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The Ottoman Empire (c. 1300–1922) is among the most durable and successful empires in world history. It spanned the late medieval, early modern, and modern periods and, at its peak, held possessions on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although officially an Islamic state for nearly all its history, the Ottoman state ruled over primarily Christian subjects until its final half-century.
The Ottoman Empire (c. 1300–1922) first emerged in the northwest corner of Anatolia, then in the midst of its transformation from a Greek-speaking Christian to a Turkish-speaking Muslim cultural zone. Indeed, the formation of the Ottoman state accompanied and completed this transformation. The Ottoman state achieved world-empire status in 1453, when it conquered Byzantine Constantinople. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire was among the most powerful states in the Mediterranean and European regions. Indeed, for a time it may have surpassed all other states in the world except Ming dynasty China (1368–1644) in political, military, and economic power.
International Political Developments
The Ottoman transition from principality to a world empire, in common with imperial achievements elsewhere in the globe, derived from a complex mix of factors that included geography, the proximity of weak enemies, and luck. But we must also give substantial credit to Ottoman policies and achievements. After all, there were many small states and principalities struggling for supremacy in Anatolia following the migrations of Turkish peoples from Central Asia. The Ottoman family emerged on the Byzantine borderlands not far from Constantinople (now Istanbul). The dynasty and its supporters employed pragmatic statecraft and methods of conquest. They rewarded the human material at hand and cared little if it was Christian or Muslim or Greek, Bulgarian, Serb, or Turkish. Thus, on these early battlefields, the Ottoman dynasty commonly led troops that were a combination of both Muslim and Christian warriors. These pragmatic policies also included an exceptional openness to innovation, including military technology. Until sometime during the seventeenth century, the Ottomans typically enjoyed tactical battlefield superiority. Overall, openness and innovation go far in explaining why the Ottoman principality emerged as a world power. Like Rome, the Ottoman emergence to empire status was not overnight but built on a steady record of achievement and determination. The Ottoman Empire offered a durable example of state building in its combination of military power and an eye to justice and toleration of differences among its subjects.
During the seventeenth century, however, Ottoman preeminence slipped away. Just as explanations of the rise of empires remains elusive, so too are those regarding their decline. In the Ottoman case, it seems clear that factors at work well beyond its frontiers played a large role in the deterioration of the Ottoman international position. There is no doubt that the rise of capitalism and industrialism in Europe, western Europe’s conquest of the New World, and its monopoly access to American wealth, are keys in understanding the mounting imbalance between Ottoman and European military and economic power. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had become a second-class economic, military, and political power, and it shared a common fate with the entire non-European world save Japan after around 1850. Economically, the wealth gap between Ottoman subjects and residents in most west European states widened. Politically, the Ottomans became part of the “Concert of Europe” at the mid-nineteenth century point but remained subordinate to the Great Powers such as Britain, France and the emergent Germany.
Internationally, on its western and northern fronts, the state encountered increasingly powerful enemies that had been enriched by New World wealth and could better bear the mounting costs of outfitting and maintaining armies in the field; expansion finally ground to a halt in the late seventeenth century. Innovation diminished as entrenched bureaucrats and statesmen acted to preserve positions for their children and closed entry to innovative newcomers. A catastrophic military failure at Vienna in 1683 was followed by some victories but mainly defeats during the subsequent one hundred years.
During the nineteenth century, there was an important reversal of fortunes as a series of successful reform programs measurably strengthened both the Ottoman state and its military. The size of the central bureaucracy increased substantially as the state increasingly sought to more closely control the lives of its subjects/citizens. Previously, the early modern Ottoman state, like its contemporaries across the globe, mainly had collected taxes and maintained order. In its more modern guise, the Ottoman and other states now took responsibility for the health, education, and welfare of its subjects and sought to bring government into every sphere of life. In this attempt, the Ottoman state enjoyed many successes during the nineteenth century and was vastly stronger in 1914 than it had been around 1800. Despite this impressive record, the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I and partitioned by the Great Powers, notably Great Britain and France. Ottoman successor states include today’s Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Montenegro, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Syria, Turkey, and other states in the Balkans, the Arab world, North Africa and the north shore of the Black Sea.
