Healing the Sick Man of Europe

If the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was going through a period of transformation, rather than beginning a 400 year decline, it would seem that the Empire, which collapsed in 1922, had to be declining in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While it’s true that the Empire lost substantial territory, too much focus on the territorial loss and the collapse of the empire can blind us to the important positive developments taking place in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Supposedly Sick Man of Europe

If we look at the map of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, talking about decline seems logical. We can easily see that the Ottomans lost control of more than half their territory. On the eve of the First World War I, the Ottoman Empire had contracted to the area around Istanbul, Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. At some point during the middle of the nineteenth century, European diplomats, believing that the Ottoman Empire was near its end, began calling the Ottoman Empire the “Sick Man of Europe.”

In thinking about this epithet, there are two important points. The first is that European diplomats using this phrase saw the Ottoman Empire as part of Europe. From our present day perspective, we tend to think about the Ottoman Empire as being in the Middle East. World history courses treat the Ottomans as an Islamic or Middle Eastern empire. In courses about the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire tends to be the most important state. While the Ottomans were undisputedly a Middle Eastern state, since the fifteenth century, the Ottomans were also a European state. Even if European diplomats believed that the Ottoman Empire was dying, they also believed it was a European state that was dying.

The second point to consider is how this popular epithet influences our understanding of the history of the Ottoman Empire in its final two centuries. It’s easy for students to hear this epithet and become focused on why the Ottoman Empire collapsed and what came after it. As a teacher, I know that I am often asking my students to explain why particular empires collapse. The issue with this teleological focus is that it can blind us to the significance of Ottoman reform and modernization during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, M. Şükrü Hanioğlu argues:

the attempt to frame late Ottoman history in a narrative of imperial collapse to the relentless drumbeat of the march of progress — usually associated with Westernization, nationalism, and secularization — prevents a clear understanding of the developments in question.

In the rest of this post, I want to shift the focus away from Ottoman decline and toward the ways in which the Ottoman state evolved and adapted. These transformations allowed it not only to survive for so long, but also to assert greater control over the territory that it continued to rule over.

The Eighteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State

Having acknowledged that the Ottoman Empire contracted significantly during the nineteenth century, the question becomes what was still dynamic about the Empire. If we look at the state itself, we quickly see that while the Ottomans ruled over far fewer people, the state’s ability to rule over these people had increased substantially. In her Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective, Karen Barkey argues about the important changes of the eighteenth century:

The seeds of transition from empire to a different political formation were sown in the eighteenth century. The central and local structures of the empire began to take a different shape, connecting nodes and further decreasing peripheral segmentation.

After centuries of adaptive and flexible policies that had maintained the Ottoman Empire as a relatively decentralized empire, the rulers of the state began the process of transforming the Empire into a more centralized nation-state. Barkey focuses on a few key eighteenth century developments in the Ottoman Empire: the emergence of new movements of opposition to the state that began framing “a new state-society compact,” the commercialization of the Ottoman economy, and “the widespread growth of tax farming as a significant form of revenue collection.” These transformations, according to Barkey, highlight the ways in which the Ottoman Empire continued to evolve and adapt. She also emphasizes that these adaptations should be seen as “a sign of flexibility and pragmatism, not a sign of decline.” It’s also worth noting that the methods of reform adopted by the Ottomans sometimes reflected and sometimes diverged from European methods of political and economic reform. These reflections and divergences remind us that the European model of reform was not the only model; there were multiple ways that states modernized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Nineteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State

