The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire was one of the most important events in world history. No matter who you are, your life has been shaped by its existence. For example: their control over the spice trade led Europeans to colonize the Americas; It brought down the Eastern Roman Empire, causing Russia to become the center of Orthodox Christianity, and under its rule the Balkans became an ethnically diverse region that would one day result in WW1.
It was a colossal empire that existed for 700 years, controlling large parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Europe. And it’s fall was colossal too… and a long one. The empire went from being an unstoppable force, to an equal on the world stage, to becoming the sickman of Europe for other countries to play around with. But HOW did it collapse? Well, to look at that, we first need to look at how it was created.
[INTRO] The origins of the Empire are found in nomadic Turkic tribes which migrated to modern day Turkey, in the 11th century. The Ottoman-Turkic tribe settled in Western Anatolia, close to where Istanbul is located today. By the 13th century they became tributaries of the Mongols. As the Mongols conquered more territory, they created refugees such as scholars, merchants, and craftspeople.
Some fled to the Ottomans. And this provided them with a solid economy from which they could fund their military campaigns in the 13th century, conquering parts of Western Anatolia and the Balkans. They turned from a tribe to a principality.
This early Ottoman principality relied on rulers who were actively involved in the governance of their state: rather than ruling from a throne, they ruled from a saddle. They would lead military campaigns, move around their lands to personally inspect what was going on, and people could come to him directly to discuss issues they were having. But as their territory expanded, it became more difficult to be involved in all aspects of the government. And throughout the 13th and 14th centuries the Ottomans would have to find new ways of governing their territory. They decided to copy systems of government from those around them, such as Iranian, Islamic and Greek cultures. They combined them to form one of the most efficient systems of government of its time.
Turning from a principality, into an empire. By the 15th century the Ottomans became so successful that they managed to conquer the city of Constantinople, one of the most important cities at the time, and make THAT their new capital. They would welcome Jews and Christians back into the lands they conquered, requiring them to only pay a special tax for not being muslims. By the standards of its time, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most tolerant places to live on Earth. [EARLY EMPIRE] But around this time the empire also created the first issue that would lead to its eventual demise.
Because now that the empire had a capital, the sultans began ruling from their palace. They would no longer be accessible to officials, generals, or other important people. But rather, they would make use of the Imperial Harem. This was a political organization consisting of the female members of the sultan’s family, his eunuchs, slaves, and concubines.
The sultans would stop attending important government meetings and the people in the harem would control what information he received. As a result, the influence of the people who surrounded the sultan, particularly their mothers and wives, increased. The early sultans would train how to rule by serving as governors or commanders. But as the harem became more important, this tradition was stopped. Meaning that, unlike the early rulers, most new sultans had no experience in ruling an empire, making them highly dependent on other people. And all this made it rather easy to control the sultan.
And many of their mothers would rule the empire by manipulating their son. But the palace also offered many advantages. For example, to keep bureaucrats loyal to the empire, future governors, administrators, and generals received their training here, close to the sultan and his court. These bureaucrats were often young Christian boys taken from their home, converted to islam, and taught adminstrative skills. When they finished their training they would be sent across Ottoman territory to serve the sultan and his empire. As young men, they owed their lives, wealth, and privileges to the sultan himself, keeping them far more loyal than bureaucrats in most other countries.
For example, most places in the world at the time were feudal societies: the king ruled a small piece of land directly. The rest of their territory was ruled over by regional lords who paid tribute to their king. These regional lords also only controlled a small piece of land directly, with various local lords paying tribute to their regional lords, etc. Under this system the kings couldn’t levy taxes or impose laws directly on the territory they officially ruled. If they did try to do this, those lords would likely rebel. But in the Ottoman Empire, the sultan could send his soldiers to distant parts of their territory to collect taxes or impose laws directly.