Domestic Political Developments
From the perspective of domestic developments, the Ottoman state underwent continuous change over the centuries. The Ottoman ruler, the sultan, began as one among equals but between the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the later sixteenth century, the Ottoman sultans ruled as autocrats. Thereafter, until around 1800, other members of the imperial household, often cooperating with provincial notables, controlled the state. During the nineteenth century, bureaucrats and sultans vied for dominance, with the former in charge in the middle of the century and the sultan during its first and fourth quarters. Overall, sultans presided over the imperial system for all of Ottoman history but actually, personally, ruled only for portions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It seems important to stress that the principle of sultanic rule by the Ottoman family was hardly ever challenged through the long centuries of the empire’s existence. Unlike in the Chinese case, there was no Mandate of Heaven that could move to a new family and justify the overthrow of a dynasty.
Over the centuries, political power nearly always resided in the imperial center and, depending on the particular period, extended into the provinces either through direct military and political instruments or indirectly through fiscal means. The central regime exerted its military, fiscal, and political authority through mechanisms that evolved continuously. Thus, there was not a single Ottoman system or method of rule, except one of flexibility, adaptability, and change.
During the early centuries, the timar system was the financial basis of the cavalrymen, who fought with bows and arrows. Under this system, the state granted to each cavalryman (and others who served the state) the revenues from a piece of land but not the land itself, in a quantity sufficient to maintain the cavalryman and his horse. He did not actually control the land, but only the taxes deriving from it. Peasants worked the land and paid taxes that supported the timar cavalryman both on campaign and at home. This timar system was at the center of Ottoman fiscal and military affairs only for the earlier portion of Ottoman history, perhaps only during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and part of the sixteenth centuries. Hardly had the state developed the timar system when the regime began to discard the cavalrymen and, along with them, their timar financial underpinnings. The timar system nominally endured until the nineteenth century. Infantrymen bearing firearms became increasingly important. As they did, the famed Janissary Corps ceased to be a gun-wielding praetorian elite and developed into a firearm-bearing infantry of massive size. Support of these full-time soldiers required vast amounts of cash. Therefore, tax farming, which provided cash revenues, steadily replaced the timar system, which received taxes mainly in kind, as the major fiscal instrument. By 1700, lifetime tax farms began to become commonplace and dominated the fiscal system in the later part of that century. Despite these changes, Ottoman military forces lost out in the arms race by the end of the seventeenth century because tax revenues from agricultural pursuits could not match European revenues derived from a combination of colonialism, mounting world trade and the burgeoning domestic economy. During the eighteenth century the makeup of Ottoman military forces continued to change: the Janissary infantry and the timar cavalry continued to exist in name but gave way in importance to the troops of provincial notables and the forces of the Crimean khanate, a vassal state. The changes during the nineteenth century were more radical: universal manhood conscription controlled by the central state slowly developed. Lifetime tax farms were abandoned, but tax farming nonetheless continued, a measure of the continued cooperation between the central elites and local notables.
Until the later nineteenth century, perhaps surprisingly, most Ottoman subjects were Christian. But, thanks to territorial losses in the mainly Christian Balkan provinces, Muslims became the majority element in the empire by the third quarter of the century. But regardless of whether they were Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, all subjects fell under the jurisdiction of both religious and secular law. In the eyes of the state, Muslims enjoyed a legal position superior to Christians and Jews—however, these latter groups possessed guaranteed legal rights and status. For these rights and legal protections, non-Muslims paid a special tax. Otherwise, all the communities were subjects to the same taxes. The Ottoman state determined who administered the laws governing a community, whether that of the Muslim, Christian, or Jewish community or of the imperial state. The sultan and his agents determined the judges in the respective communities either directly or by appointing those who in turned named the judges. Theoretically, the religious law of the respective group prevailed in the particular Muslim, Jewish, or Christian community. But, practically speaking, the Muslim courts very often were used by subjects of all religions. There were several reasons for this, including the quality of the justice that the judge administered and the fact that it was understood that rulings from such courts might well have greater weight than those from Christian or Jewish sources. In addition to this religious law, the state routinely passed its own, secular ordinances (always with the assertion that such rules adhered to Islamic principles). In the nineteenth century, when a flood of ordinances and regulations marked the presence of an expanding bureaucratic state, even the lip service frequently fell away in favor of scientific management. Moreover, as part of its nineteenth-century reform agenda, the state sought to replace the religious courts with secular ones, an effort strongly opposed by many Ottoman Christian leaders, who feared a loss of influence, and their patrons among the European states.
