The Rise and Fall of Ottoman Power

In the Middle Ages, the Ottomans created an empire through aggressive territorial expansion, a fairly sophisticated and organized system of taxation, a formidable military capability, and the utilization of a religion-based ideology for control and obedience. Once the forays into Europe had been blocked at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and outside Vienna in 1683, and, as a result, further imperial expansion and conquest thwarted, the Ottomans relied financially on agricultural production and the control of trade routes between the East and the West. However, the arrival of long-distance sailing ships and the rise of European shipping altered the traditional leverage enjoyed by the Ottomans in cooperation with their Mediterranean sailing contractors, the Venetians.

Since the Ottoman Empire traditionally controlled the overland Silk Road and commercial trade routes between Europe and Asia, they were able to dictate the terms of trade to both. Accordingly, the rest of Europe (minus the Venetians) sought options in order to mitigate the effects of this monopoly, leading eventually to the age of exploration and ocean-going technology. With the European voyages around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, the Ottomans increasingly found themselves cut out of the lucrative spice trade from Asia to Europe and the Mediterranean world.

In addition to being limited in its trading influence in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean during the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire also steadily lost territory in Eastern Europe to Austria and Russia. The empire found itself engaged on a number of fronts between 1568 and 1876 during the Russo-Turkish wars. During those wars, 11 conflicts, draining resources without replenishing the Ottoman treasury, were fought against an expanding and powerful Russian Empire. The Russian victory during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774 secured vast stretches of land on the Black Sea north coast and brought territory as far south as the Caucasus under Russian control. The Russian army invaded the Balkans in 1806–1812, and by 1878, Russian troops came within 10 miles of Constantinople. For Western Europe, the prospect of a Russian-controlled former Ottoman Empire brought a concerted effort to limit Russia’s Mediterranean influence and its relentless drive south toward warm water ports and control in Europe and in the Middle East.

In his book, Guns, Sails, and Empires, Carlo Cipolla argues that the development of gunpowder weapons and long-distance sailing ships enabled the Europeans to expand at the expense of the Muslim world in the sixteenth century. This is an accurate, if not partial, portrayal of events. However, all too often the narrative developed characterizes Europe as pillaging and plundering its way through a peaceful, tolerant Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. The military history of the Middle East shows predatory behavior being engaged throughout the region, first by the nature of ancient kingdoms within the Middle East itself, taking control of the production of food and trade while financing sufficient military capability to enforce an elite preferred status quo. This was the case in ancient Mesopotamia and in Egypt. Asiatic nomadic cavalry descending into the region introduced a new mobility and maneuverability combined with the all too familiar savagery in keeping mass populations compliant in the fields, and focused on paying their taxes.

These new developments in mobility and maneuverability were not defeated by the West but rather by the introduction of gunpowder and gunpowder weapons that were first invented in China and spread across the Old Silk Road to the Middle East and Europe by the Mongols, eventually providing the Turkish tribes of the Ottomans the opportunity for bombarding the walls (and the inhabitants) of a trading city that stood unconquered for 1,000 years. It was not a Western plan or plot but the simple reality that the primary Ottoman motivation was to enrich themselves and their warriors as they proceeded in their campaign aimed initially at seizing all that was “Rum” (Roman world). Following the conquest of the last remnants of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, the Ottomans immediately attacked into the Mediterranean where they defeated the seafaring and trading city-state of Venice in 1479, following a 15-year war.

The Ottoman Empire then turned east and attacked with gunpowder weapons in Persia followed by a pivot south, conducting operations against the Mamluks in Egypt. A series of wars then erupted against Vienna between 1540 and 1791 wherein the Ottoman Empire attempted to overrun European civilization. A Western fleet stopped further Ottoman advances into the Mediterranean at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and European ground forces, for all intents and purposes, halted their invasion of Europe at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. From 1500 to 1700, the Ottomans were using similar artillery and small arms as the Europeans; however, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a significant gap widened between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The problem stemmed partly from the same type of issues the Russians faced by blocking the advancement in science and learning that the Europeans and North Americans embraced from the Renaissance (fourteenth to sixteenth centuries) to the Enlightenment (eighteenth century).

