The power of the provinces

THE SECOND HALF of the eighteenth century, from the succession of Sultan Osman III in 1754 to the end of the reign of his cousin Sultan Abdülhamid I in 1789, is one of the least-known periods in Ottoman history. Perhaps the most significant event of Osman’s short reign was the great fire of 5/6 July 1756, one of many during the eighteenth century. Beginning in the Cibali neighbourhood on the Golden Horn, it spread through the walled city of Istanbul and, according to the contemporary chronicler Şemdanizade Fındıklılı Süleyman Efendi, raged for 48 hours, reducing 130 theological colleges, 335 mills, 150 mosques, 77,400 dwellings, 34,200 shops and 36 bath-houses to ashes.1 The next Sultan, Osman’s cousin Mustafa, was, until shortly before he came to the throne in 1757, only the second surviving son of Sultan Ahmed III, and there was no reason to expect that he would succeed Osman. But in 1756 Mustafa’s brother Mehmed (then almost 40, and barely a few days his elder) was poisoned by Osman and it was only by the exercise of constant vigilance that Mustafa avoided the same fate. No prince had been murdered by a sultan for a century: one of Osman’s grand vezirs was dismissed for opposing the murder of Mehmed, another when the deed became public knowledge.2

There is a wealth of sources for the second half of the eighteenth century, but most of the Ottoman chronicles are still available only in manuscript, and the rich archival documentation is still largely unread and unevaluated. The life of the senior statesman Ahmed Resmi Efendi, however, provides a glimpse of contemporary shifts in the practice of governance.3 Ahmed Resmi served with distinction in various chancery posts, and as Sultan Mustafa’s envoy visited Maria Theresa’s Vienna in 1757–8 and Frederick the Great’s Berlin in 1763–4. His reports are wide-ranging and incisive – in the case of his first embassy, for example, he analyses the causes of the Seven Years’ War then raging in Europe as well as describing Vienna and the other cities he passed through on his journey. The Berlin embassy was prompted by the possibility of an Ottoman–Prussian alliance. Ahmed Resmi’s admiration of Frederick’s character shines through his account of their meeting:

Night and day he reads of the deeds and exploits of rulers of the past such as the great Alexander and Timur. He stays far from the troubles and frustrations of his family and does not get involved in matters of religion and creed. All his thoughts and deeds are confined to and expended in pushing back the frontiers of his domains and winning glory and fame.4

His implied criticism of recent Ottoman sultans is palpable, as is his dissatisfaction with the Ottoman military machine and his sympathy for the lot of the Prussian infantryman:

Frederick’s officers send the rank-and-file soldiers from castle to castle and from guard post to guard post night and day, and at certain times they drill within the city of Berlin or in its environs at special parade grounds. They are taught three hundred at a time to hold a musket, to load and discharge it, to walk close to one another like a wall, and never to break the pattern of their lines whether they are brave or frightened. Night and day the commanders oppress these soldiers, who have their muskets in hand, their bandoliers around their waist and everything precisely in its place; they are in a deplorable condition and treated worse than slaves, with only a crust of bread, sufficient to prevent death.5

The Ottomans had been at peace with their European neighbours since 1739. By the mid-1760s Austria was weakened, war-weary, wary of Frederick the Great, and without an ally prepared to back any Austrian adventure against the Ottomans in the Balkans.6 Peter the Great had bankrupted his country, and it was not until the indomitable Catherine II came to the throne in 1762 that Russia was again in a position to seize the initiative. When Ottomans and Russians next came to blows, their confrontation was of a quite different order from those that had gone before: Russia learned the lessons of past weaknesses, and had made military reforms which enabled its army to fight and to win in the steppelands north of the Black Sea. Ahmed Resmi Efendi was a participant in the first of the two great Ottoman–Russian wars of the second half of the eighteenth century, that of 1768–74, which with the war of 1787–92 paved the way for the antagonisms which underlay Ottoman–Russian relations during the nineteenth century.

At the root of Russia’s renewal of conflict with the Ottomans lay its policy vis-à-vis the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite fierce pressure from France, the Ottomans had doggedly resisted the many appeals from the Commonwealth for their support against Russia following the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade. Ahmed Resmi Efendi passed through Poland on his embassy to Berlin just at the time of the death of Augustus III in 1763, and in the following year, Catherine the Great of Russia secured the election of her former lover Stanislaw Poniatowski to the Polish throne. Prussia and Austria, while equally disturbed by Russian interference in Polish-Lithuanian affairs, preferred that someone else – the Ottomans – should find a military solution to the problem.7 Early in 1768, close to the Ottoman border in the town of Bar in the province of Podolia, formerly Ottoman Kameniçe, certain Polish nobles opposed to foreign (that is, Russian) interference in the Commonwealth formed a confederacy.8 It lacked both leadership and a clear programme – it was indeed as weak and disorganized as the movements of Imre Thököly or Francis II Rákóczi, those Transylvanian nobles of an earlier age who had appealed to the Ottomans for help against the Habsburgs – yet it played its part in provoking a war from which only Russia emerged stronger. The confederacy issued a strong appeal to the Sultan, and to France. Russia ignored a subsequent Ottoman ultimatum for the withdrawal of its troops from the Commonwealth and in October 1768 the Sultan declared war.

Russia’s intentions with regard to Poland were one Ottoman concern; another was the Crimea, where Russia had enjoyed some military success during the 1736–9 war and which it had not ceased to covet. In 1763 Russia persuaded the Khan to accept the establishment of a consulate in his capital of Bakhchisaray, but the consul lacked discretion, and when it became clear that St Petersburg was receiving information which could have come from no other source, he was expelled after only two years. As well as Prussia and Austria, it still suited France to encourage the Ottomans into war with Russia, and when in 1767 Baron de Tott, a Hungarian artillery officer serving in the French army who had lived in Istanbul between 1755 and 1763 before returning west, was sent by France to the Crimea as extraordinary consul, Catherine was immediately suspicious – there was no trade to speak of between France and the Crimea, and to her de Tott’s real intentions were all too evident.9 In the opinion of Ahmed Resmi Efendi, the Crimean Tatars were responsible for bringing Russia and the Ottomans to the point of war after so many years; he cited their constant forays into Russian territory as the reason why Russia did not respect peace treaties with the Ottomans.10

Russia’s strategy was carefully considered: at the outset of the war one Russian army marched across Right Bank Ukraine while another shadowed it further to the south.11 During the six years until the peace of 1774 the Ottomans suffered several disastrous defeats on the Danubian front at the hands of the Russians, most notably the siege and capture in 1769 of Khotin, south of Kamenets on the Dniester, and the field battle at Kagul, on the Prut, the following year.12

In 1770, for the first time and to the great consternation of the Ottomans, a Russian fleet made the long voyage from the Baltic port of Kronstadt via the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, to execute a daring foray into the Mediterranean and Aegean. The purpose of the Kronstadt fleet – which included a squadron under the command of the British naval officer Rear-Admiral Elphinston, who had recently entered Russian service – was to assist Russia’s Orthodox co-religionists in the Balkans to rise against the Ottomans. Localized revolts broke out in Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Albania, and another was instigated in the poorly-defended and long-neglected region of the Peloponnese. In this last case it was intended to disembark and combine with local leaders (and with Russian agents, who had been fomenting discontent for some years).13 By June the Ottoman grand admiral Hüsameddin Pasha was off the Peloponnese with his fleet, in preparation for what was intended to be a joint operation with the land forces of the military governor in the region, former grand vezir Muhsinzade (‘Son of the Benefactor’) Mehmed Pasha. When this failed to go according to plan, Hüsameddin Pasha withdrew to the safety of the Anatolian coast, north of the port of Çeşme, near İzmir, to where the Russian fleet pursued him, and battle was joined on 5 July. The Ottoman ships were forced to retreat into the Çeşme roadstead where they were confined by the Russians who two days later set them ablaze. Some 5,000 Ottoman sailors lost their lives; only the Grand Admiral’s ship escaped, and he was dismissed. The hero of the Çeşme disaster was one of his naval commanders, Cezayirli (‘Algerian’) Hasan Pasha, who was promoted to grand admiral after driving the Russian fleet from the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean, which it had captured and was intending to use as a base from which to blockade the Dardanelles.14 In the Peloponnese, meanwhile, the Muslim population took matters into their own hands; the disorder provoked by Muhsinzade Mehmed Pasha’s forces and those of provincial notables hastily summoned from Macedonia and Thessaly spelled doom for Russia’s plans.15 This, at least, was a welcome success for the Ottomans.

The shock of the Russian naval attack at Çeşme reminded the Ottomans that they neglected naval preparedness at their peril – they were also reminded of the role the distant north African provinces could have played in the defence of the empire when the heartland was threatened in such a manner. Diplomatic missions sent in 1787 at the outbreak of another phase of war with Russia to enlist the help of Morocco and Spain failed, however – Morocco had no ships available, while Spain saw no reason to help a traditional enemy.16

From 1769 until the end of the war Ahmed Resmi Efendi served at the front against Russia, mostly as second-in-command to the Grand Vezir, commander-in-chief of the army. The appointment of a senior bureaucrat like Ahmed Resmi to military command was unusual; with it, he became a pasha and a partner in strategic decision-making which aimed to salvage Ottoman honour from the crushing defeats the empire had suffered. The Ottomans rejected Russian peace overtures made in late 1770; in this, like another senior bureaucrat and chronicler of these years, Ahmed Vasıf Efendi (who was captured by the Russians on the Crimean front in 1771 and held as prisoner of war in St Petersburg), Ahmed Resmi found himself at odds with his government. From 1771 he served as deputy to Muhsinzade Mehmed Pasha, once again grand vezir, for whom he had the highest regard, and who, like him, saw clearly the great toll the war was taking on the empire. Both men were keen to settle on favourable terms as soon as possible.17

Following the destruction of the Ottoman fleet at Çeşme, Russia had remarkable success in another theatre of war. In 1771 a Russian army invaded Crimea, for so long a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, and through a devious blend of ‘carrot and stick’ tactics, in 1772 obtained the agreement of Sahib Giray Khan that the Crimea should henceforth be regarded as an independent state comprising the steppe between the Dniester and Boh rivers, and between the Dnieper and the Sea of Azov, the Crimean peninsula, and the Kuban steppe.18 Throughout the Crimea’s long history successive khans had played upon the depth of sentiment with which the Ottomans regarded this outpost on the front line with Russia, at the same time not hesitating to pursue their own direction in foreign policy when they saw fit.

In 1771 Austria and the Ottomans reached an agreement whereby the Ottomans would cede territory in return for Austria’s military assistance against Russia, but the next year, while Russia and the Ottomans were engaged in peace talks mediated by Austria and Prussia, Austria abandoned its alliance with the Ottomans, and in July 1772 joined Russia and Prussia in what is known as the first partition of Poland (there were to be two more, in 1793 and 1795). Sahib Giray’s treaty with Catherine was signed four months later, and the peace negotiations foundered on the ‘Crimean question’. Ahmed Resmi’s warning that the Ottoman state should settle for realistic borders was at first ignored by Istanbul, but an inconclusive season of warfare on the Danube in 1773, followed in 1774 by two disastrous battles at Suvorovo and Shumen, south of the Danube, forced the Ottomans back to the negotiating table.19 Sultan Mustafa had died in January 1774, not before expressing his apprehensions regarding the events of the time:

The world is in decay, do not think it will be right with us;

The state has declined into meanness and vulgarity,

Everyone at the court is concerned with pleasure;

Nothing remains for us but divine mercy.20

Mustafa was succeeded as sultan by his brother Abdülhamid. Ahmed Resmi, appointed to represent Ottoman interests at the peace negotiations of July 1774, found himself party to terms even more humiliating than those of Karlowitz in 1699, and his role as a signatory to the treaty known to the Ottomans as the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca – from the village of Kaynardza, 25 kilometres south-east of Silistra on the Danube, where it was signed – brought about his fall from grace.