While the Ottoman Empire did have feudal lords in many parts of the empire, for its time it was a highly centralized government with the sultan able to directly rule over most parts of his territory. But how did they achieve this level of centralization? Well, for this we need to look at the Ottoman army. Most armies at the time were feudal levies, meaning that if there was a war the lords would order a portion of their peasants to bring whatever weapons and armor they could get their hands on, most of whom had never held a weapon before in their life, and march them into war, alongside a small group of professional warriors. In the Ottoman Empire, they had the janissaries. These were Christian boys who were castrated and trained from a young age to be soldiers. They were given weapons, training, and armor from the Ottoman government.
These were professional soldiers, similar to those of ancient Rome or contemporary China. These soldiers could be sent all over the empire to impose the sultan’s authority. And when the Ottomans went to war, the professional army of janissaries, could defeat almost any army of peasant farmers. As a result, the janissaries were seen as an unstoppable force in Europe, Asia, and Africa by the 16h century.
Conquering all of this territory by 1566. [SLOW DECLINE] And this was an important year, because after this the empire’s conquests came to a gradual halt. You see, when they conquered new territory, they assigned new bureaucrats to manage it.
So if you were part of the Ottoman elites, the best chance you had of moving up the social hierarchy up until this point was to conquer new lands, that you might then govern. But now that conquests nearly stopped, the elites looked for new ways to increase their power… And they did so by trying to gain influence in the sultan’s court. Afterall, when you are the most powerful country, there is no greater prize than gaining more influence in your country. This infighting was encouraged by the sultan and his grand vesir. The grand vesir who was basically the sultan’s right hand man.
And they reasoned that if the elites were fighting amongst each other, they wouldn’t be fighting the sultan, thus maintaining stability in the short term. But this infighting didn’t create stability in the long term. As the elites began competing against each other, they became less interested in the stability of the empire, because that stability no longer resulted in further conquests and so no longer resulted in more power for the elites. And after 1566 sultans would be more and more controlled by their mothers, wives, and janissary corps who were all vying for power at court. The sultan was transformed into a breeding machine, with an unlimited amount of women to produce children.
These sultans relied almost entirely on the harem and as a result, had no direct contact with reality. To give an example of such infighting: Sultan Ibrahim ruled from 1640-1648 and had lived his entire life in the harem. He had no experience in ruling and so his mother, tutor, wife, chief eunuch, janissary commander, and the sultan’s right hand man, the grand vezir, all vied for power and influence.
The grand vezir wanted to improve taxation by reducing corruption in the empire, but the elites earned a lot of money from being corrupt. And so the elites rallied around the sultan’s wife to have the grand vezir fired. Eventually the janissaries, various elites, and his own wife had the sultan executed and replaced with their son, a 6-year old boy.
Ibrahim received the title ‘Ibrahim the Mad’ for his greed and incompetence. And this is a cycle the empire went through every couple of decades: someone competent would rule the empire and try to reduce corruption. The elites didn’t want to lose their money and power which they got through said corruption.
And so they would remove the competent people and replace them with incompetent people so that they could keep being corrupt. And so the empire would try to improve itself for a few years, followed by stagnation for a few decades. [EUROPE AND IRAN SURPASS OTTOMANS] But while the Ottomans were confident in their superiority, Europe was confident in their inferiority.
The Ottomans had defeated them in almost every single war they had fought up until the 17th century. Realizing the massive disadvantage of the Europeans, they began to improve their own countries: they centralized their own governments, created professional armies, created new technologies. One such technology was improved shipbuilding. You see, Europeans had a problem: their food was bland. So for 1000s of years Europeans bought spices from East Asia, with trade routes going through the middle east. But by the 15th century all these trade routes were owned by the Ottomans.
And they put very high taxes on the spice trade to make money. Afterall, European cuisine was so bland they could ask almost any price they wanted. And hey, what were the Europeans going to do about it? Sail around Africa? So anyway, then Europeans sailed around Africa, in order to avoid Ottomans taxes.
