Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 19: The 19th Century

Copyright ©2011 by T. Pavlidis

The Serbian Revolts

The first ethnic group to launch a revolt against Ottoman rule were the Serbs. It started with a janissary revolt against the governor of Belgrade Haci Mustafa Pasha. The janissaries had the support of Osman Pazvantoglu and Haci Mustafa allowed the Serbs to arm themselves for self-defense against the janissaries. One thing led to another and in 1806 a force of 30,000 Serbs under the leadership of George Petrovic, known as Kara George besieged Belgrade. The fortress fell on January 6, 1807 [CF05, pp. 403-404]. The Russians were eager to support their fellow Christian Orthodox Slavs but the war with Napoleon precluded that and the Ottomans started recovering the lost territory. In October 1813 the Ottoman recapture Belgrade killing hundreds of its inhabitants and selling thousands into slavery [ibid, pp. 425-427].

Unrest in Serbia continued and in 1815 there was a second major uprising led by Milos Obrenovitz. By 1817 Serbia had become autonomous in practice and that status was confirmed by the treaty of Adrianople in 1829. Serbia was recognized as a principality under the suzerainty of the sultan.

The Greek Revolution

In 1820 the sultan declared the ruler of Jannina, Tepedelenli Ali Pasha, a rebel and sent a large army to subdue him. The war lasted for almost two years and the sultan's army succeeded in capturing the 82-year old Ali Pasha and beheading him on February 5,1822. But while the sultan's army was pre-occupied with Ali Pasha, the Greeks of Peloponese found the moment convenient to go on open rebellion against the sultan.

On March 25, 1821 the metropolitan of Old Patras Germanos raised the flag of rebellion and that day is commemorated as the start of the Greek revolution [ibid, p. 429]. A month earlier Alexander Ypsilantis (see Chapter 18) had led a small force from Russia into the principality of Moldavia and on February 24 he issued a declaration at Jassy stating that he had the support of a "great power", meaning Russia. However Russia did not support him and an Ottoman army put an end to this incursion a few months later. Ypsilantis and his followers fled to Austria where he was imprisoned for several years [ibid, p. 430]. It is not clear whether Ypsilantis had actual Russian support or he was bluffing. It is possible that Russian officials had promised him support but backed down because of Austrian opposition to any revolutionary movements in Europe.

While the revolt in Moldavia may have fizzled out, the revolt in Patras spread like wildfire over Peloponese and in the regions of Greece on the north side of the gulf of Corinth. The sultan took out his frustration by ordering the hanging of the Orthodox Patriarch Gregory V. He was hanged at the gate of the patriarchate on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1821 [ibid, pp. 429-430]. There is no evidence that Gregory had encouraged the revolution and, most likely, he was a proponent of the status quo [ibid, p. 432]. But as leader of the Rum millet he was held responsible for the actions of its members. Mahmud's commitment to modernity went only so far. When the news of the hanging reached Peloponese they unleashed a massacre of all Muslims and Jews. The latter were included in the slaughter because, supposedly, the corpse of Gregory had been given to some Jewish dockworkers in Istanbul to throw it to the sea.

The Ottoman forces were unable to deal with the Greek rebels so in 1824 Mahmud took the desperate step of asking help from the Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali. In exchange for the help he promised the Peloponese to the Egyptians. An Egyptian force led by Ali's adopted son Ibrahim Pasha landed in Peloponese in February 1825 and within two years he was getting close to suppressing the rebellion [ibid, p. 432]. The Greek rebels were saved by the intervention of the European powers. On October 20, 1827 a combined Anglo-French-Russian fleet destroyed the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet in the battle of Navarino, off the southwest cost of Peloponese. Ibrahim's troops were evacuated and the modern Greek state came into existence [ibid]. The first head of the new state was John Kapodistrias (see Chapter 18) with capital first at the island of Aegina and then at Nafplion. The original plan of the three European powers was to create an autonomous state under Ottoman suzerainty but France and England feared that such a state would be beholden to Russia and in February 1830 they agreed that Greece would be a completely independent state under the joint protection of the three powers.

