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The Beginnings of Ottoman Decline 1566–1699

The Ottoman Empire reached the most prominent position which it was ever to occupy in European and Asiatic history during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. The end of the reign (1566) is usually seen as the beginning of the process of decline, which assumed a more rapid momentum in the seventeenth century. Although this decline cannot be regarded as continuous and entirely uninterrupted (there were several brief periods of revival), it would be true to say that the power of the Empire by the time of the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699 was a mere shadow of that which intimidated East and West alike in 1566.

There were three main factors involved in the decay of Ottoman hegemony, each of which will be examined separately. First, there was a crisis of leadership, the Sultans after Suleiman the Magnificent being almost uniformly incompetent and corrupt. The result was a rapidly deteriorating administration. Second, the Empire experienced a host of military problems, and suffered a series of major defeats as the European powers increased in strength. Third, the economic base of the Empire was gravely distorted by the cost of maintaining unsuccessful armies, by the shifting patterns of world trade, and by the gradual disintegration of law and order.

1566 was a turning point in the institution of the Sultanate. It was almost as if history had deliberately arranged that the first ten Sultans (with one exception) should have been the best of all the Empire's rulers and the next thirteen (with two exceptions) the worst. The statistics are, of their kind, unique. No other country in Europe or the Near East seems to have had such a run of degeneracy or, at best, mediocrity. The first ten Sultans from Osman I to Suleiman the Magnificent covered a span of 276 years (1290–1566); the average length of their rule was therefore 27.6 years. The next thirteen reigns, from Selim II to Mustapha II, lasted for 137 years (1566–1703), with an average of 10.5 years each. Among these only two Sultans were at all politically capable: Murad IV (1623–40) and Mustapha II (1695–1703). Several were drunkards, including Murad IV, who died as a result of a heavy bout of drinking, and Selim II (156674) who earned the nickname ‘Sot’. Two were mentally deficient: Mustapha I (1617–18 and 1622–3) and Ibrahim I (1640–8). Three were deposed, including Mohammed IV (1648–87); Ibrahim I was assassinated. Most preferred the pleasures of the harem to the duties of administration, the best example being Murad III (1574–95), who fathered 103 children; (when his eldest son came to the throne as Mohammed III in 1595 no fewer than nineteen of Mohammed's brothers were strangled in case they should attempt to usurp the throne). The most gifted of all the Sultans during the whole bleak period was Ahmed II (16915) but his talents were in the realms of music and poetry, and he was too unworldly to be politically effective.

The Ottoman Empire was particularly vulnerable to incompetent leadership because it was based upon a more complete form of despotism than any other Régime in Europe. The Sultan was the head of the Religious Institution and the Ruling Institution, exerting a direct personal influence at all levels. The Ruling Institution was subdivided into three main sections: the judiciary, staffed mainly by personnel from the Religious Institution, the army, with its core of janissaries and the bureaucracy under the diwan (cabinet). The activities of these branches were co–ordinated by the Grand Vizier (whose title, appropriately, meant ‘bearer of burdens’), the major official below the Sultan himself. The power of the Sultan can be gauged from the fact that all members of the Ruling Institution, the Grand Vizier included, were virtually slaves and could be dealt with summarily on the Sultan's orders. The first ten Sultans had personally created and maintained a stable administration based on the exercise of total autocracy. The next thirteen, however, proved that the system was gravely deficient in that it could not operate without them. After 1566 the Sultans tended to withdraw from active supervision of state affairs for reasons which ranged from insanity to sustained interest in the royal harem. This was to prove disastrous in a system based on the concept of slavery rather than professional service, and the result was a power vacuum into which contending parties and interests began to pour, assisted by the rapid growth of bribery and corruption.

A traditional Turkish proverb claims that ‘the fish begins to stink at the head’.1 The rest soon followed. The major offices of state were put up for purchase, a practice initiated by Suleiman the Magnificent and greatly accelerated under Selim II. Promotion was supposedly still the prerogative of the Sultan, but it tended to be dispensed by influential women of the harem to favourites. In order to progress to a position of high responsibility it was necessary for the aspirant to have considerable capital behind him; this was often provided by Turkish or foreign bankers. Some attempts were made to uproot the worst elements of corruption, the lead generally being taken by the Grand Viziers. For example, Mohammed Kiuprili (Grand Vizier 1656–61) conducted extensive purges in the administration, but the problems returned after his death, despite further reforms by Mustapha Kiuprili between 1689 and 1691. The extent of corruption by the end of the seventeenth century was surprising, even in a period which was generally tolerant towards financial laxity. In the eighteenth century, Sari Mehmed Pasha wrote a book for the guidance of officials (Council for Viziers and Governors) in which he expressed his concern about the depths to which the Régime had sunk and added: ‘Bribery is the beginning and root of all illegality and tyranny, the source and fountain of every sort of disturbance and sedition, the most vast of evils and the greatest of calamities. It is the mire of corruption than which there is nothing whatever more calamitous to the people of Islam or more destructive to the foundation of religion and government. Than this there is no more powerful engine of injustice and cruelty, for bribery destroys both faith and state.’2

