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Turkish (Ottoman) Empire Declines

The Turkish (Ottoman) Empire decline started during the reign of Selim I (1566-1574). This was followed by a series of weak rulers whose reign were dominated by palace intrigues, economic instability, wars, and rebellions. Sultan Murad IV and several Grand Viziers attempted to make reforms, but competing harem and government factions stood in their way. The decline of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire lasted until the deposition of Sultan Ibrahim I (the Mad) and the accession of Sultan Mehmed IV in 1648.  These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.

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Selim II

The great Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent died in 1566, leaving behind a vast, wealthy, and powerful empire to his son, Selim II. Fond of women and drink, Selim was Suleiman’s least qualified son to rule the Empire. However, he was the only one left alive after a bloody fight for the throne against his brother. Behind his back, the people called him “the Sot” or the “the Drunkard.” After he was crowned Sultan, he spent most of his time inside the harem. He left the administration of the empire to his son-in-law and Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha. During Selim’s time, the women of the harem  dominated the Ottoman court. One of the women who excelled during this time was Selim’s wife, Nur Banu Sultan.

Selim’s reign was marked by costly naval wars with Venice and Spain for Cyprus and Tunis. The Ottomans also engaged in long and expensive wars in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia with Safavid Persia. Thousands of Turkish soldiers died from injuries, diseases, and the extreme heat and cold of northwest Iran. There was so little to gain in the campaign as the Safavids used the scorched earth tactic which left little for the Ottomans to plunder. In spite of the incredible loss of life and money, the Ottomans rulers continued the Iranian campaign.

Murad III

Murad III succeeded his father Selim.

Selim died in 1574, and he was succeeded by his son, Murad III. The harem intrigues which started during the time of his father only worsened during his reign. The palace was divided into two factions with the first led by Murad’s mother, Nur Banu Sultan, and the rival faction led by the Sultan’s wife, Safiye Sultan. Sokullu Mehmed Pasha and his wife Ismihan Sultan backed the party of Nur Banu Sultan. They favored a more diplomatic approach in dealing with Safavid Persia and the European powers.

The pro-Venice viziers, meanwhile, backed Safiye Sultan’s faction. This group had a more aggressive stance against the Empire’s neighbors. During Murad’s reign, Safiye Sultan’s allied viziers convinced the sultan to launch a new war against Persia. This was opposed by Sokullu Mehmed Pasha, but this war turned out to be successful. The unpopular Grand Vizier was later assassinated by a dervish in 1579. The Ottoman victories in Persia were short-lived as the Safavid shah continued to strengthen his army. The Ottomans suffered defeat at the hands of the Safavids over the years.

The Habsburg threat in Central Europe also became stronger as the Ottomans fought in Asia. Warfare in the European front had changed over the years since the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. This made it difficult for the Ottomans to expand their territory. The first decisive factor was that the Europeans owned the latest small and large caliber weapons, while the Ottomans still held on to outdated ones. The threat of Ottoman expansion further north also made the Europeans realize that they needed to present a unified front against a common enemy.

Mehmed III

Mehmed III acceded the throne when his father, Sultan Murad, died in 1595. Rebellions greeted his accession in the Ottoman principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, so he decided to send his army north to quash it. They were forced to retreat south because of harsh winter. Unable to do anything about the threat, Mehmed requested the Crimean Tatar khan to put an end to it instead. This alarmed the Polish king, so he sent his own army to help the rebels in Wallachia and Moldavia.

In 1598, the Habsburg-backed Prince Michael of Wallachia took Nicopolis, Moldavia, and Transylvania. Transylvania was later recaptured by the Ottomans with the help of the Poles who were uncomfortable with Austria’s growing power in Eastern Europe.

Jelali revolts which started right after the Ottomans’ victory against the Austrians in Keresztes dominated Mehmed’s reign. The conflict stemmed from Grand Vizier Cigalazade Yusuf Sinan Pasha’s decree that all the troops should assemble before his tent after the battle. Those who were not present would be labeled as deserters. He also decreed that the deserters would be executed, and their properties in Anatolia would be seized. This angered the fief-holding cavalrymen, as well as the regular Turkish and Kurdish soldiers. Many of the disappointed soldiers went home and started the Jelali revolts.

Ahmed I

Mehmed died in 1603, and his 13-year-old son, Ahmed I, succeeded him. Since the new sultan was still a young boy, his mother Handan Sultan and the chief eunuch Dervish Mehmed Agha became the most influential forces in his court. The sultan inherited the Jelali revolts and the renewed wars with the Safavids from his father. Ahmed’s viziers were forced to sign a peace treaty with the Habsburgs in 1606 as it could not afford wars on both the European and Persian fronts. By this time, the Safavids had also revamped its army and acquired the latest weapons from its allies in Europe.

