The days of Ottoman achievement in government, literature, and art were past, but the Turks in 1789 still held sway, however laxly, over Egypt, the Near East to the Euphrates, Asia Minor and Armenia, Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, and those Danubian principalities Wallachia and Moldavia (now Romania) which were among the disputed morsels released to Alexander by Napoleon (who did not have them) at the Peace of Tilsit. The sultans, weakened by economic stagnation and moral decay, allowed the pashas to rule and bleed the provinces with very little interference from Constantinople; we have noted, with Byron, Ali Pasha’s strong-arm rule in Albania (1788–1822). Ali overreached himself in plotting against the Porte; Sultan Mahmud II had him assassinated.
The Serbs fought for independence. When their popular Pasha was slain by Janissaries, a Serbian patriot, Karageorge, attempted (1804) to found a republic, with an elected assembly which would choose a senate; and in 1808 the senate elected Karageorge hereditary prince. Sultan Mahmud sent a substantial army to Belgrade to suppress the new republic (1813); Karageorge and thousands of his followers fled to Austria. A second revolt, under Prince Miloš Obrenovich, induced the Sultan to accept a compromise (1815) by which the Serbs were guaranteed freedom of religion, education, and trade. Miloš strengthened his rule by a mixture of politics and assassination, had his rival Karageorge executed, and obtained from the Sultan a recognition of his hereditary rule. By 1830 Serbia was in effect an independent state.
Greece had fallen to the Turks in 1452, and had now been so long under Ottoman rule that it had half forgotten its ancient pride. Conquest by “Franks” and immigration by Slavs mingled bloods, racial memories, and dialects until the popular “demotic” speech had substantially diverged from the Greek of Plato’s days. Nevertheless scholars, poets, and patriots had preserved some remembrance of classic Greece, and of the eleven centuries (395–1452) during which Greeks had ruled the Byzantine Empire and had continued to enrich scholarship, philosophy, and art. News of the French Revolution ignited these memories, and made many Greeks wonder, with Byron’s “Childe Harold,” why Greece might not again be free. Rhigas Pheraios (1757?—98), a Wallachian born in Thessaly and living in Vienna, wrote and spread a Greek adaptation of “The Marseillaise,” and organized a hetairia, or brotherhood, dedicated to bringing Greeks and Turks under a common bond of liberty and equality. He set out for Greece in 1797 with “twelve chestloads of proclamations,”17 was captured at Trieste, and was executed at Belgrade. Another hetairia was formed at Odessa, spread into Greece, and shared in preparing the Greek mind for revolt. Adamantios Koraës (1748–1833), a Greek of Smyrna, settled in Paris in 1788, and devoted himself to “purifying” current. Greek speech into closer harmony with ancient norms. He rejoiced over the French Revolution, and, in anonymous poems and tracts, as well as in his editions of the Greek classics, spread his republican and anticlerical ideas—though he warned that revolution might be premature. It came in 1821, and by 1830 Greece was free.
The Turkish government, so far as one can judge through the haze of time and space, of language and prejudice, was not clearly more oppressive than the governments of Europe before 1800. Byron was shocked (May 21, 1810) on seeing the severed heads of criminals exposed on either side of the gate to the Seraglio, but we may presume that the French Revolutionary government had guillotined more men and women than the sultans had ever in equal time beheaded. A majority of the wealth was in the hands of a small minority—as elsewhere. The Turks were a philosophical and poetical, as well as a warlike, people; they took the day’s fate as Allah’s will, not to be changed by grumbling, and they considered a beautiful woman, properly disciplined and perfumed, as more precious than anything but gold. They liked polygamy when they could afford it; why should not the ablest breed most? They had little need for prostitutes, but provided brothels for Christians. They were still producing good literature and art: poets abounded; the mosques sparkled; probably Istanbul was in 1800 the most beautiful city in Europe.
Politically the position of Turkey was perilous. Her economy and army were in disarray, while the material resources and military power of her enemies were growing. Her capital was the most strategic point on the map; all Christian Europe itched for that pearl. Catherine the Great had stretched Russia’s grasp to the Black Sea, had taken the Crimea from the Tatars, and, with Voltaire’s blessing, was dreaming of crowning her grandson Constantine in Constantinople.
Such was the situation when Selim III, at the age of twenty-seven, became sultan (1789). He had received a good education, had formed a close friendship with the French ambassador, and had sent an agent to France to report to him on West European policies, ideas, and ways. He decided that unless Turkish institutions were basically reformed his country could not hold off its enemies. He made peace with Catherine at Jassy (1792), recognizing Russian sovereignty over the Crimea and the rivers Dniester and Bug. Then he set himself to giving the Ottoman Empire a “New Organization” (Nizam-i-Jadid)—based on popular election of mayors and deputies. With the help of West European officers and experts he set up schools of navigation and engineering, and gradually formed a new army. His plans for a return engagement with Russia were aborted by Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and attack upon Turkish Acre. He joined England and Russia in war against France (1798). Peace was restored in 1802, but the war had been costly and unpopular; the local governors and venal officials rebelled against the new constitution; Selim allowed himself to be deposed (1807), but was assassinated nevertheless. After a year of chaos his party prevailed, and his nephew Mahmud II began, in 1808, a sultanate of thirty-one years.
The rival Powers of Christendom tried to control the policies of the Porte by money or force. Turkey survived as a state because none of them could afford to allow another to control the Bosporus. In 1806 Alexander I sent troops into Moldavia and Wallachia to appropriate these provinces for Russia; Napoleon’s ambassador at the Porte urged Selim to resist; Turkey declared war against Russia. At Tilsit, in 1807, Napoleon undertook to arrange peace. The resulting truce was repeatedly violated until Alexander, reconciled to war against Napoleon, decided to withdraw his army from the southern front. On May 28, 1812, one day before Napoleon left Dresden to join his gathering forces in Poland, Russia signed with Turkey the Peace of Bucharest, abandoning all her claims to the Danubian principalities. Now Alexander could gather all his battalions to meet the 400,000 men—French and others—who were preparing to cross the Niemen into Russia.