Essay: Was Europe to Blamed for the Decline of the Ottoman Empire?

This is an essay I wrote in my first year at university. It has not been edited.  

The Islamic state was a vast entity that spread across Asia, Europe, Arabia and Africa. However, there was no one absolute authority over it; instead history records a few fragmented, regional authorities. The most celebrated amongst them was the Ottoman Empire, encompassing the largest stretch of land and a near incontestable authority. During the same era however, in Moorish Spain, Christendom was preparing to declare victory over Islam in the reconquista[1].

Serious military deficiency and fragmented kingdoms encouraged an onslaught in Andalusia. By specialising in the arts, science, intellectual and medicinal reform, Islamic Spain was able to sustain itself and its citizens lavishly. The failure to provide adequate provisions for a military force meant that they were easily overrun. In fact, when Moorish Spain began to diminish they invited the Murabitun[2] to help them. The Turks, on the other hand were undisputed in their knowledge of warfare but their downfall was their inability to reach the academic heights of their Andalusian counterparts. It was as though the emphases between the two had been switched from intellect to military prowess without attempting to create a utopian balance. Despite the lament of Islamists, lessons had not been learnt.

Within a short amount of time in power, they had produced some of the most miraculous feats in Islamic history. In later years, after a series of these incredible successes, there came a period of self induced stagnation and decline.

Is it fair though, to claim that the decline of the Ottoman Empire was self-inflicted? The counter-argument makes reference to the growth of European Empires with superior technology and political prowess. Nevertheless, it was the passive approach of the Islamic empire that facilitated their own demise and the rise of their opponents.

Seeds of Decline

During the infancy of the Ottoman Empire, there is no evidence to suggest that it was challenged by Europe. Generally history dictates that European intervention occurred much later, there was a period of rapid European activity immediately before the official demise of the Islamic state in 1924. Based on that notion it is easy to suggest that the decline was not necessarily induced by European incendiary figures. Furthermore, if it cannot be external forces that caused the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the only remaining possibility is that it was self-induced.

Samuel Huntington suggests that in a uni-polar world the Leviathan[3] can “maintain its dominance over minor states until it is weakened by internal decay.” [pg36]

There are four plausible factors for the eventual decline:

  • Weak leadership
  • Poor administration & governance over provinces
  • Lack of technological progression
  • Internal Corruption

The faults of a hereditary monarchy are clear to see, such a mechanism does not adequately develop natural leaders, it just passes it onto a successor.  Landes adds that the Ottoman Empire initially had strong leaders, however leadership quality rapidly receded within a short amount of time. Sultans were raised without gaining an education in politics or policy and they had instead become largely occupied with the harem. [Landes. 1999]

Similarly, Kinross cites the example of Sultan Abdul Hamid who refused to engage himself with the public in preference of isolation within his palace walls. He adds, “In the past it (the Ottoman Empire) had depended essentially on the absolute sovereign authority of the Sultan and the will and capacity to rule. This its Sultans now generally lacked, prone to the distractions of the harem…No longer was the heir sent to the throne to gain experience in public affairs. No longer-with rare exceptions did a Sultan command his own troops in battle.” [Kinross. 2002]

Most provinces, by default, had been administered weakly with only nominal control. That helped to create an ethnic or regional division within state borders, governance though, was officially under the Ottoman Turks. Strathern claims that the leader in Egypt in latter years became highly ineffectual because the Beys orchestrated governance and had put the governor under virtual house arrest in Cairo. This mattered little to the Ottomans provided there was some semblance of government and no conflict within the province. [Strathern. 2007]

The Hijaz was another district of control but once again, they found great difficulty in garnering control of Najd. When eventually, a challenge to the Ottoman Authority arose, unsurprisingly it came from Najd. Ibn Saud, a staunch supporter of the British (and vice versa), became recognised ruler of the region. These provinces were gradually increased in a short amount of time, providing yet further proof of unsustainable governance. The example suggests that the Ottoman Empire was on the cusp of collapse because of poor management and not having been overrun by foreign forces throughout their history. [Al-Rasheed. 2002]

The Ottomans were hardly known for their pioneering insights into education and invention. Intellectual stagnancy had been embellished further because of European buoyancy. They were incredibly reliant on Christian adversaries for expertise in developing their arsenal. Furthermore, the Ottoman navy was out-dated and incomparable to the rest of Europe. It now meant that their military ascendancy was being undermined, they no longer had the advantage. In 1529 they were defeated in Vienna.

Their clerical body had admonished certain beneficial advancements as heretical innovations which meant that the inventor’s trade was hardly adopted. With such opinions the stifling of progression can easily be placed on the shoulders of the Ulema[4].

