Reference Library, 2003
Prof. Dr. Norman Itzkowitz, Princeton University (USA)

After Armenians had participated in the killing of Muslim villagers in 1915 in the region of Van Golu (Lake Van), in 1917 the Ottomans sought to deport about I million Armenians from Eastern Anatolia, fearing that they would aid the Russians. In the course of that action it is alleged that more than 800,000 Armenians died.

Ottoman Empire

Reference Library, 2003
Prof. Dr. Norman Itzkowitz, Princeton University (USA)

Ottoman Empire, dynastic state centered in what is now Turkey, founded in the late 13th century and dismantled in the early 20th century. At its height in the mid-1500s, at the end of the reign of Süleyman I, the Ottoman Empire controlled a vast area extending from the Balkan Peninsula to the Middle East and North Africa. The empire went into slow decline after Süleyman, and by the early 1900s it controlled only Asia Minor (the Anatolia region of present-day Turkey) and parts of the Balkans and the Middle East. The Ottomans lost even more territory during World War I (1914-1918). Allied troops occupied the empire from the end of the war until 1922, when nationalist forces under Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) drove them out; Kemal abolished the empire later that year and proclaimed the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

Before the rise of the Ottomans, the Byzantine Empire controlled western Anatolia, while most of the rest of the region was controlled by the Seljuk Turks (see Seljuks). In the 13th century Seljuk power began to fade and a number of small Turkish states began to emerge in the frontier lands between the Byzantine Empire and the shrinking Seljuk state. In 1299 a Turkish Muslim warrior known as Osman began to lead raids on Christian Byzantine settlements in western Anatolia. The followers of Osman became known as Osmanlılar (Turkish for “those associated with Osman”), or, the Ottomans. Beginning with Osman, members of the House of Osman ruled the Ottoman state in unbroken succession until 1922; these rulers were known as sultans.

Osman was able to bring other Turks under his banner for two main reasons. First, the Ottomans had the most advantageous position of all the Turkish states near the Byzantine frontier. They were centered at Söğüt (near Eskişehir), which was close to the Nicaea (now İznik) area, which had been the Greek Byzantine capital between 1204 and 1261. The Byzantines had settled around Nicaea after being driven from their capital of Constantinople (now İstanbul) by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. After recapturing Constantinople in 1261, the Byzantines sought to reassert their control over the Balkan Peninsula and neglected the defenses of Nicaea and their other territories in Anatolia. Their proximity to Nicaea offered the Ottomans the best opportunities for plunder. Second, more than any other Turkish frontier state, they took the concept of being a ghazi—that is, a warrior who carried out raids upon and warfare with the Christians in the interests of Islam—and made it their guiding principle.

Under Osman, the Ottomans besieged the main Byzantine strongholds between Söğüt and Nicaea. After Osman died in 1326, his son and successor Orhan (reigned 1326-1362) took the city of Bursa. From Bursa, which became the Ottoman capital, the Ottomans extended their grip over the surrounding territory. Absorption of the Turkish frontier state of Karası, extended Ottoman sway to the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea. Constantinople, the Byzantine capital and the goal of Islamic conquest since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, was just across the Sea of Marmara.

The Ottomans, however, were not yet strong enough to launch a direct attack on the Byzantine Empire. Instead, they had themselves hired as mercenaries to assist the Byzantine emperor against a rival claimant to the throne. Attracted by the potential of plunder in Europe, they transformed themselves from mercenaries into conquerors, capturing Gallipoli, on the European side of the Dardanelles Strait, in 1354. The capture of Gallipoli marked the beginning of Turkish presence in Europe.

Edirne, in Thrace, fell in 1361. After Orhan died in 1362, he was succeeded by Murad I (reigned 1362-1389), who directed the Ottoman advance into the Balkan Peninsula. Needing a center closer to the expanding frontier, Murad established Edirne as a second capital, a position it would hold even after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Meanwhile, the Ottomans continued their expansion in Anatolia at the expense of rival Turkish emirates (small states ruled by a hereditary chief called an emir). The emirates bitterly criticized the Ottomans for waging war on fellow Muslims rather than on Christians, but the Ottomans continued to expand to the east.

