Mahmud II

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MAHMUD II (1785–1839), Ottoman sultan (ruled 1808–1839).

Mahmud II succeeded his brother Mustafa IV (r. 1807–1808), who had been enthroned by the leaders of a powerful coalition that eliminated the reform-minded sultan Selim III (r. 1789–1807). The latter had initiated a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the army, a program known as the Nizam-i jedid (New Order), and at increasing the power of the central government. These measures led to the resentment of the Janissaries as well as that of the Ayan (notables) and the Ulema (religious establishment). Selim III was deposed as a result of a military coup led by this coalition and was replaced by his cousin Mustafa IV. This setback prompted the reformists to rally around Bayrakdar Mustafa Pasha (1775–1808), the notable of Ruse (Ruschuk) in Bulgaria. In 1808 Bayrakdar and his forces marched on Istanbul with the aim of reinstating Selim to the sultanate. Upon gaining control of the capital on 28 July 1808, Bayrakdar installed Mahmud (Mustafa's brother and Selim's cousin) as the new sultan, since Selim had been assassinated before his victorious supporters could reach him.

Although Mahmud II was determined to carry out the modernization of the empire, he also drew a lesson from the failure of Selim III and decided to proceed with caution, particularly with regard to the Janissaries, the centuries-old military institution that felt threatened by the reform and whose members were prone to revolt. In November 1808, rumors circulated among the Janissaries that they were to be disbanded. The ensuing riots resulted in the accidental death of Bayrakdar. In 1826 the sultan was able to overcome the stumbling block represented by the Janissaries: he reacted to their rioting by ordering a bloody massacre and decreeing their dissolution. As was the case in Egypt under his contemporary Mehmet Ali (r. 1805–1848), the cornerstone of the reform was the training of a modern army with the help of European advisors and instructors. The financing of these reforms necessitated the increase of the state funds and of the power of the central government at the expense of the local notables. Mahmud II curbed the power of the notables, directly appointed provincial governors, and took away from the religious hierarchy the supervision of the funds of the bureau of inheritance. In addition, he abolished the Timar system (1831), the land grant to the cavalry in exchange for military service. Overall, this sultan initiated the reforms that effectively placed the Ottoman Empire on the path to modernization and Westernization.

Mahmud II faced increased European intervention in Ottoman affairs, especially by Russia, Britain, and France, and the rise of nationalism among his subjects in the Balkans. In the Middle East, the ambitions of Mehmet Ali of Egypt, his nominal vassal, led to protracted warfare, hence furthering European interference in the region. In North Africa, the Ottomans lost Algeria to France (1830), but were successful in regaining direct rule over Tripoli from the Karamanlı dynasty (1835).

In Europe, war was still dragging on with Russia since its invasion of the Danubian Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, in 1806. The Treaty of Bucharest (28 May 1812) restituted these two principalities to the Ottomans but allowed Russia to keep Bessarabia. Also in Europe, the intermittent risings in Serbia against Ottoman rule from 1804 onward eventually forced the sultan to recognize Serbian autonomy (although still under Ottoman suzerainty) and the signing of the Treaty of Edirne (or Adrianople) on 14 September 1829 following a second war against Russia (1828–1829) gave more autonomy to Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia, and recognized the full autonomy of Greece. The Greek uprising that had begun in 1821 achieved full independence in 1830. Unable to quell this insurgence, Mahmud II sought the help of Mehmet Ali and his superior Egyptian army. The success of the Egyptian troops in the Morea (the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece) in 1825 prompted the intervention in favor of Greek autonomy of the Ottomans' traditional European rivals: Russia, Britain, and France. On 20 October 1827, a Franco-British fleet destroyed the combined Ottoman and Egyptian fleet at Navarino.

Mahmud II relied on the service of Mehmet Ali of Egypt to pacify western Arabia. There, Egyptian troops were engaged in a long campaign (1811–1818) to dislodge the Wahhabi warriors from the Hejaz (western Arabia), including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Mehmet Ali laid claim to Syria as a reward for his services to the Ottomans and in 1831 his son Ibrahim (1789–1848) headed a campaign for the occupation of this province. By the end of 1832, the Egyptian army overran Syria and crossed into Asia Minor, where they defeated the Ottomans near Konya and pressed their advance toward the capital Istanbul. The arrival of a Russian naval force in the Bosporus in April 1833 and the pressure exerted by France and Britain led to the conclusion of the Peace of Kutahiya (May 1833) that allowed Mehmet Ali's son to keep Syria in exchange for an annual tribute. Shortly before his death on the first of July 1839, Mahmud II failed in his attempt to regain control of Syria from Mehmet Ali when his army was defeated at Nizip (24 June 1839) and his naval commander defected to the Egyptians with his fleet.

