Partners of the Empire: The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions

Partners of the Empire: The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions

by Ali Yaycioglu


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Partners of the Empire offers a radical rethinking of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Over this unstable period, the Ottoman Empire faced political crises, institutional shakeups, and popular insurrections. It responded through various reform options and settlements. New institutional configurations emerged; constitutional texts were codified—and annulled. The empire became a political theater where different actors struggled, collaborated, and competed on conflicting agendas and opposing interests.

This book takes a holistic look at the era, interested not simply in central reforms or in regional developments, but in their interactions. Drawing on original archival sources, Ali Yaycioglu uncovers the patterns of political action—the making and unmaking of coalitions, forms of building and losing power, and expressions of public opinion. Countering common assumptions, he shows that the Ottoman transformation in the Age of Revolutions was not a linear transition from the old order to the new, from decentralized state to centralized, from Eastern to Western institutions, or from pre-modern to modern. Rather, it was a condensed period of transformation that counted many crossing paths, as well as dead-ends, all of which offered a rich repertoire of governing possibilities to be followed, reinterpreted, or ultimately forgotten.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781503604209
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/14/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 957,638
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ali Yaycioglu is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University.

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Partners of the Empire

The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions

By Ali Yaycioglu


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9838-9



Order, Crisis, and Reform, 1700–1806

If I deserve in this world throne and might,
Serving people would be a pure delight.
May God uphold the religion of Islam.
Collapsing then rebuilding, one calls it devran.
Selim III

On April 7, 1789, following the death of his uncle Abdulhamid I (r. 1774–89), Selim III (1761–1808) was enthroned in Istanbul as the twenty-eighth Ottoman sultan. Selim was also a poet and composer; he wrote the quatrain that appears above as an epigraph not long before he became sultan. The Turkish word devran variously means "times" and rotations in time, periodic movements of stars, circuits, and revolutions. In Ottoman and Persian literature, astronomy, and political writing, it signifies the cyclical nature of time. Selim associated devran not only with a cyclical process but also with collapse and rebuilding. It resonates with "revolution" as the term was used in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, meaning changes wrought by the collapse of social orders and the building of new ones. Selim aspired to fulfill his mission — namely, to serve the people — in a time of collapse and rebuilding. "The constitution [tab'] of the state is disordered," he wrote in the same poem, "give, my God, your cure for it."

Selim became sultan when the Ottoman order was in profound crisis. During the long war against Russia, from 1767 to 1774, Ottoman armies were humiliated, exposing the incompetence of Ottoman military administration. The war resulted in the loss of Crimea, a strategic and prestigious province. The 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca between the two empires left the Ottomans with an unbearable economic burden. Fiscal institutions fell short of deriving the necessary resources from the provinces to pay compensation to Russia or the salaries of enlarged military units. Following the war, fiscal pressures and internal unrest shook provinces in the Balkans and Arab lands. In 1786, another war began against the Russian and Austrian empires. This war, which was raging when Selim was enthroned, only worsened the existing problems.

Despite the crisis, Selim bet on optimism in his poem. Devran signified not only collapse, but also rebuilding. Known as a young prince with a reform agenda, he aspired to serve the people, transforming disorder into order. His optimism carried a tone that differed from the attitude that the decline in order was preordained, a foregone conclusion. Selim's aspiration to serve the people reflected a new orientation. In traditional imperial discourse, God entrusted the people to the sultan, who was ordained to rule them. Selim reoriented this relationship. He joyfully desired to serve the people. The choice of the word "people" (nas) was perhaps a deliberate choice, giving a sense of universalism. It sounds as though Selim aspired to serve humanity.

Many in the Ottoman Empire hailed Selim's reform agenda. Galib (1757–99), a renowned poet and a sheikh of the Mevlevi order, burnished Selim's image as a servant of the people, describing him after his enthronement as müceddid — a concept applying to those who came into the world with a divine mission — "for the earth and religion." The term had been used of earlier Muslim rulers since the medieval period. This time it echoed the Nizam-i Cedid, the "New Order," or reform movement that Selim patronized. The Mevlevi Sufi order, to which Selim belonged, was a network influential with the reading public in Istanbul and other cities. The Mevlevis crafted the public image of Selim as a sultan who had come to renew the order of the Ottoman Empire. His reputation as a reformist ruler also took hold abroad. His correspondence with Louis XVI in 1786 was not a secret. As a fellow prince, living in the Topkapi Palace, he asked the king of France for advice on military and fiscal reorganization. A number of royal French military experts had already been in the Ottoman Empire, working with Ottoman officers to reform the military establishment. However, just a couple of months after Selim's enthronement in Istanbul, turbulent events unfolded in Paris, preparing the ground for Louis's demise. The meeting of the Estates-General led to the assault on the Bastille. These events epitomized dissolution and renewal in many regions of the world, an age of revolutions. In another line of Selim's poem, he virtually evoked that global moment by referring to Judgment Day:

Since the entire world is in decay,
Let the balance be reset one day.


