What we can learn from the decline of the Ottoman Empire

A watercolour by Count Amedeo Preziosi: past splendours exert a powerful hold

The question of why the Ottoman Empire declined is perhaps not the most burning topic of the moment, but, when you consider that we live in a declining country ourselves, we might be able to learn a few things from the example of the Sick Man of Europe.

One of the most enlightening books on the subject, as well as being a thumping good read, is Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream. She points out towards the end of the book that Mustafa Kemal Atatȕrk, the founder of modern Turkey (there is an excellent and readable biography by Lord Kinross, was just that – the founder of a completely new nation, or one that tried to be completely new – rather than the reformer of an old one. Ataturk effectively buried the Ottoman Empire, a multinational empire that embraced many peoples, and replaced it with a single ethnic state.

However, before Kemal and Kemalism there were numerous attempts to try and bring the Empire into the modern age, the most significant of which was the Tanzimat (“Reorganisation”) movement inaugurated by Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) which insisted on European dress and European-style laws – many of the things that Kemal himself was later to drive through. But Mahmud II and his successor Abdulmecit I (1839-1861) failed to save the Empire, and never did for Turkey what Frederick the Great did for Prussia.

Why not? As in China, the forces of conservatism were too great. Mahmud II did manage to get rid of the Janissaries and institute a modern army, but that particular reform proved to be traumatic. The Janissaries, once the most feared soldiers in the world, had to be forcibly dissolved, and thousands were killed in the process. This event was cheerfully dubbed “The Auspicious Incident” but it involved the Sultan’s artillery shelling the barracks of his own troops in Istanbul, and widespread revolts in the provinces. If that one particular reform was so hard, imagine what every other reform must have been like. Adopting European dress was easy enough; changing hearts and minds almost impossible.

And most Ottoman Turks would have resisted change sure in the knowledge that they were defending one of the most successful polities in the history of the world. To defend the heritage of Suleiman the Magnificent against some moderniser must have seemed a battle worth fighting. Think of the images of Ottoman life that have delighted us all so long, such as the pictures of Count Amedeo Preziosi. To destroy so much beauty would have been heart-breaking. No one likes to turn their back on history. If Kemal did, he did so in the wake of the catastrophic defeat in the First World War. It was that that destroyed Osman’s dream. Until then Osman’s dream had been believable and worth dying for.

No one likes change, and on the whole rightly so, as there is never a guarantee that change is going to work, is there? “The Auspicious Incident” probably hastened the decline of the Empire. Even now attempts at change, such as those once proposed by this man or even this man cannot be guaranteed to work. Past splendours exert their powerful hold over us all.