See alsoEgypt; Greece; Ottoman Empire.


Inalcık, Halil, and Donald Quataert, eds. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire. Vol. 2. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Levy, Avigdor. "The Officer Corps in Sultan Mahmud II's New Ottoman Army, 1826–39." International Journal of Middle East Studies 2 (1971): 21–39.

——. "The Ottoman Ulema and the Military Reforms of Sultan Mahmud II." Asian and African Studies (Jerusalem) 7 (1971): 13–39.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. 2nd ed. New York, 1968.

Shaw, Stanford J. Between Old and New: The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim III. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

Zakia, Zahra. "The Reforms of Sultan Mahmud II (1808–1839)." In The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilisation, vol. 1, edited by Kemal Çiçek, 418–426. Ankara, 2000.

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Adel Allouche

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Mahmud II

The Ottoman sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839) attempted to hold together and rebuild the empire by administrative reforms, but interior instability and foreign wars proved obstacles too great to overcome.

Mahmud was born on July 20, 1785, son of Abdul Hamid I and cousin of the reforming ruler Selim III. Immured, as his predecessors had been, within the harem, he was removed from formal education and administrative experience. But the highly intelligent and energetic Mahmud escaped the debilitating weakness trapping other Osmanli through the instruction accorded him by Selim III between the latter's dethronement in May 1807 and his execution in July 1808 as his reform-minded supporters battered down the palace gates. The reigning sultan, Mustafa IV, even ordered the execution of Mahmud, his own brother, but the prince escaped detection by hiding in an empty furnace.

Mustafa was deposed, Mahmud was elevated to the throne, and a reform administration was returned to power. Within the year a Janissary revolt temporarily ended modernization efforts. To assure his position, Mahmud had Mustafa, his only male Ottoman relative, executed, assuring loyalty to himself as the last of the Osmanli.

Few changes were made domestically through the Napoleonic period, since Mahmud was consolidating governmental control over the provinces. Local power structures were reduced on both sides of the Bosporus, and Ottoman authority was reestablished in Mesopotamia (1810) and the Hejaz (1813). Serbian autonomy was recognized after the Turks failed to regain control, and the Russians, in a war begun in December 1806, acquired Bessarabia by the Treaty of Bucharest on May 28, 1812. Internationally, the Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna tacitly allowed Turkey to reestablish the ancient rule on Straits navigation, providing the waterway be closed to all warships in peacetime.

Wars and Revolts

The Greek War for Independence occupied nearly a decade of Mahmud's reign, from the initial weak rebellion in the Morea (Peloponnesus) in 1820 to the Russian intervention of 1828—1829. Despite Turco-Egyptian control of the situation, international pressure, including the destruction of the Turkish and Egyptian fleets by a tripartite European force at Navarino in 1827, forced recognition of full Greek independence upon the Sultan.

The purpose of the reforms for which Mahmud is noted was to strengthen the central government's powers and widen its sphere of influence. The basis for change was a modern army, not the fractious, undisciplined Janissaries, whose complaints had disrupted the state, to one degree or another, since raiding had ceased to be a profitable enterprise. On June 16, 1826, backed by 14,000 loyal artillerymen, Mahmud provoked a typical Janissary assault on the palace. The attackers were wiped out, and Janissaries throughout the empire were destroyed or dispersed.

Unfortunately, before Mahmud could fully train their replacements and so gain the power to enforce his restored authority, Russia declared war. This attack permanently stunted the growth of the new Turkish army; it also resulted in the Treaty of Adrianople (1829), which, although not seriously affecting Ottoman borders, ended most Turkish control over the Balkans by providing for the lifetime appointment of governors and reducing provincial obligations to a province's annual tribute payment.

Mahmud's Reforms

Internal changes during Mahmud's reign were largely military. Feudalism was abolished throughout the empire, eliminating the cavalry and recruits provided by local fief holders. National recruiting was less effective; yet, by 1834, a militia provided at least fundamental training at the local level. To strengthen his new army, the Sultan established military schools, sent officers to England to study, and imported Prussian military advisers.

