What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response

By Bernard Lewis
Oxford Univ. 180 pp. $23
Monday, January 28, 2002

Chapter One

The Lessons of the Battlefield

The Treaty of Carlowitz has a special importance in the history of the Ottoman Empire, and even, more broadly, in the history of the Islamic world, as the first peace signed by a defeated Ottoman Empire with victorious Christian adversaries.

    In a global perspective, this was not entirely new. There had been previous defeats of Islam by Christendom; the loss of Spain and Portugal, the rise of Russia, the growing European presence in South and Southeast Asia. But few observers at that time, Muslim or Western, could command a global perspective. In the perspective of the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East, these events were remote and peripheral, barely affecting the balance of power between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the long struggle that had been going on between them since the advent of Islam in the seventh century and the irruption of the Muslim armies from Arabia into the then Christian lands of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, and, for a while, Southern Europe. The Crusaders had briefly halted the triumphal march of Islam, but they had been held, defeated, and ejected. The Muslim advance had continued with the extinction of Byzantium and the Ottoman entry into Europe. The Empire of Constantinople had fallen; the Holy Roman Empire was next. Ottoman and more broadly Muslim consciousness of the world in which they lived is reflected in the very copious historical literature that they produced and, in greater detail, in the millions of documents preserved in the Ottoman archives, illustrating the functioning of the Ottoman state year by year, almost day by day, in its manifold activities. There are occasional references to the loss of Spain, but it appears as a relatively minor issue—far away, not threatening. There is some mention of the arrival of Muslim refugees and of Jewish refugees who came from Spain to the Ottoman lands, but little more.

    The peace signed at Carlowitz drove home two lessons. The first was military, defeat by superior force. The second lesson, more complex, was diplomatic, and was learnt in the process of negotiation. In the early centuries of Ottoman experience, a treaty was a simple matter. The Ottoman government dictated its terms, and the defeated enemy accepted them. After the first siege of Vienna there was, for a while, some sort of negotiation, and even—a startling innovation—a concession to the kaiser of equal status with the sultan, but no conclusive result one way or the other. In negotiating the Treaty of Carlowitz, the Ottomans had, for the first time, to resort to that strange art we call diplomacy, by which they tried, through political means, to modify, or even to reduce the results of the military outcome. For the Ottoman officials this was a new task, one in which they had no experience: how to negotiate the best terms they could after a military defeat.

    In this, they had some assistance, some guidance, from two foreign embassies in Istanbul, those of Britain and of the Netherlands. The Ottomans at first were unwilling to accept what they regarded as Christian interference, but they soon learned to recognize and make use of such help. The Western maritime and commercial states had no interest in the consolidation and extension of Austrian power and influence in Central and Eastern Europe, and thought it would be more to their advantage to have a weakened but surviving Ottoman Empire, in which their merchants could come and go at will. The British and Dutch emissaries managed to provide the Ottomans with some discreet help and advice, and were even able to take part in the negotiation of the peace treaty.

    Western help was not limited to diplomacy. Military help—the supply of weapons, even the financing of purchases, were old and familiar, going back beyond the beginnings of the Ottoman state to the time of the Crusades. What was new was for the Ottomans to seek European help in training and equipping their forces, and to form alliances with European powers against other European powers.

    In the first half of the eighteenth century, the struggle was indecisive, and even brought some gains for the Ottomans. In 1710 and 1711 they won a significant victory over the Russians who, by the Treaty of the Pruth (1711), were obliged to return the peninsula of Azov. But another war against Venice and then against Austria ended with another defeat and further territorial losses, specified in the Treaty of Passarowitz of 1718.

    At about that time, we have an Ottoman document, recording, or to be more accurate purporting to record, a conversation between two officers, one a Christian, (not more precisely described), the other an Ottoman Muslim. The purpose of the document is obviously propagandistic. It is, to my knowledge, the first Muslim document in which Muslim and Christian methods of warfare are compared, to the advantage of the latter, and the previously unthinkable suggestion is advanced that the true believers should follow the infidels in military organization and the conduct of warfare. The document laid great stress in particular on the Christian use of firepower, both cannon and muskets, and on the training and reorganizations of their forces, to make the most effective use of both. "The superior skill of the Austrian lies only in the use of the musket. They cannot face the sword." The thrust of the argument was that it was no longer sufficient, as in the past, to adopt Western weapons. It was also necessary to adopt Western training, structures, and tactics for their effective use.

    That was bad enough; even worse was that this adoption by the Ottomans—and later the Persians and other Muslim armies—did not produce the desired result. The military confrontation revealed in a dramatic form the root cause of the new imbalance. The problem was not, as was once argued, one of decline. The Ottoman state and armed forces were as effective as they had ever been, in traditional terms. In this as in much else, it was European invention and experiment that changed the balance of power between the two sides.