The West had finally seen the major religious wars come to an end with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which not only strengthened scientific inquiry but also codified the central position and power of the nation-state. Free to conduct experimentation and in possession of resources in which to support research and development, the West moved into the Industrial Revolution, which witnessed England, in particular, making historic gains in both civilian and military technology.

Conversely, in the Middle East in general and in the Ottoman Empire in particular, the inability to expand territory and seize resources with which to provide succor to one’s warriors and with which other key elite in the establishment might avoid paying taxes was stalled by the obstinacy of the Europeans. The Ottoman Empire came into being by taking land and wealth via an overwhelmingly powerful military. “Conquer and tax” was a simple formula useful for centuries for most warlords in conjunction with their multiple purveyors of religious edicts, condemnations, and general authoritarian methods of behavioral control. Without the ability to expand territory and thus the tax base, which allowed the Sultan to provide warriors with lucrative timars from which they could enjoy revenue from a subservient people, the Sultan was faced with having to generate revenue from taxes on an expanding base of sales and marketing of goods and services, that is, international trade. The problem with this model of empire was, once again, the Europeans.

During the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire was arguably the premier military force in the world. It had managed, by virtue of its occupation of the key and strategic position of the former Byzantine Empire, to create a monopoly on the movement of trade between India and China, on the one hand, and Europe and the Mediterranean, on the other hand. The problem for the Ottomans’ monopoly on trade arose when men began seeing the world as a globe rather than as a flat, immovable object. Thus, shedding the church’s condemnation of Galileo and others who were intent on freely investigating the natural world, the West was able to escape the shackles of tradition and began embracing the dynamics that came from creativity and innovation. The result was a scientific revolution, which led to advanced technology and military supremacy.

The Ottoman Empire rested on a triad of capabilities. First, it evolved from the benefits of territorial expansion and in taxing those newly minted citizens. Second, its fortunes rested on massive tracts of land generally dedicated to agricultural production. And third, it benefited enormously from the control of trade routes between the East and the West. In terms of the first leg of the triad, its ability to expand had been frustrated by the Europeans. In the second, its control over the trade routes had been neutralized by ocean-going vessels and technology, which traversed the southern tip of Africa and into Asian markets. As such, by the eighteenth century, its fortunes had come to rely on its agricultural products and raw materials as its main economic asset. Its ability to control the terms of trade had vanished. A fourth leg had disappeared in the eighteenth century—military supremacy.

By this time, the European trading countries—Britain, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Germany, and, to a certain extent, Russia—through aggressive mercantilist policies had developed capital reserves that developing countries would require in order to modernize their infrastructure and reform their financial institutions. The Europeans, in stark contrast to the period between the fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries when the Ottomans reigned supreme militarily and financially, controlled the terms of trade.

Unfortunately, the Europeans conducted campaigns of predatory financial and military behavior in the same harsh and blatantly exploitative manner as its predecessors in the Middle East and in Asia. The blame for dismal economic conditions in the modern Middle East rests not with the West, East, North, or South. The blame rests on predatory schemes by corrupt and often incompetent leaders within the Middle East, acting in conjunction with dominant internal factions. Additionally, international actors, including states and private sector entities have, in many instances, undermined rational policies of growth and development by aligning with the corrupt and incompetent within the region.

In order to modernize in the early modern era, Mehmet Ali in Egypt and the Sultan in Constantinople needed foreign exchange (hard currency), and since the Europeans were now in a superior trading position, hard currency (and thus capital) was now in their hands. The Middle East had no other option other than a campaign aimed at economic, political, and educational reforms and a general modernization effort that would touch upon all aspects of society. However, since they lacked the capital, it had to come from loans from the rich European trading states. Those loans were granted, but they were granted by what could only be described as predatory mercantilists posing as international bankers. Accordingly, the Western bankers and their state supporters were prepared to make the loans for the modernized networks and systems that relatively advanced European technology could provide; but the Middle Eastern borrowers would have to provide exclusive concessions to the European lenders for what essentially amounted to effective control of those strategic assets, such as railways, communication links, and factories.