The Ottomans’ transformation of the state continued into the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1839, Ottoman rulers implemented the Tanzimat, the a series of reforms that reshaped the nature of the Ottoman state. The Tanzimat included laws guaranteeing property rights, prohibiting bribery, replacing tax farming with a more consistent system of taxation, abolishing differential treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims and different ethnic groups, encouraging a more secular vision of the Empire, and establishing equitable universal conscription of males into the military. The Constitution of 1876 is often seen as the culmination of these reforms, since it formalized and codified nearly fourty years of legal changes. These changes not only highlight the ways in which the Ottomans were adapting elements of European states, but also indicate the increasing strength and centralization of the Ottoman state. Hanioğlu argues that the three individuals (Mustafa Reşid Pasha, Mehmed Emin Âlî Pasha, and Keçecizâde Mehmed Fu’ad Pasha.) responsible for these reforms also mark a shifting balance of power within imperial rule. Instead of competition between different factions within the state, “the bureaucratic cadres of the Sublime Porte [the name for the entrance gate to buildings housing the Ottoman bureaucracy ] oversaw the entire administration of the state, ruling the empire until 1871 with only trivial interference from the imperial palace or the ulema.” The Tanzimat also marked a reassertion of Istanbul’s power over the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. According to Hanioğlu, the leaders of the Tanzimat implemented “new regulations that would make local administration uniform throughout the empire.” After fourty years of the Tanzimat, there was a major shift in the governance of the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Sultan Abdul Hamid II seized control of the government and suspended the two-year old Constitution. While Abdul Hamid is known for suspending the Constitution of 1876 and promoting a more Islamic vision of the Empire, he also continued the centralization of the state and expanded the central government’s influence over the provinces. One way in which he combined these two trends is in his call to build the Hijaz railway. Ostensibly promoted as a way to link the major cities of the Empire to Mecca to facilitate the hajj, it was also a way to more easily move soldiers and officials across the Arab provinces. Abdul Hamid also reorganized and expanded the Ottoman bureaucracy in a way that made it increasingly dependent on him personally. Hanioğlu argues:

Abdülhamid II in fact envisioned efficient administration of the empire by a modern bureaucracy headed by a cadre of technocrats. Accordingly, bureaucratic reform picked up perceptible speed during his reign. At the sultan’s behest, a host of new bureaucratic schools were established, including the Royal Academy of Administration, which became a college.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire continued its long-standing practice of evolving and adapting its systems and practices for ruling over its vast territory. Whereas the early history of the Empire was characterized more by flexibility and localized practices, the last two centuries of the Empire increasingly became characterized by centralization and standardization.

The Effects of Centralization

This increased centralization, not surprisingly, was often resisted by peoples around the Empire. Hanioğlu shows how a wide range of peoples pushed back against the Ottoman imperial officials. Whether it was Christians in the Balkans, bedouins among the Arab nomadic populations, or Arabs in Mount Lebanon, there was an empire wide trend of resistance by formerly loosely-ruled peoples to the new, more invasive practices of the Ottoman government. In some regions of the empire, this resistance was successful. During the late nineteenth century, Christians in the Balkans successfully led nationalist independence movements in Bulgaria and Serbia.

At the same time, the Ottomans also managed to reassert control over other parts of the Empire. In 1870, the Ottomans sent forces to Yemen and reestablished nominal control over much of the country. Also during the 1870s, the Ottomans reestablished control over Transjordan. They set up Salt as a regional capital, stationed soldiers in the region, and asserted control over the formerly independent Bedouin tribes. The Ottomans even began to encourage migration of Ciracassians and Palestinians to the region and linked Transjordan to the rest of the Arab provinces through the Hijaz railway.

What happened in Transjordan and Yemen also happened across much of Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. Even as the Ottomans lost control of territory in the Balkans and North Africa, their ability to govern their remaining provinces increased.

The Ottomans as an Imperial Power

Another way to think about the increased power of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century is to consider its ability to project its influence beyond its borders. In an interview on the Ottoman History Podcast, Mostafa Minawi discuss “The Ottoman Scramble for Africa.” Chris Gratien, who interviewed Minawi, expands on his ideas in an article of the same name. As Europeans powers sought to expand their power into Africa, they also viewed the Ottomans as needing to be included in discussions at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. According to Gratien, the Ottomans participated in these meetings by:

closely following the legal terms of the conference in order to claim parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as the “hinterland” of their remaining North Africa provinces. Likewise, they tried to hold their European competitors in Africa, such as France and Britain, to these terms in order to stop the contraction of their empire. In this way, they used these new agreements to assert their sovereign position on the world stage.

