The_ruined_gateway_of_Prince_Eugene,_Belgrade

 

As Turkey slides closer and closer to the economic precipice, it is worth remembering Erdogan’s promises of resurrecting the Ottoman Empire as the ultimate goal of his rule. By 2023, the hundredth year anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey, Erdogan claimed, would have recaptured the economic power and world-wide reach of the Ottoman Empire in its glory days. Needless to say, this has never been anything but a baseless phantasy, but half of the Turks and many other Muslims believed it to the extent of following Erdogan blindly. It is worth, therefore, revisiting the history of the empire to find out that for most of its existence the Ottoman Empire was a historical anachronism with such glaring systemic weaknesses that it only lasted as long as it did because toward the end its continued existence served the purposes of other European powers.

 

Whether the beginning of the Ottoman Empire is considered the reign of Osman I in 1299 or the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, as popular in some histories, the empire was clearly of extraordinary longevity. It is also true, however, that for most of the period after the reign of Suleiman I, the Magnificent (1494-1566) the empire was in a slow, but essentially irreversible decline. So what exactly was this empire like and what is it that Erdogan dreams of recreating?

 

To start with the positive, the Ottomans were far from the blood-thirsty and uncouth barbarians they were often made out to be in Europe. By the fall of Constantinople, they were already well established in Europe (Edirne) and had interacted, often as mercenaries, with local Christian kings and potentates for a hundred and fifty years. Soon after that momentous event, Mehmet II, Fatih (the Conqueror) and Suleiman I (called Kanuni, the Lawgiver, by the Turks) introduced a, by and large, secular judicial system, known as kanun, rather than the openly discriminatory Muslim sharia, and a wide-ranging autonomy for the non-Muslim majority of the population, called millet. As early as 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, the Ottomans gave refuge to a large number of Jews fleeing persecution from the Spanish inquisition.

 

Yet, it would be a huge exaggeration and a historical injustice to call the Ottoman Empire either tolerant or enlightened. It was essentially, in the words of a prominent historian, a plunder machine, based on grabbing ever new territories and exploiting the non-Muslims through infidel taxes and punitive ‘temporary’ war levies. Thus, when the active territorial expansion of the empire ended after Suleiman I, it entered its long and inevitable decline.

 

While this decline was hardly precipitous and the Ottomans continued to score a victory here and there, the writing was on the wall after their first defeat in a land battle at St. Gotthard in 1679 and especially after being annihilated in the second siege of Vienna in 1683.[1]

 

In the meantime, dramatic changes were occurring in Europe and in the empire itself that hastened its decline. Internally, Suleyman I was followed by a host of sultans that were far from capable, as evidenced by his immediate successor, who was known as Selim II, the Drunkard. As of the reign of Ahmet I, (1603) male pretenders to the throne were no longer routinely killed under the mandates of fratricide – they were imprisoned for decades in the harem (kafes) instead, which may have been worse for the quality of empire leadership. No longer able to expand and finance its huge bureaucracy from pillage, the Porte suffered growing discontent and open rebellions. As early as the 1600s, much of Anatolia was paralyzed by what were known as the violent ‘celali’ rebellions.

 

Perhaps few things are as symptomatic of the rise and fall of the empire as the fate of the janissary corps. Originally introduces as the Sultan’s private army of slaves (kapikulu), the janissaries (from yeni ceri, new troops) were the result of the unique Ottoman ‘boy tribute’ (devshirme). Most historians consider them to have been a very effective fighting force and even meritocratic until the end of the 16th century. After that they gradually evolved into a reactionary state within the state, which often rebelled, overthrew sultans, engaged in criminal activities and resisted any efforts to reform along European lines they considered infidel. Eventually, after many efforts to force them to reform, the janissaries were dealt with brutally by Mahmud II in 1826. Following another rebellion, the janissaries barricaded themselves in their barracks and were wiped out by the Sultan’s artillery. At least 10,000 were killed on the spot and they were never to be heard of again.

 

During the 16th century, the Spanish expansion in America and the Portuguese utilizing a sea route to the spice business in Asia rendered the Eastern Mediterranean a trade backwater and slashed Ottoman trade revenues dramatically. Much more seriously, the 16th century was also the beginning of the scientific revolution in Europe with Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe and the gradual overcoming of church dogma. The Ottoman Empire was not only unable to keep up, but fell further and further behind economically, technologically and militarily and by the 19th century it had become the “sick man of Europe” and was no longer a key power factor on the continent. Why?

 

To answer this question, one would have to delve into the systemic deficiencies of Islam and, more specifically, its built in proclivity to consider any innovation, (called bida’h) sinful and refusal to use reason in interpreting religious mandates since the ‘closing of the gates of ijtihad ‘ in the 10th century.

 

An example of the practical cost of this obscurantism dates from the late 16th century. At the time, the empire had a prominent astronomer by the name of Taqi al-Din, said to rival in skill and ability the famous Dane Tacho Brache. In 1577, he built an astronomic observatory in Galata that was considered every bit as modern as Brache’s own in Denmark. Yet, only three years later, the ulema accused al-Din of sacrilege and bida’h for exploring Allah’s domain and encouraged the janissaries to destroy the observatory. That was the end of astronomy in the Ottoman Empire.

 

Much more damaging was the failure of the Ottomans to introduce printing, even though they had allowed the Jews of Spain to import a printing press and start printing books in ivrit in the late 15th century. This at a time when Gutenberg’s invention took Europe by a storm and contributed hugely to the dissemination of knowledge and education. In Italy, alone, 2 million books were printed by 1501. Yet, for reasons that escape logic, until the 20th century, the idea of a printed Quran was steadfastly rejected.[2]

 

Printing was far from the only area in which the Ottomans fell hopelessly behind. Around the 1600s, Western Europe invented both the microscope and the telescope giving it a huge advantage in scientific pursuits. It also had a near monopoly on eyeglasses for nearly 300 years, which prolonged the productive life of artisans by decades insuring an unbeatable advantage in labor productivity. It was the same with the greatest achievement of mediaeval ingenuity – the mechanical clock. More telling in the military realm was the European ability to ‘corn’ powder and the huge improvement in firearms and cannon technology that followed. By the late 19th century, the Ottomans imported German officers to teach their soldiers how to fight. Things had come full circle.

 

By Alex Alexiev

 


[1] Before the Ottoman Empire, Muslims had suffered numerous defeats during the Reconquista in Spain. Cordoba fell in 1236, Seville in 1248 and Grenada finally in 1492.

[2] An early version of the Quran in Arabic was printed in Venice by Christians.

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