Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire

Called by the Turks Osmanlıs, after the name of the founder of the dynasty Osman I (Ar., ʿUthmān), the Ottomans were Oghuz (Tk., Oğuz) Turks who came out of Central Asia and created a vast state that ultimately encompassed all of southeastern Europe up to the northern frontiers of Hungary, Anatolia, and the Middle East up to the borders of Iran as well as the Mediterranean coast of North Africa almost to the Atlantic Ocean. As a multiethnic, multireligious, and multicultural entity, the Ottoman Empire was the last of the great Islamic empires, which emerged in the later Middle Ages and continued its existence until the early twentieth century.

Conquest, 1300–1600.
The Ottoman Empire was created by a series of conquests carried out between the early fourteenth and late sixteenth centuries by ten successive capable rulers of the Ottoman Turkish dynasty. Starting as nomadic gazis (Ar., ghāzī, “raider”), fighting for the faith of Islam against the decadent Byzantine Empire on behalf of the Seljuk Empire of Konya (“Seljuks of Rum”), Osman I and his successors in the fourteenth century expanded primarily into Christian lands of southeastern Europe as far as the Danube, while avoiding conflict with the Muslim Turkoman principalities that had dominated Anatolia after they defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. These conquests were facilitated by policies that left the defeated Christian princes in control of their states as long as they accepted vassalage and provided tribute and warriors to assist further Ottoman conquests and that allowed Christian officials and soldiers to join the Ottoman government and army as mercenaries without being required to convert to Islam. This first Ottoman Empire incorporated territories that encompassed the modern states of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia; it bypassed the Byzantine capital Constantinople, which, despite the depop- ulation and despoilage inflicted by the Latin Crusaders early in the thirteenth century, held out as a result of its massive defense walls as well as the services provided by soldiers from Christian Europe, though its emperors for the most part accepted the suzerainty of the Ottoman leaders. Efforts by the Byzantine emperors to reunite the Orthodox church with Rome in order to stimulate the creation of a new crusade to rescue their empire led to new internal divisions that prevented any sort of unified resistance to the Ottomans.

This initial period of Ottoman expansion came to an end during the reign of Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402) who, influenced by the Christian princesses and their advisers at the Ottoman court, replaced the gazi tradition of conquering Christian territories with seizure of the Turkoman Muslim principalities in Anatolia; at the same time he substituted Byzantine for Muslim practices in his court and administration. The Muslim Turkomans who had led the conquests into Europe as gazis refused to participate in attacks on their Muslim coreligionists, however, particularly since the spoils available was far less than in Europe, so the conquests to the East were accomplished largely with contingents furnished by Christian vassals. Many of the displaced Anatolian Turkoman princes took refuge with the Mamlūk sultans who since 1250 had displaced the Ayyūbids in Egypt and Syria, or with the rising Tatar conqueror of Iran and Central Asia, Tamerlane, where they sought assistance in regaining their territories. The Mamlūk Empire was then attempting to expand its influence north from Syria into Cilicia and the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, but it was by this time too weak to provide substantial military assistance to the Turkomans. Tamerlane also preferred to move through Iran into India, but fearing that Ottoman expansion eastward past the Euphrates might threaten his western provinces, he mounted a massive invasion of Anatolia that culminated in his rout of the Ottoman army and capture of Bayezid I at the Battle of Ankara (1402). To ensure that no single power would rise up to dominate Anatolia and threaten his domains, he went on to ravage the peninsula and restore the surviving Turkoman princes before resuming his invasion of India.

Bayezid I died in captivity, but enough of his sons survived to contest for power during the Ottoman Interregnum (1402–1413) that followed. Initially Prince Süleyman, based at Edirne, managed to retain Ottoman power in Europe with the assistance of the Christian vassal princes of southeastern Europe. Ultimately, however, his efforts to restore Ottoman rule in Anatolia were defeated by his brother Mehmed, supported by the Turkoman gazis who had remained along the Danube fighting against the Hungarians, and who had opposed Bayezid's expansion into the Muslim East as well as the Christian vassals’ influence in his court. As Mehmed I (r. 1413–1421), he restored Ottoman rule between the Danube and the Euphrates, driving out Christian influences in the court and inaugurating a policy, continued by Murad II (r. 1421–1444, 1446–1451) and Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481) “the Conqueror” (Fâtih); this policy instituted direct Ottoman administration in both Europe and Anatolia in place of the indirect rule through vassals which had characterized the previous century.