Advancing into the Balkans, the Ottomans defeated the Bulgarians and then marched into Serbia where, in June 1389, they defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo. At the end of the battle, a Serb killed Murad, and in retaliation the Ottomans executed Lazar, the Serbian prince.

Murad was succeeded by his son Bayazid I (reigned 1389-1402), who continued the Ottoman advance in both Europe and Anatolia. Bayazid’s wheeling back and forth between the western and eastern fronts earned him the nickname Yilderim (Turkish for “lightning” or “the thunderbolt”). In the east, the Muslim Turkic conqueror Tamerlane emerged as a new threat. Supported by the emirs dispossessed earlier by the Ottomans, Tamerlane defeated Bayazid outside of Ankara in 1402. Perhaps to teach the Ottomans that true ghazis do not war with other Muslims, Tamerlane restored former emirates and even gave Bayazid’s sons their own territories.

Bayazid died in captivity, a suicide according to some accounts, and a struggle for succession to the sultanate broke out among his sons. Muhammad I (reigned 1413-1421) eventually won the title, having succeeded in capturing the territories Tamerlane had given his brothers, and thereby reunifying the Ottoman domains. After starting to recapture the emirates in western Anatolia that had helped Tamerlane, Muhammad died in 1421 and was succeeded by his son Murad II (reigned 1421-1444; 1446-1451).

By 1423 Murad II had repossessed western Anatolia. Turning his attention to Europe, he annexed Serbia in 1439 and besieged Hungarian-held Belgrade in 1440. Murad then grew weary of constant campaigning. After arranging peace with Hungary and Serbia in 1444 and with his most powerful enemy, the east central Anatolian emir of Karaman, he abdicated in favor of his 12-year-old son Muhammad II (reigned 1444-1446, 1451-1481). Reading this as a sign of Ottoman weakness, Europe unleashed a new crusade to oust the Ottomans. Murad came out of his retirement and roundly defeated the European army at Varna, Bulgaria, in late 1444. Murad retired again in favor of Muhammad, but returned in 1446 to put down a rebellion in Edirne. It was not until Murad’s death in 1451 that Muhammad II, later called Muhammad the Conqueror, returned to the throne.

Each early Ottoman sultan launched his sultanate with a great ghazi victory. For Muhammad, it was the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. After bombarding the city walls with cannon fire for months, Muhammad and his troops succeeded in taking the city in less than a day and destroying the last of the Byzantine Empire. Muhammad made Constantinople the new Ottoman capital and created the imperial palace complex of Topkapı. He continued to expand the Ottoman Empire into Europe, securing most of the Balkan Peninsula, including Greece, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia. Muhammad died in 1481 just as the Ottoman armies were preparing a full-scale invasion of Italy, which was then aborted.

The reign of Muhammad’s son and successor Bayazid II (reigned 1481-1512) was weak in comparison. Two events occurred during his reign that would challenge the Ottoman Empire for the next several centuries. The first was the circumnavigation of Africa by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama between 1497 and 1498. This voyage inaugurated a lucrative spice trade between Europe and South Asia, and Portuguese fleets began to shut down Arab shipping routes between India, southern Arabia, and Egypt that supplied the Ottoman spice trade. The second was the rise of the Safavid dynasty in Iran in 1501. Unlike the Ottomans, who were Sunni Muslims, the Safavids belonged to the Shia branch of Islam. As a nearby rival power with antagonistic Islamic beliefs, the Safavids presented a challenge to the Islamic legitimacy of the Ottomans and began to convert inhabitants of the eastern frontiers of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman response to these challenges had to wait for the reign of Selim I (reigned 1512-1520). Selim declared a holy war on the Safavid dynasty, invading Safavid territory along the far eastern frontier and defeating the Safavids in 1514 at Çaldıran. He then swept through Anatolia, down the Fertile Crescent, and across the Red Sea to Egypt, capturing the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, in the process. Seeking to expel the Portuguese from the Indian Ocean, he created naval fleets at Suez, Egypt; though the Portuguese were not expelled, Selim did manage to prevent the establishment of a total Portuguese monopoly over the spice trade.