Gratien also explains how:

Ottoman activities in Africa went beyond formal claims. They sought to establish telegraph lines and other political and cultural connections with the local Sanusi order in order to lay claim to a tangible presence on the ground. Here, Minawi notes the potential dangers of labeling the Ottomans as another colonial power, because their strategies differed markedly from those of some of their European contemporaries. Rather than asserting themselves as the rightful and hegemonic rules of a borderlands region, they represented themselves to their local interlocutors as alternative allies to the otherwise impeding arrival of European colonial rule.

Based on both their participation at the Berlin Conference and actions they took on their own, the characterization of the Ottomans as the “sick man” obscures our ability to see the ways in which the Empire was still a surprisingly strong state able to project its power into Africa right up until the end of the nineteenth century.


Over the course of this post and the previous post on the Ottomans, I have suggested that the tendency to view the Ottoman Empire after the death of Süleyman in 1566 as a long history of decline is problematic. Not only did the Empire last for nearly 450 years more, but in many ways the political power of the Empire was surprisingly quite strong. The Ottoman government developed multiple strategies over the years to rule over a large amount of territory. At times these strategies mirrored ones adopted by Europeans, but at other times the Ottomans adopted unique strategies. So often the challenge in world history is to escape the Eurocentric assumptions that shape our narratives. If we can use a few detours along the less traveled narrative roads of world history, hopefully our students will be better able to figure out how to navigate the world of world history on their own rather than continuing to rely on outdated Eurocentric maps.

Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on March 18, 2016.

When the End of Growth is not the Beginning of Decline

If the myth of isolation is one of the main consequences of Eurocentrism for how we think about the history of East Asia, Eurocentric approaches to the history of the Ottoman Empire have encouraged us to begin to see its actual end in 1922 long before it occurred. A quick look at the Wikipedia page for the Ottoman Empire reveals:

The stagnation and decline, Stephen Lee argues, was relentless after 1566, interrupted by a few short revivals or reform and recovery.

At least Stephen Lee acknowledges there were a few bright spots over the last 450 years of the Ottoman Empire. Looking at maps of “Ottoman Decline” on Google Images reveals hundreds of visualizations of when the Ottomans lost different portions of their territory. My personal favorite is this map:

Somehow the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1299, was declining before it even existed! It’s also mildly amusing that in 650 years of history, the Ottomans only lost that small green-colored territory. The funny thing about this obsession with Ottoman decline is that we’re talking about a period of 450 years. I suspect that many states in the world (maybe the less than 250 year old United States!) would be happy to be “declining” for over four centuries.

In many ways the myth of Ottoman decline is as pervasive in world history as the myth of East Asian isolation also because of Eurocentrism. As discussed in my earlier post, Eurocentrism is a way of viewing the historical events in Europe as a norm for global developments. We then take that Eurocentric norm and use it to analyze events in another part of the world. Any divergence from the European trajectory becomes the reason why something is not correct or something went wrong in that other region. It should be said that Ottoman historians have been problematizing the idea of Ottoman decline, but this reinterpretation hasn’t seem to influence world history. Instead of using Europe as our benchmark, I will look at Ottoman history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a global perspective.