Ahmed Resmi Efendi’s assessment of the Ottoman war effort against Russia in the confrontation of 1768–74, as revealed in his three reports, illustrates the contrast between the Ottoman and the Russian approach. Catherine’s war cabinets debated strategy in depth, studying previous campaigns in order to learn the lessons of past failure. At the outbreak of war in 1768, for instance, a three-year operational plan was discussed in St Petersburg, including four alternative schemes for the pursuit of the first year’s campaign, designed to deal with various possible Ottoman actions.21 The Ottoman approach was very different. Ahmed Resmi had first-hand experience of Istanbul’s failure to take the advice of front-line commanders, and of the way lack of co-ordination prolonged the war. Following the disastrous first season of campaigning he made trenchant criticisms of military operational procedures, later turning his attention to the wider context of Ottoman–Russian relations and arguing in favour of fixed borders between the two states, and peace perpetuated through the tools of diplomacy and negotiation. His third report, written in 1781, reasserted that peace was preferable to war, illustrating his theme with historical examples ranging from early Islamic times until the late war when the Ottomans had refused the peace proposal of Catherine’s general Peter Rumiantsev in 1771 while the Russians were in a far stronger position.22

In 1765 Rumiantsev had reiterated a number of strategic goals dear to those who favoured Russian expansionism, of which two are particularly significant: the incorporation of the Crimean khanate into the Russian state, and the extension of the Russian frontier to the Black Sea coast.23 Under the terms of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, they were all but achieved. The Khan of the Crimea had thrown off Ottoman suzerainty and the region was now under Russian influence, while three centuries of Ottoman control of the Black Sea ended with Russia in possession of Kinburun at the mouth of the river Dnieper, and of Kerch and Jenikale at the mouth of the Sea of Azov. Russia also acquired rights for its commercial shipping to sail freely in the Black Sea, with access to the Mediterranean, and was permitted to establish consulates in Ottoman territory, and a permanent embassy in Istanbul.24 For the first time ever, under the terms of a secret article, the Ottomans agreed to pay a war indemnity, spread over the next three years;25 their consolation was the return of Russia’s gains in the Danube region.

A contemporary Ottoman author from the Peloponnese recorded a dream he had when the Russian ambassador arrived at the Sultan’s court to arrange the details of the peace, and how he drew strength from it – mistakenly, as it turned out:

I was in Beyoğlu in my dream and it seemed that I saw vast pavilions built to receive the Russian ambassador; he was a man of some eighty years of age, judging from his grizzled appearance, and was sitting on a chair in a large, high pavilion, and the Sultan’s high officials were standing and serving the ambassador. However many instruments and games and amusements there are at court, all were in evidence and were played one by one, and bears and monkeys performed. After a little while the ambassador’s face assumed an inhuman aspect and was transformed into that of a great lion, of a red colour, darker than roof tiles, and in order to see roundabouts, he came to the edge of the pavilion, saying ‘When the ambassador’s face is as that of a lion, it indicates the power of Muscovy’ and when, crying as I dreamt, I saw this insult to the officials of the Sublime State, a man came up to me where I was, at the foot of a tree, saying ‘Don’t be troubled. This figure you see is not a real lion but rather one of cardboard, made from paper, and if some water were to be spilled on it, it would soften and be ruined’.26

The extent to which the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca would be implemented was always extremely doubtful, because of the inherent ambiguity of a number of its clauses and also as a consequence of Ottoman reluctance to accept the magnitude of what they had signed away. While the Sultan had abandoned any pretension to political influence in the Crimean lands, the treaty enshrined his spiritual authority over his erstwhile vassal subjects, recognizing him as the ‘Caliph of all Muslims’ – a title rarely used by the Ottoman sultans but one which, formalized in terms which fitted western rather than Islamic conceptions of religious authority, expressed the Sultan’s claim to pre-eminence among Muslim princes as realized by Selim I with his victory over the Mamluks in 1517. The degree to which the clauses of the treaty accorded Russia the similar privilege of spiritual authority over the sultan’s Orthodox subjects has always been a matter of interpretation and controversy. The view that the treaty gave Russia the right to intervene – more precisely, to make ‘representations’ – on behalf of all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire is open to question, since the notorious articles 7 and 14 of the treaty refer specifically to only one congregation, that of a Russian (‘Russo-Greek’ in the Italian and Ottoman texts, ‘Greco-Russian’ in the Russian version) Orthodox church in Beyoğlu, the main throughfare of the old Genoese suburb of Galata, in Istanbul – which was never built.27 The privilege of protecting a single congregation of their co-religionists in Beyoğlu had already been conceded to the Catholic powers of France and Austria, although not to Protestant England and Prussia, and the new Orthodox church was to be ‘protected’ on the same model.28

In addition to the proposed Russian church in Beyoğlu, the Ottomans were enjoined, under various articles of the treaty, not to oppress Christians in the Aegean Archipelago, the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, and western Georgia. Franz Thugut, the Austrian diplomat representing the Emperor’s interests in Istanbul at the time of the peace negotiations, characterized the clauses relating to Russian claims to protect all Ottoman Orthodox Christians as emblematic of ‘Russian skill’ and ‘Turkish imbecility’. But Thugut was guessing the contents of the treaty, and wrote these words before he had a chance to see it in its final form; responsibility for asserting that Russia had hoodwinked the Ottomans may be laid at the door of a historian writing at the height of the nationalist, anti-Ottoman fervour of the late nineteenth century who, concealing the circumstances of Thugut’s observation, cited him as his unimpeachable authority. Such an interpretation, with the implication that Russia did indeed win the right to intervene in the empire’s internal affairs in 1774, found favour in the post-Crimean War world of the second half of the nineteenth century, and has been repeated ever since.

The treaty did lend itself to misinterpretation, though: it was in three, inconsistent originals – in Russian, Ottoman and Italian – and it was a French translation of the Russian version of the treaty issued by Catherine’s government in 1775 that became the tool of European diplomacy.* This textual confusion, together with Catherine’s claims to be the protector of Ottoman Orthodox subjects, introduced further ambiguities in interpretation which favoured Russia. Thugut’s other, hysterical, assertion that Russia’s backing for the ‘schism’ of Orthodoxy would spell the imminent end of Catholicism in the Middle East was not uncommonly heard among his coreligionists as Russia extended its influence in the Balkans; but when Prince Metternich, Austrian foreign minister at the time of the Greek revolt against Ottoman rule in 1821, scrutinized the treaty he dismissed it as a basis for Russian right of protection over Ottoman Orthodox Christians.29 Whatever the letter of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, its subsequent interpretation was what mattered – and Russia proved all too adept at playing on every ambiguity and inconsistency.


The post-war years were a time of great instability in the Crimean lands as Russian-supported contenders for the khanate vied with those favoured by the Ottomans. In April 1777 Catherine’s candidate Şahin Giray, who had greatly impressed her with his good looks and Venetian education when he was in St Petersburg to arrange the independence treaty of 1772 on behalf of his brother Sahib Giray Khan, became khan. He tried to establish the military and administrative institutions required by a state no longer in thrall to an imperial master, but his apparent preference for the non-Muslim minorities of the Crimea as the vanguard of his intended modernization provoked an insurrection, and a Russian army was soon sent to his aid. This force was in no hurry to return home, especially since Şahin Giray had completely lost the support of his Muslim subjects; the Christians, for their part, feared Muslim reprisals should the Russians leave, and many of them were resettled in Russian territory. Encouraged by Tatar exiles in Istanbul, in 1778 the Sultan sent a fleet under the command of the north-central Anatolian notable Canikli Hacı Ali Pasha to unseat Şahin Giray, but it failed to achieve anything and, perforce, he recognized Şahin as khan.30

In 1779 the Russian army withdrew from the Crimea as it was obliged to do under the terms of an agreement with the Ottomans. Şahin Giray’s reforms continued falteringly, but his territorial ambitions in the region at the expense of the Ottomans, and his inability to impose his authority over even his rivalrous brothers, led to a revolt in the Kuban in 1782. Catherine again sent troops, but this time they did not leave – realizing that a stable and independent Crimea was impossible to achieve, she proclaimed the annexation of the khanate on 8 April 1783.31 Şahin Giray spent the next four years in Russian custody, planning how to escape his captivity for Istanbul. He petitioned both Sultan and Empress, but found himself merely a pawn in their political manoeuvrings. In 1787 Catherine permitted him to leave, and with the promise of an estate in Thrace – the customary prerogative of Crimean khans – he travelled to Edirne in the early summer. When Sultan Abdülhamid heard he was approaching the city, he saw the moment to take his revenge for Şahin Giray’s perfidy, and directed him to proceed instead to exile in Rhodes – and secretly ordered that ‘this infidel scoundrel, this trickster’ be executed with all haste. The former khan managed to stay alive for another two months, however: further edicts for his execution went astray, and the official guarding him on the voyage to Rhodes did not have the courage to kill him. Once on Rhodes he took refuge in the French consulate, but was eventually removed by force and the sentence of death carried out – an ignominious end to three hundred years of shared history of the Crimean khans and the Ottoman sultans.32

Thereafter began intensive Russian colonization and settlement of the steppe and the building of a Black Sea fleet based at Kherson, in the Dnieper estuary, only two and a half days’ sail from Istanbul. Empress Catherine had not been in a hurry to annex the Crimean lands: in 1770 the Russian state council issued a statement that ‘the Tatars could never become useful subjects of Her Imperial Majesty, and . . . would form a poor defence on the frontier against their co-religionists, the Turks’, and her opinion had altered little over the years. Even in 1778, the year of the second revolt against Şahin Giray, she seemed inclined to leave the Crimea independent – despite pressure from her advisers. But times had changed: her lover and favourite Gregory Potemkin is credited with persuading her to annex the khanate in 1783, justifying the action on the grounds that Russia had not received its due in the Küçük Kaynarca settlement.33

The loss of the Crimean lands was a blow to the Ottomans of a magnitude that would in earlier times have led to an immediate declaration of war. That this did not happen was an acknowledgement of their weakened military position, the emptiness of the treasury, and the ascendancy of statesmen who advocated peace at all costs. Conflicting points of view inside the ruling establishment – whether to seek reconquest, or to accept the loss with equanimity in the interests of the wider welfare of the state – reflected the painful process of adjusting to a world in which the ideology of the ‘ever-expanding frontier’ no longer served Ottoman interests. Violations of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca and its codicils occurred on both sides, but Ahmed Resmi Efendi found another champion of his pacifist stance in Grand Vezir Halil Hamid Pasha, who served from 1782 to 1785, and ordered improvements to the northern defences of the empire but at the same time argued for resigned acceptance of the loss of the Crimea.34 In 1784 Russia pressured Sultan Abdülhamid to sign an acknowledgement of Ottoman acquiescence to the new situation – a deed that would have been widely unpopular had it become known; it was signed secretly, and not only by the Sultan, his vezirs and senior clerics but also, at Russia’s behest, by the heir-apparent, his nephew Selim (later Selim III).35

Halil Hamid Pasha lost his position (and his head) when implicated by his rivals at court in a plot to depose Sultan Abdülhamid I in favour of Selim. Of Halil Hamid’s closest associates, the then governor of the Peloponnese and a former janissary commander-in-chief were also executed, and the Sheikhulislam was exiled. Influence now rested with the clique around the long-serving Grand Admiral. Cezayirli Hasan Pasha was in the process of undertaking naval reforms the counterpart of those Halil Hamid had proposed for the land army, but their relationship was not close and their common interests did not extend to the deposition of the Sultan.36

It has long been open to debate whether Catherine the Great or any of her statesmen seriously envisaged the partition of the Ottoman Empire. Russia and Austria had already each seized part of Poland, and it was widely believed that the secret agreement reached between Catherine and Joseph II of Austria tended to further Catherine’s so-called ‘Greek project’, a re-establishment of the Byzantine Empire centred on ‘Constantinople’. A potent symbol of this dream was the use of an image of Hagia Sophia on a medal struck to mark the birth of her grandson Constantine Pavlovich in 1779.37 Rumours of Russia’s intentions had reached Istanbul in 1782,38 and gained added credibility when in the spring of 1787 Catherine met Joseph II outside Kherson where Empress and Emperor entered the city through a triumphal arch bearing in Greek the legend, ‘The Way to Byzantium’. Whether or not Catherine was really committed to the ‘Greek project’, Sultan Abdülhamid took it seriously and feared that Russia’s next step would be the seizure of Anatolia; he took steps to strengthen the North Anatolian coastal fortresses of Sinop and Samsun,39 and to protect Istanbul from possible attack built two new forts on the upper Bosporus in addition to the five already constructed after 1774.40

For three years from 1786 responsibility for decision-making was in the hands of the hawkish grand vezir Koca Yusuf Pasha. All avenues for resolving the dispute with Russia by diplomacy had been exhausted by the time of Catherine’s royal progress through her new province in the Crimea, and her subsequent demand for Ottoman withdrawal from Georgia met with insistence on recognition of eastern Georgia as an Ottoman vassal, on the right to search Russian ships in the Black Sea, on the closure of some sensitive Russian consulates (in Jassy, Bucharest and Alexandria) and, most critically, on the return of the Crimea. This last, in particular, Catherine could not concede.41 In August 1787 the Ottomans declared war.

