Ottoman Empire

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The Ottoman Empire was an ugly affair, but they had the right idea. The rulers in Turkey were fortunately so corrupt that they left people alone pretty much–were mostly interested in robbing them–and they left them alone to run their own affairs, and their own regions and their own communities with a lot of local self determination. —Noam Chomsky

The Ottoman Empire (Ottoman Turkish: دولت عليه عثمانيه Devlet-i ʿAlīye-i ʿOsmānīye, lit. 'The Sublime Ottoman State'; Turkish: Osmanlı İmparatorluğu or Osmanlı Devleti) was an empire that controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries.


  • Let’s turn to a favorite area for the enthusiasts of the culture hypothesis: the Middle East. Middle Eastern countries are primarily Islamic, and the non–oil producers among them are very poor, as we have already noted. Oil producers are richer, but this windfall of wealth has done little to create diversified modern economies in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Don’t these facts show convincingly that religion matters? Though plausible, this argument is not right, either. Yes, countries such as Syria and Egypt are poor, and their populations are primarily Muslim. But these countries also systemically differ in other ways that are far more important for prosperity. For one, they were all provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which heavily, and adversely, shaped the way they developed. After Ottoman rule collapsed, the Middle East was absorbed into the English and French colonial empires, which, again, stunted their possibilities. After independence, they followed much of the former colonial world by developing hierarchical, authoritarian political regimes with few of the political and economic institutions that, we will argue, are crucial for generating economic success. This development path was forged largely by the history of Ottoman and European rule. The relationship between the Islamic religion and poverty in the Middle East is largely spurious.
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012)
  • The Ottoman Empire was an ugly affair, but they had the right idea. The rulers in Turkey were fortunately so corrupt that they left people alone pretty much–were mostly interested in robbing them–and they left them alone to run their own affairs, and their own regions and their own communities with a lot of local self determination.
    • Noam Chomsky, Delivered at the First Annual Maryse Mikhail Lecture “No peace without justice; no justice without truth” The University of Toledo, March 4, 2001. [1]
  • The Ottoman Empire was, of course, much more than a military machine. A conquering elite (like the Manchus in China), the Ottomans had established a unity of official faith, culture, and language over an area greater than the Roman Empire, and over vast numbers of subject peoples. For centuries before 1500 the world of Islam had been culturally and technologically ahead of Europe. Its cities were large, well-lit, and drained, and some of them possessed universities and libraries and stunningly beautiful mosques. In mathematics, cartography, medicine, and many other aspects of science and industry—in mills, gun-casting, lighthouses, horsebreeding—the Muslims had enjoyed a lead. The Ottoman system of recruiting future janissaries from Christian youth in the Balkans had produced a dedicated, uniform corps of troops. Tolerance of other races had brought many a talented Greek, Jew, and Gentile into the sultan’s service—a Hungarian was Mehmet’s chief gun-caster in the Siege of Constantinople. Under a successful leader like Suleiman I, a strong bureaucracy supervised fourteen million subjects—this at a time when Spain had five million and England a mere two and a half million inhabitants. Constantinople in its heyday was bigger than any European city, possessing over 500,000 inhabitants in 1600.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • Yet the Ottoman Turks, too, were to falter, to turn inward, and to lose the chance of world domination, although this became clear only a century after the strikingly similar Ming decline. To a certain extent it could be argued that this process was the natural consequence of earlier Turkish successes: the Ottoman army, however well administered, might be able to maintain the lengthy frontiers but could hardly expand farther without enormous cost in men and money; and Ottoman imperialism, unlike that of the Spanish, Dutch, and English later, did not bring much in the way of economic benefit. By the second half of the sixteenth century the empire was showing signs of strategical overextension, with a large army stationed in central Europe, an expensive navy operating in the Mediterranean, troops engaged in North Africa, the Aegean, Cyprus, and the Red Sea, and reinforcements needed to hold the Crimea against a rising Russian power. Even in the Near East there was no quiet flank, thanks to a disastrous religious split in the Muslim world which occurred when the Shi’ite branch, based in Iraq and then in Persia, challenged the prevailing Sunni practices and teachings. At times, the situation was not unlike that of the contemporary religious struggles in Germany, and the sultan could maintain his dominance only by crushing Shi’ite dissidents with force. However, across the border the Shi’ite kingdom of Persia under Abbas the Great was quite prepared to ally with European states against the Ottomans, just as France had worked with the “infidel” Turk against the Holy Roman Empire.