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Effects Of the Western Culture In The Process Of the Ottoman Reformation (1718-1839)

In the process of history, western and eastern cultures have been thought different. Occasionally, as a result of war, treaty, and migration the interaction between two cultures can be seen. However, the influences of the interaction aren’t similar for both cultures. In general, western culture is deemed much more superior than eastern culture. Because of this, when the interaction causes the changes, eastern countries need to change according to the developed culture. Ottoman Empire and- the continuation of it- Turkey, as eastern cultures, have experienced this process. At the beginning of the 17th century, Ottoman Empire began to change itself according to western culture. The Empire took some innovations from the west. Also, by the contribution of foreign engineers the Empire repaired its old arm systems. Newly-found schools, permanent ambassadors, and privy councils were essential improvement for the Empire. All these reformations had good impact at the period of collapse. Also, the innovation brought from European countries shaped the Empire as a modern country. By changing the system of education, people adopted to their mentality the notion of progression. Not only schools but also printing was importance in terms of changing old acceptations. This reformation lasted for a long time in the Ottoman Empire and lots of changes were made by the Padishah. However, it can’t be said that these developments saved the Empire from collapsing; the Empire disappeared in 20th century. The important point is that the Empire realized the necessity of change and tried to reform old institutions according to the modern systems. This belief contributed the Empire to live longer than it was expected. Even the Empire disappeared, the belief of reformation existed by courtesy of innovations. This belief constituted the modern Turkey. Still, this idea provides Turkish culture to adapt to the West. The movements of reformation now altered and can be seen in various forms. Today, the European Union is the essential association to become even closer to western culture.

The aim of this article is to throw the fresh light on the effects of “Western Culture” in the process of Ottoman reformation. Firstly, the reasons of these movements will be clarified and then the definition of westernization and reformation will be discussed. Afterwards, the amendments which occurred in Ottoman Empire by comparing with other European Nations will be explained as these nations were essential and effective in the Ottoman reformation period. Therefore, the cultural effects of these nations will be determined for the aim of the paper on the Empire.

I. The Reasons of Ottoman Reformation

In the 15th century “the Conquest of Istanbul” was the milestone for Ottomans. After this event, the Empire was transformed from beylik to empire by the conqueror, Mehmet II. He adopted the former rules and laws to the new body “autocrat” of Ottoman Empire.and this new body made the system more central and powerful. After this period, Selim I and Süleyman I protected this statues and expanded the border of Empire which helped the Empire to obtain more power in terms of military, economy and policy.

However, at the end of the 16th century The Empire began to lose its power. There are many factors which caused this destruction. These factors can be classified as interior and exterior affecting each other. Firstly, Ottoman army was defeated against enemies at wars because of lack of the technological weapons. Financial policy of the Ottoman Empire was dependent on conquest. It means that the income of the treasure severely decreased in these years. However, the main reason of the disintegration was inflation which began in the classical age in the period of Suleiman the Magnificent. (Ulman 56) This factor effected army, farmers, ruling class it means all society. The corruption began on the top of the Empire with the ruling class. Bribery and preferential treatment harmed the government system.

The reason of inflation was excessive mines that came to Europe through the oversea travels. In 15th century, gold and silver were brought by Spain after the Discovery of Continent of America. Ottoman Empire got these materials too much and the value of money decreased. Economical challenge could not be understood and tolerated in these years. This trouble brought the Empire to the edge of the disappearance definitely. In this point, some solutions to hinder the destruction were offered by intellectuals. They analyzed the situation by comparing with other countries especially western countries. The conditions of the age required “the change”. When they need to change to protecting The Empire, they turned toward to the west.[1]

II. “West” as a role model of the Ottoman Empire in the way of Reformation

While Ottoman Empire was declining, European countries spreaded all over the world with the Geographic Discoveries. Spain, Portuguese, Netherlands and England exploited the undeveloped countries to gain profit in terms of slavery, raw materials and valuable mines. Economical wealth improved the society in terms of social, cultural and technological subjects. Especially, modern universities were built up in many countries in Europe. Education was saved from pressure of the church. The freedom of thought was the key for the whole innovation.