One of the more serious results of corruption was the growth of violence, as conditions generally became more favourable to anarchy. The janissaries, who under Suleiman the Magnificent and his predecessors had been the core of the army and the vanguard of conquest and stability, under Selim II became the agents of disorder. By the seventeenth century they had lost most of their personal restraints; they were permitted to marry, enter into commercial transactions and to recruit their sons into service, the Christian levy being ended in 1638. These concessions, although far from unreasonable in themselves, were extracted by threats of revolt and greatly reduced the efficiency of the janissaries as the core of the infantry. At the same time, their participation in politics increased to an unprecedented extent. Murad III (1574–95) was forced to bow to their pressure and have several leading ministers executed. Osman II (1618–22) was deposed and murdered by the janissaries, who also put pressure on his successor, Mustapha I, to abdicate in 1623. Murad IV (1623–40) and Grand Vizier Mohammed Kiuprili (1656–61) both intimidated the janissaries into temporary obedience by extensive exemplary executions. Nevertheless, it was a sad reflection on the Ottoman Régime that the once formidable elite of the army should now be feared more in Constantinople than on the battlefield.

To the outside world the most obvious manifestation of Ottoman decline was military. In 1566 the Turks controlled the entire eastern Mediterranean area, ruled most of Hungary, and had a longstanding military and diplomatic connection with one of Europe's emergent powers, France. In 1699 the Turks were forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Carlowitz, acknowledging the loss of most of Hungary; the French alliance had long since disappeared and France had replaced the Ottoman Empire as the major military power in Europe.

Again, the process of decline was not continuous. There were periods of revival which took the rest of Europe by surprise. For example, Mohammed III defeated the imperial army at Keresztes in 1596; Crete was captured from the Venetians in 1669 after the 21-year siege of Candia; and the Turks appeared before the walls of Vienna in 1683, to be repulsed only by the intervention of John Sobieski, King of Poland. At times, too, western victories over the Turks were inadequately followed up, and this allowed brief periods of Turkish revival; the defeat of the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571 by the Holy League (consisting of Spain, Venice, Genoa, the papacy and the lesser Italian states) stopped well short of destroying Turkish naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. There were occasions when the West was too preoccupied with its own internecine tendencies to take advantage of Ottoman weakness; it was fortunate for the Sultans that the worst period of their misrule happened to coincide with the Thirty Years’ War.

Yet, allowing for exceptions, the overall picture was one of deteriorating Ottoman power and the regeneration of that of its opponents. Until 1566 Ottoman victories were the norm and defeats exceptional, but after this date the Turks suffered humiliations even at the hands of the Persians between 1602 and 1617. In Europe attempts to revive the aggressive foreign policy of Suleiman and his predecessors were met by a series of disasters. In 1664 the Austrian general, with the aid of French reinforcements, defeated the Turks at the Battle of St Gothard on the River Raab. John Sobieski of Poland won a notable victory against an Ottoman army at Khoczim in 1673, and again at Lemberg in 1675. In 1676 the Turks lost a war with the Russians and, in 1683, encountered Sobieski for a third time, at Vienna, where their army of 200,000 men was beaten by 40, 000 Poles. In 1687 imperial troops under Charles of Lorraine erased the humiliation of 1526 by defeating the Turks at Mohacs. This was followed by the conquest of most of Ottoman-ruled Hungary and its incorporation into Austria. When Mustapha II attempted to resist this, the Turks received their worst battering to date, at Zenta in 1697, at the hands of the imperial troops under Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Treaty of Carlowitz (1699) set the seal to Ottoman defeat; Austria received Transylvania, Slavonica, Croatia and all the other provinces of Hungary except the Banat of Temesvar.

