A little background is necessary; Mehmet II, also known as Mehmet the Conqueror, had captured Constantinople in 1453, ending the sickly Medieval Roman (Byzantine) Empire’s run. in 1459, Pope Pious II declared a Crusade against the Ottoman Turks, but it was largely up to the Eastern European states like Modavia, Hungary and Wallachia to resist Ottoman encroachment. Arguably, the apex of Ottoman reach into Europe culminated in the Siege of Vienna in 1529. It is in this context that the speculation amongst historians begins to swirl about the ‘decline’ of Ottoman power.
There are some who argue that the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – a naval battle between Catholic Europeans and Ottoman Turks – was the first indicator of the ‘decline’ of Ottoman power. In the battle, the smaller but slightly more technically-advanced “Holy League” defeated the numerically-superior but overconfident Ottoman navy. The defeat was seen in Ottoman circles of the result of God’s will – ironically, the same position was taken by the Holy League – as the rout was truly devastating; around 30 Ottoman ships made it home out of a whopping 250-ish. Some historians (in my opinion, wrongfully) argue that this signaled the rise of Europe as a technologically, and politically advanced region which would be able to credibly challenge the Ottomans on their own turf (in this case, the Ionian sea). But I disagree; the Ottomans learned from the loss and updated their ships and, within a year, were back and bigger than ever. In 1573, they wrested Cyprus from Venetian control and mocked Venetian “power” saying that in wresting Cyprus from them, they had deprived Venice of an arm, while the defeat at Lepanto was merely a “shaved beard.”
The second point where historians argue that the Ottoman Empire was losing its grip was the Battle of Vienna. Though Ottomans had not taken Vienna in 1529, they at least were able to force Europeans to recognize their superiority and exact tribute. The disastrous Battle of Vienna in 1683; the impressively large Ottoman force besieged Vienna for nearly two months, but was turned away by a combined Polish, Austrian, and Holy Roman Empire coalition. This time, the Europeans were much more organized, much more technologically-advanced, and much richer (thus able to wage these wars). After the battle, the Ottomans began losing territory in Hungary, Transylvania and other European countries over the next two decades. So what had change in the last few years? Well, part of it was a recognition of the threat that the ottomans posed against the Europeans, thus necessitating a coalition of the big players of the day. Also, there is the matter that Western Europeans had established profitable colonies on the Western Hemisphere, leading to a general increase in wealth for most of Europe, which allowed them to prosecute such a huge war. And finally, the Ottomans had some internal problems of their own (such as an increasingly petulant Janissary corp). This loss led to more losses and culminated in the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. Even though the Hapsburgs had become a central/eastern European power through this treaty, I’d say that the Ottomans were at best ‘stagnating’ and not necessarily declining at this point; they were still a regional power in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
A real blow came, however, when Egypt rebelled against Ottoman rule. In the late 18th century, a group of so-called “Mamluk” (meaning slave) military leaders declared their independence from the Ottomans and the Ottomans were relatively helpless to stop them, partly because the Mamluks paid lip service to being part of the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan was willing to play along with the fiction.
What the Sultan could not play along with, however, was France’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Napoleon probably invaded in order to threaten English ties to India, though he allegedly argued he was doing it for the benefit of the Ottoman Empire, promising to rule it in the Sultan’s name. The Ottomans reached out to the English and sent their best general, Muhammad Ali, to free Egypt and return it to Ottoman control. At this point, we can see that the Ottomans have lost control over their internal affairs and were lagging far enough behind that they had to rely upon other outsiders to defend their borders; a sure sign of decline. It didn’t help matters that Muhammad Ali essentially crowned himself king of Egypt and began an ambitious – and largely successful – modernization project in Egypt which had been tried (and failed) in the Ottoman Empire. His reforms made Egypt a regional power and strong enough militarily to challenge the Ottomans credibly. His conquest of Syria and attempt to march on Constantinople was only stopped because the Sultan was able to call upon the English for help.
Reforms in the Ottoman Empire – modernization, mechanization, industrialization, etc. – were often opposed by the ulemma or ‘educated’ religious leaders of the Muslim community as Western poison which would further corrupt the Ottoman Empire. Critics of these ulemma derisively called them juhala meaning ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid’ to denote the unreasonable resistance to modernity.
To make matters worse, the Ottoman Empire – for various reasons including the invasions noted above – began to sign increasingly lop-sided agreements with England, France, and (to a lesser degree) Russia. These so-called “Capitulations” granted immunity to prosecution, taxes, and inspection by the Ottomans of the respective subjects, at least at first. These ‘protections’ were later expanded to include favored ethnic or confessional groups within the Empire, thus weakening even further the Ottoman control of internal policy and law enforcement. Over the course of the 19th century, Ottoman government and leaders essentially relied more and more on foreign aid and investment to keep their empire limping along. Partly because of these unequal treaties, partly because of the reticence of the rabble-rousing ulemma and Janissaries, and partly because of the economic inability to do otherwise.
This cycle of dependency was a hallmark of the 19th century as foreign powers treated the Ottomans like a combination of an over-ripe melon ready to be carved up and a sickly old man, unable to defend himself. A really good example, is the Crimean War (noted below); Russian troops sought to eject Ottoman control from the Black Sea, particularly Crimea, and looked to be on the verge of doing so when the English and, to a lesser degree, the French intervened on the Ottoman behalf. Now any illusion that the Ottomans had that they could defend themselves were gone.
There were late-19th century attempts at reform and revolution, most notably the Young Turk (also called the Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP) movement. But, one could argue, it was too little too late. By the beginning of the 20th century, even though the Ottomans were beginning to pull themselves out of a political and economic nose-dive, they had such an uphill battle, that it is doubtful they could have accomplished it.
The final straw was, of course, World War One. Though the Ottomans acquitted themselves fairly well at battles such as Gallipoli – mostly due to the incompetence of Britain’s command staff and geography – the rest of the war did not go well for the Ottomans. Though the Russians were poorly armed poorly trained, and relatively poorly led, the Ottomans were worse, losing battle after battle. At the same time, England was riling up the Arabs against the Ottomans and had taken full control of Egypt. Territorially, the Ottomans were in bad shape as well; they were a mere sliver of who they once were and, in the end, I don’t think anyone was surprised when a new state emerged from the Ottomans’ ashes.