Of all the many changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, none had a more far-reaching impact than the scientific revolution. By creating a new way of understanding how nature worked- and by solving long-standing problems in physics, astronomy, and anatomy- the theorists and experimenters of this period gave Europeans a new sense of confidence and certainty. They also began to set their civilization apart from those of the rest of the world. (Chambers 459)

Scholars attempted to popularize the scientific method, with the aim of transforming the values of Western Civilization. Scientist studied lots of areas such as physics, astronomy, and anatomy. Paris was undoubtedly the capital of the ideology of progress and freedom. Because of this the language of science was French. Academy of Science in Paris was also effective in education. Besides, science and secularism became the rallying points of a group of French intellectuals known as philosophers. The leaders of these influential writers were Voltaire and Diderot. Also, at the outside of France this movement expanded to Scotland, Germany, Italy, and America. Some of these philosophers are Adam Smiths, Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Franklin. They achieved to indicate scientific methods and skepticism in their works. In their scholarly and polemical writings, they investigated a wide range of subjects and pioneered in several new disciplines. (Chambers 561) For example, Voltaire refused the method of the classical writing of history (battles and rulers’ biography) and added the culture and social institutions for describing the major events. Also, French magistrate Montesquieu tried to analyze the institutions of government in relations to special customs, climate, religion, and commerce of various countries. His sections on liberty won a wide readership in Europe and U.S. Besides, the influential thinker, J.J. Rousseau said that individuals have a role in making the laws to which they submit. (Chambers 563-7)

European public opinion not only affected by philosophers but also other activities. The salon meetings helped to enlarge new thoughts among the people. Furthermore, Academies were important for the dissemination of ideas. The most effective factor was publishing. Books, libraries, journals and newspapers were mediators between intellectuals and people. It means knowledge not only belongs to well-learned people but also to public.  In England, the number of periodicals increased from 25 to 158 between 1700 and 1780. Reading habit achieved to change mentality according to modern thoughts.

In Europe, development of literature, music, and art provided intention to the intellectual life by affecting people’s percpective.The modern novel reflected to real life from the perspectives of women and poor people. Furthermore, poets were expected to transform the raw materials of emotion into delicate languages. There was a connection between literature and people. It made people conscious about the change and modern world.

In the period of the Ottoman Reformation, Europe was developed in terms of social, economical and technological field.  While the Empire began to lose its power, western culture was shaped according to modern life. Because of this, Ottoman intellectuals realized the differences between two cultures and considered to reform all institutions. It was obvious that the Ottoman system was not appropriate to the modern system and needed change. At this point, intellectuals wanted to carry out the modern system which they saw in the west. In other words, west was seen as a model in this process.

The concept of “reformation” means to improve the systems and laws by making changes. Ottoman intellectuals made imitation of these cultural factors by changing old rules. It shows that Ottoman reformation means “Westernization”. This notion was used instead of modernization in that period because west was seen as a modern model. Intellectuals admired the west culture and asserted that the solution for vanishing was change. The Empire ought to be like the west social and economically.

III. In the shadow of tulips, Ottoman westernization (1718-30)

Westernization began with the Tulip Period[2] in 1718 and 1730. In the shadow of tulips, Ottoman intellectuals and ruling class started to think that western culture was high and noble. In this period lots of new tools came to Ottoman’s life such as, tables, chairs, watches, folks, porcelain which became so common among the ruling class.[3] Saloon meeting was popular and people participated in social organizations. Tulip entertainments such a meeting in palaces and intellectual’s talks were similar to the European style. Expenses, pleasure, delight were reflection of the thought of Epicureanism[4] that focal point of the world is “person”. Everything was created just for people in the universe and the most important thing is human being. Literature and art focus on happiness of the people. Beauties of the world serve according to demand of people. In general, European thought entered to the Ottoman life in this period.

Ahmet III and his grand vizier Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Pasha were enlightened and they accepted  European thoughts. They ordered to construct new luxurious palaces near the Bosporus. (Şerefabad, Hüsrevabad, Kasr-ı Süreyya) Besides, they also considered science and literature important. Thus they gathered with the popular poets of the period (Nedim, Vehbî)(Uzunçarşılı 152) Damat İbrahim Pasha wanted to the translation of the work of the well-known philosopher Aristo by Yanyalı Esad Efendi and Karaferyeli Yuannis.

In Tulip Period, at the first time Muslims began to publish the book. It was milestone for Ottoman development. Finally, public could reach knowledge and book easily. The actors of this event, İbrahim Müterrika and Said Mehmet Efendi, established printing house but they could not publish religious books.[5] After 200 years, printing came to Empire hopefully. (1727) Here, Turkish and French books were published. Also, in many places libraries were opened for public. This was very important for cultural development and the idea of modernization. (Ortaylı 121) Especially, the printing contributed people to realize the importance of reformation. New books which were related to science and other professions were read by all people. It was an effective factor in reformation period because it made easy to extend new ideas. Also, the printing enhanced communication in society.

