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Decline of the Ottoman Empire, to 1890

In the late 1400s no political power controlled the sea lanes from Europe to East Asia. But that was changing. In the 1500s, Portuguese mariners would push out the Muslim mariners and, in the 1600s the Portuguese would be joined by the Dutch, Spaniards and then the English.

But since the late 1400s the Ottoman Turks had been expanding militarily. They had taken Constantinople from the Christians in 1453. They had built a navy for that purpose rather than for trade, and by the beginning of the 1500s they held seaside outposts in the Crimean (Black Sea) area that they had seized from the Genoese naval power. The Ottoman military passed through the Dardanelles into Aegean Sea where it dismantled the Venetian Empire, and the Ottomans extended their power into the East Mediterranean region, including Damascus, and by 1520 they had penetrated Egypt, shattering resistance with their cannon. They moved up the Nile and the Red Sea but merely claimed suzerainty over the interior Arabic desert region. In 1529 they took power in Algeria. In 1521 their reigning sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, conquered Belgrade and what today is Serbia. By 1529 they were at the gates of Vienna. In the coming half-century they extended their rule to their empire farthest extent: into what today is Libya; in Mesopotamia (Iraq) down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the Persian Gulf; into Romania, Hungary, Moldavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and southern Ukraine; and in 1571 the took control of Cyprus.

During the reign of Sulayman (1520-66), Turkish literature, art, and architecture flowered. With the conquest in Egypt, Islam's caliphate transferred to the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Salim I (r. 1512-20) became Sultan Salim. His successor, Suleyman, was Sultan Suleyman (r. 1520-66)

But after 1550, with the reduction in booty from conquest and no growth in trade and commerce for the Ottoman Turks, economic difficulties began — as it was for other Islamic-ruled societies along the great Silk Road between China and Europe. The Dutch and British had closed trade routes through the Middle East, and spices from Asia were being shipped by sea directly to Europe, leaving tradesmen in this part of the world without the profits they had been receiving. And, significantly, expansion of the Ottoman Empire was not accompanied by any great economic advantage that accrued to that empire.

Internal conditions would affect military power rather than military power producing economic prosperity. Into the 1600s and 1700s the Ottoman economy suffered. Paul Kennedy in Rise and Fall of the Great Powers writes that the empire's merchants,

... now found themselves subject to unpredictable taxes and outright seizure of property. Ever higher dues ruined trade and depopulated towns ... the costs of war and the loss of Asiatic trade during the struggle with Persia intensified the government's desperate search for new revenues, which in turn gave greater powers to unscrupulous tax farmers.

While European merchants were scurrying across the globe looking for raw materials, markets and profits, and growing in wealth and influence, the Ottoman Empire's middle-class remained stifled. The empire's elites remained convinced of the superiority of their Islamic civilization and of doing things as described in the Koran. And the Sufi point of view was increasing an other-worldliness attitude that inhibited modernization.

At times, printing was forbidden because it might disseminate dangers opinions. Guilds were supported in their efforts to check innovations and the rise of "capitalist" producers.

Wealthy Muslims were purchasing goods from Christendom, but little was being exported and the supply of gold diminished. As manufactured goods flowed into the Ottoman Empire local handicraft industries suffered. Manufacturing remained largely a peasant operation, a home industry, foot-operated treadle reels, hand-operated looms and silk-twisting machines.

As in Europe during these centuries there was a large population growth. Jobless peasants migrated to cities. Food supplies were reduced as cultivators were subjected to confiscatory taxation. There were revolts against the established order, and rebel bands functioned in the countryside.

Muslims, meanwhile, were handicapped in the development of commercial organizations. Under Islamic law nothing could be inherited by a single heir — a prescription rooted in the Koran. This kept Mid-East enterprises small. Non-Muslims could build bigger private institutions than could Muslims. "Only in the 19th century did Mid-East governments begin adopting secular commercial laws that allowed Muslim-owned enterprises to grow." (NYT Nov 8, 2001)

In the 1700s there was domestic cotton growing and cotton exports increased. There was export of semi-processed goods to northwest Europe increased, but Muslim's remained minor players in world trade.

The Ottoman Empire failed to keep up with Europe's lighter cannon or build larger European-style ocean-going vessels. Muslims in the Middle East were to wonder what happened that the West surpassed Islam in power and influence.

Some Ottoman sultans were more able than others, and there were reforms. Printing was allowed again. Selim III, (r. 1789 to 1807) asked those working for the government to suggest reforms. By 1834, naval engineering, medical and military science colleges had been created, Sultan Mahmud II Sultan Mahmud (r. 1808-39) having included the creation of medical doctors for the sake of those wounded in battle. And his reforms included reducing the power of feudalistic landholders and semi-autonomous governors.

Britannica writes:

In 1846 the first comprehensive plan for state education was put forward. It provided for a complete system of primary and secondary schools leading to the university level, all under the Ministry of Education.

Reforms were opposed by those alarmed alarmed about the empire losing its fundamental Islamic character — an ideological conflict that was not about to go away. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was losing territory. It lost its power in Greece in the 1820s. Britain and France helped the Ottomans resist the Russians during the Crimean War, but the Ottoman Empire emerged from that war economically exhausted.

In August 1875 Herzegovina was suffering from poor harvests. Tax collectors were at times at least brutal, and a villager's rage attracted the police. The man's neighbors sided with him. A larger police force came and attacked the entire village. This inspired an uprising across Herzegovina and an uprising in neighboring Bosnia. These subjects of the empire wanted tax relief and relief from other grievances: an end to the feudalist obligation of laboring for local lords and an end to the abuse of their women during the women's obligatory labor in the households of the lords. The revolt spread to Bulgaria, which was also under Ottoman rule. In Russia, mass support for their fellow Orthodox Christians in the Balkans goaded Russia’s tsar, Alexander II, into starting another war against the Ottomans, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, a short war because Britain threatened to intervene. (Britain didn't want to see Russia advance to Constantinople (Istanbul), closer to Britain's shipping lanes in the Mediterranean Sea.

The treaty that ended this latest war recognized the Ottoman Empire's loss of almost all of its European possessions. Romania, Montenegro, and Serbia had become independent. Bulgarians were upset because, rather than independence, their country was recognized as having autonomy within the Turkish empire (independence would come 1908). Nominally, the Ottoman Empire held-on to its rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but, during the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Russia had agreed to Austria-Hungary invading Bosnia-Herzegovina and Austria-Hungary was now recognized as having control there.

Cyprus, Egypt and Sudan remained as Ottoman provinces in name, but the British were recognized as having control over Cypress, and Britain would gain virtual control over Egypt and Sudan by sending its troops there in 1882 "on paper. There was little the Ottoman Empire could do about it. It was virtually powerless against any agreement among its European neighbors.


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