Selim I died in 1520 after having spent most of his short reign on matters pertaining to the east. His son and successor Süleyman I (reigned 1520-1566) again turned the attention of the Ottomans to the west. In August 1521 Süleyman, later known as Süleyman the Magnificent, opened the road to Hungary by capturing Belgrade, a Hungarian stronghold. He took the island of Rhodes from the Knights of Saint John in December 1522, which signaled the beginning of Ottoman domination of the eastern Mediterranean. In 1529 Süleyman campaigned to the gates of the Habsburg city of Vienna in the west, and in 1534 took the Iranian city of Tabrīz in the east. When he died in 1566, while on campaign in Hungary, Süleyman had become the preeminent Muslim ruler in the world.

Ottoman fortunes began to decline after the death of Süleyman, but from such a great height that the changes were imperceptible at first. While continuing to pressure the Habsburg dynasty in Central Europe, the Ottomans maintained their naval presence in the Mediterranean by taking Cyprus between 1570 and 1571. They protected their eastern flank against the Safavids and even began to lock horns with a new enemy, emerging Russia. Ottoman weakness began to show itself in the 17th century against both the Habsburgs and Iran. The empire’s agricultural economy was still strong and self-sufficient, however, giving the Ottomans great recuperative powers which, when coupled with good leadership, could still make them a world threat. Such was the case under Sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-1640), who was the most vigorous sultan since Süleyman. He strengthened the eastern Ottoman flank by capturing Baghdād from the Safavids. After his death the empire experienced severe internal crises, including disorder in the provinces, unrest in the military as serious inflation caused soldiers to be underpaid or not paid at all, and succession issues due to the lack of candidates who were of age to assume the sultanate. This led to a period in Ottoman history known as “the Sultanate of the Women.” During this period the political impact of the harem was felt and the mothers of young sultans exercised power in the name of their sons.

Political order was restored in 1656 when Turhan, the mother of Sultan Muhammad IV, allowed an aged but astute military figure, Köprülü Muhammad Pasha, to assume the office of grand vizier (chief minister). In his brief five years of office, Köprülü got rid of incompetent officials, ferreted out corruption, and revived the vigor and pride of the Ottoman Empire. He also quelled several rebellions, strengthened the empire’s defenses, and led the Ottoman forces to victories against the Venetian navy. Upon his death in 1661 he was succeeded as grand vizier by his own son, Köprülü Fazıl Ahmed Pasha, thus creating the first family dynasty within the grand vizierate.

Köprülü Fazıl Ahmed was a great campaigner. Under him the Ottomans captured much of Ukraine from Poland, and in 1669 completed the conquest of Crete (Kríti), the last great Ottoman acquisition. He died in 1676 after igniting fear in Europe of the reinvigorated Ottoman Empire. His successor, Kara Mustafa Pasha, worried Europe further when the Ottoman army in 1683 appeared for the second time before the gates of Vienna. Due to Kara Mustafa’s poor strategy, however, the Ottoman army was routed by reinforcing Polish armies. The failure cost Kara Mustafa his life, as he was executed by Muhammad IV’s order during the Ottoman retreat. Without the steadying hand of the Köprülüs, the Ottomans fell back into their earlier state of corruption and internal dissent. Military losses mounted. In 1697 a new Austrian commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy, ambushed the Ottoman army at Senta in northern Serbia, inflicting great losses. The Treaty of Karlowitz restored peace in January 1699. Under the treaty the Ottoman Empire was, for the first time, forced to relinquish territory it had long held under its control. This event marked the beginning of the Ottoman retreat from the Balkan Peninsula.

The Ottoman state and its society rested on many institutions. In creating these institutions, the Ottomans drew on the experiences of earlier Muslim empires, as well as their own Turkish traditions and ghazi ideals. Many of these institutions were altered or corrupted over time, contributing in part to the empire’s decline.

The Ottomans’ ancestors, 11th-century Turkish intruders from Central Asia, brought with them the belief that leadership was a divine right bestowed on a chosen family. This went against the established Islamic practice of elected leadership, the model for which was the selection of Abu Bakr as Islam’s first caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Osman and his descendants ruled in an unbroken chain down to the abolition of the sultanate by Mustafa Kemal in 1922.