When Selim was enthroned, the Ottoman Empire was more than four hundred years old and one of the world's largest polities. Neighboring the Austrian/Habsburg, Russian/Romanov, and Iranian/Qajar empires, the Ottoman lands encompassed most of the Balkans and Greece, Crimea (until 1774), Anatolia, Kurdistan, and the Arab lands, as well as islands in the eastern Mediterranean such as Crete and Cyprus. The empire's population totaled roughly thirty million. Ever since Mehmed II had conquered the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, Constantinople (or Istanbul) had been the seat of the Ottoman dynasty and center of its empire. In the late eighteenth century, Istanbul, with its hinterland, counted 600,000 inhabitants, and was one of the world's most crowded metropolises. Although urban life was lively in Istanbul and other major port and inland cities, most of the empire's population lived in rural areas. Sunni Islam was the dominant religious orientation of the ruling elite, but the Ottoman world housed communities of the three Abrahamic religions — Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — with their sectarian and denominational variations. Ottoman Turkish was the primary language of the Ottoman state apparatus, though Arabic, Greek, and Armenian were used throughout the empire as ecumenical written languages, and more than twenty other tongues were spoken and written in different communities. Multiple forms of urban, rural, littoral, and pastoral life further diversified this dizzying religious, ethnic, and linguistic mix.

Ottoman provinces, cities, and communities were integrated into the empire in different ways. Historically, the Ottoman center established tight institutional and political control in Anatolia (extending into Bilad al-Sham, or Greater Syria) and Rumelia (the Balkans). Wallachia and Moldavia, Bosnia, the Morea (Peloponnese), Kurdistan, the provinces of Baghdad and Basra, Egypt, Yemen, the Hejaz, and other regions contiguous to the central lands were relatively autonomous, with diverse institutional formations and ties to the administration. The central administration developed mechanisms to keep these distant provinces integrated into the empire. Sometimes, it maintained a small but effective military presence in strongholds or co-opted regional elites. Crimea, Algeria, Tunis, the republic of Dubrovnik, and Montenegro were vassal polities with their own ruling dynasties or oligarchies.

Despite the diversity of the Ottoman Empire, transportation networks created considerable physical integration. The Ottoman capital and provinces were linked by a web of old land, river, and sea routes, many used by earlier empires. On intercity roads, which the Ottomans maintained and upgraded, hundreds of inns, storage houses, and barns served travelers, merchants, caravans, and imperial officers. Along the roads, there were checkpoints and post-houses, where horses were readily provided for dispatch riders. Robbers and bandits were regular participants in Ottoman intercity traffic. The center assigned the tasks of securing and maintaining roadways to local communities with tax exemptions, or it outsourced the work to local notables.

The Ottoman Empire was a land, river, and sea empire. Istanbul was the imperial capital, but also a port city, built on the Bosporus, the strategic sea passage connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Other port cities, such as Izmir, Salonika, Acre, Sidon, Alexandria, and Basra, were not only hubs and customs stations but also sites where interimperial merchant communities thrived. The Danube was the key waterway linking eastern Europe to the Balkans, and the Balkans to the Black Sea. Istanbul depended on this route for its grain, which was supplied from Bulgaria and Wallachia. The Nile connected sub-Saharan Africa to the Ottoman Mediterranean, while the Euphrates and Tigris tied Indian Ocean trade routes to Ottoman Mesopotamia.

* * *

Natural barriers, such as rivers and mountain ranges, formed the boundaries between the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian, Russian, and Iranian empires. Local militias and units sent from the center manned fortresses along the borderlands. Traders and diplomatic emissaries crossed borders at these checkpoints, paid tariffs, and presented their papers to guards. But other actors — pastoral and peasant communities with cultural and economic ties to neighboring empires, migrant rural workers, smugglers, political refugees, and fugitives — were always present too, circumventing the borders. Bordering seas proved even more difficult for the Ottoman authorities to control. Piracy was an enduring challenge, and captives and merchandise seized from the merchant ships of other states kept diplomatic missions in Istanbul busy, as they did their counterparts in other imperial capitals.

According to Charles Maier, the defining features of empire are twofold. First, conquest and the subjugation of diverse peoples and lands by a conquering elite. Second, a political regime based on an unequal relationship between the ruling elite and ruled subjects. If we accept this definition, we can refer to the Ottoman polity as an empire. However, unlike colonial empires, that of the Ottomans was not structured as a hierarchical relationship between a mother country (or "metropole") and conquered and colonized distant lands and peoples. Rather, it resembled the Roman Empire, with a contiguous body and a center associated with the imperial capital, Istanbul. Ottoman elites called the lands under their authority the Ottoman, or Well-protected, Domains (Memalik-i 'Osmani or Memalik-i Mahruse) and the polity, which elites constituted with a set of institutions and a hierarchy of officeholders, the Exalted State (Devlet-i 'Aliyye). The central pillar of the polity was the Ottoman dynasty (Al-i 'Osman), which had founded and ruled the empire from the fourteenth century on without interruption or competition. Since its establishment, except for a short interregnum in the early fifteenth century, when four Ottoman princes became vassals of the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, an Ottoman sultan had always occupied the pinnacle of the state. Until the seventeenth century, Ottoman princes became sultans as a result of internal competition, including civil wars and fratricide. In the early seventeenth century, fratricide gave way to primogeniture among male heirs of the family. When Selim III was enthroned, there were only two other princes, his cousins Mustafa and Mahmud.

