Losing a Foothold

The acceleration of the Ottoman decline until their relegation to irrelevance.

The Ulema Religious Class

The Empire Strikes Back?

After the last attempt at besieging Vienna, the Ottoman emperors were badly in need of a victory. They were soon given the perfect opportunity through what is known as The Pruth River Campaign.


In 1710, the Swedish King, fleeing from Russian troops after losing the Battle of Poltava during the Great Northern War, decided to claim sanctuary at Bender, an Ottoman fort in modern-day Moldova. Despite overtures from the Russian troops to give him up, Sultan Ahmed III refused all requests as a show of strength. This led to the Russian Tsar declaring war on the Ottomans.

Immediately, the Sultan sent his troops out on a campaign. The two armies were expected to meet alongside the Danube river, which the Tsar had instructed his troops to stop the Ottomans from crossing. However, a lack of food prevented the Russians from mounting a strong resistance, and the Danube was crossed almost without resistance, leading to the signing of a treaty favorable to the Ottoman Sultans.

Loss of Belgrade

Although the Pruth River campaign had proved that the Ottomans still had a high level of geopolitical relevance on the European stage, it was not long before they were dealt another blow to their expansionary ambitions. In 1717, the Austrian Habsburgs attempted to strike a significant blow to the Ottomans by attacking Belgrade, a key city alongside the Danube which the Ottomans had held since 1521.


Initially, the Austrians appeared to have the upper hand, with a fighting force of 100,000 men combating an Ottoman garrison with only 30,000 soldiers. However, an Ottoman relief force containing another 180,000 men soon arrived, leaving the Austrians at a disadvantage both in terms of infrastructure – with the Ottomans possessing the city walls – and in terms of manpower.

However, strong mortar attacks from the Austrians, combined with a brave offensive from the Austrian relief cavalry led directly by Prince Eugene, enabled the Austrians to take Belgrade.

Treaty of Passarowitz

Although the Ottomans had largely been winning the war against Europe before the Battle of Belgrade, with key victories in much of Ottoman controlled Greece repelling Venetian and Austrian advances, Belgrade dealt a significant blow to Ottoman hopes of victory. This was compounded by the fact that Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, who were now key trading partners for the Ottomans, were keen to see a peace to alleviate the Venetian blockade of their goods.

As a result, the Ottomans were forced to sign the Treaty of Passarowitz, which contained damaging terms, including the cessation of much of Serbia to Austrian Habsburg control. This marked a significant departure in Ottoman policy.


For much of their ascendancy, they could leverage their trading relationships to sue for favorable peace. Now that the Ottoman economy had been ruined by state pay increases, with the state lying in deficit since 1592, the power balance had been reversed.

Religious interference

Ottoman power was further undermined by restrictions placed on attempts to modernize their army.

In 1734, the Sultan established an artillery school in Istanbul to teach his troops about advancements in tactics and strategy made during the European Military Revolution. It appeared for a moment that the Ottomans were finally done playing catch up. However, it wasn’t to be.


In reaction, the Ulema religious class called the school “offensive to the will of Allah”. They believed that meddling with artillery was against the religious mission of the Ottomans and ordered the closing of the school.


This was not the first time that the religious class undermined the scientific and military efforts of the Ottoman. Over a century earlier, in 1577, the Sultan’s chief astronomer Taqi Ad-Din requested permission to build a grand observatory in Constantinople to study planetary and weather patterns.

However, the Ulema later objected to the observatory and destroyed it in 1580. In part due to their poor understanding of climatological science, the Ottomans were hit by fog and poor weather during many of their campaigns, including at Belgrade.

Serbian Revolt

Although the Austrian occupation of Serbia after the Treaty of Passarowitz only lasted for three years, it planted significant seeds in the country through the opening of the country intellectually, with rationalism, romanticism, and enlightenment philosophy being introduced in Belgrade. In addition, many Serbians served in the Austrian army during this era, learning new military tactics.


This was all compounded when Napoleonic gains in the Balkans fueled fires of wanting independence from the Turks, leading to the Serbian Revolution. The revolution climaxed in 1809 when Karadorde made a proclamation in Belgrade. The document called on Serbians to stop paying tax to Istanbul as well as establishing the concept of a Pan-Slavic racial group and tying it to the claimed right to self-determination.

Intense fighting ensued. By 1815, the Ottomans had lost Serbia, and the empire was clearly in decline.

Greek independence

Another part of the Ottoman Empire that was endangered was its Greek possessions. After seeing the success of the Serbian revolution and emboldened by the support of the British and the Russian Tsar, the Greek people attempted to capitalize on Ottoman weakness to gain their own nation state.


In 1821, three young Greeks founded the Filiki Eteria, a society designed to secure Greek independence. Through lobbying, they quickly got the support of wealthy American and British donors, including Lord Byron.

Although they had initially intended to spend time planning, their discovery by Ottoman authorities forced them to bring forward their plans. As a result, in March 1821, they attempted to declare independence, and the Ottomans hung the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church in response. A revolution had begun.


Aided by a Russian invasion of the Ottoman Empire and the ability of a quickly assembled Greek navy to stop the Ottomans from reinforcing from the sea, the Greeks were able to secure their independence in the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople.

Emirate of Diriyah

During the 19th century, many of the Ottoman European possessions were endangered. However, it wasn’t just the European possessions that were endangered. In 1803, the Emirate of Diriyah in Saudi Arabia successfully captured the Hejaz, Islam’s holy land, from the Ottomans. This posed a significant challenge to the authority of the Sultan, who had previously claimed his credibility from his status as the defender of the Islamic holy land.


Unfortunately for the Emirate, keeping Mecca and Medina was a bridge too far. Between 1811 and 1818, the Ottomans engaged in the Wahhabi War against the Saudis, which eventually led to the near eradication of the Emirate and the execution of the Emirate’s leader, Abdullah bin Saud in 1818. Although the Ottomans were undeniably in decline in Europe, their control of the Middle East remained strong.

Egyptian-Ottoman War

Since its conquest by Selim I in the 1510s, Egypt had become a key part of the Ottoman Empire. However, the invasion of Napoleon towards the end of the 18th century threw it into chaos. Although the Ottomans quickly regained control over the territory, the additional powers that needed to be given to the Ottoman Governor served to be problematic.


In 1831, Muhammad Ali Pasha, the governor at the time, demanded that he be given personal control of Syria and Egypt. When the Sultan refused his request, he raised an army and marched it toward Constantinople, threatening the Sultan himself. However, he was stopped from doing so by the threats of other European powers who sought to preserve stability on the continent.

In 1839, he attempted to do so again. Both the Europeans and the Ottomans recognized the need to appease him and granted him hereditary control over Egypt. The Ottoman Empire’s most important colony was lost.

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