While Ottoman opinion had undoubtedly considered the loss of the Crimea a disaster, the prospect of war was unpopular, and for the first time the people of Istanbul were prompted to express their opposition by means of posters, stuck up on public buildings – such as the palace – or distributed in the mosques. One broadside left at the Admiral’s Fountain near the home-base of the fleet in the Karaköy quarter opened with the following words:

Sultan Abdülhamid, we have just about run out of patience. You have not yet realized the error of your ways. You have seen that Yusuf Pasha [who was a Georgian by birth, and a convert] is unable to perform his service properly. Why have you let yourself be deceived by his words and turned the empire over to the infidel?

The Sheikhulislam and the Grand Vezir’s proxy were also charged with not being true Muslims, and the diatribe continued:

You should immediately venture out in public in disguise and mingle with your subjects to get a sense of the public mood and initiate negotiations for peace. Recall the standards from the battlefield and bring the troops home – or, by God, you will later regret it. Yusuf Pasha cannot do his job, and you will suffer the negative consequences. You have made a fool of yourself. Court chamberlains [Yusuf Pasha had served as a court chamberlain] are not up to the task of carrying out the business of the empire.

Like many sultans Abdülhamid was indeed in the habit of going around the city incognito, and he was able to see the posters for himself. His first reaction was to blame ‘infidels’ in general for the poster, but there was also suspicion that the grand admiral Cezayirli Hasan Pasha might be behind it.42

Ahmed Resmi Efendi’s perception that the Crimean Tatars were responsible for precipitating the war of 1768–74 may be open to dispute, but the Crimea was certainly the casus belli in 1787. The timing of the war was awkward for both Austria (which declared war early in 1788) and Russia – Joseph was apprehensive of Russian aims but preoccupied both by Prussia and by domestic unrest resulting from his administrative reforms,43 while in 1788 Catherine had to deal with an attack on her Swedish border – but the Ottomans had taken on foes who could combine to engage their forces from Dalmatia to the Caucasus. Campaigning against Russia in late 1787 and 1788 centred on the Ottoman fortress of Ochakiv and nearby Russian Kinburun, at the mouth of the Dnieper, the scene of much fierce fighting in 1736–9. Sweden’s war effort was too feeble to engage Russia for long; Russian troops on the Black Sea were reinforced and Ochakiv fell after a siege. On the Austrian front, Koca Yusuf Pasha crossed the Danube into Hungary but winter prevented consolidation of this promising advance, and the Austrians occupied Khotin.

Soon after the outbreak of war the Sultan ordered that new coinage be marked ‘Struck in Istanbul’, rather than ‘Struck in Constantinople’ – perhaps in response to Catherine’s numismatic challenge – and also that imperial decrees should henceforth refer to the Ottoman capital by this name. *44The bellicosity displayed by Koca Yusuf Pasha and Sultan Abdülhamid – who was even accorded the epithet to which all sultans aspired, that of ‘Warrior for the Faith’45 – was out of touch with the mood of the times: both the people of Istanbul and other senior statesmen viewed peace as essential for the well-being of the state. Catherine, however, was also war-minded: even before the fall of Ochakiv, she refused to consider the mediation offered by the Triple Alliance of Britain, Prussia and the United Provinces in August 1788.46

Sultan Abdülhamid died in the spring of 1789 and was succeeded by his nephew Selim, the 28-year-old son of Mustafa III. Selim’s first priority was to achieve a victorious conclusion to the war. Despite the reappraisal of tried and tested Ottoman practices then favoured in government circles he resorted to the traditional method of retaining the commitment of his troops by paying them generously, and also – perhaps in emulation of Emperor Joseph II’s brief assumption of command of the Habsburg army47 – gave some thought to a proposal that he should lead his forces himself. Determined to avenge the humiliations suffered by the Ottoman state, his aim was nothing less than the return of the Crimean lands – a dream that was to haunt the Ottomans for another century. Coming to the throne at such a critical time, Selim, well aware of the need to secure the loyalty of leading statesmen, initially kept Koca Yusuf as grand vezir and appointed as sheikhulislam a man who was less than competent but widely favoured by the clerical establishment.

Sultan Selim did not after all lead his army in battle. It was an idea put forward by the Grand Vezir’s proxy, and in a letter to him Selim made very plain his irritation at the way it had been seized upon as though he had committed himself to such a course of action:

When we discussed the matter earlier, you told me it was my duty to go on campaign and I said I would go – but it was not my idea initially: the idea was yours, and you had an imperial decree written, and it is because of this that the matter is now on the tongues of all the world. The Swedish ambassador expressed his pleasure at the decree. I will not be seen as a teller of untruths and a habitual liar by such European powers, and by the military corps and the public. You know what happens to a lying sultan. It is clear to me that your conduct has hindered and obstructed my going on campaign. But because the padişah cannot go with only scant supplies it is necessary to get ready immediately – yet you have made no preparations. It befits monarchs to keep their word: whether it is war or peace I will certainly move to Edirne or further in the spring. I will not be scorned by the ignorant. If you create an impediment to my going, and prevent me doing so, and thereby disgrace me in front of the whole world and in Europe, you should know that I swear I will disgrace all of you who were at the meeting where the matter was discussed.48

The campaign of 1789 was a disaster for the Ottomans. Although he left high-ranking military commanders like the Grand Vezir in place, the disruption caused by Selim’s succession was enough to undermine what little momentum had been achieved by a campaigning army already short of money and provisions. The Austrians advanced into Bosnia and Serbia and, after a fifty-year interval, retook Belgrade. Russia occupied Wallachia, restored to Ottoman suzerainty in 1774 but increasingly unreliable since. That winter the Sultan rejected an offer of peace. Russia’s wider strategic interests were drawing its attention westwards: it needed peace to attend to the war with Sweden (with whom Selim had agreed an alliance shortly after his accession49), and to make the most of the opportunity to profit from the distraction of its neighbours that the revolution in France seemed to offer.

Possession of Belgrade allowed Austria’s army to move south-east through the Balkans to Niš as it had exactly a century earlier: it was expected in Istanbul that it might get as far as Sofia. In Prussia the Ottomans found an ally eager to take the place so long held by France. Prussia had courted the Ottomans for half a century, ever since Frederick the Great’s accession in 1740, and a treaty of trade and friendship between the two powers had been signed in 1761, but it was only in 1790 that a full alliance was realized.50 Its achievement further disinclined the Sultan to consider peace, and set him at odds with his recently-appointed grand vezir, Cezayirli Hasan Pasha, trusted but aged, and still such a convinced pacifist that he boldly defied the Sultan and initiated peace negotiations on his own authority.

In 1790, the Russians were disappointed in their plans for an attack across the Danube in co-ordination with the Austrian army, but managed nevertheless to occupy the main Ottoman fortresses of the lower Danube.51 That same year the Ottomans negotiated with Poland a mutual defence pact in the event of attack by Russia, but it was never ratified.52 On the death of Emperor Joseph II and accession of Leopold II, also in 1790, Austria settled its differences with Prussia,53 and in the face of more pressing concerns Prussia unilaterally set aside the treaty of alliance on which the Ottomans had pinned their hopes of a chance to recover the Crimea. In the same year Russia responded favourably to Cezayirli Hasan Pasha’s overtures for peace, offering rather attractive terms for a disengagement, but Sultan Selim rejected them – he was counting on Prussia’s promise to intervene against Austria, unaware of the deal his new ally was doing with Austria for its own purposes. This was doubly unfortunate, since later in the same year Russia agreed peace with Sweden, which thereby also broke its treaty with the Ottomans.54 On the plus side the change of Habsburg policy led in 1791 to an Austrian–Ottoman peace agreement, the Treaty of Sistovi, whereby Austria returned the Ottoman territories it had won, including Belgrade.55 The web of international diplomacy was seldom more tangled than at this period. Russia had by now replaced Habsburg Austria as the Ottomans’ main adversary, and in 1791 consolidated the progress made in the Danube region the previous year.

To the east, in the Caucasus, Russia was fast encroaching in a region of petty principalities over which Iran had traditionally struggled with the Ottomans for influence and control. Ottoman hopes of mobilizing the tribes of the Kuban under the leadership of the exiled Tatar khans for the purpose of retaking the Crimean lands were dashed as the logistical problems were found to be insurmountable and local tribes proved unwilling to identify with Ottoman aims in the region. Nor were the chiefs of the southern Caucasus of much assistance.56 The Ottomans, like the Russians when they sought compliance from the peoples of their eastern and southern frontiers, found that the opportunistic support of populations whose strategic interests and priorities differed markedly from their own could only – if then – be won by means of lavish gifts and inducements.

For the 1789 campaigning season the Ottomans had mobilized troops and requisitioned provisions from north Anatolia to counter Russian advance on the Ottoman fortress of Anapa, on the north-eastern Black Sea coast east of the outlet of the Sea of Azov; battle-lines hardened as the Russians fortified and garrisoned a defensive line on the river Kuban. A Russian attack on Anapa left the Ottomans little choice but to buy the essential participation in the defence of the region of Battal (‘Clumsy’) Hüseyin Pasha, son of the Anatolian notable Canikli Hacı Ali Pasha, by conferring on him the province of Trabzon. Battal Hüseyin’s avowed aim was nothing less than to drive the Russians from the Caucasus and retake the Crimean lands, but his ambition was confounded when his army was pursued by the Russians south from the Kuban to the Black Sea coast in the autumn of 1790; the Caucasian peoples who had been fighting with him were abandoned as he surrendered, and he and his son Tayyar (‘Mercurial’) Mahmud Bey spent nine years as prisoners of the Russians. A new commander from the Canikli household was appointed to the Caucasian front; the Russians besieged Anapa in July 1791, occupying it within two weeks, and the commander was executed for this loss – he had not even left Trabzon.57

The Ottomans were ready for peace. The Treaty of Jassy in January 1792 reinforced and compounded Ottoman losses suffered by the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, by fixing the borders between the Ottoman and Russian empires on the Dniester in the west and the Kuban in the east. Anapa was restored to the Ottomans, but they were to be held responsible for the good behaviour of the peoples living south of the Kuban, and required to pay an indemnity if these should raid across the river and cause any damage to life or property on the Russian side of the border. Like the Cossacks, however, the Caucasian peoples did not consider themselves bound by this treaty and their nominal suzerain had to make good the losses incurred by their raids; this clause was activated in 1798, for instance, and the Ottoman treasury required to pay.58

Anapa was repaired and strongly fortified, but the reconquest of the Crimea began to seem less pressing after 1792, as did the assertion of Ottoman influence in the Caucasus – until Iran began to demonstrate renewed interest in the region as Agha Muhammad Khan of the Qajar dynasty embarked in 1795 on a campaign to reconquer former Safavid territories between the Aras and Kura rivers. Although eastern Georgia had been a Russian protectorate since 1783 and a mutual defence pact against Iran and the Ottomans was still theoretically in force, Russia was slow to react to requests for assistance against Agha Muhammad from one of the Georgian rulers.59 Indeed, after Catherine the Great’s death on 6 November 1796 her successor Tsar Paul I almost immediately made peace with Iran.60

