Classical Ottoman Decline

The Ottomans were no longer “the present terror of the world” by the end of the 17th century. Let’s explore why.

Sedentarization of the Sultans

Traditionally, one of the things that had led to the success of Ottoman armies on campaign had been the direct presence of their Sultans. At major victories at Constantinople, Chaldiran, and Mohacs, the Sultan had been on the battlefield himself, giving orders and directing strategy. As well as enhancing the Sultan’s status as a gazi warrior, this had three main advantages: it meant that there was no prospect of desertion, raised the morale of the troops, and stopped commanders from disagreeing with each other.

However, all of that changed after the death of Suleiman The Magnificent.

While before the reign of Selim II, his successor, every Sultan had led his troops on every overland campaign, in the 50 years after his death, only one campaign saw direct involvement from the Sultan. This meant commanders were incentivized to disobey each other, each hoping for his own promotion by the Sultan if others died, weakening the Ottoman army. 

This process is known as the sedentarization of the Sultans.

Sultanate of Women

Although we see female involvement in politics today as a positive feature of good governance, it did not carry the same connotations for early modern Ottomans. Before the reign of Suleiman The Magnificent, which was a key turning point for the Sultan’s absolutism, consorts of the Sultan resided in a Harem away from the center of politics.

However, in 1530, Suleiman married Roxelana in a lavish ceremony and moved her to Topkapi palace. This was important because it established her precedence over other consorts and brought her into the center of the political fold. For the first time, advisors could influence the Sultan through his wife. Through their proximity to the Sultan, wives and mothers were suddenly able to wield influence.

This was largely seen as damaging because it enabled lobbying to happen behind closed doors, which previously hadn’t happened. This decrease in transparency made the Sultan’s advisors less accountable, eroding a key principle of early effective Ottoman governance.

Changes to Ottoman succession

Another key change to the Ottoman governance method was changes to the methods of succession. After Mehmed I made fratricide the official legal mechanism for dynastic succession in 1453, all Sultans up to Suleiman killed their brothers. However, neither Suleiman I nor his son Selim II did. Moreover, Ahmed I and Murad III failed to complete their own fratricides. This undermined the meritocracy at the top of the Ottoman state: previously, the law of fratricide had allowed Sultans to familiarize themselves with the nuances of political lobbying and gain a thirst for blood.

Although the fratricide certainly eroded, that wasn’t to say that the practice was completely eradicated. In fact, when Mehmed III gained the throne in 1595, he conducted the most bloody fratricide of the whole Ottoman era, slaughtering his 17 brothers.

Dissolution of Meritocracy

Another key change to Ottoman governance was how the empire was run internally.

Typically, it had been customary since the reign of Mehmed II for the Sultan to afford the Janissary Corps a pay rise when gaining the throne – think of it almost as an inflation adjustment. However, in 1566 upon the death of Suleiman, the elite troops took it upon themselves to go a step further, blocking Selim II’s entrance to Topkapi palace, the seat of the Ottoman government, until he granted their wishes. In the end, Selim II was forced to yield, allowing the Janissaries to marry and enroll their sons in the Corps, leading state pensions to balloon at undermining the meritocracy upon which the Corps was supposed to be founded.

However, it didn’t stop there. According to Mustafa Ali, a court advisor and historian, Selim II undermined state meritocracy at all levels by returkifying the Ottoman administration. Although modern historians dispute Ali’s account, labeling him as a disgruntled civil servant, there is certainly evidence of some erosion of meritocracy. While in 1560, two-thirds of Sanjak Beys had served in more junior roles, that number decreased to only one-quarter by 1610, showing a decrease in meritocratic promotion.

Aulic War Council and Habsburg improvement

Perhaps the most obvious change to the Ottomans was one that was immediately ostensible because of its territorial nature. Along the Habsburg frontier, the fortifications of the Viennese Aulic War Council after the threat to Vienna in 1532 made it far more difficult for the Ottomans to defend its territory.  

