The Ottoman Empire and Western interference

The history of the Ottoman Empire has often been characterized as one of “decline.” Given what you know about the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, is this description apt? Why or why not? If not, how else might we characterize Ottoman history until 1918? 

The 19th century Ottoman Empire forged itself under a banner of nationalism similar to how other nations of the modern era did, by strengthening centralized control and by bringing together disparate groups of religious and ethnic peoples to form a more perfect union, and to protect itself from European interference. The empire was vast in land, resources, power and people and to do so would require not just the democratic theories and ideals mostly borrowed from Europe, but a coerced and at times forced sense of nationalism. If one is going to state a “decline” in the Ottoman Empire, there is an implied comparison with nations that did not decline during this same period, and when you compare the trials and tribulations of the Ottoman Empire to that of America, France, Germany or other countries of western and central Europe, you find many similarities in how these nations were built. Had the Europeans not intervened and interfered with the efforts of the Young Turks, Mustafa Pasha, and others attempting to bring about reform, this period of the Ottoman Empire likely would be regarded as a period of intense nation building and cultural reforms European states could only dream of.

The characterization of a decline in the Ottoman Empire can be categorized into the loss of territory, the continued massive borrowing of money and technology from Europe, and the infighting due to the tumultuous changes taking place as the efforts of the Ottoman state attempted to unify all people of the empire. They did so by growing the size of the military and the number of civilians working for the central state, forming its own educational network “largely based on west and central European models” (Quataert, p.62). Also between 1829 and 1856, the state attempted to remove the cultural disparities based on religious beliefs between Ottoman subjects and promoted the idea of equality for all citizens, which led to infighting, violent protests and wars.

The notion that violence and infighting in a rapidly changing vast empire was a sign of decline is at best based on mythos and a fanatical adversity to religious indifference. Europe underwent similar changes in defining the nations and nationalities that make up its current form, and the bloodshed of the American Civil War, slavery, and the genocide of the American Indian define the comparatively young country of America to this day.



While it is true that much of the Ottoman Empire lost its international power due to the extensive borrowing of money and technology from Europe during the 19th century and due to the revolts and wars that made Tsar Nicholas I of Russia call it “the sick man of Europe”, this should not insist the people were suffering. The Ottoman Empire was not able to import goods from far away colonies much like Britain and France could, and so a period of domestic trade flourished. While this may have weakened the Ottoman Empire’s role in the global system, it strengthened its culture. Instead of exporting goods and services mainly to Europe and persisting in somewhat of a vacuum with other states of the empire, urban centers flourished with citizens sharing a common memory and identity across religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Add to this mix the effects of the tanzimat reforms and the defensive developmentalism policies put in place by Mustafa Pasha, and the beginnings of a modern state were beginning to emerge, much like the events forming the nations of Europe and North America.

The mass importation of European technology and governmental policies imposed upon the populations of the various Ottoman Empire states could be regarded as contributing to an overall decline, but as Gelvin describes in chapters 7 and 8 a “great nineteenth-century transformation” took place based upon the “integration and peripheralization, defensive developmentalism, and imperialism” (Gelvin, p.100) policies from the 17th and 18th centuries. The same technologies and advancements regarded as contributing to the success of Europe and America were in use and while the Ottoman’s did not invent the railroad or telegraph system, they were able to take advantage of these technologies to continue to play an important role in the global system.

The last point to counter the idea that the Ottoman Empire was in decline is to examine the movements to reform Islam as a method to reform society. The two prevailing theories consisted of either reforming Islam to assist with the problems faced by a modern society, (“was it legal to use the telegraph to transmit the sighting of the new moon marking religious holidays?” (Gelvin, pg.136)) and the other was to remove everything that did not comply with the original teachings and doctrines of Islam, because their abandonment lead to the decline in society. To go so far as to question the very foundation much of the people in the Ottoman Empire fervently adhered to indicates more than a desire by the central state to modernize itself, it shows Western and Eastern ideals were used to shape a new society that could be integrated into the global system, and that a new identity was forming to transform people into citizens. Asking the very question of how science and religion could be made compatible was a huge step towards modernity and certainly would not be a question confronted by a society in decline.