The Ottoman sultan, who also held other titles, including padishah, khan, and caliph (referring respectively to the Persian, Turco-Mongol, and Islamic traditions), was considered an omnipotent sovereign who received his authority from God. The Ottoman elite sometimes depicted the sultan as the spearhead of Holy War (gaza) and leader of holy warriors (gazis), or as a messianic figure who came to power during an apocalyptic breakdown to reorder the world. Sometimes the sultan represented a caliph, God's shadow on earth, the leader of all Muslims and servants of the holy cities Mecca and Medina. Or he appeared as a leader with a spiritual mission to renew the affairs of religion and earth, as in Galib's attribution of this role to Selim III. A tacit agreement was thought to exist between God, the sultan, the sultan's servants, and the people (or subjects). God entrusted his subjects (vedi 'at'u-llah) to the sultan, who in turn entrusted his servants — the viziers, governors, and other officeholders — with their rule. The sultan was meant to punish his servants if they acted unjustly and unlawfully. However, if the sultan acted unjustly, there was no formal institution to punish him. God would punish an unjust ruler in the afterlife.

Traditional Ottoman politics did not include formal limitations of the sultan's authority. He was without a partner or institutional and formal limitations such as estates or diets. His legitimacy as a sovereign power sprang from two different roots, Sharia (Islamic law) and Kanun (corpus of sultanic law and imperial customs). Sharia "was universal, immutable, divinely revealed and hence spiritually supreme" law, Cornell Fleischer writes. "Kanun was regional, amendable, and created by human reason." In Ottoman political language, "religion and state" (din ü devlet) were often used together as a single term to reflect this dual nature of the source of authority. Even though he was not bound by formal laws, as were most of the other absolute monarchs of the early modern world, Ottoman elites and the public expected the sultan to abide harmoniously by Islamic law and imperial customs, as well as to consult with dignitaries and the learned as the ruler and protector — or, as Selim III defined himself — the servant of the people. Despite that, the relationship between Islamic law and Kanun was not static and free from tension. Islamic law was often seen as protecting life and property against the menace of sultanic seizure and executions. Moral and religious critiques of the sultan and sultanic authority by various circles sometimes resonated strongly in different segments of the society. Palace politics and factionalism among imperial elites and in the military establishment often restricted sultanic power. Most of the time, sultans' mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, concubines, cousins, and sons-in-law acted as leaders of or protagonists in competing factions. Urban rebellions led by the janissaries in alliance with various segments of the society, including religious scholars, preachers, guilds, merchants, and migrant workers, not only regularly challenged authority, but also gave rise to new legitimacy claims on the social and political order. Regional unrest and uprisings by peasants and nomads in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries imposed further restrictions on the sultan's authority.

Elites, Imperial and Provincial

If it is a necessity to grant a vizierate to somebody from the provinces, one should look at his fame.

Ali Pasha of Canik

The ruling people in the metropole were not a national body but a web of imperial and provincial elites organized around the Ottoman dynasty, military, and fiscal bureaucracy and/or established in the provinces or attached to the center through different offices, deals, and statuses. Unlike in many European and Asian polities, there was no hereditary office that passed automatically from one generation to the other in Ottoman statecraft. Despite this fact, various households managed to monopolize positions in the imperial establishment across multiple generations. Family lines, a patronage system, and references were key for a young man seeking to launch a career. Slavery persisted as an important instrument by means of which the Ottoman elite acquired, trained, and employed young men in the military and bureaucracy. And elites with slave or humble backgrounds were as much inclined as others to construct bureaucratic dynasties after the consolidation of their positions as high-ranking officeholders.

Military and administrative careers began in the lower ranks and culminated in viziership. Heading the empire's limited number of viziers was the grand vizier, who was chief of the military and bureaucratic establishment. Provincial governors of various ranks (including that of vizier) and leading military commanders came after the grand vizier. High-ranking governors holding the title of vizier enjoyed not only great prestige as primary representatives of the sultanic authority but also substantial revenues collected in their provinces. The decrees (buyruldu) they issued under their seals were the second most authoritative imperial documents after sultanic decrees (ferman) in provincial governance. Governors and their retinues traversed the empire, accompanied in times of both war and peace by commanders and admirals appointed for special military and administrative missions, with different ranks and titles.


Excerpted from Partners of the Empire by Ali Yaycioglu. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

A Note on Transliteration and Exchange Rates xiii

Introduction 1

1 Empire: Order, Crisis, and Reform, 1700-1806 17

I The Ottoman World 19

II The New Order 38

2 The Notables: Governance, Power, and Wealth 65

3 Communities: Collective Action, Leadership, and Politics 117

4 Crisis: Riots, Conspiracies, and Revolutions, 1806-1808 157

5 Settlement: The Deed of Alliance and the Empire of Trust (1808) 203

Conclusion 239

Select Bibliography 249

Notes 301

Index 337

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