The result of these military changes was increased control over local government. The Kurds of Iraq were subdued. Tripoli was effectively reintegrated, but Algiers was lost to France, straining relations with the Sultan. One salutary administrative change was removal of the right of provincial governors to impose the death penalty. Civil service training was improved, and better salaries created a more efficient administration, reducing the need for graft. Further improvement resulted from tax reforms which eliminated inefficient collection methods and so improved revenues.

Power Struggles

To ensure his changes, Mahmud attempted to curtail religious powers that might inspire counterreformation movements. Persecution of the various dervish orders followed the Janissary massacre. In this attempt the Sultan only partially succeeded. However, widespread distribution of Western literature through the establishment of local presses spread Europe's 19th-century liberal ideas and advanced the modernizing process. For his efforts, Mahmud was roundly hated by his Moslem subjects, a factor exacerbating his dislike of popular Mohammed Ali, his Egyptian vassal.

The Egyptians, seeking compensation for their assistance during the Greek revolt, invaded the Levant in 1831, taking city after city, even into Anatolia. In the Convention of Kütahya on April 8, 1833, Cairo gained Syria, but Egyptian troops pulled back behind the Taurus Mountains.

The Russians had landed troops in the Bosporus region during the crisis, ostensibly to aid the Sultan. This led to the Treaty of Hunkiar Iskelesi (July 4, 1833), which effected a major change in Turkey's relations with Europe. The treaty was an alliance between the signatories assigning to the Czar the right unilaterally to intervene in Turkish affairs—heretofore the prerogative of the Great Powers acting in concert. Mahmud's hatred of Mohammed Ali grew.

Toward the end of his reign, the strong-minded Mahmud was faced with rebellions in Bosnia and Albania, but the European provinces were nevertheless sufficiently stable in 1837 for the energetic sultan to make an unprecedented trip through that area. In his last days, he ill-advisedly ordered a new attack on the Egyptians in Syria. News of the Turkish defeat at Nizib on June 24, 1839, never reached the dying Mahmud. On July 1, 1839, he was succeeded by his 16-year-old son, Abdul Mejid.

Further Reading

General biographical information on Mahmud II is in Frederick Stanley Rodkey, The Turco-Egyptian Question in the Relations of England, France and Russia, 1832-1841 (1924), and A. D. Alderson, The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty (1956). □

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Mahmud II, 1784–1839, Ottoman sultan (1808–39), younger son of Abd al-Hamid I. He was raised to the throne of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) upon the deposition of his brother, Mustafa IV, and continued the reforms of his cousin, Selim III. During his reign, the Eastern Question assumed increasing importance. Mahmud inherited the Russo-Turkish War of 1806–12, which ended with Turkey's loss of Bessarabia. However, Russia was obliged to end its support of the Serbian rebels under Karageorge, and Serbia returned (1813) to Turkish control. In 1817, Mahmud recognized Miloš as prince of Serbia, a Turkish vassal. He suppressed (1822) the rebellion of Ali Pasha and defeated the Greeks in the first phase of the Greek War of Independence. At the height of his power he ruthlessly carried out (1826) a long-cherished project—the destruction of the Janissaries. The Turkish successes in Greece were largely due to the troops sent by the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, under the command of Ibrahim Pasha. British, Russian, and French intervention led to the destruction (1827) of the Egyptian fleet at Navarino, the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, a humiliating peace (see Adrianople, Treaty of), and the independence of Greece. The sequel of the Greek war was the invasion of Turkey by Ibrahim Pasha after Mahmud had refused to give Syria to Muhammad Ali as reward for his aid against the Greeks. At Konya, the Turkish army was completely routed (1832), and Constantinople was saved only by the intervention of a Russian fleet. Mahmud was obliged to accede (1833) to Muhammad Ali's demands and, by a secret agreement with Russia, promised to close the Dardanelles to all warships hostile to Russia. In 1839, war with Egypt was resumed, and on the day of Mahmud's death, news came of the ignominious surrender of the Turkish fleet in the harbor of Alexandria. Mahmud's son and successor, Abd al-Majid, granted Egypt virtual independence.

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Mahmud II (1785–1839) Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1808–39). Mahmud's reign saw conflict with Greece, Russia and Egypt. He was initially successful against Greece in the Greek War of Independence, but Russian and British intervention forced him to capitulate (1829) and led to the Russo-Turkish War (1828–29). Mahmud then lost the support of the Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, which led to the invasion of Turkey, precipitating Egyptian independence.