Ottoman Decline

(work in progress)

Chronology 1700s: 
August 6 1696: Russia under Peter the Great captured Azov on the Black Sea.
January 26 1699: Treaty of Carlowitz, between Ottoman Empire and Austria and allies
 (Venice, Poland, Tuscany, Malta) with the pope’s blessing and UK and Dutch mediation. 
 Serious territorial losses for the Ottomans which resulted in serious thinking on the part
of the Ottoman statesmen as to why the defeat had occurred.  A separate treaty with Russia
confirmed the loss of Azov.
1718: Peace of Passarowitz, second major Ottoman defeat at the hand of the Habsburgs.
1718-30: Ahmad III and grand vazir Nevshehirli Ibrahim Pasha, first attempts of westernizing
reforms; first printing press (1726); the period known as the "Tulip Age".
1730: Patrona Revolts by the Janissaries and Istanbul populace ended the Tulip Age.
1730-54: Mahmmud I victories against Austria and Russia (1739); peace for the empire.
1757-73: Mustafa III, able sultan, became involved in war with Russia and lost Crimea.
1774: Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarji; loss of Crimea, tzar of Russia recognized as the
protector of all Orthodox Christians in Ottoman lands.

Ottoman Decline:

Ottoman centuries may be divided into the following periods:

1) 14th; 15th; 16th centuries: years of expansion, glory and high civilization.

2) 17th century (1600s): stalemate or balance between the empire and its adversaries to the east and the west.

3) 18th century (1700s): first major losses followed by inability to adapt.

4) 19th and 20th centuries: the "Sick Man of Europe"; an era of reform and colonial
domination by European powers; loss of territory and final disintegration.


By the end of the 1600s (17th century), after years of expansion and glory, the efficiency
of the Ottoman absolutism had reached its full extent of usefulness, and now was unable
to respond to the rapid changes of a modern world.  The decline of the empire
may be seen in three major spheres:

1) Absolutism and its branches:
 A) military
 B) Administration
2) Agrarian based economy
3) Modernization of Europe



 1) Decline in Absolutism:

 At the top, the Ottoman policy of succession had resulted in the weakening of the power of the Padishah.  The policy of physical elimination the heirs to the thrown or unruly Ottoman princes was abandoned and replaced with the Cage system.  The heirs were kept in the imperial harem, did not receive adequate training, thus becoming unfit to rule and susceptible to harem politics.  Hence, what developed was a number of weak Sultans who had to relegate power to their Grand Vazirs and administrators who were fast allowing corruption to grow. 

 The military establishment of the empire began to weaken as well, which in turn undermined absolutism itself.  As noted, the slave system was used to provide competent personnel for the military and administration of the empire.  For a long time, this system was tremendously useful and had enormous efficiency.  But by the 1700s it had come to its natural limits.  Slaves had become the sole power in the state.  This class allowed corruption within its ranks.  Corruption stared while the state was still at its height, but accelerated as expansion stopped and economic crisis grew.  Offices went on sale and corruption began to undermine competence.

 A stop to expansion had a direct effect on the military, which in turn further weakened the center.  The halt to expansion meant that the pay of the standing army had to be paid fully by the state.  Before this period, expansion and addition of new territory paid for a large portion of the military's expenses.  The military's expenses became a burden on the treasury and if there was an economic crisis of some kind (e.g. bad harvest) then the state would find it difficult to generate adequate revenue for the army's expenses. 

 To compensate, by the early 18th century, the Janissaries were allowed to supplement their income in civilian trade (guilds) and yet remain "army-men", exempt from taxes and subject only to "military" courts.  Whole section of the capital was allocated to the corps where a Janissary bazaar was erected.  Therefore, discipline began to weaken as officers were allowed to marry and their ranks and military positions began to become hereditary.  Lack of discipline made the Janissaries troublesome and not answerable to civilian authority.  Gradually, the Dershime was abandoned.  Civilian and military offices began to become semi-hereditary.  Living off the office and inheriting it, became a way of life next to land ownership.

 Gradually, the elaborate system of central appointments, based on merit and competence, was reduced to something of a fiction.  Unqualified men would now be appointed on the basis of their wealth and connections.  These appointees, on the local level, did not represent the central power directly; they were often of local origin and soon turned to local notables for support, forming new landowning classes that had arisen from among local civilian urban elite.  These elites began to gather the local administration in their own hand and fueled decentralization. With central administration left with little control, this new land owning class was left with uncontrolled exploitation of the land. 

 To sum up: with a halt to expansion less revenue was generated to maintain the costly standing army and administration based on slave\military system.; incompetent Sultans added to the problem; corruption in both the military and the administration added to the problem; The center began to rely on local administrators and landowners to provide the Sepahi force to defend the empire (a force which had already proven worthless in modern warfare and which failed against modern European armies); Local leaders were gradually able to divert some of the revenues from the center and for their own use. 