    The course of modernization even in this limited sense was by no means easy. It was denounced, it was resisted, it was interrupted. The case for modernization was considerably weakened by one of the many wars between Turkey and Iran that ended in 1730 with a victory for the even less modernized Persians. This did not strengthen the case of the modernizers in Turkey.

    For a while things went rather better in Europe. The growing rivalry between their two main enemies in the north, Austria and Russia, helped the Ottomans to recover some ground. But then a new disaster struck. Between 1768 and 1774 the Ottomans suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Russians. The result was registered in the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca of 1774, which gave the Russians rights of navigation and indirectly of intervention within the Ottoman Empire. Of more immediate importance was the clause concerning the Crimea, previously an Ottoman dependency inhabited by Turkish-speaking Muslims. The sultan was now compelled to recognize the "independence" of the khans of the Crimea. As it soon became clear, this was a preliminary to the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, in 1783.

    This was a bitter blow. The loss of Ottoman territories in Europe was hard but could be borne. These lands were relatively recent conquests, with predominantly Christian native populations, ruled by a minority of Ottoman soldiers and administrators. The Crimea was another matter; it was old Turkish Muslim territory dating back to the Middle Ages, and its loss was felt as part of the homeland. This was the first—but by no means the last—loss of Muslim lands and populations to Christian rule. It also marked the conclusive establishment of Russia as a major Black Sea power, posing a threat to the Ottoman and more broadly the Islamic lands, both on the European and the Caucasian shores.

    Clearly, new measures were needed to meet these new threats, and some of them violated accepted Islamic norms. The leaders of the ulema, the doctors of the Holy Law, were therefore asked, and agreed, to authorize two basic changes. The first was to accept infidel teachers and give them Muslim pupils, an innovation of staggering magnitude in a civilization that for more than a millennium had been accustomed to despise the outer infidels and barbarians as having nothing of any value to contribute, except perhaps themselves as raw material for incorporation in the domains of Islam and conversion to the faith of Islam.

    The second change was to accept infidel allies in their wars against other infidels. The Ottomans were used to employing locally recruited Christian auxiliaries in their wars, and even contingents, whom they could treat as auxiliaries, from Christian powers with which they shared a common Christian enemy. The Ottoman records show that in addition to those of their Balkan subjects who embraced Islam, there were some who remained Christian and nevertheless served in auxiliary units attached to the Ottoman forces.

    There were even gestures toward sovereign Christian states, who helped as what we would nowadays call allies, though neither side would have used such a term at the time. For example, in the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be: "... loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience ... and to manifest loyalty and subservience" to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm.

    But the new relationship between the Ottoman state and its European friends as well as its European enemies was something quite different. By now it was clear that something was going wrong, and more and more people in the governing elite, and even outside the governing elite, were becoming aware of it. Even worse, they were beginning to be aware that Europe was doing better and that they were consequently weaker and more endangered.

    When things go wrong in a society, in a way and to a degree that can no longer be denied or concealed, there are various questions that one can ask. A common one, particularly in continental Europe yesterday and in the Middle East today, is: "Who did this to us?" The answer to a question thus formulated is usually to place the blame on external or domestic scapegoats—foreigners abroad or minorities at home. The Ottomans, faced with the major crisis in their history, asked a different question: "What did we do wrong?" The debate on these two questions began in Turkey immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Carlowitz; it resumed with a new urgency after Küçük Kaynarca. In a sense it is still going on today.

    Debates about what is wrong were not new. There was a long tradition of Ottoman memorialists, most of them members of the official bureaucracy, discussing the various domestic problems of the Ottoman state and society, suggesting causes, and proposing remedies. One such was a little book written by Lûtfi Pasha, grand vizier of Süleyman the Magnificent, after his dismissal from office in 1541. In it he offered some acute diagnoses of flaws in the Ottoman structure and remedies that he thought should be adopted. Another was by a civil servant of Balkan origin called Koçu Bey, who in 1630 drew attention to weaknesses in both the civilian and the military services of the state, and proposed reforms to deal with them. The basic fault, according to most of these memoranda, was falling away from the good old ways, Islamic and Ottoman; the basic remedy was a return to them. This diagnosis and prescription still command wide acceptance in the Middle East.

