Greatest Nations: Turkey - C. F. Horne

Reforms of Selim III and Mahmud II

[Illustration] from Greatest Nations - Turkey by C. F. Horne


[Authorities: As before, also Paton, "History of the Egyptian Revolution"; Marmont, "State of the Turkish Empire"; Howe, "Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution"; Latimer, "Russia and Turkey in the Nineteenth Century"; Diplomatic Papers of Metternich.]

The disintegration and panic of the Turks before the resistless advance of the armies of Catharine II, marked the lowest ebb to which the Ottoman Empire had yet descended. Even in our own day and despite its recent losses, Turkey is stronger than it then seemed to be.

In 1787 the intervention of England and Prussia appeared useless to preserve the Turkish domain for more than a moment. The death of Catharine when she was planning another and final attack, gave it further respite. Then the Titanic struggles of Napoleon drew all eyes away from the Osmanli and so altered ancient enmities that we find Russia and Turkey for a moment in alliance. France defeats a Turkish army in Egypt, English forces aid the Ottomans in an heroic defense of Acre against the French, and most amazing of all, an English fleet threatens Constantinople and is forced to escape from the Hellespont, suffering some loss from Turkish batteries.

All these kaleidoscopic changes were, however, only temporary. The Napoleonic madness passed; and the disruption of the Ottoman Empire would inevitably have been resumed, had not the Turks themselves undertaken internal reform. Two Sultans, Selim III and Mahmud II, were really awake to the needs of their country, and understood its desperate condition. By their vigorous efforts they saved it from what seemed the very throes of dissolution. The first of these, Selim III (1789—1808), was girded with the sword of Osman during the Russian war. He saw its hopelessness, and after securing peace began the reorganization of his dominions. Schools were instituted that the dense ignorance of the Turks might be overcome, and with it their disastrous contempt for everything Christian or progressive. At the same time, Selim made an effort to introduce the European system of discipline among his soldiers; but at this the Janizaries rebelled and compelled its abandonment.

Battle agasint Russians


Selim saw that he had no real power over his empire. Not only did the Janizaries force him to do their pleasure, but each Pasha of a distant province acted as an independent ruler and treated with contempt the orders of the Porte. The Barbary States had long yielded the Sultan only a nominal allegiance. But now Egypt under its great Pasha, Mehemet Ali, showed equal independence. So did the Syrian governor, and the rulers of Bosnia and the other Balkan States. Except in some districts in the heart of Asia Minor, the Sultan could find nowhere any subjects who offered him real obedience. He began operations in Servia. The Janizaries there had completely cast off their allegiance and were plundering the inhabitants, Mahometan as well as Christian. Selim summoned the people to defend themselves, encouraging to resistance even the despised rayahs  or Christians. These, under their peasant leader "Black George," overthrew the Janizaries, but naturally refused submission to the Mahometan governors who were then sent to rule them.

The fanatic Moslems cried out against their Sultan; he was deserting them, they said, abandoning their faith and ancient laws and upholding even their rayahs against them. The Turkish troops everywhere revolted. Leaders who remained loyal to the Sultan were defeated and slain. In Constantinople the Janizaries once more went through the ceremony of overturning their camp kettles—thereby declaring that they would accept no more food from the reigning Sultan—and marched against the palace. Selim submitted to the inevitable and abdicated. His cousin was proclaimed Sultan as Mustapha IV. Anarchy had again triumphed. The Janizaries were king.

But through it all, one of Selim's lieutenants remained loyal. He was General, or Pasha, Bairactar, who was defending the line of the Danube against Russia. The Russian war with France relieved Bairactar of his opponents, and he promptly marched his troops to Constantinople. Defeating the Janizaries in a pitched battle in the streets, he demanded the surrender of the palace and the restoration of Selim.

Then ensued the last of those too common scenes of turmoil and horror within the walls of the seraglio. Sultan Mustapha bade his servants hold the gates against the invaders, while he hastily ordered the execution of Selim and also of his own younger brother Mahmud, the only other surviving member of the royal house. Were these two dead, Mustapha knew he would himself be safe. No Turk would venture on the total extinction of the race of Osman. Selim defended himself desperately, the cries of his rescuers without, ringing in his ears. But he was finally overcome and strangled, and his body was thrust out to Bairactar as proof of the impossibility of restoring him to power. The infuriated general continued for vengeance the assault which he had begun for loyalty.

Mustapha's other victim, Mahmud, escaped the slaves sent to destroy him. He hid in the furnace of a bath and while the murderers wera still hunting for him, Bairactar's soldiers burst in the gates and proclaimed him Sultan.

Mahmud II (1808—1839) had been the companion of Selim in the royal kawah  or cage, where they were held by Mustapha. There the deposed Selim, the ruler who had failed in his reforms, imparted to this untried cousin, this recluse from birth, the story of his own reign, his struggles, and his defeat by the power of the Janizaries. Hence Mahmud II was in a way a reincarnation of Selim, possessed of his views and aims. Mahmud had also the support of his rescuer, Bairactar, and for some months reform progressed rapidly. Then the Janizaries, who had pretended submission to Bairactar, suddenly attacked his troops. He had unwisely dismissed most of them from the city; the remainder proved insufficient for his protection. His fortress home was stormed. Its tower citadel in which he took refuge, was blown up; and Sultan Mahmud was forced in his turn to become the servant of the triumphant Janizaries. He was only saved from deposition and death by the fact that he had slain their former creature, Sultan Mustapha, and was thus the only remaining member of his race.

In this extremity Mahmud showed himself subtle as well as resolute. He affected submission to the old order of things. At the command of his tumultuous masters, he proclaimed the recent innovations and all other Christian customs to be accursed. Each reform was solemnly repudiated.

