In 1643 the Ottomans retook Baghdad from Persia; in the 1660s the Koprulu grand viziers finally destroyed Venetian power in the Levant, and took Ukraine; in 1711 Peter the Great and his army were holed up on the River Pruth, and sued for an abject peace; even in the 1730s the Austrians, hoping for a whirlwind victory like the one Prince Eugene had won for them twenty years before, were driven out of Belgrade instead. Sometimes it seemed that by a convulsive effort the empire could shake off lethargy and confusion, and discover some of its old direction.
But the troughs from which the Ottomans climbed were deeper every time. In 1674 they lost their first land battle against the Habsburgs at St Gotthard. Then came the crushing failure at Vienna in 1683; a string of defeats culminating in the humiliating treaty of Karlowitz in 1699; the no less disastrous treaty of Passarowitz, in 1718; the inescapable rise of Russian power in the eighteenth century, and the indefatigable resistance of Persia. These were hammer blows the empire sought to deflect by a variety of retreats: into diplomacy, safer territory, nostalgic fantasy, or selfishness. People moved to carve themselves out a place in an enterprise which struggled, first to maintain the status of a lofty power, then against failure, and lastly against disintegration, as the effort to pull together and recoup grew harder with the years.
The treaty of Belgrade in 1739, and treaties with Persia in 1748, gave the empire almost half a century of unprecedented peace. When the Ottomans chose to break that peace with a new series of Russian wars in 1784, they were roundly defeated, and the exercise proved only how fantastic all their expectations had become, and what little use they had made of this respite. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russian armies could lunge at Edirne; Napoleon took Egypt in 1800; and the integrity of Ottoman dominion, such as it was, was maintained as much by the bickerings of foreign diplomats as by any active policy of the state.
Some say that the causes of Ottoman decline are to be sought on the periphery, which no longer provided the empire with fresh blood; others blame it on the behaviour of the palace. Old-fashioned historians observed that the warrior blood of early sultans had been diluted, drop by drop, by the foreign slave-girls of the harem; as late as 1911 Professor Libyer computed the falling-off, and declared that the Ottoman Sultan possessed no more than one part in a million of Turkish blood (another historian corrected him by factoring in the Turkish odalisques, and thus arrived at a sum of about 1/16,000). But they also point to the entry of Muslim boys into the slave caste of the empire. Some see the empire’s nemesis not in western imbroglios but in the perpetual struggle with Shi’ite Persia, which promoted a stale orthodoxy and beggared the treasury. Foreign historians tend to blame the international forces of capitalism – their capital, their force – and suggest that the West reduced the empire to a peripheral producer of raw materials. Turkish historians repatriate the faults: they demonstrate that western trade had a negligible influence on the empire until the nineteenth century. But the military experts, taking the last Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 as a moment of reckoning, suggest that Austria and Russia were beginning to learn lessons that the Ottomans themselves had already started to forget.
War provided an excuse to raise more taxes, a full quarter of which were spent on the Sultan and his palace. War took the janissaries and the spahi cavalry off the streets. War brought the Ottoman Empire into the field, kindled some of the old flame, and set the elderly mechanism creaking and whirring into life again. Success or failure at the march’s end was really beside the point; and wars continued to be punctiliously waged even when Ottoman armies journeyed, not as a glorious caravan to lands of booty, but to dismal and near-inevitable defeats.
Both Austria and Russia benefited from coming late to the imperial feast: they were able to arrange their command structures, their tax-gathering efforts, and their technology to suit the modern style of warfare. The superiority of massive infantry divisions backed by mobile field artillery over medieval cavalry charges and heavy bronze siege cannon had been proved in Central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, when the strategy had been imported from France and Italy. It demanded much more from the state, for while knights who took revenues from their own lands were satisfied with the plunder they could seize from others, and remained, in essence, marauding hordes, the new style of warfare demanded huge discipline, systems of co-ordination, and a massive investment of funds – training, wages and supply. This in turn called for a very efficient tax system, encouraging the growth of a sophisticated bureaucracy backed by military force: if the countryside was to be milked, it had to be held hard.
