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The Sick Man of Europe: Fall of Ottoman Empire

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  • Category: History

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Introduction: A brief history of Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire was one of the longest existing Islamic empire and a considerable political and military mid-eastern power at its peak (Sicker, 2001). The empire was founded at site of present day Turkey in late 13th century by a Muslim prince Osman, taking over the reign from Seljuk Turks.

A long series of ensuing military campaigns, extending in the next century, consolidated the Ottoman Empire at cost of Byzantine Empire and Austria-Hungary (Turnbull, 2003). Capitalizing upon institutional weaknesses among its adversaries and its own superior military forces, the armies of Ottoman Empire swept through most of Europe and Asia, controlling territories that included most of Balkan states, Persia and parts of Hungry (Turnbull, 2003).

At its peak in 16th century, the borders of Empire extended to Russia in North, Africa in South, Poland in West and Persia in East. However, this vast stretch of land and people was maintained more by military methods than sound administrative mechanism.

Slowly the vast empire started to crumble as corruption and inefficiency on part of its ruling elite made it vulnerable against a militarily much more powerful Europe and especially Russia (Kent, 1996). The empire was jolted by strings of defeat against Spain and France and was completely dismantled by the Russo-Turkish wars of 18th century and it lost its provinces of Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Persia.

It was at this time when Turkey was labeled as ‘Sick Man of Europe’, owing to its persistent administrative and economic failures (Kent, 1996).  Reduced in size, and even further reduced in influence the Empire saw attempted economic and civic reforms in 19th century, but they came too late to save the empire (Turnbull, 2003). The younger Turkish rebels started to press vigorously for large scale social, economic and military reforms, intensifying their movement through 1908-1918 (Kent, 1996). Turkish participation in the First World War from the side of Axis powers and its subsequent defeat in 1918 finally ended almost 600 years old Ottoman Empire.

Tanzimat and its effect

Tanzimat refers to the series of attempted economical, civic, bureaucratic, judicial reforms  taken up by Ottoman Turks with the aim of modernizing the Turkish empire on western parameters and more importantly securing the rapidly declining economic condition of the Empire (Karpat, 2000). Post 16th century AD, the Turkish empire had entered in a phase of general and almost constant decline. Overburdened with multitudes of ethnic and religious groups in the empire, and demands of justly meeting everyone’s interest had become fundamental problems for the state in the 19th century.

However, the issue that compounded problems for Ottoman’s Turks was loss of vast territories of empire following its defeat against Spain, France and Russia, creating an economic crisis in the empire. The revenues, taxes and fees coming from these areas, that included Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania, had completely ceased after their loss, creating a functional crisis for existence of the state (Öztürkmen, 1992).

The empire was also besotted with medieval and outdated forms of bureaucracy, civic rules, governance system and administrative forms that were no match to contemporary European standards.  Therefore, the government introduced a series of reforms, called Tanzimat-i Hayriye (Auspicious Reorganization), in 1836 with aims of providing a new foundation for re-organizing the empire on modern parameters and Insure Turkey’s advancement in synchronization with rest of modern world (Karpat, 2000).

Although the Tanzimat reforms drive lasted only for 37 years, ending in the year 1876, it produced deep and lasting impact on Turkish society and government. On the social front, the reforms instilled awareness and appreciation about modern values of equality, justice and democracy in Turkish Society. The existing Turkish social system, based exclusively on Shariyat and Islamic dictates underwent substantial reforms and changed, with replacement of the ineffective tax structure by a more centralized revenue service and creating statutory tax collection bodies (Karpat, 2000). A number of edicts passed under Tanzimat reforms sought to restore people’s confidence in government’s impartiality and sense by equality.

Together these edicts helped in creating a uniform commercial structure and framework for civil liberties and criminal procedures (Karpat, 2000). Further, Tanzimat placed considerable powers in hands of central government and structurally defined the duties and responsibilities of local government, government departments, ministries and administrative system (Öztürkmen, 1992). The reforms did not limit themselves to just administrative and judicial systems, and extended well into cultural system of Ottoman Empire with establishment of elite educational institution and emphasis on imparting bureaucratic and military skills to students from elite social level (Karpat, 2000).

The most important contribution of Tanzimat reforms for Ottoman Empire was forging a spirit of nationality and emphasizing the need of a national identity to solve the conflicting ethnic equations and encompass disparities of language, culture and religion in Ottoman Empire. Although Tanzimat was unable to solve all the woes of Turkey, its failure was mainly due to profound internal decay of Turkey (Öztürkmen, 1992). On hindsight Tanzimat reforms were instrumental in creating conditions for emergence of modern Turkey.

Modern Turkey and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is widely considered the founder of Modern Turkey. As a political and military leader, he was responsible for creating a new structure of nation from the crumbling relics of Ottoman Empire (Sarinav. 2000). The merit in policies and vision of Kemal Ataturk were embedded in the fact that he created a secular and non religious concept of nation out of a strongly Islamic society (Brockett, 2006). Mustafa Kemal had gained major political standing in Turkey through the period of First World War. After the defeat of Turkey in the war he rallied the nationalists around him to secure Turkey from being disintegrated by victorious Allied forces (Brockett, 2006).

Once he accomplished the task of saving the nucleus of Turkey at the cost of Ottoman Empire he launched sweeping reforms in 1923, by rejecting the orthodox and obsolete  Islamic traditions and laws that had caused decay of Ottoman Empire (Sarinav. 2000). He marshaled the material and civilian resources of Turkey and started the Turkish revolution towards modernization in 1923. The success of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in creating a democratic, secular and liberal state from core of a fundamentalist empire is considered distinct in the annals of 20th century (Sarinav. 2000).

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk guided Turkey’s political and economic reforms ahead in times of massive turbulence and change, insuring that Turkey keeps it pace with a highly advanced and modern West (Brockett, 2006). As part of reforms, Ataturk instilled modern educational system that encouraged nationalism and progressive ideas, creating a Turkish intellectual movement. The new system encouraged incorporation of technological knowledge, democratic ideals, and cultural liberalism that created the environment of progressive westernization in Turkey.

Ataturk, with his clear cut of goal of sustaining the modernization and development process, was determined on making Turkey the prototype of a modern western civilization (Brockett, 2006). Ataturk understood the enormous importance of scientific education in the process of modernization and therefore encouraged a thoroughly scientific attitude in Turkish society (Sarinav. 2000). Owing to his vision and efforts, Turkey accomplished a relatively smooth transition to a modern republic from a medieval Islamic empire in a period of less than 20 years.


Martin Sicker. 2001. The Islamic World in Decline: From the Treaty of Karlowitz to the Disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Praeger

Stephen Turnbull, , 2003. The Ottoman Empire, 1326-1699 . Routledge.

Marian Kent. 1996. The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire   Frank Cass.

Kemal H. Karpat . 2000. Ottoman Past and Today’s Turkey; Brill

Arzu Öztürkmen . 1992. Individuals and Institutions in the Early History of Turkish Folklore, 1840-1950. Journal article by; Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 29, 1992. 16 pgs.

Yusuf Sarinav. 2000. Ataturk and Modernization. Academie Des Science De Bulgarie. Institu d’E’tudes Balkaiques.

Gavin D. Brockett. 2006. Revisiting the Turkish Revolution. 1923-38. Secular Reforms and Religious Reaction. History Compass.

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