century. The Crimean War (1854-56) pitted France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Under the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, Russia abandoned its claim to protect Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and renounced the right to intervene in the Balkans. War resumed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1877. Russia opened hostilities in response to Ottoman suppression of uprisings in Bulgaria and to the threat posed to Serbia by Ottoman forces. The Russian army had driven through Bulgaria and reached as far as Edirne when the Porte acceded to the terms imposed by a new agreement, the Treaty of San Stefano. The treaty reduced Ottoman holdings in Europe to eastern Thrace and created a large, independent Bulgarian state under Russian protection.*

Muhammad Ali and Fighting in Greece and the Middle East

Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman officer who had been designated pasha of Egypt by the sultan in 1805, had given substantial aid to the Ottoman cause in the Greek war. When he was not rewarded as promised for his assistance, he invaded Syria in 1831 and pursued the retreating Ottoman army deep into Anatolia. In desperation, the Porte appealed to Russia for support. Britain then intervened, constraining Muhammad Ali to withdraw from Anatolia to Syria. The price the sultan paid Russia for its assistance was the Treaty of Hünkar Iskelesi of 1833. Under this treaty, the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits were to be closed on Russian demand to naval vessels of other powers.*

War with Muhammad Ali resumed in 1839, and Ottoman forces were again defeated. Russia waived its rights under the 1833 treaty and aligned itself with British efforts to support the Ottoman Empire militarily and diplomatically. Under the London Convention of 1840, Muhammad Ali was forced to abandon his claim to Syria, but he was recognized as hereditary ruler of Egypt under nominal Ottoman suzerainty. Under an additional protocol, in 1841 the Porte undertook to close the straits to warships of all powers.*

Decline of the Ottoman Empire in Europe

1915 illustration from Punch

The siege of Vienna was the high-water mark of Ottoman expansion in Europe, and its failure opened Hungary to reconquest by the European powers. During the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was almost continuously at war with one or more of its enemies — Persia, Poland, Austria, and Russia. Under the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kaynarja that ended the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-74, the Porte abandoned the Tartar khanate in the Crimea, granted autonomy to the Trans-Danubian provinces, allowed Russian ships free access to Ottoman waters, and agreed to pay a large war indemnity. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

The implications of the decline of Ottoman power, the vulnerability and attractiveness of the empire's vast holdings, the stirrings of nationalism among its subject peoples, and the periodic crises resulting from these and other factors became collectively known to European diplomats in the nineteenth century as "the Eastern Question." In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I of Russia described the Ottoman Empire as "the sick man of Europe." The problem from the viewpoint of European diplomacy was how to dispose of the empire in such a manner that no one power would gain an advantage at the expense of the others and upset the political balance of Europe.*

The first nineteenth-century crisis to bring about European intervention was the Greek War of Independence (1821-32). In 1827 an Anglo-French fleet destroyed the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets at the Battle of Navarino, while the Russian army advanced as far as Edirne before a cease-fire was called in 1829. The European powers forced the Porte to recognize Greek independence. *

In 1832, after a decade-long Greek guerrilla war, the European powers forced the Ottoman government to recognize Greek independence under the London Convention of 1832. However, Europe also recognized the need to avoid the complete destruction of the empire.

Crimean War

In the Crimean War of 1854–56, France and Britain sided with the Ottoman Empire against Russia, which lost the war and saw its power in southeastern Europe reduced. The last great hurrah for the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean War took place north of the Black Sea on the Crimean peninsula and gave us Florence Nightingale, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the first modern war correspondents.

The Crimean War was a Victorian-era Vietnam for Britain and France. The aim of the conflict was to keep tsarist Russia out the Mediterranean, curb Russian expansion and prevent disruption of French, British and Turkish trade routes to Asia. After a long stalemate Turkey won.

Crimean War

Queen Victoria described the Crimean War, the only British-European War, of her reign unnecessary but authorized the use of force in numerous colonial wars and conflicts. British officers cared little about the fate of their troops and the casualties figures were unnecessarily high and there was general disregard for the health of the troops.