There were two other concepts that accompanied Ottoman practices of succession. One was that, up until the reign of Muhammad III (1595-1603), Ottoman princes were sent off to the provinces in the company of their tutors (and often their mothers) to learn the business of government. The other was that these same princes had to compete for the throne. Potential male heirs fought each other at the time of the death of the reigning sultan, and to the victor went the sultanate. The practice developed that the sultan would often kill most of his male relatives—careful to leave at least one alive as a future successor—in order to avoid a rivalry within his own family that might endanger his reign. After the practice of sending princes to the provinces was ended, princes were kept in a special place in the palace called the kafes (Turkish for “cage”), where they generally spent their days in idleness among the women of their harems. As a result, when they came to the throne they had no practical experience in governing. In accordance with the Turkish proverb, “the fish begins to stink at the head,” this lack of leadership became a serious factor in the decline of the empire.

In addition to their traditions of family sovereignty, the Ottomans drew strength from their origins as ghazis. The ghazi principle fueled their urge for conquest and then helped them to structure their developing society. The social structure of settled, urban Islamic society consisted of four social groupings: 1) the men of the pen, that is, judges, imams (prayer leaders), and other intellectuals; 2) the men of the sword, meaning the military; 3) the men of negotiations, such as merchants; and 4) the men of husbandry, meaning farmers and livestock raisers. Life on the frontier was far less structured; society there was divided into two groups, the askeri (the military) and the raya (the subjects). Besides protecting the realm and the raya, the askeri conquered new territories, thus bringing more raya and wealth into the empire.

In the early days, it was possible for raya to cross over and become askeri through, for example, outstanding military service. Over time, however, the separation between askeri and raya became more rigid and the military, like other social groupings within the empire, became stratified along functional lines. By late in the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, the men of the pen were the bureaucrats of the empire, while the judges and imams made up a separate group called the men of religion. The men of the pen, the men of religion, and the men of the sword all were classified as askeri. As such, they were exempt from taxes and lived off of the wealth produced by the raya. Each of the three groups had its own educational system, its own internal practices, and its own values. In Ottoman society there was a place for everyone, but one of the functions of the sultan was to keep everyone in their place.

There was even a place for the non-Muslim. In classical Islamic tradition, non-Muslim religious communities that possessed an accepted, written holy book were granted a covenant of protection, the dhimma, and were considered to be protected people, the dhimmis. In return for this status they paid a special poll tax, the cizye. The Ottomans continued this tradition during the reign of Muhammad the Conqueror (reigned 1451-1481). The three leading non-Muslim religious communities—the Jews, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Church—were established as recognized dhimmi communities known as millets. Each millet was headed by its own religious dignitary: a chief rabbi in the case of the Jews, and patriarchs in the case of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities. In the millet system, each community was responsible for the allocation and collection of its taxes, its educational arrangements, and internal legal matters pertaining especially to personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In the pre-modern Middle East, identity was largely based on religion. This system functioned well until the European concepts of nationalism and ethnicity filtered into the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the 19th century.

In addition to the millet system and the division between the askeri and the raya, several other elements constituted the backbone of Ottoman administrative practices and military preparedness. They were the timar system, the land survey, the provincial structure, and the Janissaries.

Once plunder had given way to conquest as the financial engine for the empire, the Ottomans needed a way to compensate some of the askeri, guarantee their future services, and administer newly won territories. They developed the timar system, likely modeled on an earlier Persian system. In the timar system, an askeri was given a share of the agricultural taxes of a designated region—usually consisting of several villages—in return for military service as a cavalryman and assistance in provincial administration. Those who were given such grants were called timarlı (Turkish for “timar-holders”) and, like other askeri, they were exempt from taxation. The values of timars varied, and the military obligation attached to the timar varied with its income: the higher the income, the greater the obligation. At their best times the Ottomans were able to put more than 100,000 cavalrymen into the field.