This restoration was accompanied in 1453 by Mehmed II's conquest and long siege of Byzantine Constantinople. The city had been ravaged and largely depopulated since its occupation by Latin Crusaders in 1204. But Mehmed intended to restore it to its old splendor and prosperity so it could serve as the capital of the restored Roman Empire that he wished to create. Therefore, instead of following the Muslim tradition of sacking cities that resisted conquest, he used his army to rebuild it and then carried out a policy of forced immigration (sürgün) of peoples from all parts of his empire to repopulate it and restore its economic life as quickly as possible. Mehmed repopulated the new capital with Christians and Jews, in addition to Muslims.

The rapid expansion of the Ottoman dominions created severe financial, economic, and social strains. These were, however, successfully resolved during the long and relatively peaceful reign of Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512), thus making possible substantial expansion in the first half of the sixteenth century beyond the boundaries of the first empire, across the Danube through Hungary to the gates of Vienna and eastward into the territories of the classical Islamic empires of the Umayyads and ʿAbbāsids. Sultan Selim I (r. 1512–1520) “the Grim” (Yavuz), in response to the rise of the Ṣafavid empire in Iran starting about 1500 and its threat to Anatolia and to the regional balance of power, first defeated the Ṣafavids at Chaldiran (1514) in eastern Anatolia, and then went on to conquer the Mamlūk dominions during a rapid campaign through Syria and Egypt in 1516–1517, soon afterward adding the Arabian peninsula to his domains. With the confrontation of the Safavids and the conquest of Arab world complete, the Ottoman Empire's strategic and ideological focus shifted. The sultans became guardians of the hajj and the holy places of Islam, and claimed primacy in the Islamic world as the Great Caliphs. The Ottoman Empire became the most powerful state in the Islamic world.

Sultan Süleyman, “The Lawgiver” (Kanuni; called “The Magnificent” in Europe), who ruled from 1520 to 1566, supported by an alliance with France against their common Habsburg enemy, went on to conquer Hungary (1526) and to put Vienna under a siege (1529), which though unsuccessful was followed by the creation of a system of border gazi warriors who carried out guerrilla warfare with raids well into central Europe during the next two centuries. With the stalemate in land warfare, the struggle between the Ottomans and Habsburgs was transferred to the Mediterranean Sea. Süleyman created a powerful navy under the leadership of the pirate governor of Algeria, Grand Admiral Hayruddin Barbarossa; the commander not only brought Algeria into the empire as a province whose revenues were set aside in perpetuity for support of the Ottoman navy, but also made the entire Mediterranean into an Ottoman lake. Süleyman also expanded Ottoman power in the East; after conquering Iraq and the southern Caucasus from the Ṣafavids (1534), he built an eastern fleet that from bases in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea conquered the Yemen and broke European naval efforts to blockade the old international shipping routes through the Middle East and then went on to assist Muslim rulers in western India and Indonesia against the Portuguese and others. Under Süleyman, the Ottoman Empire became a world power.
Government and Society.

The reign of Sultan Süleyman marked the peak of Ottoman power and prosperity as well as the highest development of its governmental, social, and economic systems. The Ottoman sultans preserved the traditional Middle Eastern social division between a small ruling class (askeri or “military”) at the top, whose functions were limited largely to keeping order and securing sufficient financial resources to maintain itself and carry out its role, and a large subject class of rayas (reâyâ, or “protected flock”), organized into autonomous communities according to religion (millets) or economic pursuit (esnaf, or “guilds”) that cared for all aspects of life not controlled by the ruling class.
Ruling class.

