While superlatives are often used to describe and explain several geopolitical systems that have existed since the beginning of time, it is not hyperbole to say that the Ottoman Empire was one of the world’s longest-lived, wealthiest, and most powerful empires. The Ottoman Empire’s great prosperity and influence stemmed from its location at the crossroads of commerce between Asia and Europe. The Ottomans were able to gain a great deal of wealth by controlling and managing the commerce that circulated constantly between East and West while occupying this strategic chokepoint. The Ottoman Empire, as the Byzantines before it, acted as a connection between Europe and Asia, benefiting immensely from the revenues of the trade that was constantly pouring through these geographical borders. This period is regarded as the Ottoman Empire’s Golden Age. While there are numerous identifications and definitions about how the Ottoman Empire was able to wield such power, military might, and cultural dynamism, the aim of this analysis would be to discuss and analyze how a pervasive and nearly continuous process of centralization can ultimately be understood as the defining force that enabled the Ottoman Empire to wield such power, military might, and cultural dynamism.
Whereas other, smaller forces became dominant, rich, and then disappeared almost mysteriously through history, the Ottoman Empire was able to oversee and ensure that the continued strength and prosperity that such a process had previously been able to integrate was furthered into the future by this process of centralization – particularly during its Golden Age. It should be remembered that the centralisation mechanism is not a one-dimensional process. Rather, the only one-dimensional feature of centralisation is the extent to which a central authority in the power hierarchy supervised, regulated, assessed, and guided virtually any decision taken within the state/Empire. As a result, several examples of what centralisation entails would be explored and examined in order to provide the reader a comprehensive view of how centralisation impacted the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, the author would be able to outline specific practices and unique ways that the Ottoman Empire used in coping with its broad, multi-religious, and multiethnic populace by defining the degree and extent to which centralisation played in ensuring that the Ottoman Empire stayed resilient and powerful.
Although one may claim that centralisation plays an important role in the governance and direction of any empire at any time in its existence, the role and degree of centralisation, as well as the need for it, in the Ottoman Empire during the Golden Age cannot be overlooked. Empire is a mechanism in which lands and cultures that are not inherently identical to the conquering force are absorbed into the ruling framework by its very existence. Since it has been able to expand its borders into the territories to which it previously laid claim, the Empire is typically rendered comparatively more prosperous, populated, and stable as a result of this expansion. Yet, as many colonial powers have seen in the past, the existence of a multiethnic, and oftentimes multi-religious nation inevitably weakens the degree of identity, loyalty, and allegiance shown by its members. The traditional approach to this concern for instability and non-homogeny has been too slow the rate of imperial expansion and distribute a larger degree of power/military personnel into these regions as a means of ensuring that they will not mutiny. Such an approach is oftentimes one of the main reasons why imperial powers began to decline. As they have expanded over such a large geographic distance and incorporated so many non-native individuals within the collective, they are ultimately faced with a situation in which the greatest enemy to their continued integrity is not without but within. Ultimately, the disunion that necessarily derives from such a situation often is the precipitating factor that tears these empires apart. Yet, there is an alternate path to such an approach; and it is this path that the Ottoman Empire successfully integrated with an employed for much of the 623 years of its existence. This method, as has previously been stated, is of course that of centralisation.
Whereas the traditional approach to empire stipulated that the governing power would seek to divest certain powers to regional and local individuals, this strategy did not represent a coherent or core view of what it meant to be a citizen of a particular empire. Rather, during the Golden Age, what was affected was the situation in which a multitude of miniature states made up a region, administered by yet another bureaucrat, that made up the Empire which was administered by a range of bureaucrats. One of the interesting aspects of the way in which the Ottoman Empire ultimately adopted centralisation was likely due to the fact that the first known leader of the Ottoman Empire, Osmin Bey, began his imperial quest. Ultimately, Osmin Bey wanted to carve out a homeland for Turks who existed on the very borders of a militaristic, expansive, and ruthless Mongol Empire.