    But these memoranda were relatively calm in tone and primarily domestic in content. They do occasionally refer to the outside world. Lûtfi Pasha, for example, drew attention to the importance of sea power. The Ottomans, he says, are everywhere triumphant on the land, but the infidels are superior at sea, and this could be dangerous. He was right of course in this. It was European ships, built to weather the Atlantic gales, that enabled the west Europeans to overcome local resistance and establish naval supremacy in the Arabian and Indian Seas. By the eighteenth century, even Muslim pilgrims going from India and Indonesia to the holy cities in Arabia would often book passage on English, Dutch, and Portuguese ships, because it was quicker, cheaper, and safer.

    But the rise of Europe was marginal to the concerns of Lûtfi Pasha and the other early memorialists, primarily concerned with domestic and, in the main, administrative and financial matters. The new memoranda, after Carlowitz, are more specific, more practical, more urgent, and more explicitly military. Also, for the first time, they make comparisons between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and its Christian enemies to the advantage of the latter. In other words, the question now was not only "what are we doing wrong?" but also "what are they doing right?" And of course, the essential question: "How do we catch up with them, and resume our rightful primacy?"

    An important factor in the development of these new perceptions and in the literature in which they are expressed was travel—the reports and recommendations of travelers between the two worlds of Islam and Christendom. There had always been Western travelers in the East. They came as pilgrims visiting the Christian holy places; as merchants profiting, by permission of the Sultans, from the rich Eastern trade; as diplomats, serving in the embassies and consulates established by the European powers in Muslim capitals and provincial cities. There were also captives taken on the battlefield or at sea. Some of these Western visitors entered the service of Muslim governments. In the Western perspective they were adventurers and renegades; for the Muslims they were muhtadi, those who have found and followed the true path.

    The eighteenth century brought an entirely new category of Western visitors, whom we might describe in modern parlance as "experts." Some came as individuals to offer their services to Ottoman employers. Later, some were even seconded by their governments, as part of an increasingly popular type of arrangement between a Christian or post-Christian country on the one hand and the Ottoman or some other Muslim state on the other. Such arrangements continue to the present day. For Muslims, first in Turkey and later elsewhere, this brought a shocking new idea—that one might learn from the previously despised infidel.

    An even more shocking innovation was travel from East to West. Previously only captives and a very limited number of special diplomatic envoys had gone that way. Muslims had no holy places in Europe to visit as pilgrims, as Christians visited the Holy Land. There was not much to attract merchants in a Europe that, for many centuries, was still a relatively primitive place with little to offer. The most valued commodity brought from Europe to the East was slaves, and these were usually supplied by Muslim raiders or European merchants.

    Muslims were no strangers to travel. The pilgrimage to Mecca was one of the five basic obligations of the faith, and required Muslims, at least once in a lifetime, to make the necessary journey however long it might be. Muslims also traveled extensively in the countries to the south and to the east of the realms of Islam, in search of merchandise or knowledge. The lands and peoples beyond the northwestern frontier of Islam had little to offer of either, and such travel was in fact actively discouraged by the doctors of the Holy Law. Western captives in the East who escaped or were ransomed and returned home produced a considerable literature telling of their adventures, of the lands they had seen and the people they had met in the mysterious Orient. Middle Eastern captives in the West who found their way home for the most part remained silent, nor was there any great interest in the few accounts that survived. The Occident remained even more mysterious than the Orient, and it aroused no equivalent curiosity. The different mutual perceptions were vividly expressed in their attitudes to each other's languages. The study of Eastern languages was intensively pursued in the European universities and elsewhere by scholars who came to be known as Orientalists, on the analogy of Hellenists and Latinists. Until a comparatively recent date, there were no Occidentalists in the Orient.

    The European powers had long followed the practice of maintaining permanent resident embassies and consulates, in the Islamic lands as elsewhere. The Islamic governments did not. It was the normal practice of Muslim sovereigns to send an ambassador to a foreign ruler when there was something to say, and to bring him home when he had said it. This eminently sensible and economical practice was maintained for centuries. Until the eighteenth century, there were very few such missions, and very few indications survive of what they reported.

    In the eighteenth century the situation changed dramatically. Great numbers of such special envoys were now sent, with instructions to observe and to learn and, more particularly, to report on anything that might be useful to the Muslim state in coping with its difficulties and confronting its enemies. Several of the Ottoman ambassadors wrote reports, which clearly had a considerable impact at the time. Among them were Mehmet Efendi who went to Paris in 1721; Resmi Efendi who went to Vienna in 1757 and to Berlin in 1773; Vasif Efendi who was in Madrid from 1787 to 1789; Azmi Efendi who was in Berlin from 1790 to 1792 and wrote an interesting memorandum on how a well-ordered state is governed and administered; and in many ways most important of all, Ebu Bekir Ratib Efendi, who was in Vienna from 1791 to 1792 and described the system of civil and military government in the Austrian Empire in great detail, with specific recommendations concerning those practices that might usefully be copied.