Membership in the ruling class was open to all who declared and manifested loyalty to the sultan, his dynasty, and his empire; who accepted the religion of Islam; who knew and practiced the “Ottoman Way,” a highly complex system of behavior including use of the Ottoman language, a variant derived from Turkish, Arabic, and Persian; and who knew and carried out the particular practices used by one or another of the groups into which the ruling class was divided. Those who failed to meet these requirements were considered members of the subject class regardless of their origins or religion. Thus ruling class members could be the children of existing members, but only if they acquired and practiced all the required characteristics. Members could also come from the devşirme system of recruitment among Christian youths, which was carried out on a large scale in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the recruits were converted to Islam and educated in the Ottoman Way in the palace school established by Mehmed II and continued by his successors. Other members entered the ruling class as slaves or captives of existing members, or as “renegades” who came to the Ottoman Empire from all the nations of Europe, seeking their fortunes under the banner of the sultans. In general, all ruling class members who came from a Turkish or Muslim heritage, including the former members of the ruling classes of the Seljuk and Mamlūk empires and their descendants, formed a Turko-Islamic aristocracy; converts from Christianity formed a separate devşirme class. The two groups struggled for power and prestige, with the ruler seeking to balance them with equal positions and revenues in order to control and use both.

Members of the ruling class were divided into “institutions” according to function. The Palace or Imperial Institution in the Topkapı Palace consisted of two branches: the Inner Service (enderûn), including the Harem, was charged with producing, maintaining, training, and entertaining sultans, and as such comprised the sultans themselves, their wives, concubines, children, and slaves; the Outer Service (birûn) included servants of the sultan who were involved in affairs outside of as well as within the palace, in fact exercising the sultan's function of directing the army and administering the empire. The Scribal Institution (kalemiye), constituting the treasury of the sultan and including all the “men of the pen” (ehl-i kalem), carried out the administrative duties of the ruling class, in particular assessing and collecting taxes, making expenditures, and writing imperial decrees and most other administrative documents.

It included the grand vizier (sadr-ı azam) and other officials holding the rank of vizier and the title pasha (paşa) who met as the imperial council (divan) in the kubbealtı section of the second courtyard of the palace and were in charge of supervising and leading the Ottoman system on behalf of the sultan. The Military Institution (seyfiye) included the “men of the sword” (ehl-i seyf) charged with expanding and defending the empire and keeping order and security: the sipahi cavalry, commanded for the most part by members of the Turko-Islamic aristocracy; the Janissary (yeniçeri) infantry, military arm of the devşirme, which comprised the most important part of the Ottoman army starting in the sixteenth century and constituted the principal garrisons and police of major cities and towns of the empire; the Ottoman navy, long commanded by grand admirals who were given the governorship of Algeria as well as control of the customs duties of most of the ports of the Mediterranean to provide them with necessary revenues; the artillery (topçiyan); and various other corps. Finally there was the Religious or Cultural Institution (ilmiye), led by the şeyhülislam (Ar., shaykh al-Islām) and composed of “men of knowledge” (ehl-i ilm, ülemâ; Ar. ʿulamāʿ), constituting not only the leaders of prayer (imāms) and others serving in the mosques, but also the judges (qadi) and jurisconsults (müfti), and all others in the realm of culture; to these persons the title efendi was given, as it was to members of the scribal class, who also had to undergo religious training. The Islam maintained by the Ottoman ülema was orthodox Sunnī.

Within the institutions of the Ottoman ruling class, organization was maintained largely in accordance with financial functions. Each position had certain sources of revenue, either taxes of varied sorts, fees levied in return for the performance of official duties or salaries paid by the treasury. In general, all revenues in the empire were considered to constitute the imperial wealth (havâssı hümayûn) of the sultan, who alienated it on occasion in perpetuity as private property (mülk) or for religious foundations (vakıf, evkâf; Ar., waqf, awqāf) or maintained it in financial/administrative units (muqataʿât) intended to produce revenues for the sultan and his ruling class. Out of the revenues that were left as muqataʿât, some were assigned as emanets to collectors (emins) who were paid salaries for carrying out their duties, for the most part consisting of collecting taxes or fees without additional functions; some were assigned to officials of the state or army who used the revenues entirely as their own salary (timars) in return for performing functions in addition to collecting the revenues, as viziers in the imperial council or as officers of the sipahi cavalry or the artillery corps; and some were assigned as tax-farms (iltizam) to tax-farmers (mültezims) as the result of bids won by those who promised to pay the treasure the largest share of their annual revenues, since unlike the timar holders they performed no other function than the collection of revenues. Regardless of the source of revenues, the holders of the muqata’ât were given only enough authority to make certain that taxable revenues were produced; the producers of the revenue, whether cultivators, artisans or merchants, maintained property rights to pursue their own occupations as long as they delivered the required taxes.