While Greece was freed from the Ottomans it was not freed from the Ottoman-Byzantine habits and Kapodistrias found hard to govern it. When he put in jail a powerful clan leader he was assassinated by his relatives on October 9, 1831. A period of anarchy followed and finally the three powers agreed on installing as king of Greece prince Otto of Bavaria. He took office in 1832 and moved the capital from Nafplion to Athens.

The Ottoman-Egyptian War

After Navarino Mohammed Ali asked the sultan for the Syrian provinces as reward for his effort in trying to suppress the Greek rebellion. Instead the sultan offered him the island of Crete but Mohammed Ali was shrewd enough to know that an island with a large Greek population would be hard to control, so he declined the offer. Instead his son Ibrahim launched a campaign against Syria. He quickly defeated the Ottoman armies and advanced deep into Anatolia and by January 1833 he was closing on Bursa. The sultan was forced to ask help from his old adversary, the Russian czar. He was happy to oblige and the Egyptian army was forced to withdraw from Anatolia [ibid, pp. 443-444]. The request by the sultan of a foreign power to help him put down the rebellion of one of his won governors marks a new low in the long decline of Ottoman power.

Muhammad Ali ended up with the governorships in a territory that comprised today's Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, as well as the island of Crete. His son Ibrahim was given the governorship of Mecca. However, he was still not satisfied and took steps to achieve complete independence. In 1839 he defeated an Ottoman army that was sent to chastise him and it was time for the European powers to intervene again. Under an agreement worked out in 1840 Muhammad Ali lost the extra governorships but he was compensated by making the Egypt governorship hereditary. Egypt might still be part of the Ottoman empire, but the sultan had no right to appoint its governors [ibid, pp. 444-446].

The Reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839)

Mahmud II was put to the throne by those who were sympathetic to the reforms advocated by his cousin Selim III. Unfortunately, the opposition to reforms was strong and four months later, on November 15, 1808 the reformist Grand Vizier Byrakdar Mustafa was killed in a janissary revolt. Eventually the revolt was put down with 5,000 janissaries and 600 troops loyal to the sultan losing their lives [CF05, pp. 422-423]. In the meantime the empire itself was being fragmented. We saw how Egypt became practically independent, how the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were taken over by the Saudis, and how the Serbian and Greek states came into existence.

In May 1826 Mahmud announced a new military corps to be formed by drawing 150 men from each of the 51 janissary companies in Istanbul. This was an effort to reform the janissaries from within rather than creating a parallel military force as Selim III had tried. The re-organization received the blessing of the religious establishment and it was ruled that an imam should be assigned to each newly formed company. However, wrapping the re-organization in a religious mantle did not mollify the janissaries who staged a revolt on June 14. Mahmud was ready for them. He had enough loyal troops and, most important, artillery that bombarded the janissary barracks and put them on fire. Over 6,000 janissaries were killed and in that attack and then Mahmud launched a manhunt against them throughout the empire with thousands more of janissaries killed. The abolition of the janissary troops was named the Auspicious Incident [ibid, pp. 432-437].

The killing of the janissaries was followed by a suppression of the Bektasi dervish order that was closely associated with that corps. The sultan obtained an opinion from the sheikh-ulislam that the Bektasis were heretics and prominent members of the order were executed and the properties of the order were confiscated [ibid, pp. 437-438].

Another set of victims of the Auspicious Incident were Jewish bankers who had connections with the janissary corps by handling their finances. Isaiah Adjiman, Carmona, and Gabbai were summarily executed and their properties confiscated. Some Turkish chronicles blaming these killings on intrigues of Armenian competitors but that argument stands hollow in view of the execution of at least one Armenian banker, Yakub Houvanessian, at that time [ibid].

