Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 18: Stagnation in the Ottoman Empire

Copyright ©2011 by T. Pavlidis

Four Weak Sultans

Mahmud I had little interest in government and devoted most of his time to writing poetry. The Grand Vizier ran the empire. A war against Russia and Austria ended favorably for the Ottomans because of their alliance with Sweden. The Ottomans recovered not only Belgrade but also the lands they had lost in the treaty of Passarowitz. There was also war with Iran without major territorial changes even though the Iranians besieged Mossul. Probably, the most interesting event of Mahmud I's reign was the recruitment of the French general Claude-Alexander de Bonneval to introduce European methods in the Ottoman Army. De Bonneval converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmed Pasha but he had limited influence. He re-organized the corps of bombardiers modernized the factories that produced weapons but a military engineering school that he founded in 1734 was closed in 1750. There was opposition from both the clerics and the janissaries. [CF05, pp. 361-368] Conservatism kept the Ottomans back even in such practical matters as military organization. And all this while Europe was in the Age of Enlightenment!

Seven Sultans after Ahmed III
Name Reign Relationship to
previous sultan
Mahmud I 1730-1754 nephew  
Osman III 1754-1757 brother  
Mustafa III 1757-1774 son of Ahmed III Tried reforms
Abdülhamid I 1774-1789 younger brother  
Selim III 1789-1807 nephew Tried reforms and he was assassinated for that.
Mustafa IV 1807-1808 son of Abdülhamid  
Mahmud II 1808-1839 brother Greek revolution 1821-1830

Mahmud I was succeeded by his younger brother Osman III who became sultan at age 55. Until then he had lived in isolation in the Kafes. He (or rather those who ran the empire in his name) continued the policy of Mahmud I to pass laws enforcing dress codes. The dress of a person depended on his profession and religion. The latter intended to identify non-Muslims so that they should be kept in their subordinate position. Special effort was made to enforce dress codes for women to ensure their modest appearance. A ruling mentioned that "some good-for-nothing women took the opportunity (i.e. liberalism during the Tulip Age) to embellish and ornament their garb, and behave coquettishly in the streets; they copied the headgear of the infidel women ...." so laws were passed to eliminate such displays of femininity. Osman successor, Mustafa III continued that trend. [ibid, pp. 370-371]

By this time, it was obvious that the Ottoman Empire was falling far behind western Europe. Finkel quotes a chronicler describing the Prussian king Frederick the Great: "He stays far from the troubles and frustrations of his family and does not get involved in matters of religion and creed." This was clearly an indirect criticism of the sultan. Mustafa III tried to re-organize the military but there was too much opposition from the entrenched interests. [ibid, pp. 372-373]. In the meantime Russia had revived under Catherine II and pursued expansionist policies. A war with Ottomans broke out in 1768 and the latter suffered defeat after defeat until a peace was signed in 1774. By that time Mustafa had been succeeded by his younger brother Abdülhamid I.

The Russians Are Coming

The 1768-1774 war starts the period when Russia became a player in Middle East affairs. in 1770 a Russian fleet sailed from the Baltic into the Aegean with the goal of encouraging Russian's Orthodox co-religionists to revolt against the sultan. Indeed revolts broke out in Montenegro, Albania, and Peloponese but they were suppressed by the local Muslim populations. On the other hand the Ottoman fleet suffered a crashing defeat in the naval battle of Cesme (near Smyrna). The admiral of the Russian fleet was count Alexey Orlov, brother of count Grigory Orlov, the lover of Catherine II. In Greek memory the name Orlov became associated with betrayal because the Greeks expected Russian support in their rebellion that never came.

The war ended in 1774 with the treaty of Kücük Kaynarca, a village near the Danube river. The treaty sealed the loss of Crimea to the Russians that the Russian army had invaded. The Ottoman no longer had possessions in the north shore of the Black Sea. (A historical detail: the treaty actually provided for an independent khanate of Crimea, but the Russians took over the latter in 1783.) The treaty also granted the Russian czar the role of protector of all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman empire. (Later France claimed the right to be protector of all Catholic Christians in the Ottoman lands.) It was only then that the role of the sultan as caliph was dusted off so he could claim to be the protector of Muslims in the Russian empire. [ibid, pp. 374-379] It is worth remembering that it was only in 1699 that the Russian czar was recognized as equal to the sultan (Treaty of Karlowitz). In less than 100 years the czar acquired the right to interfere in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire. Catherine II is quoted as saying that the treaty of Kücük Kaynarca was a success "the like of which Russia has never had before" [ BL95, p. 279].