Subject class.
All functions of society as well as of government and administration not dealt with by the ruling class were relegated to the reâyâ (protected flock) or rayas, who constituted the subject class. For this purpose the reâyâ were organized into religiously based communities called at different times cemaʿât, tâ’ife and, finally millet, as well as into guilds (esnâf), mystic orders of dervishes (tariqât) and other groupings that formed a substratum of Ottoman society. Most important were the religiously based communities, most often called millets, of which three were established by Mehmed the Conqueror soon after he made Istanbul his capital in 1453. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Gregorian millets were led by their patriarchs and staffed by the clerics organized in hierarchies under their authority. The former included, in addition to ethnic Greeks, all the Slavs and Romanians living in southeastern Europe; the latter included not only Armenians, but also gypsies, Nestorians, Copts, and other Eastern Christians. Mehmed II and his successor Bayezid II attempted to organize the Jewish millet like those of the Christians, appointing Moses Capsali, grand rabbi of Istanbul under the last Byzantines, as chief of all the rabbis and all Jews throughout the empire.

In the countryside, villages were for the most part constituted entirely of members of one millet or another. In the larger towns and cities, quarters (sg., mahalle; pl., mahallât), surrounded by walls and guarded by gates, were set aside for each millet. There was no municipal government as such in traditional Ottoman society. Whether rabbis or bishops or imams, the religious leaders of each quarter or village carried out all the secular functions not performed by the ruling class, basing these duties on their own religious laws as interpreted in their religious councils and courts, and conducting their affairs in their own languages and in accordance with their own customs and traditions. Thus they organized and operated schools, old-age homes, and kitchens for the poor. Leaders of the different urban millets came together on occasion for specific functions that required general cooperation, such as the celebration of certain festivals or organization against attacks, plagues or fires; but for the most part each lived independently with little input either by members of the ruling class or by members of the other millets.

The classical system of empire reached its peak under Sultan Süleyman in the sixteenth century, but signs of weakness signaled the beginning of a slow but steady decline. In the second half of the sixteenth century, there emerged a series of external and internal challenges to the classical Ottoman system, and this led to a series of crises and subsequent transformations of the empire in military, political, social, and financial institutions. The long and exhausting wars in the second half of the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, often on two fronts, with the Habsburgs and Persians, both increased the financial burden and spoiled the classical military structure. And both of these gave way to corruption of the classical land system and the tax system. This in turn led to transformation in political, administrative, social, and financial structures of the empire, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. New developments in European warfare demanded more soldiers with firearms. This brought about the elimination of timar holding sipahi cavalry which used traditional weapons, and the increase of the number of standing janissary army and mercenaries with firearms. This substantial increase put strains on the financial system and treasury. This huge financial strain turned into a profound financial crisis as a result of inflation caused by the influx of silver from the New World. The measures to remedy this financial crisis led to the gradual replacement of timar system with the direct taxation (tax-farming) system, transforming the Ottoman classical land and tax system. This transformation, coupled with the population growth in the sixteenth century, led to social and political unrest, and rebellions both in the center and in the provinces. Thus the economic and military changes in Europe, and subsequent crises and responses to these crises radically transformed the empire and its political, administrative and socioeconomic structure. These transformations from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries tended towards a decentralization of Ottoman authority and administration. In the center, the structure of political elites and political culture changed; weakening of sultanic power resulted in the formation and rise of households within the ruling class. In the provinces, weakening of state power and tax-farming of state lands led to emergence of a class of provincial notables (âyân) who in time acquired administrative and military functions.