How did European intervention in the Middle East during the 19th century affect the states and societies of the region and the economic, social and political transformations they were undergoing?

 European intervention into the Ottoman Empire had both negative and positive short-term and long-term consequences. While states like Egypt, Arabia, and Turkey found they had no choice but to borrow money and technology from France and Britain, their refusal to do so would have surely resulted in their demise as the more advanced military technology of Europe would steam roll its way through just as it did in Central and South America, and Africa.

The European theory of separating people into economic classes based on their religious beliefs was carried to the Ottoman Empire in the form of capitalistic ideals to the detriment of Ottoman society. Take for example the organizational structure of a corporation as it was forced to exist in the 19th century Ottoman world. Foreign companies and their hiring practices divided the inter-communal workforces that had existed for decades into a stratified and universally applied pattern of placing foreigners in the very top jobs, Ottoman Christians in middle management, and Muslims in the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, along with the lowest compensation. These practices were applied to the corporations that owned the “banks, railroads, port companies, and utilities as well as textile and food processing factories” (Quataert, pg.185). Defensive developmentalism had failed to coexist with the allure of European money and technology and the societal effects of the tanzimat began to unwind.

The fragmentation of Christianity in Europe resulting in the establishment of various churches and regions in the Balkan and Greek states led to a greater sense of religious nationalism that perpetuated the idea that identities needed to be separated by ethnicity.

Turkish and Egyptian leaders alike tended to emulate the western ideals created by their Great Power counterparts. In effect, they were able to build upon these efforts and work to incorporate them into their own societies.

The positive results of European intervention included protections from a Russian invasion from the north, which appeared imminent after the Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Turkish wars. Also Napoleon’s visit to Egypt resulted in major changes in the Egyptian military (conscription, increasing size of army, tactics) and had an overall cultural and social impact as the local communities witnessed the impressive military force during the invasion of Egypt.

European ideals of nationalism imported to the region played a part in dismantling the empire as the various communities began to self-identify themselves as being their own nationality rather than the Ottoman nationality. These efforts were supported by the Great Powers wishing to address the “Eastern Question” (Gelvin, pg.184) which posed the hypothetical situation where the breakup of the Ottoman Empire might have disastrous implications for the “concert of Europe” in that Russia and France would gain territory offensive to British regional strategies, and France had concerns about British aspirations. It was “state-building by decree” and in the Levant and Mesopotamia, lines were drawn for border demarcation with little to no regard for the actual people living there.

“A relative handful of individuals established a government apparatus, drew boundaries on a map and prepared the national flag and anthem.” (Quataert, pg.190) Although the rest of their respective populations were largely comfortable under Ottoman law, these efforts were bolstered by assistance from the Great Powers who wanted to see the Ottoman Empire broken up into more manageable pieces of which to dominate, divide, and conquer. This in effect helped to prevent an Ottoman identity where no single unifying army or global political front could be formed to thwart the will of Britain and France to usurp the leaders of the Ottoman Empire and bludgeon inter-communal relationships into stereotypical and ethno centrist ideologies. It was a joint strategy of divide and conquer undermining the will of the central state and a means to leverage the infighting within the Ottoman Empire brought on by the tanzimat and the transitions the people were undergoing. The Serbian Revolution, the Greek Revolt, Mehmet Ali’s rise to power, the Revolutions of 1848 and the Crimean War all created a deeper concern and bolstered the Great Powers motivation for intervention into the regions (generally regarded as the “decline” of the Ottoman Empire). The Great Powers could not afford to wait for the Ottoman Empire to centralize control, and did not trust that control would be in their best interests anyway. The Ottoman Empire became the chess board and the states within it the pieces the Great Powers would use to play a game of cat and mouse where they battled without fighting each other.

In conclusion, the Ottoman Empire was undergoing a massive social, economic and political transformation in the 19th century, and while this created problems that would shake the confidence of the Great Powers, when they interfered with the transformation it became more unstable. Imagine if America was being invaded by Britain during the Civil War, or if France supported the anti-slavery movement by arming slaves and forming local militia? Such analogies are merely suggestive and anachronistic, but they pose the question in the correct context. Had the Great Powers not intervened in the manner the Ottoman Empire would have evolved as a nation just as the other nations of the world had.