The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

by Hira Amin

Empires can be likened to complex kaleidoscopes which change colours through time. For this reason it is difficult to see if an empire is steadily weakening or reforming by changing colour. Hence there is much debate over when the Ottoman Empire began to significantly decline. Historians such as Dan Smith, Edward Freeman, Albert Hourani assert that the empire began to steadily decline after the death of Sulayman the Magnificent in 1566.[1] Others such as Donald Quataert claim that the reformations in the late 17th and 18th Century “should be seen as transformation but not decline”.[2] Some such as Stanford Shaw traced the starting point of decline from “midway in the reign of Sulayman and continuing almost without pause until the end of 18th century,” however the Europeans only noticed this decline in the 17th Century.[3]

Despite the disagreements, the majority agree that it was during the reign of Sulayman that the Empire reached its zenith. Therefore this paper will deal with the major events which took place after Sulayman. I will look at the four sources of power claimed by Michael Mann; military, economic, political, ideological[4] and show how the Ottomans steadily lost power in each of these areas.


Firstly, from a military perspective the Ottomans began to be defeated in battles and despite a few victories, overall they lost and subsequently began to contract. The Ottomans, who began as a warrior state against the Byzantine Empire, were known for their military edge. However with the discovery of the New World and thus the wealth which flowed into Europe, they advanced technologically and militarily and so the balance began to tip. This was exasperated, as Hourani says, by the end of the 16th Century as rulers who were weak in character and intellect came into power.[5] This stopped military progress as this curtailed the constant quest for better and more effective military strategies.

The Ottomans lost many battles and signed many treaties but four incidents marked as major milestones in the Empire’s decline. The first were the Ottoman-Habsburg wars. In 1683 they were defeated by the better trained and technologically advanced Habsburg army outside Vienna. This was followed by a further defeat in 1687 at the battle of Mohacs which freed Hungary from Ottoman control.[6] In 1697 they were again defeated by the Habsburgs at the Battle of Zenta which was the impetus for the Treaty of Karlowitz[7]. This treaty signified the end of Ottoman power in central and south Eastern Europe and the beginning of the Habsburg dominance..

The second was the Ottoman-Russian wars in 1768-1774.[8] The war which was a decisive Russian victory culminated with the Treaty of Kukuk Kaynarca in 1774. This treaty had devastating effects. Crimea, where the population was mainly Muslim[9], became independent (later annexed by the Czarist state[10]), which meant the Ottoman lost the Crimean Khan’s military forces. This force was particularly important as it had supported the Ottoman army since the revolt of the Janissaries (more on this below). The Ottomans also had to lose their monopoly over the Black Sea. Moreover the Russians now had the right to protect the Christians in the Ottoman Empire which marked the first time another power ratified their authority. [11] But later, as Quartaert who denies the decline in the 18th century points out, some of these agreements were revoked as the Ottomans won a few other battles where they regained the Black Sea monopoly and Russia withdrew from the principalities.[12] Yet overall the Empire did not territorially expand.

The third major turning point was the invasion of Egypt, the jewel of the Empire, by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.[13] This effortless victory shattered the illusion of the powerful Ottoman Empire and hence this gave Europe more confidence to divide and conquer in the later years. When the French left, Muḥammad Ali came into power in 1805 and modernised Egypt. He destroyed the Mamluks who were against reform and created a modern army and navy trained by the French. His increase in power decreased Ottoman control in Egypt and from that point on Egypt’s revenue no longer went to Istanbul.[14] However they did collaborate when they had the same interests for example the extermination the Wahhabi movement in Arabia.

