Hashtag History: Starting the ‘Great Game’, Central Asia at the Dawn of Ottoman Decline

First off, let me apologise for my recent, unplanned, irregularity. It’s been a very busy summer for me thusly far as I kick off my ‘new life’ here in Seattle. I should hope it won’t be such a long pause in between blog posts again.

Maybe I was saving the whole damn city while I was away, why doesn't anyone ever think of that? Why do they always assume I'm doing research and work?

Maybe I was saving the whole damn city while I was away, why doesn’t anyone ever think of that? Why do they always assume I’m doing research and work?

Okay, that out of the way, let’s get back into history. And we’re going to pick up where we left off with one of my personal favourite empires, the Ottomans. When you’re a historian like me, who does a lot of comparative work between empires, you start to accumulate certain favourites. For example, I prefer the Ottomans over the French, the French over the Spanish, and the British over them all. The Mughals, the Marathas, the Fatimids, and the Safavids all fit in there too, someplace in between Britain and France. (Germany, Portugal, and Spain all sit at the very bottom of my list. At the absolute bottom? Belgium).

Good Lord, I need to get back on track, right then, the Ottomans. Okay, so, as a lover of the Ottomans, or perhaps admirer, we don’t want things to get too serious, you know, I don’t want to creep the Ottomans out, but as an admirer of all things Ottoman, there’s a great deal of sadness for me when the Ottomans go into collapse. It’s like that time my Granddad came back from hospital with an Oxygen Machine for the first time, and it was clear that ol’ Billy wasn’t what he used to be, in terms of health. You know something great is in decline, nearing its end, and it brings sadness to it, as you begin to recall the mortality of all things…

The 18th century, through to the Napoleonic War, had been an era of Ottoman stagnation. And much like the Second World War acting as a marker between one era of empires and the next, the Napoleonic War brought an end to the notion of dynastic empires reigning supreme in Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was out, nationalism was in, and the Ottomans began their swan song in the face of this rapid change post-Napoleon. Indeed, in one of my British entries, I discuss the rise of Greek nationalism in the 1820’s, and while we shall revisit that as we talk about Ottoman decay, as the Greeks were a sign of it, let’s also visit the lands right next to the Ottomans.

Namely, there’s one region in question here, for today’s entry. And this confusing term, ‘Central Asia’ that is strange because if you look at a proper map of Asia, ‘Central Asia’ is actually more or less the western border of Asia. I think ‘Central Eurasia’ would’ve been a better phrasing, because with a continent the size of Asia, I don’t think the part of Asia that touches Europe and Africa should be called ‘Central Asia’. Especially since the part of Asia that we call ‘South Asia’ (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) is closer to the mid-section of Asia than ‘Central Asia’ is. But, you know, we’re battling a couple centuries of Eurocentric history and geography as we move through our terms.

Central Asia? More like slightly off-centre Asia.

Central Asia? More like slightly off-centre Asia.

So that brings us back to the part of the world we’re talking about. Now, if you can recall my intro-post to the Ottomans from a couple, well, now, months, ago, the Ottomans were the continuation of a long line of ‘Muslim’ empires that occupied the Arabic peninsula, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. Here, I put the quote marks around ‘Muslim’ because while the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire used the Islamic Religion to justify their sovereignty, this makes them an ‘Islamic Empire’ in much the same way that Britain, France, et al are ‘Christian Empires’. Yes, the majority of the people within the metropole ascribe to the main religion, and yes, initially the monarchs of these realms used religion to justify their rule, but in reality, the state is the state, and will always be a symbol of secular humanity. The Ottomans no more represent the Islamic faith than the historically very secular French government represents Christianity. That is to say, don’t judge a religion by those who abuse it to claim power.

But it’s important nonetheless to identify the Ottomans as ‘Muslim’. Why? For the same reason we identify the British as ‘Christian’. You see, in many areas of the empire building process, the Ottomans and the British actually have a great deal in common. How so? Well, religion is one of these. Here’s where we shall play the comparative empires game once again. Let’s look at Spain, Portugal, or to a slightly lesser extent, France. The ‘Catholic Empires’ of Europe. When these empires began their growth in the 16th century, the Pope, under siege from separationists and reformers in present-day Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and Northern Europe in general, used the loyally Catholic Iberians (Portugal, Spain) and French to showcase Catholic might and strength to the poor, unsuspecting world. (The author used to be Catholic, and most of his family still is, so this isn’t ‘Hate on the Catholics’ rather, ‘hate on the Catholic power structure that drove the author straight into the arms of the Anglicans’).

The result? Well, the Spanish, Portuguese, and French Empires begin their empires with the zeal of the Evangelical, helping the ‘pagan savages’ they encountered educate themselves right into the Catholic church, and then enslaving/genociding those who didn’t embrace this overwhelmingly violent expression of Christianity. Much like ‘Vote or Die’, only with ‘Love Jesus, or die’.

'What part of Thou Shall Not Kill and Love They Neighbour as Thyself did you not get'? - Jesus

‘What part of Thou Shall Not Kill and Love They Neighbour as Thyself did you not get, also, why does everyone think I’m white’? – Jesus

Of course, in much of the Spanish Empire, and the French Empire this meant that ‘infrastructure’ meant ‘Church’. Instead of schools proper, like what the British built, you had missions. Instead of cross-culture clashes and understandings like what you had in the Dutch, British, or Ottoman Empires, you had a policy of cultural assimilation in the Spanish Empire and the French Empire. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution, the French wouldn’t accept anyone unless they became ‘culturally French’, and sentiment that is maintained to this day. (Thusly, the banning of the Burka and the Hijab). The British and the Ottomans were different in this respect. Perhaps the Economic nature of these empires gave room to this, well, this other viewpoint, but for the most part, the majority of the power structure in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, and the British Empire throughout its history, really didn’t care for forcing a certain religious practice on the inhabitants, much to the ire of some of those more conservative elements within the respective churches, and so in the Ottomans, like in the Fatimids, and like in the British Empire, the Jews, the ‘other’ Christians, the ‘other’ Muslims are allowed to exist in a certain peace. Granted, this is a culture of tolerance, and not acceptance, but it’s still preferable to genocide.

‘Welp, at least it’s preferable to genocide' was the state motto of the Maratha Empire

‘Welp, at least it’s preferable to genocide’ was the state motto of the Maratha Empire

The difference here between the Ottomans and the British, however, is the head of state. In Britain, as a result of increasing reforms beginning as early as 1215, and accelerating in the 1650’s, the British ‘executive branch’, the Monarchy wasn’t by any stretch of the definition an absolute monarch. Indeed, much of the Monarch’s power was shared with the House of Commons in Parliament. This meant, means, that the British Monarch reigns in conjunction with the Parliament, instead of rules. Also, while the British Monarch sits as the ‘head of the Church of England’, this role means little, as one, the Church of England has no jurisdiction over Parliament, and two, the Archbishop of Canterbury does most of the executive duties of the Anglican Church. So, despite its name, the Church of England has no real grip on Britain, (despite what some of the ultra-left assert) and has often played the part of opposition to both Monarchs and Parliament alike. But at any rate, the Church of England stayed, and stays outside of the power structures of the British Empire and Commonwealth, much to its own dismay. When Napoleon, and Adam Smith both refer to Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ this serves partially as a reminder that the people, and the businesses, of Britain are what built the empire, not royal dynasties nor churches.