Even a small boat filled with spices could easily cover their expenses. Then Europeans tried crossing the Atlantic Ocean to go to Asia directly, but instead stumbled upon the americas… Which some countries immediately began conquering. European colonies were established across Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
And where the Ottomans turned towards infighting, the Europeans had to compete with other European Empires for their own survival. They couldn’t afford such infighting. And so Europe spent 2 centuries slowly advancing until their power became equal to that of the Ottomans by the 17th century. On the other side of the empire was Iran.Just like Europe, they too could not stand up against
the mighty Ottoman armies. For centuries they had relied on the spice trade for income. But when the Ottomans raised taxes, the spice trade decreased. Then one day Europeans showed up looking to buy spices. By the end of the 16th century ports littered the Iranian shoreline, welcoming spice traders from Europe and Asia in order to earn money again.
With that money Iran could pay for its own professional army based on the Ottoman janissaries, trained by Europeans officers, and armed with the latest firearms. By the 1570s and 90s, Iran was able to defeat the Ottoman Empire and conquer some territory from them, something no other empire was able to do for centuries. The Ottomans, however, ignored these advances.
They still believed in their own superiority. Afterall, they had defeated the Europeans and Iranians for centuries. Why should they adopt the ways of those whom they still considered inferior? But, this mindset meant that until the 19th century the Ottoman Empire would slowly be left behind as the rest of the world advanced.
And while some advances were indeed made, they were trapped in the cycle of competent rulers posing a threat to corrupt elites, who in turn had that ruler replaced with someone less competent, in order to maintain the corruption that gave those elites their wealth. [OTTOMAN DEFEATS] So by now it’s the late 17th century: Iran and Europe were caught up with the Ottoman and even surpassed it in a couple of ways, while the Empire was busy infighting and stagnating. But now that Europe had caught up with them, they had to deal with a unique quirk in European geopolitics: European politics revolves around creating a balance of power, where no one country is ever too powerful. As soon as a country threatens to become too powerful, the rest of Europe gangs up on them out of fear that Europe will be dominated by that one power. From France to Germany, to the Soviet Union, Europeans tend to form alliances against the most powerful among them. And in 1683 the Ottoman Empire decided it wanted to conquer Vienna, a strategically important city that would allow the Ottomans to conquer central Europe.
But here a coalition of European states managed to beat back the Ottomans and eventually even conquer territory from them. The empire faced many defeats in this war and eventually signed a peace treaty in 1699. This marked a new era for the Ottoman state as it ceased to be the dominant power in Europe. And because the Ottoman Empire was no longer seen as an unstoppable force, various European powers would repeatedly gang up on the Ottoman Empire whenever the opportunity would arise.
This would cost the empire a lot of money while gaining very little in the process. And as the rest of the world advanced, it meant that it became easier and easier to stand up to the Ottomans and for everybody to try to take a piece of territory from them. In fact, there were SO MANY wars that eventually the person researching this for me simply wrote down “a bunch of wars happened around this time”.
This should have been a wakeup call for the Ottomans: they were no longer the superpower they once were and if they wanted to keep up with the rest of the world, they would have to modernize as well. And some attempts were made after the war: they lowered taxes on consumer goods, gathered information on the latest European technologies, modernized the navy, reduced the size of the janissaries to reduce its cost, reduced corruption, and became involved in European politics in order to avoid more wars. And these efforts might have been successful… except that the army didn’t want fewer soldiers and the elites didn’t want to end corruption. And so, as usual, these 2 groups conspired to replace the grand vezir with someone less competent. Once again modernizing for a few years and largely stagnating for a few decades. [EMPIRE CRUMBLES] The next major blow to the Ottoman Empire came in 1774, when it lost a war against Russia.
The Ottomans were forced to sign yet another humiliating peace treaty in which it paid a large sum of money to the Russian state, handed over Crimea, and gave all the Orthodox christians living in the Ottoman Empire Russian protection. This meant that if an Orthodox Christian living in the empire was being mistreated by the Ottomans, they could ask Russia for help. Russia would then be allowed to attack the Ottomans in order to assure their wellbeing. This defeat was such an important defeat that various provinces within the empire lost faith in their own government. And the only way the empire was able to prevent mass rebellion was to give more autonomy to its outer provinces. In particular, they would no longer directly tax these regions but instead allowed local authorities to tax their own provinces and then send a portion of that money to Istanbul.