Other Russian gains included autonomy for Moldavia and Wallachia (part of modern Romania) that opened the way for Russian influence. The Russian annexation of Crimea was particularly hard on the Ottomans. Earlier losses of territory were lands inhabited by Christians while Crimea had a Muslim population [ibid, p. 280]. Therefore the Ottomans declared war against Russia in August 1787. It was an unwise decision because at the time the Russians had formed an alliance with Austria but Abdülhamid I and his Grand Vizier Koca Yusuf pasha seemed to have illusions of grandeur. New coinage was ordered marked with "Struck in Istanbul" rather than "Struck in Constantinople". The sultan died before the end of the war and he was succeeded by his nephew Selim III (son of Mustafa III). The war ended in January 1792 with the treaty of Jassy (a town in today's Rumania). This treaty reinforced and compounded the Ottoman losses in the treaty of Kücük Kaynarca [CF05, pp. 379-387].

Russia also attacked Iran and over the next few decades acquired Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan [BL95, p. 281]. Russia was now a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East.

The Reign of Selim III (1789-1807)

The dismal performance of Ottoman armies in the 100 years since the failed siege of Vienna called for action and Selim III tried to rise to the occasion. He became sultan at the age of 28 and, In contrast to other princes, he had managed to maintain outside contacts while in the Kafes and had corresponded with the French king Luis XVI [ibid, pp. 389]. According to Wikipedia his mother Mihr-î-Sah was from Genoa and her original name was Agnes. His grandmother was also named Mihr-î-Sah and, according to Wikipedia, she was French.

Selim III made serious efforts to Westernize the Ottoman Empire and he opened Ottoman embassies in the major European capitals. He created a committee of reformers (1792-93) that produced a series of new regulations knows as New Order (Nizam-i Cedid). They included administrative reforms but the most significant was the institution of a new infantry corps also known as New Order troops. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 drove Selim into an alliance with Great Britain and Russia but after Napoleon left Egypt in 1801 he resumed a Francophile policy. He recognized Napoleon as emperor and in 1806 declared war on Russia and Great Britain [1]. A British fleet went through the Dardanelles with the intent of bombing Topkapi palace but heavy seas frustrated that plan. The main effect of the foray was to cement Selim's alliance with France [CF05, pp. 413-414].

The New Order troops were formed by conscripting Muslim men from Anatolia and by 1806 they numbered 22,500 enlisted men and 1,500 officers. (Efforts to recruit in the Balkans met with local resistance.) The troops had European style uniforms and equipment and as early as 1799 proved their worth by contributing to Napoleon's defeat at Acre in Syria [ibid, pp. 393-394]. Initially, Selim tried to leave the janissaries (who were by now a rabble) alone but that did not work out. Eventually the janissaries and other irregular troops staged a revolt and demanded the disbanding of the New Order troops. Selim obliged but that was not enough for the rebels who now demanded Selim's abdication. The Kizlar Agha brought the demand to Selim who stepped down in favor of his cousin who on May 28, 1807 became sultan Mustafa IV [ibid, pp. 416-418].

Unfortunately for Selim, the New Order had supporters and one of them Bayrakdar Mustafa Pasha, governor of a province in today's Bulgaria and head of the Danube army marched to Istanbul with the goal of restoring Selim to the throne. He reached the city in July 1808 but Mustafa IV had Selim killed before Bayrakdar Mustafa arrived. However, this did not save Mustafa. Bayrakdar Mustafa insisted on sultan Mustafa's abdication because he had shed innocent blood. So Mustafa IV stepped down in favor of his 23 year old brother who became sultan Mahmud II on July 28, 1808. Those responsible for killing Selim were executed and their heads displayed outside the palace with signs labeling them as "traitors to religion and state who dared to martyr sultan Selim". Bayrakdar Mustafa became the new Grand Vizier [ibid, pp. 421-422].