This is contrary to the Ottomans. You see, while I wouldn’t necessarily call the Ottoman Sultan an absolutist monarch in the strictly European sense of the term, there are certainly comparisons to be made. For one, as I stated before, the Ottoman Sultan, since the final demise of the Fatimid Empire, took upon himself the title of ‘Caliphate’ of the Sunni sect of the Islamic faith. Again, for my predominantly western audience, for the sake of simplicity we shall compare the office of the Caliphate in Sunni Islam to the office of the Papacy in Catholic Christendom, or lesser so, to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Anglican Christendom. Essentially, the Caliphate is the head of Church.

Indeed, the ‘cabinet’ or, more accurately, the court, of the Sultan would be as much a religious ruling body as it was the lead of the secular state. And, especially at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, the Ottoman court served not only as the ruling court of the Ottoman legal system, but also of the Islamic faith globally. To put it bluntly, the Ottoman Sultanate proclaimed upon himself, and his empire, to be the ‘defenders of the Islamic faith’. And with the expansion of various European Empires, both religious (Spain, Portugal, France, Austro-Hungarian) and secular (Britain, the Netherlands, eventually the United States) the Islamic faith needed a lot more defending than it did in the days when the Christian were weak and mostly at war with each other. As Europe expanded and threatened the Ottoman hegemony of Central Asia and Northern Africa, where in the Safavids of Persia, the Mughals of India worked with the Ottomans as the premiere Islamic state, and Europe was the mercy of the Ottoman sword. As the Ottoman hegemony was threatened by Europe’s rise, the Ottoman Empire went into full-blown reactionary mode, and became more and more of a theocracy as Europe rose to prominence.

The rise of the Ottoman reactionary theocracy meant more discord within her own borders and more of a disconnect with the Shi’a Muslims of the various kingdoms of Persia that rose in the wake of the collapse of the Safavid Empire in modern day Iran. The Ottoman hegemony collapsed on itself. With the Safavids gone and a great deal of dismay within the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans couldn’t defend Persia, couldn’t defend Morocco. Couldn’t hold Greece. The Ottoman Empire’s loss of power didn’t just symbolise a structural flaw within the Ottoman Empire’s border, it marked the collapse of several power structures within the Islamic world. From the Mughal Empire in the East to the Kingdom of Morocco in the West, the Islamic World had become vulnerable.

'Well, shoot, this isn't going well'.

‘Well, shoot, this isn’t going well’.

And here comes Russia. During the 18th and 17th centuries, the Islamic world was largely untouchable to the Europeans. The various armies of the Islamic world, most notably the armies of the Ottoman Empire, meant that the Islamic world was ‘off limits’ to the Europeans, unless they wanted protracted warfare. With the Ottomans no longer holding much of the Islamic world’s purse strings and military power, and the decay of the strong states of the Islamic world in general, a previously untouchable resource was now within Europe’s grasp.

And Russia and more to prove than the rest of Europe. A lot more to prove. You see, this notion, this stereotype we hold in our minds today of Russia as one large, vast, backwater lacking most of the creature comforts and ‘modernity’ of western Europe, and indeed, the world, isn’t a new perception. Even the 18th century courts and governments of Europe and Britain didn’t take Russia seriously, at all. For one thing, Russia had an on-going identity crisis. Were they European or were they Asian? For another thing, the Russian branch of Christianity was largely disconnected from most of the western branches of Christianity. It had never been a part of the Roman Catholic Church, and it had never gone through the Protestant Reformations.

For another thing, most of Russia’s interactions with Europe was through various Cossack raids and pogroms. Further planting in the European mind-set the notion of a barbaric, violent, backwards Russia.

'Culture? Culture? To hell with that! I have a pointed stick'.

‘Culture? Culture? To hell with that! I have a pointed stick’.

By the 18th century and 19th century, Russia was trying to recoup its international image, and did so against the backdrop of the ‘Enlightenment’ in Europe. This meant a lot of higher education was needed, a lot of trade was needed, and a lot of culture was needed. Suddenly emergent, for example, were all the classical Russian Authors you probably hate, who had to create a ‘Russian Nation’ in literature and art that hadn’t existed before.

And so marks the rise of Russian Nationalism, under the Tsarist rule of the first Russian Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. And this Tsarist Empire had to prove to Europe that it had the same gusto, the same will, the same might that it had. That it was just as modern, ballsy, and worthwhile as they were. To prove this, Russia needed a ‘sphere of influence’ and colonies to expand into, and the weakened state of Central Europe after the Napoleonic War, especially after Russia’s gains from the Ottoman Empire, were too good for the Russians to pass up.

Of course, every time Russia even hints at having power, (and usually doesn’t deliver) outside of Russia herself, the west takes note, and usually feels threatened, even if there isn’t a real threat per se. Indeed, as I point out in previous posts, the 19th century after the end of the Napoleonic War is Pax Britannia, a time of global British hegemony. And believe you me, there was no corner of the globe that the British were going to let someone else have influence. Especially not Central Asia, which was dangerously close (in Britain’s eyes) to the British Empire’s interests and holdings in India.

'Hmmm, a slight threat, best to overreact to it'.

‘Hmmm, a slight threat, best to overreact to it’.

So here begins a competition between Britain and Russia over the right to influence over a territory that for a long time had been under the leadership of the Ottomans and the Safavids. In many ways, this competition between Britain and Russia marked the end of any and all Ottoman hegemony and/or influence outside of her borders.

Again, this post is just an introduction to a topic that we will cover in later posts, sorry!

Next Up For the Ottoman Empire:

  • Culture in a time of Stagnation and Decay, Ottoman Culture of the 1820’s
  • The Economics of Empire, the Successes and the Failures of the Ottoman Economic System
  • Analysing the Ottomans in the era of Post-post Colonial Theory

Next Up For the British Empire:

  • 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation
  • The Nation of Shopkeepers and the Inventions, Companies, and Expansion of the First Bourgeois Empire

AND INTRODUCING: The French Empire

  • ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, A PR Nightmare, and the Demise of the French Monarchy
  • Europe’s First Modern Dictator: The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Hashtag History: de Tott be Proud! The Ottoman Navy During the Napoleonic War

Who here plays video games? I know I do sometimes. It’s okay, it’s a part of acceptable popular culture now, like books, films, or television. We live in the age of the nerd, after all. Now, I make no secret that my favourite video game franchise is the history-heavy Total War series from the UK-based (huzzah) video game studio The Creative Assembly. This franchise I’ve been playing since the days of Rome: Total War. While I’ve played all the instalments, I have to admit that the instalments I’ve been most excited for, given my time periods of choice, have been Empire: Total War (which took place from 1700-1800), Napoleon: Total War (1805-1816), and Shogun II: Total War: Fall of the Samurai (1860’s and 1870’s). Since my period of love is the ‘Early Modern’ and ‘Modern Era’, you can probably imagine how excited I was for each release, and how many real-life hours (and virtual years) I’ve sunk into these particular titles. After all, for us history geeks who aren’t interested in the Second World War, video games really don’t offer much.

It's a strange place in history we've reached when the Nazis have the same level of fear attached to them as the Goombas from Mario Bros.

It’s a strange place in history we’ve reached when the Nazis have the same level of fear attached to them as the Goombas from Super Mario Bros.

One of the reasons why Empire: Total War was so interesting was because it was the first Total War title to introduce naval combat to the mix. Of course, you can’t really fully cover the 18th century without including the navies of the world. Believe you me, I appreciate that fact. None the less, it was still really exciting, being able to take the helm of the British Royal Navy, or, you know, any of the other powers playable in the game. Why is introducing navies so exciting? Well, aside from the broadsides, the boardings, and the other aspects of naval combat in the Age of Sail, it added a major element to empire building. Namely, creating and securing over-seas international trade lanes, disrupting other nation’s trade, and/or blockading the enemy.