Reform and Modernization.
In face of military defeats against the European powers and chronic internal political crises, the ruling elites attempted several reform initiatives in order to forestall the military decline of the empire, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Under the leadership of Sultan Murad IV (r. 1623–1640) and the dynasty of Köprülü grand viziers placed in power during the later years of the seventeenth century by Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648–1687), efforts were made to reform the system in order to save the empire. This reform, however, was undertaken on the basis of the prevailing belief that Ottoman institutions and practices were superior to anything developed in Christian Europe; that therefore Ottoman weakness was due less to any inferiority of its institutions than to a failure to apply them as had been in the centuries of Ottoman greatness. Traditional reform at this time therefore consisted of efforts to restore the old ways, executing corrupt and incompetent officials and soldiers. As soon as the government and army had been restored sufficiently to beat back the European attacks, however, the corruption returned and continued until the next crisis forced similar efforts. Increasing losses to Russia and Austria during the eighteenth century, however, forced the sultans to modify this traditional reform, at least to the extent of acknowledging that European weapons and tactics were superior, and to accept at least partial reforms of the Ottoman military, which were introduced by a series of European renegades who entered Ottoman service. Inevitably, however, the Janissary corps refused to accept this sort of change, because their status in the ruling class depended on their monopoly of the traditional techniques and practices. This compelled the sultans to create a separate modern infantry and artillery corps, which, however, could not for the most part be used because of opposition by the Janissary corps, supported by members of the ruling class who also feared that the new forces would be used to eliminate them.

From the late eighteenth century onward the Ottoman Empire faced three prominent challenges, and responses to these challenges once more transformed the empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, thus paving the way for the Tanzimat period. The first was a strategic threat posed by the Russian Empire. In the eighteenth century, the emergence of Russia as a great power brought about a shift in the balance of power, at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. The Empire was in decline militarily, and Russia was eager to fill the vacuum that Ottoman weakness had created in the region. There were a series of Russo-Ottoman wars, resulting in the Russian invasion of Ottoman territory in the Balkans, southeastern Europe, and the Caucasus. The Ottomans were persistently defeated by the Russians (with the exception of the Crimean War of 1853–1856), and the very heart of the Ottoman Empire, the capital Istanbul, was often threatened by the Russian army. At the same time, the decline of the empire and the prospect of its disintegration created a power struggle among European Great Powers. This struggle, known as the Eastern Question, over the fate of the empire to safeguard the strategic, territorial, and commercial interests of the European Great Powers in the Ottoman domains, lasted until the end of the empire.

The second challenge was the emergence and spread of nationalist ideas and movements in the Ottoman Empire after the French Revolution, first among non-Muslim elements, and then among non-Turkish Muslim elements. From the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of the First World War, the empire faced a series of nationalist and separatist uprisings, from different ethnic groups, seeking to break up the empire in order to secure their independence. The uprisings of the Christian minorities, supported by Russia and other European Great Powers, who sought to use these movements as vehicles to extend their influence within the Ottoman body politic and, ultimately, to replace Ottoman rule with their own. It started with the Greek revolution early in the century and continued in Serbia and Bulgaria; later in the century, it spread to Macedonia and to the Armenians in Anatolia. The resulting loss of territories and large-scale massacres of Muslim (and in some cases Jewish) subjects by the rebels as well as by the newly independent Christian states of southeastern Europe, aimed at securing homogenous national populations for the new nation-states, led to massacres and countermassacres that characterized the empire, with little break, during the last half century of its existence.
The third challenge was the empire's incremental financial dependence on the West and the “peaceful penetration” of the major European powers. In the nineteenth century, European powers had succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman Empire to a considerable degree, interfering in its internal affairs, and recruiting networks of clients among the Sultan's own subjects. A number of factors facilitated this penetration. The European powers acquired certain legal rights of interference in Ottoman internal affairs, through the reform provisions of the treaties of Paris (1856) and Berlin (1878), through the capitulations, which gave their subjects legal and fiscal privileges within the Ottoman Empire, and through the religious protectorates that particular European powers asserted over particular groups of Ottoman Christians. In addition, the considerable expansion of the Ottoman Empire's trade with the European powers, and the various economic concessions, including ports, railways, mines, and river navigation, which had been awarded by the Ottoman government to European enterprises, enabled the European powers to build up local commercial clienteles, particularly in the major ports and trading centers. This commercial influence was accompanied by cultural influences, promoted by missionaries and educational institutions. Finally, the omnipresence of European political influence was assured through chains of consuls that were established in almost every important provincial center throughout the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman statesmen developed a number of responses to these challenges. First, all these challenges pushed the Ottomans into a new series of reforms directed towards centralization and Westernization. To save the empire, the foremost need was better military; better military required more revenue; more revenue required centralized administration and finance, and this required the abandonment of decentralization and elimination of âyâns. Therefore, an administrative centralization process began along with military modernization. Military modernization in turn gave way to bureaucratic, administrative, and legal modernization, and the state underwent a period of Westernization in political, social, economic, and cultural fields throughout the nineteenth century.
These reforms occurred during the Tanzimat period planned under Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839), were carried out under his sons Abdülmecid (r. 1839–1861) and Abdülaziz (r. 1861–1876), and were brought to successful culmination under Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909). As proclaimed in 1839, the Tanzimat reforms promised an overall reorganization in every institution of state and society, from a more orderly tax collection to a fair and regular system of military conscription, and from a reform in education to a radical reorganization of the justice system. The proposed reforms were partially based upon European models, and initiated an unprecedented, though slow, process of institutional and cultural Westernization. In another respect, too, the Islamic and Ottoman tradition was partially severed, with the promise of civil equality for the Empire's non-Muslim subjects. The reformers of the Tanzimat believed that the Ottoman Empire could be saved only by being integrated into the Western political and economic system. They argued that it would be wiser for the Empire to join, rather than resist, Europe and would also benefit from joining the world economic system. In order to recruit assistance in the struggle against Russia, the Porte offered the British certain financial incentives in order to create a stronger bond.