Timars were set forth and awarded in accordance with the land survey known as the tahrir. The tahrir took place when a new area was conquered, and sometimes when there was a change in reign or when conditions in an older area had changed sufficiently so as to require a new survey. A team of officials surveyed and recorded by sanjak (the administrative division of a province) the names of all adult male farmers, all sources of wealth in the area—farms, orchards, vineyards, mills, farm animals, and crops—their yields, and the taxes paid on them. Since this process involved the calculation of regional land and agricultural taxes as well as the cizye and other Islamic taxes, the committee was assisted at the scene by a local judge.

Two registers were compiled from the gathered information. One was a detailed register of both the regional taxes levied in the sanjak and the new Islamic taxes to be imposed. Also recorded were the regulations governing the relationships between the timar-holders and the raya. The timar-holders could collect no more than the officially mandated taxes and services from the raya. This new regime weighed less heavily on the peasantry than the former Byzantine tax system.

A copy of the register was kept by the military commander of the area. He thus knew which timars were vacant, due to death in battle or otherwise, and could authorize the grant of vacant timars. Increasingly, sons succeeded their fathers as timar-holders, and even wives could petition for the timars of their dead husbands. They would then have to find people to do the military obligation associated with the timar. The timar system offered two major advantages to the sultan. First, he was able to know how many cavalrymen he could count on, and second, he was able to have a relatively accurate idea of the empire’s income. The system was exceptionally stable up until the 17th century, when inflation and the onset of serious military losses made timars less desirable.

While the timar system was similar to Western European feudalism, there were several important differences. Unlike a European feudal lord, the timar-holder did not dispense justice; justice was the sultan’s prerogative. European feudalism was government on the local level in the absence of central government. In the Ottoman Empire central government was active and crucial; in fact, the timar system, with all its associated paperwork, could not have survived without it.

Another Islamic institution adapted by the Ottomans was the ghulam system. A ghulam was a slave (by definition, a non-Muslim) educated and trained for state service. The Islamic caliph Al-Mustasim (833-842) used ghulams, and the Ottomans knew of the institution from their direct predecessors, the Seljuk Turks. The Ottomans modified the ghulam system by instituting the infamous devshirme, in which young Christian males between the ages of 8 and 15 were removed from their villages in the Balkans to be trained for state service. The youths were brought before the sultan, and the best of them—in terms of physique, intelligence, and other qualities—were selected for education in the palace school. There they converted to Islam, became versed in the Islamic religion and its culture, learned Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, and were trained in the military and social arts. They owed absolute allegiance to the sultan and were destined for the highest offices in the empire as they rose through the ranks of the school. When members of this select group graduated at about the age of 25, they assumed positions in the provincial military structure or took up service in the palace guards regiments. They could then work their way up the system and become its military-administrative head, the grand vizier. Those not selected for the palace school converted to Islam, worked for rural Turkish farmers, learned vernacular Turkish and folk Islamic culture, and became members of the sultan’s elite military infantry, the Janissaries.

This division in the devshirme, between those who received the best available education in the high Islamic tradition and those who followed the folk tradition and served as Janissaries, reflected a significant development within the society as a whole: the definition of the Ottoman identity. By the early 16th century the term Ottoman, which had first indicated the men around Osman and then the dynasty itself, had become a cultural-political-sociological term. Only a minority of the askeri class could be called “true” Ottomans. To be an Ottoman one had to serve the state and the religion and know the “Ottoman way.” Serving the state meant having a position within the military, the bureaucracy, or the religious establishment that carried with it the coveted askeri status and tax exemption. Serving the religion meant being a Muslim. Knowing the “Ottoman way” meant being completely at home in the high Islamic tradition. It also meant being fully trained in Arabic and Persian—languages that were, along with Turkish, the constituent elements of Ottoman Turkish, the language vehicle of all Ottomans. By this definition, the bulk of the Janissary corps—made up of devshirme youths who were not trained in the palace school but rather in the traditions of folk Islam—could not be considered Ottomans. Even though they served the state and the religion, they did not know the Ottoman way. High-ranking Greeks who served as translators for the Ottoman state were not Ottomans because, while they knew the Ottoman way and served the state, they were not Muslims. Although it was possible for people born outside the “true” Ottoman group to overcome, either through the devshirme or through other avenues, the barriers that stood in their way, the later Ottomans remained a generally exclusive community. Children of Ottomans had the right connections and opportunities to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and they were quick to do so.