In the real-life 18th century, the world was all about naval power. Indeed, in an era with widespread sea-based trade routes, and in an era when imperial power was measured by the amount of merchant ships it had under sail, navies worldwide exploded in size, in firepower, and in general importance. For the British, not only were they an island nation, but they were an island nation with colonies in the Caribbean, North America, and India. (And eventually in Australia, Africa, and New Zealand, and well, you get the point). The Royal Navy was as worried about protecting these international sea lanes as it was about protecting mighty dear ol’ blighty herself.

'Hullo, I'm Blighty, for those of you who don't recognise that bit o' British slang'.

‘Hullo, I’m Blighty, for those of you who don’t recognise that bit o’ British slang’.

This brings us back to the Ottomans. Once the masters of spice, silk, and general European-Asian trade, back when the most efficient and cost effective way for European merchants to reach Asia was through the Arabic world, were now lagging behind Europe in trade. The Ottoman Navy no longer ruled the Mediterranean Sea the way she once had, and Ottoman Merchants didn’t bother with taming the waves the way the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese had. While cotton grew within Ottoman borders, the British were grabbing far more cotton from India and the 13 colonies (before the US declared independence) then they were from the Ottomans. And the French? Well, despite the Anglo-French rivalry, the French found trade with the British more profitable and easier than with the Ottomans, so you can imagine from whence the French got cotton from.

Ottoman economic forecasts were looking down, and a large part of it was because of her lack of interest in the sea.

'My advisors have just informed me that the majority of the world  Ocean, but I'm not sure how to respond to this fact'.

‘My advisors have just informed me that the majority of the world Ocean, but I’m not sure how to respond to this fact’.

Another thing to remember about the Ottoman Empire is Turkey itself. Not only is the country almost perfectly rectangular, but it is split in two, the smaller part, the part that contains Istanbul, is separated from the larger chunk by the Turkish Straits, the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, and the small sea between them, the Sea of Marmara. These straits are important, why? Well, a lot of Russian shipping passes through there, and by the 18th century Russia had become a trading power too. Why is this a big deal?

For my British and American readers, you’re probably confused by this being a big deal. Britain hasn’t had to worry about land borders for Britain itself since… well, since before the English-Scottish unification in the 17th century that created the modern UK. Which I’m going to go ahead and assume happened long before any of my reader’s conscious memories start. Other than that, the UK is the sole occupant of its main land mass, that is, the island of Great Britain itself. To the north of this land mass sits… nothing. The North Pole, maybe, but nothing that people regularly travel. It’s not like any major nations sit north of Britain and travel through Britain to get to the European continent.

For the US readers, this is also likely difficult to understand. No major shipping routes go through the US. The Mississippi River, the largest river in the US (not the world, contrary to many an American’s belief, the Nile River is the longest in the world, the Mississippi is the 4th longest in the world). The Mississippi begins somewhere in Minnesota and terminates in Louisiana, where it drains into the Gulf of Mexico. For those terrible at geography, this means the only nation with access to the Mississippi is the US.

But now imagine, for my UK/US readers, take the largest river in your borders, for my Brits, that means the Tweed, the Aire, the Mersey, or the Thames, depending on what’s nearer you, for my American readers, just go ahead and use either the Potomac or the Mississippi, and imagine that a neighbouring nation used it regularly. Now imagine that historically, you and that nation don’t get along at all. Finally, imagine if that nation didn’t just sail/steam merchant ships up and down that river, but fully armed and operational warships as well. On a regular, near daily basis. Finally, imagine if you’re nation didn’t have a navy at all to defend itself with.

That’s where the Ottomans sat with the Turkish Straits, which passed right through their country, was used by the Russians, whom they’d already fought wars with over land, and to make matters worse, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, sat right next to the Strait, well within striking distance for Russia, should they decide to invade via the Strait.

You can imagine the level of discomfort felt by some Ottoman officials once this became the operating standard.

'I'm just sitting here hoping the Russians forget they have cannons'.

‘I’m just sitting here hoping the Russians forget they have cannons’.

Enter Britain and/or France (depending on the era). Neither nation liked the idea of a Russian ascendancy, as it could threaten their hegemonies. Neither nation liked the idea of Russian competition in the fields of trade or military, either. With the Ottoman Empire in a place that could naturally put it at Russia’s throat, it was well within the British and/or French interest to keep the Ottoman Empire well-armed against any Russian threat.

It would also be in the Ottoman interest to get a navy that could compete with its European rivals. The Ottoman fleet was still largely constructed of Galleys at the dawn of the 18th century. Galleys were tiny and poorly armed compared to their European counter-parts, which by the 18th century had all been ‘Ships of the Line’, those massive sailing ships with three masts, and usually anywhere between 20 and 120 cannons on board ready to carry out devastating ‘broadside’ attacks. (Think in Pirates of the Caribbean when two Ships-of-the-Line get next to each and fire all the cannons on a side into the side of the other ship. Think of the damage, the carnage, the splinters, that’s what the Europeans were fighting with. Now imagine the row boat at your camp. Make it slightly larger, maybe put ten or fifteen people and three cannons on it. That’s what the Ottomans were fighting with).

Luckily, by 1738, the Ottomans had brought some more modern ships into their fleet. Unfortunately, by the Ottoman-Russian War of 1768-1774, the Ottoman Navy, both modern and antiquated, was completely destroyed by the thoroughly modern Russian Navy.

'Well, shoot'.

‘Well, shoot’.

Indeed, for the Ottomans, who prior had used their Navy to conquer North Africa, sweep back the Venetians, thwart the Spanish, and generally hold control of the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding important bodies of water, the 18th century did not go well. Remember, like I said in my introductory post for the Ottomans, the 19th century will be a study in the decay of an Empire. The 18th century is the study of its stagnation. If the Ottoman Empire was a human, it’s starting to fall ill. If it were a human in a typical film, this is where it starts doing the coughing that makes us think, ‘Oh, this character will die before the end of the film, good ol’ foreshadowing’.

Of course, for a nation, particularly a well-to-do one, having a Navy is something akin to having a sports car, or some other luxury vehicle. Yeah, Navies are good for defence, but they also look damn cool, and slightly intimidating to other countries. A way of saying, ‘Hey! Look at what we can do’! I mean, why do you think the British spent so much time and money making their Royal Navy ships have decorations on them? It’s the same reason why your Uncle spends all day polishing his Porsche.

By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire will enter its mid-life crisis and spend way too much on a Navy as a means of flaunting to the British, French, Russians, and Americans. The person who kick started the ‘Rainy Day bank account’ for this eventual Ottoman Navy was Frenchman François Baron de Tott. De Tott had spent a good amount of time travelling and living between France and Turkey during his life. By 1767 he was working between Crimea, the Ottomans, and Russia trying to destabilise Russian efforts in the era, he was doing this for both France and the Ottomans. During the previously mentioned Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-1774, he discovered the Ottoman Empire’s problem with the Turkish Straits. To fix it in a hurry, after the loss of the Ottoman fleet to Russia, he quickly built a series of fortresses along the Dardanelles Strait designed to cripple and/or destroy the Russian fleet passing through. For the Ottomans, this was a Godsend, the Dardanelles was finally weaponised, and one of the Ottoman Empire’s weak points wasn’t nearly as weak anymore.

