by Ben Macready
The Age of Revolutions was a truly global phenomenon and not merely confined to Western Europe and the Americas. Ali Yaycioglu writes that during the late eighteenth and early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire underwent several ‘institutional shakeups’ and ‘political crisis’ as it transitioned through a series of ‘structural changes that mirrored developments around the world’. (1) Change in the Ottoman Empire was brought about both from above and below. Sultan Mahmud II, the Empire’s 30th ruler, was a major advocate of reform. Mahmud reigned from 1808-1839, at the time of his ascension to the throne, the Ottoman Empire had fallen into a period of decline. It is widely accepted, amongst historians, that after Suleiman the Magnificent’s siege of Vienna was rebuffed in 1683, the Ottoman Empire fell into a slump. This stagnation which beset the Ottoman Empire prior to Mahmud’s reign was due, in part, to the fact that reform was perceived negatively, by many members of the Ottoman court. Many Ottoman Nobles still saw their empire as the world’s greatest and thus felt no need to modify or change anything. Any attempts to make changes inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, were seen as blasphemous and heretical. Katalin Siska notes well the puzzle facing the Ottomans during this time, when she writes that the Sultans needed to adopt secular ideals in order to ‘modernise the empire’ yet also had to ‘retain’ the unique ‘Islamic identity’ characteristic of the Ottoman Empire. (2) Mahmud’s difficulty here, parallels Catherine the Great’s struggle to ‘Westernise’ whilst wishing to remain true to Russian cultural traditions. This demonstrate the, near universal, conflict between the desire to preserve tradition and identity and the drive to modernise, which was faced by many states during the Age of Revolutions.
Mahmud was not the first 19th century Sultan who attempted to majorly overhaul the empire. He was, however, the first to do so successfully. The well-meaning, but ultimately over ambitious Selim III was deposed and assassinated largely due to attempting to reform too quickly and failing to placate critics of the process. The Jannisaries revolted and removed him from his throne in 1807. Mustafa IV, who followed Selim, remained in power for only a single year in 1808. During this time, Mustafa had little space to demonstrate whether he was reformist or conservative in character, due to his power being curtailed by anarchy and revolts sweeping the empire. Mahmud II replaced Mustafa and managed to provide the strong leadership necessary to bring the empire back from the brink of chaos, whilst also placating critics of reform. Mahmud II’s greatest achievement, in the words of Malcom Yapp, ‘was to establish the respectability of change’. (3) He demonstrated, where prior Sultans like Selim had tried and failed, that change was both a positive and necessary force and that the empire was in need of reform. The closing years of Mahmud’s rule saw the beginning of what historians refer to as the ‘Tanzimat’, meaning the reordering, of the Ottoman empire. It was due to Mahmud’s efforts, to demonstrate the necessity of change, that later Sultans were able to continue the Tanzimat. Though reordering the empire was ultimately unable to save it from collapse in the 20th century.
The dissolution of the Janissary Corps was, arguably, Mahmud’s most Revolutionary act as Sultan, yet it was also one of the most difficult challenges of his reign. Mahmud released an ordinance in May 1826 expressing his desire to bring an end to the Janissary Corps, this employed both archaic and progressive language in an unusual mix. Mahmud stated that the Janissaries needed to be replaced by a new army directed by reason and ‘by science’, he ordered the construction of several new military and medical schools to demonstrate his commitment to this claim. Yet in the same ordinance, Mahmud also stated that the intention of this new army was to ‘destroy the arsenal of military inventions of infidel Europe’ traditional language likely employed to placate conservative critics within his court. (4) Mahmud’s decision to dissolve the Janissaries was radical as their existence was a deeply entrenched military tradition, dating back the fourteenth century. The Janissaries were intended to be an elite unit of soldiers, and they had once been the finest paragons of the Ottoman military. By the 19th century, however, Malcom Yapp argues that they were little more than ‘town bullies’ who abused the position of privilege their rank provided them to cause trouble. (5) They were exempt from taxation and posed a danger to the Ottoman state, due to the disproportionate degree of power they possessed. They had been involved in the deposition of Selim III, who had attempted to reign their over encompassing influence in. In Mahmud’s view, the destruction of the Janissaries was necessary to restore stability to the Ottoman throne.