The numbers of killings was so large that dead bodies kept washing up on the shore around Istanbul and a plague broke out in the city. Finally a fire destroyed large parts of the city. 1826 was not a good year for Istanbul [ibid, p. 439].

In April 1828, while the Greek revolution was raging, a Russian army entered Moldavia and by July 1829 had reached Edirne (Adrianople), about 120 miles west of Constantinople. At the same time other Russian forces moved through the Caucasus to capture parts of eastern Ottoman province. The Ottomans had to sue for peace and the treaty of Adrianople recognized the autonomy of Serbia and the complete independence of Greece [ibid].

At the same period popular revolts spread through Anatolia but Mahmud survived them and pressed on with his reforms. A visible innovation was the introduction of a new headgear for all citizens, the fez, replacing assorted previous headgears such as the turban. It was first introduced in the army and in 1829 it was extended to government employees. The fez abolished distinctions of people by religion and it was eagerly adopted by non-Muslims [ibid, pp. 441-442]. (During the reign of Mahmud's son Abdulmecit I the traditional turban was formally outlawed.)

Mahmud sought European help to modernize the Ottoman armies and in 1835 a Prussian military mission arrived to be followed by a British naval mission in 1838. In this respect he was following Mohammed Ali who in 1824 had invited a French military mission to Egypt. [BL95, p. 296] Mohammed Ali also was first with an official gazette (government newspaper), first in French and then in Arabic. Mahmud followed with one in French and Turkish. Lewis [ibid, p. 11] quotes an editorial of the times that states "The aim of the newspaper is to make known to the subjects the intentions and orders of the government". He goes on to observe this view of the press "has not entirely disappeared" from the Middle East.

Why There Was Resistance to Military Reforms

A feature of the training of European armies is the extensive precision drills that soldiers must perform. While such precision drills are for the parade ground, their main goal is to install discipline that will maintain order in the heat of the battle. The human instinct is to safeguard one's life, therefore a great effort is required to install into soldiers the willingness to risk their lives. It is beyond the scope of these writings to elaborate on this point but anyone who has served in an army knows about it. Usually it is a mixture of ideology and discipline that keeps soldiers risking their lives and fighting. It is also essential that rank holders, both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, to be in the front and risk their lives for two reasons: to set an example and to enforce discipline. As a result junior officers have the highest casualty rates than other ranks.

An example of such training can be found in American history. Early in the American Revolution of 1776, its leaders recruited a Prussian general, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, to train the irregular troops at Valley Forge and transform them into an effective fighting force. The eventual success of American forces owes much to von Steuben's influence.

On the other hand an army with strict discipline and extensive drills does not appeal to members of irregular armed groups. They are willing to fight but only as long as they have the upper hand and their casualties are kept low. I have not read any account of a battle where the janissaries held their ground in spite of huge casualties. That should be contrasted with western armies both in antiquity and in modern times. To the 300 Spartans who gave up their lives rather than retreat we may add the example of the troops in the first wave of landing in Normandy in 1944 that were expected and did suffer close to 90% casualties.

The janissaries (especially after the sixteenth century) had it too good to want to submit themselves to western style discipline. They did not need that discipline in order to able to terrorize civilians or other irregular armies. Of course they were no match for armies with discipline.

The Last Six Ottoman Sultans
Name Reign Relationship to
previous sultan
Abdulmecid I 1839-1861 son of Mahmud II  
Abdulaziz 1861-1876 brother  
Murad V 1876 nephew  
Abdulhamid II 1876-1909 son of Abdulmecid I  
Mehmed V 1909-1918 brother  
Mehmed VI 1918-1922 brother Last Ottoman Sultan

Futile Political Reforms

Mahmud had prepared another set of reforms but he died from tuberculosis in July 1839 and the reforms were proclaimed by his son and successor Abdulmecid on November 3, 1839. These reforms introduced the era of Tanzimat or Re-ordering. Ironically, these words may also be applied to the start of the breakup of the Ottoman empire with the emergence of new states of Greece and Serbia and the in effect independent Egypt.

