Decline of the Ottoman Empire


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Decline of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman-Turkish Empire was one of the very powerful empires in the 16th and 17th centuries, dominating large parts of the world, including the Arab Middle East, Balkans, Caucasus, Anatolia, and North Africa. The continued economic, military, and political weakness of the Empire was apparent for European great powers to fill. Although the Ottoman Elite engaged in political and economic reforms to transform the moribund Empire, the increasing European strengths and growing nationalism made the Empire fail to retain its political and economic legitimacy over the provinces.

The growing power of the European competitors led to rapid dismemberment and the division of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. After the disastrous defeats of 1774 and 1792 against Russia and more than half a century without major wars, the Empire realized its military inferiority. While efforts to modernize the army proved effective, inadequate resources and work force made it difficult to defeat the European great powers. Having been, of course, an agricultural state, the Ottoman Empire’s loss of land to Russia, Great Britain, and France meant a loss of income and population―which in turn reduced the Empire’s capacity to defend itself. Furthermore, the huge amount of exemptions in military conscription also contributed to the military weakness of the Ottoman army. Ucuzsatar (2002) stated that, while non-Muslims made up close to forty percent of the Empire’s residents, they were not exempted from serving in the army. Combined with the lack of an industrial base, the Empire could not produce military machinery to counter the growing invasion by the European great powers.

The diplomacy of the Eastern Question shaped the relations between the Europe’s great powers. After Russia defeated Turkey in 1774 and the signing of the treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, none of the other great powers was willing to permit Russia to dominate the enormous Ottoman holdings. Therefore, the rivalry for Balkan influence between Russia, Britain, France, Austria, Germany, and Italy made it difficult to reconcile the interest of all the great powers in the Balkans. The failure of the great power diplomacy due to communication challenges, lack of diplomatic structures, personality differences, and class prejudice made it difficult for the Ottoman Empire to control the already worsening situation. This gave room for the spread of popular nationalism across the Empire (Ucuzsatar, 2002).

The spread of the European notion of political nationalism developed by the non-Muslim communities of the Empire further contributed to its decline. The growing influence of nationalist ideologies among the Christian communities coincided with the rise of European patronage in the Empire. The move to grant full citizenship to Christians of the Ottoman nationality or the European protector from the 1830s-60s enabled enhanced opportunities for the Christian middle class in the form of increased wealth, self-confidence, and growth of dense networks of institutions such as churches and schools to name a few (Zurcher, n.d.).

The 1908 constitutional revolution of the Young Turks helped to strengthen the state. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, the Young Turks had realized the need to introduce universal military conscription, which included Christians for the first time. Therefore, the growing sense of nationalism among Muslims and non-Muslim communities and the increasing external pressure helped to nurture the need for independence, for solving the ethnic issues and identity politics, which further weakened the Ottoman state.


Ucuzsatar, N., (2002). The Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of modern

Turkey under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Journal of Istanbul Kultur

University, 2:55-68.

Zurcher, E. (N.d.). The Ottoman Empire: 1850-1922-unavoidable failure? Retrieved on

12/02/2014 from