The End of Expansion and the Obsession with Growth

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of European states were beginning to emerge as important powers in the world. Spain was establishing a global empire linking scattered territories in Europe under Habsburg rule to colonies in the Americas and the Philippines. Portugal established its extensive network of trading posts around the Indian Ocean and Brazil. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, English, and French joined in this process of global maritime expansion. Robert Marks, in The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century, argues that England (later Britain) and France combined this territorial expansion with internal political changes to develop centralized nation-states that were effective at harnessing resources for economic and political growth. Based on this quick outline, the story of Europe in these centuries is one of growth, dynamism, centralization, and the origins of modern nation-states.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire also went through a series of changes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Since its foundation in 1299, the Ottomans had been able to expand the Empire until the middle of the sixteenth century. After the death of the Emperor Süleyman in 1566, expansion slowed down. Only a small amount of territory was added to the empire over the course of the next century. Historians, seemingly influenced by comparisons to Europe, have pointed to a number of moments during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as to when Ottoman decline began. The quotation at the beginning of this post suggests 1566, which was the death of Emperor Süleyman, as the first date. Some historians have pointed to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Roger Crowley, in a recent popular history, goes as far to suggest the decisive nature of the European victory at Lepanto in tipping the balance of power between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Other historians have pointed to the Ottoman failure to capture Vienna in 1683 as the tipping point. Andrew Wheatcroft, in The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe views the failed siege not only as a turning point for the Ottomans, but for Europe as a whole. In addition to these potential political tipping points, beginning in the late sixteenth century, Northern European merchants from Britain, France, and the Netherlands began to sign trade agreements with the Ottoman Empire that made it far easier for these European traders to operate within the Ottoman Empire than it had been two centuries earlier.

Given all these changes, it shouldn’t seem surprising that many historians have viewed these centuries as a period of decline. The Ottoman Empire had stopped expanding, it was no longer winning as many military encounters against Europeans as it had previously, and its economic relationship with Europe was changing. Instead of viewing these changes as the onset of decline, I encourage us to present them in our classes as more of a transformation of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was always a far larger state than any of its European rivals. It was also more ethnically and religiously diverse. Given these realities, it was unlikely that the Ottomans could have adopted the same centralizing policies that were being implemented in Britain and France, even if they had wanted. In his The Ottoman Empire and early modern Europe, Daniel Goffman analyzes the first few centuries of the Ottoman Empire in relationship to Europe. He frequently mentions the Empire’s “flexibility” and “adaptability.” He argues that it was “Ottoman elasticity” that allowed the Ottomans to overcome their military setbacks and become an established part of “the European world of the sixteenth and seventeenth century” (231). He goes further to suggest that unlike the contemporary centralizing trend of Western Europe, “in the late sixteenth century, the Ottoman state simultaneously became more bureaucratized and less centralized.”

If we consider this Ottoman tendency to decentralization in light of European states’ tendency to centralization, it would be easy to see why this period looks to be one of Ottoman decline. The seventeenth century in Europe is marked by rulers such as France’s Louis XIV and his policies of centralization. But if we consider the changes in Ottoman governance from the perspective of the Ottomans themselves, a different image emerges. In his article, “Decline of A ‘Myth’: Perspectives on the Ottoman ‘Decline,’” M. Faith Çalişir examines the idea of decline in Ottoman historiography. He interprets this decision not to centralize as an active choice designed to maintain a degree of Ottoman rule over a large territory and reflecting previously established Ottoman traditions. He argues:

the Ottoman rulers did not impose ideological pressure or implement a strict rule in these particular territories [the Ottoman frontiers]. To maintain the sultan’s rule, the Ottoman capital used whatever means available including a wide use of of the local elites, maintaining the pre-Ottoman local customs and regulations. According to this practice, which is known as istimalet (lit. “to lean” or “incline in the direction of”) a classical Ottoman policy that aimed to gain the support of people through reconciliation and protection, the Ottomans paid significant attention to seek non-military and long-lasting solutions to disturbances in the newly conquered places. Thanks to this policy, the Ottomans, from the beginning of their empire, could establish centuries-long rule in non-Turkish and non-Muslim lands.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Köprülü family were the Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire. Following the established istimalet policy, they implemented a series of reforms (lowering tax rates and use of local languages) to the Ottoman bureaucracy and military that strengthened the Ottoman state. Çalişir argues:

the political, economic, and military achievements of the grand viziers from Köprülü family in the second half of the seventeenth century stand out as a significant gap in the unsatisfactory narrative of the “Ottomans’ inevitable decline.”