The breakup continued so that today there are over 20 states that used to be part of the Ottoman empire after the treaty of Karlowitz. Here is an incomplete list, roughly in geographical order from NW to SE and then to SW: Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Algiers. Many of these states are small and there have often been at wars with each other. Sometimes one hears the view that "it would have been better if the Ottoman Empire had reformed rather than broken up." In an abstract sense this is true. The trouble is that by the time reforms were undertaken the breakup had already started. Ottoman efforts for reform have always been too little and too late.

The thrust of the 1839 reforms was equality between Muslim and non-Muslims subjects of the empire that was hard to reconcile with Islamic religious principles. The state could not afford to give up the poll tax paid by the "infidels" so a new tax was imposed on the Muslims with the predictable effect of making the reforms unpopular amongst the "faithful" [ibid, pp. 448-450]. If equality between Muslims and non-Muslims had been promulgated 100 years earlier it might have taken the steam out of the nationalist movements but now it was too late.

Another ill-advised step towards equality between Muslims and non-Muslims was to start conscription of Christians first into the navy and then into the army. These caused many Christians to flee from the empire and the measured had to be abandoned. [ibid, pp. 454-455]

The reforms also placed emphasis on the rule of law and that "impersonal rational decision-making should replace the unregulated application at whim of either sacred or sultanic writ" [ibid, p. 450]. This sounds fine in theory but its application faces serious practical challenges. Obedience to laws is a cultural attribute that cannot be changed overnight.

An undesirable side effect of the reforms was the removal of any checks to the power of the sultan. These had come from the clerical and the military establishments but the power of both was curtailed because they were opposed to the modernization efforts.

More reforms were carried during the rest of the 19th century. A parliament was established and a constitution was proclaimed in 1876. However the constitution was suspended and the parliament disbanded two years later by sultan Abdulhamit II.

The Russians are Back

While the Ottoman empire was making fitful efforts to modernize, the Russians resumed their aggression. However, by this time England and France had their own designs on the Ottoman Empire and they did not want it to fall prey to the Russians. Therefore British and French troops fought side by side with the Ottomans against the Russians in a conflict that it has been called the Crimean War. It lasted for two years (1853-55) and forced the Russians to make certain concessions [BL95, pp. 283-284].

The cartoon on the right is from Punch Magazine, June 17, 1876 and express the view that the Russians have not given up. Indeed the Russian were back in 1877 and they reached the town of San Stefano, a few miles only from the Ottoman capital. They imposed a treaty (signed at San Stefano on March 3, 1878) that created an autonomous Bulgaria that covered not only the area of the modern state of Bulgaria but also included parts of what are now Greek and Serbian territories. This alarmed England and other Western European powers and they blocked the enforcement of the treaty. Instead a new treaty was negotiated at Berlin that had resulted in smaller losses for the Ottomans. However there were several changes.

Figure 1: The Dogs of War - Click on the image for a bigger view.

Source: Punch Magazine, June 17, 1876.


Consequences of the Treaty of Berlin (1878)

  • Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro became independent kingdoms.
  • Greece acquired Thessaly (in 1881).
  • Bulgaria was created as an autonomous state.
  • East Rumelia was created as an autonomous state that merged with Bulgaria in 1885.
  • Austria acquired Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Britain acquired Cyprus (in 1887) as reward for their services in abrogating the treaty of San Stefano.
  • Parts if north-eastern Turkey with large Armenian and Greek populations were ceded to Russia.
  • Britain took control of Egypt and Sudan (in 1882).

The map of Figure 2 shows the disintergation of the Ottoman Empire.

Figure 2: The Breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

First Posted: March 30, 2011. Latest Revision: April 8, 2012.

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