Behold! A Ottoman construction of French design.

Behold! A Ottoman construction of French design.

De Tott’s final gift to the Ottomans before he went to the great-big-Paris-in-the-sky where all the French go when they die, was to break the ground on a brand new Naval School for the Ottomans. This Naval Academy/HQ would be the lynchpin of the new Ottoman Navy going forward. Indeed, as the dust settles from the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-1774, the Ottomans start rebuilding their Navy. That leads us (finally) to the Napoleonic War. Like I said prior, the Ottomans get dragged into the global conflict by 1806. By this point, the Ottoman Navy had reached 10 ships-of-the-line. What I didn’t want to open the article with, as it would’ve been anticlimactic and would’ve likely made you miss it, is the Ottoman Navy does poorly during the Napoleonic War. 22 June, 1807, the Ottoman Navy engages the Russian fleet in the Battle of Athos, named for the nearby Mount Athos in Greece.

The Russians enter the battle with 10 Ships-Of-The-Line. The Ottomans match their 10 Ships-of-the-Line and raise them 5 frigates, 3 sloops, and 2 brigs. The Russians manage to cut the Ottoman formation in two as the Ottomans move their fleet north to the Isle of Thasos. This puts the Ottoman fleet into slight disarray.

By the battle’s end, 77 Russian sailors have died, and not a single Russian ship was lost. For the Ottomans, the battle was far worse, 1,000 Ottoman sailors lost their lives, and six ships were sunk. Three of the ships of the line, two frigates, and one sloop lay at the bottom of the sea, and the rest of the fleet is crippled. 20 Ottoman Ships entered the battle, and only 12 made it back to Ottoman ports. 20 Ottoman Ships engaged 10 Russian ships, and to make matters worse for the Ottomans, the Russian Admiral felt that his ships had been ‘sloppy in execution’.

'We should've sailed at LEAST three laps around them, honestly men'.

‘We should’ve sailed at LEAST three laps around them, honestly men’.

It would be nearly ten years before the Ottomans would have a combat ready fleet again, well after the close of the Napoleonic War. With no fleet, and no Army, the Allies (Britain and Russia, in this case) forced the Ottomans back out of the Napoleonic War. When the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Bucharest, ending their involvement in the Napoleonic War, well, I just don’t think I can describe to you how dark an hour that must’ve been, to hand over so much land to the Russians. Worse still, as we get into the 19th century, the Ottomans will have to get used to the Russians and the British stomping all over their former lands.

What I’m referring to here is a portion of history that is often referred to as ‘The Great Game’, which is a time period when Russia and Britain competed for influence in Central Asia. And that time period, is what we will delve into for the next episode of Ottoman History here on Hashtag History.

Next Up For the Ottoman Empire:

  • Starting ‘The Great Game’: Central Asia and the dawn of Ottoman Decline
  • Culture in a time of Stagnation and Decay, Ottoman Culture of the 1820’s

Next Up For the British Empire:

  • The King is Dead! Long Live the Queen! Queen Victoria and the Dawn of the Victorian Era
  • 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation

AND INTRODUCING: The French Empire

  • ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, A PR Nightmare, and the Demise of the French Monarchy
  • Europe’s First Modern Dictator: The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Hashtag History: Nizam-i Cedid Infantry, Janissaries. What are they? What’d they do? The Ottoman Army during the Napoleonic War

Okay, so with this one I have to begin with a bit of housekeeping. Take a trip today to any of the Ottoman Empire’s former lands, and you’ll discover something about them. None of them use the Latin alphabet. Indeed, two of the main languages of the Ottoman Empire were Turkish and Arabic, and both use the Arabic alphabet. These languages are not as closely related to each other as English and French are, or English and German. And so while most of us writing within the Anglophone sphere, (that is, the nations that read, write, and speak English natively, mainly the US and the British Commonwealth) can agree on French terms and German terms for things, like most of us agree on historical terms from other European languages, like Levée en Masse, or Blitzkrieg, Arabic-to-English isn’t as clean a transition. This is true for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being phonetics. For the most part, from English to French, from French to German, from German to Spanish, etc, etc, the alphabet remains largely the same, and it’s usually easy to guess at the majority of the sounds that the letters represent. ‘A’ is always ‘a’ for example, and the English ‘a’, the French ‘a’, and the German ‘a’ are all pronounced largely the same way.

There is an ‘a’ in Arabic, but it shows up in the sounds of many Arabic’s letters, and many of Arabic’s letters form sounds that it takes two or three Latin letters to equate to. For example, the Arabic way of saying ‘How are you’? Sounds phonetically to me as if it were spelt, ‘Kay-fah ha-el’. Another English speaking person also gifted in the art of speaking Arabic, may phonetically spell this ‘Kafeh hahel’. This is already a difference, and here we’re assuming that both of us are approaching it from the realm of standard, or high Arabic. This is not taking into account the many, many distinct dialects of Arabic. Egyptian Arabic and Tunisian Arabic are extraordinarily different from each other, and both are completely different languages from Turkish, which also uses the Arabic alphabet, and much of the Arabic grammar system. The result, as you can imagine, is that many things within the Ottoman Empire had multiple names, and those of us writing in English have to figure out which names to agree upon, and, also importantly, how to spell them so that the original phonetics are preserved. This can difficult in modern English, since the two main dialects of English, American English and British English, have different pronunciations for several letters. (American English took on a distinctly Germanic twist during the early years of independence, as many German refugees moved to America during the Napoleonic War and the German Unification Wars, thusly why Americans pronounce ‘schedule’ with  a ‘ich’ or ‘k’ noise, like from German, while the British tend to pronounce it softer, ‘shedule’).

'Dude' is all American, though, they can't blame that on anyone else.

‘Dude’ is all American, though, they can’t blame that on anyone else.

So when I use Ottoman phrases, like Nizam-i Cedid infantry, some historians will bulk, they will say it was Nizam-i Cedit infantry. (And no matter which one I use, my Microsoft Word dictionary will highlight it in red). And yet another group of historians will rebuff me and say, ‘No, Nizam-i Jadid infantry’! I acknowledge all the different names that we English-speaking historians have placed upon these particular regiments of the Ottoman Army, but I mostly alternate between Nizam-i Cedid and Nizam-i Cedit. So please, don’t waste my or your time correcting me on this, as you can see, a bit of thought and consideration went into which phonetic spelling I would use. For better or for worse, they’re all correct. (Jadid is the Persian version, I believe). (And to be fair, when I learnt Arabic, it was both Standard Arabic and the Moroccan Dialects. Morocco was never a part of the Ottoman Empire).

All that cleared, let’s talk about the Nizam-i Cedid reforms. Nizam-i Cedid roughly translates to ‘New Order’. And indeed, these reforms would be a new order. You see, for centuries within the Ottoman Empire, the finest regiments of the Army had been called the ‘Janissary’. These soldiers would not by any means be what you and I would call ‘Regular Infantry’. In the western sense of the idea, especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries, ‘Regular Infantry’ carried muskets, formed front lines, marched in rank and file, and could engage in both mid-range musket combat as well as in melee based bayonet charges. Regular infantry is basically both the backbone and the foundation of your modern army. This is true both then and now. They don’t specialise in anything, and thusly they do the majority of the work and the fighting.

'I'm sure we'll be well compensated and treated well as veterans for all the work we've done. What's that? We won't be? Well, bollocks'.

