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The 17th and 18th centuries have traditionally been regarded as the eras of decline in the Ottoman Empire. During this period the Ottomans underwent major changes with traditional historians pushing the rhetoric of decline, while modern historians regarding it as a “transformation” or “reform era”.
For previous centuries and until the early 1920’s, the Ottoman Empire was one of dynastic rule. The Sultan was not only the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, but also the figurehead and center of the empire. Ottoman Sultans succeeded to the throne through fratricide. Sultans did not have wives or got married, but rather fathered children with their concubines from the palace’s harem. This method led to an abundant amount of heirs, but caused numerous civil wars. Since there could be only one sultan, heirs battled each other till the death. Brothers killed brothers in order to gain the sultanate. Ahmed I seeking to find a solution to the problem, implemented a new succession method. Sultan’s sons were no longer governors within the empire until their father died, but now resided in the palace and often not allowed to leave the palace. Although Ahmed I viewed his new policy favorable, the effects of his policy generated more bad than good. Unlike predecessors before, sultans after Ahmed’s reign were inexperience in governing and military tactics. With this new incompetence, the empire went through long stretches of instability leading to the rise of incompetence in the central Ottoman government. “ For a century thereafter, sultans were unfitted, unwilling or unable to take full responsibility for their theoretically awesome powers ” . Local governments gained more power, losing less respect and loyalty for the Sultan.
As stated before in the previous paragraphs during the start of the 17th century, the Empire began to suffer economically.The Ottoman Empire was no longer the gateway to Asia. With the change in trade routes, the Ottoman Empire took a major blow, losing their main source of income. European conquests to the Americas, brought substantial amounts of gold which weaken the value of silver. With the price of silver greatly less, the Ottomans faced a steep rise in inflation. Prices for goods more than tripled, while the value of the coin sank. Ottoman exports became way cheaper for European traders, and were brought in large quantities. Turkish artisans were unable to provide quality goods and cheap prices in comparison to European manufactured goods. While European nations like England were advancing technologically with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, the Turks remain primitive. “ In 1598, the Janissaries revolted when they found out that they were to be paid in new debased currency” . Even though this event took place during the late parts of the 16th century, it would continue again through the 17th and 18th centuries. Those depending on salaries such as the Janissaries were underpaid, resulting in over taxation and corruption.
With local principalities gaining more power, the central government was receiving less tax revenue which meant a weaker empire, especially in terms of military. The Ottoman Empire had been known for their military superiority especially in their conquest against Byzantine Empire, but with the discovery of the New World , huge of amounts wealth flooded Europe. European nations such as England and France advanced rapidly in the fields of science, arts and military weapons. Due to the lack of strong military savvy Sultans, the Ottomans were defeated in crucial battles on a consistent pace. First was their defeat in Ottoman-Habsburg wars in the late 1600’s that ended the Ottoman dominance in central and south Eastern Europe. “The three wars against Russia deprived the Ottomans of the northern Black Sea, and its price paid for the neglect became clear in defeats in the ensuing wars” .Then followed the Ottoman-Russian wars which resulted with the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774. With this treaty the Ottomans loss their monopoly over the Black Sea.
The view that the Ottoman empire was in decline during the 17th and 18th centuries was heavily pushed and spread by traditional western historians or orientalists. To them the decline of the empire started when it stopped expanding. Due to their already strained financial circumstances Turkish conquests came to a halt. Accordingly, guarding their already captured lands became a hassle, and furthermore the empire had to deal with the rise of major European states. With their power, Europeans monopolize trade routes crucial to the Ottomans, but that still was not the end of their economic problems. The timar system which had been one of the many strong points for the empire for so long, had now become another source of problems. “the numbers of timars in the empire had declined, and that as a result , fewer fighting men were available for combat duty in the military.” In all, traditional historians believe the Empire could just not keep up. Europe was moving ahead rapidly with new technologies and political reforms while the Ottoman Empire could not make the jump to modern times.
As stated before for a while, the 17th and 18th centuries was generally regarded by historians as a period of decline for the Ottoman Empire. In recent years modern Historians have to come to disagree. To historians the 17th and 18th centuries were not a time of decline, but rather a “transformation” period for the empire. “ If a process of decline did in fact begin…its prolongation was primarily due to the fact the Ottomans analyzed it… and constantly applied themselves in developing policies of reform” . To them, the empire did not display a uniform pattern of decline, and as much as the empire seem to suffering it was at the same time adjusting and shifting to the changing times. Modern Ottoman historians counter themes traditional historians addressed as failures. For example, on the topic of little advancements on the empire’s agriculture system Roger Owen argues “ Peasants in the Middle East, as elsewhere, showed themselves remarkably adaptable when it came to the introduction of more profitable crops which could be grown with roughly the same tools and which did not require a large amount of working capital” . In addition, modern historians believe that growing needs of the military in the European warfront, did not actually weaken the Turks, but brought along a set of reforms and agendas meant to help the empire. “ The military and fiscal needs of state prompted a radical change in the relation of government and subjects and eventually brought about state-wide decentralization policy” .
To conclude, the 17th and 18th centuries were crucial time periods for Europe as a whole, especially for the Ottoman Empire. Although the Ottoman decline cannot be pinpointed to a specific date, it’s gradual decline in the 17th and 18th century is pretty evident. From their economical and social problems to their dwindling military superiority, the empire was declining in a steady pace. Modern historians might say the two centuries was a time reform and transformation for the Turks, but the reforms were useless and further emphasize their habitual problems.
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