‘The Treacherous Cleverness of Hindsight’: Myths of Ottoman Decay

  • Caroline Finkel


‘Anyone who wants an outline grasp of history, the core of all subjects, can grasp it here.’ Thus wrote The Economist in 1993 of a short history of the world by an eminent Oxford historian. The index of the volume in question promises comprehensive coverage: all time from before Homo erectus to the fall of the USSR, and all geographic space including, literally, space. It comes as something of a disappointment, then, to find that when it comes to the Ottoman Empire—a state, a civilisation indeed, that occupied extensive territory on three continents for more than six centuries—the history is not only short, but also very short, brutish, and displaying worryingly little grasp of the subject in hand. I quote:

The explanation of Ottoman decline lies partly in internal weakness. For all its huge extent on the map, Ottoman power varied very much from place to place …

There was no centralized administration worth the name; the Ottoman empire was in most places a matter of arrangements between the ‘pasha’… and local bigwigs about the way in which taxes could be raised. This gave the pashas much power and some of them came to resemble dynastic princes as time went by …

The Ottoman ‘state’ had been put together more or less haphazardly in order to fight the infidels. Such organisation as it had was basically military; it was meant to provide recruits and taxes to pay soldiers and did this by arrangements not unlike the ‘feudal’ tenures of western Europe. This structure had already become corrupt by the seventeenth century … The sultan himself was the centre of intrigue; favourites, the women of the harem, generals and religious leaders all sought to influence him … The most professional regiments which the Turks possessed were the Janissaries, but they were sadly decayed by 1700 …

Finally, throughout the Muslim community at large, real power was exercised by the religious leaders…

Of modernization there was little. Almost all that was successfully achieved was the conversion of the navy in the 1690s from the old oared galleyships to sailing ships of the European kind … (one sign of Ottoman decline at this period is the increasing employment of Europeans in the navy and army).2


Indian Ocean Seventeenth Century Muslim World Rock Crystal Muslim Ruler 
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© Caroline Finkel 2005

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  • Caroline Finkel

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