Decline of the Ottoman Empire

After the Ottoman Empire suffered a horrendous military defeat besieging the city of Vienna in 1683, the Austrians drove the Turks out of almost all their provinces north of the Danube. Repeated Ottoman attempts to regain lands during the next decade only led to more disasters for the Turks, resulting in unprecedented loss of vital territories to Austria and initiating domestic crises that corroded the government’s power.

Summary of Event

In 1687, the very existence of the Ottoman Empire appeared imperiled. Four years earlier, in 1683, the Ottoman army had laid siege to Vienna, Vienna, Siege of (1683) capital of Habsburg Austria. For this monumental military gamble, the Ottomans drained their subjects of men, money, and resources, deploying more than 100,000 troops, innumerable cannon, and enormous stores of food, equipment, and supplies. The gamble failed. [kw]Decline of the Ottoman Empire (beginning 1687)
[kw]Ottoman Empire, Decline of the (beginning 1687)
Government and politics;Beginning 1687: Decline of the Ottoman Empire[2830]
Diplomacy and international relations;Beginning 1687: Decline of the Ottoman Empire[2830]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Beginning 1687: Decline of the Ottoman Empire[2830]
Cultural and intellectual history;Beginning 1687: Decline of the Ottoman Empire[2830]
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Middle East;Beginning 1687: Decline of the Ottoman Empire[2830]
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Exhausted by Vienna’s defenses, the weary Ottomans staggered before a surprise assault by Polish relief forces. Seizing the initiative, the Austrians and Poles drove the sultan’s army out of Hungary, a territory the Ottomans had occupied for 150 years. Also fallen was Belgrade, the pivotal fortress guarding the crossing of the Danube River. Simultaneously, a Russian-Polish alliance began deep raids into the Ottoman provinces of the northern Black Sea coast. Venice landed troops in Ottoman Greece and, in 1687, captured Athens. The Holy League Holy League alliance—Poland, the Venetian Republic, Russia, and the Papacy—confronted the Ottomans with a new kind of threat, an enemy alliance able to coordinate attacks simultaneously on multiple fronts.

The virtual disintegration of the Ottoman army compounded the crisis. Deserters and demobilized soldiers became bandits. Officer deaths and mutinies wrecked the command structure. Excessive food requisitions and conscription of peasants set off local famines, hoarding, food riots, and price inflations. Famine;Ottoman Empire Thousands of Muslim refugees fled south to escape the invaders. Desperate for funds, Sultan Mehmed IV Avci Mehmed IV Avci decreed special taxes on the salaries of government and religious employees. The sultan preferred the harem and the hunt to the business of state and war, so his exactions quickly became the focus of public fury. The grand vizier, Köprülü Fazıl Mustafa Paşa Köprülü Fazıl Mustafa Paşa , responded immediately. Leader of the House of Köprülü, one of the great Osmanli families that included several brilliant grand viziers, he rallied the courtiers, clergy, and soldiers of Istanbul to depose Mehmed

SüleymanIbrahim II SüleymanIbrahim II , the new sultan, assumed the throne as Istanbul lay in the grip of rioting garrison troops, deserters, and armed racketeers. At first, he seemed cowed by these factional struggles in his own streets. Then, in early 1688, he called for the soldiers to march on Belgrade and promised to cut taxes. Those who rallied to his colors became the sultan’s police force, crushing the mutinies and restoring order in the capital. The grand vizier then canceled many of the offending taxes. The promised liberation of Belgrade, however, failed to materialize. In fact, the Ottomans hoped for a peace with the Austrians in order to face the Venetian threat in the south and the Russo-Polish danger in the northeast. Vienna, fearing a French invasion of Bavaria, could be persuaded. Taking control over the vast lands of Hungary, Transylvania, and Walachia meant that Habsburg Austria, too, needed stability and peace. However, the Holy League insisted that Austria remain at war so that other members might get their own piece of the Ottomans

Revolts in Ottoman Serbia during 1689 convinced the Austrians to move south across the Danube and occupy Bosnia and northern Serbia. This conquest placed them on the road to Istanbul, a menace that Sultan Süleyman and Fazıl Mustafa Paşa used to reform and reconstitute the Ottoman military. Frictions between the Roman Catholic Austrians and the Orthodox Christians of Serbia and Bosnia also dampened the enthusiasm of the Balkan peoples for their German “liberators.” As the Ottoman army grew, the Austria army shrank, having been called back to Hungary to deal with revolts and to Germany to counter French expeditions across the Rhine River. Finally, the success of the Tatars of the Crimea, allies of the Ottomans, in defending Perekop from Russian assaults meant that Austria would not receive help from the east. Thus, in the autumn of 1690, Fazıl Mustafa Paşa’s expedition to Serbia quickly pushed the weakened Austrians back over the Danube and recaptured the vital fortress of Belgrade. Although Turkish raiders sometimes crossed into Transylvania, the grand vizier held off risking a real invasion