 2) Economic Crisis:

As we have seen, an agrarian based economy is vulnerable to prolonged economic decline due to a number of natural and man-made factors.  The Ottoman economy of the 17th and the 18th centuries witnessed one such decline.  There was an increase in the population [in the 16th century the empire's population almost doubled; this was due to bigger birth rate, prolonged peace and decline in the frequency of plague]; to this were added other economic problems: as noted, a halt to expansion ended state revenue from this lucrative source; the emerging land arrangement meant that the center was gradually deprived of some of its revenue; mismanagement by local administrators damaged the land and helped further decrease revenue; loss of military discipline resulted in a number of peasant uprisings in Anatolia going unchecked, further undermining agricultural production; to the above problem must be added a sudden and rapid influx of American Silver (via Spain) which in the 17th century caused a world-wide inflation in silver based economies in which the Ottoman empire was one.

Perhaps already by the middle of the 17th century the empire had already reached a point of no return.  It was at this stage that it had to face revolutionary and rapid change in Europe. 

3) Modernism in Western Europe:

Decline of the Ottoman empire, as the strongest of agrarian based gun-powder empires of the Islamic world, may have been a mere cycle of boom and bust had it not coincided with great changes in Western Europe; [this change was with in the context of world-historical development at the time]; by the 18th century, world history was taking a new turn, in this Moslems no longer had a dominant role; the decline of the Islamic world happened at a time when Western Europe was experiencing a prolonged period of out-standing creativity which was to prove historically decisive for all the world; the decline of the Islamic world (Ottoman and Safavid) had coincided with the advent of Modernity.

While the Renaissance had only a limited impact on the Islamic world, it signifies the advent of a new era in European history; in this era, commercial power seem to be the key to understanding this period; a new socio-economic process known as mercantile capitalism had resulted in accumulation of wealth and creation of a new economic process that was, in the long run, immune to any temporary or local reverses; this process eventually led to industrialization of Europe and no traditional society, complex or otherwise, eventually proved capable of competing with it.

Long distance trade gradually did away with Islamic production; luxury production; captured Ottoman market; capitulations found new meaning; Christians of the empire engaged in trade, found new bounds with foreigners and created resentment at home.

Ottoman Age of Reform:

The advent of the age of reform meant that Moslems had to learn how to borrow the ways of Christian Europe; in this venture previous history was an obstacle; the Ottomans were quick in learning the use of fire arms from Christians; to the Ottomans, Latin Christiandom was what Byzantine empire was to the Caliphate of Baghdad: it was the Dar al-Harb [House of War]; some aspects of it could be emulated [especially when it came to fire arms] but many other aspects were simply ignored.

It is worth noting that unlike Greek and Iranian influence on the Islamic civilization, Latin Christian culture and civilization had very little influence on the Islamic world during late middle ages and early modern period.  Very few Latin texts were translated into Turkish; Latin Christians world was generally looked down upon by the medieval Islamic world; the Renaissance, Reformation and subsequent developments of Europe had gone almost unnoticed by the Moslems. 

 Military matters were an exception in this case; Moslems, particularly the Ottomans, were quick in learning in this sphere: e.g. ballistics of artillery [use of field guns in support of infantry]; naval technology [from Italians] and navigation and modern maps.  Much of the military technology came to the Ottomans either by military interaction [capture] or through Christians moving to the imperial domain; the Ottomans proved to be flexible enough to copy this early technology, but, as time passed and technology became more sophisticated, it became obsolete with dying of the carrier and due to lack of modern institutions to built on previously developed technology.

 Ottoman defeats of early 18th century (1700s) resulted into first attempts of deliberate modernizing reform policies; the nature of the 18th century reforms was an adoption of certain selected elements of European civilization and not a wholehearted embracement of it. Ottoman statesmen were well aware that the empire was gradually lagging behind its European adversaries and were trying to find an answer to this pressing problem.  [If the empire is functioning as well as before, its soldiers fighting as well as before, why is it then that it is losing?]

The Tulip Age: 1718-1730

The first serious period of modernizing reform happened during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III and his Grand Vazir Ibrahim Pasha (1718-1730); Ahmed had come out of the cage but had managed to receive some proper education and was an enlightened ruler; his Grand Vazir was the first Ottoman statesman to come to the conclusion that knowledge of European way of life was important to Ottoman foreign policy.  Hence, a major characteristic of this initial period of reforms was that it was limited in scope and was occurring in a period when the Ottoman empire was still strong in many ways. 

Sultan Ahmad III (1673-1736)

Ambassadors were sent to European capitals [Vienna, London, Paris, etc] for the first time; they were asked to make studies of European progress and report on their application to the empire.  As a result the tone was set for a new lifestyle, modeled on European cultural traits, for the imperial palace and the ruling class of the empire.  Some aspects of European architecture and interior design found their way into the life style of the Ottoman ruling class.  Here flower Tulip became a common feature of new gardens, palaces and pavilions, thus the name Tulip Age; the Sa'dabad palace [place of happiness] was one such structure and Ahmed's residence.

This was also a period of intellectual awakening (which eventually led to the Tanzimat reforms of the next century); the Sultan and his vazirs became involved in promoting literary talents; groups of learned men were assigned to translate classical works of Arabic and Persian origin into Turkish; a few Western works on history, philosophy and astronomy were also translated.

Other than the above, printing press was one of the most important consequences of this initial round of contact; printing was known to the Ottomans since the end of the 1400s; this was when expelled Jews from Spain asked the Sultan to be allowed to establish printing houses in the empire as they began to settle in Istanbul. 