Agha Muhammad Khan’s incursions into the Caucasus called for an Ottoman response, too: Azerbaijan and Dagestan, both bordering the Caspian Sea, were in the Ottoman sphere of influence, and the Caucasian rulers appealed to Istanbul for help against the Qajars, whom they characterized as Kızılbaş. This was at first refused, but when Agha Muhammad Khan sacked Tbilisi in September 1795 the governor of Erzurum was appointed to command the Caucasian front. Sultan Selim’s initial reluctance to help his Caucasian flock demonstrated inconsistency, at the least, in view of the fact that only a few years earlier his predecessor, Abdülhamid, had considered seeking financial assistance from another group of Muslim states – those in North Africa – whose loyalty to and expectations of the Ottoman sultan were strengthened as a result of Abdülhamid’s adoption of the title of caliph in 1774.61

War, as ever, spelled ruin for the finances of the Ottoman Empire. A decline in trade from the 1760s left the treasury barely able to pay for the hostilities of late-century. As the frontiers of the empire shrank the Ottomans lost not only territory but centres of production and markets to Russia, and matters were only exacerbated by incidental factors such as the indemnity paid by the Ottomans to Russia following the 1768–74 war (which was equivalent to perhaps half of the annual cash receipts of the treasury)62 and the epidemics which were a concomitant of war. As a final blow to the economy, trade with the Ottoman Empire’s main commercial partner also collapsed as the wars in which revolutionary France was involved began to take their toll.63

With much tax-gathering in the hands of life-term tax-farmers, the central treasury was so short of funds that the state was barely able to fulfil some of its essential tasks, in particular the raising of troops for war, and by the last decades of the century it had become more dependent than ever before on the provincial grandees – some of whom were the selfsame tax-farmers – who alone had the resources to bear the financial burden of military campaigns.64 During the 1768–74 war provincial governors and grandees bore much of the responsibility for provisioning the army – and profited from it through their control of the market. During this war, Grand Vezir and Commander-in-Chief Muhsinzade Mehmed Pasha was deeply involved in tortuous negotiations with the provincial notables of the Balkans and Anatolia concerning the raising of local troops from the areas over which they had authority.65 In gradually devolving one of its basic functions, the defence of the realm, into the hands of newly-wealthy and newly-powerful provincial magnates, the state made it easy for them to act in their own interests and ignore government writ when it suited them to do so. The need to mobilize resources for war – the ‘management of warfare’ – was perhaps now, more than ever, one of the most important catalysts of change in the Ottoman Empire.

Traditional solutions, too, were employed in the effort to cope with the financial crisis – increasing taxes, debasing the coinage, melting down valuable objects, and confiscating the estates of disgraced, high-ranking officials, a practice greatly extended from the 1780s to include those of other wealthy individuals, on the thinnest of pretexts.66 In 1775, the year after the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, a system of public borrowing designed to draw those of lesser means into the financial market was adopted, but the system was subject to frequent modification as the treasury struggled to meet the interest payments.67

In 1784, matters having apparently reached the point where the wealthy of the Ottoman Empire were either unwilling or unable to finance the state any longer, the government discussed for the first time the possibility of borrowing from abroad. European states had long been in the habit of meeting any shortfall in their domestic budget by borrowing from international moneylenders or banking houses, but the Ottomans had always hitherto relied on inventive ways of squeezing internal sources of revenue. They had no institutions able to guarantee any loan raised in this novel way, and it was proposed instead that between five and ten thousand individuals should stand surety for the money, which would be paid back in instalments. France, the Dutch and Spain were considered as possible sources of funds, but Morocco appeared to offer the most attractive prospect. Morocco had recently sent an ambassador to Istanbul and he – as a gambit to win Ottoman friendship – had hinted at financial assistance, a vague promise that gave rise in some quarters to the opinion, gratifying to those who held that a loan should be sought only from a Muslim country, that Morocco was in a position to lend to the Ottomans.68

Discussions about the possibility of raising a foreign loan went no further at this time, but after 1787, when the Ottomans were again at war with Russia, the need for money once more became acute – and not only for their own campaigns: desperate as the financial situation was, the Ottomans promised Sweden a hefty subsidy if she would attack Russia’s western front (the Swedish–Russian peace of 1790 subsequently relieved it of this obligation).69 Realizing that after all nothing was to be expected from Morocco, the government turned to Algiers and Tunis. It was hoped that describing the loan as ‘aid for holy war’ would make it attractive to their co-religionists, but such was not the case. The Sheikhulislam gave a juridical opinion that the gravity of the crisis legitimized negotiations with a non-Muslim state, and overtures were made to the United Provinces; the Dutch ambassador, however, said it would be more appropriate for the Ottomans to seek a private loan, from a merchant rather than from the government.70 In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the approach to the United Provinces failed, as did another to Spain.71

During his childhood and early adolescence, while his father Mustafa III was still alive, Selim’s life had been comparatively unrestricted, and he carried with him into adulthood a more open habit of mind than did most princes of the preceding two centuries, who had lived entirely within the palace, sometimes for decades before their accession. Until deprived of his freedom on Sultan Abdülhamid’s accession, the young prince had attended meetings of the imperial council and at a time when the necessity for military reform was beginning to preoccupy Ottoman statesmen in earnest, had reviewed his father’s troops. Although further confined following the discovery of the plot to depose Abdülhamid in 1785, Selim managed to maintain his links with the outside world, and these helped him recognize that change was inevitable, and would be better actively introduced than faced with resignation or resistance. From the time of the first Ottoman–Russian war until his accession Selim corresponded intermittently with Louis XVI concerning military reform; he made plain his admiration for France as a model state, but blamed the French for pushing the Ottomans into war in 1768 and then failing to support them, and, barely concealing his desire to take revenge on Russia, wrote of his hope for Louis’s help in regaining the territory lost since that time.

Coming to the throne in the middle of a debilitating war, Sultan Selim III dealt with his army in the customary way by paying the accession donative, but only a month later he summoned some two hundred high-ranking state officials – military men, bureaucrats and clerics – to a consultative assembly to discuss the future of his crumbling empire. In addressing itself to the very survival of the empire, rather than to any one specific issue, Selim’s initiative was something new in the process of government. Following the peace agreed at Jassy in 1792 he reviewed the reports on the state of the empire commissioned from his statesmen, of which more than twenty survive, mainly concerning measures to improve the performance of the Ottoman army in its struggle with Europe – and with Russia in particular. Traditional values, the essayists acknowledged, must be adapted so that the Ottomans could take advantage of modern methods and technology. Similar views put forward in previous years by Ahmed Resmi Efendi (among others) had paved the way: now the debate had been widened and his successors were able to make their contributions in a more receptive climate. Statesmen and bureaucrats had always offered their views to the sultan, but now they were actively sought – as was a wider range of opinions than had customarily been the case. Among Sultan Selim’s most influential advisers were the leading cleric Tatarcık (‘Little Tatar’) Abdullah Efendi and Ebubekir Ratib Efendi, ambassador to Vienna in 1792 and later chancellor, whose reports dealt with many areas of Ottoman governance apart from the purely military.

There was a conservative strain in the recommendations for a return to the ways of old, before basic and uniquely Ottoman institutions – primarily the janissaries – became, as the statesmen saw it, fatally corrupted; but parallel to these recommendations went proposals for the creation of new military corps or the upgrading of those already established during the course of the century. The reports illustrate a conscious acceptance in ruling circles of the need to borrow from the infidel the things which made him strong, combined with a recognition that this must be done within the familiar idiom of Ottoman Islam.72

Military reform came at a time when Russian might had sent shock-waves through the Ottoman establishment. Western assistance came particularly from the French, and the figure most closely identified with it in retrospect was Baron de Tott. After his removal from his post as extraordinary consul in the Crimea in 1767, he was summoned to serve Sultan Mustafa III following the defeat of the Ottoman navy by the Russian fleet at Çeşme in 1770. Under what amounted to a programme of French technical assistance, he organized activities which ranged from refortifying the Dardanelles against possible Russian naval attack on Istanbul, to advising on the setting-up of various military professional schools and a rapid-fire artillery regiment. Such was de Tott’s talent for self-promotion, and so popular did the memoirs he wrote after he left Istanbul become, that attention has always been focused on the reforms which took place under foreign guidance, to the neglect of those initiated by the Ottomans themselves, particularly those affecting provincial rather than central troops.73

One such was Sultan Abdülhamid I’s abolition of the locally-mustered levend irregulars who formed a parallel infantry to the janissaries numbering between 100,000 and 150,000 men – who had failed to distinguish themselves in the 1768–74 war.74 Ahmed Resmi Efendi saw them in action in 1769 and was particularly scathing about them, characterizing them as an uncontrollable rabble who would better have stayed at home.75 The term levend had pejorative connotations dating back at least two centuries, having originally been one of the labels applied to the disbanded irregulars who had been responsible for so much unrest in Anatolia in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. * As other sultans had before him Abdülhamid issued a ban on the use of the term levend – in 1775, following the end of the war – a symbolic measure aimed at marking a new beginning.76

Under Selim the sultan’s regiments were also the focus of attention. Ever since mid-century when Frederick the Great of Prussia’s reforms had set a standard to be emulated, the problem of achieving a disciplined and highly-trained army had exercised every European monarch, and Selim and his statesmen hoped to reorganize the janissaries and the other corps of the sultan’s regiments and also to create an entirely new body of troops funded by its own treasury. This experiment in military modernization was aimed at moulding a disciplined, professional force with greatly improved firepower and training.

In earlier times the janissaries were recruited from Christian-born youths who converted to Islam and underwent training for service in this most elite of the sultan’s military corps, but over the centuries this ‘purity’ was gradually vitiated and the youth-levy abandoned; instead, Muslim-born men were recruited into the corps, and it became more of a militia than a force confined to its barracks when not on active duty, and training and discipline suffered accordingly. The numbers had swollen over the years and included many ‘paper janissaries’, individuals long dead or deserted, or who had never actually been part of the fighting forces. The chronicler Şemdanizade Fındıklılı Süleyman Efendi, employed to muster troops for the 1768–74 war, remarked that anyone who claimed to be a janissary was accepted as such.77 The sale of warrants had been permitted since the reign of Mahmud I, and control over the rolls of enlisted men had slackened to the point where there was a thriving market in these documents proving an individual’s status as a member of the corps, and thus entitling him to salary and benefits and the tax-free status enjoyed by the military. Abuse of the system reached the highest levels: following the dismissal in 1779 of a grand vezir promoted to this post from janissary commander-in-chief, his confiscated estate included warrants worth a sum equivalent to the daily pay of some 1,600 janissaries. In 1782–5 Grand Vezir Halil Hamid encountered violent opposition when he tried to streamline the corps by ascertaining the numbers of men actually serving and by forbidding the sale of warrants.78

Like the traditional janissary forces, Selim’s ‘New Order’ army was to be forged from raw recruits – all Muslim-born, now, not Christian – who were to receive specialized training to equip them for service in the modern army which he envisaged. Before men could be recruited, however, funds had to be assigned for their support, and a new treasury was set up for the purpose by a decree of 1 March 1793, and the first troops recruited from the unemployed youth of Istanbul. Only on 18 September 1794 did Selim publicly proclaim the regulations for his ‘New Order’ army. * From then on men were recruited from Anatolia, and within six years 90 per cent of the men in the ‘New Order’ army were peasants or tribesmen from this region. They had the full complement of regulations and markers of difference from other units and from what had gone before – barracks, uniforms and the like – but of course they had no traditions at all to compare with the proud history of the janissaries, and unsurprisingly the janissaries refused to serve with them. It was no new thing for the janissaries to refuse to accommodate previously untapped sources of manpower in the cause of military reform – in 1622 Osman II had been murdered because they feared he was plotting to create a parallel army. Nor was it always their military shortcomings that prompted moves to reform or augment the janissaries: during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid I the creation of an alternative force came under consideration when it was thought that the janissaries were responsible for starting the fires which so often blighted Istanbul, rather than acting as agents of civil law and order,79 the peace-time role expected of them before the establishment of independent fire and police forces in the nineteenth century. A contemporary source tells us that Abdülhamid would go in disguise to the site of the many fires which broke out in Istanbul during his reign, often spending the night in houses close by to observe their progress, and rewarding those fighting the fire.80

Sultan Selim and his advisers were well aware that the strength of entrenched interests would make any thoroughgoing overhaul of the janissary corps impossible. Tatarcık Abdullah Efendi cannily couched his reform proposals in terms of an appeal to the honour of the corps in its glorious heyday under Sultan Süleyman I81 – long before it had become an anachronism in European warfare and a threat to public order at home – but his ambitious plans were of necessity scaled down. The only possible solution, it seemed, was to leave the organization of the janissaries untouched, and to train them in the use of more modern European-style rifles – but they rioted whenever they were required to drill and their numbers continued to swell.

