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Decline Of Ottoman Empire Essay

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at what impact political and economic problems had on bringing down this long-lasting dynasty. In Part 2, a loss of Islamic character was analyzed in connection to the the overall decline and fall of the empire, despite the best efforts of Sultan Abdülhamid II. In this post, the far reaching effects of nationalism will be understood in relation to the ethnic and political groups within the Ottoman Empire.

The Millet System

Before looking at how nationalism affected the Ottomans, we have to look further back, at how different nationalities originally were a source of strength for the Ottomans. After Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he had a unique problem on his hands: how to deal with the sizable Christian minority within his realm. Islam has numerous rules about how to treat religious minorities and what kinds of rights they are accorded. Working within these rules, Sultan Mehmed established a system later known as the millet system (millet coming from the Arabic word ملة meaning “nation”).

Sultan Mehmed II established the millet system, giving religious freedom to minorities in the Ottoman Empire

According to the millet system, Christians within the Ottoman Empire were allowed to live much like they did before Ottoman rule. They were allowed to chose their own religious leaders, collect their own taxes, use their own language, and even to have their own courts where Christians were tried according to Christian laws, not Muslim ones. This type of a system was revolutionary at that time in Europe, where in Christian-dominated areas, there was no concept of religious freedom or minority rights.

Over time, the millet system would grow to include more than just one group of Christians. To accomodate all the different forms of Christianity within the Ottoman realm, each church was given its own millet, and allowed to run by its own rules. Jews were also allowed to have their own millet. During the reign of Mehmed II’s son, Bayezid II, thousands of Jews who were experiencing religious persecution at the hands of Spain’s Catholics were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire where they were given much more religious freedom than anywhere else in the world at that time.

With the millet system, different nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, and religions were allowed to thrive. People commonly think of the Ottoman Empire as a “Turkish” empire. This is far from the truth. While the sultans from the beginning to the end were Turkish, the general populace was a wide variety of peoples. People within the millets were able to rise up in society to prominent positions. In fact, many of the sultan’s viziers (ministers) came from Greek, Bosnian, Arab, or Persian backgrounds.

European Nationalism

In 1789, a revolution began in France that would alter world history. The French Empire, headed by a tyrannical king was shaken to its core. The revolution helped bring Enlightenment ideas to the forefront in Europe, such as natural rights, government by the people, and social contract theory. However, besides the political effects of the revolution, a much more important social one was taking form: nationalism.

In Europe, the concept of nationalism took the form of people being led by ethnically similar people. The large multi-national empires of the past, such as the Holy Roman Empire or the Spanish Empire were seen as inherently weak because of the numerous nationalities and languages within the empire. Ethnic/linguistic groups began to revolt. The goal of many of these groups was to be led by someone who has the same ethnicity and language as them. Thus for example, the Dutch of Holland rejected Spanish rule, as did the Italians in Sicily. Revolutions broke out across the European continent, based on the idea of establishing nation-states: countries that only have one nationality within them, and are ruled by someone of that nationality.

This rising tide of nationalism made its way into the Ottoman Empire as well. Although the millet system gave people their rights and allowed them to rule themselves, European nationalism dictated that the ethnic minorities of the Ottoman Empire should not have a Turkish sultan. Nationalism meant that they had to break free of the Ottoman Empire and be led by their own people. 

Such an idea did not just arise on its own within the Ottoman Empire. As previously stated, the millet system provided a framework for different nationalities to have rights and freedom within the Ottoman realm. With this type of contentment, average people were unlikely to rise up against their Ottoman governors. To provide the backbone for such revolutions, the major European powers of the day – Britain, France, and Russia – stepped in.

Revolts Against the Ottoman Government

European powers actively encouraged nationalities within the Ottoman empire to revolt throughout the 1800s. For example, the Greek revolution of 1821-1832 was strongly encouraged by other European powers, who sought to undermine and weaken the Ottomans. Not all Greeks were in favor of independence, in fact the Orthodox Patriarch, who was chosen by the Greeks in accordance with the millet system openly denounced the rebels in favor of unity with the Ottomans. However, the Greek revolutionaries were heavily aided by the British, who sent their navy (along with the Russians and the French) to battle the Ottomans on behalf of the Greeks. With the political and economic strains that the Ottomans were already facing at that time, they were unable to defeat this intervention by Europe and Greece was proclaimed independent of the Ottoman Empire.

With the successful nationalistic revolt of the Greeks, other minorities within the empire were encouraged to revolt. The Tanzimat reforms that were discussed in post 2 also helped to strengthen nationalist revolts. The Tanzimat encouraged all people within the Ottoman Empire to submit to a single code of laws, instead of allowing them the right to live according to their own ethnic/religious rules. Thus, more revolts ensued. The Serbians continued armed revolt against the Ottomans throughout the 1800s, and were strongly supported by the Russians. Armenians throughout Anatolia also revolted and were also supported by the Russians. Even fellow Muslims, the Bosniaks began to fight for independence, both because of nationalistic ideas and as protest against the un-Islamic reforms in the Tanzimat.

