The Beginning of the Ottoman Retreat in Europe

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In 1453 the Janissaries forced their way into Constantinople at the crucial hour of the final assault on Byzantium; a century later they were the spearhead of Suleiman the Magnificent’s army. In these years the corps was bound by a strict and well-defined code of life: absolute obedience to their officers; perfect accord between each unit; abstinence from alcohol; observance of Muslim piety; enlistment only from the devşirme or from prisoners-of-war; no beards; no marriage; no pursuit of a trade or profession other than soldiery; and acceptance of seniority as a basis for promotion, of residence in barracks (with safeguards for retirement), of capital punishment in a reputedly merciful form, of corporal punishment on the orders of Janissary officers, and of demands for training or exercise at any time. They could count on good pay and rations and, from 1451 onwards, they received a special distribution of Accession Money each time a new Sultan was girded with the ceremonial sword. Since only seven Sultans acceded during a span of a hundred and fifty years, Accession Money formed a not unreasonable occasional bonus payment.

But by 1620 the Janissaries were not so much a standing army as a standing menace. Their code was neglected. Legal marriage was first permitted in 1566, the year of the great Suleiman’s death. Soon afterwards sons of Janissaries were allowed to join the Corps, even though as Muslims they could not themselves be bound in the slave obedience that ensured strict discipline. The last comprehensive levy in south-eastern Europe was raised in 1676; already by then there were instances of Muslim fathers lending sons to Christian families so that they could find their way into such a powerful and prestigious body of men. By the start of the seventeenth century the communal life of the Corps was less binding; Janissaries acquired their own homes in garrison towns; if not campaigning, they practised trades; many behaved like a civilian reserve militia rather than as the core of the Sultan’s army. Yet while greedy to acquire new rights, they remained jealously possessive of old privileges. Accession Money became, not a reward, but a form of extortion. When in 1623 Murad IV became the fourth Sultan to accede in six years, the Grand Vizier informed the senior generals of the Janissaries that the treasury was empty, and they agreed that their troops would forgo the bonus; but, in a mutinous mood, the Corps insisted on its rights: gold and silver plate from the Topkapi Sarayi was melted down and minted into coin for their benefit.

A strong and fearless ruler would have suppressed the Janissaries. But how? Unlike the Russian streltsy, the corps was not based on any single centre in the empire. There had long been Janissary barracks in Constantinople, in the larger provincial cities, and in conquered capitals such as Cairo and Damascus. Suleiman, aware of the potential danger constituted by the Corps, encouraged the growth of an Imperial Bodyguard of dragoons (silahtar). Under his successors this regiment was recruited from the richer Turkish nobility and in any campaign remained close to the Sultan’s person. Yet while the silahtar was a small élite force, the Janissaries could number 90,000 men organized in more than a hundred battalions (orta), if fully mobilized. They included what might be regarded as a proto-commando brigade, the serdengecti (‘those willing to give up their heads’), an initial infantry assault force. If the Ottoman Empire was to meet the military challenge from the West, the Sultans needed the Janissaries, provided the Corps would fight as loyally and ferociously as in the days of Mehmed the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent.

Briefly it seemed as if they might. Under Mustafa II, who came to the throne in February 1695, a vigorous attempt was made to halt the Austrian advance. Within eleven weeks of his accession Sultan Mustafa appointed as şeyhülislâm Feyzullah Effendi, his former tutor. As principal interpreter of Holy Law it was Feyzullah Effendi’s task to win support from the conservative ulema for renewed war on the Danube. Resistance to the Habsburgs required more taxation and greater personal suffering in the villages of both Rumelia and Anatolia, for a new campaign would once again denude the fields of labourers. Feyzullah Effendi became more than a spiritual leader; in the absence of a strong Vizier he was the Sultan’s chief executive, capable of scaring reluctant provincial pashas into raising troops for the Sultan and of checking the mutinous tendencies of the Janissaries. Theoretically the Janissary Corps was at full strength, although in practice no more than 10,000 men were ready for service in Europe and the orta stationed in Egypt remained wildly undisciplined. But by the early months of 1696 a formidable army had gathered around the holy banner. Feyzullah Effendi and the ulema would, under the protection of Allah, control the Ottoman Empire from the capital while, once again, a Sultan led his army into battle.

