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A Weakened Military and Diminished Empire

The Ottoman Turks had been watching the retreat of Islam to their north, Kazan, where the Russians were pushing against the Tatars. Into the 1600s the Ottomans still held territory just short of Vienna, and to maintain their strength they had been equipping their armies with European firearms. This required more money for waging war, paid for by farmers.

Militarily the Ottoman Empire was changing. The Janissaries had been the heart of the Ottoman army and the world's most effective military unit, but they had acquired more influence and had been rewarded with more privileges. They had been allowed to marry, causing them to shift their first loyalty from the military to their families. By the 1600s Janissaries had become involved in trade. The Janissaries in the Ottoman armies were being replaced by recruits drawn from the unemployed. And the old fief system, with the reward of land to the warriors on horseback, was being abandoned – a benefit militarily, a feudalistic military machine having become inappropriate for combat against European powers.

Watercolor of a Janissary

A Janissary, a watercolor by Haydar Hatemi, 2003

Nevertheless, the Ottomans did weaken militarily vis-à-vis the Europeans. Ottoman rulers believed that an army could be led adequately by an unschooled amateur. The Ottomans were not keeping up with the study of military changes, while faith in God continued to be held as of paramount military consequence. The muskets that the Ottomans had acquired from the West were not to be used in the most effective manner, as organized firepower laid down by a team. The muskets were to be used individually, with the same individual courage involved in fighting with a sword.

A part of the decline in military power was the weakness in political leadership. The education of sultans had declined. The able sultan Suleiman I (Sulayman) ruled from 1520 to 1566, and those after him tended to be men of little ability, training or experience. Some were mentally defective. They were reared and influenced by eunuchs and women with no education. The harem was the center of their life. Similar to the rest of the world, power passing to the eldest male of the royal family did not always put top leadership among the Ottomans with the most able.

The Ottomans managed to drive the Cossacks back from Azov in 1641. Then, rather than considering that the world had changed, they tried to resume the conquests of centuries before. The Ottomans decided to try another assault on Vienna. The assault was led by the Grand Vizier, an incompetent court favorite: Kara Mustafa.

Mehmed Iv

Mehmed IV

Suleiman the 2nd

Suleiman II

For two months, beginning in mid-July, 1683, Mustafa and his army surrounded Vienna. He bombarded the city. On September 2 his army penetrated the outer fortifications of the city. He knew of but ignored the approach of an army of 70,000 Habsburg and Polish troops coming to rescue Vienna. The Christian forces routed the Turks and pursued them, and by 1687 the Austrians had pushed the Ottomans out of Hungary and the city of Budapest.

The defeats upset people around the sultan, Mehmed IV, and in 1687 they deposed him, replacing him with his brother, Suleiman II, who had spent much of his forty-five years in the royal harem. Suleiman II appointed Mustafa's younger brother as military commander, but the military losses continued. In 1688 the Austrians drove the Ottomans out of Belgrade. In 1690, the Ottomans retook Belgrade, but in 1697 the Russians drove the Ottomans out of Azov, and that year the Ottomans were defeated at the battle of Zenta -- about one hundred miles southwest of Budapest. Under diplomatic pressure from the Dutch, the British and the Venetians, the war that had begun in 1683 was ended in 1699, the Ottomans feeling obliged to sign a treaty with Austria, Poland and Venice. This was the Treaty of Karlowitz, a dictated treaty with most European nations represented. The Ottomans gave up some European territory: Hungary and Transylvania were ceded to Austria; Podolia, occupied by the Ottomans in 1672, was returned to Poland; Morea (the Peloponnesian Peninsula), taken from Venice in 1460, was returned to Venice, as was most of Dalmatia. The Ottomans were expanding their control on the island of Crete, but the glorious days of Islamic conquest were over, never to be replicated.

Ottoman power had declined vis-à-vis Christendom not because its soldiers were not courageous. What had hurt the Ottomans was social organization and inept political leadership. The West had become more economically advanced, more economically productive, its navies and armies better fed and better equipped.


Worlds at War,: the 2,500-year struggle between East and West, Chapter 7, by Anthony Pagden, 2008

Roots of Revolution: an Interpretive History of Modern Iran by Nikki R Keddie, 1981

Middle East, Past and Present, by Yahya Armajani, 1970

The Ottoman Centuries: the Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, by Lord Kinross, 1977

Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, by Franz Babinger, 1978

Middle East, Past and Present, by Yahya Armajani, Prentice-Hall, 1970

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, by Noah Feldman, 2010 


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