Printing holy words on paper and its distribution in large quantities was deemed un-Islamic at this point. Therefore, Jews of the empire were allowed to establish printing houses but allowed to only publish in Latin or Hebrew but not in Ottoman Turkish or other Islamic languages; the Shaykh al-Islam (or Grand Mufti) was convinced to approve the scheme if traditional religious subjects were left out of printing business.

Ibrahim Pasha also initiated a number of financial reform, designed to lessen the burden of the Janissary on the treasury; this dissatisfied the corps and their ulama supporters who were already enraged with the whole idea of borrowing from the West; to this was added unexpected economic hardship and plague which resulted into a number of revolts; after a military defeat at the hand of Iranians (Afshars), the Janissaries revolted against the Sultan (Sep. 1730); they claimed that the Sultan and the Grand Vazir had violated the Shari'a; Ibrahim Pasha was killed, the sultan abdicated, and the Tulip Age came to an end.

Mahmud I:  1730-1754

The eldest prince of the House of Osman succeeded Ahmad (Oct. 1730) and was accepted by the rebels; he managed to control the rebels by killing their leader and dispersing its followers (Nov. 1730); then he continued to implement some reforms: here, the military was focused upon; with help from European renegades, especially French, he had some military reforms, along European model, implemented; e.g. Bombardier corps with European military discipline; these reforms were limited as the Janissary corps resisted it.

1736-1739: Ottoman Empire was engaged in war with both Russian (under Tzarina Anne) and the Austrian empires; successful against both, managed to stand its ground.

1741-46: Another war with Nadir shah of Iran, no serious change in boundaries.

1746-1768 this was a period of peace interval; inconsequential reign of Mustafa II (1754-1757) and Mustafa III (1754-1774); this was the longest period of peace in Ottoman history and was due to internal European wars: the Wars of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) [or the French-Indian War]; in the east, while the Afshar empire had collapses in 1747, and opportunity for expansion presented itself, the Ottomans decided not to move and concerned themselves with internal problems.

Russian War 1768-1774:

In 1764 Russia attacked Poland; in 1768 a Polish uprising asked for Ottoman aid; Ottomans were unprepared for such major conflict but were encouraged by the Crimean Turks (Tatars) and the French; war ensued on Oct 1764.

The Ottomans lost the war due to corruption, incompetent military leadership at a time of economic difficulty and political disorder; July 21, 1774 treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarji (today in Bulgaria, south of the Danube) was signed: Crimea under Russian control but not annexed; tzar of all Russias accepted as the protector of Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman empire; Ottomans had to pay substantial war reparations which was a heavy burden on the bankrupt Ottoman treasury; the Ottoman Sultan was accepted as Caliph (religious leader) and protector of Moslem subjects now under Russian control.

Abdulhamid I: 1774-1789

This military loss suggested to the new sultan a need for reform which were limited and traditional by nature; the sultan tried to play various factions against each other so that no single G. Vazir would become too powerful; some new schools for training officers in modern sciences, artillery and navy were established; not much done for the traditional military (which was always resisting change to begin with) except restoring the shattered strength of the Janissary and the Sepahi in terms of man power and equipment.

1787-1792 war with Russia and Austria; Ottoman intention was to expel the Russians, the Russians and the Austrians intended to defeat and divide the empire among themselves; the Ottomans were once more unprepared; the sultan died in the midst of war (Aug. 1789) and was succeeded by his son Selim III who had to continue the war until Jan. 8, 1792 when the empire was defeated and Crimea annexed by Russia.

Selim III: 1789-1807

Selim III 's reign, the first significant period of Ottoman reform, coincided with the Great French Revolution of 1789; the French Revolution was a movement which for the first time moved ideas, of new and grandiose proportions, across the continent, eventually reaching the Ottoman empire and penetrating the barriers which separated the Dar al-Islam from the Dar al-Harb; it eventually affected, to a greater or lesser degree, every aspect of the Islamic world.

 Photograph:Selim III, detail of a portrait by H. Berteaux, early 19th century; in the Topkap Palace …
Sultan Selim III (1761-1808)

Yet, it must be noted that at this early stage, the Ottoman society (particularly its ruling classes) did not necessarily have a clear understanding of what it was that the French Revolution stood for or was trying to accomplish.

While still a prince, Selim was in correspondence with French King Louis VI, viewing him as an open minded and liberal despot; hence, he was saddened by his execution, but other than that, the killing of a monarch by his subjects was not all that surprising; the French Revolution also interested the Ottomans in that it engaged European powers in long wars which allowed the Ottomans to get on with their reforms without the usual threat from the outside.

The famous French revolutionary slogans of Liberty-Equality-Fraternity did not have any particular or immediate meaning for the Ottomans at this early stage:

Liberty: at this point it only had a legal meaning for the Moslem world; in time and in line with Europe it found a political meaning in the 19th century.

In Moslem society, traditionally the Shari’a dealt with the role of the ruler and the relationaship between him and his subjects (the believers).

The European notions of good and bad government (as they were taking shape in the discussions of the Enlightenment) in terms of tyranny vs. liberty, etc, did not have the same meaning for the Moslems at this point in time.

Liberty was a legal term not a political one.  It referred to one who was not slave (slavery and freedom were not used in political context).