The ‘New Order’ army, by contrast, seemed destined for success, and 500 of its number, in action for the first time, took part in the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army at Acre in Syria in 1799. In Anatolia in 1802 a form of conscription was introduced whereby provincial officials and notables had to provide a certain number of men for training in the ‘New Order’ army, and in 1805 recruitment was extended to the Balkans where recruiting agents encountered fierce resistance. By 1806 it comprised more than 22,500 men and 1,500 officers, quartered in Istanbul, Anatolia and the Balkans.

Naval reform was equally slow and fraught with problems. In 1784 a Frenchman named M. Bonneval – not to be confused with the Bonneval who became Humbaracı Ahmed Pasha earlier in the century – wrote a scathing report on the navy that reserved its only kind words for Cezayirli Hasan Pasha’s efforts to improve the fleet’s performance (which included meeting many of the expenses from his own pocket). Bonneval noted, inter alia, that captains were poorly trained and unmotivated, and that disorder aboard ship and the bad state of repair of both vessels and essential equipment inhibited seaworthiness. The fiasco at Çeşme in 1770 and the certainty that a campaign to retake the Crimea would require a much improved Black Sea fleet prompted Sultan Abdülhamid to urge haste in preparations to take on the Russians once war became inevitable after the loss of the Crimea. In the mid-1780s galleons, brigantines and sloops were built, and a warship was bought from Sweden and a ‘copper-bottomed’ vessel from England, and when the fleet set sail to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean on 23 April 1788, it comprised 28 ships manned by 263 officers and about 12,500 men.82 But it arrived too late to enable the existing forces in the area to reduce Kinburun where there was heavy fighting soon after the outbreak of the war, and Russian retention of this highly strategic outpost prevented the fleet from playing a decisive part in the defence of Ochakiv, merely delaying its surrender by some weeks at the cost of 15 ships.83 The Ottoman government heeded this lesson and between 1789 and 1798 45 large, modern warships came into service, but new ships were only part of the answer: as with the army, manpower was the besetting problem. The poor quality of the captains noted by Bonneval was addressed by a new system of officer training and the establishment of professional schools where education in naval architecture went hand-in-hand with instruction in the principles of navigation.84

Sultan Selim was a man of feeling and spiritual depth as well as a modernizer: in the years before his accession he wrote music and poetry which reflected his pessimism about the state of the empire, and he derived spiritual comfort from his attachment to the Mevlevi order of dervishes. As sultan, like others before him, he was swift to place his chosen spiritual mentor in a position of influence over the ruling circle as well as the wider population. In the mystical poet Sheikh Galib he had a supporter and propagator of his reforming ideals; in 1791 Galib was appointed sheikh of the Mevlevi lodge in Galata, and Selim became a frequent visitor. He enhanced the visibility and influence of the order, supporting Mevlevi activities across the empire and repairing the tomb of the order’s thirteenth-century founder, Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, in Konya in central Anatolia. Sheikh Galib, for his part, wrote many poems to commemorate the Sultan’s efforts to introduce military reform.85 Just as Tatarcık Abdullah Efendi referred back to the janissary traditions of Süleyman I’s time, so Sheikh Galib sought to make the proposed reforms seem less threatening with vocabulary which employed the familiar concepts of the Ottoman past. A poem beginning:

His Highness Han Selim who fashions perfect justice in his age,

Has brought prosperity anew to flourish in our faith and state;

Illumined by inspiration divine, his comprehending heart

Creates original conceits of rhyme and reason for the state.

His effort and his thought are all to restore order to the world,

He reckons requisites like war like invocations of God’s name;

He registers the army’s needs with gold and silver freely spent,

Divine favour bestows upon his many works success and fame

concluded with a verse describing the barracks newly built for the bombardier corps that it commemorates. Doubtless Selim also saw his Mevlevi propagandist as a counterweight to the Bektaşi order of dervishes associated with the janissaries,86 and certainly their influence was undermined as that of the Mevlevi grew. The Sultan did not rely on Mevlevi backing alone, however, but was careful to invoke the principles of Islamic law for his reforms as another tactic in playing down their departure from past practices.87

The new order envisioned by Sultan Selim was built upon a revised perception of the Ottoman place in the world and involved more than a modernization of the empire’s naval and military capabilities. In 1699 the Treaty of Karlowitz had forced the Ottomans to abandon their expectation that the physical limits of the empire could be expanded indefinitely: the reality of the significant territorial losses suffered at that time forced them to seek a new raison d’être for the empire more in keeping with the times. One symbol of the Ottomans’ appreciation of their new place in the European order was their acceptance of third-party mediation in peace negotiations. The wars with Russia between 1768 and 1792 dealt the Ottoman state an even greater blow than its conflict with Habsburg Austria at the end of the seventeenth century, forcing a further revision of its diplomatic relations with the outside world and acceptance by Ottoman statesmen of the necessity to adhere to mutual agreements and treaty obligations in a spirit of reciprocity – as they perceived their European peers to do.

Traditionally, Ottoman sultans had seen themselves as graciously conferring peace on a supplicant adversary, but a period during which the empire was always on the defensive exposed this for the fiction it was. Traditionally, too, peace had been predicated on the principle of ‘terminable coexistence’, a temporary condition the sultan was at liberty to end when he saw fit.88 The concept of reciprocity in European diplomacy had been aptly expressed by the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Although the arrangements did not work perfectly – and have been characterized by a modern historian as less a harmony of interests than a ‘collision of [states’] greed and fear’ – the various settlements the treaty comprised recognized the sovereignty and independence of the individual states that made up the Holy Roman Empire, and the framework within which the competing claims of these states were to be regulated and stabilized was a tacit recognition of a shifting balance of power. The first occasion on which the term ‘balance of power’ actually appeared in a treaty was in the Treaty of Utrecht which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713.89 Almost a century later Selim III, seeking to establish his relations with the European powers on a predictable basis, embraced the concepts according to which they had regulated affairs between themselves for so many years.

Selim assumed that if the Ottoman Empire engaged with the other states of Europe according to their rules, it would be accorded equal terms and equal treatment, so that the action of Prussia and Sweden in setting aside their treaties with the Ottomans in 1790 was deeply shocking to the Istanbul government – so incredulous were the Ottomans that they continued to regard the alliance with Prussia as valid until at least 1793.90 Unfortunately for Selim, the times were against him: just when the Ottoman Empire had a sultan prepared to make sweeping changes the states of Europe were thrown into upheaval, first by the French Revolution, then by the Napoleonic Wars, and forced to reassess their own priorities and the modus vivendi which had served them for so long. The Ottomans were to learn that in the present state of affairs, European diplomacy reflected their own customary stance – that treaties were considered expendable when realpolitik demanded. It was a bitter lesson.

As the Ottoman–Russian war ended in 1792, the first of the pan-European conflicts triggered by the collapse of the French monarchy began. At the outbreak in 1793 of the war which saw a coalition of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and numerous smaller states ranged against republican France, the Ottomans declared themselves neutral in a move which was a significant departure from previous practice. When the Prussian ambassador to the Sultan tried to persuade the chancellor, Mehmed Raşid Efendi, that the Ottomans should ban the French within the empire from wearing the cockades that symbolized sympathy for the revolution, he replied:

They [i.e. France] and the other European states who have treaties with the Sublime State are its friends, and those who reside in Istanbul are its guests. The friendship of the Sublime State for the French is not contingent on its form of government, be it a republic or a monarchy, but it is a friendship for the French people. You name the French who reside in Istanbul as Jacobins whereas we know them as the French. We do not consider their costume and symbols important, and interfering in these matters means disapproving of their conduct. Even disapproving is enough to be deemed to be taking the part of their adversaries, and this is contrary to neutrality.91

The Chancellor stated that interference in the dress of the French was forbidden by the capitulations, implying that Ottoman relations with France remained unaltered – whether the state was royal or republican – and no amount of effort by the powers of what is known as the ‘First Coalition’ could alter this.92 This was the first time that the Ottomans stated their position in terms of a concept which was current in European international law but had no place in Islamic law93 – even in its Ottoman version.

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Ottoman Egypt. Such insolence could not be ignored, but the decision to declare war on their long-time ally was not taken lightly. In justifying their response to this French belligerence the Ottoman declaration of war demonstrated their desire to adhere to European norms:

They [i.e. France] suddenly attacked like a pirate and seized Egypt, the most precious dominion of the Sublime State, in a manner the like of which has never been seen, and which is contrary to international law and to the legal rules that are valid among states.94

The requirement for a juridical opinion authorizing these hostilities necessitated the removal of the pro-French party in the imperial council, which included the Grand Vezir and the Sheikhulislam. One consequence of the French invasion of Egypt was that the Ottomans found themselves allied not only with Great Britain and, briefly, Austria, but also with their nemesis Russia, in the ‘Second Coalition’. This too was a novelty – the first time the Ottoman Empire had participated in a coalition with other states.95

Selim’s reign is also notable for another departure in diplomatic practice. From earliest times foreign envoys from east and west had been received at the Ottoman court but only rarely had they been sent forth; during the eighteenth century at least twenty missions to European capitals are known to have taken place, five of them in the last decade. Selim recognized the advantages of reciprocity, and established permanent embassies. The first was in London in 1793; Vienna and Berlin followed in 1794 and 1795; in 1797, an ambassador was sent to Paris.96 Although it is clear that Selim intended to send a permanent ambassador to St Petersburg some time between 1793 and 1795, no appointment was made.97 The turbulence of Europe at this time proved inimical to the experiment, however, and some of the cultural imperatives of Islam can only have been a further constraint – the prohibition of the consumption of alcohol, for example – at a time when an ambassador’s full engagement in the social life of the capital to which he was appointed was an essential part of diplomatic intercourse. Bonaparte’s stricture to his ministers that they should ‘not fail to give good dinners and to pay attention to women’ was quite contrary to the dictates of Ottoman comportment, as Selim was well aware:

The zeal inspired by Islam and the preservation of the honour of the Ottoman State in truth prevent social relations between Muslim ambassadors and their foreign hosts. Thus the main purpose, which is to penetrate secrets and attain benefit, will not be possible.98

Selim’s desire to be a monarch in the European style was all-consuming, however. Like Mustafa III and Abdülhamid I he commissioned local and European artists to paint his portrait for presentation to family members to hang in their palaces; in 1794 and 1795, moreover, he ordered his ambassador in London, Yusuf Agha Efendi, to arrange for seventy engravings, in both colour and black and white, to be made from his portrait for presentation to dignitaries. He was the first sultan to realize the international political function served by imperial portraiture: he commissioned an album containing engraved portraits of all the sultans from a London printer, and in 1806 presented a portrait of himself to Bonaparte. As he wrote to his grand vezir:

I am delighted by the French Emperor’s gifts, especially the portraits. That he sent me portraits demonstrates great friendship and sincerity, because it is an important custom for friends to exchange portraits in Europe. You have no idea how happy this makes me. I have a portrait of myself specially painted for him, a large picture. I must send it immediately to my imperial friend.99

The way the fabric of central authority in the Ottoman provinces unravelled during the eighteenth century was not simply the result of failures to balance inevitable conflicts between central government and local interests, and the problems it brought were only exacerbated in the last decade of the century by the element of recentralization in some of Selim’s reforms, which went against the grain of the tendencies of the preceding years. Few in the provinces were happy with the arrangements for raising and financing the ‘New Order’ army, for example, since they undermined provincial notables’ recently-won responsibility for recruiting troops as well as their financial interests, as revenues for the ‘New Revenue’ treasury which was to finance the ‘New Order’ army were raised in part by taking certain tax-farms back into state ownership when they fell vacant.100These were investments local notables, as a group, would not willingly relinquish, for the availability of financial resources gave them an opportunity to build political clout. The claw-back of financial assets also hit particularly at those of intermediate means, for the system of life-term tax-farms had tended to greatly increase the numbers of individuals at all levels of provincial life with a stake in or ancillary association with the system. Once the bottom rungs of the ladder of local power had been attained, further aggrandisement could be achieved by a wider geographical spread of investments or by diversification into sectors of the economy less intimately tied to the parlous finances of central government – moneylending, or regional or even international trade.101 Those who were most successful found themselves in a position to ignore central government demands – and there were many more prepared to join them.

