Why did the Ottoman Empire collapse?
The reign of Süleyman I the Magnificent marked the peak of Ottoman grandeur, but signs of weakness signaled the beginning of a slow but steady decline. An important factor in the decline was the increasing lack of ability and power of the sultans themselves. Süleyman tired of the campaigns and arduous duties of administration and withdrew more and more from public affairs to devote himself to the pleasures of his harem. T
o take his place, the office of grand vizier was built up to become second only to the sultan in authority and revenue; the grand vizier’s authority included the right to demand and obtain absolute obedience. But, while the grand vizier was able to stand in for the sultan in official functions, he could not take his place as the focus of loyalty for all the different classes and groups in the empire. The resulting separation of political loyalty and central authority led to a decline in the government’s ability to impose its will.
The mid-16th century also saw the triumph of the devşirme over the Turkish nobility, which lost almost all its power and position in the capital and returned to its old centres of power in southeastern Europe and Anatolia. In consequence, many of the timars formerly assigned to the notables to support the sipahi cavalry were seized by the devşirme and transformed into great estates—becoming, for all practical purposes, private property—thus depriving the state of their services as well as the revenue they could have produced if they had been transformed into tax farms.
While the sipahis did not entirely disappear as a military force, the Janissaries and the associated artillery corps became the most important segments of the Ottoman army.
Because the sultans no longer could control the devşirme by setting it against the Turkish notables, the devşirme gained control of the sultans and used the government for its own benefit rather than for the benefit of a sultan or his empire. In consequence, corruption and nepotism took hold at all levels of administration.
In addition, with the challenge of the notables gone, the devşirme class itself broke into countless factions and parties, each working for its own advantage by supporting the candidacy of a particular imperial prince and forming close alliances with corresponding palace factions led by the mothers, sisters, and wives of each prince.
After Süleyman, therefore, accession and appointments to positions came less as the result of ability than as a consequence of the political maneuverings of the devşirme-harem political parties. Those in power found it more convenient to control the princes by keeping them uneducated and inexperienced, and the old tradition by which young princes were educated in the field was replaced by a system in which all the princes were isolated in the private apartments of the harem and limited to such education as its permanent inhabitants could provide.
In consequence, few of the sultans after Süleyman had the ability to exercise real power, even when circumstances might have given them the opportunity.
But the lack of ability did not affect the sultans’ desire for power; lacking the means developed by their predecessors to achieve that end, they developed new ones. Selim II (ruled 1566–74; known as “the Sot” or “the Blonde”) and Murad III (1574–95) both gained power by playing off the different factions and by weakening the office of grand vizier, the main administrative vehicle for factional and party influence in the declining Ottoman state.
As the grand viziers lost their dominant position following the downfall of Mehmed Sokollu (served 1565–79), power fell first into the hands of the women of the harem, during the “Sultanate of the Women” (1570–78), and then into the grasp of the chief Janissary officers, the agas, who dominated from 1578 to 1625.
No matter who controlled the apparatus of government during that time, however, the results were the same—a growing paralysis of administration throughout the empire, increasing anarchy and misrule, and the fracture of society into discrete and increasingly hostile communities.