Sick Man of Europe?

At the dawn of the 20th century, Europe was experiencing its belle époque. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was over and it was a time of unprecedented political stability, with economies growing rapidly and connecting with each other, new technologies emerging to improve people's lives and the arts adopting modern forms. The late 19th and the early 20th centuries were a period of coexistence of several empires. These empires were competing with each other, guided by rationalist policies and theories, with the competition taking the form of colonialism, race for influence around the globe and later militarization.

One of these empires, however, was not really experiencing a Beautiful Age. The Ottoman state had reached its zenith in the 16th century with its territories spanning three continents stretching from Hungary to the Persian Gulf and from North Africa to the Caucasus; but by the late 19th century it had weakened considerably, as attempts to transform the empire into a modern state, similar to the European ones, were doomed to failure.

The core of the Ottoman Empire was part of the westward Turkic migrations from Central Asia that began during the 10th century. Turks established a permanent foothold in Anatolia when the Seljuks under the leadership of Sultan Alparslan gained a historic victory at the Battle of Manzikert against the Byzantines in 1071. The Seljuk Sultanate ruled in Anatolia until the 13th century when they became Mongol vassals. During the demise of the Seljuks, Anatolia was divided into a patchwork of independent states, the so called beyliks.

The Beginnings

Sultan Mehmed II 'the Conqueror' at the Gates of Constantinople (Oil painting by Fausto Zonaro, 1903)

One of those beyliks was that of Sultan Osman, who in late 13th century, at a time when other beyliks were fighting with each other, set about to enlarge its territories in north-western Anatolia at the expense of the neighbouring Byzantine lands. During the century following Osman’s death, Ottoman rule began to extend over the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.

The Ottomans' rise was crowned in 1453, when the Ottoman Army led by Sultan Mehmed II (the Conqueror), captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (Istanbul was the common name for the city in Turkish even before the conquest, but in official use by the Ottoman authorities, other names such as Kostantiniyye were preferred in certain contexts).

The conquest of Istanbul marked the beginning of a long period of territorial expansion. The empire prospered under the rule of committed Sultans, culminating in the rule of Sultan Süleyman I (the Magnificent). Conquests were driven by the discipline and innovation of the army and expansion went as far as the gates of Vienna, where the Ottoman siege in 1529 failed to capture the city. Meanwhile, the navy established the empire as a great trading power and the Ottoman state also flourished economically, thanks to its having taken control of the major overland trade routes between Europe and Asia.

The Ottoman state was dynastic and medieval in its organising principles and its official ideology was religious. The government was based on Muslim religious law sharia, which was supplemented by royal ordinances and customary law. The main non-Muslim communities were Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Gregorian Christians and Jews. The millet system of communal self-government gave the Ottoman state a multi-ethnic character, which was generally absent in Europe.

Sultan Süleyman with two dignitaries (Miniature by Nigâri, c. 1560)

Non-Muslim communities were, however, not always content with their subordinate status. The rise of nationalism swept through many countries in the period after the French Revolution, and the Ottoman Empire was not immune. A burgeoning national consciousness, together with a growing sense of ethnic nationalism, made nationalistic thought one of the most significant Western ideas imported by the Ottoman Empire, as it was forced to deal with nationalism-related issues both within and beyond its borders.

The state would gradually lose its control over the empire’s territories. On one hand, Ottomans were forced to allow the European powers to intervene on behalf of the Empire’s Christian subjects, which meant increasing foreign influence on Ottoman internal affairs, and on the other hand, in a time when feudalism was weakening elsewhere, the Ottoman Empire saw the rise of local ruling notables, called ayan, in the provinces. These local rules were able to exercise almost absolute authority, collecting taxes for themselves, thus depriving the Imperial Treasury of an important financial source.

It was the people, of all ethnic and religious groups, who suffered in this period. Their situation worsened by a large population growth in 16th and 17th centuries accompanied by a decline in food production. Landless peasants began to flee to the cities in the hope of making a living. Those remaining in the countryside joined rebel bands, which further weakened the central governments power in the provinces.

