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Evolution of the state until the late seventeenth century
Between c. 1300 and the end of the seventeenth century, the state underwent a quite radical evolution both in its form and in the concentration of power within the administrative apparatus. In the earlier part of the
period, 1300–1453, the elites were frontier lords (beys), Turcoman leaders, and princes; and these leaders considered the Ottoman monarch as first among equals (primus inter pares). Entering Ottoman service with retinues, troops, and adherents independent of the sultans’, these elites followed the Ottomans because such allegiance brought them still more power and wealth.
The sultan, for his part, negotiated with these nearly equal elites rather than commanding them. At the same time, however, a powerful countervailing trend was developing, one that placed the sultan far above all others in rank and prestige. Some individuals who promoted sultanic superiority were creatures of the monarchs on whom they depended for position and power.
But others were religious and legal scholars who invoked Islamic precedents. Already in the early fourteenth century, legal scholars were advocating that bureaucratic leaders and military commanders, despite their vast power, were in fact mere slaves of the sultan. They were not slaves in the American sense since they possessed
and bequeathed property, married at will, and moved about freely.
In a particularly Ottoman sense, however, being a servant/slave of the sultan meant enjoying privilege and power but without the protection of the law that all Ottoman subjects in principle possessed. From the early fourteenth century, the theory already was evolving – hotly contested by the old elites – that the sultan was no mere Turcoman ruler surrounded by near equals but rather a theoretically absolute monarch. The struggle went back and forth but Sultan Mehmet II, armed with vast prestige after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453,
stripped away wealth and power from many of the great Turcoman leaders who often had been independent of him. Now enacting the theory of absolute power, Sultan Mehmet installed his own men, often recruited from the dev¸sirme, persons who in theory were totally indebted to him and over whom he exercised full control. Thus 1453 marked a visible power shift to the person of the ruler.
Thereafter, until the nineteenth century, the sultan possessed theoretically absolute power, with life and death control over his military and bureaucratic elites. In reality, however, the sultan’s power varied greatly over time. For a
century following the capture of Constantinople, the sultan exercised a fairly full measure of personal rule. Thus, during the 1453–1550 era, the notion of the exalted, secluded, monarch superior to all took hold while the sultan exercised a very personal kind of control over the military and From its origins to 1683 33
Sultan S ¨uleyman the Magnificent (like Philip II of Spain) spent his reign assiduously poring over the record books of his empire and personally leading armies to war. During the century spanning the reigns of Sultans Mehmet and S ¨uleyman, some sense of an “Ottoman Empire” perhaps began to emerge among administrators and subjects. Although the frontiers were still ex-panding, a general sense was developing of living in the sultan’s world, of being in the sultan’s lands as opposed to those, for example, of the Habsburg king or the Safavid shah. At its most fundamental, those within received the sultan’s protection from enemies, and those outside were tackled by him.
But more was involved. The sense of being inside of an Ottoman commonwealth in part also derived from the innumerable actions of the sultan to cement subjects’ loyalties (chapter 6). On another level, the regularization of taxes and the repeated appearances of Ottoman officials on the local scene similarly reinforced the subjects’ sense of
belonging to the same universe. Moreover, both Mehmet and S ¨uleyman promulgated codes of law that set the sultanic standards, the norms, for behavior.
Thus, the presence of a common system of justice, taxes, and a shared ruler who offered protection to every subject served to foster the wider sense of participating in a common “Ottoman” project. This was no small achievement and helps to explain the longevity of the Ottoman Empire. Let us return now to the narrative of evolving political power within the state.
The evolution that exalted the power of the sultan, described above, continued. Thus, later in the reign of Sultan S ¨uleyman, power began passing from the person of the monarch to others in his household. Generally, this sultan’s reign ended a nearly unbroken line of warrior kings going back to the founder of the Ottoman Empire. In this maturing empire, statecraft was changing as the wars of conquest slowed and then halted. As expansion faltered, the administrative skills of both men and women became more important than those of the warrior: not fighting sultans but legitimizing sultans were needed.
Hence, between the later sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, the mothers and wives of sultans came more visibly to the fore in decision-making, wielding considerable if still informal political power. In the seventeenth century actual control rested only rarely in the hands of the monarch who, overall, reigned but did not rule. Sultan Murat IV, unusually for a seventeenth-century ruler, personally commanded during the latter part of his 1623–1640 reign. But during the earlier years his mother, K ¨osem, ably restored the state’s finances after a period of severe inflation. Overall, sultans who actually ran the military and the state faded from Ottoman history until the nineteenth century and the reigns of Sultan Mahmut II and Abd ¨ulhamit II.
1700–1922 Sultan Mehmet IV (1648–1687) could be sultan although a child because he was not needed to actually rule. Instead, he served as a symbol of a system that functioned in his name. Power rested with his mother (the
same K ¨osem) and other members of his household and, by that date, with members of important Istanbul households outside of the palace. Thus, between c. 1550 and 1650, policy-making and implementation shifted
away from the sultanic person; but the central state in its Istanbul capital still directed affairs.
The state apparatus continued its intensive transformation during the seventeenth century. First of all, as seen, sultans became reigning not ruling monarchs who legitimized bureaucratic commands but themselves usually did not initiate policy. For example, during the second half of the seventeenth century (1656–1691), the remarkable K ¨opr ¨ul ¨u family truly directed state affairs, often serving as chief ministers (grand viziers).
Second, by 1650, new elite groups in Istanbul outside the military (sipahi and askeri) classes, called vizier and pasha households, began making sultans and running affairs. A new collective leadership – a civilian oligarchy – had emerged and the sultans provided the facade of continuity as new practices in fact were replacing old ones. The central state, it is true, still commanded but others besides the ruler were in charge. This was the opposite of events in western and central Europe where monarchs were consolidating power.
Kurulus Osman Episode 100 English Subtitles
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