The Russians eventually turned out to be very good at this. With their seemingly limitless reserves of manpower, they were quick to settle, cultivate and tax newly conquered lands, which paid for the army moving up ahead. Because they were moving on the whole into underpopulated territory, north and north-west of the Black Sea, their conquests had greater homogeneity than the Austrians could impose in Central Europe, or the Ottomans had ever considered imposing on the Balkans when they slipped in their horsemen as one link in the tax system. The passage of Ottoman armies, not composed of disciplined conscripts but of predatory horsemen and hired guns, and the high-handed attitude of the privileged janissaries towards peasants, did nothing to encourage settlement on the Ottoman frontier. Austria and Russia used armies as a palisade behind which people could be settled for tax and cultivation, which financed the next advance. The Ottomans left settlement to private initiative.
The support mechanisms which the Ottomans had excelled at establishing from early times were now looking old-fashioned. The guild-bound artisans of Constantinople were not up to manufacturing matériel and arms on the scale that modern war demanded. The tax system was fairly rudimentary, and nothing in Ottoman experience or training prepared them for the business of managing the enormous funds a modern state was obliged to raise, protect and disburse for war. Ottomans did not, on the whole, engage in trade; they worked in administration; their minorities, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, separated from them by a gulf of culture and sympathy, traditionally looked after the money side.
The Austrian years were dominated by Prince Eugene of Savoy, who brought drill and discipline, promotion by merit and a clear command structure to the Austrian armies. Within a few years the Austrians were able to inflict regular defeats on the Ottomans with armies no larger than before. Under Eugene, the Austrians had taken Belgrade and Nis; in 1697 they had defeated Sultan Mustafa IV in person at Zenta, on the lower Tisza, thwarting Ottoman efforts to recover the middle Danube, and created the conditions by which the Habsburgs gained Hungary and Transylvania in the peace of Karlowitz in 1699. Following a resumption of war, the treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 established Habsburg rule over Serbia itself, and it might have seemed that the Austrians were poised to sweep the Ottomans back into Asia. But ‘pride spread the veil of negligence over the eye of sagacity’, as an Ottoman historian once wrote. Eugene’s brilliance and daring so overawed his junior officers that when he was dead, and they had the command, they fatally sought to imitate his daring, while possessing none of his brilliance. Trying to repeat history without Eugene in the campaigns of 1734–6 they found themselves losing most of their gains to Ottoman armies which, if not brilliantly generalled, and no longer splendidly equipped, were very obdurate. The treaty of Belgrade in 1739 overturned many of the decisions of Passarowitz, and Serbia was returned to the empire.
The spirit of victory now moved decisively to Russia. The Tsars began to develop a sort of scientific rhythm to secure and settle the great steppe, which extended south of Muscovy to the northern shores of the Black Sea; after which they could reach out with both arms to encircle the so-called Turkish lake. By 1774, when Russia inflicted the humiliating treaty of Kucuk Kainardji on the Ottomans, Austria’s own twin-headed eagle seemed to peer uncertainly now east, now west; and in token of her confusion she was working as Russia’s poor relation, in the field at least. Austrian armies suffered one of their most terrible defeats near Slatina in 1788, when the order to halt one night was mistaken, by men further down the column, as the shout of ‘Allah!’ Believing the Turks had sprung an ambush, the troops panicked. The drivers of the ammunition carts lashed their horses to full speed, and at the terrible sound of their wheels, which sounded to the infantry like the charge of enemy cavalry, the soldiers fell out of line and clustered together in terrified huddles, firing wildly in all directions. At daybreak, without an enemy in sight, the corpses of 10,000 Austrian soldiers lay scattered across the snow.
The momentum of Russian victory, though, was slow to gather. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Russians were harassing and nibbling at the frontiers of the Crimea, where the treaty of Karlowitz had given them a toehold. They had, as the Tartar chief informed the Sultan, begun to intrigue with his orthodox flock, reaya, the Tsar casting himself in the light of a redeemer. The Swedes, at war with Russia, urged the dangers of the bear. In 1710, accordingly, the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa licensing war against Russia as not only justifiable but necessary. Thirty thousand janissaries were enrolled; the Kapudan Pasha readied the fleet, and the Russian ambassador was clapped up in the Castle of the Seven Towers, by way of declaring war.
