Empires: Ottoman

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Ottoman state builders (c. 1300–1922) erected and maintained one of the more durable and successful examples of empire-building in world history. Born during medieval times in the northwest corner of then Byzantine-Asia Minor, the Ottoman state achieved world-empire status in 1453, with its conquest of Constantinople. For a century before and two centuries after that epochal event, the Ottoman Empire was among the most powerful political entities in the Mediterranean-European world. Indeed, but for the Ming state in China, the Ottoman Empire in about 1500 was likely the most formidable political system on the planet.

The rapid expansion of the Ottoman state from border principality to world empire was due partly to geography and the proximity of weak enemies; but it owed more to Ottoman policies and achievements. After the migrations of Turkish peoples from Central Asia broke the border defenses of the Byzantine Empire back in the eleventh century, many small states and principalities vied for supremacy. The Ottoman dynasty emerged on the Byzantine borderlands not far from Constantinople, and its supporters employed pragmatic statecraft and methods of conquest and rewarded the human material at hand—whether Greek, Bulgarian, Serb, Turkish, Christian, or Muslim—for good service. These pragmatic policies, coupled with an exceptional openness to innovation, including military technology, go far in explaining why this particular minor state ultimately attained world-power status.

Due to developments elsewhere in the world, notably the rise of capitalism and industrialism in Europe and then elsewhere, and the New World wealth that poured into Europe, the Ottoman Empire lost its preeminent position, and by about 1800 it had declined to the status of a second-class economic, military, and political power. Internally, after its initial rapid expansion, innovation diminished as entrenched bureaucrats and statesmen acted to preserve positions for their children and closed entry to newcomers with fresh ideas. Internationally, the state encountered increasingly powerful European states on its western and northern fronts, and some of these new states had been enriched by New World wealth. Warfare became more expensive and more difficult, and expansion finally ground to a halt in the late seventeenth century.

The empire's grand defeat before the gates of Vienna in 1683 was followed by some victories, but mainly it experienced defeats during the subsequent one hundred years. During the nineteenth century, a successful series of programs measurably strengthened both the state and its military. The state grew vastly in size and in the scope of its activities. Whereas the early modern state primarily collected taxes and maintained order, the more modern state took responsibility for the health, education, and welfare of its subjects. Despite an impressive record of reform, however, the empire was defeated in the First World War, and was partitioned by the Great Powers, notably Great Britain and France. Ottoman successor states today include Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Montenegro, Rumania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Syria, Turkey, and other states in the Balkans, the Arab world, North Africa, and along the north shore of the Black Sea.

Military, Fiscal, and Political Organization

In its domestic politics, the Ottoman state underwent continuous change. The Ottoman ruler, the sultan, began as one among equals in the early days of the state. Between about 1453 and the later sixteenth century, however, sultans ruled as true autocrats. Subsequently, others in the imperial family and other members of the palace elites—often in collaboration with provincial elites—maintained real control of the state until the early nineteenth century. Thereafter, bureaucrats and sultans vied for domination. In sum, the sultan nominally presided over the imperial system for all of Ottoman history but actually, personally, ruled only for portions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It seems important to stress that the principle of sultanic rule by the Ottoman family was hardly ever challenged through the long centuries of the empire's existence. While this rule was a constant, change otherwise was the norm in domestic politics.

Political power almost always rested in the imperial center and, depending on the particular period, extended into the provinces either through direct military and political instruments or, indirectly, through fiscal means. The state exerted its military, fiscal, and political authority through a number of mechanisms that evolved continuously. One cannot speak of a single, invariant Ottoman system or method of rule, except to say that it was based on policies of flexibility and adaptiveness. Military, fiscal, and political instruments changed constantly, hardly a surprising situation in an empire that existed from the medieval to the modern age. Moreover, much of what historians thought they knew about Ottoman institutions has been challenged and rewritten. Take, for example, the cliché that the janissaries' prowess as soldiers declined when they ceased living together in bachelor barracks and served as married men. It turns out that already in the fifteenth century, when the janissaries were the most feared military unit in the Mediterranean world, at least some were married with families.

The Ottoman state at first depended on the so-called timar system to compensate much of its military, which was dominated by cavalrymen fighting with bows and arrows. Under this system, the cavalryman was granted revenues from a piece of land sufficient to maintain himself and his horse. He did not actually control the land, but only the taxes deriving from it. Peasants worked the land and the taxes they paid supported the timar cavalryman while he was on campaign as well as when he was not fighting. In reality, the timar was at the center of Ottoman affairs for the earlier era of Ottoman history, perhaps only during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and part of the sixteenth centuries. Hardly had the state developed the timar system when the regime began to discard it, and the cavalry it was meant to support. Increasingly, the empire turned to infantrymen bearing firearms. As it did, the janissaries ceased to be a small, praetorian elite and evolved into a firearmed infantry of massive size. To support these full-time soldiers required vast amounts of cash, and so tax-farming replaced the timar system as the central fiscal instrument. (Timar holders owed service in exchange for the timar revenues, whereas tax farmers paid a sum at the tax farm auction for the right to collect the taxes, and they incurred no service obligation.) By 1700, lifetime tax-farms—seen as better cash cows—began to become commonplace. Varying combinations of cavalry and firearmed infantry, along with massive uses of artillery worked quite well for a time, but lost out in the arms race to central and eastern European foes by the end of the seventeenth century. The Ottoman military continued to evolve and, in the eighteenth century, firearmed troops of provincial notables and the forces of the Crimean Khanate largely replaced both the janissary infantry and thetimar cavalry. During the nineteenth century, universal male conscription controlled by the central state slowly developed, and this was perhaps the most radical transformation of all. Lifetime tax-farms were abandoned but tax-farming continued, often in the hands of local notables in partnerships with the Istanbul regime.