While Selim's reforms were abandoned for some time, they were the seeds for future reforms that took place in the 19th century [2]. We are going to turn our attention away from the sultans and their court and focus instead on their non-Muslims subjects

  1. Article on "Selim III" in Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. IX (pp. 43-44), Fifteenth Edition, 1982.
  2. Article on "Ottoman Empire and Turkey, History of" in Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 13 (p. 784), Fifteenth Edition, 1982.

On the Status of non-Muslims in the 18th and early 19th Centuries

Greeks in Positions of Power

One characteristic of the Ottoman empire is that most of the educated people were non-Muslims, especially Greeks who were the largest non-Muslim groups. We may add that Greeks still called themselves Romans (Ρωμηοι). We have already seen the Jewish, Armenian, and Greek printing presses had been established well before a Turkish printing press (Chapter 14). Muslim schools emphasized memorization of the Koran rather than teaching how to read and write, so the number of literate Muslims was very small. Non-Muslims also tended to learn foreign languages and that led to their having high positions in the Ottoman government.

When the Ottoman needed to negotiate with European powers they created the office of the Grand Dragoman, or Chief Interpreter. In practice the holder of the office did much more than interpret; its holder was the intermediary between the sultan and foreign rulers. Alexander Mavrocordatos was appointed to that position in 1673 and in 1688 he was part of the high ranking Ottoman delegation that went to Vienna to negotiate peace. However the Hapsburgs were in no mood for negotiations and the Ottoman delegation was arrested and held for awhile outside Vienna [ibid, pp. 302-303]. Mavro-cordatos continued to be the main Ottoman negotiator and he took active part in the negotiations in Karlowitz [ibid, p. 319]. He is referred to in Ottoman chronicles as Alexander Iskerletzade [ibid]. He was succeeded in the post of Grand Dragoman by his son Nicolas Mavrocordatos.

Mavrocordatos was a member of the Greek patricians families known as Phanariots from the Phanar district in Istanbul in the neighborhood of the Greek patriarchate (since 1587) and the Grand Dragoman was usually given to a Phanariot [BL95, p. 325]. An indication of how entrenched this policy was is that as late as 1840 the Ottoman ambassador to the new Greek kingdom was a Phanariot! [ibid]

Nicolaos Mavrocordatos has also the distinction of being the first Greek appointed as prince-governor of Moldavia and Wallachia, two Danubian principalities in what is today Romania that had been under the suzerainty of the sultan. Until then the prince-governors of these entities had been chosen from the local gentry but after 1715 they were mostly Phanariots [CF05, p. 405]. Notable amongst them is Alexander Ypsilantis who as Grand Dragoman negotiated the Kücük Kaynarca treaty and then served as prince governor during various periods from 1775-1797. His grandson of the same name gained fame during the Greek revolution of 1821.

Economic Power of the non-Muslims

One of Selim III's innovations had to do with the expansion of the capitulation system (see Chapter 16). For a long time European consulates distributed berats, documents of protection, to non-Muslim merchants. This was stretching the rules of capitulation and the Ottomans tried unsuccessfully to curb the practice. Eventually Selim III followed the policy of "if you cannot beat them, join them" and started issuing berats to Christian (mostly Greek) and Jewish merchants. Eventually the practice was extended to Muslims, but few took advantage of it [BL95, pp. 292-293].

Some Personal Notes: The 19th century saw a big growth in commercial activity amongst Cappadocian Orthodox Christians. Given the timing, one can make a case that this was a result of the the wider availability of berats. My father's family used to have a notebook of births, weddings, and other significant events. The writings were in Turkish, first in the Arabic alphabet, and later in the Greek. The first entry was in 1806 recording a marriage. The writer mentioned the name of the "best man" (apparently an important person) but not of the wife. He also added that he had taken a trip to "Roumeli", the name for the European part of the Ottoman empire. I suppose that a berat enabled him to take such a far-ranging trip. (Sadly, the notebook was lost after my father's death. Anyway, he was the only one in the family who could understand it. The last entry was my own birth in 1934 written by my paternal grandmother. A few years later she suffered a stroke so she could not record my brother's birth.) There is another family story of an ancestor who went to complain to the sultan because local authorities would not honor his berat. This was a dangerous step because the sultan may consider such a person as too arrogant and have him killed. As a result his friends held a church service while was he going to the palace. Of course, the sultan was never visible, supposedly he attended the proceedings from behind a screen. After he finished making his case, one of the officials present told him "Say that again" and my ancestor realized that he spoken too proudly so he repeated his request in a much humbler tone. Then his petition was granted.