Learning from the mistakes that the Mongols had made with regards to administering their own Empire, the Ottoman Empire realize that in order to affect a powerful level of control over a range of ethnicities and religions, it would be necessary to have a strong central leader and regions that specifically adhered to directives, edicts, and communications from a central imperial authority. This realization was doubtless due to the fact that the Ottomans realized the Mongol Empire was ultimately hamstrung by their inability to effectively govern many of the regions that should have been under their purview. It is not the place at this particular research paper to delve in-depth with regards to how the Mongol Empire administered its regions as compared to the Ottoman Empire; however, suffice it to say that their approach, although somewhat effective, divested far too much power into local/regional leaders and opened the door to situations of revolt and rebellion. In short, the Mongol approach can be understood as one which was highly uncentralized. Clans and khanates operated semi-independently up until the time that the risk of re-invasion or tribute was demanded. Naturally, this fundamental shortcoming with regards to the means by which the Mongol Empire was administered, served as a powerful lesson for the Ottoman Empire in its formative years as well as beyond. In seeking to create a more resilient system that was better able to integrate with the needs of a multiracial, geographically diverse, and religiously varied group of stakeholders.
The very earliest exhibition of leadership and governance, first employed by Osman Bey, illustrated the means by which the future of the Ottoman Empire would place a heavy degree of emphasis upon centralisation in the way that the region and local aspects of the Empire integrated with the government in Istanbul. However, prior to delving into the actual mechanics of how centralisation was affected within the Ottoman Empire, it can and should be noted that the application of centralisation allowed for two distinct benefits. The first of these was the fact that it reduced the level to which the central government needed to maintain a heavy troop presence within the regions. With a reduced fear of revolt and rebellion, the manpower in resources of Empire could be directed elsewhere with regards to securing its borders and continuing the expansive jihad that so defined the Ottoman Empire during its six centuries of prominence. An ancillary benefit of this was the fact that such a level of centralisation allowed for the stakeholders within the regions to identify themselves more closely with the government of Istanbul. Whereas other empires merely sought to control their regions via heavy-handed tactics and troop presence, the Ottoman Empire opted for the more virtuous and thrifty application of centralisation as a means of slowly but surely integrating with the populace and bending them to the will of the Sultan Abdulhamid II . The reader can and should realize that this level of centralisation served as something of an initial means of propaganda and information identification. Ultimately, such a level of centralisation can also be understood within the context of the ingenious application of soft power as a means of winning stakeholder support and/or patriotism to the Sultan Abdulhamid II . Due to the highly successful means by which such a process was integrated, the rest of this analysis would be focused on examining the exact means by which centralisation was effected, as well as the general extent at which these means aided such a cause.
Starting from the most important aspect of the centralisation, the reader can and should understand and realize that the Sultan Abdulhamid II served as the single individual upon him all leadership responsibilities were concentric. This is of course not say that Sultan Abdulhamid II did not delegate responsibility and/or have a team of advisers that could assist in the overall workload of administering and Empire; rather, the level and extent to which princes and/or regional governors could split the Empire or work to leverage rivalries was reduced to nearly nonexistent. In order for this to work effectively, it was the responsibility of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Sultan Abdulhamid II , to ensure that a very strong chain of command existed all the way from Istanbul down to the local regions and principalities that the autocratic Empire ruled over. In order to affect this, it was necessary for a single autocratic leader to firmly rule over all aspects and regions of such Empire. Further adding to the ability of the Sultan Abdulhamid II to affect such an end was the fact that all of the sultans from 1299 up until 1922 came from the same royal family. Naturally, such a long exhibition of royal lineage was an ancillary aspect of centralisation the plate and immeasurably powerful role with regards to the prestige and power that such an Empire could exhibit over its respective stakeholders.