They had gradually become isolated in trade as they suffered from their inability to refine raw materials as well as their counterparts. Even in trade, because of their lack of insight to the benefits of technological progress, they suffered. The eastern market had been in huge demand but as Europe developed, the Ottomans failed to maintain the same speed of advancement. The Europeans had become self sufficient, requiring raw materials rather than purchasing products. The tide had turned, the Ottomans went from providing goods to purchasing from Europe. By the time the industrial revolution had arrived, the Ottomans were lagging too far behind to have a significant impact.

After numerous defeats, the ineffectual military unit became a burden and could not accumulate revenues for the state. According to Landes, the empire needed booty or land. When both dried up, they sought to generate wealth from within and some resorted to looting. [Landes. 1999]

The Ottoman Empire had obviously now become very susceptible to losing their provinces and were effectively being torn apart. Italy had taken control in Libya, the Baltic provinces in the late 19th century were also being recaptured by natives [Bruce. 2008]. When Napoleon for example, had consulted the French ambassador regarding invading Egypt, he was received with outright approval and that he might be wise to consider capturing the Ottoman Empire. By this time though, the empire was already considered the sick man of Europe. [Strathern. 2007]

The British, nearly a century later had made significant forays into Ottoman territory and convinced Ibn Saud to declare his independence. The old adage of divide and conquer was coming into effect. Islamists claim that the Ottoman empire and the Islamic state are inter-linked, so when the Islamic state was pronounced dead in 1924, so ended the era of the Ottoman Empire.

There is no doubting the advancement of Europe whilst the Ottoman Empire clicked its heels. Development was being stifled by religious bodies who considered such technological innovations as sacrilegious. Such passiveness had granted their opponents the upper hand. Neither did they choose to invest in education and intellectual advancements even though they had the capacity to do so.

The whole event became cyclical, faced with losses on the battlefield then by a further lack of development on their part and an abundance of technological advancement by their enemies they faced yet more failures in their military campaigns. Ultimately they had fallen foul of their lack of ambition to develop.

There is a finite nature about the empire as experienced by Alexander the Great, Rome and Britain, all at varying lengths of success. Herein lays the issue; internal decay caused the empire to crumble. It was the technological backwardness of the Ottomans that did not allow them to advance and resulted in their opponents being granted a significant advantage. In the chain of events, their military prowess was easily challenged because they never had the know-how of developing much further than the cannon. That led to their main source of revenue being cut-off. The decision to find hired help only fuelled hatred and animosity and so created the potential for mutiny. Corruption ravaged internal politics and once again it had a lasting impact on revenue. They failed to exert any authority in the industrial revolution and were easily stifled when they had ambitions to progress. By the time the Europeans decided to challenge Ottoman authority, the Turks had already exhausted themselves of modern political standing.

The clearest indication that there is a limit on how long an empire can sustain its prolonged assault for world domination is Francis Bacon’s damning verdict,

“We also see that kings that have been fortunate conquerors in their first      years, it being not possible for them to go forward infinitely, but that they must         have some check or arrest in their fortunes, turn in their latter years to be       superstitious and melancholy; as did Alexander the Great, Diocletian and our         memory of Charles the Fifth and others. For he that is used to go forward, and   findeth a stop, falleth out of his own favour and is not the thing he was.” [Bacon, F. 2005]


[1] The reacquisition of Spain by the native Christians.

[2] The Murabitun were skilled fighters who lived in Morocco and the surrounding areas.

[3] Thomas Hobbes referred to the supreme authority as the ‘Leviathan.’

[4] Arabic term for scholars (of Islam).

_____________________

Bibliography

Books:

Al-Rasheed. M. (2002), A History of Saudi Arabia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bacon, F. (2008), Of Empire, Penguin Books, London.

Bruce, A. (2003), The Last Crusade: The Palestine Campaign in the First World War, John Murray Publishers, London.

Crowley, R. (2005) 1453, Hyperion, New York.

Darwin, J. (2007), After Tamerlane, Penguin Books, London.

Hobbes, T. (2005), Of Man, Penguin Books, London.

Hourani, A. (1993), A History of Arab Peoples, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kinross, J.P.D.B. (2002), The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise & Fall of the Turkish Empire, Perennial, New York.

Landes, D. (1999), The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Abacus, London.

Stratern, P. (2007), Napoleon in Egypt, Vintage Books, London.

Journal Articles:

Huntington, S. (1999) ‘The Lonely Superpower’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78/2, pp. 35-49.

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