The fourth major turning point was the Greek revolt in 1821-1830. In Romania and Greece they wanted independence and supremacy to lie with the Greek Orthodox rather than the Turkish Muslims. At first the Ottoman army were unable to subdue the revolt but were successful with the help of Muḥammad Ali’s new army and navy. However with European intervention their army was defeated and in 1830 at the Treat of London, Greece was declared an independent state. This was an inspiration for other Christians to gain independence and use the European powers to their advantage.[15]


From an economic perspective, the Empire was also suffering by the international development in trade, industry and finance.  In the 16th Century Europe was on the hunt for gold and so they focused on the navigation of the seas to find new trade routes. As early as 1580 Ottoman geographers warned the Sultan of this new trend. Omer Talib wrote, “Now the Europeans have learnt to know the whole world; they send their ships everywhere and seize important ports. Formerly the goods…used to come to Suez and were distributed by Muslims to the entire world. But now these goods are carried on Portuguese, Dutch and English ships…the Ottomans must seize the shores of Yemen and the passing trade…otherwise Europeans will rule.[16]

Exactly as Talib predicted, the world trade which used to flow through the Ottoman Empire decreased sharply in the 17th Century. The Europeans traded directly with Asia leaving the Ottomans in the middle. Moreover the Ottomans had a silver based monetary system and with the new found metals from Americas it caused the sudden flow of cheap and plentiful silver which had a catastrophic financial impact. The price of silver fell and that of gold increased. Turkish raw materials became cheap for European traders so they bought in great quantities. The industrial revolution in Europe led to the creation of new industries especially in textiles and metallurgy. Hence with the cheap raw materials from Turkey these products were developed and exported back to the Ottomans competing with their own indigenous craftsmen. The European products were cheaper and at times better quality which undermined local businesses.[17]

Continued inflation meant that prices quadrupled and the devaluation of the coin. In 1584 the asper was reduced from one-fifth to one-eighth of a dirham of silver. Twice in the 17th Century the government tried to curtail inflation by introducing new silver currency; first the para in the 1620’s which was a silver coin and then the piastre in the 1680’s, an imitation of the European dollar.[18] In the mid 16th century, Egypt had been a major contributor to the state revenue but by the 18th century no revenue or military people were conscripted. In 1789 the Ottoman revenue was a pitiful £3.75 million compared to £16.8 million for the British and £24 million for the French. It is estimated at this time that more than four fifths of the states’ revenue stuck to the hands of the local elites which shows how decentralised the system had become.[19]

Furthermore, unlike in England whose technological advancements had revolutionised English agriculture, in Turkey they were still primitive. Not only were they not advancing, but farmers abandoned their villages and fled to the towns, known as the “Great Flight”[20]. This was firstly because of the decrease in feudal siphasis, a tactic used by Mehmed the Conqueror during the monetary crisis, namely paying the soldiers with fiefs rather than money. However; since warfare had changed in the 16th and 17th Century this was no longer feasible as the use of firearms and artillery necessitated the maintenance of even larger paid professional armies.  This led to tax farming and land-owners that did not care for peasant welfare or land conservation but just immediate taxes. Due to the decentralisation of power, regular land surveys and population censuses were abandoned, leaving it to the tax farmers, lease holders and bailiffs.

The result of the “Great Flight” in the late 16th Century was that agriculture shrank, hence the supplies of food diminished and increased prices hit the trade routes while Europe traded elsewhere. The influx of peasants in the urban areas caused issues with housing, employment and food. Many found jobs in the lowest level of urban society as cleaners and servants. Schools were inundated with poor boys that saw education as their only outlet. However with the falling standards of education, the system could not cope and became centres of idleness with students participating in social anarchy.

The ruling class reacted with trying to bring about social reform by rooting out corruption. While they enjoyed little success they could not reverse the steady decline. The system needed to be revamped and modernised, but with no finance, an angry population and a decentralised government the task was insurmountable.


From the political front unrest was found both in the provinces and in the elite Janissaries. The Janissaries, who comprised of young Christian boys being conscripted into the dervishme system, were trained to be officers, governors and soldiers. This method of strict discipline and rigorous training provided the government with skilled workers and was the key tool in early Ottoman success. However, the Janissaries who were once part of the most revered army in the world had become militarily ineffectual by the end of the 18th Century. The Crimean Tartars served as a support for this decay however as mentioned above, in 1774 when Crimea became independent they left the army.

