Montesquieu’s epistolary novel Persian Letters imagines two Muslims embarking on a voyage of discovery to France via Turkey. ‘I have marked with astonishment the weakness of the empire of the Osmanli,’ writes Usbek on his journey westwards. ‘These barbarians have abandoned all the arts, even that of war. While the nations of Europe become more refined every day, these people remain in a state of primitive ignorance; and rarely think of employing new inventions in war, until they have been used against them a thousand times.’84

Such expeditions to investigate the reasons for the West’s manifestly growing military superiority did in fact happen. When Yirmisekiz Çelebi Mehmed was sent to Paris in 1721 he was instructed ‘to visit the fortresses, factories and works of French civilization generally and report on those which might be applicable’. He wrote back glowingly about French military schools and training grounds.

The Ottomans knew by this time that they had to learn from the West. In 1732 İbrahim Müteferrika, an Ottoman official born a Christian in Transylvania, presented Sultan Mahmud I with his Rational Bases for the Politics of Nations, which posed the question that has haunted Muslims ever since: ‘Why do Christian nations which were so weak in the past compared with Muslim nations begin to dominate so many lands in modern times and even defeat the once victorious Ottoman armies?’ Müteferrika’s answer ranged widely. He referred to the parliamentary system in England and Holland, to Christian expansion in America and the Far East and even mentioned that, while the Ottoman Empire was subject to sharia law (sheriat), Europeans had ‘laws and rules invented by reason’. But it was above all the military gap that had to be closed:

Let Muslims act with foresight and become intimately acquainted with new European methods, organization, strategy, tactics and warfare … All the wise men of the world agree that the people of Turkey excel all other peoples in their nature of accepting rule and order. If they learn the new military sciences and are able to apply them, no enemy can ever withstand this state.85

The message was clear: the Ottoman Empire had to embrace both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment if it was to be credible as a great power. It is no coincidence that it was Müteferrika who finally introduced the printing press to the Ottoman Empire in 1727 and, a year later, published the first book to use movable Arabic type, the Van Kulu dictionary. In 1732 he published a compilation of several English and Latin works as Fuyuzat-ı miknatisiye (‘The Enlightenment of Magnetism’).86

On 2 December 1757 the Ottoman civil servant and diplomat Ahmed Resmî Efendi left Istanbul for Vienna to announce the accession of a new sultan: Mustafa III. This was to be a very different Ottoman expedition from the one led by Kara Mustafa in 1683. Resmî was accompanied not by an army but by more than one hundred military and civilian officials; his mission was not to besiege the Habsburg capital but to learn from it. After a stay of 153 days he wrote a detailed – and enthusiastic – report of over 245 manuscript folios.87 In 1763 he was sent on another diplomatic mission, to Berlin. If anything, he was even more impressed by Prussia than by Austria. Though a trifle disconcerted by Frederick’s outfit (‘dusty with daily use’), he applauded the King’s dedication to the business of government, his lack of religious prejudice and the abundant evidence of Prussian economic development.88

Earlier accounts of Europe by Ottoman envoys had dripped with derision. Indeed, a chronic superiority complex had been another obstacle to Ottoman reform. Resmî’s enthusiastic accounts marked a dramatic – and painful – shift. Not everyone in Istanbul was receptive, however. Resmî’s implicit and explicit criticisms of the Ottoman systems of civil and military service were probably the reason this gifted official never became grand vizier. To describe the superiority of European governments was one thing. To implement reforms of the Ottoman system was quite another.

Western experts were invited to Istanbul to advise the Sultan. Claude Alexandre, comte de Bonneval oversaw reform of the Ottoman Corps of Miners and Artillery Transport as well as the Corps of Bombardiers. A French officer of Hungarian origin, Baron François de Tott, was brought in to oversee the construction of new, effective defences for the Ottoman capital. As he boated along the Bosphorus, de Tott realized with amazement that many of the fortifications were not merely outdated but also wrongly located, so that any enemy ships would be completely out of range even of modern guns. In his memoirs he described them as ‘more like the ruins of a siege than preparations for a defence’. He set up the Sür’at Topçulari Ocaği, modelled on the French Corps de Diligents, and the Hendesehane (Military Academy), where a Scotsman, Campbell Mustafa, instructed the cadets in mathematics. De Tott also built a new foundry for the manufacture of cannon and encouraged the creation of mobile artillery units.89

Time and again, however, attempts at change fell foul of political opposition, not least that of the Janissaries, who in 1807 succeeded in dismantling altogether the New Order Army (Nizam-ı Cedid) instituted under the direction of another French expert, General Albert Dubayet. By now the Ottoman army appeared to be run primarily for the enrichment and convenience of its officers. Increasingly vulnerable in battle, it was no longer even effective at suppressing internal revolts.90 It was not until the Tanzimat (Reorganization) era – the reigns of the reforming sultans Mahmud II and Abdülmecid I – that a sultan was prepared to confront such opposition head on.