Turkish Nationalism

Perhaps the most bewildering forms of nationalism during the decline of the Ottoman Empire was the nationalistic ideas of the Turks and Arabs. Since 1517, the Turks and Arabs had been intimately linked within the Ottoman Empire. Their cultures and histories mixed, explaining the huge amount of loan words from each other in both languages today. Both had a very large role within the Ottoman Empire, and should have had every reason to see it succeed. However, the rising tide of European nationalism affected them as well.

In response to the revolts of the Greeks, Armenians, Serbians, and others, the Turkish leaders in the Ottoman Empire needed to find a way to counter the effects of such revolutions. While Sultan Abdülhamid II’s solution was pan-Islamic solidarity and an “Ottoman” identity instead of a nationalist identity in the empire, many others began to think of the Ottoman Empire as a purely Turkish state. They promoted the ideas that Turkish pride should be emphasized in the same way nationalist pride was prevalent throughout Europe. Turks began to promote themselves throughout government, and exclude others. This policy was promoted by the same group (the Young Turks) that promoted secularism and a movement away from Islam throughout the 1800s.

World War One and Arab Nationalism

As a reaction to the rise of Turkish nationalism, some Arab thinkers and political leaders began to formulate ideas of Arab nationalism. They looked back at the Abbasid and Umayyad days when Arabs were the leaders of the Muslim empire and hoped to create something similar. In their view, the Ottoman Turks had hampered the progress of the Arab world and held them back.

By the time World War One began in the summer of 1914, the Ottoman Empire was nothing but a shell of its former self. Its former lands in Europe were now gone as the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Bosnians were all either independent or under European control. All that was left was the predominantly Turkish lands of Anatolia and the Arab lands south of it, including present-day Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia.

Soldiers of the Arab Revolt. The (British designed) flag of the Arab Revolt went on to be the basis of modern nationalistic flags of many Arab countries.

In WWI, the Ottomans sided with the Germans and Austrians against Russia, France, and Britain. Due to Turkish nationalism, the army was almost entirely made up of Turks, with Arabs excluded. Because of this, the British saw an opportunity to further break apart the Ottoman state. The British offered the Arab governor of Makkah, Sherif Hussain, his own Arab kingdom if he sided with them and revolted against the Ottomans. The British sent the later (in)famous T.E. Lawrence (aka, Lawrence of Arabia) to Hussain to convince him to revolt, and provide him with huge amounts of money and weapons.

With British encouragment, a group of Arabs from the Hejaz (Western Arabian Peninsula, including Makkah and Madinah), revolted against their brothers in Islam and sided with the British. From 1914 to 1918, the Arabs harassed the Ottoman forces throughout the Arab world. Because of the Arab Revolt, the British were able to easily conquer Iraq, Palestine, and Syria from the Ottoman Empire. For the first time since 1187, the holy city of Jerusalem was under the control of Christian Europe, this time because of the help given to them by nationalistic Arabs.

Final Destruction of the Ottoman Empire

World War One did not go with for the Ottomans. Invaded by European powers and revolted against by the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire essentially ceased to exist by the time the war was over in 1918. An ultra-nationalist Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, took power in what was now known as Turkey, and declared it a purely Turkish state. Other nationalities were not welcomed in this new nation. In fact, huge population transfers occured between Greece and Turkey, with each expelling the other ethnic group from within its borders.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided up the Ottoman Empire among the British and the French.

In the Arab world, the British (of course) did not keep their promise to Sherif Hussain. They had simultaneously decided to divide up the Arab world between Britain and France. Arbitrary lines were drawn on the map to divide up the Arab world into new states called Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Zionist Jews were encouraged to settle in Palestine, creating a new Jewish state – Israel. Egypt continued under British domination to become its own nation, separate from the rest of the Arab world. What had once been the great Ottoman Empire was no more, it was replaced by numerous competing and disunited nationalistic states.


Like all empires throughout Islamic history and world history in general, the Ottomans did not last forever. They were the last great Muslim empire, finally ending just one generation ago. The reasons for their decline are many. Political corruption weakened them in the face of Europe’s rising power. Economically, many factors (both within and outside of Ottoman control) helped bring poverty and despair to the empire that was once the economic powerhouse of Europe. The Islamic character of the empire was lost. And finally, the European idea of nationalism dealt the empire its death-blow. The purpose of this series is not to languish on past failures and mistakes. It is to educate people, Muslim and non, to understand the mistakes of the past to help prevent the same mistakes in the future.


Hodgson, M. G. S. The Venture of Islam, Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Ochsenwald, William, and Sydney Fisher. The Middle East: A History. 6th. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.


Posted in Ottoman History | Tagged Egypt, Empire, Europe, History, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Jerusalem, Military, nationalism, Ottoman, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, WWI |


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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