The military reverses suffered by the Ottomans were due partly to the growth of more competent and professional armies in Europe, backed up by more complex bureaucracies and greater financial resources, and partly to the internal crisis of the Empire itself. The tendency of the janissaries to involve themselves in politics removed the advantage which they had once possessed as specialized infantry. Increasingly in the seventeenth century they were outmatched by French, imperial and Polish troops. The rest of the army had also fallen into decay. Some of the conquering forces of the early Sultans had been composed of the sipahis, who had been granted fiefs in return for military duty. The largest estates were held by commanders; during the seventeenth century many substantial military fiefs were allocated to the highest bidders rather than to the most able officers, the result being a catastrophic decline in the quality of command. Many sipahis, moreover, shirked their military obligations and found excuses for not participating in campaigns. Most of the Ottoman armies encountered by the European states after 1650 were, therefore, below full strength and riddled with dissent and corruption. Without effective leadership from the Sultans anything other than the most temporary revival was impossible.

Another factor which made the Ottoman Empire particularly vulnerable to military defeat was the nature of its frontier. While the Empire was expanding in all directions and incorporating new peoples it experienced a form of stability derived from the momentum of conquest. When the moving frontiers finally halted, however, this stability was destroyed by emboldened minority groups now prepared to risk revolts, and by the weakening of military feudal ties. Gibbon's thesis in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that the expansion of Imperial Rome had implanted within it the seeds of eventual destruction, seems to apply also to the Ottoman Empire. Certainly the Turks had extensive and increasingly vulnerable frontier regions to defend, especially against the revived military power of Persia under Shah Abbas the Great at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and of Austria at the end of it. It could be argued, therefore, that Ottoman frontiers could not remain fixed, and that the end of the process of expansion was not consolidation but contraction and decline.

Political crises and military disasters coincided with economic problems as the Régime faced the prospect of rapidly diminishing resources. There appear to have been three main reasons for this.

The expansion of the Empire's frontiers had meant that each campaign had to be fought over larger distances and thus became progressively more expensive. Military success meant that much of the cost could be recovered from the newly conquered areas; the importance of booty remained a constant influence in the creation of the Ottoman war machine. When the victories turned to defeat the machine could no longer sustain itself and had to be financed by other means. The Ottoman Sultans never produced a systematic revenue system and were obliged to resort to hand-to-mouth measures. This partially explains why the administration became a prey to bribery and corruption.

Meanwhile, the position of the Ottoman Empire in the world trading network had altered substantially. In the fifteenth century the Turks controlled the main overland routes to the Far East and were able to increase the tolls on produce from India and China on its way to Venice and Genoa for redistribution to the rest of Europe. The conquest of Egypt by Selim I in 1517 ensured Ottoman control over the Red Sea route to the Indian Ocean as well. This strangle-hold on the major trade routes with the East was regarded as intolerable by the maritime powers of Europe and did much to accelerate the voyages of discovery in the search for direct sea links with the Orient. Although the major voyages took place at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, the full implications of this reconnaissance did not become apparent until the mid– sixteenth century. By this time both Spain and Portugal had established seaborne empires, and both England and France were becoming increasingly interested in maritime trade. The importance of Ottoman control over the overland routes to the East therefore declined rapidly towards the end of the century, and the decreased volume of commerce caused an irreplaceable loss of revenue.

Even the internal economic balance of the Empire experienced serious disruption. This balance depended on the maintenance of commercial contacts between the four major economic entities:3 the nomads, who provided the means of transport and some of the primary products; the merchants, who acted as redistributors; and the peasantry and artisans, who were both producers and consumers. The main priority was internal stability—the protection of the caravan routes, the preservation of open access to all urban and rural market centres and the guarantee of effective defence from robbers and private armies. As the military hold of the Sultans on the conquered peoples of the Balkans and Anatolia began to weaken, the expression of political separatism was often accompanied by an increase in violence and anarchy which reduced the extent of the trade routes within the Empire. This was a problem which had been faced by many European countries in the Middle Ages, but a series of efficient monarchs like Henry VII of England, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Louis XI of France and Ivan III of Russia, had managed to subdue separatist elements by policies of centralization. Again, the Ottoman Empire missed a vital period of consolidation and retrenchment such as other powers enjoyed.

Before 1566 the major problem emerging from the East to confront Europe was the prospect of military conquest by Islam. The Moors, after all, had once reached the Pyrenees, and it had taken nearly eight hundred years to expel them from Spain. Could the Turks reach the Alps, and would they be equally difficult to dislodge? As events showed, the menace had dissipated itself by 1699, and a problem of a very different kind faced Europe. What role could a weakened and corrupt Régime play in the rivalries between the major powers? What was to become of Turkey's remaining European territories, and what principles should be observed in their partition? The Turkish peril was transformed into the Eastern Question, as historians like to assert, and the problem had become diplomatic rather than military.

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