On 11 June 1826, on a large parade ground near the main Janissary barracks, 200 soldiers were put through their paces wearing new European-style uniforms. Two days later some 20,000 Janissaries gathered to protest, shouting: ‘We do not want the military exercises of the infidels!’ They symbolically overturned their pilav cauldrons and threatened to march on the Topkapı Palace. Mahmud II seized his moment. Either the Janissaries would be massacred, he declared, or cats would walk over the ruins of Istanbul. He had prepared well, ensuring the loyalty of key army units like the artillery corps. When their guns were turned against the Janissary barracks, the forces of reaction were thrown into disarray. Hundreds were killed. On 17 June the Janissaries were abolished.91

It was not only the army’s uniforms that were Europeanized. Soldiers also had to march to a brand new beat, following the appointment as instructor general of the imperial Ottoman music of Giuseppe Donizetti, brother of the more famous Gaetano Donizetti, the composer of Lucia di Lammermoor. Donizetti wrote two distinctly Italianate national anthems for his employer as well as overseeing the creation of a European-style military band, which he taught to play Rossini overtures. Gone were the war drums that had once struck the fear of Allah into the defenders of Vienna. As the French journal Le Ménestrel reported in December 1836:

In Istanbul, the ancient Turkish music has died in agony. Sultan Mahmoud loves Italian music and has introduced it to his armies … He particularly loves the piano, so much so that he ordered many instruments from Vienna for his ladies. I do not know how they are going to learn to play, since no one has so far succeeded in going anywhere near them.92

The most enduring symbol of the era of reform was built by Sultan Abdülmecid I. Constructed between 1843 and 1856, the Dolmabahçe Palace has no fewer than 285 rooms, forty-four halls, sixty-eight toilets and six hammams (Turkish baths). Fourteen tons of gold leaf were used to gild the palace ceilings, from which hung a grand total of thirty-six chandeliers. At the top of the dazzling Crystal Staircase, the palace’s biggest room, the Muayede (Ceremonial) Hall, boasts an immense one-piece carpet measuring 1,300 square feet and a chandelier that weighs over 4 tons. It looks rather like a cross between Grand Central Station and a stage set at the Paris Opéra.

All that remained was to implement, after a lag of roughly 200 years, the Scientific Revolution. A government report published in 1838 confirmed the new importance of Western knowledge: ‘Religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come, but science serves the perfection of man in this world.’ However, it was not until 1851 that an Assembly of Knowledge (Encümen-i Daniş) was established on the model of the Académie Française (members were expected to be ‘well versed in learning and science, having a perfect knowledge of one of the European languages’), followed ten years later by an Ottoman Scientific Society (Cemiyet-i İlmiye-i Osmaniye).93 At the same time, with the creation of something like an industrial park west of Istanbul, there was a concerted effort to build factories capable of manufacturing modern uniforms and weaponry. It seemed that the Ottomans were at last sincerely opening to the West.94 The Orientalist James Redhouse, who was first employed as a teacher at the Ottoman Naval Engineering School after jumping ship at the age of seventeen, toiled for decades to translate English works into Turkish and to compile dictionaries, grammars and phrasebooks that would make European knowledge more accessible to Ottoman readers, as well as improving Western understanding of the disreputable Turk. In 1878 Ahmed Midhat founded the Interpreter of Truth newspaper, in which he serialized many of his own works, including Avrupa’da Bir Cevelan (‘A Tour of Europe, 1889’), which described his experiences at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and in particular his impressions of the Palace of Machines.95

Yet, despite sincere efforts by grand viziers like Reshid Pasha, Fuad and Ali Pasha and Midhat Pasha, none of these changes was accompanied by the kind of reform of the Ottoman system of administration that might have provided a solid foundation to support this fine façade.96 New armies, new uniforms, new anthems and new palaces were all very well. But without an effective system of taxation to finance them, a rising share of the cost was met by borrowing in Paris and London. And the more revenue that had to be spent on interest payments to European bond-holders, the less there was to finance defence of the now crumbling empire. Driven from Greece in the 1820s, and losing large chunks of Balkan territory in 1878, the Ottoman Empire appeared to be in terminal decline, its currency debased by the issue of crude (and easily forged) paper notes known as kaime,97a rising share of its revenues consumed by interest payments to European creditors,98 its periphery menaced by a combination of Slavic nationalism and great-power machination. The attempt to introduce a constitution to limit the Sultan’s power ended with the exile of Midhat Pasha and the reimposition of absolute rule by Abdul Hamid II.

In one corner of the Dolmabahçe Palace’s many vast halls stands the most extraordinary clock, which is also a thermometer, a barometer and a calendar. It was a gift from the Khedive of Egypt to the Sultan. It even has an inscription in Arabic: ‘May your every minute be worth an hour and your every hour, a hundred years.’ It looks like a masterpiece of Oriental technology – except for one small detail: it was made in Austria, by Wilhelm Kirsch. As Kirsch’s clock perfectly illustrates, the mere importation of Western technology was no substitute for a home-grown Ottoman modernization. The Turks needed not just a new palace, but a new constitution, a new alphabet – in fact a new state. The fact that they finally got all these things was largely due to the efforts of one man. His name was Kemal Atatürk. His ambition was to be Turkey’s Frederick the Great.

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