The Ottoman Empire's Inability to Industrialize

  By Elvis S, March 2005; Revised
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The Ottoman Empire rose from a small principality to the foremost powerful state in the Mediterranean and Europe. However, while its supremacy lasted and the empire declined slowly. The European states were able to catch on and surpass the Ottoman Empire and other nations in economy, military, and political power by the mid-nineteenth century. The changes that they went through, which culminated in the Industrial Revolution allowed them to break the relative equalities that essentially all states held during the Agrarian Age. The Ottoman Empire was not able to catch up, adopt, or even more importantly develop these same circumstances and became known as the “Sick Man of Europe” by the 19th century. This was so due to the fact that the essential factors that the Europeans enjoyed were not able to take root in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was not able to go through a process similar to the Great Western Transmutation due to the fact that the climate in the region did not change for the better as it did in Europe, the old Islamic beliefs of superiority had rooted themselves during the Caliphate and the relatively ineffective Crusades, and the inability of the state to cope to understand the factors of the Transmutation and the ability to deal with the interest groups who grew conservative to change and prevented any process that would undermine their present sate in society.

The Ottoman Empire started in the 1280s and was one of the principal and longest lasting dynasties in the region. The Ottoman state began as one of the smallest Turkic principalities in Anatolia and its found was Osman who served as a ghazi warrior. The Ottomans moved into the region as a nomadic tribe alongside other Turkic groups during the Mongol invasions. Due to the surrounding principalities it could only move westward into Byzantine territory. The dynasty’s future successes were assured through relatively long and stable reigns alongside their ability to recognize that agriculture was a fundamental driving force for success at the time. Furthermore, Osman married into a leading Sufi family, which assured him additional support.

He was succeeded by Orhan who married into the Byzantine family due to the rising need for allies for the crumbling Byzantine state that had deteriorated in territory to Constantinople and a few outlying islands and territories in Greece. As a result of the inability of the Byzantine state to maintain stability and control rebellious lords the Byzantine Emperor asked on Murad I to help him out. Murad I furthered his fathers conquests and established the Ottomans as a major Balkan power. He established the janissary troops, which were made of recruited Christian children who underwent extensive training. They were later learned gunpowder military tactics and were an important factor in the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Their successes were aided by their understanding that agrarianism was an important economical concept in their time. This in addition to their merit based social structure helped them to acquire the necessary resources and a very efficient bureaucracy for expansion.

However, after Suleiman the Magnificent the empire began a slow decline that was not felt immaturely but made the state the “sick man of Europe” in the 19th century. The inability of Sultans after Suleiman who were educated under the Kifis system. This nature of upbringing secluded the sons of the Sultan in quarters in the palace and made them unable to rule effectively. Furthermore, the mothers of Sultans from the Harem who exercised much of their sons government for the next hundred and fifty years was not much of a positive addition since they were mostly uneducated in statesmanship much like their children. These events, the already longstanding Sunni tradition of shunning new ideas due to the superior belief caused by the high level of political, economic, and cultural power and influence during the Caliphate, and the Age of Exploration, which opened new sea routes to India and broke the Mediterranean monopoly of the Ottomans were detrimental to the Empire in the centuries to come.

The Western European states did not necessarily hold a superior position during the height of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. They were on their way though in transforming their societies and culminating in the Industrial Revolution they attained vast social and political power that they were able to enforce their will on most of the world for a brief time span in the 19th and early 20th century. This process of change is called the Great Western Transmutation as coined by the late historian Marshall Hodgson. He explains in his essay off the same name that the Western Europeans were able to transform their society from an agrarian one to a technicality and industriously oriented one. They were able to control the forces of nature and were no longer depended on them. This spread from one field to another as the ideas of a technicality approach spread from industry, to military, and intellectuals fields. As a result of this transmutation, which was no longer reversible as can be witnessed through the rapid recovery of Europe after 30 Years War and the English Civil Wars the ability of other competing nations to catch up was made impossible (SR, 81). This completely overturned the way agrarian societies had relatively balanced each other out.

This turn of events that occurred in Europe during the 19th century had its roots in in the time period known as the “Renaissance of the 12th century”. During this period form 1000-1250AD Europe experienced a climate change that elongated the growing seasons and a subsequent population boom. The population in the region for a first time in hundreds of years had an ample supply of food, which in turn increased the population of the regions affected (Jordan, 5, 8-11). This in turn with other coinciding events such as the discovery of iron ore mines increased the food production and population numbers. The newly discovered iron ore put more iron into the economy which eventually resulted in the invention of the horseshoe, which together with the invention of the horse collar allowed for horses to be used to carry plows instead of oxen, which allowed for fields to be tilled faster. Furthermore, the iron was used in cooking pots, which after the iron seeped into the food supply allowed for more iron consumption in the nutrition and increased fertility among women. This increase in iron was also stimulated by the influx of beans and other protein and iron rich foods into the Western European diet via returning Crusaders who picked up from the middle eastern farmers.