In essence, the empire was becoming less centralized and more fuedal. These local authorities would, over time, turn into powerful dynasties of their own. Such as the Mamluks in Egypt, who would slowly make Egypt more and more independent. After they became part of the British Empire, the mamluk power came to an end in Egypt in the early 19th century. Yet their legacy endured as Egypt would remain semi-independent until declaring independence in 1922 and kicking out the last of the European troops during the Suez Crisis in 1956.
Becoming one of the least colonized and most successful countries in Africa. Another major example was the Saud family, which gained more influence under this system and would eventually create their own country in 1932 called: Saudi Arabia. This defeat against Russia, however, would be used by the grand vasir as an example why the empire was in drastic need of reform. But the janissaries were unwilling to modernize… so the government simply decided to create a 2nd army, trained by officers from Europe, with the latest weapons, and modern combat training. But having 2 armies was very expensive and soon the Ottoman elites joined with the janissaries to get rid of the sultan and his new army, with a rebellion in 1807.
At the same time, the Ottomans were facing a new problem: nationalism. You see, the Ottomans had for centuries divided their people up based on religion: muslims, Christians, Jewish, Non-Abrahamic religions, etc.. But the French revolution created a new type of identity: a national identity. The idea that a country was united due to a shared national heritage was almost unheard of before the French Revolution.
But because the Ottomans only looked at religion, they did not notice that large groups of peoples were creating their own national identities. And these new identities were in large part based on a common hatred for their Ottoman overlords: Romanians, Greeks, and Serbs. As a multi-ethnic state that looked only at religious identity, the Ottomans were completely unprepared for national revolutions. The first of these revolutions was in Serbia, resulting in the empire giving the new Serbian Principality autonomy in exchange for paying tribute and allowed the Ottomans to station troops in Serbia. This was followed by Greece in 1815, resulting in the creation of the modern Greek state with the help of major European powers.
And this caused a problem for the elites of the empire. You see, all the bureaucrats that used to work in Serbia and Greece were now unemployed. All of a sudden many of the elites realized that the next part of the empire to break away might be the region they control.
And they could now point towards the janissaries for losing wars. And so FINALLY there were enough people in the Ottoman government who wanted to see change. But there was still one major obstacle: the janissaries. To placate them the central government decided that instead of creating a whole second army, they would start by modernizing a small part of the army. In particular, the artillery corps. After a few years, the sultan demanded that the janissaries as a whole were to adopt the modern European style of warfare.
But as usual, the janissaries refused. But this time, they couldn’t count on the elites to support them. The sultan realized that if the empire didn’t reform soon, it would slowly be taken over by European empires, as had happened in the Americas and was happening at the time in Asia.
And so he made the decision that the janissaries, the largest opposition against reform, had. To be. Removed! Or else they would all lose. And so, in the middle of the night on 15 June 1826 the sultan ordered his artillery units to target the janissary barracks, raining down cannon balls while they were asleep. Soldiers loyal to the sultan moved in to kill every last janissary they encountered.
The victory was complete and in a single day one of the largest obstacles to modernisation was destroyed. The next day the janissary corps was officially abolished. The failure of the janissaries to adopt modern weapons, caused the janissaries to be destroyed by modern weapons. [REFORMS BEING] Finally, reforms were implemented in almost every aspect of the government.
But in particular, the empire clamped down on corruption. For example, when a person was banished or sentenced to death, the local ruler would inherit all their wealth. But those local rulers were also the ones who decided who to execute and who to banish.
Meaning that in order to make the most money as a local ruler, you had to kill some of the richest and most competent people, harming the empire as a whole. This was made illegal: you now needed a judge to decide on such punishments and the local rulers could no longer inherit their wealth. The sultan would no longer seclude himself in the harem, instead taking active part in their governance of their realm. People were no longer allowed to be extorted by corrupt officials; the only money they had to pay the government was a tax to the central government.