In 1604, the Safavids scored an important win in the Battle of Urmia. They quickly followed it up with the capture of Azerbaijan, Diyarbakir, Mosul, Najaf, Baghdad, Karbala, and some Ottoman territories in the Caucasus. The loss of these territories was a heavy blow to the Ottomans. The Persians were now dangerously close to the Ottoman heartland, while rebellions still simmered in Anatolia.

Because of the losses, the Turkoman and Kurdish tribesmen who swore loyalty to the Ottomans then sided with the Persians. This switch triggered another Jelali revolt, but this was later crushed by the ruthless Grand Vizier Kuyucu Murad Pasha between 1607 and 1610. Although the revolt was crushed, the roots of the problems remained. By 1612, the Ottoman losses against the Safavids were too hard to ignore, so they were forced to sue for peace.

The Ottomans were forced to give up their claims to some parts of the Caucasus. Iran, on the other hand, promised to send a hefty annual tribute of silk plus promise an alliance with the Ottomans against Russia in the Caucasus. This treaty came to nothing as both sides continued to raid each other’s borders. War flared up again by 1616, and the Ottomans suffered another defeat at the hands of the Safavids.

Chaos: From Mustafa I to Ibrahim

Mustafa I became sultan when his brother, Ahmed I, died in 1617. This weak ruler was only a figurehead for the more powerful Kosem Sultan, the concubine of Sultan Ahmed. During his reign, Mustafa relied heavily on Kosem Sultan. This was no wonder as he grew up and lived all his life inside the harem before his brother’s death. He reigned for three months before the ambitious Kosem Suntan deposed him. He was replaced by one Ahmed’s sons by Mahfiruz Hatun, Osman II, as the new ruler of the empire in 1618.

The young Osman II initially did well by securing a peace treaty with the Safavids in Persia. He also led the Ottoman army into victory against the Poles in 1620. Still, he was no match for the powerful enemies at home. These enemies included Kosem Sultan who wanted to get rid of him because she wanted one of her sons as sultan. Some of his most formidable enemies were the Janissary corps and the ulema (Muslim scholars expert in Islamic law). The Janissary corps rebelled when the sultan attempted to dissolve the troops that were recruited through the Devshirme system. The ulema, meanwhile, antagonized him when Osman tried to curb the power of the religious elite.

On the 20th of May 1622, Osman II’s reign ended when he was murdered by his own troops. His uncle, Mustafa I, was recalled and crowned as sultan once again. His reappointment did not sit well with the people, and Kosem Sultan’s appointment of a corrupt vizier did nothing to help him either. Chaos reigned once again as the Janissaries and sipahis rioted and looted all over the capital. The governor of Erzurum, Abaza Mehmed Pasha, also launched a rebellion to punish the Janissaries who were responsible for Osman’s death. The people demanded a new sultan, and by 1623, Mustafa was forced to step down a second time.

Things went smoothly for Kosem Sultan as she placed one of her sons, Murad IV, as sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He was dependent on his mother for every decision during his reign, but to his credit, Murad IV brought a bit of stability to the volatile empire. In 1624, the Safavids rose once again to recapture former territories now in Ottoman hands. The Shia Safavids occupied Baghdad and killed most of the city’s Sunni inhabitants. While this was happening, the rebel leader Abaza Mehmed Pasha and his followers launched another rebellion. He was defeated in 1624, but Murad IV pardoned him and told him (including his followers) to join the campaign against the Safavids.

The campaigns to dislodge the Safavids in Baghdad between 1625 and 1630 all ended in failure. In 1631, the frustrated Murad removed the Grand Vizier Husrew Pasha from his position for his failure in Baghdad. The Janissaries and sipahis promptly rebelled. Instead of crushing the rebellion, Murad mistakenly invited the rebels to the capital to hear their side. They came to Istanbul, and chaos descended when they started to riot.

The sultan was forced to make concessions to the rioters, so he ordered the execution of some high officials. However, the Janissaries and the sipahis were not satisfied, and the chaos in the capital continued. The mess worsened when a destructive fire raged in and destroyed a large part of Istanbul in 1633. Turkish smokers who frequently visited coffee houses were accused of setting the city on fire. Murad responded by shutting down the coffee houses and ordering the execution of some Ottoman intellectuals (who were also patrons of coffee houses).