Another extraordinarily powerful aspect of centralisation is the role in which Islam played with regards to how the Sultan Abdulhamid II administrated, how the subjects were expected to integrate within the Empire, and nearly every aspect of life. Not unlike the Christian popes that had existed for several hundred years prior to the development and existence of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan Abdulhamid II, just as all sultans before and after him, was regarded by his subjects as “the protector of Islam”. Although this title may seem to be something that is only symbolic, such title was taken very seriously and helped to define the way in which the ethos and directional dynamics of imperial rule or defined and understood. Although it cannot of course be said that the Ottoman Empire was the first to establish and leverage the power that a state-sponsored religion could effect upon his populace, they nonetheless did this to extent that would doubtless have made Rome envious with regards to the overall level of control and subjugation that such an action was able to affect upon the stakeholders within the Ottoman Empire. Since the Ottoman Empire’s centralization drive, which lasted nearly seven decades, can and should be regarded as one of the Empire’s most significant and influential hallmarks, it cannot and should not be ignored that some of the decisions that were made, though directed at integrating a further level of centralized nation within the Empire, ultimately had the reverse effect.
Ancillary evidence of this can be seen in the way that state money was continually utilized as a means of building mosques; both as a nexus of worship and as an exhibition of imperial power and charity. One researcher has the following to say about such a process: “Large imperially funded mosques and their accompanying institutions (hospitals, schools, and soup kitchens) were placed in administratively and religiously important cities”. Such a choice was not made by whim or fancy; rather, it was done as a means of compounding the effect that a state religion could have in centralizing the power of the sultan.
Since the Ottomans wanted to reign over ethnically and religiously varied population classes, they created the Ottoman Empire, the implementation of Islam and the Sultan Abdulhamid II understanding of his role as “the protector of Islam”, led to a degree of unnecessary conflicts between the compounded parts of the Ottoman Empire at various times throughout history. One could argue that the centralisation that the use of Islam was able to affect far outweighed any of the drawbacks that it exhibited. Nonetheless, striking figures such as Vlad III and others attest to the fact that Ottoman rule and its utilization of Islam as a centralizing and homogenizing influence was often resented to the point that open insurrection and rebellion resulted. Yet another aspect of this utilization of Islam being negative for the growth and development of the Empire over time is with respect to the visceral response the jihadist often had within the West. Naturally, empires and nations are continually in competition with one another. However, the Ottoman Empire, alongside its Roman Catholic counterpart in Europe, added an additional threat to its neighbors due to the fact that it defined its conquest not through the increase of lands or riches, but due to the Islamic precept of jihad. Such an understanding, combined with the threat that the military might and power of the Ottoman Empire had to Southern and Eastern Europe, prompted many would-be foes to step over whatever reservations they may have had and judge that the threat that the Ottoman Empire exhibited, both from the religious and militaristic standpoint, was sufficient to warrant conflict with it. In effect, the use and integration of Islam as a guiding fundamental precept of centralisation served to antagonize and exacerbate many situations that otherwise might not result in war. Such a continual level of conflict with the bordering nations and empires necessarily weakened the Empire and required a continual influx of money, supplies, material, and personnel to continue these conflicts wherever they might spring up.
Continuing down the scale of powerful factors that helped influence the level of centralisation that the Ottoman Empire was able to exhibit is the utilization of a centralized educational system. Although many empires in both East and West had dabbled with such a concept, it was the Ottoman Empire that first instituted a systemic and widespread educational system the pervaded each and every part of their multiethnic/multiracial Empire. Rather than merely having a powerful centralized government that was geographically located in Istanbul and drew the brightest minds from around the Empire to this city alone as a means of achieving any level of education, primary and elementary education was, for the most part, a fundamental focus of the Sultan Abdulhamid II. Many who have researched the Ottoman Empire and the determinant inventions and discoveries related to math and science that this Empire was able to bequeath to the world understand the fact that none of this would’ve been possible had not a fundamental focus been in place with regards to seeking to educate the stakeholders within the Empire. Due to the fact that the majority of the Sultan Abdulhamid II allocated sizable resources to achieve such an end and create a literate and educated populace, one cannot and should not discount the effect that this had with regards to integrating an idea an understanding of oneness within the people. Such an aspect of oneness was the stated goal of “Turkification”. This racial definition was difficult to realize due to the multi-ethnic nature of the empire; nonetheless the Sultan Abdulhamid II attempted just this. Although it would cheapen the situation to refer to it as effective means of propaganda, it must be understood that any form of centralized educational system defined by “Turkification” is able to directly integrate with the youngest and most prized assets of any society and create a sense of belonging and purpose that would not be possible with an older generation. In such a way, this particular level of centralisation can be understood by the reader is one of the self continuing means by which the Empire was able to survive for nearly 7 centuries.