Judicial Organization

Both religious and secular law regulated the lives of Ottoman subjects. The Ottoman state determined who administered the laws, members drawn from the Muslim, Christian, or Jewish communities, or other officials of the imperial state. That is, the sultan or his agents determined the judges in the respective communities, either directly or by appointing officials who, in turn, named the judges. In principle, the religious laws of the respective communities prevailed, be that community Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. In practice, however, the Muslim courts were commonly used by subjects of all religions. This was due in part to the quality of the justice which the judge (kadi) administered, and in part because it was understood that rulings from such courts might well have greater weight than those from Christian or Jewish sources. In addition to this religious law, the state routinely passed its own, secular ordinances (kanun), while always paying lip-service to its adherence to Islamic principles. In the nineteenth century, when a flood of ordinances and regulations marked the presence of an expanding bureaucratic state, even this lip-service frequently fell away, replaced by claims to scientific management.

Economic Organization

Throughout most of its history, the Ottoman economy remained agrarian, although again the specifics underwent considerable changes over time. During the various periods of the empire's existence, most Ottoman subjects raised a wide variety of different crops for subsistence and for sale. The particular mix of crops changed over time, but cereals remained dominant throughout, supplemented by a changing array of other crops. During the seventeenth century, for example, tobacco imports from the New World ceased as tobacco became commonly cultivated in the Balkan, Anatolian, and Arab provinces of the empire. In the nineteenth century tobacco became a major export commodity.

In theory, the vast majority of land was owned by the sultan and merely used by others to grow crops and raise animals. In practice, however, these land users generally enjoyed security of tenure. Sharecropping was widespread and was the major vehicle by which goods were brought to market. Most cultivators were small landholders; large estates were comparatively unusual. Slave labor was common for domestic work but very rare in agriculture. Commercialization of agriculture enjoyed considerable development in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in order to meet mounting foreign demand and, in the latter period, the increasing number of Ottoman urban residents. The increasing amount produced for sale derived from committing increasing acreage to cultivation, not from more intensive exploitation.

Ottoman manufacturing, for its part, was and remained largely the domain of small-scale hand producers, although there was some mechanization in the late period. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, foreign markets for Ottoman manufactures fell away, but producers continued to enjoy a vast domestic market for their wares. During the nineteenth century, moreover, several new export industries emerged, notably rug making and silk spinning, staffed largely with female labor working outside the home. In transportation and communication there were important technological breakthroughs during the second half of the nineteenth century. Steam replaced sail on the sea, while a relatively thin network of railroads emerged; telegraph lines, for their part, were built to connect most towns and cities.

Religious and National Identity

There is considerable debate about the nature and quality of Ottoman intercommunal relations, and there are many popular stereotypes around the "terrible Turk" who slaughtered Ottoman Christians. For nearly all of Ottoman history, this stereotype is not true. From the fourteenth century until the 1870s, the majority of Ottoman subjects professed one or another version of Christianity as their religion. Yet, throughout this period, the state's official religion was Islam. The key to Ottoman success and a major reason for its longevity lay in the tolerant governmental treatment of those who did not share its professed religion. The Ottoman state, for nearly all of its history, was a multinational, multireligious entity that did not seek to impose Islam on its subjects. This fact has often been forgotten in the confusion surrounding the emergence of the Ottoman successor states, but it remains nonetheless true that much of the credit for the durability of the empire lay in the flexibility of Ottoman rule and the lightness of the Ottoman hand on the subject masses.

The Ottoman system recognized difference and protected those differences so long as its subjects paid their taxes and rendered obedience. Until the eighteenth century, the era of the Enlightenment, minorities in the Ottoman world likely were treated better than in Europe. During some years of the final Ottoman era, however, there admittedly were atrocities. These should be understood in the context of the generally admirable record of intercommunal relations over the 600-year lifespan of the Ottoman Empire.

See alsoBalkans, Islam in the ; Christianity and Islam ; Europe, Islam in ; Expansion ; Judaism and Islam ; Kemal, Namek ; Nur Movement ; Nursi, Said ; Young Ottomans .


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Donald Quataert