The Ottoman Empire was one of the most dynamically expanding states in late medieval Europe, and by the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans arguably were the greatest power in Europe and turned the Eastern Mediterranean into an Ottoman lake.
However, as in the case of all empires, the expanding phase of Ottoman history eventually came to a halt in the 16 and 17th centuries, and from the failed Siege of Vienna( 1683) onwards, the empire started to shrink, with its power and influence also rapidly declining.
The causes of the decline were multiple and both military, economic and sociological reasons played a part in putting the Ottoman Empire into a declining phase.
The decline of the Ottoman Military
The expansion of the Ottoman Empire was achieved through the force of the Ottoman army, and it was logical that the end of the expansion came when the Ottoman army was no longer superior to its rivals.
Initially, the Ottoman armies were made up of tribal warriors, who fought as horse archers, but as the domains of the Sultan expanded, the Ottoman armies became more complex also.
During the reign of Selim the Grim and Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman armies were made up of a small core of professional soldiers( the janissaries, artillery and household cavalry) paid and equipped by the Sultan’s treasury and the provincial troops, most cavalry.
The general battle formation used by the Ottomans was the following: the janissaries and the artillery formed the centre who were lining up in front of the Sultan, while the provincial cavalry remained on the flanks with the Anatolian and Rumelian troops making up each flank of the Ottoman army.
These tactics worked very well until the late 16th century, and the Ottomans generally had the measure of their Hungarian, Persian or Mamluk enemies in pitched battles. Sieges were more frequent than pitched battles in this era, but even in sieges, the Ottomans generally had way more victories than defeats, and for every failed siege, like Vienna( 1529), there were many successful ones like Rhodes or Belgrade.
By the end of the 16th century, the dominance of the Ottoman armies was a thing of the past. Their European rivals reformed their armies on new models and the pike& shot style armies were more than a match for the Ottomans. Adopting the formations of the Spanish tercios( pikeman +musketeers), the Ottoman cavalry became quickly obsolete and the Sultan’s army began to be reformed during the Long Turkish War( 1593-1606).
The Janissary Corps was significantly expanded between the late 16th and late 17th century, and their numbers increased from 13,000 to around 60,000. The Ottomans also began to employ mercenaries who were raised only for the duration of a single campaign, usually men who knew how to use firearms, and these units were usually disbanded as soon as the campaigns ended. These mercenaries often turned to banditry once their soldier duties were over and caused significant damage in some parts of the Empire, most notoriously in Anatolia.
Thus by the late 17th century, the structure of the Ottoman armies resembled more closely the structure of the contemporary European monarchs. A core of professionals, a decreased number of provincial soldiers and a host of mercenaries were raised for campaigns. The relative decline of the Ottomans became obvious in the second half of the 17th century, as they started to suffer many defeats in pitched battles, and were pushed out of Hungary and for a time even from northern Serbia, however, even as late as 1739 the Ottomans were able to defeat the Habsburgs, so the decline should not be overstated.
Military historians believed that it was during the middle decades of the 18th century that the Ottoman armies became outdated in comparison with the armies of their rivals. It was during this period that the standing armies of the Great Powers of Europe were expanded substantially, Prussia for example went from 80,000 soldiers in 1740, to 195,000 by 1786. These soldiers were professionals and were constantly drilled by their officers. Though the deficiencies of the Ancien Regimes became obvious when these armies met with the armies of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, in comparison to the Ottomans, even these armies were very competent, and the Russians had the better of the Ottomans starting from 1768 both on land and at sea.
Sultan Selim III tried to reform his armies on the new European model, however, he was met with resistance by the Janissaries and other conservative elements in the army, who overthrew Selim III in 1807.
Economic and Social Decline
The Ottomans controlled the traditional lands through which Asian goods entered Europe, the Silk Road and the ports of Egypt and the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately for them, by this time the age of exploration was well underway and their European rivals, the Portuguese, and the Spanish, later followed by the English and the Dutch, had the naval capacity to bypass the Ottoman lands and create rival trade routes, which led to a diminished return from the lands of the Ottomans, though it would be untrue to say that the Ottoman lands were completely bypassed, as they were not.
Another blow to the finances of the Ottoman Empire was the Spanish silver that flooded the markets of Europe during the second half of the 16th century. Initially, the amount of silver the King of Spain extracted from his colonies was not that great, as it only amounted to around 200,000-300,000 ducats during the reign of Charles V, however by the time of his son Philip II the sum was at least 2,000,000 ducats worth of silver that hit the markets year after year and the result was inflation.
Europe went through a phenomenon historians named the price revolution, and the Ottoman state did not escape its effects either. The Ottomans devalued their currency during the reign of Murad III, and payments in devalued currency even led to a revolt of the Janissaries.
Historians also believed that it was the price revolution that led to the Janissaries taking up other jobs, and civilians to bribing their way into the Janissary corps, which led to the steady decline in the effectiveness of the corps.
Furthermore, the tax system of the empire also went through a transformation. The collection of the taxes was assigned to tax farmers, who bought their function in Istanbul and from the 18th century onwards had their commission for life, which allowed wealthy individuals to combine governorships, and military positions with their tax farms, which in the long run led to the buildup of local powerbases which became semi-independent from Istanbul.
Taxation became more oppressive as the centuries passed, and people started to move away from the plains, into the highlands, a very strange phenomenon in comparison to the developments of other states in Europe. Historians attribute this development to the oppressive taxation and believe people moved away mainly for this reason from the easily accessible plains to the more remote highlands.
Another thing that may have contributed to the decline of the empire was its conservative elite. The Janissaries, for example, stubbornly resisted the efforts of the Sultans to modernise the armies and even killed two of them: Osman II and Selim III. The printing press that became so widespread in the European neighbourhood, especially in Western Europe, of the Ottoman Empire, was also lagging behind, more shackled and smaller scale. Istanbul, for example only developed a printing press at the beginning of the 18th century, while in Egypt, it was Napoleon’s French invasion that gave birth to it.
Colin Imber( 2009) The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power, Palgrave Macmillan
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© 2022 Andrew Szekler