Commercial activity by Greeks brought new wealth to the community. Another source of wealth was smuggling during the Napoleonic wars. Greek captains would run the British blockade of France and make significant profits.

The dominance of the Ottoman economy by non-Muslims continued to modern times. Lewis mentions a list of 40 private bankers in Istanbul in 1912. It included 12 Greeks, 12 Armenians, 8 Jews, and 5 Levantines, people of Western European origin. A similar list of 34 stockbrokers includes 18 Greeks, 6 Jews, 5 Armenians and no Turks [ibid].


Christian Ottoman subjects were well aware of the developments in Europe such as the Enlightment and the French Revolution and they were eager to free themselves from Ottoman rule. Such feelings gave rise to nationalism, in particular amongst the Serbians and the Greeks. A notable development amongst the latter was the secret society Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) that was founded in 1814 in Odessa Russia by three Greeks: Nikolaos Skoufas, Emmanuil Xanthos, and Athanasios Tsakalov. The organization of the society had been influenced by the Carbonari (a secret society in southern Italy) and the Free Masons.

Another person associated with the rise of Greek nationalism was the poet and revolutionary known as Rigas Feraios (his actual name was Antonios Kyriazis). He was born in 1757 and at age 20 he killed an important Ottoman official and had to go in hiding, eventually joining the court of the Wallachian Prince Nicholas Mavrogenes. There he befriended an Ottoman officer Osman Pazvantoglu and intervened in his favor with the prince (more about Pazvantoglu later). In 1793 went to Vienna and from there he tried to go to Italy to contact Napoleon. Unfortunately, Napoleon was at war with the Austrians and the latter arrested Feraios and handed him to the Ottomans. He was strangled in Belgrade in 1798 and his body was thrown into the Danube river.

Greeks in the Service of Russia

An interesting phenomenon of the late 18th century was the presence of Greeks in the service of Russia. Best known is John Kapodistrias (1776-1831). He was the scion of a Hellenized Italian/Slovenian noble family (the name derives from Capo d' Istria). He was born in the island of Corfu and served as chief minister of state in the Russian sponsored republic of the seven Ionian islands off the coast of Greece. The islands had been a French possession but during the Napoleonic wars they achieved a brief period of independence (1799-1807) before reverting back to the French. The Russians were sufficiently impressed by Kapodistrias that they appointed him as their ambassador to Switzerland where he helped the country re-organize after the disruptions caused by Napoleon's interference. He then represented Russia in the infamous Congress of Vienna in 1815 where he acted as a liberal counterbalance to the Austrian arch-conservative Metternich. Next he became the foreign minister of Russia where he served until 1822.

Another prominent Greek in the service of Russia was Alexander Ypsilantis (1792-1828) whose grandfather and father had been prince governors of Moldavia and Wallachia. During a Turkish- Russian conflict in 1805 the family fled to Russia and young Alexander joined the Russian officer corps. He saw action in the Napoleonic wars where he lost his right arm. In 1817, at the age of only 25, he was promoted to major general commanding a cavalry brigade. In 1820 he accepted the post of head of Filiki Eteria, after Kapodistrias had turned it down.

Muslim Rebels

The same period that saw the increase in wealth and political awareness of non-Muslims also saw the emergence of several Muslim leaders who established their own authority in several territories of the Ottoman Empire.