The success in the Janissaries lied in their strict obedience to the Sultan, however; their ability to live on military salaries faded due to the costs of warfare and inflation. The government could no longer pay them a sufficient salary, which led them to violate the Janissary principle of only being a soldier and celibacy. They integrated into the urban class and became butchers, bakers, porters, craftsman; many owned coffee shops.[21]They married and their children were recruited and replaced the peasant boys in the divershime recruitment rounds, the last of these rounds being in 1703.[22] Thus by the early 18th century the Janissary corps were hereditary and urban in origin, so as Hourani says “their exclusive loyalties had broken down”.[23]

Due to their proximity to the Sultan and their elite status this had a catastrophic political impact. They had the power to make and break rulers as seen when they denied Sulayman the Magnificent’s son Selim the throne until he paid them extra money.[24] Their integration within the urban classes gave the urban class a voice and power to object. Moreover, as the Janissaries became a hereditary corps – precisely what the prohibition of marriage rule wanted to prevent – this created an elite-popular urban class who had power to overthrow viziers and officials on behalf of the popular classes or due to intra-elite quarrels. It was for this reason in 1826 that Sultan Mahmud II killed and captured them to silence their voices and stabilize the Empire.

Unrest also lay within the province itself. The balance of power shifted from the Sultan to the viziers. At the end of the 17th Century the centre of decisions shifted from the Dome Chamber in the Palace to the Sublime Porte which was the vizier’s house.[25]  However; Hourani asserts this could not change the situation, as the vizier’s role was weak and could be easily dismissed by the Sultan, thus no radical changes were possible. Throughout the 17th and 18th Century the power shifted further into the local elites, decentralizing the system further.

The local elites always played a crucial role in the government and were loyal to the Sultan in providing taxes and recruits for the army. Quartaret claims this was due to the 1695 tax farming system where the government granted the right to collect taxes for a particular land in exchange for cash payments to the treasury. This ensured the central state maintained some control over the local elites as they could remove this lucrative privilege. However, the rising cost of wars and the inability for the government to pay cash back caused the local elites to keep the taxes for themselves. As we saw, above four fifths of the state revenue failed to reach the central government in 1789.

Quartaret emphasizes the lack of economic contingency for the cause of decentralization, but Lieven and Hourani assert this was largely down to ineffective leaders chosen by a hereditary process.[26] It seems that even though the quality of the leaders had declined, they did not simply sit back and watch the Empire fall apart. The leaders tried to modernize the system to try and salvage what was left. For example after the humiliating defeat and the treaties of Karlowitz (1699) and Passarowitz (1718) the Grand Vizier, Damad Ibrahim Pasha, sent an ambassador in 1719 to Paris with instructions to make a thorough study of the means of civilization and education.[27] In 1731, the Grand Vizier, Topal Osman Pasha hired a French nobleman to reform the Bombardier Corps on European lines. In 1734, a new training centre, the school of geometry was opened. The Janissaries found out and forced its closure, however; it re-opened again in 1773.[28] This and many other attempts of reform, such as the Tanzimat and Ghul Hane decree, show that the leaders were not inactive. However; it was the additional external economic factors and the ideological factors which hindered any of these reforms to have a substantial effect.


The Ottomans began with a strong ideology; Islam. Islam was defined against the Christian West; it affirmed its many beliefs, but completed the line of Prophethood hence perfected and cleansed it from its adulteration over time. This view was crystallized with the destruction of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of Constantinople. Therefore the Christian West was inferior from every aspect – militarily, socially and above all religiously. This concept of superiority which at first served well for the empire was by time its ultimate cause of destruction. The sense of pride and fear of adulteration prevented them from taking the Western seeds of discovery and allowing them to flourish in the Muslim lands.