Nothing else. Various offices were closed, salaries for officials were increased so they had enough money that they wouldn’t have to extort people to keep up their lifestyle, those officials would no longer be trained in the palace but in specialized institutions, permanent embassies were set up in European capitals, newspapers were printed, translation offices would publish the latest advances in technology in their own language, and much more. When the sultan died in 1839, a new class of bureaucrats were in power.
One who gained experience in European embassies, who read about European ideals, and who valued the rule of law. With a new sultan, the bureaucrats wanted to continue the reforms. The empire now had an elite who wanted to keep modernizing their state. In particular, the government declared that they would take responsibility for the economic management of the country, similar to the rest of the European government. Building railroads, setting up schools, and creating large companies to industrialize.
As a result, the government became more centralized, with the number of bureaucrats growing 5 times as large. The government particularly wanted to keep the empire together. It did so with a telegraph system that could inform Istanbul about a rebellion in just a few minutes and with a railroad that could send troops to restore control in a few days. [FOREING DISMANTLING OF THE OTTOMANS] But while the empire was performing some much-needed selfcare, others would try to take advantage of them: Russia used their title as protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire to take over the Balkans in the Crimean War in the 1850s. The Ottomans won this war with the support of Great Britain, France, and Sardinia, however, cost them a lot of money.
So much money that the Ottomans became deeply indebted to European banks. They had to spend so much money on repaying their debt that they needed to borrow more money to cover their government expenses. In essence, the empire became reliant on European powers.
This, on top of everything else, meant that those European powers could relatively easily take territory away from the Ottomans. In 1939 the British took Yemen, in 1860 a rebellion in Lebanon caused European empires to send troops there to ‘keep the peace’, in essence stationing European troops right next to the Ottoman heartland. Nationalist rebellions popped up in the Balkans in the 1870s, supported by various other European powers, causing Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro to become independent in 1878 with Russia taking a few districts in Eastern Anatolia, Austria-Hungary taking Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the British taking Cyprus. Tunisia was taken over by France in 1881 and Egypt was taken over by the British in 1882. In 1885 East Rumelia had a revolution and joined Bulgaria.
Yet despite the military disasters and territorial losses, the late 19th century was a period of significant social, economic, and cultural transformation. It drained a swamp in Cilicia to turn it into a cotton plantation, they produce more olives, silk, and many other raw materials… Yet they produced very little manufactured goods. To become a fully industrialized state, they would need the latest European technology. But how were they going to get companies to do business in their empire? Well, they made a deal, in exchange for foreign companies setting up modern industries and the empire receiving cheap loans, these companies wouldn’t have to pay any taxes.
So instead of earning money from industrialization, they instead got to borrow more money… Causing a lot of financial problems. While the economy grew, 13% of government income was spent on replaying loans. As a result, the empire needed to find new sources of income and they did so by setting up their own large companies, such as the Régie Company.
It was given a monopoly on the production and trade of tobacco. As a result, the empire earned a lot of money while small tobacco farmers had to move to other countries to grow their crop, the price of tobacco rose, which in turn resulted in riots and protests, and so the company’s private militia killed more than 20 thousands people in order to keep their monopoly on tobacco. And while the empire became more and more indebted to European powers, they were still better off than most other countries at the time.
The high debt in Tunisia and Egypt caused the European powers to simply invade and colonize these countries. To see where this eventually leads, see my African Decolonisation video. It was argued that least the Ottomans weren’t a European colony. If you’ve ever wondered why so many countries refused to let western companies do business in their country after they decolonised and turn towards socialism; it’s cases like the Ottoman Empire that made them afraid that doing business with Western countries. Afraid it would be the beginning of European control over their country all over again. [YOUNG TURKS] By the late 19th century the Ottoman government had become repressive.
Afraid that more regions would rebel, they instituted a network of spies and censorship. As a result, many dissidents moved abroad where they would discuss the issues they had with the empire, calling themselves the Young Turks. These were wildly different groups with different ideas, some wanted to abolish the monarchy, some wanted a different monarch, while others were anarchists. But they all had one thing in common: they all wanted to get rid of the current sultan. But none of them had enough power to implement their ideas onto their homeland. This changed in 1905 with the Russian revolution.