At the start of the 18th century the Ottoman Empire was beleaguered by internal difficulties. The timar-holder was finding it difficult to live on a fixed income because inflationary pressures had caused many of the raya to flee the land for towns and cities. The need for available cash had already forced the sultans in the 1600s to rely heavily upon tax farming (selling the right to collect taxes on state-owned areas to private investors), a practice that became increasingly corrupt. Banditry became common in the provinces and the government found it difficult to maintain order. The devshirme was similarly on the verge of disintegration. Military conquests having come to an end, no new sources of youths were available and the Ottomans found it increasingly unproductive to take children from the same villages repeatedly. The Janissary corps was also rapidly becoming a liability without new sources of recruits. They preferred the comforts of Constantinople to the hardships of campaigning and had crowded the corps with their own dependents and relatives. In the 17th century, in Constantinople and elsewhere, the Janissaries periodically rebelled against sultans they disapproved of and the sultans had come to fear them. The benefits reaped from the Köprülü era were not long lasting and the future appeared dim.

Despite these obvious institutional weaknesses, the Ottomans were able to summon enough residual energy and resources to mount a number of successful campaigns in the first four decades of the 18th century. Their defeat of Russian tsar Peter the Great at the Prut River in 1711 halted, temporarily at least, the Russian effort to become a Black Sea power. At war again between 1736 and 1739, the Ottomans retook Belgrade and threatened the Austrians with another attack on Vienna in order to conclude a favorable peace settlement.

Following that war, with the Ottomans buoyed by their successes and Europe preoccupied with its own Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the empire fell into a state of complacency. They were roused by defeats in Romania suffered at the hands of Russia in a war that lasted from 1768 to 1774. The Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, signed in 1774, was more than a blow to Ottoman pride; it demonstrated that Ottoman military technology and methods of warfare were outdated. The Ottoman Empire went to war with Russia again, from 1787 to 1792, and suffered more losses. The French commander Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, a further sign that Europe was preparing to take advantage of diminishing Ottoman strength.

As early as 1793 Selim III (reigned 1789-1807) had embarked on a series of reforms intended to modernize the Ottoman fighting forces. He started with new military schools, staffed with instructors from France, and then attempted to organize a new body of troops to replace the Janissaries. This attempt was inconsequential and real reform had to wait until Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808-1839). His first task was to restore the power and authority of the central government that had been usurped by powerful local lords called ayan (Turkish for “notables”) and derebeys (“men of local influence”). Then he had to deal with the fact that the empire was disintegrating at its peripheries. He reasserted control over the derebeys and ayan of Anatolia and the Balkans by 1820, but was much less successful in dealing with the drives for autonomy in Serbia, Greece, and Egypt. Serbia began to push seriously for autonomy in 1812, and attained it in September 1829 in return for an annual tribute (payment to Constantinople in return for protection). Through a combination of its own efforts and the military and diplomatic support of both Great Britain and Russia, Greece achieved full autonomy in 1829 and independence in 1830. Meanwhile, Mahmud had taken a stand against the Janissaries, who had revolted in opposition to military reform. In 1826 the entire corps was dissolved, and thousands of Janissaries were killed.

Mahmud II faced his most difficult challenge in Egypt. There, Muhammad Ali—a former low-ranking army officer from Kavála (now in Greece) who had been sent to Egypt to resist the Napoleonic invasion—had become the Ottoman viceroy, or governor, of Egypt. Unlike other local viceroys, Muhammad Ali managed to secure for himself significant autocratic powers and Egypt developed into an autonomous state under his control. After helping Mahmud in several successful military campaigns, Muhammad Ali’s army invaded and captured Syria from the Ottoman Empire in 1831. While the Ottomans regained Syria nine years later, Egypt remained in the hands of the modernizing Muhammad Ali dynasty until the early 20th century.