Regional influences that played their part in the general trend towards a measure of provincial autonomy also ensured that the experience of the European provinces of the empire was very different from that of Anatolia and particularly of the Arab lands – indeed, the experience of each province was in many ways unique. Because of their geographical situation the Balkan territories of the empire had always been easy targets for the interventionist designs of European powers, and by the end of the eighteenth century the Ottoman state had lost the loyalty of much of its Balkan Christian population. The wars that convulsed the region over the years had prompted many to seek refuge in the Habsburg domains, but even those who remained were not immune to siren calls from beyond Ottoman borders. But it was not only the Christians who threatened the stability of the Balkans: local Muslim dynasts both here and in western Anatolia were every bit as ambitious and susceptible to outside blandishments, and the situation was little different in eastern Anatolia, where regional loyalties still exercised a strong pull on the significant Shia populations of the Ottoman provinces bordering Iran.

The Arab world was also changing. After the failure of initial attempts to bind them tightly to a centre both physically and culturally far-distant, Ottoman policy towards the Arab provinces settled for a compromise based on a measure of loyalty from its Arab subjects to the Ottoman dynasty and state and the powerful bond of shared religion. This compromise had provided a sufficient guarantee against separatist tendencies until the late eighteenth century when the degree of independence achieved by the Bosnian adventurer Cezzar (‘Butcher’) Ahmed Pasha in Syria was exceeded only by that of the Albanian Mehmed Ali Pasha in Egypt, in the wake of the French invasion of 1798, while the Wahhabi Islamic renewal movement which began in the Hijaz in the mid 1770s had the potential to be as much of a threat as the incipient separatist tendencies of Christians in the Balkans.

By the end of the eighteenth century little of Anatolia was administered by officials sent from Istanbul in the time-honoured way; rather, a number of households who had built up fortune and influence over the century acted as intermediaries between the Istanbul government and its provincial agents. Among the most prominent were the Çapanoğulları of central Anatolia, the Karaosmanoğulları of western Anatolia and the Canikli of north-central Anatolia. The Çapanoğulları had sprung from modest beginnings to monopolize local financial and administrative positions in central Anatolia by the time of the war of 1768–74, and for thirty years from 1782 the patriarch of the family, Süleyman Bey, co-operated with central government, providing troops and provisions as requested in return for further rewards. He supported Sultan Selim in the establishment of the recruitment and financing structures of the ‘New Order’ army, briefly fell from favour during the reign of Selim’s successor Mustafa IV, and then again collaborated with the government until his own death in 1813, by which time the holdings of his dynasty comprised interests across central Anatolia and in the Arab provinces of Raqqa and Aleppo.102 Support for Selim’s reforms clearly brought rewards, for during his reign Süleyman Bey and his brother Mustafa were able to build a substantial mosque in Yozgat, east of Ankara, which was further enlarged by Süleyman Bey’s son.103

The Çapanoğulları had a history of conflict with their neighbours the Canikli, whose lands lay between their own and the Black Sea, and the fortunes of the two dynasties waxed and waned as the state favoured sometimes the former, sometimes the latter. But the Canikli (as we have seen) proved unreliable as government allies, and their fall from grace worked to the advantage of the Çapanoğulları. Following his release from Russian captivity Tayyar Mahmud Bey refused to support the ‘New Order’ and in 1806 fled to the Crimea – since 1783 part of the Russian Empire.104

The Karaosmanoğulları could trace their history from the seventeenth century, and in the eighteenth century their influence was due largely to their control of the office of governor’s proxy in the sub-province of Saruhan. They possessed significant agricultural estates and also some of the richest commercial tax-farms of İzmir and maintained public order in an area whose life-blood was foreign trade. Like the Çapanoğulları they supported the state, providing essential assistance in men and provisions for the 1787–92 Ottoman–Russian war. Karaosmanoğlu Hacı Ömer Agha, who died in 1829, was said to be the richest of all provincial grandees of his time.105 The dynasty left a significant architectural legacy in the area centred on their seat at Manisa, where mosques, caravansarays, libraries and theological colleges attest to their great wealth and extensive patronage.106

In the east, authority in administrative and fiscal matters in Diyarbakır, situated on an important trade route on the river Tigris, was concentrated for some years at the end of the eighteenth century in the hands of the hereditary leaders of the Nakşibendi dervish order, the Şeyhzade family, having previously been shared between government agents and a spectrum of local notables. Until the time of Selim’s reforms Diyarbakır’s interests broadly coincided with those of the central state, but the arrival in the city in 1802 of a battalion of ‘New Order’ troops had dire consequences. They had been recruited from outside the province but their salaries were to be met from local revenue sources seized from their current beneficiaries and transferred to the ‘New Revenue’ treasury for the purpose. This peremptory imposition on an economy already suffering from the general economic downturn of the second half of the eighteenth century provoked an uprising. Deportations played a part in the government’s efforts to quell the disturbances, and among those removed were 71 members of the Şeyhzade family.107

There was no ‘typical’ Anatolian dynasty, as this brief account demonstrates, but by the eighteenth century Anatolian notables had abandoned the rebellions – usually characterized by the government as ‘sedition and disorder’ – so endemic in the seventeenth. The Balkans offered almost a mirror-image of the Anatolian experience, less affected than Anatolia by rebellions during the seventeenth century, more during the eighteenth. The intense periods of warfare against Austria in the late seventeenth century and then against Russia, in particular, in the eighteenth, had placed an intolerable strain on the people of the Balkans. A few had found and seized an opportunity to profit, but the majority had been consigned to a miserable existence. Much of the fighting had taken place on Ottoman territory, precipitating significant refugee movements, and disease had also taken its toll of a population in distress.

As in seventeenth-century Anatolia, so in the late eighteenth-century Balkans the line between a brigand and a rebellious notable was often very finely drawn. Among a host of minor contenders, the main players – who certainly fell into the second of these categories – were Pasvanoğlu Osman Pasha of Vidin and Tirsiniklioğlu İsmail Agha of Ruse, both on the Danube, Tepedelenli Ali Pasha of Ioannina and the Bushatli clan of northern Albania who each controlled and administered huge territories. These magnates were men with their roots in the provinces. Their interests in life-term tax-farms were extensive, and they had supplied the army with men and provisions during the 1787–92 war. As in Anatolia, friction between these powerful households was inevitable: the Bushatli vied with Tepedelenli Ali as their respective ambitions brought them into territorial conflict in Albania; on the Danube, Pasvanoğlu Osman and Tirsiniklioğlu İsmail competed for resources and influence. Istanbul needed these notables for the vital part they played in the war effort but, although willing to reward them with economic power in their respective regions, tried to deny them the political power they craved – and rebellion was the result. When the interests of these men conflicted with those of central government, armies were raised against them – but with little success.

To take the example of Pasvanoğlu Osman Pasha: his father Ömer’s estates had been confiscated in 1788 when he was executed for inciting the population of the Vidin area against the state. Part of this territory was returned to Osman after he distinguished himself in the war of 1787 to 1791 against Austria, enabling him to build up sufficient funds to attract to his side a militia composed of demobilized troops and other troublemakers who had been caught up in the recent war. His subsequent raids into Serbia and Wallachia brought him the Sultan’s censure, but he was pardoned on the promise that he would become a loyal servant of the state. In 1792, however, he seized the fortress of Vidin from its Ottoman governor for which he was ordered to be executed. Pardoned once more thanks to the support of the local people, he continued to build up his following and, profiting particularly from a share of the region’s trade with Austria, by 1794 was the most powerful magnate in Rumeli, controlling territory from Belgrade to Edirne. Repeated government attempts to appease him failed. He was permanently at odds with the commander of the fortress of Belgrade, Hacı Mustafa Pasha, and in 1796–7 he seized lands from his rival on the Danube, Tirsiniklioğlu İsmail Agha of Ruse; following the rout in 1797 by Tepedelenli Ali Pasha of Pasvanoğlu Osman’s more than 12,000-strong militia – composed of Turks, Albanians, Bulgarians and Bosnians – Selim sent over 80,000 troops under the command of a coalition of royalist Rumelian notables and statesmen of central government against him in Vidin. After eight months the siege of Vidin was raised, and Pasvanoğlu Osman was pardoned yet again by the Sultan who needed to turn his attention elsewhere.108

The government did not hesitate to set these provincial magnates against one another, or to employ them to contain those viewed in Istanbul as ‘brig-ands’ – rapacious officials, demobilized soldiers and anonymous riff-raff – but whose methods of operation on occasion differed little from theirs. The lesser notables of the Balkans were known as ‘mountain brigands’ in Istanbul, and the government first moved against them in 1791, as the war with Russia was winding down. Several frustrated attempts to reduce their activities revealed them to be adept at manipulating the government for their own purposes, and the old ploy of encouraging loyalty and conformity by the distribution of provincial governorships proved only intermittently effective.109 The loyalty to the central state displayed by the most prominent Anatolian families found no echo in the Balkans, where all were opposed to the ‘New Order’ – as were the men called to join up. As one contemporary remembers it, when enlistment orders went out in the Balkan provinces, they were greeted with blunt refusal to comply: ‘We are janissaries and our forefathers were janissaries; we will not accept the ‘New Order’.110

In the volatility of the international situation during Selim III’s reign, as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars transformed the balance of power in Europe, foreign powers found scope for intervention on the periphery of Ottoman domestic affairs that was potentially more damaging than hitherto. Russia, and to a lesser extent Austria, continued to exert influence in the provinces of the west and north; as the need to safeguard British trade routes to the east brought Great Britain closer involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, it too began to emerge as a force for the Ottomans to reckon with. At a time when their relationship with central government was changing, Balkan notables – particularly in Montenegro and Albania, which had never fully acquiesced to Ottoman authority – found it tempting to seek to further their own interests by means of alliance with one European power or another. Those whose territories lay on the borders of the Adriatic and the Danube were most susceptible to external offers of assistance in advancing their aims – often an assertion of greater independence – in exchange for their connivance in the game of Great Power politics.

Even before Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt there was potential for hostile French intervention in Ottoman affairs. In 1797 the Treaty of Campo Formio between Austria and France – the culmination of Bonaparte’s efforts in Italy – awarded France the Ionian islands and the port cities of southern Albania and Epirus, giving France, by virtue of its possession of Venice’s Dalmatian colonies, a border with the Ottoman Empire. Talleyrand, the French minister for foreign affairs, had plans to use Tepedelenli Ali Pasha of Ioannina and Pasvanoğlu Osman Pasha in a bid to overthrow the Sultan. Tepedelenli Ali clearly did not feel confident enough to disavow his allegiance to Selim,111 who to secure his loyalty, promoted him and promised to reward him; Pasvanoğlu Osman was not only reported to be involved in discussions with the French but in 1798 established contacts with the Russian and Austrian consuls in Bucharest.