After many years of defeats, the Ottomans finally recaptured Baghdad from the Safavids in 1638. Both parties signed a peace treaty in 1639. Mesopotamia went to the Ottomans, while the Safavids retained control of Azerbaijan and a large part of the Caucasus.

Murad IV died in 1640, and he was succeeded by his infamous brother, Ibrahim. The new sultan had spent most of his life in the harem and was nicknamed the Mad because of his mental instability. Palace intrigues returned with a vengeance, but the instability in the empire was balanced by the competent rule of the Grand Vizier Kemankeş Kara Mustafa Pasha. He was responsible for reforming the empire’s budget and taxation during Ibrahim’s reign.

He also helped curb corruption, tried to limit the number of Janissaries and sipahis in the army, and frustrated the expansion plans of the Poles and Russians in Ottoman territories. Unfortunately, one of his most powerful enemies was the sultan’s own mother, Kosem Sultan. She led a rebellion against him, and he was forced to step down in 1644. He was eventually executed.

Kosem Sultan was also responsible for pushing Ibrahim to approve of the naval invasion of Crete. It was largely unsuccessful, and the venture further drained the Ottoman treasury. Ibrahim’s excessive spending on clothes and furs also did not help the empire. The mad sultan had a tendency to demand expensive gifts from his officials, and this only fueled the corruption within the government.

In 1648, Venetian ships successfully blockaded the Dardanelles. The price of grain and other foodstuffs became higher as products from Egypt could not pass through the blockade. The Janissary corps, sipahis, and ulemas launched another rebellion until Ibrahim was forced to step down. He was succeeded by his son, Mehmed IV, on August 8, 1648. Ibrahim was executed ten days later.

Causes of the Decline

The Military

While the Ottomans were at war in Europe, Anatolia was brewing with rebellions. In the past wars, the Ottoman Empire lost many soldiers because of injuries and diseases. This included the disciplined Janissaries recruited through the Devshirme system (levy of Christian boys who later converted to Islam) who often brought them victory during wars. The Empire was later forced to replace them with Muslim recruits who were not trained enough or were ill-disciplined.

Economy: The High Cost of War

The long wars with Persia and Austria were expensive ventures for the Ottoman Empire. During the reign of Murad III, the English (with the help of its ambassador) established a trading relationship with the Ottoman Empire. This allowed the English to sell tin and other products to the Empire. The English’s most important products were expensive muskets, gunpowder, and other weapons that the Empire bought to use against the Persians and Austrians.

Over the years, the Empire also experienced shortages in gold and silver that were used to mint coins. The government had no choice but to reduce the quantity of precious metal in each coin that they made (debasing the coinage) and depend on imported metals for their coins. The coin’s lowered value then drove the prices of food and materials up. The government and the private employers, however, had no choice but to keep the wages of the people down. The high price of necessities and the imposition of high taxes coupled with low wages created discontent among the people.

Government officials, soldiers, and common people all suffered from this economic slump. Government officials who did not receive their salaries on time because the treasury was empty turned to corruption. The troops’ salaries also went unpaid or were simply insufficient when the wages finally came. The war booty that the sipahis captured over the years also became insufficient (especially with the scorched earth tactic the Safavids used), and this made the work of the cavalrymen less desirable. As the Empire plunged into chaos, the government also started to seize the sipahis’ lands (timars and ziamets) for additional revenues and taxes.

The situation of Janissary corps was no better as their wages also went unpaid or were insufficient. Their demand for a wage increase and donations made during the Sultan’s accession also did not materialize. In addition, they resented the entrance of ill-trained and ill-disciplined Muslim recruits in the Janissary corps. The Janissary corps rebelled in 1589, while the sipahis launched their own in 1592 and in 1603. The resentment between the two branches of the Ottoman army started when the Janissary corps quelled the sipahi rebellion in 1603.

The Empire was a haven for rebellion, but a more potent threat in the form of homeless peasants loomed on the horizon. As the government seized the sipahis’ lands, the peasants who lived and worked in the fiefs had no choice but to leave as well. These levendats or wanderers enlisted as members of private armies of Ottoman governors and fought in Persia or Europe. After the war, these experienced but unemployed men turned to banditry to live.


Photo by: Belli değil –, Public Domain, Link

Kurat, A.N. The New Cambridge Modern History: The Ascendancy of France. Edited by F. L. Carsten. Vol. V. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Faroqhi, Suraiya, ed. The Cambridge History of Turkey: The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603–1839. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. NY, NY: Basic Books, 2007.

Kia, Mehrdad. The Ottoman Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Shaw, Stanford Jay. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey : Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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