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • With this array of adversaries, the Ottoman Empire would have needed remarkable leadership to have maintained its growth; but after 1566 there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession. External enemies and personal failings do not, however, provide the full explanation. The system as a whole, like that of Ming China, increasingly suffered from some of the defects of being centralized, despotic, and severely orthodox in its attitude toward initiative, dissent, and commerce. An idiot sultan could paralyze the Ottoman Empire in the way that a pope or Holy Roman emperor could never do for all Europe. Without clear directives from above, the arteries of the bureaucracy hardened, preferring conservatism to change, and stifling innovation. The lack of territorial expansion and accompanying booty after 1550, together with the vast rise in prices, caused discontented janissaries to turn to internal plunder. Merchants and entrepreneurs (nearly all of whom were foreigners), who earlier had been encouraged, now found themselves subject to unpredictable taxes and outright seizures of property. Ever higher dues ruined trade and depopulated towns. Perhaps worst affected of all were the peasants, whose lands and stock were preyed upon by the soldiers. As the situation deteriorated, civilian officials also turned to plunder, demanding bribes and confiscating stocks of goods. The costs of war and the loss of Asiatic trade during the struggle with Persia intensified the government’s desperate search for new revenues, which in turn gave greater powers to unscrupulous tax farmers
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • The Ottoman padishahs (emperors), also known as sultans, were initially a dynasty of and golden extraordinarily dynamic conquerors. The succession demanded a large number of heirs, cages who were produced by a numerous harem of potential mothers of future sultans. However, once a padishah had succeeded, this multitude of princes was a constant threat to his throne, a problem new sultans increasingly solved by murdering all their brothers. Troublesome harem girls or princesses who interfered too much in politics were killed also. In the East, it was forbidden to shed royal blood and thus from Mongolia to the Bosphorus, princes were killed by being suffocated, crushed in carpets by horses or elephants, or strangled with a bowstring. The girls were sown up in sacks and dropped into the Bosphorus. When Suleiman the Magnificent was informed by his favourite wife, the blonde Slavic Roxelana, that his own son Mustafa had been plotting against him, he summoned the prince and watched as he was asphyxiated before him. A similar fate befell one of Roxelana’s sons, Bayezid, after he betrayed the sultan and briefly took up with the Persian shah; Bayezid’s four sons were despatched in the same way.
  • From the 14th through the early 20th century, the Middle East consisted of a hybrid civilization composed of various tribes and peoples stretching from the Balkans down through the Arabian Peninsula under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire. To its promoters, Constantinople administered a multicultural society that balanced ethnic and religious differences into a harmonious whole. To its detractors, the Ottoman regime was a decadent, degenerate ruling class that lived above the poverty of its servants and relied upon an endless supply of slaves to feed its military and royal harems. In the end, economic and political weakness led to the empire’s unraveling, as nationalism in the wake of the first world war broke the back of the empire and led it to the carve up into the modern Turkish state and the surrounding nations.
  • These different blocs in the Turkish Empire...always conspired against Turkey; because of the hostility of these native peoples, Turkey has lost province after province - Greece, Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Egypt, and Tripoli. In this way, the Turkish Empire has dwindled almost to nothing.
    • Medhmed Talat, Quoted in "A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility" - by Taner Akçam, Paul Bessemer - History - 2006 - Page 92

External links[edit]

Encyclopedic article on Ottoman Empire on Wikipedia