For a traditional Moslem the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice.  Justice meant: 1) the ruler ruled by right, and 2) he rule according to the Shari’a (or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles).

Equality: social and economic inequalities were not all that visible in Islam; there were no rigid social barriers in the Ottoman society; and Moslem tradition was rich in strong moral codes and charitable causes which made economic inequality even less visible.

Fraternity: had no real meaning for a society which had live with the concept of umma since its beginning. Nationalism did find some meaning for Islamic societies only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

In the long run however, what attracted Ottoman reformers to the French Revolution was the concept of secularism, which became the cornerstone of their 19th century reforms.

Selim was introduced to traditional reforms by his father (Mustafa III); his knowledge of the world and his understanding of the empire's problems, therefore, as smart and courageous as he was, was limited by the boundaries of traditional views [he spoke no European languages] and a lack of understanding of the most important international changes; as far as he was concerned, the empire's problems laid in the fact that the traditional institutions were not operating properly; what needed to be done was to end abuses and inefficiency and bring back discipline; hence, the idea was that the old system essentially worked well, what needed to be done was to restore it to its previous glory; only in the military field, and then when it became necessary, did he really initiate meaningful reforms; but, even here, it was done in isolation from the old military establishment in order to maintain the equilibrium of Ottoman society; in this he ultimately failed.

Selim was a true heir of the 18th century Ottoman reformers; he devoted most of his attention and energy to the military; by taking this course, neither the sultan nor his advisors showed much understanding of how much Europe's technological reforms were products of the social, economic and political revolutions that had been going on since the Reformation; hence, there were no real general efforts at governmental, economic, or social modernization.

One of the main problems of the empire was financial; part of this financial trouble had come from traditional treasury system; lack of an overall budget caused periodic financial chaos; most government officials were allowed to spend money with out either administrative or financial supervision; Selim's response in this area was not an attempt to establish a budgetary system but simply to make the old system work; he reorganized the old system by expanding the administrative authority of the Grand Vazir in order to subject accountants to new standard of honesty and efficiency and dismissing those unable or unwilling to comply; here, he managed to bring nepotism and bribery under control; his only other administrative reform was the reduction of the number of office holders which was a source of corruption.

The sultan's social and economic reforms were far from innovative; urban and rural problems [disturbances and uprisings] were met with force; class conflict, as a result of hard economic times, was faced by enforcing the social position of each class; this was done by enforcing the traditional clothing [particularly head gears]; to pay for his reforms, methods such as confiscation of property [e.g from wealthy merchants] devaluation of coinage and rise in taxes were used with disastrous consequences.

Selim's reforms in other fields, especially the military were more successful or rather had mixed results; these reforms may be divided into two categories:

1) first, reforms that resulted into interaction between Ottoman elite and the West and led to Ottoman ruling class' exposure to modern ideas; he created [for the second time in this century] regular embassies in major European capitals with the task of gathering information for Istanbul; the ambassadors to these missions were usually elder men from conservative ruling families with no knowledge of local languages; but young embassy workers were attached to these missions, these were affected by European culture and ultimately became instrumental in the next generation of reforms; Christians of the empire started to play a more important role at this point; they acted both as translators and merchants and go betweens, but did not have a major impact as access to higher centers of power was not open to them; discussion clubs were created in the capital which involved visiting westerners and local Ottomans, these became a medium for exchange of ideas and further exposure of Ottoman elite.

2) second, Selim concentrated most of his effort on the military; here his attempts to reform the old military establishment failed; he attempted to limit the number of the Sepahi and Janissary, increase their salary and introduce new weapons and training in order to make them more modern and fighting capable; these efforts failed as the traditional military institutions refused to cooperate and change.

After this failure, Selim initiated Nezam-e Jadid (Cedid) or New Order; the idea was to create a totally separate military unite, parallel to the old military establishment, hidden from its eyes and organized and dressed along European model; the Nezam received new European dress code, trainers (mostly from France), and a new offices-corps based on European model; new naval and artillery schools were established to train the Nezam offices and soldiers in the use of modern weapons and educate them in modern military science; soldiers and offices of the Nezam were paid higher salaries and by 1806 numbered 22,685 men, with 1590 officers.

None of Selim's reforms were fully successful, he was overthrown in 1807 by the Janissary revolt (old military) backed by the ulama; this was a conservative reaction to his limited reforms, [the ulama detested his modernization program which was inevitably accompanied with Western cultural presence and Ottoman exposure to it; the traditional military establishment detested his reforms, particularly his New Order, because it would have eventually undermined its prominent, although militarily ineffectual, position in the empire]; Selim's beloved New Order army was unable to help him, as it was kept away from the capital, and was disbanded; the deposed sultan was killed by the rebels in 1808, alongside most male members of the House of Osman.

Results of Selim's Reforms:

Nevertheless, Selim reforms did have some long term affects on Ottoman society; they opened the door to future reforms; in terms of reforms, by 1807, Ottoman society had passed a point of no return; a look back at the 18th century Ottoman society suggests that setbacks in the military field made contact with the West imperative; starting with the Tulip Age, this process resulted in awareness of European societies and their modern achievements which gradually eroded the curtain that separated the Dar al-Islam from the Dar al-Harb; with the age old separation cracking, new ambassadorial contacts and new military technology began to flow; with these also came social ideas and aspect of cultural traits that had made them possible; the scope of this interaction was still insignificant, but it laid the foundation of meaningful changes of the coming decades.