‘I’m sure we’ll be well compensated and treated well as veterans for all the work we’ve done. What’s that? We won’t be? Well, bollocks’.

From the Regulars you add the specialists, the sharp-shooters (later snipers), the heavy infantry, the combat engineers (sappers), etc, etc. But front-line fighting is usually the Regulars more than anyone. They do all the manoeuvres (flanking/charging/holding/guarding), they hold and move the line, etc, etc.

Janissaries would be irregulars by the definitions of the west. Their fighting style was still very 16th and early 17th century. Very melee heavy, with only a slight acceptance of muskets and ranged fighting. The Janissary regiments weren’t exactly eager to change their training regimen either. Very much the, ‘This is how my grandfather did, and so too will I do it’! mentality.

As we shall soon see, this is the exact opposite of the mind set militaries should have.

As we shall soon see, this is the exact opposite of the mind set militaries should have.

Remember, the Janissaries were meant to be the fighting Elite of the Ottoman Army, which was otherwise made up of basic peasant levies. You can imagine why the modernised armies of Europe often made short work of Ottoman forces. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire even struggled to put off Russian invasions. Russia, a country whose fighting record isn’t very good once they leave their own motherland.

It was pretty obvious that the Ottoman Empire needed to embrace a military reform and modernisation campaign if they were to old tier with their European neighbours. And so, Sultan Selim III began the process of modernising what was formerly the greatest military in the world.

It wasn’t an easy process. And it met a lot of resistance within Selim’s own court. Even Selim himself wasn’t entirely sold on the process. For starters, it meant a new tax system was needed, to finance the new military units. Next, he needed to recruit from all the Ottoman provinces, and let all of them have their own officers, instead of a Turkey-centric model. He also needed to diversify the ratings and the ranks within his military, to catch up with all the ranks available inside armies like Britain’s or France’s.

His troops got new uniforms, that worked better in all theatres of combat, and not just dessert regions. They got new muskets that followed European patterns, and finally, the idea of ‘regular infantry’ was introduced into the Ottoman ranks. Troop movement would be faster and easier, the muskets would be more effective, and all troops would be better supplied. By all accounts, it was a good reformation. It even brought the Fez to a new level of fashion. And we all know Fezzes are cool.

How do you increase viewership on the internet? Make a Doctor Who reference.

How do you increase viewership on the internet? Make a Doctor Who reference.

So, this seems to be going well for the Ottomans, how’d they end up on the losing side of this, the world’s first global conflict? (Don’t get too cocky Americans, don’t forget, you too were on the losing side of this global conflict as well). Was it solely because they backed the wrong horse in this race of geopolitics? Or was it not entirely France’s fault?

Part of it was Napoleonic France’s fault. Turns out it’s easier to be Napoleon’s enemy than it is to be his ally. At least you get what you expect out of him when he’s your enemy. As an ally, well, the instant you’re no longer useful to him, he cuts you dry. In other words, he’s your stereotypical French lover from many a British or American international thriller film. Part of it also came from the Ottoman Empire herself. By the time of Ottoman entry into the Napoleonic War (1806) the Sultan had lost internal support from the army. Since he himself was on the fence about the necessity of the Nizam-i Cedid reforms, he did a terrible job of selling their success or their necessity to the military or the public, and so those old-fashion Janissary regiments that I had mentioned earlier? They mutinied, and killed the Sultan in 1808.

Ironically this idea of 'revolt and kill the absolute monarch' was also borrowed from the French.

Ironically this idea of ‘revolt and kill the absolute monarch’ was also borrowed from the French.

This mutiny couldn’t have come at a worse time. The British Royal Navy had crippled the Ottoman Navy at the Battle of the Marmara, and had essentially destroyed all Ottoman defences of the Dardanelles strait, opening it up again for Anglo-Russian trade. Then, for good measure 5,000 British troops invaded and occupied Alexandria. By 1809, the Ottoman Empire made peace with the British, but continued the war against Britain’s ally and France’s foe, the Russians.

Russia was leading campaign after campaign into Ottoman lands and protectorates along the Russo-Ottoman border. Now, with the Russo-Turkish theatre of the conflict, there are two main battles worth remembering: first, the embarrassing Battle of Arpachai on 18 June 1807. A force of 7,000 Russian soldiers repel an Ottoman attack of 20,000 soldiers. Even if you’re only marginally familiar with statistical analysis, you know this doesn’t bode well for the Ottoman forces. Next, comes the decisive Battle of the Danube. Danube is a particularly interesting military feat to watch.

I don’t know how many of you have played the unremarkable, and kind of terrible video game RUSE for Xbox 360 or Windows. Really, as Real Time Strategy games go, it’s one of my least favourite titles to come out. (Look at Company of Heroes or Men of War for good Second World War RTS’s. I’m still waiting on a good First World War RTS). But, one thing that RUSE got right was the idea that good military manoeuvres are as much about deceiving your enemy into making a mistake and then attacking them at a soft spot. History has a select few battles that demonstrate this idea in a way deserving of a video-game treatment or a film adaptation. The Battle of the Danube is one of those battles worthy of a cinema treatment.

‘Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake’. – Napoleon Bonaparte

All right, so let’s set up the players, shall we? On the Russian side we have Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov, who has roughly 45,000 soldiers under his command. On the Ottoman side we have Grand Vizier Ahmet Pasha who has roughly 70,000 soldiers under his command. Right before the Battle, Kutuzov moves his troops backwards, away from the Ottomans, in a strange retreat across the Danube River. Pasha had viewed this seemingly uncalled for manoeuvre by his Russian foe as a sign of admitted defeat by Kutuzov. Wanting to make this a total Ottoman victory, Pasha pushes the attack, rallying his soldiers across the Danube after Kutuzov. Kutuzov responds by sending his Calvary to attack the Ottomans. As the Calvary attacks, he moves his remaining troops to encircle the Ottoman position. This encircling manoeuvre by the Russians took place from 2 November 1811 to the 3rd.

Pasha waited for reinforcements, and they never came. He attempted many times to break the Russian circle around him, but failed each time. Kutuzov didn’t send in his men to finish off the Ottoman soldiers, instead he more or less held them hostage as Russian ambassadors rushed to Constantinople to negotiate the Ottoman Empire’s withdrawal from the Napoleonic War.

Kutuzov’s plan, which hadn’t been approved by Russian Tsar Alexander I (who actually opposed it), worked. 28 May, 1812 the Ottoman Empire surrenders to Russia, giving Russia Bessarabia and a chunk of the modern day Republic of Georgia. Napoleon’s ally in the east was lost, and the now heavily disorganised, badly bloodied Ottoman Army was very demoralised. With Ottoman military might compromised, nationalist movements in the Balkans began to explode for the first time, and Egypt, having now been invaded by both the French and British over the course of the war, and therefore no longer trusting Ottoman might to protect it, began to separate itself from the Empire that it had been in for centuries.

'Bye everybody! Good luck with the whole empire thing'.

‘Bye everybody! Good luck with the whole empire thing’.

May of 1812 was likely the darkest day in the history of the Ottoman Empire up until that point. She had been betrayed by her European ally (France) defeated by one of her better trading partners (Britain) and had lost considerable land to one of her oldest foes (Russia). She looked weak to her protectorates (the Barbary States), and some of her provinces (Egypt), and her once proud military was a mess. The ‘barbaric’ Europeans had surpassed her in every way, and while most at the time didn’t realise it, May of 1812 was the death of the old Muslim world order. The era of the various Caliphates and Muslim empires had come to a close with the Mughals ceding more and more sovereignty to the British, and the Ottoman power declining in the North Africa, the final transition of power from East to West had finished. The last eastern superpower (to that point) had lost its clout. It’s fitting that this monumental, yet largely ignored milestone takes place in the middle of a European-lead global war. We will return to the implications of this later. But basically, the era of Ottoman stagnation (1600’s and 1700’s) had come to a close, and the era of Ottoman decline (1800’s) had dawned.