The Ottoman rulers failed to identify the real causes of the decline, since they were completely isolated from developments outside. European powers were exercising mercantilist policies promoting local productivity and favouring a national bourgeoisie. They were advancing in industry, science, technology as well as political and military organization, which all remained strange to Ottomans, where interest groups saw little need to change the status quo from which they were benefiting. It was not until 1727, three centuries after Johannes Gutenberg, that the first printing press was set up in Istanbul by a Hungarian convert called İbrahim Müteferrika.

New Order

Sultan Selim III inspecting the Nizam-ı Cedid army

It was in the late 18th century, during the reign of Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) when the Ottoman Empire began to break its isolation, study European practices and introduce fundamental reforms. Selim created a new European-style army called the Nizam-ı Cedid (New Order) and a new treasury called the İrad-ı Cedid (New Revenue). Factories and technical schools were opened with the assistance of European advisors. Nevertheless, Selim could not complete his reform schedule since the Empire was preoccupied not only with rising nationalistic movements among its subjects that erupted in the form of the Serbian Revolt in 1804 and a war with Russia in 1806-1812, but also with Napoléon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Expedition in 1798-1799. Furthermore, the anarchy existing throughout the provinces was too great for Selim to cope with. Pressure against him and his new army on the part of the old army establishment mounted and the Janissaries rose in revolt, induced the Sheikh-ul-Islam to grant a decree against the reforms, toppled Selim and placed his nephew Mustafa on the throne.

Sultan Mahmud II (Oil painting by Henri-Guillaume Schlesinger, 1826)

The reign of Sultan Mustafa IV was short-lived; he was deposed by another rebellion and replaced by Sultan Mahmud II, a determined reformer. Mahmud started by decreasing the power of his opponents. He accepted provincial ayan’s rights in return for their recognition of the rule of Sultan and launched expeditions to remove those who rebelled. He diluted the influence of religious scholars, known as ulema, and religious organizations. However, his most important achievement was the abolition of the corrupted Janissary corps in 1826, in an episode known as the Vaka-i Hayriye (Auspicious Incident) and the establishment of a new modern Ottoman Army called Asakir-i Mansure-i-Muhammediye (Victorious Mohammedan Soldiers). This new army, which was modelled entirely on the earlier Nizam-ı Cedid corps, was organized along European lines and trained by European advisors like Helmuth von Moltke who later became the chief commander of the German Army. From the Mahmudian period onwards, the army became a major instrument for protecting the state and the driving force of modernization.

Mahmud’s reforms had immediate effects such as European style clothing, architecture, legislation, institutional organization and land reform. He restructured the government by founding Ministries; he launched advisory councils to prepare new laws and regulations. It was during his reign when the first Ottoman newspaper was issued, the postal service was launched and the first population census was carried out. When Mahmud died in 1839, the empire was diminished in territorial sense, but consolidated administratively.

Sultan Mahmud II was succeeded by his son, who ascended to the Ottoman throne as Sultan Abdülmecid I in a time notable for the rise of nationalist movements within the Empire's territories and the rebellion in Egypt. The imperial army was defeated by that of the rebel Egyptian viceroy Kavalalı Mehmed Ali Pasha and it was only through the intervention of European powers that Mehmed Ali Pasha was obliged to come to terms and the Empire was saved from further attacks.

The Tanzimat Era

Sultan Abdülmecid I (Oil painting thought to be by Jean Portet or the Ottoman painters Sebuh or Ruben Manas, ca. 1840s)
Grand Vizier Mustafa Reşid Pasha

Abdülmecid immediately carried out the reforms to which his father had devoted himself. The Tanzimat (Reorganization) reforms, which effectively started the modernization of the Ottoman Empire, were announced in November 1839 with an edict known as the Hatt-ı Şerif (Noble Edict) of Gülhane. These reforms were aimed to encourage Ottomanism among the ethnic groups and to stop the rise of secessionist nationalist movements. The decree emphasized the equality of all subjects as Ottomans, regardless of their religion and race, and expressed principles of liberty, freedom from oppression, equality before law, security of life, property and honour for all subjects of the empire. These reforms, implemented under the leadership of Abdülmecid’s Grand Vizier Mustafa Reşid Pasha, also aimed at the development of a fair taxation system, reorganization of the army, modernization of the financial system, development of secular education system, introduction of modern laws and creation of provincial assemblies.