What were the channels by which knowledge of the West presented itself?

- a young generation of Ottomans sent abroad in diplomatic missions or for military training.

- a number of European military specialist brought from abroad to train Ottoman Nezam forces; unlike the Tulip Age, these instructors were free to associate with the Ottoman population and exchange ideas.

- an increase in mercantile activity resulted in more European presence in Istanbul; again unlike the early 18th century, by the time of Selim, these could freely move around the city and frequent Ottoman residences; debate societies and Christians of the empire acted as mediums for exchange of ideas and other interaction.

- nevertheless, the scope of this interaction was limited to the Ottoman elite.

Egypt Under Muhammad Ali Pasha 1805-1849:

 Egypt was ruled by the Mamluks governors since 1517 when it was taken over by the Ottomans; they tried to assert their control as the Ottoman center became weaker; in 1798 Napoleon's army defeated the Mamluks as France took over Egypt; the French evacuated in 1801 but their brief presence had a great impact on Egypt.

 In 1805, the Sultan [Selim] sent a military force to recover Egypt; this was a New Order force [mostly Albanian and Bosnian] and was headed by Muhammad Ali Pasha [an Albanian or Kurd by origin]; Egypt was reconquered and in May 1805 Muhammad Ali became governor of Egypt; he established Egypt's ruling house which lasted until 1952; is the father of modern Egyptian nationalism and is undoubtedly the greatest of Middle Eastern reformers.

 Muhammad Ali's reforms inspired Mahmud II [successor to Selim III] although he became Mahmud's nemesis; as the Vali of Egypt, Muhammad Ali was only nominally under the Ottoman Sultan, and for all practical purposes he acted independently from Istanbul, at points aiding the Sultan but increasingly competing against his authority and finally in open warfare with him; here is the tragedy of these two historical figures' situation, as we shall see the competition between the two reformers, eventually limited the scope of their projects. 

 When Muhammad Ali became vali or governor of Egypt, the most anti-change and conservative social group of the region were the mamluks, who were also Egypt's ruling landed class; it soon became clear that any change had to come after the removal of the mamluks; in March 1811 this was done as the mamluks were physically eliminated.

 Muhammad Ali's reforms were focused on three spheres: the military; the administration and the economy (to pay for the other two)


Muhammad Ali Pasha sitting on the left

After eliminating the Mamluks, he initiated change in land tenure [iqta]; by promoting specialized cultivation and taxing the share croppers, agriculture was expanded as it produced for international market; parallel to this local industry was developed, indeed Muhammad Ali's reign witnessed the first serious attempt by a Middle Eastern ruler to promote industrialization; industry was initially linked to the military, imports were copied, it soon expanded to the commercial sector; textile industry was expanded [from 1821 silk production expanded rapidly] and directed toward export; protectionist tariff barriers were set up [particularly against British goods] to protect the new industry; Muhammad Ali's rule clearly depended on the merchant class as a social force; the Pasha created a merchant marine to promote mercantile capitalism in Egypt. 

Parallel to economic reform the administration was renovated, centralized and manned with professional salaried administrators; the military, however, received the bulk of Muhammad Ali's attention: a modern army and navy were organized which eventually numbered 100,000 men; since the Sultan would not provide him with new recruits, the Pasha had to turn, for the most part, to local peasant Arab Egyptians for his military; this meant that for the first time since the 13th century, local Egyptians became part of the ruling state establishment; as the ethnic base of the military was abolished, education as expanded to provide for the need of the new military; French instructors were brought in to train the military; students were sent abroad to learn about new military techniques.

Once the economy was rolling and the military expanding and modernizing, the Pasha embarked on a policy of expansion in order to secure raw material, market, and man power; in 1818, an expeditionary force was sent to Arabia under the Pasha's son and main military commander Ibrahim.


Arabia at this point was taken over by the Wahhabi sect, a purist Moslem sect which rejected the authority of the Ottoman Sultan as the caliph or religious authority of the Moslem world.

Wahhabism emerged in the Southern Najd region of Arabia in the middle of the 18th century among the Hadari people, a sedentary population which was unable to come up with any unified political organization.  Therefore, the region was full of independent, often feuding, entities. 

The countryside was dominated by the Bedouin tribes which often exacted tribute from the Hadari.

The Wahhabi (the term used mostly by Europeans) movement is named after Muhammad al-Wahhab. It does not call itself by that name (as it is considered derogatory) and instead to itself as muwahidun (Unitarians); it stands for, above all, unity of God and only God; it has been antagonistic towards other traditions with in Islam such as saint worship (Shi’as), folk religion tradition and many forms of Sufism.  As such, the movement espouses a rigorous, austere form of Islam which sometimes is referred to as puritanistic.

The Wahhabis provided the fragmented Najd society a unifying ideology.  It began to forge an alliance with local tribes and grow from 1744 onward; The Wahhabi path of conquest and solution to the ills of Moslem umma was simple: a town was either Moslem or not; if not, then it was considered to be Kufr territory and was subject to conquest. 