Despite no longer expanding territorially and even losing some battles, the Ottomans were not beginning to decline in the seventeenth century. Instead the Ottomans were focused on transforming their government based on established traditions. They sought to maintain control over their extensive empire through a flexible system of governance that was nothing like what Louis XIV was doing in France. It would seem that historians looking at these centuries as the onset of Ottoman decline have not only been influenced by Eurocentrism, but also by present-day market analysts who see anything other than economic growth as a sign of decline. Our obsession with growth leads us to think that if a country’s GDP is not increasing or a company’s profits are not growing, there is something wrong. Analysts worry that because the United States’ GDP is not growing as fast as China’s, we must be starting to decline. The Ottoman Empire was one of the world’s largest empires in 1600. It was no longer growing, but it also wasn’t declining.

The Ottomans and Other Muslim Empires

Another way to see the success of these more flexible and less centralized Ottoman policies is to compare the Ottomans to the two other Muslim empires that existed at the same time. By 1700, three large Muslim empires ruled most of the territory from the western end of North Africa to the east of India. The Safavids ruled over Persia, while the Mughals ruled over greater India. All three Muslim empires had gone through long periods of expansion, but only the Ottomans were able to survive and adapt after that expansion ended.

By 1800, the map of the Muslim world looked quite different. The Safavids no longer existed, and the Mughals existed in name only. The Safavid Empire had collapsed in 1722. For much of the eighteenth century, Persia was governed by competing warlords, until the Qajar Dynasty took over nominal control of Persia at the end of century. In India, the Mughals were first challenged by a number of local dynasties, and then the British began establishing control over parts of India in the middle of the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, the Ottomans, despite being in “decline,” somehow managed to maintain control over most of their territory.

When Trade is not just about Economics

The Ottoman Empire’s changing economic relationship with Europe is another way in which the Empire is sometimes seen as being in decline. During the Ottoman Empire’s formative years, it used its powerful navy to confront the Venetians and establish the Ottoman state as the major power of the eastern Mediterranean. Despite going to war on a few occasions, the Ottomans also signed commercial agreements with the Venetians that gave them access to Ottoman ports and regulated tariffs.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, commercial arrangements between the Ottomans and Europeans began to change. The Ottomans signed new treaties with Northern European states, such as England, France, and the Netherlands. These new treaties are frequently referred to as capitulations. Northern European states had gained access to Ottoman markets and gained certain protections for their merchants in the Ottoman Empire. From a European perspective, these treaties seem to suggest a weakening Ottoman state that was ceding a share of international commerce to potential European rivals. The treaties are seen only from the economic perspective of how Europeans viewed trade. For them, trade was a sort of zero-sum game in which any expansion of European involvement in international commerce meant that some other region was losing out.

Instead of viewing these treaties from a Eurocentric perspective, Goffman suggests that the Ottomans signed these treaties for political reasons. They were less concerned with maintaining a certain share of global commerce and more concerned with gaining increased access to strategically important items that Europeans traded. In other words, the Ottomans wanted to regulate access to English silver and gunpowder and were willing to give the English greater trading rights in exchange. Given that the Ottoman Empire would continue to exist for another 300 years, this bargain seems like a good deal!


By looking at the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from the perspective of its earlier history and in comparison to contemporary Muslim states, a surprisingly different image of the Ottoman Empire emerges. The Empire in the seventeenth century was no longer the powerful military machine that had conquered parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe during the thirteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries. At the same time, it was not losing territory. It was transforming from a state based on conquest to one focused on maintaining power and control over a large region through a series of flexible policies. Maybe a closer examination of the Ottomans’ transformation and subsequent success at preserving the state will help some Americans to worry a little less about the United States losing out to China and encourage us to think more about how our economy is simply transforming.

Stay tuned for the second half of this post on the Ottomans, decline, and the nineteenth century: “Healing the Sick Man of Europe.”

Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on February 4, 2016.