'We've seen better days'.

‘We’ve seen better days’.

There were ramifications to this within the Ottoman Empire, of course. You see, when the Janissaries had mutinied back in 1808, they named the then Janissary friendly Mustafa IV as Sultan. Sultan Mustafa’s first act as Sultan was to kill both Selim III and attempted to kill his other brother, and rightful heir Mahmud II. Selim was killed, but Mahmud escaped assassination. Upon escaping assassination he made his way to Mustafa’s palace, and quickly ordered him deposed. Mustafa, his plan thwarted, agreed. For his treason, Mahmud had Mustafa executed. All this in 1808. Mahmud quietly abandoned the reforms of Selim III, at least temporarily, but after the wars had ended, he returned to them in 1820’s, We will come back to the interesting end of the Janissaries in 1826 later.

Next On Hashtag History for the Ottoman Empire:

  • de Tott be Proud! The Ottoman Navy during the Napoleonic War
  • Starting ‘The Great Game’: Central Asia, and the dawn of Ottoman Decline

Next On Hashtag History for Britain:

  • The Beginning of the Wars of Pax Britannia: The British Armed Forces of the 1820’s
  • The King is Dead! Long Live the Queen! Queen Victoria and the Dawn of the Victorian Era

Hashtag History: The French Connexion, Otto-French relations prior to the Napoleonic War

As I’ve covered in previous posts, the French during and immediately after the French revolution were scrambling to solidify their position. You see, if there’s one thing to know from history, it’s that most countries are only as good as the alliance system(s) they build around themselves. Indeed, France during l’ancien régime, the name they attach to the old monarchy of Louis XVI and friends, held a nice and cosy position on the continent. They were a Catholic monarchy, who were in good favour with their fellow Catholic monarchs, Spain to the west and Austria to the east. Sure, Prussia and France never got on that well, but the relations were good enough for a Protestant state and a Catholic state, as could be said for Franco-Dutch relations. Of course, Anglo-Franco relations weren’t great, but that’s simply Anglo-Franco relations.

After the French monarchy was overthrown, however, things took a quick dive south for France’s relations with her neighbours. Prussia, Austria, Britain, Spain, et al, issued ultimatums against the revolutionaries, and even invaded, pressing for the need of the ‘Levée en Masse’, basically a nation-wide conscription of poorly trained French farmers and urban poor to repel the Prussian/Austrian invasion of France. (See also, the Brunswick Manifesto). It was during these Revolutionary Wars of France, which was as much a conflict with France’s neighbours as it was a civil war, that our friend Napoleon ascended through the ranks of the French Army, and eventually proclaimed himself Emperor for life, bringing the Revolution to a close in 1799.

Even after Napoleon became the Emperor for Life, and the Revolutionary Wars ended, France was short many an ally on the continent. With Haiti fighting for independence in the Caribbean, and the threat of a world war looming, France needed allies fast. Indeed, one place the French looked to was their fellow ‘revolutionary state’, the Americans, as well as a state they had made a ‘revolutionary state’ in the form of the Batavian Republic in the modern day Netherlands, but more impressive for Napoleon/France, would be to cement an alliance with one of the last Muslim Empires in existence at the time. That’s right, the Ottoman Empire.

'Hullo, I'm a Muslim Empire, although I do have other religious groups within my borders'.

‘Hullo, I’m a Muslim Empire, although I do have other religious groups within my borders’.

Now, I’m guessing that a lot of you who read my blog are fans of the First World War. I don’t mean in the way where you think, ‘Finally! A conflict that kills millions of people! Just my speed’! The instant someone mentions the fateful year of 1914. But I mean to say, most people who have a passing knowledge of history will joke about the ‘alliance systems’ that lead to the First World War, will joke about Triple Alliance being made up of Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the ‘Sick old man of Europe’ the Ottoman Empire.

Well, first of all, the Ottoman Empire may have been in poor health by 1914, but I personally think that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in equally poor health, if not worse health, than our friends the Ottomans by 1914, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand being a nail in their coffin. But a question you may be thinking by this point is, ‘If the Ottoman Empire was the sick old man of the continent in 1914, what were they in 1803’?

I don’t think the French, the British, the Americans, or anyone else in the west were entirely sure what the Ottomans were in 1803 either. The Ottoman Empire still had clout, but not as much as it had in the centuries prior. Indeed, large portions of the Empire’s armed forces were hideously out-of-date compared to her European rivals.

Turns out, modernisation isn't just a passing fad...

Turns out, modernisation isn’t just a passing fad…

As the world began that dark trajectory towards global conflict that we’ve seen twice more since then, the Ottomans felt safe in their possessions in the Mid-east and the Balkans peninsula. After all, most of Europe either didn’t care about them anymore, or didn’t feel strong enough to attack.

But on the other side of the coin, the British had started both the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions in the 18th century, and had leaped a good fifty years ahead of the continent, and well over a good century ahead of the Ottomans. While Adam Smith was devising a better system of Mercantilism that would ultimately become Capitalism, the Ottomans were debating whether or not the Printing Press had merit.

Kids, if you want to know how a superpower loses the wind in its sails, I’d have to say the instant it stops embracing research and development is definitely a cause. Education isn’t enough, creativity is critical.

Turns out, the best way to avoid the same old mistakes is to come up with new, different ideas.

Turns out, the best way to avoid the same old mistakes is to come up with new, different ideas.

The Ottoman Empire still had resources, still had manpower, still had control of a good chunk of the Mediterranean Sea, but was still very much stuck at the dawn of the 18th century in many ways. The Mediterranean Sea was en route to being British controlled (Malta and Gibraltar had become major British naval bases by this point) and Ottoman influence in North Africa was waning under the new wave of influence from Spain, France, and Britain.

Initially, like most absolute monarchies and Britain, (which, as we’ve covered, was already a Constitutional Monarchy, not an absolute monarchy) the Ottoman Sultan was against a French Republic. Even taking minor military action against the French during the Austro-Prussian assault on France during the Revolutionary Wars. But prior to the Revolution, the Ottoman Empire and France had actually maintained a healthy alliance system. Started back when the French were first climbing up into Super Power-dom themselves, the French had a title as the ‘Ottoman Empire’s Christian Best Friends’. Indeed, this was further shown in 1739 with the treaty of Belgrade. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 a French Admiral and Advisor to the Ottomans, François Baron de Tott brought howitzer cannons to the Ottoman Military, built forts on the Bosphorus, and initiated construction on the famous Turkish Naval Academy. By the dawn of the French Revolution in 1789 roughly 300 French officers had been working in the Ottoman Empire to help them modernise.

This alliance system fell apart initially when Napoleon invaded Egypt and Syria. When Nelson swept up the French Mediterranean fleets, however, clearing France out of Egypt and Syria, he sought to strike a new alliance with the Ottomans. Why? Well, Napoleon was at war with Austria and Russia, both of whom shared a land border with the Ottomans. An Ottoman entry into the conflict on France’s side would do nicely to alleviate any pressure placed on Napoleon’s forces by Vienna or Moscow. The Ottomans entered into this final alliance with the French, and created a new kind of infantry, the Nizam-i Cedid (or Cedit, or Jedid, depending on who’s translating for you). The Nizam-i Cedid were a group of Ottoman Infantry who wore European style Uniforms, used western designed muskets, and used western tactics. The Nizam-i Cedid infantry brought with them many reforms that de Tott had failed to bring to fruition decades prior.