The Ottoman Empire remained populated mainly by cultivators who raised a wide variety of crops for subsistence and sale. Many not only farmed but also manufactured handmade textiles and other products, again both for personal use and the market. Cereals always topped the list of crops that they grew. Following ancient regional precedents, the sultan theoretically owned the vast majority of land and allowed others to grow crops and raise animals. In practice, generally, these land users enjoyed security of tenure and stayed on the land for generations. Sharecropping was widespread, and during the nineteenth century, at least, was the source of most crops that were sold in the marketplace. Most cultivators were small landholders; large estates were comparatively unusual. Slave labor was common for domestic work but very rare in agriculture. Commercialization of agriculture enjoyed considerable development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to meet mounting foreign demand and, in the latter period, the needs of an increasing number of Ottoman city dwellers. Ottoman manufacturing, for its part, remained largely the domain of small-scale hand producers, although there was some mechanization in the late period. Ottoman manufacturers lost most of their existing foreign markets between 1700 and 1800 because of protectionist policies overseas and because of the increasing efficiency of European manufacturers, itself based on a combination of the more ruthless exploitation of labor and mounting mechanization. During the nineteenth century, however, rug making and silk spinning operations, staffed largely with female labor working outside the home, emerged as the most important of the new export industries. Throughout, Ottoman manufacturers retained the important domestic market for their wares. Important technological breakthroughs occurred in transport and communication during the second half of the nineteenth century. Steam replaced sail on the seas. Railroads emerged, but these were mainly in the Balkan provinces that later were lost. Additionally, a fairly thick network of telegraph lines connected most towns and cities by the later 1800s.
Ethnic and Religious Group Relations
The issue of the state’s treatment of its non-Muslim subjects and the entire question of relations among the various ethnic and religious communities remains a hotly debated subject today, among both politicians and scholars. Many residents of Ottoman successor states, especially those in the Balkans, look back on the “Ottoman yoke,” which they finally shook off. They remember the injustices and forget the toleration of Ottoman rule. Their frequent detestation of the Ottoman era is a sentiment often deriving from nation-building mythologies put in place after the end of Ottoman rule rather than the actual experiences with that administration. As mentioned at the start, until the later nineteenth century, the majority of Ottoman subjects were Christians of one kind or another although the state’s official religion was Islam. Here, indeed, is a key to Ottoman longevity—the Ottoman state nearly always functioned as a multinational, multireligous entity that did not seek to impose religion or define itself in terms of the ethnicity of its subjects. The durability of the empire can be attributed to its toleration of difference among its subjects. And, as long as subjects paid their taxes and rendered obedience, the state protected the expression of these differences. For much of the Ottoman era, it is quite likely that minorities within the Ottoman realms received better treatment than they did in Europe or China. While the Christian and Jewish minorities were second to Muslims, they did have guaranteed protection under Ottoman law, legal assurances that religious minorities in Europe did not possess in Europe. As Enlightenment notions of equality developed during the eighteenth century and later, however, these Ottoman methods seemed less attractive. While, during some years of the final Ottoman era, there were atrocities, these should be understood in the context of the generally admirable record of intercommunal relations over the six-hundred-year life span of the empire. Proof of Ottoman toleration can be found in ethnic and religious maps of the former Ottoman lands. If the Ottoman state had pursued policies of stamping out difference, how can we explain the rich diversity of ethnicities and religions that prevails in nearly all of these present-day countries?
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