The Ottoman or Turkish Empire was founded in the 14th century by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Turks were largely a Muslim people who had entered Eastern Europe from Asia Minor in the 14th century and had captured the Great city of Constantinople (present day Istanbul) on the shores of the Black Sea in 1453.
They had established a big empire with its capital at Constantinople that could boast of its big size covering almost the whole of North Africa including countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Asian Middle East countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine as well as some Eastern European countries like Rumania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece and the Czech Republic among others.
It further stretched to cover Moldavia, Wallachia, Transylvania and other territories. Precisely, the empire controlled parts of Europe, Africa and Asia.
In the above territories lived different nationalities like the Serbs, Bulgarians, Slavs and others each with its own culture, language, religion and colour. For example whereas some were followers of the Orthodox Christian Church and therefore Catholics and Protestants, others were Muslims.
Consequently, there emerged religious and political conflicts especially in the Balkan Peninsular which was part of the Ottoman Empire as the various nationalities started organizing uprisings against the sultan in demand for religious freedom and independence.
This undermined Turkey’s territorial integrity and the empire gradually started to decline in the 18th and 19th centuries. This attracted the attention of the Great European Powers especially Russia whose Tsar Nicholas I described Turkey as the “SICK MAN OF EUROPE”. That the empire was in a very weak state that it could not be saved from collapsing. But why was this so?
REASONS FOR THE DECLINE OR WEAKNESS OF TURKEY
The loss of Turkey’s military power was responsible for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. From the 14th to the 17th Centuries, Turkey was a world military power and had an extensive empire that included the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. But towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th Century, Turkey lost her military glory. She had a cosmopolitan army that disciplining and integrating it under one command became impossible. Consequently, the army lost its effectiveness and could therefore not hold the different nationalities together as a sign of weakness. Even her former subject states like Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Greece became more powerful and started disobeying the sultan like the way Mohamed (Mehmet) Ali (Egypt) and the Greeks did. In fact, Turkey became so sick (weak) that she had to be assisted in suppressing internal revolts like in the Syrian question of 1831-1841.
The large size of the empire created an administrative problem that contributed to the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey had created a large and heterogeneous empire that covered the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. These were people of different historical, cultural, and linguistic background that were difficult to hold under a centralized administration. The empire was therefore too large to be ruled led by any single power or person. Eventually, the sultans were less effective outside Constantinople and this left the conquered states semi-independent. This made it easier for the conquered states to revolt against the Sultan, which led to the disintegration of the empire.
Corruption and embezzlement were diseases that characterized Turkey a sick man of the 19th Century. The Turkish Moslem administrators were “potbellied men” who made bribery, swindling and embezzlement part of their life style. These brought financial crisis, poverty and famine upon which Turkey was branded a sick man of Europe. Corruption and embezzlement also made the conquered states to lose hope in the government and that is part of the reason why the Greeks and the Moreans broke off. It also affected the army who also lost confidence in the government, which denied the government the full loyalty of the army and this therefore contributed to the decline of the empire.
The rise of nationalism was a formidable challenge that tore the Turkish Empire into pieces. Due to the political, economic and military weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire, the conquered states especially those that were located on the Balkan Peninsular started struggling to regain their independence and many succeeded. For example, Serbia and Egypt became independent in 1805, Algeria in 1811, Greece in 1832 and some Balkan states in 1878. The breaking away of these states one after another weakened Turkey and was the actual disintegration of the empire.
Economically, the Ottoman Empire was weakened by loss of trade control. Before 1760, Turkey was the leading commercial and sea-faring nation. She monopolized trade within the empire and across the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. However, industrial revolution started in Britain in the 1860s and Britain started manufacturing better ships than Turkey. Eventually, Britain destroyed the Turkish dominance in trade and monopolized international trade. This left Turkey in an awkward economic situation and made her a laughing stock of Europe to be branded the ”sick man of Europe”.