While most of the troops of the Ottoman Balkans were engaged in Egypt following Bonaparte’s invasion, Pasvanoğlu Osman gave his support – not for the first time – to the janissaries rebelling against Hacı Mustafa Pasha in Belgrade who were, in reality, an ill-disciplined and opportunistic militia rather than a reliable fighting force loyal to the Sultan. The extra taxes Hacı Mustafa found it necessary to levy in order to defend the province against the janissaries’ depredations raised protests among local Serbs, who had been granted a degree of autonomy by Selim in the effort to conciliate them after the recent war with Austria.112 Resorting to the most cost-effective solution, Mustafa Pasha permitted the Serbs to take up arms to defend themselves, further inflaming the situation, and he was soon forced by a juridical opinion delivered by the senior cleric of Belgrade to permit the janissaries, and other disruptive elements whom he had earlier exiled from the province, to return. They had taken refuge with Pasvanoğlu Osman Pasha in Vidin, and in 1801, once more in control of the fortress of Belgrade, they executed Hacı Mustafa.113 By 1804 opposition to the militia from the population suffering at its hands – Christian and Muslim alike – was such that a juridical opinion to the effect that resistance to the abuses of the militia was licit was handed down and, supplied with munitions by the Ottoman governor of Niš, a force of some 30,000 Serbs under the leadership of George PetroviÇ, also known as Kara (‘Black’) George, successfully besieged the fortress of Belgrade. Similar attacks on the janissary militia took place in other strongholds where they were holding out. The Serbs appealed for help to Russia, who offered some clandestine support, but the Austrian government remained neutral: both had more pressing concerns elsewhere. Serbs of the Austrian military border did, however, come to the aid of their beleaguered fellows.114

Although local Christians and Muslims were united in a common purpose of bringing down the janissary regime, the Istanbul government was soon sufficiently alarmed by the Serbs’ success to send an army against them – the usual response to any over-ambitious provincial power. The Serbs under Kara George won the confrontation and went on to bring the whole province under their control, finally occupying the fortress of Belgrade on 6 January 1807. With the Orthodox Christian Serbs now ranged against the forces of the Ottoman state – rather than merely a discredited local militia – it seemed there had never been a better opportunity for Russia to intervene in the Balkans on behalf of her co-religionists. Russia was at war with the Ottoman Empire from late 1806 over control of Moldavia and Wallachia, and in June 1807 Russia sent an envoy to Belgrade to broker a convention with the Serb authorities: throwing in their lot with their Orthodox protector, the Serbs agreed to accept Russian military advisers and the establishment of Russian garrisons in the province, and were promised a constitution. But the full-blown intervention that seemed so inevitable did not materialize: Russia’s peace treaty with Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807 included a French offer to mediate between Russia and the Ottomans, effectively precluding Russian support for the Sultan’s Orthodox subjects.115

The Serb revolt had repercussions for Austria because the population of its Balkan border with Ottoman territory was predominantly Slav and Orthodox. Austria was a Catholic empire, and securing the loyalty of these people considered schismatics by the Church was a matter of particular concern in Vienna, for fear lest ‘their faith [make] them look to the Tsar of Russia for protection’. The time-honoured compromise between Catholic government and Orthodox subjects exemplified by the Uniate Church – whose adherents recognized the Pope as their spiritual authority while retaining Orthodox liturgy and ritual – still held in theory, but whenever the Ottoman threat receded – after the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718, for example – the Catholic Church was allowed a freer hand: then, Orthodox Christians were persecuted and their religious freedoms further curtailed, and refugees who had travelled northwards across the border following the war returned to their former homes in Ottoman territory. The pattern repeated itself: Austria’s poor performance in the war of 1737–9 led to another period of Orthodox repression, this time involving the Jesuits,116 and forcible conversion, the mere rumour of which prompted unrest along the border and renewed flight into Ottoman territory – and, incited by Russian agents, into Russian territory.117 By the 1770s, Austria’s border with the Ottomans in the Balkans was a tightly-controlled, fortified line stretching from the Adriatic to the Carpathians, whose management became even more of a challenge once Russia began to play an active role in the internal politics of the region. Emperor Joseph II cherished a hope that a policy of religious toleration and the Austrian alliance with Russia from 1788 would win the loyalty of his Orthodox subjects; and his successor, Leopold II, between 1790 and 1792 repealed all legislation discriminating against them.118

The Serb revolt did not just rekindle doubts about the loyalties of Austria’s Orthodox subjects – it also raised the spectre of Slav nationalism, uniting the Orthodox Slavs with their Catholic Slav fellows of southern Hungary, Slavonia and Croatia, who felt aggrieved by Austria’s failure to intervene in the revolt, and aided their fellow Slavs when they were able. The Austrian government was now anxious lest this community of South Slav interest cutting across the religious divide should prejudice the loyalty of even the Catholic defenders of the Habsburg southern border with the Ottomans.119 The Ottomans, too, had much to fear from those professing a common Slav identity.

During the course of the eighteenth century, the Orthodox Christian Danubian Principalities – on the lower Danube between the Ottoman and Russian empires – became a focus of Russian interest as the wars involving the Ottomans, Russia and Austria gradually weakened Ottoman authority in the region. The indigenous ruling class of the Principalities had customarily provided candidates for prince-governor, but this system had ended in 1711 following the defection of the Moldavian prince Dimitri Cantemir to Peter the Great in expectation that Russia would triumph in its war of 1710–12 with Cantemir’s suzerain, Sultan Ahmed III. The last indigenous prince of Wallachia, Constantin Brâncoveanu, failed to assist Peter on the Prut, choosing instead to turn his supplies over to the Ottoman army,120 but subsequently fell victim to the scheming ambition of Cantemir’s successor in Moldavia, Nicholas Mavrocordato – son of Alexander, who had been one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Karlowitz – and was executed in Istanbul in 1714 with his four sons and his counsellor; their heads were exposed before the gate of Topkapı Palace.121 Thereafter began the century-long ‘Phanariot’ period in the history of the Principalities as Greeks originating in the wealthy and influential merchant and banking community of the ‘Phanar’ district of Istanbul – known as ‘Fener’ in Turkish, and still the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch as it has been since 1587 – became the preferred candidates for prince-governor, exercising their authority from their splendid courts at Jassy in Moldavia or Bucharest in Wallachia.

Like their indigenous predecessors the Phanariot prince-governors were answerable to Istanbul, but their primary loyalty was to the sultan rather than to local interests. Ottoman concerns in this buffer region were essentially strategic, for Russia’s power was on the rise. There were few constraints on how a prince-governor and his followers were able to make themselves rich at the expense of the local people, but any suspicion of treasonous dealings with Russia was reason enough for removal, and few prince-governors held the post for very long. The ultimate sanction of execution on the sultan’s orders continued to be enforced during the Phanariot period as it had been before.122

Jassy and Bucharest were occupied by the troops of Catherine the Great during the Ottoman–Russian war of 1768–74, but the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca had restored Moldavia and Wallachia to the Ottomans, albeit under conditions favourable to Russian influence in their internal affairs. The war of 1787–92 further weakened Ottoman influence in the Principalities: under the terms of the Treaty of Jassy the border between Russia and Moldavia was set at the Dniester – previously the Dnieper had marked their common frontier. In 1802, Russia won the right to approve Ottoman candidates for prince-governor of Moldavia and Wallachia, and their term of office was set at seven years. For the Ottomans, this strengthening of Russian authority cast a long shadow over their hopes of maintaining the integrity of their European territories.

Reluctant to alienate either France or Russia, Sultan Selim tried to steer a path through the insistent diplomatic activity of their ambassadors in Istanbul. The Ottomans had recognized revolutionary France when it became impossible to do otherwise but failed to send any official acknowledgement when Bonaparte was crowned Emperor Napoleon I in 1804, and this led to a suspension of diplomatic relations between the two states. Russia moved to fill the void: Selim agreed that Russian ships could sail through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean, and conceded the right to appoint Russophile prince-governors in the Danubian Principalities. Napoleon’s victories against Austria at Ulm and Russia at Austerlitz late in 1805 caused Selim to change tack, however, and in February 1806 he recognized Napoleon as the equal of the emperors of Russia and Austria. In August 1806 the Ottomans yielded to French insistence and unilaterally dismissed the governors of Moldavia and Wallachia, which provoked Russian military intervention in the Principalities; in December the Ottomans declared war. In May 1807 Napoleon agreed with the Shah of Iran that France would help Iran recover Georgia, annexed by Russia in 1801;123 but in July of that year he signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Tsar Alexander of Russia. Napoleon’s intentions in the east appear to have been to create a diversion with a threat to British interests in India, and either to distract Russia – with trouble on its southern borders – or, by offering the opportunity for further expansion, to bring Russia into alliance with France.

Distant as they were from events in Europe, it was yet inevitable that the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire should feel the effects of the profound changes wrought by Great Power politics. The Baghdad–Basra borderlands of the Ottoman Empire with Iran were semi-autonomous, their administration in the hands of the Sunni al-Da’ud household for much of the period between 1723 and 1831. Istanbul could attempt to assert its authority through the appointment of governors, but although central control was more than usually desirable in a region where the potential for friction with neighbouring Iran was limitless, it was also more difficult to impose on a diverse population of settled peasants, Arab and Kurdish tribesmen, Iranian Shiites, merchants and traders, and pilgrims travelling to the Hijaz. War broke out on this frontier in 1774, just as the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca obliged the Ottomans to acknowledge their weakened military position in the west. Western Iran was in the hands of the energetic Shia Zand dynasty of Shiraz and the south-west Caucasus was controlled by Georgia, nominally an Ottoman vassal, but allied with Russia from 1783. The Tigris–Euphrates basin was thus the remaining strategic bulwark against further Zand expansion at a time when the Ottoman imperial army was scarcely in a position to assist local forces to defend it.124

Ömer Pasha al-Da’ud, governor of Baghdad between 1764 and 1775, was a man more interested in consolidating his own power than fulfilling his duties as an agent of the Ottoman sultan. The Shah complained of his independent actions to Sultan Abdülhamid, but there was little Istanbul was either able or prepared to do. When in 1775 the rich Gulf port of Basra was besieged by the Zand, Ömer Pasha feared they would move on to attack Baghdad, and offered little assistance – the siege ended a year later with the capitulation of the starving garrison. Even before the fall of Basra an Ottoman army composed of forces loyal to the Sultan attacked Baghdad, dislodging and killing Ömer Pasha, and following its loss the Ottomans declared war on the Zand. The sanctioning juridical opinion cited the attack on Basra as casus belli and dwelt on the arrogance and duplicity of the Zand, a demonstration that the principle of justifying war against Iran on the grounds that Shia Muslims were schismatics – first departed from in the treaty with Nadir Shah in 1746 – had indeed been abandoned.125 Subsequent hostilities were brief, however, and peace negotiations began in 1777.