Proclamation of the Noble Edict of Gülhane

All these reforms intended to change the traditional Ottoman system based on theocratic principles to that of a modern state. However, they did not manage to reverse the decline of the empire. Not only was the empire suffering from a lack of resources and adequately trained man force, a tough opposition by the conservatives who argued that the reformers were destroying the empire's fundamental Islamic character by following the Western modes was a major obstacle faced by the reformers. On the other hand, reforms were also slowed down by interference from the major European powers, continuing wars and the emergence of nationalist movements throughout the Empire.

Satirical cartoon on the 'Eastern Question' (Harpers Weekly, November 1877)

European powers were well aware of the Ottoman Empire’s situation. As the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was believed to be imminent and the reforms were deemed as futile efforts, the European nations engaged in a power struggle to safeguard their military, strategic and commercial interests in the Ottoman domains.

The “Eastern Question”, which began to arise for the European powers in the late 18th century, concerned the problem of what to do about the weakening Ottoman Empire.  As early as 1853, Tsar Nicholas of Russia said to the British envoy in St.Petersburg, Sir George Hamilton: "We have on our hands a sick man, a very sick man. It will be, I tell you frankly, a great misfortune if, one of these days, he should slip away from us before all necessary arrangements were made."

Crimean War

Ottoman soldiers in the Crimean War (Photograph by Carol Szathmari, Austro-Hungarian painter, who is considered the world's first combat photographer)

The European powers, however, were not in consensus as far as those “arrangements” mentioned by Tsar Nicholas were concerned, since they all had different interests and different aims on the Ottoman Empire. This divergence soon led to a war. In 1851, Napoleon III had forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the sovereign authority in the Holy Land. Russians were not happy about this and they made counter claims. Pointing to two earlier treaties, in 1757 and 1774, the Ottomans reversed their earlier decision, renouncing the French treaty and insisting that Russia was the protector of the Christian faith in the Ottoman Empire. France responded with a show of force, sending a warship to the Black Sea, combined with aggressive diplomacy. The Sublime Porte changed its mind again and with a new treaty, between France and the Ottoman Empire, France and the Catholic Church was declared as the supreme Christian organization in the Holy Land, following which, the Russian Army began to mobilise along the Danube frontier. Meanwhile, Britain, which was already in rivalry with Russian in Central Asia, was seeking to maintain the integrity of the Ottoman Empire.

Both Britain and France hoped for a diplomatic compromise between Russia and Ottoman Empire, but when negotiations failed, the war began. Although Britain agitated the Ottomans against Russia, it was the latter who started the war by using the security of the Orthodox Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire as a pretext in order to break down the British influence on the Sublime Porte and to advance its own interests.

Hostilities commenced on July 3, 1853 when the Russian Army entered the Danubian provinces of the Ottoman Empire with a force of 35 thousand troops and 72 artillery guns. As fighting was going on in the Balkans, Russian warships destroyed a squadron of Ottoman frigates at the Turkish Black Sea port of Sinop on November 30, 1853. The destruction of the Turkish fleet and heavy Ottoman casualties alarmed both Great Britain and France, which stepped forth in defence of the Ottoman Empire. Late in March of 1854, after Russia ignored an Anglo-French ultimatum to withdraw from the Danubian Principalities, Great Britain and France declared war, later joined by the Kingdom of Sardinia.

Ömer Lütfi Pasha (commander-in-chief of the Ottoman forces in the Crimean War)

In September 1854, Allied troops landed in the Crimea. Sevastopol resisted for one year until surrendering in September 1855. Other major battles of the war were Alma, Balaklava and Inkerman (1854) and the Allied capture of Malakhov and Redan. Meanwhile, Russians gained advantages in the eastern part of Turkey and occupied Kars in November 1855. The accession of Tsar Alexander II to the Russian throne, the capture of Sevastopol and Austria’s threat to enter the war on the Allied side if Russia refused to sue for peace led to peace negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Paris signed on March 30, 1856. Russia was defeated.