Religious tension between the Moslems and Christians within the Ottoman Empire also brought about the disintegration of the empire. The Christian majority within the empire were discriminated in education, administration and heavily taxed with inhuman methods of collection. Above all, the Christians were persecuted by the Moslem rulers of the empire. This brought about rebellions such as in Greece, Morea, Chios and Bulgaria which left Turkey weak. It should be noted that Turkey’s persecution of the Christians attracted the intervention of the Christian powers like Russia, Britain, Austria and France whose intervention complicated the issue and led to the success of revolts like in Greece and Bulgaria.
The spread and influence of the 1789 French revolutionary ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity also contributed to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. By the 19th Century these revolutionary ideas had spread to Europe including the Turkish Empire. This therefore influenced the Turkish subjects to demand for liberty and independence against the Turks’ oppressive and exploitative administration. This led to revolts such as in Greece, Wallachia, Moldavia and Bulgaria which shook the empire and led to its collapse.
The rise and role of the educated elites and intellectuals was influential in the decline of the Ottoman Empire. They were young, revolutionary and dynamic men who condemned the Turkish oppressive and exploitative regime. They advocated for reforms and independence to the conquered states. These created revolutionary emotions in the minds of the oppressed and exploited Turkish subjects, which prompted them to revolt and break the empire. Intellectuals such as Alexander Hypslanti and Capodistrious led the Greeks to revolt against Turkey, which made the Greeks independent by 1832. Thus, the role and inspiration of the Intellectuals widened the gap between Turkey and her subjects and made the disintegration of Ottoman Empire inevitable.
Lastly, the Ottoman Empire was weakened by the selfish and convergent interests of the big European powers. It was Russia that developed great interest more than any other power in the decaying empire and therefore she intervened in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire because of three main reasons; The first one was that many of the Balkan people belonged to the Slav race as did the Russians themselves and they therefore looked to Russia as a big Slav brother to help them in their struggles for independence from the Ottoman Empire. This therefore prompted Russia to intervene. Secondly, most of the Balkan Christians belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church of which Russia was the great champion and protector. More important than all these however was that Russia had for long harboured ambitions of possessing Constantinople city and control the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles which would give her a secure outlet to the Mediterranean Sea from the Black Sea. She would then become a great power in the region and would dominate trade and commerce. Due to the above reasons, Russia’s aim was to weaken and break up the Turkish Empire and substitute it with her own influence in the region. That is why Russia under Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) coined the idea that Turkey was a “sick man” that could not be cured by any quantity of drugs. She therefore incited and supported the Greeks, Wallachians, Moldavians, Bosnians, Montenegrons, Serbians, and Bulgarians to revolt against Turkey. These revolts weakened Turkey economically, militarily and therefore led to the collapse of the empire.
The interest of Britain was to preserve of the Turkish Empire from disintegration because it would act as a bulwark or buffer state against any possible Russian advance or expansion to the Mediterranean Sea, her commercial waters. Austria was bent on preventing the Russian expansion into the Balkans which would then change the balance of power. She was therefore not prepared to see a strong Russian empire in her neighbourhood. In France, the governments of Louis Philippe of 1830 – 1848 and Napoleon III of 1848-1870 wanted to strengthen the French economic and political position within the Turkish Empire and to elevate the French prestige and that of the French leaders by reviving the French guardianship of the Holy Places. In pursuit of such objectives, they clashed with the interests of Russia. These conflicting interests of the European powers (Russia, Britain, Austria and France) intensified and prolonged the Balkan crisis and sickness of the Ottoman Empire which eventually contributed to the decline of the empire.
NOTE: The term Eastern Question was used by the European diplomats and statesmen to refer to the diplomatic and political problems created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire. As the collapse of the Empire seemed to be nearer, the European Powers got involved in a power struggle to safeguard their military, strategic and commercial interests in the areas under the empire.
In short therefore, the question was what would the European powers do? Would they prevent the Ottoman Empire from collapsing or would they support the breakup of the empire and if it collapsed, who would take over those territories that belonged to the Ottoman Empire if they broke away from the empire and by what extent? The Eastern Question was put to rest after World War I of 1914-1918 when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.