We must regard Turkey at this period as merely a set of Mahometan provinces, each virtually independent of the others and making little pretense of obedience to any central authority. Servia continued in rebellion and could not be suppressed, though the Turkish Pasha of Bosnia warred against it on his own account, hoping to add Servia to his government. The Pasha of Egypt made war upon the Mamelukes and showed his nominal master at Constantinople an example not afterward forgotten, by coaxing these formidable soldiers into a trap and there massacring them all (1811). The Pasha of Albania had long been accustomed to make treaties with the Europeans quite as an independent monarch, and in 1820 he embarked in open war against Constantinople. Encouraged by his successes, the Greeks also rose and began their war of independence.

The Albanian Pasha, "the old lion of Jannina," was overthrown, as much through treachery as by force; but the Greeks continued to struggle, and again and again repulsed the disorderly hordes of Janizaries who marched against them. That body being thus discredited, Sultan Mahmud at last ventured upon the attack he had been long maturing. Recognizing the value of artillery against such a mob as the Janizaries had become, he carefully strengthened that branch of his army. Under plea of the mechanical and therefore inferior labor required in handling the cannon, he collected his artillerymen from new recruits, many of them not even Turks by birth, but recusants from the Christian faith. By kind treatment and many privileges, he gained the personal devotion of these men. He also ventured to revive a few of Selim's regiments, trained to obedience and discipline on the Western model.

Then, pointing out to the mufti the failures of the Janizaries and the successes of his own better-ordered troops, he secured from these religious judges a declaration that the discipline of the Janizaries must be restored. The insulted and unsuspecting bullies of the empire promptly overturned their camp kettles and advanced against the palace. Met by Sultan Mahmud at the head of his twelve thousand loyal artillery, they were mowed down in the streets. They retreated to their barracks, and there defended themselves with a valor worthy a better cause. No direct assault was made on them, but from a distance the artillery steadily continued its fire until the barrack buildings crumbled into ruin. The defenders rushed out in repeated sallies, but were driven back. Some few cried for mercy; they were shot down. No chance was to be given them to turn suddenly on their conquerors as they had on Bairactar. The cannonade was kept up until nothing was left of the Janizaries of Constantinople but their dead bodies and the burning, bloodstained ruins which had been their homes (1826).

Surrender of varna


The grim massacre extended throughout the empire. Then Mahmud, really master of his dominions at last and avenged for the wrongs done him in earlier years, began the construction of a new army which might well have rehabilitated the Ottoman power in the eyes of Europe. Time was not given him, however, to carry his reforms to their full fruition. To check the successes of the Greeks he had appealed for aid to his powerful Egyptian vassal Mehemet Ali, and Ali so cruelly and completely suppressed the insurgents that Europe interfered. A combined English, French and Russian fleet entered the harbor of Navarino, where the Turkish navy lay. There had been no declaration of war, but the intrusion was threatening if not openly hostile, and the Turkish admiral fired on the advancing ships. A battle ensued in which, after an heroic defense, the Turkish navy was annihilated (1827).

With it disappeared most of Mahmud's hopes. The Western Powers insisted on the freedom of Greece. The Sultan, infuriated though despairing, refused to consent. Indeed, fearing his own people, he dared not consent. Russia, twice checked in her southward advance by the other Powers, seized the opportunity to secure their approval in the chastisement of the obdurate Turks. The war of 1828 followed, and Mahmud's new troops, few as yet and incompletely organized, failed to hold back their foes. A Russian army passed the Balkans, seized the ancient fortifications of Varna and took possession of Adrianople. The force that had thus penetrated to the heart of the Sultan's domains was in reality small and almost exhausted; but Mahmud, astounded, bewildered, and misled as to the number of his foes, asked for peace. Every behest of the Powers was agreed to. Greece was made independent. The vassalage of Servia and also of ancient Moldavia and Wallachia was reduced to little more than a name. The Russian frontier was advanced to the Danube (1828).

The unhappy Sultan had next to face the revolt'of Egypt. Mehemet Ali, seeing the helplessness of his ancient master, extended his authority over Syria as well as Egypt; and when the Turks sought to expel him from his new possession, he asserted a complete independence, defeated their armies, and marched his forces to the walls of Constantinople. Nothing saved the Sultan but the interference of the Western Powers, which had promised to protect him in the weakness to which they had themselves reduced him (1831).

After several years of preparation, the persistent Sultan again felt himself strong enough to compel the obedience of his overgrown Egyptian vassal. The Turkish army had been completely reconstructed, and a new fleet had been slowly and laboriously rebuilt to replace that lost at Navarino. Fleet and army were both despatched against Egypt with high hopes of victory; but the corruption which had for generations sapped the honesty of Ottoman officials, now played an extraordinary part. Mehemet Ali's bribes must have been high indeed; for whole battalions of the Turkish troops deserted to him on the very eve of battle, leaving the more loyal regiments to be easily overthrown. As for the commander of the fleet, taking leave of his sovereign with repeated oaths of the great deeds he intended to perform, he sailed straight for the Egyptian port of Alexandria, and there handed over all his vessels to Mehemet Ali (1839).

Sultan Mahmud was saved the knowledge of these last unparallelled acts of treachery. Worn out by years of anxiety and endeavor, he died before the news of the double disaster reached Constantinople. His career has been mocked at by his own people who have hated his innovations; his purposes had been foiled by foes whose subtlety dug deeper than his own; and he had brought his throne to what seemed hopeless ruin. Yet he cannot be charged wholly with failure. He accomplished much with little means, and the continued existence of the Ottoman Empire to-day is largely due to the reforms inaugurated by Mahmud II, the projects that he carried through, and the reawakening respect for both himself and his people which he extorted from reluctant Europe.