Part I | Part II
From the political front unrest was found both in the provinces and in the elite Janissaries. The Janissaries, who comprised of young Christian boys being conscripted into the dervishme system, were trained to be officers, governors and soldiers. This method of strict discipline and rigorous training provided the government with skilled workers and was the key tool in early Ottoman success. However, the Janissaries who were once part of the most revered army in the world had become militarily ineffectual by the end of the 18th Century. The Crimean Tartars served as a support for this decay however as mentioned above, in 1774 when Crimea became independent they left the army.
The success in the Janissaries lied in their strict obedience to the Sultan, however; their ability to live on military salaries faded due to the costs of warfare and inflation. The government could no longer pay them a sufficient salary, which led them to violate the Janissary principle of only being a soldier and celibacy. They integrated into the urban class and became butchers, bakers, porters, craftsman; many owned coffee shops.They married and their children were recruited and replaced the peasant boys in the divershime recruitment rounds, the last of these rounds being in 1703. Thus by the early 18th century the Janissary corps were hereditary and urban in origin, so as Hourani says “their exclusive loyalties had broken down”.
Due to their proximity to the Sultan and their elite status this had a catastrophic political impact. They had the power to make and break rulers as seen when they denied Sulayman the Magnificent's son Selim the throne until he paid them extra money. Their integration within the urban classes gave the urban class a voice and power to object. Moreover, as the Janissaries became a hereditary corps – precisely what the prohibition of marriage rule wanted to prevent – this created an elite-popular urban class who had power to overthrow viziers and officials on behalf of the popular classes or due to intra-elite quarrels. It was for this reason in 1826 that Sultan Mahmud II killed and captured them to silence their voices and stabilize the Empire.
Unrest also lay within the province itself. The balance of power shifted from the Sultan to the viziers. At the end of the 17th Century the centre of decisions shifted from the Dome Chamber in the Palace to the Sublime Porte which was the vizier's house. However; Hourani asserts this could not change the situation, as the vizier's role was weak and could be easily dismissed by the Sultan, thus no radical changes were possible. Throughout the 17th and 18th Century the power shifted further into the local elites, decentralizing the system further.
The local elites always played a crucial role in the government and were loyal to the Sultan in providing taxes and recruits for the army. Quartaret claims this was due to the 1695 tax farming system where the government granted the right to collect taxes for a particular land in exchange for cash payments to the treasury. This ensured the central state maintained some control over the local elites as they could remove this lucrative privilege. However, the rising cost of wars and the inability for the government to pay cash back caused the local elites to keep the taxes for themselves. As we saw, above four fifths of the state revenue failed to reach the central government in 1789.
Quartaret emphasizes the lack of economic contingency for the cause of decentralization, but Lieven and Hourani assert this was largely down to ineffective leaders chosen by a hereditary process. It seems that even though the quality of the leaders had declined, they did not simply sit back and watch the Empire fall apart. The leaders tried to modernize the system to try and salvage what was left. For example after the humiliating defeat and the treaties of Karlowitz (1699) and Passarowitz (1718) the Grand Vizier, Damad Ibrahim Pasha, sent an ambassador in 1719 to Paris with instructions to make a thorough study of the means of civilization and education. In 1731, the Grand Vizier, Topal Osman Pasha hired a French nobleman to reform the Bombardier Corps on European lines. In 1734, a new training centre, the school of geometry was opened. The Janissaries found out and forced its closure, however; it re-opened again in 1773. This and many other attempts of reform, such as the Tanzimat and Ghul Hane decree, show that the leaders were not inactive. However; it was the additional external economic factors and the ideological factors which hindered any of these reforms to have a substantial effect.
The Ottomans began with a strong ideology; Islam. Islam was defined against the Christian West; it affirmed its many beliefs, but completed the line of Prophethood hence perfected and cleansed it from its adulteration over time. This view was crystallized with the destruction of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of Constantinople. Therefore the Christian West was inferior from every aspect – militarily, socially and above all religiously. This concept of superiority which at first served well for the empire was by time its ultimate cause of destruction. The sense of pride and fear of adulteration prevented them from taking the Western seeds of discovery and allowing them to flourish in the Muslim lands.
A good example of this was the length of time it took for the printing press to become widespread within the Empire. As Lewis says, “the most important technical innovation from Europe outside the military field was undoubtedly printing” The Turks knew about the printing press since the 14th Century but only adopted it in the 18th Century. The delay was due to religious conservatives skeptical of European inventions and its evil effects in society.
Both the Janissaries in 1826 and the Mamluks in 1805 were massacred by the rulers for this very purpose – to clear the way for reformation. The fact that these brutal massacres had to take place to prevent uprisings against modernization and reform shows the superiority of culture, which was prevalent at that time.
Moreover, loyalty to the Sultan suffered greatly from two movements – Wahhabism and Nationalism. In the 18th Century a more conservative religious strand began in Arabia known as Wahhabism. They believed that the Islam the Sultan protected was not the “true” Islam and thus he was not the “true” leader of the Muslim Ummah. The movement spread with Ibn Saud taking Wahhab's ideology of “true Islam” and he conquered central Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Karbala and Hejaz. They wanted the caliphate to be an Arab as “the Arabs were more worthy of it than the Turks.”
The ideas of the French Revolution infected the Empire – in particular Egypt, which was invaded by Napoleon in 1798. The French left quickly but not before sowing the seeds of nationalism through their propaganda. They spread the message of the Turks ruining Egypt by their greed and the idea that the French will free them. Napoleon said, “It has been said to you that I have only come to this country in order to destroy your religion. This is a clear lie; do not believe it. Say to the slanderers I have come to rescue you from the hands of the oppressors.” The Egyptians were not pleased with non-Muslim rule, however; the hatred towards the Turks developed. Muḥammad Ali came into power in 1805 and while he still gave allegiance to the Sultan and supported him in battles, such as the Greek revolt and the Wahhabi revolt, they controlled their own internal affairs and as mentioned above kept their revenues within Egypt.
In conclusion, militarily, economically, politically and ideologically the Ottoman Empire declined from the reign of Sulayman the Magnificent. These factors were of course intertwined, which was why when reforms were made in one aspect the other factors stifled progress. Due to the influx of wealth from the New World they advanced both militarily and economically with the industrial revolution. Even if the Janissaries had not revolted and adopted their advance methods, the industrial revolution and the shift in global trade would have starved the empire from the financial means to survive. The strong ideology which at one point was the impetus to rival and take over the Byzantine Empire became the very reason not to adapt and take from the “inferior” Christian West. Hence the Ottomans were locked in an inextricable knot, thus divide and conquer were inevitable.
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