Mahmud II’s successor, Abd al-Madjid (reigned 1839-1861), advised by his foreign minister, Reşid Pasha, embarked upon a program of reform that would become known as the Tanzimat (Turkish for “reorganization”). It was ushered in by an imperial decree issued in 1839. As the empire sought to Westernize itself, it gained the support of the British, who retained a special relationship with the Ottomans until 1892. The Crimean War (1853-1856) found Britain and the Ottomans allied against Russia. One of the prices for British support was the 1856 Ottoman proclamation of the second reform edict that continued and strengthened the Tanzimat process.

Ali Pasha and Fuad Pasha are the two men most closely associated with the post-1856 reforms. Both disciples of Reşid Pasha, the first reformist grand vizier, they had served in Ottoman embassies in Europe and gathered firsthand experiences about Western culture. Their careers tracked from minister of foreign affairs to grand vizier. Between them they achieved great changes in education, military affairs, financial matters, the bureaucracy, and civil rights of ethnic and religious minorities. New secular schools were organized at all levels, from elementary school through high school and higher education. Special schools were organized to train the officer corps and the bureaucracy. Fuad Pasha died in 1869, followed two years later by Ali.

After the deaths of Fuad Pasha and Ali Pasha, the reform movement foundered on budget deficits that led to increased foreign debt, foreign policy fiascoes, internal ethnic and nationalist discontent, and loss of European territory. Interethnic strife in Herzegovina was mirrored by the clash of Austro-Hungarian and Russian ambitions in the Balkans. Added to this was a rapidly escalating crisis in Bulgaria where Christian rebels slaughtered thousands of Muslims in 1876. This led to reprisals by Muslims in which tens of thousands of Bulgarians were slain in what became known as the Bulgarian Atrocities. Austria and Russia concluded an agreement to capture and divide up some Ottoman territory in the Balkans, but agreed to stay out of a war between the Ottoman Empire and Montenegro, won by the Ottomans. In 1876 Abd al-Hamid II (reigned 1876-1909) came to the throne, granted the first Ottoman constitution, and seemed to have the diplomatic situation under control. Russia, however, declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1877. In a swift campaign the Russians drove the Ottomans back almost to the walls of Constantinople and forced them to sign the disastrous Treaty of San Stefano of 1878. This treaty deprived them of most of their European territories, including Bulgaria, which was enlarged to include Macedonia and Thrace. Concerned about the Russian gains, the European powers later that year convened the Congress of Berlin to alter the treaty. As a result of negotiations before and during the Congress of Berlin, Bulgaria was reduced in size, and the Ottomans regained possession of Eastern Rumelia (formerly southern Bulgaria) and Macedonia. Russia made territorial gains in eastern Anatolia, Serbia and Montenegro became independent, and Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina. Britain gained possession of Cyprus in return for a pledge to the sultan to aid the Ottomans if they needed military assistance in the future, a guarantee that would never be acted upon.

Abd al-Hamid’s reign saw further territorial losses, including the loss of Tunisia to the French in 1881, Egypt to the British in 1882, and Eastern Rumelia to Bulgaria in 1885. In order to maintain greater control over what remained of his empire, Abd al-Hamid embarked upon harsh internal measures. These included a suspension of the constitution he had granted in 1876, bureaucratization of the government, and the establishment of a network of spies reporting directly to the palace and the sultan. All European eyes were on the Ottoman Empire, as it had become a key player in the chaotic European balance of power and its crumbling was therefore of international concern (see Eastern Question).

Abd al-Hamid was forced to continue the reform process, especially with regard to economic development and military reform. Modernization was necessary to increase both his control over the empire and his capacity to respond to foreign and internal threats. This led not only to the introduction of the telegraph to improve military and civilian communications but also to the construction of a railroad system (the Berlin to Baghdād Railway), largely through the support of German entrepreneurs backed by their government. Participation in the railroad projects was eventually opened to other powers.

The Ottoman Empire gradually drew closer to Germany, which had economic interests in the empire and became its leading supplier of munitions and weapons. Even as the empire reoriented its external affairs, the internal repression of Abd al-Hamid’s regime intensified, leading to the development of groups opposed to the sultan and his government. Among those was a large group of army officers stationed mainly in the Balkans organized as the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP). Through a bloodless revolt in 1908 this organization and other forces, loosely grouped under the term Young Turks, compelled the sultan to restore the constitution and parliamentary government. In 1909 Abd al-Hamid attempted a counter stroke which failed, and he was deposed and banished from the empire. Although the title of sultan was given to his brother, who ruled as Muhammad V, the Young Turks of the CUP, led by a triumvirate of whom Enver Pasha would become the best known, were in command of the empire.