The third and final aspect of centralisation, which will herein be discussed is with regards to the level to which local leaders/governors were punished for any level of disobedience that they might exhibit. In tandem with such an understanding, the reader should also integrate with the understanding that in order for the centralized government of the Sultan Abdulhamid II to be effective and to quickly determine the level to which these local leaders were ascribing to their stated and defined roles, as well as paying homage and deference to the rule of Istanbul, was to integrate a high number of spiders within the employ of the Sultan Abdulhamid II . It was doubtless analyzed the overall level of economic harm that a dishonest or ultimately rebellious local leader could affect upon the Empire as compared to the overall economic loss that the employment and utilization of a network of spies would have.  Evidently, it was determined the spies were of much more economically viable means of retaining control over the Empire as compared to running the risk of disobedience and/or disloyalty. In addition to increasing the level of centralisation that the autocratic Sultan Abdulhamid II was also able to affect, the means by which local/regional leaders were punished when disobedience or dishonesty was evidenced was unimaginably severe. Though there have been many empires throughout the history of the world that it dealt brutally with their subjects, the Ottoman Empire is something unique due to the fact that bloodlust was not specifically part of any aspects of the Empire. However, when it was determined that it individual, and/or individuals, was tasked with administering a key aspect of the Sultan Abdulhamid II Empire and abrogated these duties, a swift and brutal punishment was in store. This of course helped the Sultan Abdulhamid II and the Ottoman Empire to continue to hold on for a very long period of time and exhibit a degree of power and influence over diverse regions of their multiethnic/multiracial Empire.
Rather than focusing upon a single means by which centralisation was beneficial to the Ottoman Empire, this brief piece of research has been able to quantify and discuss the means by which three specific aspects of centralisation were fundamental in helping to define and understand the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire with respect to the level of administration and dominance that it had over such a broad territory for such a long period of time. It is further the belief of this author, from the analysis which is preceded, that without such a level of centralisation as is been evidenced within the pages of this research, is unlikely if the Empire itself could have lasted for as long as it did. Moreover, centralisation should only be understood as the umbrella by which each of these extraordinarily important actions that have been discussed were undertaken.
- Ener, Mine. 2005. “Religious Prerogatives and Policing the Poor in Two Ottoman Contexts.” Journal Of Interdisciplinary History 35, no. 3: 501-511. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2013).
- Çiçek, Kemal. 2009. “The Cambridge History of Turkey. Volume 3: The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603-1839.” Journal Of The Economic & Social History Of The Orient 52, no. 1: 153-158. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2013).
- Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650 : the structure of power. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
- McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks : an introductory history to 1923. London New York: Longman, 1997.
- Michael, Michalis N. “Local authorities and conflict in an Ottoman island at the beginning of the nineteenth century.” Turkish Historical Review 2, no. 1 (May 2011): 57-77. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2013).
- Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic gunpowder empires Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 2011.
-  Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Turks: an introductory history to 1923. London New York: Longman, 1997. Pg. 81.
-  Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Turks: an introductory history to 1923. London New York: Longman, 1997. 43.
-  Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Turks: an introductory history to 1923. London New York: Longman, 1997. Pg. 84
-  Colin Imber. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: the structure of power. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Pg. 26
-  Michalis Michael. “Local authorities and conflict in an Ottoman island at the beginning of the nineteenth century.” Turkish Historical Review 2, no. 1 (May 2011): 57-77.
-  Ener, Mine. 2005. “Religious Prerogatives and Policing the Poor in Two Ottoman Contexts.” Journal Of Interdisciplinary History 35, no. 3: p. 509.
- Colin Imber. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: the structure of power. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
-  Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Turks: an introductory history to 1923. London New York: Longman, 1997. p. 29
-  Colin Imber. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: the structure of power. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.