Progress was slow but eventually Mekka and Medina were captured; the Wahhabis then made a number of blunders arousing the wrath of the Ottomans; thus the confrontation that involved Egypt.




The Egyptian force was acting on the Sultan's order and was bringing an unruly region back in line; in reality Arabia was conquered and came under Egyptian control; next, the Sudan was attacked and conquered for its gold and slave man power; while neither one was found in any substantial quantity, the region was added to his seemingly expanding domain; during the Greek wars of independence 1826-27, the Sultan asked Muhammad Ali and his new military to move against the revolutionaries whose cause was supported by a number of European powers; a combined armada of French, Austrian, and British forces attacked and sunk the Egyptian fleet aborting the attempt to bring Greece back in line and it gained its independence in 1830; by 1833, Muhammad Ali and Mahmud were in direct conflict over Syria, an important imperial province and commercial crossroad; it was captured by Ibrahim as the Ottoman forces were defeated.

In 1838, in order to defeat the menace of the Pasha, Sultan Mahmud II made a fateful concession to the British which had grave long term consequences not only for Egypt but also for the empire as a whole.  The Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Convention of 1838 was designed to undermine Muhammad Ali's industrialization program, thus weakening his military power. 

Under the terms of this concession, British imports were given massive advantage over domestic Ottoman productions which included Egypt, a nominal province of the empire; it abolished Ottoman monopoly over domestic production and allowed British merchants to purchase goods anywhere in the empire; furthermore, it set import duties at 5% and internal [transit] duties at 3% for British goods; Ottoman merchants, on the other hand, were charged more and were at clear disadvantage against already more advanced and cheaper British products.

The impact of this concession was even greater when it came to Egypt which had a well developed and protected industrial program; the concession also had an adverse long term affect on the Ottoman empire as it helped to arrest industrial development for the remainder of the century; Egypt's refusal to accept the concession as well as another war over Syria in 1840, gave the British the pretext to intervene on the side of the Ottomans; Egyptian army was defeated and Muhammad Ali realized his end when British warships began to line up outside his palace in Alexandria.

Muhammad Ali died in 1849, his industrial program ruined, his army defeated and mostly demobilized; the only thing he managed to salvage was the hereditary governorship of Egypt in his family; Muhammad Ali able son, Ibrahim, died before his father and he was succeeded by Abbas (1849-54) his grandson.


 Mahmud II 1808-1839:

Mahmud, a cousin of Selim's, was his protege and was known to have supported his views; he spent 1807-1808 at Selim's side discussing problems of the empire.

Sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839)

After Selim's was deposed, the rebels named Mustafa V as the new sultan; he was ineffectual and in agreement with the rebels; Selim's supporters, under Mustafa Pasha, however, managed to gather forces and occupy the capital in 1808; they were not able to rescue Selim on time; Mahmud was put on the thrown; another janissary revolt in Nov. 1808 resulted in killing of Mustafa Pasha and a demand to Mahmud to stop the reform process.

Mahmud had Mustafa V killed and rejected the rebel's demands; he managed to bring the rebel's under control but it became evident that something had to be done to old institutions before any further reforms were attempted.

It seems that early in his reign, Mahmud realized that for reforms to succeed:

They had to encompass the entire scope of Ottoman institutions and society and not just the military.
The previous institutions had to be destroyed in order to prevent them from hindering the new one's operation.
Reforms had to be carefully planned and supported before they were attempted.

In this venture, Mahmud had the advantage of being able to learn from Selim's mistakes and also the advantage of many more years to his reign which gave him more time to implement his reforms.


Mahmud has been described as the Peter the Great of the Ottoman empire; indeed, his reforms were successful for the most part except in the case of Greece [which entered a war of independence in 1826-27, received the support of European powers (Ottoman naval loss-1827) and gained independence in 1830] and Muhammad Ali's Egypt.

Military Reforms:

As soon as Mahmud was able, and right in the middle of Greek war of independence, he move to physically eliminate the obsolete and conservative Janissary corps (May 1826); next, he resumed the development of the new army [12000 of which were stationed in Istanbul; it was recruited from among eligible men for twelve years].

In this venture, he learnt much from Muhammad Ali's experience; but being in competition with the Pasha, he failed to receive any help from him; the French also refused to help as they supported Egypt; the British also refused to help as they supported the Greek; hence the Sultan enlisted the aid of Prussia and Austria; young Lt. Helmut von Moltke served the Ottomans at this point.

The modern education system was expanded to accommodate the expanding modern officer corps of the new army; existing naval and engineering schools were expanded and new students were sent abroad.

in 1827 a modern medical school was established in Istanbul to provide doctors for the new army; it was under French doctor Antoine-Barthelemy Clot (Clot Bey); to this must be added the School of Maternity (1830), ten Abyssinian and Sudanese girl-slaves were bought and trained, called Hakima, by mid-century they were accepted by the population; 1834 a new school of military science was established; 1831-34 music school was establish to serve military purposes; foreigners played a dominant role in all of this and French was the language of education.