“On the other hand, there were some projects for the army. Takrir and establishing technology part under the control of Babıali were proposed by leader of Huguenots[6].(Berkes 45) Its aim was to change military system. These people were aware of technological progress in the west. They were capable of comparing the Ottoman with the west.  Huguenots recommended found steel industry and producing arms and weapons (1718). In France, they had some duties in the army and they were educated.” (Berkes 45) However, this project was not put into practice. The conditions were not suitable for this industry and technological acts.

The other development was sending Ad-Hoc[7] to the ambassadors in western countries. Mehmet Çelebi 28th and his son Said Mehmet Efendi went to Europe in this period. This was very important to see the development in the west because they could observe the west and prepare some documents about reformation. However, this was not effective as the permanent ambassadors.

Additionally, this period was called as “the welfare period” because of the change. It is assumed that reformation started with Tulip Period because the Empire turned to its face to west. Also, western culture was filled with admiration to the Ottomans. Especially, the mentality was changed. Before that, apart from Ottoman the others were called “giaour or non-muslim” and resembling them was sin and crime. (Berkes 85) Every time and in everything there had to be different. However, this rule was broken and the first step was taken in the way of reformation. After the Tulip Period, this movement would gain momentum and turn into an institution.

Tulip Period came to an end by Patrona Halil and his adherents in 1730. People opposed this new the social order. They destroyed all buildings and discharged Ahmet III and Damat Ibrahim Pasha.  All of the developments were ruined but the idea of westernization continued.This protest was the first example which evaluated the relationship between the Empire and the west. It was seen that reformations ignored public benefits and this idea lasted until the period of republic. (Mardin 11)

IV. Efforts for reformation in the period of Selim III and Mahmud II

The reformation was continued by Selim III (1789-1807) and Mahmut II (1808-1839) in 19th century. The developments were so stronger and effective than before. The idea of reformation changed from shape to mind. Institutions and economic renewal saved Empire from vanishing.

These reforms can be classified as technological, especially in the military, changes and intellectual changes.

After the defeats in the wars, Ottoman Empire began to consider about the reasons. Finally, they realized that Europeans armies were strong and powerful thanks to technological advancement. Sultan Selim III was enlightened and modernist. He had relation with XVI. Louis when he was prince. Selim consulted with the king of France about the modern army. Also, Selim III shared his opinions about the French army with Louis and indicated his esteem. (Finkel 46) His connection with the others helped to perceive the necessity of military reformation according to the European armies. This was the key of other reformations (science, art, industry and generally civilization). (İhsanoğlu 73) If a new army is constructed, this struggle would be solved. Because of this reason Selim III started reformations in the army. [8]

Firstly, Selim III wanted intellectuals to prepare “layiha”[9] and propose some arrangements about the issues. One of the proposals was ,the new order, “Nizam-ı Cedid”[10]. Together with Janissaries a new army was found which was educated by European educational system. Besides, the other technical classes were modernized. “For teaching, many experts had been brought from Europe especially French. Baron de Tott was a well-known reformist in the Ottoman army (1770). He proposed to found vocational schools and the artillery branch and the development accelerated by these experts.” (Berkes 84)

The naval force of the Empire wasn’t good at constructing vessels and repairing them. Ensuring the power of navy was important because Empire had Bosporus and the Dardanelles.[11] For this, French and Swedish engineers were brought to the Empire. In a short time, a new fleet was constructed.

In addition to this, “Kara Mühendishanesi” was found in 1795. The printing and the library were opened to provide transition and publishing of the books. In these schools, education given according to the modern science. It was a very important change for the Empire. Modern science was not taught in madrasahs and the education just depended on religious acceptances. However, Janissaries and their adherents “ulema” were opposed to these reformations and hindered the new movement. Also, they rejected doing systematic practice because this was western culture. They said “ Talim gavur işidir” which means as a Muslim we shouldn’t imitate these people. They rejected to wear uniform which belonged to Nizam-ı Cedid. (İhsanoğlu, 74)

However, Sultan Selim III’s reformations were destructed by the revolt of Kabakçı Mustafa in 1807. After this rebellion, the Sultan and the soldiers of Nizam-ı Cedid were discharged. In 1808, Mahmut II ascended to the throne and carried on these reforms again. He began to reformation with abolishing “Janissaries” who were against to all western reformation. In 1826, the first step was taken to commerce a new army. Also, the concept of the reformation changed with the abolishment of the old army. Since then, the reformation meant to abolish the old structure and form the new system. Mahmut II founded new institutions totally.