Peter the Great secured his advance into Ottoman realms by buying the favour of the two hospodars, of Wallachia and Moldavia – but Prince Brancovich of Moldavia was playing a deep game, and when Peter’s army had crossed the River Prut to begin its advance through the principality the Tsar found that the supplies he wanted were not forthcoming. His men were already suffering from hunger and disease, and he boldly determined to push on and capture a vast stockpile of weapons and food which the Ottomans had made for themselves further south. The Ottomans had undoubtedly benefited from the unpalatable defeats registered by the treaty of Karlowitz twelve years before, and had been spurred into making improvements in their army and intelligence. While Peter marched down the right bank of the Prut, believing the Grand Vizier’s army still far away, the Ottoman army was even now advancing up the left bank to meet him. Ten thousand Crimean Tartars had brushed aside an advance guard which attempted to prevent them crossing, and very soon the entire Russian army found itself holed up between the Prut and a marsh. From the opposite bank the Ottoman guns prevented any soldier from approaching the river, and after two days of desperate fighting the Russians were unable to break the Turkish encirclement.
On 21 July 1711, Peter signed a treaty promising to keep within his own dominions in future, and to retreat from Azov, which had given him an entry into the Black Sea. Entirely at the mercy of the Grand Vizier, he was allowed to withdraw on astonishingly light terms. Peter himself never re-opened hostilities with the empire in his lifetime; but the project was only deferred, and in 1774, when the situation was reversed – when the Russians had swept victorious right up to the Balkan passes, and the Vizier discovered that he had just 8,000 men to defend the Bulgarian pass at Sumla and sued for peace, the Russian general Romanzoff delayed putting his signature to the treaty for four days, allowing it to fall on the anniversary of the treaty of the Pruth, to expunge the memory of that humilating reverse.
The treaty of Kucuk Kainardji, signed on 21 July 1774, was very different from the treaty extracted from Peter some sixty years before; it mirrored, rather, the treaty of Karlowitz signed with the Austrians in 1699, when the Ottomans were forced to give way in Central Europe. In 1774 they lost control of the northern shore of the Black Sea. Kucuk Kainardji made the Crimean Tartars independent of the Sultan, an obvious preliminary to their absorption into the Russian Empire, which took place ten years later. The Sultan was permitted to retain his role as Caliph, but this was a shadowy title at best (Selim the Grim, who had allegedly earned it by his conquest of Arabia and the Holy Cities, had not used it himself; its importance rose only as the temporal authority of the Sultan waned). The Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, were returned to the Porte, but the Russian ambassador was given the right to make representations on their behalf. Russian merchant ships were allowed access to Ottoman waters, which meant that for the first time since the Conquest, foreign ships might pass through the Bosphorus. The Russian ambassador was entitled to represent the interests of a new church that was to be built in Constantinople, as well as its ministers; and by sleight of hand this became, in the end, a claim by the Tsar to act as ultimate protector of all his co-religionists in the Sultan’s realms.
At St Gotthard, in 1674, the Ottomans had suffered their first true defeat on an open field (‘Who are these young girls?’ the Grand Vizier wanted to know when he saw the French cavalry advancing, with shaven faces and powdered wigs: but ‘Allons! allons! tue! tue!’ was a cry the Turks did not forget). The Austrian general in command during that engagement wrote later of the tremendous courage and obstinacy displayed by the Ottoman troops, but he was astonished, too, by their inexplicable failure to make use of the pike, which he called ‘the queen of weapons’.
The Ottomans did have a horrid arsenal to draw on all the same, from jabby little daggers to a sinister militaristic version of the long-handled scythe; yet a century later it was not the pike but the bayonet that Ottoman armies lacked. In the summer of 1774 General Suvarov appeared as Russia’s genius, and the bayonet’s devotee. ‘The ball is a fool – the bayonet a hero!’ was one of his maxims. He taught his soldiers to attack instantly and decisively: ‘attack with the cold steel – push hard with the bayonet!’ His soldiers adored him, and he never lost a single battle. He joshed with the men, called the common soldiers ‘brother’, and shrewdly presented the results of detailed planning and careful strategy as the work of inspiration. He announced the capture of Ismail in 1791 to the Tsarina Catherine in a doggerel couplet, after the assault had been pressed from house to house, room to room, and nearly every Muslim man, woman and child in the city had been killed in three days of uncontrolled massacre, 40,000 Turks dead, a few hundred taken into captivity. For all his bluffness, Suvarov later told an English traveller that when the massacre was over he went back to his tent and wept.