This population boom alongside a discovery of vast resources of silver allowed for a richer and more populous region than it had been. In addition the switch from a two field to a three field system allowed for more production of goods. One field lay fallow to restore its potency, one was planted with summer crops, and the other with fall crops. In the end this this created more food alongside these other factors. This increased the population of the region and also the economic wealth as there was a abundance of harvest that could be sold and traded for in addition to the extensive silver mining. This and a move into new fields, manors, and naturally of the growth of a new urban culture through the growth of old and creation of new towns and cities. Furthermore, with an increase in wealth there was an increase in luxury items and a growth in the craftsmen and merchant class that was needed to fulfill the needs of the aristocrats in obtaining luxurious items with their newfound wealth. Intellectually, once the schools had been removed from monasteries they were re-located to Cathedral schools and coinciding with an influx of Islamic thinking, science, translation of Classics, and philosophy sparked a new drive for more education and the eventual creation of medieval universities (Jordan 114, 119).

These events in turn over a span of three centuries developed a new interest in learning and secularism that did not focus as much on God but more on how nature works. The expansion of learning and philosophy culminated in the start of the Protestant Reformation. This event in Western Europe gave a new economic spirit to merchants as the idea of predestination coincided to them with the idea of it being a sign that they are going to heaven if they are successful in business (Coffin, Stacey 516,517). Furthermore, these events were coinciding with the European drive to improve on old and create new technologies and ideas. This can be seen in the allocation of gun powder and its evolution in the most important military asset in siege warfare and later in infantry use, too. In addition the Europeans improved on the compass and adapted Middle Eastern ideas of ship and sail design (SR 80). The next step was the Age of Exploration and the discovery of the new world, which gave the Europeans more area to expand, and the circumvention of Africa opened up new trade routes that broke Middle Eastern monopolies and also weakened the Mediterranean European merchants such as the Venetians.

These events as Hodgson notes culminated in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. During this stage the Europeans were able to assert their domination through world markets. The industrial revolution spread to all aspects of society and efficiency became a factor in bureaucracy, military, and economy. They were able to mechanize their industries and create new weapons. The Enlightenment gave them the ideas of reason and the further evolution of science and subsequently military and medicinal technology. This in turn made the rest of the world depended on their products as European merchants had the ability to out produce local ones since these events did not occur in the Ottoman Empire for various reasons.

The Ottoman Empire by the 19th century had become a mere shell of its former self, three centuries earlier it dictated European policies, and at this point it had become depended on Europeans for its survival. These events occurred because of the inability of the Ottoman Empire to develop the same set of circumstances that favored the Transmutation of society in the West. It along the rest of the world remained a agrarian based society and therefore it was not able to match up on a equal basis with the Western Europeans and the emerging Russian state any longer. The transmutation did not occur in the Ottoman Empire for various reasons. While the climate change ushered in longer growing seasons in Western Europe, the middle east became drier. The amount of rainfall decreased and the already arid region’s harvests declined. In addition the Mongol invasion had a tremendous negative impact on urbanism and farming as the conquering nomadic Mongolian tribes had no knowledge of a agrarian society and urban life. They senselessly destroyed irrigation systems and depopulated many cities with their violent siege tactics. When these factors were brought together the population and production receded further as the already more arid region lacked the now much more needed irrigation systems to support a steady harvest. This resulted in a fall in harvest and a subsequent fall slow decline in population.
Nevertheless, the region still enjoyed superiority culturally and equality with other agrarian societies in the west during the oncoming centuries. However, these events coincided with other factors that would become detrimental in the establishment of a transmutation in the Ottoman Empire and its ability to reform in the 19th century like Japan had successfully. Furthermore, the magnificence, economic, political, and military power of the Caliphate in addition to the superiority of Islamic culture during the period allowed for a feeling of superiority among scholars and philosophers. They believed that every situation had been met and that there was no more need for change in religious edict, and a feeling of superiority arose among them as they were easily dismissive of events in the West. This became especially true after the ineffectiveness of the Crusades. This drove the point home to them that the West was weak and that any potential strength they had at the moment was temporary and that they would be soon overcome. Ibn Khaldun in his philosophical works mentions events in the West and suggest that no one here should be bothered with them as they are simple ideas that will not affect the future (SR 27). A level of intellectual ignorance grew out of this and it was still evident in the Ottoman Empire up until the 19th century when they were loosing battles and they excused them as temporary setback believing in their own superiority.

After the reign of Suleiman Ottoman authority began to slowly wane (Coffin, Stacey 437), the discoveries of the new world and the circumvention of Africa opened up new trade routes and an ample supply of resources into the Western markets. As this progress continued as the Transmutation the Ottoman Empire faced other challenged in it being able to even eventually transform from a agrarian society in the 19th century. The Ottoman sultans began to be secluded in the Kifis system and their quality greatly declined as they weren’t educated or had enough experience to run a state efficiently. The role of government often fell to their mothers during this period, who were not much of administrators themselves as many had not been educated were inexperienced in affairs of state. This allowed for a relatively weak sultanate and the stop of new conquests stopped the dewshirme and children of janissaries were allowed to be recruited. This gave long-term interests in the hand of the Janissaries who often became interested in practicing out their own wills, which became crucial at later points as the weak sultanate later did not have the recourses to control or reform them.

