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OTTOMAN EMPIRE: ECONOMIC and MILITARY DECLINE to 1700 (3 of 4)

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Taxes and a Discouraged Middle Class

War and military expansion had been a primary source of wealth for Islamic society, and when that stopped in the 1500s rulers demanded more in taxes and seized the properties of merchants and entrepreneurs. As a consequence, less wealth was invested in the economy. Some manufacturing continued, such as cotton weaving and the production of raw silk, but in the Ottoman Empire money to invest in the growth of manufacturing was diminished.

The sultan's government had been selling the job of tax collecting, and the buyer of this position collected enough in taxes to satisfy the income wants of the authorities and himself. The tax collector decided how much to tax. The poor who scratched a living from the soil had little to tax, but anyone who could afford to invest in a new enterprise became an obvious target for tax collection and bribery by officials.

The government also raised money by the sale offices to the highest bidder, in part so the sultan and an elite could continue to live in the luxury to which they were accustomed. Rather than people being selected for administrative offices based on merit – training, competence and talent – government offices were going to people who had money. And promotion by merit had been replaced by nepotism and favoritism. Corruption had spread to the provinces where an official would buy his office and then squeeze more taxes from the populace to reimburse himself. And corruption reached judicial officials, whose decisions were at times for sale. In the 1600s the Ottoman historian, Haji Khalifa (1608-1657), saw Ottoman society resting on four pillars: the mullahs (Islamic clerics), the army, the merchants and the farmers, and he saw Ottoman society as sick because of corruption, high taxation and oppression of the masses. There were rebellions by the oppressed, but the rebellions were always crushed.

The economy of the Ottoman Empire was hurt also by an unfavorable balance of trade. Wealthy Muslims were purchasing goods from Christendom, but little was being exported and the supply of gold was diminishing. As manufactured goods flowed into the Ottoman Empire, local handicraft industries suffered. Manufacturing remained largely a peasant operation – home industry. Foot-operated treadle reels, hand-operated looms and silk-twisting machines. And, for the Ottoman Empire, economic weakness produced military weakness.

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