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The Ottoman Empire (c. 1290–1922) provides a vivid example of durable and successful state building in world history. A late medieval creation, the Ottoman state achieved world empire status in 1453 because of its conquest of Constantinople. During the surrounding several centuries, it was among the most powerful states in the world. Although geography and luck played roles, the success of the empire mainly derived from pragmatic and flexible Ottoman policy-making and considerable openness to innovation, including military technology. At its peak, the empire covered parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Its extent is suggested by this partial list of successor states: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Montenegro, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Syria, and Turkey.
Expansion slowly faded into memory and territorial contraction began thanks partly to developments elsewhere in the world, notably the rise of capitalism and industrialism in Europe and then elsewhere, and to the New World wealth that poured into Europe. As wealth flowed elsewhere, the Ottoman Empire was unable to compete and lost its preeminent position; by about 1800 it had become a second-class economic, military, and political power. Within the empire innovation faded, partly because entrenched bureaucrats, statesmen, and military personnel acted to protect their children’s positions and closed entry to newcomers.
During the nineteenth century a successful series of programs measurably strengthened the state and its military. The bureaucracy grew both in size and in the scope of its activities, now not merely collecting taxes and providing security but also taking responsibility for the health, education, and welfare of its subjects. Yet, the empire fell defeated in World War I (1914–1918) and was partitioned by the Great Powers, notably Great Britain and France.
In its domestic polity, the Ottoman state underwent continuous change. The Ottoman ruler, the sultan, began as one among equals, but between about 1453 and 1600, sultans ruled as true autocrats. Thereafter until about 1826, sultans reigned, but others in the imperial family and other inhabitants of the palace—often in collaboration with provincial elites—maintained real control of the state. Then, bureaucrats and sultans vied for domination of the state apparatus. In sum, the sultan presided over the imperial system for all of Ottoman history, but actually personally ruled for only portions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Also, political power almost always rested 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.
A combination of religious and secular laws regulated the lives of Ottoman subjects. Under Ottoman state authority Muslim, Christian, or Jewish judges presided over the legal affairs of their respective communities. Often, however, subjects of all religions used the Muslim courts because rulings from such courts might have greater weight than those from Christian or Jewish sources. In addition to this religious law, the state routinely passed its own, secular, ordinances, often with lipservice adherence 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.
This was an agrarian empire that, again, changed considerably over time. Most Ottoman subjects were and remained cultivators, raising a wide variety of different crops for subsistence and for sale. The particular mix of crops changed over time. Cereals remained dominant throughout the Ottoman period, but important new crops emerged at different times, for example, tobacco in the seventeenth century. In theory, the vast majority of land was owned by the sultan, but in practice, generally, land users enjoyed security of tenure. Sharecropping was widespread and the major vehicle by which goods came to market; most holdings were small. Commercialization of agriculture considerably developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ottoman manufacturing, for its part, remained largely small-scale and handcrafted, with some late mechanization. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries foreign markets for Ottoman manufactures fell away, but producers continued to enjoy a vast domestic market for their wares; in the nineteenth century export markets emerged for Ottoman rug makers and silk spinners, who usually were women working outside their homes. In transportation and communication there were important technological breakthroughs during the second half of the nineteenth century, including steamships, railroads, and the telegraph.
Ottoman intercommunal relations are hotly argued, and many popular stereotypes persist around the “terrible Turks” who slaughtered Ottoman Christians. For nearly all of Ottoman history, this stereotype is not true. For most of its duration, the Ottoman Empire can be characterized fairly as a tolerant political system. At times, the Ottoman state led the way in extending tolerance to minorities. For example, at the end of the fifteenth century Ottoman sultans welcomed the large Iberian Jewish population that the new Spanish monarchs were expelling from their own kingdom. More generally, the key to Ottoman success and a major reason for its longevity lay in the tolerant governmental treatment of those who did not share its professed religion. This tolerance was based both in practical politics and in the dictates of Islam. Until the 1870s the majority of Ottoman subjects were Christians and the state’s official religion was Islam, which required that the Muslim state protect the religious rights of its Christian and Jewish subjects. The Ottoman Empire, for nearly all of its history, was a multinational, multireligious entity that did not seek to impose Islam on its subjects. This fact often has been forgotten in the confusion surrounding the end of the empire and the emergence of the Ottoman successor states, but it remains true nonetheless. Overall, the Ottoman system recognized difference and protected those differences so long as subjects rendered obedience and paid taxes. Until the eighteenthcentury era of the Enlightenment, minorities in the Ottoman world likely were treated better than in Europe. Atrocities did occur, but they were exceptions in the rule of a generally admirable record of intercommunal relations over the 600-year life span of the Ottoman Empire.
- Imber, 2002. The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Inalcik, Halil, with Donald Quataer 1994. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300–1914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Lowry, H 2003. The Nature of the Early Ottoman State. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Quataert, D 2005. The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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