The Young Turks continued the Ottoman reform process, opening schools to women and overseeing legislative progress in women’s rights. External threats plagued the CUP, however. The Italians invaded Tripoli in 1911 and gained sovereignty there in 1912. The two Balkan Wars from 1912 to 1913, the first a complete disaster, and the second less so, cost the Ottomans most of their territory in the Balkans. This loss was accompanied by the slaughter of Turks in Thrace by Bulgarians. The empire emerged from those difficulties with the CUP firmly entrenched in power. In 1914 Enver Pasha, who viewed Germany as the only nation that could help the empire out of its financial difficulties, brought the two states even closer together. He also became war minister in 1914. The assassination of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand by a Serb in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, propelled Europe into World War I (1914-1918). Enver Pasha was largely responsible for the Ottomans aligning with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria).

World War I was a disaster for the Ottoman Empire. Russia invaded Anatolia; the British, aided by an Arab revolt, swept through the Fertile Crescent; and eventually the Allies occupied Constantinople. The Russian Revolution in 1917, followed by Russia leaving the war, saved the empire from the dismemberment that had been planned early in the war in a series of secret Allied treaties. After Armenians had participated in the killing of Muslim villagers in 1915 in the region of Van Gölü (Lake Van), in 1917 the Ottomans sought to deport about 1 million Armenians from eastern Anatolia, fearing that they would aid the Russians. In the course of that action it is alleged that more than 800,000 Armenians died. (Only two decades earlier, tens of thousands of Armenians were killed by Ottoman troops and civilians after the threat of an Armenian revolution.)

The Battle of Gallipoli, where the performance of a young army officer named Mustafa Kemal helped turn back the Allied invasion, was one of the few Ottoman military victories of the war. Later, Kemal fought against British general Edmund Allenby and organized the defense of Anatolia against a possible invasion by the British. As the World War I peace negotiations dragged on at Versailles, the British helped the Greeks land at İzmir to take the share of western Anatolia that had been promised them earlier. Mustafa Kemal, who was in Anatolia, organized the resistance against the Greeks (and later against the British and the French). In Ankara he organized a rival government, and this Grand National Assembly government abolished the sultanate on November 1, 1922, formally ending the Ottoman Empire. The Republic of Turkey was founded the next year.

The differences between the Ottoman Empire at its peak under Süleyman the Magnificent and the late empire under the CUP are as startling as the continuities. In place of the devshirme and the palace school were professional, secular schools for the training of bureaucrats and military officers. Non-Muslims were also given access, though somewhat limited, to governmental careers. A place in the Translation Bureau, where many of the leaders of the late Ottoman Empire were trained, became as coveted a position as had been a place in the palace school. The timar system was completely phased out by the mid-19th century, and eventually replaced by an official register of individual landholdings created under the Land Law of 1858. The late Ottoman army was based on laws of conscription, not on the forced enlistment of youths to become Janissaries. Instead of family struggles for the throne, succession to the title of sultan was governed by the constitution of 1876 and the throne devolved upon the oldest living male in the dynastic family.

Curiously, the ghazi concept that inspired the early Ottomans was still at work in the Republic of Turkey. This was evident when—in recognition of Mustafa Kemal’s victory over the Greeks, who had nearly conquered Ankara in 1921—the Grand National Assembly conferred upon him the title of ghazi. The late Ottoman Empire was still heavily agricultural, with only a small percentage of its population able to read and write. Despite that, society was far more equal than before, with women playing a greater role in society than ever. Although the millet system no longer operated, identity was still largely a matter of religion within the smaller, 20th-century empire. And, while opportunities in every sphere of late Ottoman life were more available, the question, whether asked or unasked, was still “Kimsiniz Bey Efendi?” or “Who are you, sir?”, meaning where are you from within this society, what are your roots, what have you and yours contributed? That is the question that was asked in 1300, in 1922, and is still asked in modern Turkey.