A good example of this was the length of time it took for the printing press to become widespread within the Empire. As Lewis says, “the most important technical innovation from Europe outside the military field was undoubtedly printing”[29] The Turks knew about the printing press since the 14th Century but only adopted it in the 18th Century. The delay was due to religious conservatives skeptical of European inventions and its evil effects in society.

Both the Janissaries in 1826 and the Mamluks in 1805 were massacred by the rulers for this very purpose – to clear the way for reformation. The fact that these brutal massacres had to take place to prevent uprisings against modernization and reform shows the superiority of culture, which was prevalent at that time.

Moreover, loyalty to the Sultan suffered greatly from two movements – Wahhabism and Nationalism. In the 18th Century a more conservative religious strand began in Arabia known as Wahhabism. They believed that the Islam the Sultan protected was not the “true” Islam and thus he was not the “true” leader of the Muslim Ummah. The movement spread with Ibn Saud taking Wahhab’s ideology of “true Islam” and he conquered central Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Karbala and Hejaz.[30] They wanted the caliphate to be an Arab as “the Arabs were more worthy of it than the Turks.”[31]

The ideas of the French Revolution infected the Empire – in particular Egypt, which was invaded by Napoleon in 1798. The French left quickly but not before sowing the seeds of nationalism through their propaganda. They spread the message of the Turks ruining Egypt by their greed and the idea that the French will free them. Napoleon said, “It has been said to you that I have only come to this country in order to destroy your religion. This is a clear lie; do not believe it. Say to the slanderers I have come to rescue you from the hands of the oppressors.”[32] The Egyptians were not pleased with non-Muslim rule, however; the hatred towards the Turks developed. Muḥammad Ali came into power in 1805 and while he still gave allegiance to the Sultan and supported him in battles, such as the Greek revolt and the Wahhabi revolt, they controlled their own internal affairs and as mentioned above kept their revenues within Egypt.


In conclusion, militarily, economically, politically and ideologically the Ottoman Empire declined from the reign of Sulayman the Magnificent. These factors were of course intertwined, which was why when reforms were made in one aspect the other factors stifled progress. Due to the influx of wealth from the New World they advanced both militarily and economically with the industrial revolution. Even if the Janissaries had not revolted and adopted their advance methods, the industrial revolution and the shift in global trade would have starved the empire from the financial means to survive. The strong ideology which at one point was the impetus to rival and take over the Byzantine Empire became the very reason not to adapt and take from the “inferior” Christian West. Hence the Ottomans were locked in an inextricable knot, thus divide and conquer were inevitable.


Freeman, Edward. The Ottoman Power in Europe
Smith, Dan. The state of the Middle East
Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age
Quartaert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire
J Shaw, Stanford. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey Vol 1
Mann, Michael. The Sources of Power
Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey
Lieven, Dominic. Empire
Marcus, Abraham. The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth century
Barkey, Karen. Bandits and Bureaucrats: Ottoman Route to State Centralization


[1] Edward Freeman, The Ottoman Power in Europe, page 139
[2] Donald Quartaert, The Ottoman Empire, page 37
[3] Stanford Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, page 169
[4] Michael Mann, The Sources of Power
[5] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 34
[6] Dan Smith, The state of the Middle East, page 16.
[7] Donald Quartaert, The Ottoman Empire, page 38
[8] Ibid page 40
[9] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 39
[10] Donald Quartaert, The Ottoman Empire, page 40
[11] Ibid page 40
[12] Ibid page 42
[13] Ibid page 41
[14] Ibid page 41
[15] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page  44
[16] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, page 28
[17] Shaw pg 173
[18] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, page 29
[19] Dominic Lieven, Empire, page 140
[20] Stanford J Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey Vol 1, page 174

[21] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, page 45

[22] Ibid page 45

[23] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 35

[24] Donald Quataret, The Ottoman Empire, page 45

[25] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 35

[26] Dominic Lieven, Empire, page 146, Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 35

[27] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, page 46

[28] Ibid page 48

[29] Ibid page 50

[30] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 37

[31] Ibid page 37

[32] Ibid page 50


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