    The mission of Ratib Efendi differs from those of his predecessors both in quantity and in quality. The staff who accompanied him to Vienna consisted of more than one hundred military and civil officials; he stayed in Vienna for 153 days; his report ran to 245 manuscript folios, ten times or more than ten times those of his predecessors, and it goes into immense detail, primarily on military matters, but also, to quite a considerable extent, on civil affairs. Ratib Efendi also took the trouble to provide himself with much needed help on the language side. In his report he mentions two people who had been particularly helpful to him. One was the son of "the Jewish financier Camondo," one of the small group of Ottoman sephardic Jews who were living in Austria; the other was the famous Mouradgea d'Ohsson, an Ottoman Armenian who had long served as translator to the Swedish embassy in Istanbul. In his retirement he had gone to live in Paris, but because of the Revolution had moved to Vienna. These two provided much more than simple translation. Ratib Efendi, in his report, tells of Mouradgea d'Ohsson's visits and long conversations with him, and notes that the Armenian's zeal for the Ottoman state was at least as great as his own.

    The recourse to Vienna was less surprising than it might at first appear. Events in France were bringing an important change. For almost three centuries, the Ottoman sultans had seen the Hapsburgs as their main enemies, and had looked to France and to a lesser extent to England for help against them. But the revolution in France created a new situation. The new sultan, Selim III (reigned 1789-1807), was clearly reluctant to drop the French connection, but the events in Paris obliged him to explore other possibilities—even the traditional enemy.

    As well as embassy reports, there were also military memoranda. One of the earliest pieces of evidence, mentioned above, records an imaginary conversation between an Ottoman officer and a Christian officer, comparing their armies to the great disadvantage of the Ottomans. The purpose clearly was to prepare the Ottoman governing elite for drastic changes. This was bad enough in itself. That the changes should take the form of following Western practice was even more shocking. A major role in this process was played by European experts. Some of these came as individuals and threw in their lot completely with the Ottomans, to the point of embracing Islam and entering the Ottoman service. One such was a French nobleman, Claude-Alexandre, Comte de Bonneval, who arrived in about 1729, reorganized the bombardier force, and founded a "mathematical school" for the armed forces in 1734. He converted to Islam—allegedly to escape extradition on certain charges pending against him at home—and died in 1747. He is known in Turkish annals as Bombardier Ahmed (Humbaraci Ahmed).

    Another famous convert was a Hungarian seminarist, probably Unitarian, known in Turkish annals as Ibrahim Müteferrika. Ibrahim's original family name is unknown; Müteferrika is a title, indicating membership of a kind of elite guard corps attached to the sultan's person. He seems to have arrived in the late seventeenth century and died in 1745. His major achievement was to establish a Turkish printing press in 1729. One of the books he printed was a short treatise of his own, in which he explains the successes of Christian arms against the Ottomans in Europe and urges the need to reform Ottoman administrative and military procedures along European lines.

    As well as converts to Islam, there were a number of refugees who came from Europe, bringing useful skills. These included Christians whose beliefs were deemed heretical or schismatic in their countries of origin, and of course Jews. For a while in the late fifteenth and more especially in the sixteenth centuries, Jewish refugees from Europe played a minor but not unimportant role in Ottoman society—bringing European economic, technical, and medical skills, and occasionally serving in diplomatic missions. But with the cessation of Jewish immigration from Europe this virtually came to an end. Those who came from Europe had brought useful skills and knowledge; their locally-born descendants lacked these advantages, and their role was correspondingly diminished.

    Of vastly greater importance were the Greeks. In the early years of Ottoman rule in the former Byzantine lands there was great bitterness among the orthodox Greeks at their treatment by the Catholic West, and the patriarch of Constantinople was famously quoted as saying: "Rather the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Pope." But attitudes changed, and from the late seventeenth century it became customary for wealthy Greek families in the Turkish lands to send their sons to Europe, usually to Italy, for education. They particularly favored medical studies but also began to play an influential role as translators for the Ottoman government.

    The office of interpreter to the Ottoman authorities was of course important in dealings with Europe. In earlier times it was held mostly by renegades and adventurers from the countries bordering the Ottoman Empire; Germans, Hungarians, Italians, and others. Later it was monopolized by Greek subjects of the Ottoman state who held the office and title of Grand Dragoman. The role of the Grand Dragoman Alexander Mavrokordato in the negotiation of the Treaty of Carlowitz was an important but by no means exceptional example. At this time, when the Ottomans sent an ambassador abroad he was invariably accompanied by a dragoman who was almost invariably Greek.


© 2002 Bernard Lewis