If fashion could kill, these men'd win wars. Let's see if they actually do...

If fashion could kill, these men’d win wars. Let’s see if they actually do…

The Ottomans did France a favour. In 1806, three years after the Napoleonic War began, they cut off Russia and Britain by closing the Dardanelles straits to all ships but those French and Ottoman. Russia responded by invading the Ottoman territories of Moldavia and Wallachia, the Ottomans responded with a Declaration of War. By 1807 Britain also declared war on the Ottoman Empire, bringing the Ottoman Empire into the fray of history’s first global battle, the Napoleonic War. The Ottoman Empire’s greatest threat during the Napoleonic War wasn’t Britain, Russia, or Austria however, no, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest threat came from within…

Next On Hashtag History for the Ottoman Empire:

  • Nizam-i Cedid Infantry, Janisarries, Siphani. What are they? What’d they do? The Ottoman Army during the Napoleonic War
  • de Tott be Proud! The Ottoman Navy during the Napoleonic War

Next on Hashtag History for Britain:

  • The beginning of the wars of Pax Britannia: The British Armed Forces of the 1820’s
  • The King is Dead! Long Live the Queen! Queen Victoria and the Dawn of the Victorian Era

Hashtag History: (Western) History’s Forgotten Superpower, the Ottoman Empire

This is its flag. So begins this introduction.

This is its flag. So begins this introduction.

Well, the tone of Hashtag History so far has been pretty British-centric. This hasn’t been intentional it’s due largely to the amount (or lack) of time I’ve had lately, and the fact that British history is my speciality, and so it’s slightly less effort for me to write at length about the history of Britain than it is for me to write about the other 19th ‘great powers’ that this blog is designed to cover. (Those powers, once more are Britain, France, Germany/Austria, Ottomans, and Russia). But that said, the tone thusly far has been rather British-centric, and this blog is supposed to be the anti-centric blog. (All these different ‘region’-centric histories that we learn these days are the very bane of proper history. And, yes, I know everyone jokes that America/Britain/Europe do it, but the Americans/Britons/Europeans aren’t the only ones…)
That said, this post is to open another of the five powers’ section. The power we’re introducing today is none other than the Ottoman Empire. Now, I have to admit, I love the Ottoman Empire. Really, they’re one of history’s forgotten super powers, which is a shame, considering that they dissolved rather recently, in 1923. Trying to figure out all the things gone wrong in the Middle East today? Trying to blame America, Britain, or France? Well, in reality you’re giving each of these powers too much credit, and ignoring the power that occupied those lands since the 1299.
The Ottomans brought culture, science, academia, and mathematics out of India and into the west. (Through trading). In the middle ages when Europe lacked any real economy, and while the feudal lords were fighting between each other for power almost constantly, the Ottoman Empire was preserving and advancing human knowledge. Algebra, architecture, cuisine, the west had quite a bit to learn from the Ottomans.
Of course, the Ottomans also invaded Europe on a regular basis. Much of the Austrian Empire’s power was built up out of necessity, trying to keep the Ottomans from taking Vienna the way they had taken Constantinople in the 15th century. The Catholic Church worked at length as a kind of impromptu alliance organisation to rally various small, bankrupt, and generally weak eastern European kingdoms and nations against Ottoman invasion throughout the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. By the dawn of the 16th century, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, and the British were all on the rise, thanks to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the general rise of the west. (Why precisely the west raised again is still being debated, and there are a few good theories worth reading).

'Is it because of drunken debauchery? I'll bet it's because of drunken debauchery'.

‘Is it because of drunken debauchery? I’ll bet it’s because of drunken debauchery’.

None the less, by the 18th century the Ottoman Empire had reached a state of stagnation as economic power moved west onto the European continent, and by the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was earning a nickname across Europe as ‘the sick old man’. By the time the Napoleonic War is being waged across the world, we see the aged nature of Ottoman infrastructure begin to sag, and by the time the First World War hits the world (1914-1918) that old infrastructure collapses entirely. Basically, we can look at the 105 year period between the end of the Napoleonic War (1815) and the end of the First World War (1918) as the Ottoman Empire’s slow decline. I nearly wrote the word graceful there. That would’ve been hideously misleading. Why? Because the final end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 was anything but graceful. It was a full out collapse, many parts of which we feel the effects of to this very day in the Arabic world.

Where do the Ottomans come from?

Turkey. They come from Turkey.

Who ever out there is making a pun based on the name of the bird, I hope you know that I hate you, and that puns are the lowest form of comedy.

Who ever out there is making a pun based on the bird of the same name, I hope you know that I hate you, and that puns are the lowest form of comedy.

When the Islamic Prophet Mohammed died in 632 CE in what is modern day Medina, Hejaz, Saudi Arabia, (back then was known as Yathrib) a debate began to rage within the ancient Islamic community. Namely, who was going to lead the Muslim community after Mohammed? The candidates were Abu Bakr, one of Mohammed’s close friends and collaborators, but Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib also staked a claim. Abu Bakr got a great deal more support, and became the first Caliph of the Muslim faith. He began the Rashidun Caliphate, the first of many Islamic Empires to rise in the Arabic peninsula.

Now the title of ‘Caliph’ is a controversial one within the Islamic world. A Christian (like myself) might be tempted to interpret the term ‘Caliph’ to mean something akin to the ‘Pope’. And indeed, there are certain functions of the Caliph that are similar to the Pope. If you are a member of the Roman Catholic church, you believe that the Pope is continuing St Peter’s ministry on earth, St Peter being the first Pope, St Peter anointed those who appointed the Second Pope, who anointed those who appointed the Third Pope all the way down to Pope Francis I today, a continual line of persons continuing the ministry of St Peter, the rock upon which Christ built his church.

Of course, if you’re an Anglican, like me, you’re more into the idea of the ministry of the episcopate, that is the idea that all Bishops are equal since there were 12 apostles and not just one, and therefore Christianity is meant to be more of a discussion about truth rather than a doctrine of commands. While the Anglicans upheld the notion of the ministry of the episcopate (thus earning them the name ‘Episcopal church’ in many regions, namely the United States) the Protestants down on the continent often took this rejection of the papacy further. Saying that all priests were equal and a part of the ministry, and that the Bible was the only true word of God, and not up for interpretation by individuals, Bishops or Popes. Again, for some sects of Christendom that emerged (officially) in the 15th and 16th centuries, Christianity wasn’t a discussion, it was a book club with only one book.

Here you can see the three emergent philosophies of the Christian faith, those who are of the more Catholic (Roman Catholic) trend, those of the centre, somewhat orthodox trend (Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, East Orthodox), and those of the Protestant trend (Lutherans, Congregationalists, Calvinists, Methodists, Fundamentalists, Baptists, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, the list goes on). The main debate here wasn’t about the Eucharist, divorce, indulgences, or any other thing that’s since been painted to be, it was about sovereignty in a way. Namely, the debate was mostly who carries on the ministry now that Christ isn’t incarnate on earth anymore? The Pope, the Bishops, or the Bible Studies? (This is a slight oversimplification, I’ll admit, but since I’m trying to tie this back into Islam, please indulge me. This isn’t about Christianity after all)!

