The Ottoman Empire: Changes, Politics & Developments

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  • 0:03 Ottoman Empire
  • 0:46 Background
  • 1:50 Internal Problems
  • 3:53 More War
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the problems the Ottoman Empire faced in the 19th century, and the many territorial losses it endured at the hands of Russia, Austria, and others.

Ottoman Empire

Have you ever played Jenga? You and your friends or family take turns removing bricks from a tower of bricks, slowly building the tower higher while also making it increasingly unstable. Sooner or later, someone takes out that fateful brick which brings the whole thing crashing to the ground. Your shaky tower of bricks is perhaps the best metaphor for the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Controlling large amounts of territory in southeast Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and even in Central Asia, the enormous Ottoman Empire had more than its fair share of problems by 1800. As the rest of this lesson will explain, the events of the 19th century only exacerbated these significant problems.


Prior to the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had experienced a series of military defeats and subsequent territorial losses. Wars against Russia, Austria, and other European states caused the Ottoman Empire to lose significant portions of its European territory in the Balkans, as well as several important ports on the Black Sea to Russia. Prior to these defeats, the Black Sea had essentially been an Ottoman lake, with all coastal territory controlled by the empire.

As a result of these losses in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, various Ottoman sultans attempted modernizing reforms to enhance the empire's ability to compete with its European rivals, but each time conservative elements within the empire, often from within the Janissary army, ended these efforts. These failures were followed by further defeat in the later 18th century to Russia, Austria, and others, and by the time fighting concluded, the Ottoman Empire had lost all of its European territory north of the Danube River, as well as the Crimean peninsula and most of its territory on the north shore of the Black Sea to Russia.

Internal Problems

The problems for the Ottoman Empire - by now being called by many commentators 'the Sick Man of Europe' - were not only military defeat and territorial loss. The numerous wars the Ottoman Empire had fought in the 18th century had left its economy hopelessly depleted and its bureaucracy too stilted and entrenched to adequately meet the problems.

In prior Ottoman administrations, positions and promotions within both the bureaucracy and the army had been based on merit, but by the 19th century, this system had given way to one that made appointments hereditary, which had a largely detrimental effect on governmental efficacy. To make matters worse, the Ottoman Empire suffered under a succession of weak and ineffectual monarchs who were ill-equipped to rule and surrounded by advisors who, by and large, served their own interests rather than those of the state.

These bureaucratic problems were compounded by a severe economic crisis in the Ottoman Empire. Not only had the wars cost the empire dearly, but a severe agricultural crisis in the late 18th and early 19th centuries further hurt the empire's wallet. The Ottoman Empire had experienced these crises before, but in previous generations the Ottoman economy had been supplemented by the income that came with prior Ottoman territorial conquests. With the empire now losing territory, this was no longer a possibility.

Though these problems were significant, this did not stop Ottoman rulers from trying to implement positive reform. For example, in 1827 Sultan Mahmud II eliminated the troublesome and conservative Janissary army, replacing it with an entirely new army under his direct command. Administratively, the bureaucracy was made more efficient and various departments and offices were created for the specialized management of sectors of the Ottoman Empire, such as trade or agriculture. New educational standards were also introduced, which promoted higher education for the elite and a wider reach of primary education for the population at large. Further reforms were attempted in the 1830s by Mahmud's successor, called the Tanzimat Reforms, but many of these largely failed.

More War

Even Mahmud's helpful reforms appeared to be a case of 'too-little-too-late' as the Ottoman Empire was coming apart at the seams. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Ottoman Empire lost control of Egypt to France and later Great Britain, and the Greeks fought a successful war for independence in the 1820s.

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