Administrative and Economic Reforms:

Here the Sultan's policy was centralization in conjunction with the rapidly growing and modernizing military; only against Muhammad Ali did he fail; centralization was designed not only to expand the power of the state, but also that of the Sultan; hence the idea of modernization based on European model did not intend to expand the people's role in the affairs of the state; Europe was copied for its technological achievements but not for its developing democratic institutional changes; hence, the Sultan was an autocrat and Ottoman reforms of the 19th century were, for the most, from above and by the elite, and did not involve the people.

To be sure, Europe was not democratic either, during the 19th century it went through severe revolutionary convulsion; nevertheless, its parliamentary system was gradually moving toward a democratic direction and establishment of a civil society [elaborate].

In 1831 a modern census and survey was conducted with the objective of providing the state with means to better collect taxes and conduct conscription.

The Iqta [Timar] or land grant system [which required the holders to provide the center with military service and money, but otherwise be on their own as semi-independent fifdoms] was abolished; iqta land came under state control and was rented out as Iltizam (tax-farming); henceforth, the farmer had no military obligation, less independence, and had to only pay taxes on his land; this policy was initiated under Selim and pursued under Mahmud; by 1831 all Iqta titles were revoked.

The bureaucratic administration of the empire also went through change; it was eventually transformed to a more efficient and centralized entity with an educated and professional hierarchy who served the Sultan on salaried basis; in line with European countries, ministries were created with specialized tasks, the office of grand vazir was replaced with prime-minister; in 1838 new committees for agriculture, trade, industry and public work were created.

To this must be added new communication; in 1831 the first official Ottoman gazette was published [Takvim-i Vakayi); it published only state news and was in the service of spreading the ideas of state sponsored reforms; 1834 the first modern postal system was inaugurated.

Religious Reforms:

With their Janissary allies eliminated, the ulama establishment [the other pillar of conservatism], was left with no protection; the Sultan moved to eliminate the ulama's economic base and bring them under state control; as such, Vaqf (Vakf) or religious endowments [an old Islamic institution; collected by endowment of land and property for religious purposes; mostly in urban areas, the revenue generated from vaqf was used to maintain the ulama and their activities] were partially taken over by the state; this development greatly weakened the ulama as the state took control their economic artery; the office of Grand Mufti became a government post (salaried) and the establishment was brought under state control. 

Tanzimat Reforms: Abdulmejid (1839-61); Abdulaziz (1861-76)

In 1838, Mahmud ordered the creation of a council for looking into ways of creating an "ordered and established" state by means of "beneficent reordering" of state and society; the name Tanzimat (referred to the next set of Ottoman reforms) was derived from the name of this council meaning "order"; Mahmud died in 1839 and was replaced by his two sons.

It was Mahmud who created the general conditions for the Tanzimat to become possible; he had extended the scope of the Ottoman govt far beyond its traditional bounds to include the right and even the duty to regulate all aspects of life;  by doing so, he changed the concept of Ottoman reforms from a traditional one of attempting to preserve and restore the old institutions to a modern one of replacing the traditional institutions and ways, with new ones; some of these new ways were imported from the West.

An overview of patterns in Ottoman reforms of the 19th century, particularly the Tanzimat period, suggests the following:

That they were reforms from above, engineered by the Ottoman ruling elite (namely its imperial bureaucracy) with no popular involvement.

That no serious attempt at popular participation was made as the reforms were designed to modernize the state first (to strengthen it) and the society second.

That the reforms included mostly administrative, educational, and military aspects of society.

That the reforms had no clear economic vision or plan.  This at a time when Europe was going through a profound economic transmutation due to expansion of industrial revolution.

These set of reforms ultimately failed to withstand colonial domination, capitulation, and disintegration of the empire.

The Tanzimat period began under Mahmud's elder son, Sultan Abdulmejid; during his reign, the center of power was the Porte and the Sultan took a back seat as far as the reform process was concerned; the Tanzimat created a centralized state based on a new generation of civil servants who were better trained and more modern looking; they continued the task of reform in spite of waves of political and military crises that hit the empire during this period.

Sultan Abd al-Majid I (1823-61)





The men of Tanzimat, those who were in charge of implementing the reforms, were people who were born at the beginning of the century, hence they were the generation who had received their education during Selim and particularly Mahmud's reign; these men of Tanzimat belonged to both the old and new worlds; they had received both traditional and modern educations; hence their mentality presented them with unique problems; they saw and respected the European ways, but they also respected their own traditions; similar to reformers before them, they wanted an improved and successful Ottoman empire with Ottoman customs, religious practices, and government; they did not wish to turn the empire into a pale reflection of Western Europe; all these meant that truly radical reforms was difficult, if not impossible; the following three personalities are a good example of the men of Tanzimat:








Sultan Abd al-Aziz (1830-76)



Mustafa Reshid Pasha: the most important of the Tanzimat men; born in 1800 (d. 1858); became grand vazir six times and foreign minister three times.
Muhammad Amin Ali Pasha: 1815-71; entered the service of the Porte in 1830; spent many years in foreign capitals; gained wide knowledge of European ways; spoke fluent French and often acted as translator.
Kuchikzadeh Muhammad Fuad Pasha: 1815-69; a proteges of Mustafa Reshid; was from a clerical family; spoke french and entered Reshid's service in 1837.