The traditional decentralized Ottoman system became increasingly centralized; the central government extended its authority and activity to all areas of Ottoman life, undermining, though not entirely replacing, the millets and guilds. Since functions were expanding, moreover, the traditional Ottoman governmental system in which the ruling class acted through the imperial council was replaced with an increasingly complex system of government, divided into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The executive was organized into ministries headed by ministers who came together in a cabinet led by the grand vizier. The legislative function was given to deliberative bodies, culminating in a partly representative council of state in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in the democratically elected parliament introduced initially in 1877–1878 and then again in the Young Turk constitutional period (1908–1918). Administration was turned over to a new hierarchy of well-educated bureaucrats (memurs) who dominated Ottoman governmental life until the end of the empire. The reforms introduced during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed the Ottoman Empire into a relatively well-governed and modern state. Emphasis was laid, however, on institutional and physical reforms, with the centralized bureaucracy exercising far more control over the lives of the subjects than was the case in the traditional decentralized Ottoman system. As a result, liberal political movements, led by the Young Ottomans during the years of the Tanzimat and by the Young Turks during the reign of Abdülhamid II, demanded political and social reforms as well. For all the difficulties and deficiencies in the implementation of government-sponsored reforms, it is clear that the Tanzimat era initiated a process of social and economic change, the development of modern communications, including telegraph lines, and steam navigation.
Additionally, in the age of nationalism and imperialism, the most vital issue for the Ottoman elites was the effort to keep the independence and territorial integrity of the empire, which consisted of very different ethnic and religious elements. From the 1830s until the end of the empire, all the political discussions and struggles occurring among the political and military elites consisted of different, and often opposing, solutions for the prevention of nationalist and separatist tendencies among the non-Muslims who constituted about 40 percent of the population at the beginning of the nineteenth century. To forestall the nationalist challenge, Ottoman statesmen developed the policy of Ottomanism to promote the notion of one Ottoman nation, consisting of individuals with equal rights based on law, sharing the same mother country, and loyal to the state and the sultan. Ottomanism underwent several phases: First, the state acknowledged basic rights to its citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as reflected in the Imperial Rescript of Gulhane of 1839; second, the state tried to create socio-economic development together with a joint education system, especially in the Christian provinces of the Balkans, after the Imperial Rescript of Reform of 1856; and third, as a last hope to curb separatist tendencies among the Christians, the state gave its citizens political rights, turning the empire into a constitutional monarchy, with a constitution and a parliament in 1876.

