Throughout Islamic history, empires rose and fell for 1400 years. The Umayyads, Abbasids, Mamluks, Mughals, and Ottomans are just some of the major dynasties of Islam that rose to prominence, achieved a golden age, and eventually fell and were only remembered in the history books. Ibn Khaldun, in his brilliant book on historiography, The Muqaddimah, states that “dynasties have a natural life span like individuals” and that “it [a dynasty] grows up and passes into an age of stagnation and then into retrogression.” The insightful words of Ibn Khaldun in 1337 hold true for the history of the last great Muslim empire – the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire began as a small state of Turkish sultans in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in 1300. By 1453, they were a force to be reckoned with, controlling land in Europe and Asia, with a capital at Istanbul. By the mid-1500s, the empire had reached its zenith under Sultan Süleyman. At that time, it was by far the most powerful and largest empire in Europe, and also controlled North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Persia. However, as Ibn Khaldun stated, this dynasty would eventually go into a time of stagnation, and finally decline. This post will analyze two factors that helped bring about the decline of the Ottomans from the 1500s through the 1800s – a weak and ineffective government and economic stagnation.
From the birth of the Ottoman state under Osman Gazi through its period of unrivaled power in the mid-1500s, the center of the Ottoman Empire was always the sultan. The Ottoman Empire was a dynastic one, so when a sultan died, his son would become the new sultan. These early sultans all took great pride in their jobs and had a central role in the direction of the empire. Sultans oversaw governmental meetings, hired and fired officials, and personally led military campaigns to the edges of the empire.
However, there was one aspect of the sultanate that was never fully formalized – succession. The early years of the Ottoman Empire were beget by numerous civil wars, as sons would fight each other for power after their father had died. Usually it was not much of a problem, as the sultans would make it clear which of their sons they preferred. At other times, however, wars within the empire lasted for years and were horribly destructive to the power of the empire.
Seeking to solve this problem, Sultan Ahmed I (reigned 1603-1617) instituted a new system for choosing sultans. Instead of a sultan’s sons being governors within the empire until their father died, they would stay at the palace in Istanbul until their time came. In most cases, they actually were not even allowed to leave the palace. This essentially made them prisoners until they became sultans.
While the intentions of Ahmed I were probably righteous, the effects of his policy were disastrous. Instead of sultans coming to the throne with experience in governance and policy, they were usually ignorant of anything but the pleasures of palace life. They were completely incompetent as rulers of a powerful empire. The 300 year old tradition of sultans being the powerful, resourceful, and able leaders of the Ottoman State was over. To give some context, the Ottoman sultans saw their job primarily as the commander-in-chief of the army. All Ottoman sultans led their armies into battle and saw that as a central aspect to their job. However, Sultan Murad IV was the last Ottoman sultan to lead his army into battle in 1638.
Despite their inexperience and incompetence, Ottoman sultans were still officially in charge of the empire. Thus, without education and knowledge of how to run an empire, they still had the power to direct the government. The result of this was a long period of complete administrative instability. Viziers (ministers) were appointed and fired at the whim of the sultan, leading to great difficulty in policies ever being put into place. Also, since experience and talent were no longer seen as necessary by the Ottoman sultan himself, those hoping to advance in civil service were not promoted based on skill. Instead, bribery and favoritism wreaked havoc on the Ottoman government.
With the rise of incompetent officials in the central Ottoman government, a process of decentralization began. Local governments gained more autonomy and showed less respect for the government in Istanbul. On a practical level, this meant less tax revenue sent to the central government, which meant a weaker government and military in general. All this occurring during the rise of the empires of Europe such as England, France, Russia, and Austria.
Going hand-in-hand with the political decline of the empire was its economic decline. Traditionally, one of the major sources of income of the Ottoman Empire was booty gained in war. As the empire reached its maximum size in the mid-1500s, that source of income dried up. Because of the empire’s large size, foreign nations were further and further away from the capital, making campaigns against those nations very expensive. So expensive, in fact, that it didn’t make economic sense to keep expanding.
Another economic aspect that affected the empire staring in the 1600s was inflation. In the 1500s and 1600s, Western European nations like Spain, England, and France were exploring and conquering the New World across the Atlantic. Their conquests brought them huge quantities of gold and particularly silver, particularly to the Spanish from Mexico. The Ottoman economy was based on silver. Coins were minted in silver, taxes collected in silver, and silver to government officials paid in silver. The huge influx of silver coming from America drastically devalued the Ottoman currency according to the economic laws of supply and demand.
These statistics show how bad inflation was in the 1500s and 1600s in the Ottoman Empire. In 1580, 1 gold coin could be bought for 60 silver ones. 10 years later, in 1590, it would take 120 silver coins to buy one gold. And in 1640, it took 250 silver coins in order to buy one gold one. This inflation caused prices across the empire to rise, hurting average citizens and the empire as a whole.
As this process of economic stagnation and decline continued throughout the 1600s and 1700s, the central government had to look for new sources of income. At the same time, European nations were gaining the upper hand over the Ottomans militarily, politically, and economically. As a result, a new policy of economic capitulations and concessions began. Capitulations were agreements between the Ottoman government and certain European governments (usually the French), giving the Europeans control over an entire industry within the Ottoman Empire in exchange for a one-time payment and/or diplomatic support. Because of the relative weakness of the Ottoman Empire compared to European nations, the Ottoman government had to enter into these agreements.
The negative side effects of these agreements were devastating. For example, in 1740, the Ottoman Empire entered into an agreement with France that gave French citizens the right to travel and trade in any part of the Ottoman Empire. With cheaper and better goods, they were able to start to push out local Ottoman merchants, hurting the economy in general. In addition to economic concessions, the capitulations also meant a loss of sovereignty for the Ottoman government. In that same agreement, the French were given full jurisdiction over their own citizens and all Roman Catholics in the Ottoman Empire. In effect, what this meant is that the Ottoman government had no authority to enforce laws on any of those people, even if they are with the empire’s borders.
The capitulations of the 1700s and 1800s were one of the biggest reasons for the decline of the Ottoman Empire during this time. This series of humiliating contracts put the empire in a position of subservience to European nations, which referred to it as the “Sick Man of Europe”.
Further reasons for the decline of the Ottoman Empire will be analyzed in Part 2 of The Decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Hodgson, M. G. S. The Venture of Islam, Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Khaldūn, Ibn. The Muqaddimah, An Introduction To History. Bollingen, 1969.
Ochsenwald, William, and Sydney Fisher. The Middle East: A History. 6th. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.