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(MUSLIMS in the MIDDLE EAST, 1700 to 1837 – continued)

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MUSLIMS in the MIDDLE EAST, 1700 to 1837 (3 of 3)

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The Ottoman Empire: Reforms and War against Europeans, 1800-37

In the early 1820s, Mahmud II, Ottoman sultan since 1808, was fighting the rebellion of his Greek subjects. In Iran, Fath Ali Shah tried to take advantage of the rebellion. He and Mahmud were bitter rivals – a Sunni Muslim sultan against a Shia Muslim shah – both of them called Zillullah (shadow of God). The Battle of Erzurum followed, in 1821, in what today is eastern Turkey. The Ottomans had 50,000 soldiers and Iran had 30,000, but the Iranians are reported as having undergone modernizations drawn from Europe. Iranians won the battle, but they gained nothing from the war. In 1823 Fath Ali Shah was obliged to withdraw from the war, signing a treaty with the Ottoman sultan that involved no changes of territory.

In 1824, to help fight against the Greek rebellion, Mahmud sought help from his governor in Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, supposedly his subordinate but superior to him militarily. The governor sent his son Ibrahim as the head of a force, and in 1826 the Egyptians overran Athens. Mahmud felt disgraced that Muhammad Ali Pasha's military was better than his, and he was planning to strengthen his military. This required crushing an old institution in Ottoman Turkey: the Jannisaries. As described in a previous chapter, this was an institution of fighting men originally consisting of children taken from Christian slaves, selected for their potential as warriors, given military training and brought up as Muslims. Originally the Janissaries had been devoted to asceticism, celibacy and to other behavior that matched Islamic values. They had been proud warriors, an effective fighting force with esprit de corps and eager for glory. They had become a power in Turkey, with feudal powers, not unlike the Samurai of Japan had been. And like the palace guard in Ancient Rome, or Eunuchs in China, they had been the makers and breakers of kings. Also, they had become indolent, corrupt and opposed to reform.

Mahmud feared the Janissaries and surrounded himself with a military force with western artillery. Mahmud ordered the Janissaries to adopt the European form of military drill. The Janissaries refused. In late May, 1826, Sultan Mahmud moved to expand his military force, and in June the Janissaries revolted, inspired by provocateurs loyal to Mahmud. Those Janissaries who rushed Mahmud's palace were gunned down with grapeshot from Mahmud's artillery. Mahmud's force bombarded the barracks of the Janissaries and hunted down and killed Janissaries wherever they could find them. The event was called Vak'ayi-Hayriye (The Auspicious Incident). And a curse was pronounced on the name Janissaries.

Mahmud's Defeat and Reforms

British trade with Turkey had increased over past decades, as it had with Iran. The British were concerned about stability and Russian advances southward against Turkey. Russia's new tsar in 1826, Nicholas, was also interested in stability in Turkey and interested in cooperating with Mahmud. He was an Orthodox Christian as were the Greeks, but his support for his brother Christians was ambivalent. He viewed Ottoman rule over the Greeks as legitimate and the Greek revolt as a violation of the conservative order that he wanted to preserve in Europe as well as in Turkey. Mahmud, on the other hand, was hostile and afraid of the Russians and closed the strait of Bosporus (alongside Constantinople) to Russian ships.

Nicholas didn't accept this closure. In October 1827 the British and French joined with the Russians in a combined navy that attacked the Egyptian fleet at Navarino Bay, and they destroyed most of it – more than a month after the Egyptians landed troops there. Mahmud exhorted Muslims everywhere to a jihad against Russia, calling it "a struggle for the faith and for our national existence" and for everyone, rich and poor, "a sacred duty." In April, 1828, Russia declared war against Mahmud. That year the French landed a force of about 14,000 on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, and the Egyptians evacuated the peninsula.

In 1829, the Russians were at Adrianople (Edirne), the going rougher for the Russian force than Nicholas had imagined. Nicholas was made unenthusiastic for more war. He was uninterested in conquest of Constantinople and the straits. Britain, France and other European powers gathered and pressured Mahmud to sue for peace, the result being the Treaty of Adrianople, signed in September. In that treaty, Mahmud promised independence for a portion of Greece; granted autonomy to Serbia; gave Russia permission to occupy Moldavia and Walachia (Wallachia) until a large indemnity was paid; opened the straits to the merchant ships of all nations; and gave to Russia a piece of land at the mouth of the Danube River, on the Black Sea.

Defeated militarily, Mahmud continued reforms for the sake of military power, until his death in 1839. His military needed officers with some education, and so he initiated reforms in education and sent some young men for schooling in Europe. For the sake of those wounded in battle his education program included the creation of medical doctors. His reforms included an effort to reduce the power of feudalistic landholders and semi-autonomous governors. He succeeded in Mesopotamia, but he was less than successful in Egypt.

Mahmud was followed by his son, Abdülmecid I, who had been educated in France. He complied with his father's instructions and with the help of bureaucrats also educated in the West, in November 1839 he declared that the sultanate guaranteed the life, property and honor of its subjects and the equality of all in the law regardless of religious affiliation. He announced the end of taxes collected for the government by profiteering third parties (tax farming) and its replacement by a more rational and less corruption-inspired system.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.