Furthermore, since the Empire was militarily too weak to tackle the external threats, effective diplomacy was therefore regarded as an essential guarantee of the Empire's survival. The Ottoman statesmen attempted to exploit the balance of power between the European powers and to exploit their rivalries, especially those between Britain and Russia. During the Tanzimat period, Britain (and France and Austria at times) emerged as the main supporter of the Empire against Russia. Although the Ottoman Empire was weak in comparison with the European Great Powers, it remained a significant international actor whose independent decisions could materially influence the interests and behavior of more powerful states. After 1856, the Ottoman Empire was formally admitted by treaty into the European state system, and her status as a great European power was recognized.
From 1875 onward, the Tanzimat regime entered a period of profound crisis, marked by the bankruptcy of the state treasury, a series of Christian rebellions in the Balkan provinces, a constitutionalist coup d’etat, a major diplomatic confrontation with the European Great Powers, and a protracted and disastrous war with Russia which ended in 1878 with the Empire's territorial truncation by the treaties of San Stefano and Berlin. After the period of crisis ended, Sultan Abdülhamid II charted a new course in domestic, and in foreign policy to defend the Empire's independence and territorial integrity. Abdülhamid did not reject the Tanzimat reforms, most of which he preserved, and some of which he developed further; but he was deeply critical of those aspects of his predecessors’ policies which, he believed, had provoked the crisis of the mid-1870s: their financial recklessness, their tolerance of the spread of European influence within the Empire, their inability to restrain nationalist and separatist tendencies among their Christian subjects, and their failure to protect their Muslim subjects, upon whose solidarity and welfare, Abdülhamid believed, the Ottoman Empire's survival depended.

Sultan Abdülhamid was a staunch authoritarian. He dissolved the parliament in 1878, establishing his own absolute control over the executive organs of government. He was determined to control in detail the initiation and implementation of policy. He ignored the rules of bureaucratic hierarchy, exerting personal authority over provincial as well as central officials. He was a strong centralizer, determined to curb all tendencies toward provincial autonomy. Abdülhamid saw Islam and Muslim solidarity, expressed in a common loyalty to the caliphate, as crucial to the empire's efforts to resist European penetration and the separatist aspirations of his non-Turkish Muslim subjects. This policy was expressed in much official deference to Islam and to religious leaders and in an officially sponsored religious propaganda that at times assumed a “pan-Islamic” form by appealing to Muslim solidarity outside the Ottoman Empire. Abdülhamid emphasized Islam domestically in order to invoke the loyalty of his Muslim subjects—in particular non-Turkish Muslims like the Albanians and the Arabs. The reign of Abdülhamid was one of considerable achievements in the fields of social and economic reform. He continued the beneficial aspects of the Tanzimat reforms and encouraged construction of schools, railways, harbors, irrigation works, telegraph lines, and other infrastructure projects. He also encouraged improvement in finance, trade, mining, and agricultural export, as well as in education, civil administration, security, and military affairs. However, his financial caution significantly limited the extent of his civil and economic reforms. Unlike the Tanzimat statesmen, Abdülhamid avoided peace-time alliances with the Great Powers, maintaining an overall diplomatic stance of “neutrality” or “non-commitment.” Abdülhamid distanced the empire from its former protector, Great Britain, and harmonized relations with the empire's traditional enemy, Russia, initiating the longest period of peace in Russo-Ottoman relations for more than a century. He also inaugurated a close relationship with Germany in order to restrain Britain and Russia.

Opposition to Abdülhamid's regime was led by the Young Turks, a group consisting of intellectuals, students, and both civilian and military officers. Their chief organization, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), consisted mainly of young officers of the general staff who were serving in Macedonian provinces, demanded the restoration of the parliament as a means to curb autocracy and preserve the integrity of the empire. The CUP staged an uprising in Macedonia in the summer of 1908. Fearing internal chaos, the sultan proclaimed the restoration of the parliament on July 24, 1908. A counter-revolution broke out in Istanbul in April 1909 against the policies of the CUP. The CUP crushed this rebellion and also dethroned Abdülhamid on April 27, 1909, falsely accusing him of having instigated the rebellion.