Whittling Down of the Ottoman Empire Europe After the Crimean War

In 1878 the Treaty of Berlin established the independent states of Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia from former Ottoman territory. In the same period, Britain took possession of Cyprus and Egypt, and France occupied Algeria and Tunisia, further diminishing Ottoman holdings.*

Refusing to accept the dominant position of Russia in the Balkans, the other European powers called the Congress of Berlin in 1878. At this conclave, the Europeans agreed to a much smaller autonomous Bulgarian state under nominal Ottoman suzerainty. Serbia and Romania were recognized as fully independent states, and the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina were placed under Austrian administration. Cyprus, although remaining technically part of the Ottoman Empire, became a British protectorate. For all its wartime exertions, Russia received only minor territorial concessions in Bessarabia and the Caucasus. In the course of the nineteenth century, France seized Algeria and Tunisia, while Britain began its occupation of Egypt in 1882. In all these cases, the occupied territories formerly had belonged to the Ottoman Empire.*

Unrest in Eastern Rumelia led the European powers to insist on the union of that province with Bulgaria in 1885. Meanwhile, Greek and Bulgarian partisans were carrying on a running battle with Ottoman forces in Macedonia. In addition, the repression of revolutionary activities in Armenia during 1894-96 cost about 300,000 lives and aroused European public opinion against the Ottoman regime. Outside support for a rebellion on Crete also caused the Porte to declare war on Greece in 1897. Although the Ottoman army defeated the Greeks decisively in Thrace, the European powers forced a compromise peace that kept Crete under Ottoman suzerainty while installing the son of the Greek king as its governor.*

More isolated from Europe than it had been for half a century, the Ottoman regime could count on support only from Germany, whose friendship offered Abdül Hamid II a congenial alternative to British and French intervention. In 1902 Germany was granted a ninety-nine-year concession to build and operate a Berlin-to-Baghdad rail connection. Germany continued to invest in the Ottoman economy, and German officers held training and command posts in the Ottoman army.*

Ottoman Empire decline

Decline of the Ottoman Empire From Within

Internal conditions also deteriorated in the nineteenth century. Under pressure from the West, between 1839 and 1876 the Ottoman government undertook a series of reforms, collectively known as Tanzimat. Dissatisfaction with reforms stimulated the Young Ottoman movement, which sought Western-style reforms, including secular government and closer relations with Europe. However, in the late 1870s Sultan Abdül Hamid II stifled the reform movement and established a repressive regime. Meanwhile, the empire’s financial and geopolitical positions worsened.*

The 1860s and early 1870s saw the emergence of the Young Ottoman movement among Western-oriented intellectuals who wanted to see the empire accepted as an equal by the European powers. They sought to adopt Western political institutions, including an efficient centralized government, an elected parliament, and a written constitution. The "Ottomanism" they advocated also called for an integrated dynastic state that would subordinate Islam to secular interests and allow non-Muslim subjects to participate in representative parliamentary institutions.*

In 1876 the hapless sultan was deposed by a fetva (legal opinion) obtained by Midhat Pasha, a reformist minister sympathetic to the aims of the Young Ottomans. His successor, Abdül Hamid II (r. 1876-1909), came to the throne with the approval of Midhat and other reformers. In December of that year, on the eve of the war with Russia, the new sultan promulgated a constitution, based on European models, that had been drafted by senior political, military, and religious officials under Midhat's direction. Embodying the substance of the Young Ottoman program, this document created a representative parliament, guaranteed religious liberty, and provided for enlarged freedom of expression. Abdül Hamid II's acceptance of constitutionalism was a temporary tactical expedient to gain the throne, however. Midhat was dismissed in February 1877 and was later murdered. The sultan called the empire's first parliament but dissolved it within a year.*

Opposition to the sultan's regime continued to assert itself among Westernized intellectuals and liberal members of the ruling class. Some continued to advocate "Ottomanism," whereas others argued for pan-Turanism, the union of Turkic-speaking peoples inside and outside the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish nationalist ideologist of the period was the writer Ziya Gökalp, who defined Turkish nationalism within the context of the Ottoman Empire. Gökalp went much farther than his contemporaries, however, by calling for the adoption of the vernacular in place of Ottoman Turkish. Gökalp's advocacy of a national Turkish state in which folk culture and Western values would play equally important revitalizing roles foreshadowed events a quarter-century in the future. *

“The Fall of the Ottomans, “by Eugene Rogan (Basic), according to The New Yorker is an “engrossing history” that “unfolds in the Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War, capturing the complex array of battles, brutalities, and alliances that brought down the six-hundred-year-old Ottoman Empire. At the start of the conflict, the empire faced threats both from foreign powers who coveted its territories and from rebellious ethnic groups within its borders. The war gave new boldness to these interests, and the Ottomans, fighting on multiple fronts, responded with mass expulsions, massacres, and, most infamously, the Armenian genocide. Rogan argues that the empire’s ultimate demise was the result not of losing the war but of a clumsily negotiated peace. His balanced narrative unearths many seeds of current conflicts. [Source: The New Yorker , April 20, 2015]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except last map Encyclopædia Britannica

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples “ by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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