The most famous scion of the al-Da’ud dynasty was Süleyman Pasha, ‘the Great’, commander-in-chief at the siege of Basra and governor of Baghdad between 1780 and 1802. To the undoubted relief of Sultan Selim, he accepted the ‘New Order’ in his domains.126 Others in the region did not, notably the al-Jalili and other leading households of Mosul who controlled territories to the north of Baghdad. These notables had established a monopoly over agricultural production in the area, and consistently diverted to their own purposes resources to which Istanbul laid claim. They were disenchanted with the central authority, particularly with the poor Ottoman performance on the Russian front after 1768, and Süleyman Pasha al-Jalili, governor of Kirkuk and then of Mosul, ignored instructions to furnish provisions during the siege of Basra – and subsequent government efforts to employ him as a supplier of provisions for the army were equally unsuccessful. The Mosul notables were limited in their ambitions only by the increasing power of the Baghdad governors around the turn of the century, and the imposition of the ‘New Order’.127

Late eighteenth-century Syria was also in the hands of local notable house-holds, though circumstances varied between provinces. Aleppo, for instance, threw up no one pre-eminent family; rather, factional alliances among different families manoeuvred for control of local resources and revenues as a basis for political and economic strength. Here, bloody confrontation was likely to erupt in the rivalry between ‘paper janissaries’ – men on the janissary rolls who had no military role or intentions – and privileged local dignitaries. The province of Damascus was controlled for much of the eighteenth century by the al-‘Azm household, whose members benefited financially from the office of governor,128 but as the Iranian silk trade contracted, Damascus lost importance to the province of Sidon and its commercial port of Acre, where Sheikh Zahir al-‘Umar held sway from the 1740s, impervious to repeated attempts by the central authorities to curb his activities.129 In 1771, during the Russian–Ottoman war of 1768–74, Sheikh Zahir al-‘Umar co-operated with the de facto ruler of Egypt, Bulutkapan (‘Cloud-snatcher’) Ali Bey, when he embarked upon a campaign to conquer Syria, carefully justifying his conduct as a defensive measure.130 This pretext was belied when, following the destruction of the Ottoman fleet off Çeşme in western Anatolia and the subsequent attack on Ottoman ships and land positions in the northern Aegean,131 some ships of the Russian fleet sailed to assist the rebels on a promise received from Bulutkapan Ali to hand over Jerusalem and the Christian Holy Sites. Bulutkapan Ali was betrayed by his client Mehmed Bey Abu al-Dhahab (who was also his brother-in-law and successor), and his successes proved ephemeral, but in 1772 he joined Sheikh Zahir in Syria where, with the naval support of the Russians who bombarded the city from the sea, they besieged Beirut, a seat of the Druze loyalist clan of the Shihab.132 While occupied by the war with Russia in the west and north, the Ottoman central government could only hope to defuse this dangerous rebellion by pacifying Sheikh Zahir with control of the financial assets of the province of Sidon; once the war was over, however, Mehmed Bey (now governor of Egypt) led an expedition against Sheikh Zahir in 1775. Although Mehmed Bey died of illness while on this campaign, Sheikh Zahir was overthrown.133

Sheikh Zahir al-‘Umar’s successor as the predominant notable of northern Syria was a man of very different origins. Cezzar Ahmed Pasha, a Bosnian by birth, had reached Cairo in 1756 in the entourage of the Italian renegade, three times grand vezir and then governor of Egypt, Hekimoğlu (‘Son of the Doctor’) Ali Pasha.134 He entered Bulutkapan Ali Bey’s household but left his service in 1769 and subsequently distinguished himself by going to the aid of the Shihab when Beirut was under siege by Sheikh Zahir. Rewarded with the governorship of Sidon in 1775, he held it until his death in 1804, bringing much of greater Syria under his sway – he was additionally appointed governor of Damascus in 1785 – and controlling the revenues of the region which primarily derived from the trade in cotton and grains. Central government efforts to limit his authority by appointing him to govern provinces such as Bosnia, far from his financial base in Syria, were in vain, but whatever Istanbul’s misgivings about his quasi-autonomy, he was punctilious in observing the formalities of his relationship with the sultan, including forwarding the annual remittance to the central treasury, and ensured the safety of pilgrims by subduing other, less compliant, local forces.135 The economic life of Syria prospered under Cezzar Ahmed Pasha’s regime as commercial revenues fuelled the development of the towns of Acre, Beirut and Sidon in particular; he built extensively in his seat at Acre – six mosques, two bazaars and many caravansarays, fountains, bath-houses and watermills.136

Peace and economic prosperity came to Egypt in the middle years of the eighteenth century, as the powerful Kazdağlı faction established itself as the leading household in the province. This was a time when many new buildings were erected in Cairo and other centres by rulers who were at first content with the extent of their autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Bulutkapan Ali Bey was head of the household from 1760; his invasion of Syria in 1771, in pursuit of even greater independence from Istanbul than he already enjoyed, gives an indication of the scale of the resources at his command, and the impotence of the Istanbul government to prevent him – albeit that it failed because he was betrayed by Mehmed Bey Abu al-Dhahab.137

By 1786 the deteriorating security situation in Egypt prompted the central government to intervene to restore order to a province riven by factional infighting since the death of Bulutkapan Ali Bey in 1773 and of Mehmed Bey Abu al-Dhahab two years later. Two other members of the Kazdağlı household – İbrahim Bey and Murad Bey – shared power uneasily and discordantly. They had recently deposed two Ottoman governors, no remittances were being paid over to the central treasury, and they were suspected of collaborating with Russia.138 Moreover, local French merchants who had suffered at their hands had appealed to the Sultan for protection against Murad Bey’s attacks on their churches, and threatened to call upon the French government to intervene if the Sultan would not.139 The Istanbul government commissioned a report on conditions in Egypt from Cezzar Ahmed Pasha; in it he described Cairo and the Egyptian countryside, and the military forces of the province, and recommended that the Sultan should send an expedition to reassert the power of central government and better organize the administration of Egypt:

A total of twelve thousand soldiers will suffice for the expedition from Gaza . . . and the total time required for this trip [to Cairo] is eighty-three hours. During the trip . . . the new governor of Egypt must continually present gifts to the soldiers, on various minor pretexts, in order to attract their support, for since ancient times the people of Egypt have been expert in deceit and treachery. The varieties of stratagems and deceits used against ancient kings and former princes are well known . . . Also among the necessary prerequisites for this governor is that he must have gone to Egypt in advance, stayed there for several years, and participated in important affairs there.140

In 1786 a naval force was dispatched under the command of Grand Admiral Cezayirli Hasan Pasha, but this ended in a strategic withdrawal after the troops he landed failed to corner the troublemakers who retreated into the hinter-land, and the Admiral was recalled to Istanbul the following year after the declaration of war against Russia. İbrahim Bey and Murad Bey were pardoned by the Sultan and continued to divert the revenues of the province into their own coffers. The uncertain conditions of the 1780s and 1790s also had an adverse effect on the profits of the French merchants in Egypt.141

Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 shocked the Ottomans profoundly, just as the appearance of the Russian fleet in the Aegean in 1770 had. The French rationalized their invasion of the territory of a nominally friendly power with a proclamation echoing the language of Ottoman diplomacy, asserting that they were the ‘enemies of [the Sultan’s] enemies’ – that is, of the quarrelsome households who ruled Egypt so erratically. Bonaparte’s expectation was that once the corrupt military leaders at their head had been removed, the people would embrace the new regime the French intended to establish.142 Cezzar Ahmed Pasha’s recommendations had run along similar lines – though with the aim of restoring the power of Istanbul, not imposing that of Paris.143

Cezzar Ahmed Pasha proved his continuing commitment and value to the Ottoman state in 1799 when Syria came under attack from Bonaparte. In November 1798 Bonaparte protested his peaceful intentions to Cezzar Ahmed,144 but then set out towards Syria to pre-empt the possibility of forces commanded by Cezzar Ahmed combining with any Ottoman expedition that might be sent to relieve Egypt, and reached Acre by mid-March 1799. Some of Cezzar Ahmed’s local rivals joined the French in their siege of Acre, but he was supported by a British naval force including two men-of-war. The siege dragged on until the arrival of an Ottoman fleet and convoy and the spread of plague among the French forces combined to influence Bonaparte to withdraw during the night of 20/21 May.145

The Ottomans themselves suffered defeat at Bonaparte’s hands at Abouqir Bay, when an army was landed there in July 1799, but the next month Bonaparte secretly left his new conquest for France. Holding on to Egypt proved difficult after his departure. Lower-ranking clerics uneasy with French pledges to respect Islam gave a focus to popular opposition, and the French army was close to mutiny. In Cairo itself, French rule could only be restored after a siege of the city lasting for several weeks in spring 1800, and in March 1801 British and Ottoman forces landed at Abouqir Bay as an Ottoman land army under the command of the Grand Vezir reached Egypt through Syria (the route Selim I had taken in his conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517). Cairo was surrounded, the French surrendered, and the British held Egypt until it was restored to the Ottomans by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.146

Factions which had not supported the French were favoured by the British, but they found the establishment of sovereign authority in Egypt as elusive a goal as had the Ottomans and the French. Conditions were wretched for a population exhausted by factional fighting and war, and did not immediately improve when the British withdrew in 1803. The governor appointed by Istanbul was frustrated in his attempt to establish a modern army in the French style, and in 1803 he was caused to flee by a mutiny in an Albanian regiment, part of an Ottoman expeditionary force sent to Egypt two years earlier to eject the French. Repeated failures to restore order enabled the young commander of the Albanian regiment, one Mehmed Ali of Kavala, on the northern Aegean coast, to outmanoeuvre all other contenders for power and Istanbul, unable to impose any other solution, appointed him governor in 1805.147

This was to prove no short-lived expedient. Before long Mehmed Ali had successfully quashed opposition to his governorship from the factions who struggled to restore themselves to their pre-1798 eminence, and had built up his own household, inviting family and loyal allies from his homeland to join him. Whether he was prompted by sincerity or self-interest may be open to question, but he respected the Sultan’s sole right to mint coins and to have his name honoured in the Friday prayer – and, moreover, remitted to Istanbul the surpluses of the Egyptian treasury.148Mehmed Ali’s metamorphosis into a model servant of the Ottoman state was soon accomplished.

Istanbul’s interests in the Arab lands were complicated from the last decades of the eighteenth century by the emergence of a puritanical Islamic sect originating in an inaccessible tribal area in the centre of the Arabian peninsula, far beyond the practical limits of Ottoman authority. Building on its appeal as a renewal movement rejecting the accretion of un-Islamic practices over the centuries – cults of holy men, superstition, sacrifice and the like – the eponymous founder of the Wahhabi sect, Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab, attracted political and religious support and opprobrium in equal measure. By the 1770s the Wahhabi, with their religious practices so different from those promoted at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, were intervening in territory which came under the authority of the Sharifs of Mecca, and before long were pushing into Iraq. By the time of Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s death in 1792, the stage was set for the foundation of a state based on his teachings under the leadership of a tribal chief, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Muhammad bin Su‘ud.

Territorial and spiritual ambitions soon brought the new Saudi-Wahhabi state into conflict with Ottoman concerns, but only slowly did Istanbul realize that reports from this distant corner of the empire should be taken seriously. The sharif of Mecca of the 1790s, Sharif Ghalib, organized expeditions against the Wahhabi and their tribal allies, but his forces tended to defect and his appeals for assistance to Ottoman governors in Syria and Iraq, and then to Istanbul, fell on deaf ears. In 1798 Sharif Ghalib’s army was defeated, and he was forced to cede extensive territory.149 The ‘infidel’ Bonaparte’s success in Egypt in 1798 further diminished the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph’s prestige as protector of the Holy Places and leader of the Muslim community (so carefully nurtured over the centuries), and confirmed the Wahhabi in their view that only they could preserve Islam. In 1802 they took the holy Shia pilgrimage city of Karbala’ in Iraq but, preoccupied for an extended period with the Egyptian crisis, only in 1803 did the Istanbul government order a formal campaign against them. Troops and supplies failed to materialize in adequate quantity, however, and the Saudi advance continued. In 1803 the Saudis occupied Mecca until ousted by Sharif Ghalib; in 1805 they sacked Medina, and in 1806 recaptured Mecca.150 Aware of his gravely weak position, Sharif Ghalib hoped at least for a measure of coexistence between the traditional order and this aggressive new sect, but the Saudis disdained his attempts at accommodation and closed the Hijaz to the Ottoman pilgrimage caravans in 1807. Su‘ud bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, successor to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Muhammad bin Su‘ud, substituted his own name for that of the Sultan in the Friday prayers, usurping the most important prerogative of sovereignty in the Islamic world. The humiliation of Sultan Selim was complete, his claims to be supreme Islamic ruler now barely sustainable.

* The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca was apparently not translated into English until 1854, the time of the Crimean War (Treaties (Political and Territorial) 131ff).

* A perusal of Ottoman coin catalogues demonstrates that the name ‘Constantinople’ is indeed replaced by ‘Istanbul’ – in the form ‘Islambol’ – on coins struck during the reign of Abdülhamid and his successor Selim III, although ‘Constantinople’ was again used thereafter. Mahmud I had issued a similar order on coming to the throne in 1730, and coins of that time were also stamped ‘Islambol’ (Pere, Osmanlılarda Madenî Paralar; Refik, Onikinci Asr-i Hicri’de 185).

* The term was also applied to a class of seamen.

* The term ‘New Order’ was applied at this time exclusively to military reorganization, and only later to other reforms (Shaw, ‘The Origins of Ottoman Military Reform’ 292).

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