During the second constitutional period (1908–1918), the Ottoman Empire experienced the most democratic era of its history, with a myriad of political parties electing deputies to the Ottoman parliament, which enacted major secular and liberal reforms. An initial period in which members of all the different nationalities worked to strengthen and preserve the empire was brought to an end by Austria's annexation of Bosnia, Bulgaria's annexation of East Rumelia, and Greece's annexation of Crete. Unrest in Macedonia and in other provinces resumed, with the forceful Ottoman military responses to restore order compounding the violence. Ottoman territorial losses continued, with Italy's invasion of the provinces of Libya in the Tripolitanian War (1911–1912) and the victory of the newly independent states of southeastern Europe during the First Balkan War (1912), which pushed the Ottomans out of all their remaining European provinces and threatened their control of Istanbul itself. As thousands of refugees flooded into Istanbul, and as the remaining parts of the Empire fell into increasing despair and chaos, the CUP leaders Enver Pasha, Talat Pasha, and Cemal Pasha were in January 1913 able to end the internal political turmoil by a coup, and establish a Triumvirate that successfully defended Istanbul and took advantage of disputes among the Balkan states during the Second Balkan War (1913) to regain Edirne and eastern Thrace, and introduced major military, social and economic legislation.

The CUP's primary aim was a defensive foreign policy and rapprochement with the Entente Powers (Britain, France, and Russia). In order to save the territorial integrity of the Empire, the CUP, especially after the traumatic effect of the Balkan Wars on Ottoman public opinion, was convinced that only an alliance with Britain (and the Entente) could guarantee the survival of what remained of the Empire, and tried to seek support from London and Paris, but this proved impossible for the politics of the European powers of the time, and by the start of the First World War the Ottoman government had failed to fulfil its objectives. The CUP leaders were convinced that neutrality would be disastrous for the Ottoman Empire since it would leave it isolated and at the mercy of the belligerent states. In the end, the Triumvirate formed an alliance with Germany and entered the war, despite the wishes of certain sections of military and political elites and intellectuals to stay out of the war.

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire faced hostilities in eastern Anatolia against the Russians and in Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Palestine against the British and their allies. Although they successfully resisted an armada of British–French naval and land forces in the Dardanelles in 1915, they were less successful in other areas: the Russians penetrated deep into eastern Anatolia and the British captured Baghdad, Palestine, and Syria. Throughout the war, the Allies signed a number of agreements for the partition of the Ottoman Empire. As a result of the Anglo-Franco-Russian agreements of March–April 1915 (known as the Constantinople Agreement), Britain and France agreed that the question of Constantinople and the Straits would finally be solved by annexing the area into the Russian Empire. Under the Sykes-Picot agreement of April–October 1916, Russia was also given most of eastern Anatolia (including Erzurum, Trabzon, Van, and Bitlis), with France to receive Syria and Cilicia and Britain to gain control of Palestine and Mesopotamia in exchange. By 1917, Russian forces occupied territories east of the Trabzon–Van line; the Ottoman army was only able to regain eastern Anatolia after Russian forces had evacuated as a result of the outbreak of revolution at home. As a consequence of Russia's withdrawal from the war, arrangements with Russia, including the Constantinople Agreement, were annulled.
After the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918, however, Britain, France, and Italy submitted their respective demands, based on previous agreements, to the Paris Peace Conference and began to occupy several parts of Anatolia. The peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire, known as the Treaty of Sevres, dated August 10, 1920, was extremely severe; not only did it strip the Empire of all its Arab provinces, it also deprived the Ottomans control of the Straits, and also created an independent Armenian state and envisaged future Greek control of western Anatolia. The Turkish nationalists, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Atatürk), organized an armed resistance movement against the Allies’ occupation and successfully fought the Greeks, French, and Italians in western and southern Anatolia, thus leading to the establishment of the Turkish Republic in Anatolia and eastern Thrace. During the Turkish War for Independence (1919–1922), two rival governments appeared: in Ankara under Mustafa Kemal, and in Allied occupied Istanbul under Sultan Mehmed VI who defended a policy of compromise and collaboration with the Allies. Accordingly, after the final victory of Mustafa Kemal over Greek forces in western Anatolia, and in the wake of peace negotiations at Lausanne, the Ankara Government abolished the Ottoman sultanate on November 1, 1922, thus officially ending the Ottoman Empire.