Firstly it was defeated by Japan, a country that 50 years earlier was considered primitive that could now stand up against the mighty russian Empire. Then, the Russian emperor was forced to accept a constitution. At the same time, Iranians also managed to force a constitution upon their government in 1906 and remove the royal family in 1911. While countries like Italy and Germany managed to unite their people into powerful nations. If they could do it… why not the Ottomans as well? And so in 1908 the Young turk revolution succeeded in taking over the government. Their goal was to create a new national identity based on islam.
You see, with the loss of most of their european territories the percentage of muslims in the empire increased. Many of those muslims blamed Christians for siding with Western powers, declaring independence, and causing the decline of the empire. The young turks wanted to use this resentment to create a shared islamic national identity in opposition to Western Imperialism. In the same way Irish national identity was created in opposition to the British, or how Indian national identity started in opposition to the British, or how US national identity found its roots in opposition to the British.
They hoped that by creating an empire where all people were equally Ottoman that they could prevent the disintegration of their country. But the Young Turks couldn’t agree on HOW this should be achieved: should they centralize power in Istanbul? Should they become a federation similar to the USA? Should they ask foreign countries to help them in their goals? These disagreements resulted in a counter revolution in 1909, resulting in Albania declaring its independence. This showed many within the empire that even the Young Turks and their beliefs were unable to prevent the further disintegration of the empire.
This moment of weakness caused Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro, all of which used to be part of the empire at one point, declared war against the Ottomans. By the end of that war, the Ottomans had almost no territory left in Europe anymore. European powers then used this moment of weakness to discuss how Russia should be given a piece of Ottoman territory… The Ottomans, however, were not allowed to participate in these discussions. [WW1]But then, WW1 happened.
All of a sudden all their major enemies were at war with one another. It was clear the Ottomans Empire was dying: much of their territory was taken over, many important industries were owned by foreign companies, and the Europeans were now discussing the disintegration of the empire without the Ottomans present. And so the Ottoman Empire was given with a very simple choice: they could either keep going along their current route and become a western colony like so much of the world had already become… Or… They could take a chance to kick out the foreign invaders at a time when their greatest enemies were embroiled in a war.
The empire was already lost and this was their only hope to save it. And so they eventually decided to join the war on the side of Germany at the end of 1914, when it seemed Germany was set to win the war… But as we all know… they chose the losing side. The war was a disaster for the Ottomans, with their only major victory being the defense of Istanbul at Gallipoli. It’s estimated 800.000 Ottoman soldiers died, with 400-700.000 wounded.
[POST-WAR] After the war the victorious powers restricted the size of the Ottoman army to just 50.000 men, important railroads were put in the hands of European investors, and the empire was split up between various countries: Great Britain and France would take most of the middle east; Greece received parts of the eastern territories, which is why today many of the islands off the Turkish coast are Greek; Italy received south-west anatolia; and Armenia received their most north-eastern territories. The peace treaty was a complete and total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The only territory they were allowed to rule was Istanbul and its surrounding areas… but under international supervision. The empire had become a series of colonies for Western and Southern European states. As you can imagine, the people who were told they were now under European occupation were not very happy about this and almost immediately formed militias to fight off the invaders.
Various Ottoman armies refused to lay down their weapons and instead formed a unified resistance against foreign occupation, known as the Nationalists. They achieved various military successes, defeating the Greek and Armenian occupation forces in the Turkish War of Independence. They were not interested in restoring the empire, rather, they sought to free what we today call turkey. The French and British were not interested in yet another long conflict right after WW1 and so on October 27 1922 the European powers invited the Nationalist and Ottoman governments to attend a peace conference.
When the treaty was signed in 1923, the sultan and the Ottoman government had been dismissed, the new Turkish government renounced their claims on lands previously owned by the Ottoman Empire, and the Republic of Turkey was officially born on October 29, 1923. And so ended the Ottoman Empire.