The Treaty of Paris recognized the Ottoman Empire as a member of equal standing with the other members of the Concert of Europe and guaranteed –at least in theory- its territorial integrity. The Ottoman Empire had at last won the acceptance which it had striven since the reign of Sultan Selim III.

However, there was another side to the story. Since the Ottoman Empire was financially not in a position to finance such a large scaled war, it had to resort to foreign borrowing. The first foreign loan in Ottoman history was obtained in 1854 and as the Empire continued to slide down, foreign borrowing went on in a vicious spiral. Therefore, although the Ottomans had won on the battlefield, the Crimean War triggered the economic collapse of the Empire.

Proclamation of the Imperial Reform Edict (The London Illustrated News)

At the close of the Crimean War, Tanzimat reforms were supplemented by a similar statute promulgated in February 1856, named the Islâhat Hatt-ı Hümâyûnu (Imperial Reform Edict), promising equality in education, government appointments, and administration of justice to all regardless of religion and race, influenced by the modern European ideas of the time.

Cartoon satirizing the Great Powers' designs on Ottoman territories

During the reign of Abdülmecid’s successor, Sultan Abdülaziz, reforms continued under the leadership of two able chief ministers, Fuat Pasha and Ali Pasha. However, the Empire was suffering a rapidly deteriorating economy, which was made worse by irresponsible expenditures such as building palaces along the Bosphorus, and an increasing debt burden. There was chaos in the Balkans caused by Russian-sponsored uprisings with nationalist motives. Abdülaziz could not stand these pressures and as a result of heightened public discontent. He was deposed by his ministers on May 30, 1876 and his death a few days later was attributed to suicide. Abdülaziz’s biggest achievements were to modernize the Ottoman Navy, which in 1875 ranked third in the world after British and French navies and to establish the first Ottoman railroad network.

While the Tanzimat era was not without some successes, the ability of the Ottoman state to deal with ethnic uprisings was seriously called into question. Greece had declared its independence in 1829 and reforms did not halt the rise of nationalism in the Danubian Principalities and Serbia, which had been semi-independent for almost six decades; in 1875 Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Wallachia and Moldova declared their independence from the Empire.

Abdülhamid’s Reign

Sultan Mehmed Murad V reigned only for 93 days before also being deposed, due to mental illness, and was succeeded by his brother Sultan Abdülhamid II, who would be the last Sultan to exercise autocratic power. Abdülhamid ascended the throne in the middle of domestic and international crises. Ethnic agitation was not only continuing in the Balkans, but it had erupted among Armenians in Eastern Anatolia as well, causing an increasing anxiety among the Muslim communities. Terrorized refugees were fleeing from territories separated from the Empire and everybody was fighting everybody else. The havoc caused by military operations had led to famine in some areas and the Treasury was bankrupt.

Sultan Abdülhamid II

Abdülhamid knew that his chances were limited and he attempted to manage the crises by exploiting the differences among his domestic and foreign foes. He used Russia against Britain, and Germany against both. He formed tribal regiments among the Kurds, on the lines of the Russian Cossacks, as a means of co-opting and bribing unruly Kurdish tribes. They helped keep Armenian nationalists at bay, but when attacks by Armenian nationalists led to violent and disproportionate retaliation by local Muslims, Abdülhamid’s strategies could not prove to be an efficient substitute for orderly government.

By that time, there was a group of nationalist intellectuals gaining influence in the bureaucracy. This group, called Young Ottomans (Yeni Osmanlılar) and led by the influential Grand Vizier Midhat Pasha and the popular poet Namık Kemal advocated a constitutional and parliamentary government. They were unsatisfied with the bureaucratic absolutism of the Tanzimat of which the imitation of western norms, in their opinion, did not work well with Ottoman political culture.

Sultan Abdülhamid II worked with the Young Ottomans to bring to life some form of constitutional arrangements and as a result the constitution, known as the Kanun-u Esasi, was announced on December 23, 1876 and the Parliament assembled on March 19, 1877. It was the first comprehensive Ottoman constitution and the first in any Islamic country. The constitution retained full executive power of the Sultan to whom ministers were individually responsible. In legislation the Sultan was assisted by a two-chamber Parliament, the lower house (Heyet-i Mebusan) indirectly elected and the upper house (Heyet-i Ayan) nominated by the ruler.