 The greatest success of the reformers was in government administration; the government was reorganized along European lines by dividing the administration into ministries; the essence of the change was specialization and division of labor within the government; the old system of training bureaucrats (scribes) in the old scribal system could not match the need to understand various specific needs of different parts of modern government; a council of ministers was established; each minister, however, was largely his own boss and responsible only to the sultan; since the nature of reforms were from above rather than involving dominant classes [in the form of parliament and political parties], this meant no clear checks and balances.

Education was an area in which reforms advanced successfully but slowly; the traditional Moslem educational system was not suited to the modern world; the problem was in what traditional Islamic schools (madrassa) did not teach; subjects such as trigonometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, and foreign languages; already during Sultan Mahmud II technical schools had been established; these were usually attached to the state and provided for the military; middle schools for boys (rushdiyya) were established along with teachers training schools and other centers of higher learning; progress in this sphere was slow and costly.





















Other aspect to the Tanzimat reforms:

Change of clothing: head gears had much meaning in the Islamic world's traditional dress, particularly for man; different social strata, ethnic groups, and religious groups were distinguished by what they wore on their heads; in an era when the notion citizen was to replace that of the subject, the Tanzimat addressed the problem of clothing by introduction of Fez; adopted from N.Africa, it was initially issued to the military, then the civil administration, and finally the civilian population; the ulama were exempted.

Transportation and communication were expanded as new roads were built; new railroads, telegraph lines and postal service; by Mahmud's time, the state of Ottoman transportation and communication was similar to that Suleyman's in the 16th century during the tanzimat reforms steam ships were brought in; during the Crimean War (see below) telegraph was brought in (1854); construction of rail roads began in 1873 and expanded through 1900.

Imperial Ottoman Bank est. April 1840.

The greatest failure of the reforms was in the area of economics (perhaps the most important area); the men of Tanzimat never managed to maximize state revenues or institute authentic financial reforms; tax-farming was found to be inefficient; but in order for civil administration to be able to collect taxes trained bureaucrats were needed, this took a long time to develop; also needed was an accurate assessment of land holdings and agricultural production; an effort to assess land was initiated in 1858, but the process was slow and it was still incomplete by WWI; more often the problem was in that Ottoman bureaucrats did not have a clear grasp of economic and trade issues; Ottoman administrators were trained in collecting taxes; very few came from merchant families and were not familiar with business and did not wish their children to become businessmen; large scale trade was mostly in the hand of non-Moslem subjects; Moslem merchants did exist in the provinces, but none of the above became government officials; few in the Ottoman empire could have understood rules of an increasingly world market economy and world trade.

Ottoman industrial policy had a mixed result but did not lead to major  industrialization; the state had began to invest in industries as early as Mahmud's reign; state policy of investment in the industrial sector continued during tanzimat period, mostly for military purposes; some foreign capital found its way into the empire which led to establishment of mostly light industry.

Capitulations were a major impediment to Ottoman economic reforms; without the factories, trained manpower, and commercial systems of the Europeans the Ottomans could not compete; Europeans could bring cheaper, better goods to the empire than the Ottoman manufacturers could produce; in many other countries, a system of protective tariffs had been put in place to protect indigenous industries.

large customs duties on imports made them more expensive and local goods more competitive, hence, local production could grow; but the capitulations made a protective tariff an impossibility for the Ottomans; the European states forced a system of low tariffs on the Ottomans; under the capitulations, the Ottomans were not in control of taxes on imports into their empire; European military power enforced the capitulations if the Ottomans unilaterally ended the capitulations; also, many European merchants were able to settle in the empire, engage in business  and bankrupt local merchants who were not protected by capitulations and were unfamiliar with modern trade; nevertheless, until the Crimean War, Ottoman export-import was relatively balanced; afterward, major deficit began to show in balance of trade.

Therefore, foreign threat and influence was a major factor in the ultimate outcome of the reforms; there were two types of threats; first, the UK which by the second half of the 19th century had become a net exporter of finished goods to the lucrative Ottoman market and a net importer of raw material form the empire for its industry.

The UK, therefore, had a real interest in promoting some reforms and defending the integrity of the empire; capitulations played an important role in the British domination of Ottoman economy; hence, it is not surprising that the Ottomans were not able to tackle the capitulation problem as they depended on the good will of the UK to hold off Russian plans to dismember the empire; furthermore, there was a geo-political reason for the UK defending the integrity of the empire; for the UK the empire [similar to Qajar Iran] acted as a buffer against Russian expansion and for protection of India; a second threat to the empire was Russia which actively sought the dismemberment of the empire; Russia viewed the fate of the empire as being inevitable collapse and was interested in gaining control of its Balkan possessions and the straits; a good example of clash between this Russian policy and the UK policy is the Crimean War.





1871 Russia abrogated Treaty of Paris
Russo-Ottoman war further weakened Turkey
British defensive treaty with Ottoman empire secured right to occupy and administer





The Young Turks:

From Left: Ismael Enver Pasha (1881-1922), Muhammad Tal'at Pasha (1872-1921),
Ahmad Jamal Pasha (1872-1922)






Sultan Murad V (1840-1904)

Sultan Abd al-Hamid II

Sultan Muhammad V
The last Sultan Muhammad VI