Ottoman Centralism and Exclusivity
From the early sixteenth century, western European observers began to perceive the Ottoman Empire as a remarkable example of the centralism and exclusivity of sovereign power. What they noticed were the features of a new imperial system that Mehmet II had developed following his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Niccolò Machiavelli's comparison of the French and Ottoman governments in The Prince (1515) exemplifies the contemporary assessment:
The passage points to a stereotype of Ottoman government that had come to prevail in Christian Europe. The sultan ruled through a body of officials having the legal status of household slaves. Recruited from the children of Christian families and trained from adolescence within the confines of the sultan's palace, they had no independent social identities or loyalties. At the same time, these slave officials (kul) were unchallenged by any system of estates. There was no aristocracy composed of lords who ruled their own peoples and territories, and no bourgeoisie composed of merchants or bankers who had been granted the privilege of governing their own towns and cities. The "Grand Turk," as the sultan was sometimes styled in Christian Europe, seemed to enjoy a measure of sovereign power unmatched by any other monarch in early modern Europe.
The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks [sub-provinces], he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril. Therefore, he who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it. The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him. This arises from the reasons given above; for his ministers, being all slaves and bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted, as they cannot carry the people with them, for the reasons assigned.
Machiavelli's analysis reduced the ruling institution to a simple and static formula, thereby concealing both its complexity and instability. Still, his formula directs our attention to a distinctive feature of a new governmental system that gained ground during the early classical period. As the Ottomans launched a world imperial project during the later fifteenth century, they reinforced the centralism and exclusivity of the ruling institution. The recruitment and training of "slave" children to serve as high state officials was just one of the measures they adopted. By means of a range of policies, the Ottomans came to rely on a special class of military, administrative, and judicial officials who lacked affiliation with the governed. This raises the question of how the Ottomans incorporated a region whose peoples had such a large stake in market and state participation.
Mehmet II had annexed the Greek Empire of Trebizond (1461) just as he was beginning to devise and apply the new imperial system. Süleyman I had later reorganized the province (paşalıık) of Trabzon as a new administrative entity (1519) at the high point of classical institutions. So the substantial Christian population of the coastal region had become subjects just as the Ottomans were perfecting the centralism and exclusivity of the ruling institution. Higher state officials were more than ever composed of slave officials, and other entry points into the ranks of officialdom were regulated more than ever. Thus the shock of conquest was compounded by the shock of subjection. The old rural societies of the coastal region and the new imperial system were exactly mismatched. The inhabitants of the province of Trabzon had become part of a governmental system based on principles that stood in direct opposition to compelling local interests.
As we saw in the last chapter, the mismatch was transitory rather than permanent. As the domains of the ruling institution reached their maximum limits, the conduct of warfare was shifting away from the use of cavalry toward the use of infantry with firearms. Under these circumstances, the Ottomans came to require larger numbers of men with a wider range of skills, even before the close of the classical period. They therefore took steps to widen the circle of participation in imperial military and religious institutions during the seventeenth century, in effect compromising the principles of centralism and exclusivity. As they did so, problems of imperial competition at the military frontier were joined by problems of internal instability in the core Ottoman provinces. Provincial governors had begun to defy the central government, asserting themselves by collecting illegal taxes and maintaining their own private armies. In response, the palace widened the privileges and prerogatives of provincial elites at the district level in hopes of curbing the powers of provincial governors. As a result, principles of centralism and exclusivity were compromised still further. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the distribution of sovereign power had moved outward and downward into the imperial system, weakening both central and provincial government. Higher state officials found themselves unable to rule save with the acquiescence and assistance of provincial elites. The post-classical period was thereby characterized by a progressive decentralization of sovereign power.
All the core Ottoman provinces were affected by the changes I have just summarized, but the province of Trabzon is an especially revealing example of the phases of decentralization. By the close of the seventeenth century, many of the districts where the population had been almost entirely Christian at the moment of Ottoman incorporation had become almost entirely Muslim. Furthermore, large numbers of the men among these new Muslim populations had associated themselves with local branches of imperial military and religious institutions. By the close of the eighteenth century, local participation in imperial military and religious institutions had resulted in an entirely new relationship of state and society. Provincial elites at the head of armed followings asserted their prerogatives in the imperial system, sometimes defying, even threatening, higher state officials, both those in Trabzon as well as in Istanbul.
The instance of the eastern coastal region therefore poses questions of general significance for the understanding of the ottomanization of provincial society in other parts of Asia Minor and the Balkans. How did a population composed of different ethnic groups attached to different religions come to participate in imperial military and religious institutions? And in doing so, how did this diverse and mixed population become state-oriented, official Muslims, given that the imperial regime was based on radical principles of centralism and exclusivity?