Baghdad-Basra and the al-Da'uds

The region that is now part of east-central and southern Iraq had been semi-autonomous and governed by members of the Sunni al-Da'ud household for most of the time during 1723-1831. The diversity of its population, Arab and Kurdish tribesmen, Iranian Shiites, etc made its governing a challenge. Between 1764 and 1775 the governor of Baghdad was Omer pasha al-Da'ud who was far more interested in his own personal power than the interests of the Ottoman Empire. In 1775 the Iranians besieged the port of Basra and Omer pasha let it fall because he did not want to risk an Iranian attack against Baghdad. However, forces loyal to the sultan attacked Baghdad and killed Omer pasha before going to war against the Iranians. [CF05, pp. 406-408]

The governor of Baghdad during 1780-1802 was Suleyman pasha al-Da'ud who is notable because he agreed with Selim's III New Order. However the nobles of Mussul and Kirkuk (north of Baghdad) opposed the New Order and this added to the regional conflicts [ibid].

Egypt and Muhammed Ali

Egypt had enjoyed a degree of autonomy for a long time to the extent that there was even warfare between governors of Egypt and governors of Syria. In 1786 a naval force was sent from Istanbul to establish order but it had to be recalled the next year because of the war with Russia [ibid, pp. 409-411]. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt under the pre-text of establishing order. There were several French merchants in the region that had been suffering from the unstable political situation. Napoleon was planning on regime change but he did not go very far. He left Egypt in August 1799 and in 1801 the French were expelled by a joint British-Ottoman force. The British withdrew in 1803 and a period of anarchy followed until the sultan appointed the Albanian Muhammed Ali as governor in 1805.

Mohammed Ali was born in Kavala (in today's Greece) in 1769. His father was a successful Albanian tobacco merchant and young Ali entered government and millitary service. He had arrived in Egypt in 1803 as part of the Ottoman force that re-conquered the country at the head of an Albanian regiment. He proved a capable commander and Selim III had little choice but to appoint him as governor [ibid]. Mohammed Ali started by eliminating the remnants of Mamluk power and recruiting French military officers to modernize his army. He became the founder of a dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952 when the last king, Farouk, was overthrown by a military coup. We will say more about him in Chapter 19 but since Mohammed Ali's time Egypt became practically indepedent of the sultan although the latter maintained suzerainty. The title of the ruler went from Pasha to Khedive to Sultan to King and the independence of the country was compromised more by the British than by the Ottomans [BL95, p. 308].

Arabian Peninsula

Ottoman control of the Arabian Peninsula had always been tenuous but it faced additional challenges in the late 18th century because of the emergence of the puritanical Wahabi sect. Their religious practices were at odds with those prevelant in the Ottoman Empire and very soon acquired temporal power by their alliance with a tribal chief Abdul Asiz bin Saud. In 1803 the sultan ordered a campaign against them but it failed to materialize. In 1803 they occupied Mecca, they were expelled by Sharif Ghalib of Mecca two years later but they recapture the city in 1806. In 1807 they closed the region to Ottoman pilgrimage caravans and the new Saudi chieftain ordered that his name be mentioned in the Friday prayers instead that of the sultan. [CF05, pp. 410-411]

Bulgaria and Osman Pazvantoglu

Osman Pazvantoglu was a Bosnian who became the governor of the province of Vidin (north-west corner of Bulgaria) but at the peak of his power in 1794 controlled territory that stretched from Belgrade to Edirne covering more than the whole area of modern Bulgaria [ibid, pp. 401-403]. The sultan alternated between sending troops against him and forgiving his trnasgressions. His practically autonomous state did not survive his death in 1807.

Ali Pasha of Jannina (Greece)

Ali Pasha was Albanian from the town of Tepeleni, so he is known in Turkish as Tepedelenli Ali Pasha. He was born in 1740 and his father was murdered by rival clans when Ali was only 14 years old. Pretty soon he became the leader of a brigand band but eventually he sided with the authorities and helped with restoring order. In 1788 he seized control of the town of Jannina and pretty soon was the ruler of what is now western Greece and of Albania. Finkel notes that "the line between a brigand and a rebellious noble was often very finely drawn" [ibid, p. 401]. Ali Pasha fought on behalf of the sultan against Osman Pazvantoglu as well as other rebels. Later he distanced himself from Bayrakdar Pasha and Selim's III reforms [ibid, p. 423]. We will return to him when we discuss the Greek revolution of 1821.

First Posted: March 20, 2011. Latest Revision: April 2, 2011.

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