In an event which would later come to be known as ‘the auspicious incident’ on the 15th June 1826, Mahmud brought his ordinance into effect and disbanded the Janissaries. The Janissaries violently resisted Mahmud’s decree and took to the streets of Constantinople to revolt. After a day of violence, between state forces and the Janissaries, which left several thousand dead, order was ultimately restored and the age-old military corps was broken apart. The process of government could now continue without the interference of privileged factions.
Separatism became a major issue plaguing the Ottoman Empire during Mahmud’s reign and the reign of each Sultan afterwards. With the advent of the French Revolution, nationalism and national identity became key themes in world politics. People began to identify as belonging to certain national communities, and these communities began to desire self-government. This notion was anathema to Multi-national land-based states such as the Ottoman, Russian and Austrian empires, which were composed of peoples of a multitude of different nationalities and ethnicities. Within Mahmud’s reign, Greece declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire and fought a bloody war throughout the 1820’s to remain autonomous. The Greeks were not alone in attempting to attain freedom from the empire during Mahmud’s time as Sultan. Bosnians, Wallachians and Serbs also fought, with varying degrees of success, for their freedom. Interestingly may of these revolts were motivated both by nationalism, and by opposition to Mahmud’s attempts to centralise his realm. Centralisation brought about greater taxation and decreased authority for local governmental institutions, which raised anger and stocked nationalistic fervour. Mahmud’s reforms were thus disliked by both conservatives, who saw them as too radical, and revolutionaries, who were resentful of the encroaching hand of central government. The issue of Nationalism was never truly solved within the Ottoman context. Mahmud was never truly able to grapple with the issue, so focused was he upon increasing central authority. Later Sultans created a notion of ‘Ottomanism’ an all-encompassing form of identity, which attempted to give all the Empire’s subjects a sense of common nationhood. This concept never truly took off, due to its contradictory nature and the fact that attempts to define an ‘Ottoman’ identity proved elusive, due to the vast diversity of the peoples living within the empire.
Mahmud II can thus be seen as a Revolutionary Figure, due to his willingness to break with tradition and carve his own path in deciding the Ottoman Empire’s future. The single event which demonstrates this aspect of his character most strongly, is his dissolution of the Jannisary corps. The Destruction of an institution which had existed for almost five centuries, show Mahmud’s willingness to break with the past and demonstrates Yapp’s view that the event was a ‘true revolution from above, the counterpart of such episodes as the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace.’(6) For all of Mahmud’s accomplishments, however, his failure, and the failure of his successors, to deal concisely with nationalism and separatism, demonstrates the primary issue facing the Ottoman Empire during its declining years. Namely that it was an archaic institution unable to cope with an evolving world of civil rights and liberties. Efraim Karsh argues that attempting to reform the Ottoman Empire during this period was a ‘Catch-22 situation’, ‘The preservation of the tottering empire required tighter central control; the prevention of the religious, social and economic cauldron from boiling over necessitated greater local freedoms.’ (7) By Karsh’s logic then, the reforms Mahmud and his successors brought about, rather than preserving the life of their empire, may have in fact accelerated its end. Mahmud’s reforms demonstrate the failure of imperial control to accommodate the needs of the people of the Near East.
- Ali Yaycioglu, Partners of the Empire: The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions, (2016) p. pp.1-2
- Katalin Siska, Thoughts on the Special Relationship between Nationalism and Islam in Particular the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republican Era, Journal on European History of Law: Volume Eight, Issue 1, (2017) p.122
- Malcom Yapp, The Makings of the Modern Near East 1792-1923, (1987) p.107
- Ibid, p.104
- Ibid, p.103
- Ibid, p.104
- Efraim Karsh, The Last Great Islamic Empire, (2006)p.93
Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire 1700-1922
Eugene Rogan, Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire
Malcom Yapp, The Makings of the Modern Near East 1792-1923