The reforms of the sultan and the vizier seemed, at least superficially, to revive Ottoman military prowess. Habsburg Vienna, preoccupied by French threats against England, Bavaria, and the Netherlands, needed tranquility on the Danube frontiers. With the Crimean Tatars holding off the Russians, Fazıl Mustafa Paşa turned to domestic revival. Corrupt officials lost their offices, new troops joined and received rigorous training, state salaries increased, and military industries such as cannon foundries and gunpowder works expanded. Such reforms, however, fit more into traditional patterns than patterns of modernization. Ottoman military manufactures, for example, produced old-style weapons already being replaced in European armies by better equipment. Price controls and commodity requisitions proved less effective in reviving agriculture and bringing down food prices. Thinking that his reforms had already succeeded, the grand vizier returned to the offensive in the summer of 1691

Fazıl Mustafa Paşa convinced himself that the Ottomans could reclaim their Hungarian lands if they moved quickly. Austrian forces on the plains of Hungary, drawn west to face France, reportedly lacked supplies and numerical strength. Tatar chiefs promised thousands of horse warriors and weaponry. Although Süleyman died as the vizier was preparing his advance, the new sultan, Ahmed II Ahmed II , gave Fazıl Mustafa Paşa his eager support. Determined to surprise the enemy, Fazıl Mustafa Paşa ignored the cautions of his field commanders and led his forces up the Danube toward Karlowitz. In August, 1691, the Ottomans and Austrians clashed at the Battle of Slankamen Slankamen, Battle of (1691) . The better armed and better disciplined Habsburg infantry ambushed the disorganized Ottoman expedition. The grand vizier was killed after being hit by a bullet in the forehead. His carefully reconstructed army, abandoning its guns and supplies, disintegrated and fled in panic.

Shattered by the losses and bereft of his Köprülü mentor, Sultan Ahmed proved an inept and rudderless ruler. Without Fazıl Mustafa Paşa, contesting political factions soon paralyzed the state. New viziers came and left rapidly. Although the generals managed to reassemble a creditable army, these conscripts lacked the cohesion and sufficient leadership to sustain complex operations, let alone take the offensive. Corruption and venality was revived, coinage was debased, and inflation undermined the economy. Four years of angry, undeclared peace passed between Vienna and Istanbul, but it was Austria and Russia that used these years to strengthen and improve their militaries. Indeed, under a new czar, Peter the Great Peter the Great , Russia managed, in 1696, to capture the port of Azov and gain naval and commercial access to the Black Sea.

The death of Ahmed II in 1695 raised Mustafa II Mustafa II to the sultanate (until 1703). Strongly influenced by the Islamic clergy, Mustafa resolved to lead the army in person, imitating the great warrior sultans of the Ottoman past. Energetic but inexperienced, a few easy victories convinced him the army could sustain and win a massive operation against Budapest. In September, 1697, attempting to take the offensive into Hungary, the sultan began a river-crossing operation near Zenta Zenta, Battle of (1697) (Senta). However, as night was falling, Commander Eugene of Savoy Eugene of Savoy and his Austrian army arrived on the scene. Although outnumbered, they pounced on the startled and unprepared Ottomans and annihilated half the Turkish army. Tens of thousands of Ottoman officers and soldiers died and vast stores of supplies and equipment fell into Austrian hands. Mustafa returned to Istanbul completely demoralized, and his surviving forces scattered and mutinied.


Zenta ended Istanbul’s efforts to regain Hungary and the other territories they once held north of the Danube. These lands now belonged to their Austrian enemies. From this point on, the Ottoman Empire would find itself increasingly on the defensive militarily and depending more and more on the diplomacy of allies such as France to hold conquerors at bay. At the same time, the corrosion of Ottoman internal stability accelerated well into the next century until the former Terror of Europe became known as the Sick Man of Europe.

Further Reading

  • Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. This work describes the Ottoman-Habsburg relationship of the seventeenth century.
  • Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries. New York: William Morrow, 1977. An engaging narrative history focused on the personalities of Ottoman history.
  • McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks. New York: Longman, 1997. A first-rate history of the Ottomans.
  • Murphey, Rhoads. Ottoman Warfare, 1500-1700. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. This historical text is focused on the military institutions and soldiers of the empire.
  • Shaw, Stanford J. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 1. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. An excellent detailed analysis using primary sources.

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