As a result, Ottoman banks, mining companies, railroads, docks and warehouses, forestry enterprises, gas and water works, and so forth were all not only built by the Europeans but also subsequently owned by them. The British obtained significant shares in the Ottoman Central Bank, which they helped finance and create. France took control of the concession to run key railroads in the Ottoman Empire. The French also obtained tobacco rights and control of the docks in Beirut. The British took control of mineral rights in the city of Mosul, one of the premier trading posts of the old overland trading system in what is now present-day Iraq. The Russians pressed for and secured the rights to custom duties in Constantinople and in the Black Sea ports. Germany took control of the docks at Haidar Pasha (1899) and Alexandrette (1905) along with railway shares (Berlin-to-Baghdad aspirations) and various municipal transport monopolies.

Even if the urge to develop the Ottoman economy had sharpened after 1840, that urge would have come too late. By then the Europe powers had, by concerted intervention, harnessed the Ottoman and Egyptian agricultural economies to the industrializing European economies, with the familiar pattern of the exchange of raw materials from the Middle East for industrial goods from Europe. As a result, in the Ottoman Empire even more than in Egypt the emergence of a domestic industry and of a Muslim middle class was checked. Instead, non-Muslim minorities and the enlarging European resident communities performed middle-class functions. The absence of economic reform in the Ottoman Empire thus closed the circuit of innovation. The rising secular educational system promoted primarily the interests of the new class of military officers, civil (imperial) servants, diplomats, and teachers who by 1870 formed a new urban educated elite. Their influence in domestic politics outlived the empire and indeed, Turkey’s First Republic.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the management of the state finances was largely being controlled by Europeans. The responsibility for these developments does not rest solely with the Europeans. In order to facilitate such a massive penetration of a state’s economic assets, the cooperation of key Ottoman elite was necessary and was made possible partly by a desire to enrich themselves as they signed away control. This is not to say all Ottoman elite operated in this manner, nor is it to say all Western political and financial elite sought to plunder the empire.

But the people living in the Ottoman Empire, unbeknownst to them, had their economic wealth carted off by what might be characterized as modern pillagers and plunderers arising both in the Middle East and in Europe. Prior to placing a blanket of blame on everyone in the West involved in nineteenth-century Ottoman and Egyptian economic affairs, it should be remembered that an enormous threat was posed to Western civilization by the rise of the Ottoman Empire and its vassals in Egypt. This was an enormously powerful and violent empire whose aim was to conquer and subjugate Europe and place the yoke of taxation upon its shoulders. This campaign was to be achieved not by negotiation, consent, or the virtuous example of exemplary leadership, but attained at the point of the sword, and later, by the general bombardment of a city’s walls. To contribute in dismantling that threat from a purely defensive motivation certainly animated the decision making and behavior of many statesmen and bankers in Europe at the time. European military commanders were required to defend their people. If the bankers could take down most of the Ottoman’s capability before a war had to be fought, so much the better.

The dynamics and the nexus between economic affairs and military operations have been ongoing for thousands of years, in Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, the process is not improved by burning down the town square, shooting the sheriff, or burning the bank. When the Egyptian people realized that the elite had essentially sold their country to the Europeans, they began, in a passionate and emotional fit, burning, looting, and killing. The process is improved by ordinary people becoming increasingly aware of the nefarious nature of many of these schemes and in shining the light of public awareness on the nature of those tactics, and then, holding those responsible to account. This requires reason over passion, wisdom over emotion, and education over ignorance. It required a new relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Napoleon and the French army, for all the havoc it wreaked during the Egyptian campaign, successfully served notice that the idea of a new relationship between ruler and ruled had arrived in the Middle East.

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