The new army was “Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediyye”. This was built up with modern system. The treasury was arranged for expenses of the new army.  In addition to this, Sultan centralized the Empire by changing the property law. He tried to found modern bureaucracy by arranging the central management. It was the first example of the European governmental system. Empire changed itself and adapted European culture. The experts who came to the Empire ensured the connection between east and west. They were not only in the army but also in the society and they had a chance to compare the countries. Military changes contributed to other changes because it was only a barrier. If this reformation didn’t happen, it would be much harder to change social and educational system. Moreover, the Empire started to change its military service but after this reformation the concept expanded and the Empire realized the modern system. New institutions made the Empire more democratic and they restricted the power of the Padishah. It shows that the reformation changed not only the society but also the system government. Assemblies were gathered for many issues and right of participation was given to the public. After this pace, the progress would continue until the republic of Turkey.

In the period of Selim III not only military but also social and intellectual reformation were made. After Selim III, Mahmut II expanded these reformation in field of education.

The most important reform was the permanent ambassadors. Formerly, the connection between Empire and European countries were keeping on by European ambassador in Istanbul. There were not the permanent ambassadors in Europe. Also, the bureaucratic class didn’t learn a foreign language until this period. However, Sultan Selim sent ambassadors to the central location. (1793 London, 1797 Paris, Vienna, Berlin) (İhsanoğlu, 76) It was very important for international relations as well as Ottoman reformation. Ambassador observed the life in Europe and met new ideas. One of the important historians, Bernard Lewis, considers that sending the permanent ambassadors was one of the doors that opened to the west. He says that they contributed to familiarize the western culture because they lived among the society. They could observe the west in the heart of the European countries.

Ambassadors were the roots of reformation. They explained the life of European to Ottoman Padishahs. “In the period of Ahmet III, 28 Çelebi Mehmet went to Europe and he wrote a book of “Sefaretname”in which he explained his travels and experiments. He mentioned European life from his perspective. He wrote all institutions in the west. (Hospital, library, road, theatre, opera, enlightened streets). These institutions were indicator of modernization and Ottoman ambassadors offered to institute like a modern system. Additionally, their books are important for understanding western culture at the point of ambassador. “ (Unat 3)

Similarly, the others Mustafa Hattî  Efendi wrote “Vienna Sefaretnamesi” to interpret his impressions. He defined his thoughts in this book. He wrote holding a lavish meal in his honor, his visits in Vienna, going to watch opera, inventing to observatory for observing solar eclipse admirably. ( Savaş 15) His aim was to bring these innovations to the Empire and he got some information about these cases.

Other ambassadors, Moralı Seyyid Efendi (1797), Abdurrahman Muhib Efendi, Yusuf Agah Efendi, and Halet Efendi observed the west and translated the developments of Europe to the Empire. They were leaders of the reformation and they supported the Padishahs against conservatives. Contributions of them not only started the process of reformation but also continued this reformation by transferring the developments.

Their role was informing the Padishah about European countries. There were some problems between these counties. Sultan Selim III used this conflict as a “policy of balance” which means according to the situation Empire could be an ally or an enemy to the European countries. (Encyclopedia of İslam 439) This policy contributed the Empire because its power wasn’t effective for saving from disappears. They helped bringing experts to the Empire. Also, they proposed some solutions for some issues. For instance, they proposed to use modern system -which was used in the west- instead of “müneccimbaşı”. It shows that Empire had lots of people who were observing and trying to learn the west.

After Sultan Selim III, Mahmut II continued to reform the Ottoman Institutions and the influence of western culture changed intellectuals lives in his period. After the abolition of Janissaries, (1826) this movement gained speed. Instead of theJanissary band, the marching band which sounded western music became so popular. (Kuran 22)In palaces, theatres displayed the western plays. Moreover, the Padishah and bureaucrats quitted wearing old traditional clothes and began to wear fez, frock coat and trousers. The bureaucrats furnished their houses in European style.

The affects of western culture was explained in the progress of the Ottoman reformation. However, French Revolution in 1789 affected the western thought. At the beginning of this event, the Revolution was seen as a problem for Europeans but shortly after it expanded all over the world. French Revolution had a harmful affect on the unity of Ottoman Empire.(Mardin 40)There were some ideas which damaged the structure of the Empire. These were human rights and self determination. Ottoman Empire included lots of nations in its identity. These ideas influenced these nations. Firstly, the Balkan states revolted against to the Empire and became independent with Edirne Treaty in 1930. Not only Balkans but also other nations rebelled and the unity of the Empire was ruined. The idea of freedom and nationalism triggered these people to be independent. Muslims were also influenced by these ideas. Bernard Lewis asserts in his research “The Impact of the French Revolution on Turkey” that the permanent ambassadors and French Military Schools were channels which ensured permeation of Revolution on Turkish society. He says the factors of interaction the schools and the ambassadors. These institutions affected the society. Mehmet Raif and Seyyid Mustafa Efendi believed the ideas of the Revolution. (Kuran 12)

In contrast to the dissemination of the Empire, French Revolution affected the Ottoman intellectuals in a good way. They proposed “Tanzimat Fermanı” which offered all citizen equal rights.  The main aim was to ensure social and economic equality between people. This reformation tried to save the Empire from disintegration. The idea of freedom expanded and the system was criticized by intellectuals. They proposed to restrict the power of the Padishah and changed the ruling system. Also, the idea of Ottomanism included equal justice under the laws for all citizens. These modern implementations were used to unite the Empire. After this period, reformations extended until the Republic of Turkey.