So too from the Islamic faith do we see multiple emergent philosophies following the death of the Prophet Mohammed. What are these philosophies? Well:

  • Sunni Islam believes the Caliph to be an elected position, elected by the Shura, or the Muslim people and/or their representatives.
  • Shia Islam believes that only the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin Ali had the right to bear the title of Caliph, and only submit to Sunni rulers because Ali himself submitted to Bakr after immense persecution.

Despite this rise in the two rival sects in the 7th century CE, the Quran preaches the necessity for unity above all else within the Islamic world. For the most part, this has allowed for Sunni caliphs to maintain unity and peace within their Caliphates.

So is a Caliphate a democracy then, since the Sunni version won out when Abu Bakr managed to create the Rashidun caliphate?

'Nope, I'm basically it'.

‘Nope, I’m basically it when it comes to the whole “elected leader” bit’.

Well, the Rashidun Caliphate was short-lived compared to its successors. It only had four Caliphs, each of which were elected by representatives of each of the tribes. The Rashidun Caliphate lasted from 632-661 before it was taken over by the Ummayyad Dynasty. By the Sunni definition of an elected Caliphate, the Rashidun Caliphate was it. The Umayyad Dynasty took over the reigns of the Islamic World, and built history’s fifth largest empire. For the most part, this is when the Arabic language was introduced to the majority of what we now call the ‘Arabic speaking world’. The Umayyad dynasty held the southern half of Spain, all of North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, the entire Arabic peninsula, a good chunk of present-day Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and basically the entire ‘Arabic World’.

Ate Rome for breakfast, it did.

Ate Rome for breakfast, it did.

The Umayyad Empire was larger than the Roman Empire, yet we never talk about it. Part of it is the thick headed methodology of Medieval Christians who refer to it as the ‘Moors’. Another part of it was also its relatively short lifespan. It existed from 661 to 750 CE. That’s a good 89 years, a bit longer than the previous Caliphate, as well as being around slightly longer than the Soviet Union (1922-1991, 69 years) but not nearly as long as the Roman Empire’s 449 years of existence. (I’m not counting the Roman Republic, since it didn’t have nearly the reach, and I’m not counting the Eastern Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, since it was a different creature. Get over it Romanophiles, Rome wasn’t that great).

The Umayyads were less about the council, and more about the Caliph having all the power. Also, both the Caliphs of the Umayyad Empire were related, and served as a dynastic succession. The model of Caliphate rule that we see the Umayyads exert would be most comparable to the model of absolutism that we see emerge in Europe in the 17th century. The Caliph would be the King, and the King had all the power. The tribes lost their individual authority, and the power was all centralised in modern day Syria during the Umayyad Empire.
I bring the Umayyad Empire into the discussion for one main reason. From here on out the Caliphate becomes slightly less of a religious idea, as the spiritual leader of the Muslims, and more of a governmental idea. Caliphs become the monarchs of the emerging Muslim Empires and Kingdoms. The idea of a Caliph as a spiritual leader instead of as a theocratic ruler will begin to gain steam as we will see the Muslim kingdoms break off of each other and begin to go their own ways.

'To hell with you lot, we're going to go and start our OWN club, and you're not invited'. - Fatimid Empire

‘To hell with you lot, we’re going to go and start our OWN club, and you’re not invited’. – Fatimid Empire

This happens when the Sunnis came under the rule of the Abbasid Empire from the 8th to the 13th century, and the Shia came under the rule of the Fatimids in northern Africa during the same time frame. From here the Turks, the Berbers, the Persians, the Afghans, and the Indians (primarily in modern day Pakistan) would begin to raise up their own rulers, many of whom would acknowledge the Caliph as a spiritual leader, but not as a governmental leader. Islam was no longer the one religion of one state, but the dominate religion of several states. States that began to see Christians and Jews migrate into their borders. The Abbasids and the Fatimids stay around a great deal longer than the Umayyads had, and this is when we see the Muslim world become prosperous in many ways. The Abbasids and the Fatimids both were dominate in trade with both Asia and Europe. The militaries of the Abbasids and the Fatimids were unrivalled by any western power, and the world’s best universities and most advanced ideas were pouring out of Arabic universities. (Any person who tells you human progress stagnated during the middle ages is unintentionally being racist. European progress may have stagnated slightly due mostly to economic constraints, but human progress was alive and well, just because it’s not happening in Europe or the west doesn’t mean it’s not happening).

It was on the border of the Abbasids and the declining Byzantine Empire that the Ottoman Empire was born in 1299. For the duration of the 14th century, the Ottomans saw rapid growth, and by the 15th century the Ottomans had conquered the Byzantine Empire as well as large sections of the Abbasid Empire.

The Ottoman Empire claimed their Sultan, to be the Caliph after the Ottomans defeated the Abbasids (by that point weakened by war with the Mongols on one side and the Ottomans on the other side) in Egypt in the 16th century. From here on out, it’s nothing but rising for the Ottoman Empire until the 18th century.

'Party Time'

‘Party Time’

The Ottoman Empire is notable for its acceptance of a wide variety of cultures. Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims were all welcome and treated mostly equally within the Ottoman Empire. A large system of madrassas, which were church backed schools began to educate the general populace at a rate that would make Europeans jealous. These madrassas furthered the study of science, algebra, language, art, and culture within the Ottoman Empire during its rise.

Through their trade with the also Muslim Mughal Empire of present-day northern India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the Ottoman Empire grew immensely prosperous, as for the Europeans, the only way to India was through Ottoman controlled routes. It wouldn’t be until the Portuguese began their own consistent shipping lanes between Goa and Lisbon that the Ottoman Empire would have any genuine competition with Europe. And even then, it wouldn’t be until the 18th century that the Ottoman Empire really began to feel the pinch from Europe. In the 16th century, the Europeans were lagging one hundred years behind the Ottomans. By the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was 100 years behind Europe.

In the 16th century, much European policy was made based on relations with the super-power, the Ottoman Empire. By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was reliant on aide, trade, and alliances with Britain and/or France.

'Yeesh, we've had better days'.

‘Yeesh, we’ve had better days’.

The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire isn’t just a study of a truly remarkable, enlightened, and thoroughly well-built Empire. It’s the study of the last eastern superpower from the Post-Rome pre-European ascendancy era. It’s the study of classical Islam and its evolution into modern Islam and even the rise of Islamism. It’s a study in the east’s handover of power to the west after over 1,000 years of ascendancy. It’s a study of the rise of Europe and the west, and a warning of what things can go wrong, and what’s worth watching for.

For our sake, since this blog of Hashtag History focuses on the 19th century, we will be looking over the Ottoman Empire past her peak. I could write books on the Ottoman Empire at her peak and how very impressive she is, and why we should study her in schools as much as we study the western empires. (Not that the history of the European powers is well taught at this particular moment, anyway, but we’re working on it). So throughout the posts on the Ottomans, I’ll throw you an occasional tangent, so that you can get a better sense of the Ottomans from the days of the Ottoman state in the 14th century to the height of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th empires. But here, for better or for worse, we’ll be focusing on the stagnation, and then the decline of the Ottoman Empire over the course of the 19th century.

Author’s Note: While I list Sunni and Shia Islam above, there are several more sects of Islam that have emerged over the years, including Sufi Islam and Progressive/Liberal Islam. All of these forms of Islam are worth studying and are fascinating! Have at it! And don’t forget to ask questions on the Ask Hashtag History a Question form! Also, look at our library!