Proclamation of the Ottoman Constitution (L'Illustration)

The constitution, however, did not stop the turmoil the Empire was in. Instead of appeasing the Russians, the Parliament only served to hasten the Russian declaration of war. Abdülhamid II used the war as an excuse to suspend the constitution and close the Parliament indefinitely and sent its architect, Midhat Pasha, to exile. The Turco-Russian War ended in a defeat for the Ottomans. The Sublime Porte had to formally recognise the independence of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria and give up some of its Eastern territories to Russia.  Later, due to the insistence of the Great Powers, the treaty was revised at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which, although reducing the great advantages acquired by Russia, marked the end of centuries of Ottoman sovereignty in the Balkans.

Abdülhamid II used ruthless and often repressive authoritarian methods in dealing with the separatist tendencies. He concentrated much of the administration of the Empire into his own hands but also continued the reforms in several areas, such as telegraph communications, railways and education. He believed that the only way to save the Empire would be the formulation of a new and more relevant ideological principle, by refashioning the notion of the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph to command the allegiance not only of Ottoman subjects but of all Muslims. He considered his position as Caliph superior to that of Sultan and emphasized on Islamism rather than Ottomanism. The idea was to ensure the allegiance of non-Ottoman Muslims to challenge the colonising European powers.

Bosnians reading the proclamation on the province's annexation by Austria-Hungary

The empire was in an irreversible process of collapse and this ideological shift would not help to stop the meltdown. Territorial losses continued: Cyprus was placed under British control in 1878; France, which was already controlling Algeria, invaded Tunisia in 1881; Britain seized control of Egypt's government; Crete declared union with Greece in 1908; Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia in 1908 and Bulgaria declared independence the same year. These territorial losses were mainly caused by the weakening of an empire that had missed the Industrial Revolution and its dissolution against the currents of nationalism that emerged as a result of this revolution.

Concentration of power in his own hands was the ultimate expression of Abdülhamid’s fear of the decentralization of authority, which in his view had presented the Balkan provinces with the opportunity to secede from the Empire. He had also other fears, especially a deep fear of being deposed, which in time took the form of paranoia. He established a web of spies and agents running an extensive system of intelligence gathering and secluded himself to the Yıldız Palace, rarely appearing in public.  His fears were actually justified. In addition to the attempted coups in earlier periods of his reign, opposition groups tried to remove him in 1895, 1896, 1902-03 and there have been assassination plots in 1899 and 1905. Abdülhamid knew who the plotters and malcontents were. Some were imprisoned, some exiled, some fired and many were tempted into submission.

Grand Vizier Midhat Pasha

The murder of Midhat Pasha was exceptional. Abdülhamid was receiving intelligence that Mehmed Murad V was back in good health and Midhat Pasha, the reformer, was plotting to take him back to the throne which he could keep only for three months. Abdülhamid found an excuses, blamed a group of people, including Midhat, for the death of Sultan Abdülaziz. He alleged that Abdülaziz did not commit suicide, but he was murdered. The suspects were tried and sentenced to death, however Abdülhamid pardoned the death sentence and Midhat Pasha was sent to exile in Taif, a city in the Mecca province of what is now Saudi Arabia. In 1884, Midhat Pasha was found strangled to death. Abdülhamid claimed that he had never given such an order, but for the rest of the life he would remain under suspicion. Midhat’s friend and the patriotic poet Namık Kemal was imprisoned for a few months, the appointed governor of one of the Aegean islands. Most of the opponents who fled to Europe returned home after bargaining with Abdülhamid’s agents. As Andrew Mango stated: “Abdülhamid was a manipulator rather than a bloodthirsty tyrant.”

In the later period of his reign of 33 years, Abdülhamid’s absolutist powers began to be challenged by a group intellectuals, students and young army officers who demanded back the Constitution. This group was the Young Turks (Jön Türkler).