The reformation of the Empire began in the 18th century and continued in the period of the Padishahs (Selim III and Mahmut II). Lots of developments were brought to the Empire by the effects of the ambassadors, students and experts. The idea of modernization was recognized by Ottoman intellectuals. The Empire began to change with the effects of the west. In the beginning of the reformation period, the developments were seen not completely or deeply. After the innovation of the printing, the public opinion realized the necessity of change. Also, they offered some resolution which relieved the Empire from the dissemination.

As it was seen from these developments, the Ottomans when they adopted European practices and organizational methods or models also unconsciously adopted other ideas which were related to the European culture. These influences were not only in the field of military but also literature, music, art, and tradition. As it was mentioned before culture is as a whole. Ottomans developed their institutions according to modern west system. However, sometimes there can be some points which are not accepted but as it was said before culture includes society, industry, laws, tradition. Ottoman Empire tried to combine western culture with its own tradition. When the Empire took the developments, they took European life style too. The tradition of Turkish society changed after these reformations. However, this process has lasted nearly three hundred years. Still, there are some discussions about the role of western culture on Turkey. The root of this stems from the period of reformation which began with Tulips.

Works Cited

  1. BERKES, Niyazi, Türkiye’de Çağdaşlaşma, İstanbul: YKY, 2005
  2. CHAMBER, Mortimer, The Western Experience, New York: McGramHill Companies, 2007
  3. FINKEL, Caroline, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu, İstanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2010
  4. İHSANOĞLU, Ekmelettin, Osmanlı Devleti Tarihi, İstanbul: Feza Gazetecilik, 1999
  5. İSLAM Ansiklopedisi, cilt.10, İstanbul: MEB, 1980
  6. KURAN, Ercüment, Türkiye’nin Batılılaşması ve Milli Meseleler, Ankara: Diyanet Vakfı Yayınları, 2004
  7. MARDİN, Şerif, Türk Modernleşmesi, İstanbul:  İletişim Yayınları, 2004
  8. ORTAYLI, İlber, Son İmparatorluk Osmanlı, İstanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2007
  9. SAVAŞ, Ali İbrahim, Viyana Sefaretnamesi, Ankara: TTK, 1999
  10. UNAT, Faik Reşid, Osmanlı Sefirleri ve Sefaretnameleri, Ankara: TTK, 1992
  11. ULMAN, Haluk, Birinci Dünya Savaşına Giden Yol, Ankara: Sevinç Matbaası, 1773
  12. UZUNÇARŞILI, İsmail Hakkı, Büyük Osmanlı Tarihi, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları

[1] West: This is geographical term but sometimes it is used to clarify the cultural differences. Here, it was used this with both meaning because Ottoman Empire was in the east of the Europe. Furthermore, Western technology and social rights were more advanced than Ottomans. It means western culture expressed also advancement.

[2] This name was used firstly by Ahmet Refik Altınay in the 20th century because it was a popular flower in the Ottoman Empire and also in other European countries.

[3] In this period, lots of changes belonged to ruling class (padishah, viziers). People didn’t want to change according to the west especially religious groups could “ulema”.

[4] Epicureanism: Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship, and living a virtuous and temperate life. (Wikipedia, “Epicureanism”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism, 29.07.2011)

[5] They said to the Sultan that publishing was very important for writing Empire’ victories. This saying was very effective in this process.

[6] Huguenot: French Calvinist. After 1715 they were compelled to change their religious sect but they migrated to other countries. Some of them came to the Ottoman Empire.

[7] Ad-Hoc:Arranged or happening when necessary. It means that these ambassadors were sent for specific aims. Permanent ambassador began to be sent 1793 at the time of Selim III.

[8] The Janissaries were the army of the Empire and they were opposed to all new movements.

[9] Layiha means formally written petition.

[10] Nizam-ı Cedid was not only the name of the new army but also the name of all other reformations were made during the time of Selim III.

[11] In this period Russian armies threatened  Ottoman armies. Because of this reason, it became much more important than before.

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