“The Sick Man of Europe”

“The Sick Man of Europe” March 22, 2018


Old Istanbul across the blue
A view of Istanbul, after 1453 the capital of the Ottoman Empire. On the left of the promontory in the distance is the Topkapı Palace, the seat of the Ottoman sultans until the mid-nineteenth century (when it was replaced by the Dolmabahçe Palace, just across the water). To the right of the Palace, marked by tall, thin minarets, are the Hagia Sophia and then the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque.     (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)


A few more lines from the book in  progress:


This vast and industrious empire was presided over by an all- powerful sultan. (Appropriately enough, the title sultan comes from an Arabic word meaning “power.”) Fortunately for the Otto­mans, they enjoyed ten successive sultans of astonishingly high competence (to name a few: Selim the Grim, Mehmet the Con­queror, and Suleiman the Magnificent). Each sultan had numerous wives and concubines and, therefore, numerous sons. Following his death, the sultan would be succeeded by his eldest son, the eldest son of a favorite wife, or simply by a favorite son previously desig­nated. As can easily be imagined, this kind of situation led to con­stant and often brutal scheming. And those conspiracies were made worse by another Ottoman custom. The successful candidate for the sultanate often killed his rivals or, if feeling especially kind, confined them to the harim, the women’s quarters of the palace.[1] This raised the stakes considerably. To lose in the rivalry for the sul­tanate was to suffer lifetime house arrest or risk death. The Otto­mans gave us the phrase “harem intrigue.”

Eventually, the reigning sultan sat so insecurely on his throne that even likely heirs to it were locked up in the harim. No longer could they be trusted with governorships or important military commands. There was the immediate danger that they would use those positions of power to hasten the retirement of the ruler and take his position. So, instead of coming to the throne after years of activity and learning in the far-flung regions of the empire, a new sultan would arise out of the women’s quarters of the palace. More likely than not, he was unacquainted with affairs of state, having been kept purposely out of touch with the real world. He was unqualified for rule and, not infrequently, demented.

The Ottoman Empire gradually, but steadily, declined over its last 300 years. Eventually, lingering well past the time when most people would have expected it to collapse, it became known as “the sick man of Europe.” Perhaps it was continuing on the sheer momentum given to it by its competent early leaders. Nevertheless, corruption, bloated bureaucracy, inflation, and a string of weak sul­tans as incompetent as their predecessors had been competent took their toll. As at the time of the Abbasid Empire’s decline, more states began to gain independence, and there was nothing much that the sultan could do about it.

In 1571, the combined naval forces of Venice, Spain, and the Italian papal states nearly destroyed the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto. But, like an unexpectedly resilient boxer who is knocked down but manages to get back up, it rebounded. Indeed, the empire continued to pose a military threat to Europe for many more years. In 1683, desperate Austrian and Polish troops turned back an Ottoman siege of Vienna. This marked the end of Ottoman expansion.

But the Ottomans left their mark on the Near East in general and on the Arab world in particular. Ottoman mosques, for exam­ple, with their distinctively tall, pencil-shaped minarets, dot the horizon of the region (though, unfortunately, many of these were deliberately destroyed during the recent troubles in the Bal­kans). But the most profound Ottoman impact was probably upon the government and social organization of the Near East. The vari­ous religious groups of the empire had been organized and repre­sented under the millet system (from the Arabic word milla, meaning “religious community” or “denomination”). Under this system, each religious group, including Muslims, was represented before the government by its leader. People tended, naturally, to identify themselves as much by their religious affiliation—Druze, Shiite, Sunni, Maronite Christian, Jewish—as by their place of resi­dence. This tendency helped to retard the growth of nationalism in the region. A man was not Lebanese, but Shiite. A woman in Bagh­dad might well view herself as a Sunni Muslim rather than Iraqi. Thus, nationalism came late to the Near East, and many of the countries in the region today can be considered nations only by courtesy. They grew out of British and French map exercises rather than from the consciousness of the people. In Iraq, in Lebanon, and in the former Yugoslavia, we are now reaping what those short­sighted diplomats unwittingly sowed.

[1] This Arabic word, pronounced “ha-REEM,” is, as noted earlier, connected with the idea of forbiddenness and is often spelled “harem” in English.



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