The Europeans built forts along their 117-mile border in the new trace itallien style and manned them with a new type of soldier: the tercio. This marked the first time the Austrian Habsburgs could field professional elite troops against the Ottomans.

This process of gradual militaristic improvement is more broadly known as the ‘European Military Revolution.

Titular Equality at Zsitvatorok

One of the key motivations for the conquest and expansion of the Ottoman Sultans was a reputational one. Ottoman conquests around Constantinople and the Hejaz allowed the Ottomans to gain the titles of Caesar, Caliph, and Khan. However, they weren’t content with just proclaiming their own titular abilities. Instead, they were keen to impress it upon others. As a condition for peace with the Austrian Habsburgs, the Ottomans mandated that the Austrian Habsburgs acknowledge them as having titular supremacy, first in 1533 in the Treaty of Constantinople and then in 1547 in the Treaty of Adrianople.

However, all this changed with the Long War. After improvements from the Habsburgs during the European Military Revolution, the Long War of 1593 to 1606 led to significant Ottoman casualties, with the Sultan’s proving unable to deal a decisive coup de grâce to the Ottomans. As a result, in 1606, the Treaty of Zsitvatorok was signed, reversing earlier agreements and guaranteeing titular equality between the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians.

This served to directly show that the Ottomans were losing their earlier power.

Mustafa the Mad

To add trouble to an already failing empire, the accession of Mustafa I to the throne in 1617 posed particular problems to the empire. 

After the death of Ahmed I, there were two contenders for the throne. The obvious choice was Osman The Young, who was Ahmed’s son. However, without a living mother to petition for him at court, he could not lobby influential Viziers and Janissaries to support his bid for the throne. As a result, Mustafa I convinced the Viziers that he, Ahmed’s brother, should take the throne.

However, it was not a happy ascendancy. First, questions were raised about Mustafa’s credentials due to the unusual nature of his succession and the fact that he didn’t commit fratricide. Additionally, those closest to the Sultan claimed that he was mad and that his advisors were using him as a puppet soldier. Since historians fiercely debate these claims, we may never know the truth about Mustafa. Nevertheless, it was a clear contributor to Ottoman instability.

Osman The Young

To compound the difficulty brought about by Mustafa The Mad, after upsetting the Janissary Corps less than a year into his reign, he was deposed in favor of his nephew, Osman II. 

This further proved to cause problems, with Osman The Young’s inexperience costing the Ottomans their chance of victory at the Battle of Khotyn in 1521, losing to a Polish-Lithuanian force with significantly inferior numbers. This further undermined the influence of Osman, leading to him being deposed again in favor of Mustafa in 1522.

The overall impact of these sudden changes in Ottoman power showed how vulnerable the Ottoman state was, further cementing its decline.

Last Siege of Vienna

Meanwhile, increased Christian unity because of the influence of the Holy League meant that the Ottomans could not gain other victories toward their military objectives.

However, the Ottomans made one last attempt at European domination. After losing at Khotyn, the Ottomans rebuilt their military infrastructure to make another attempt at Vienna. This included rebuilding key roads and restructuring the army. 

Even this couldn’t lead to an Ottoman victory. Upon leaving Constantinople, the Ottomans had 170,000 men. This was reduced to 150,000 through disease and attritional attacks by the time the Ottomans reached the gates of the city. This force initially couldn’t believe its luck when it met a force of less than 20,000 at the city gates. However, the Ottomans largely ignored a relief force of 74,000 troops and single-mindedly focused on taking the city, leading to their eventual loss.

Treaty of Karlowitz

Despite again possessing another significant material advantage, the humiliating loss at Vienna proved to majorly undermine Ottoman power. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz with the Austrian Habsburgs in 1699 after another loss for the Ottomans at the hands of the Holy League during the Battle of Zenta.

The treaty acknowledged Austrian territorial gains and cemented public knowledge of the Ottoman decline. The overall impact was that the Ottomans had ceased to be “the present terror of the world”.

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