Thus when Crimea was lost to the Russians and the Ottoman Empire sustained its first loss of territory with a significant Islamic population the shockwave was felt throughout the Empire. The first Sultan to recognize that the Westerners had gained a colossal advantage over them was Selim III . He acted by for the first time sending embassies to Western countries and by issuing pleas to the French to send military instructors (Glevin 80). Who came as a result of a greater capitulation treaty that gave more rights to the French merchants than the Ottomans, and an act that made other Europeans crave for their own capitulation treaties. The military instructors were unsuccessful to arouse change among the conservative janissaries who thought that these were temporary setbacks. He was soon deposed and reform was not undertaken again until the reign of Mahmud II. He abolished the Kifis system and understood need for change. Baron de Tot was attained from the French to train the army. The janissaries refused to be trained by a Christian and in their arrogance dismissed that their corps had been reduced to a inefficient military that was unable to cope with modern warfare of the day. He worked slowly introducing new schools, universities, and the Victorious Armies of Mohammed, until after the loss of Greece he was able to summon the support of the Ulama to declare the Janissaries as false Muslim and had their order abolished in 1826 and many were massacred (Glevin 80). Mahmud II imitated further reforms such as newspapers and a printing press, that was unsuccessful until later. However, while he knew what was essentially necessary he and like the men of the Tanzimat and later reformers in the Empire did not understand the Great Transmutation and that military power did not equal modernization. They were not able to Industrialize the Ottoman Empire as many of the interest groups were against such drastic change that would disrupt their power. The Sufi order that controlled guilds called Bektashi was another detrimental force against Transmutation. They did not allow prices to change and their control over guilds led Ottoman products to dwindle in quality and further weakened the economy, which had been decimated by the influx of Western merchants who paid very small fees in comparison to the crippling fees the Ottoman merchants had to pay as tariffs whenever they moved their product from one region to another. This in turn created a bigger vacuum to be filled by European merchants, which made them more dependable on the west. They could not begin to create Industries and factories because they lacked the knowledge and the ideas of Enlightenment and Capitalism to implement major shifts of philosophy back into reason and free enterprise.

Furthermore, the Tanzimat and the eventual Young Ottoman movement, which drew the first Ottoman Constitution were unaware how deep the changes had been in the west that caused the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. The Young Ottomans were not able to realize that liberal ideas of democratic government were more efficient and the Ottoman Constitution basically still allowed for a absolute monarch that could be detrimental to the Transmutation to occur in Ottoman society. They were not able to analyze the changes needed, such as a shift back to the inclination of merit over birth, and the ability to create work ethic among the population by instilling reason for working, such as capitalism, and the ability for personal enrichment. Government owned monopolies did not create any effort among the populace and excessive spending on the military only created great debts instead of a modern state. In a modern state according to Transmutation one would have needed to develop the preference of a mechanized society over agrarianism first. Then to transform industrialization into all factors of life. Furthermore, banking and capitalism never took off as they did in the Netherlands and the West in general. The Western nations developed centralized banks that accumulated capital, which together with the creation of the advent of stock companies allowed them to actually undertake explorations and business ventures. The idea of predestination that developed in Protestantism gave way for a ideology to form that if you are capable to achieve great success in business you might be one of the souls that God has chosen to save. This idea fueled business because it went hand in hand with capitalism. This was not able to occur as the Ulama were wary of the printing press as they thought that Islamic word should be written down by hand, and new ideas were not needed. This goes back to the old inclination on that everything has been already discussed and faced and new ideas and new sciences were unnecessary. Such trends together with the other events created a stagnant and depended agrarian state that was easily exploited by the Western powers who were further detrimental to the Transmutation of the Ottoman Empire as they discouraged factories and industries to emerge that could harm the income and trade of the industries back home.

The Ottoman Empire was not able to go through a process similar to the Great Western Transmutation due to the fact that the climate in the region did not change for the better as it did in Europe, the old Islamic beliefs of superiority had rooted themselves during the Caliphate and the relatively ineffective Crusades, and the inability of the state to cope to understand the factors of the Transmutation and the ability to deal with the interest groups who grew conservative to change and prevented any process that would undermine their present sate in society. Furthermore, the changes that occurred in Western Europe were not able to take hold in the Ottoman Empire as the Islamic belief of superiority suppressed new ideas out of Europe do to the thinking that they were inferior and useless. Furthermore, the interest groups such as the Ulama, the guilds, and the Janissaries were able to progress the decline as they feared that change would upset their role in society and that the setbacks were only temporary occurrences.


I - Selected Readings
II - Glevin, L. James. “The Modern Middle East.” Oxford University Press, 2005.
III - Coffin, Stacey, Lerner, Meacham. “Western Civilizations: Volume II.” Norton : New York, New York.”
IV - Jordan, C. William. “Europe in the High Middle Ages.” Penguin Press: 2001.
V - The Great Western Transmutation. Hodgson, Marshall.