The Ottoman sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839) attempted to hold together and rebuild the empire by administrative reforms, but interior instability and foreign wars proved obstacles too great to overcome.
Mahmud was born on July 20, 1785, son of Abdul Hamid I and cousin of the reforming ruler Selim III. Immured, as his predecessors had been, within the harem, he was removed from formal education and administrative experience. But the highly intelligent and energetic Mahmud escaped the debilitating weakness trapping other Osmanli through the instruction accorded him by Selim III between the latter's dethronement in May 1807 and his execution in July 1808 as his reform-minded supporters battered down the palace gates. The reigning sultan, Mustafa IV, even ordered the execution of Mahmud, his own brother, but the prince escaped detection by hiding in an empty furnace.
Mustafa was deposed, Mahmud was elevated to the throne, and a reform administration was returned to power. Within the year a Janissary revolt temporarily ended modernization efforts. To assure his position, Mahmud had Mustafa, his only male Ottoman relative, executed, assuring loyalty to himself as the last of the Osmanli.
Few changes were made domestically through the Napoleonic period, since Mahmud was consolidating governmental control over the provinces. Local power structures were reduced on both sides of the Bosporus, and Ottoman authority was reestablished in Mesopotamia (1810) and the Hejaz (1813). Serbian autonomy was recognized after the Turks failed to regain control, and the Russians, in a war begun in December 1806, acquired Bessarabia by the Treaty of Bucharest on May 28, 1812. Internationally, the Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna tacitly allowed Turkey to reestablish the ancient rule on Straits navigation, providing the waterway be closed to all warships in peacetime.
Wars and Revolts
The Greek War for Independence occupied nearly a decade of Mahmud's reign, from the initial weak rebellion in the Morea (Peloponnesus) in 1820 to the Russian intervention of 1828—1829. Despite Turco-Egyptian control of the situation, international pressure, including the destruction of the Turkish and Egyptian fleets by a tripartite European force at Navarino in 1827, forced recognition of full Greek independence upon the Sultan.
The purpose of the reforms for which Mahmud is noted was to strengthen the central government's powers and widen its sphere of influence. The basis for change was a modern army, not the fractious, undisciplined Janissaries, whose complaints had disrupted the state, to one degree or another, since raiding had ceased to be a profitable enterprise. On June 16, 1826, backed by 14,000 loyal artillerymen, Mahmud provoked a typical Janissary assault on the palace. The attackers were wiped out, and Janissaries throughout the empire were destroyed or dispersed.
Unfortunately, before Mahmud could fully train their replacements and so gain the power to enforce his restored authority, Russia declared war. This attack permanently stunted the growth of the new Turkish army; it also resulted in the Treaty of Adrianople (1829), which, although not seriously affecting Ottoman borders, ended most Turkish control over the Balkans by providing for the lifetime appointment of governors and reducing provincial obligations to a province's annual tribute payment.
Internal changes during Mahmud's reign were largely military. Feudalism was abolished throughout the empire, eliminating the cavalry and recruits provided by local fief holders. National recruiting was less effective; yet, by 1834, a militia provided at least fundamental training at the local level. To strengthen his new army, the Sultan established military schools, sent officers to England to study, and imported Prussian military advisers.
The result of these military changes was increased control over local government. The Kurds of Iraq were subdued. Tripoli was effectively reintegrated, but Algiers was lost to France, straining relations with the Sultan. One salutary administrative change was removal of the right of provincial governors to impose the death penalty. Civil service training was improved, and better salaries created a more efficient administration, reducing the need for graft. Further improvement resulted from tax reforms which eliminated inefficient collection methods and so improved revenues.
To ensure his changes, Mahmud attempted to curtail religious powers that might inspire counterreformation movements. Persecution of the various dervish orders followed the Janissary massacre. In this attempt the Sultan only partially succeeded. However, widespread distribution of Western literature through the establishment of local presses spread Europe's 19th-century liberal ideas and advanced the modernizing process. For his efforts, Mahmud was roundly hated by his Moslem subjects, a factor exacerbating his dislike of popular Mohammed Ali, his Egyptian vassal.
The Egyptians, seeking compensation for their assistance during the Greek revolt, invaded the Levant in 1831, taking city after city, even into Anatolia. In the Convention of Kütahya on April 8, 1833, Cairo gained Syria, but Egyptian troops pulled back behind the Taurus Mountains.
The Russians had landed troops in the Bosporus region during the crisis, ostensibly to aid the Sultan. This led to the Treaty of Hunkiar Iskelesi (July 4, 1833), which effected a major change in Turkey's relations with Europe. The treaty was an alliance between the signatories assigning to the Czar the right unilaterally to intervene in Turkish affairs—heretofore the prerogative of the Great Powers acting in concert. Mahmud's hatred of Mohammed Ali grew.
Toward the end of his reign, the strong-minded Mahmud was faced with rebellions in Bosnia and Albania, but the European provinces were nevertheless sufficiently stable in 1837 for the energetic sultan to make an unprecedented trip through that area. In his last days, he ill-advisedly ordered a new attack on the Egyptians in Syria. News of the Turkish defeat at Nizib on June 24, 1839, never reached the dying Mahmud. On July 1, 1839, he was succeeded by his 16-year-old son, Abdul Mejid.
Further Reading on Mahmud II
General biographical information on Mahmud II is in Frederick Stanley Rodkey, The Turco-Egyptian Question in the Relations of England, France and Russia, 1832-1841 (1924), and A. D. Alderson, The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty (1956).