At first Sultan Mustafa’s generalship met with some success. He defended Temesvar (Timisoara) against Emperor Leopold’s troops, enabling the Turks to keep a firm foothold north of the Danube. But in the late summer of 1697 he became over-ambitious, advancing northwards from Belgrade, into the rich Hungarian granary of the Backsa (now the Serbian Vojvodina). Near the small town of Zenta the Sultan’s engineers improvised a bridge of pontoons across the lower Tisza, broad and fast-flowing at this point, not far from the river’s confluence with the Danube. It was while the army was crossing the Tisza, late in the evening of 11 September, that the Austrians struck. Under the inspired leadership of Prince Eugene of Savoy they cut the Turkish force in two. Possibly as many as 30,000 men in the Ottoman army perished, killed on the battlefield of Zenta or drowned in the waters of the Tisza. Clusters of corpses formed ‘islands’ in the river, Prince Eugene reported back to Vienna soon after the battle. His ‘decisive victory’ marked the start of the Prince’s brilliant career; it made him ‘the most renowned commander in Europe’, comments Lord Acton, anticipating the victorious partnership of Eugene and Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession. For the Turks, however, Zenta was decisive as an end of an era rather than a beginning. Fourteen years after the relief of Vienna—almost to the day—the last Turkish attempt to sweep back up the middle Danube lay shattered. The Sultan was left with virtually no army outside Asia.

Heavy rain saved Mustafa II from the immediate consequences of his defeat; Leopold I was not prepared to send his troops on a wintry expedition into the Balkans. More significant was the impact of Zenta on European diplomacy as a whole. England and the Netherlands sought to arbitrate, hoping to secure peace in the East so that the Habsburgs could concentrate on the struggle against Louis XIV’s France: there was as yet no Eastern Question to perplex western statesmen, only a tiresome and distracting Eastern Sideshow.

Long negotiations ended in the last week of January 1699 with a peace settlement concluded at Karlowitz (now Sremski Karlovici). Emperor Leopold was well satisfied by the treaty. Clauses which offered trade concessions to Austrian merchants and confirmed the right of Roman Catholics to worship freely within the Sultan’s lands might be imprecisely phrased, but they appeared to give the Habsburg Emperor a claim to intervene in internal Ottoman affairs. The territorial clauses of the settlement were almost deceptively straightforward: Hungary and all of Transylvania (except for a triangle of land around Temesvar) were in Habsburg hands when the peace talks began, and they remained so under the terms of the treaty; the Venetians had consolidated their hold on Dalmatia and the Peloponnese, and they retained them; the Turks had pulled back from southern Poland and the Ukraine, and they made no attempt to recover these lands from the Poles. Talks with Russian emissaries went on even longer, but a compromise was reached in June 1700; the Treaty of Constantinople confirmed Tsar Peter’s possession of Azov and a stretch of the lower Dniester, provided that all Russian fortifications in the region were dismantled.

No signatory of these treaties regarded the redrawing of frontiers as final. The contest for mastery of the Black Sea was only just beginning and it seemed likely that the distant possessions of a decaying Venice would soon slip from the Republic’s grasp. In one region, however, the Peace of Karlowitz lastingly changed the map. Until 1683 the ‘Military Frontier’ across western Hungary and Croatia had formed a defensive wall against Islam; after 1699 the Frontier stretched as far east as Transylvania, looming so aggressively over the Balkans that the Austrian Habsburgs seemed poised to throw the Turks back into Asia, just as their Spanish kinsmen had expelled the Moors of North Africa a century before. Yet this was an illusion. The new Military Frontier, like the old, proved essentially defensive, if only because of Habsburg preoccupation with the grand designs of the French, and the problems of Germany, Poland and the Italian peninsula. Prince Eugene fought one further successful campaign in the east, adding lustre to his reputation at Temesvar in 1716 and Belgrade a year later; but, although the Banat of Temesvar never returned to Ottoman rule, by 1739 the Turks had recovered Serbia, and it was another century and a half before a token Turkish detachment finally lowered the last crescent flag to fly over Belgrade. An Austrian march on Constantinople—a real threat at the time of Karlowitz—never took place. Apart from two decades in the early eighteenth century, the Sava and Danube rivers continued to mark the boundary of the Habsburg Monarchy until the empires were swept away at the end of the First World War.

Karlowitz was not, as some writers maintain, a disaster for the Ottoman Empire. The Peace enabled Turkey to parry the challenge from the West, ready to meet the great threat from the North and new dangers in Asia, too. For three years after Karlowitz the last Grand Vizier of the Köprülü family, Amcazade Hüseyin, undertook vigorous reforms, in the system of levying taxes, in the organization and training of the army, and in developing a sail-powered fleet to replace the traditional oar-powered galleys. Hüseyin’s reforming zeal intruded into many cherished preserves. Inevitably it offended the conservative ulema, still led by the Sultan’s nominee as şeyhülislâm, Feyzullah Effendi. Had not a fatal illness forced him to resign in September 1702, Hüseyin would almost certainly have fallen a victim to his political enemies.

Over the next eleven months events followed a familiar pattern. Feyzullah Effendi, though vigilant and alert at the start of the reign, soon succumbed to the seductive venality of office. By the turn of the century he was amassing a considerable fortune and exercising nepotism on a grand scale. Rumour said that Sultan Mustafa and Feyzullah were planning to move court and capital back to Edirne, a decision which would have destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of traders in Stamboul and along the shores of the Golden Horn. In July 1703 four companies of Janissaries, their pay heavily in arrears, led a mutiny in Stamboul, winning support from other soldiers and religious students. The rebels marched on Edirne, where the Sultan and the şeyhülislâm were in residence. Although Mustafa II hurriedly exiled Feyzullah and his kinsfolk, he could not avoid his father’s fate. The Viziers deposed him on 22 August; and dropsy carried off yet another victim in the kafe at the end of December.

Once again an Ottoman prince, fetched from the Fourth Courtyard of the Topkapi Sarayi, was girded with the sword at Edirne rather that at Eyüp. Here, however, a slight change crept into an otherwise familiar scenario. Unusually, the twenty-nine-year-old Ahmed III was a brother, rather than a half-brother, of his predecessor; their Cretan mother, Rabia Gulnus, was in her early sixties at Ahmed’s accession and she enjoyed some influence as Valide Sultana until her death twelve years later. Yet for a few months it seemed as if the Ottoman dynasty itself was under notice to quit. Ahmed was forced to pay out a larger amount of Accession Money than any predecessor, satisfying the mutinous Janissaries with funds confiscated from the discredited Feyzullah Effendi and his circle of intimates. Even so, the Sultan could not distribute an equal sum to every unit of rebellious troops, and there was widespread discontent in Rumelia and south-western Anatolia.

A hostile army gathered at Silivri, where the road to Edirne turned inland from the Sea of Marmara. If at that moment the commanders could have agreed on a nominee for the Sultanate from one of the other leading families, the Ottoman Empire might well have fallen apart, dissolving into a loose confederation of khanates. But Ahmed, and the Empire, survived. He was prepared to use the Janissaries as protectors of the dynasty. At their approach the rebels fled from Silivri, many becoming brigands in eastern Thrace and the Rodopi Mountains. The threat of civil war receded.

For the first half of his twenty-seven-year reign, Ahmed III showed a political guile which occasionally rose to shrewd statesmanship. In retrospect, the years 1703 to 1718 form a period of weak government; thirteen Grand Viziers followed one another with disconcerting rapidity; and control of the outlying provinces was so poor that in 1711 there were seventy days of bloodshed in Cairo, as six military corps collaborated in the ‘great Insurrection’ against Janissary pretensions. But in the imperial capital Sultan Ahmed used these years to consolidate his position on the throne, playing off rival viziers and ‘Lords of the Divan’ while advancing his own nominees to key posts in the army and at Court. The policy of modernizing the army and navy, begun by Hüseyin, was cautiously continued and met with some success. While no Ottoman commander could outwit Prince Eugene, the Russians were checked on the river Pruth in 1711, Peter the Great himself narrowly avoiding capture. But the most striking achievements of this period were in southern Greece. The remarkable speed with which the Peloponnese was recovered testifies to the effectiveness of the redesigned fleet. It also provides a significant commentary on the status of Ahmed III’s Greek Orthodox subjects.

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