Organization of the Empire
Economically, socially, and militarily, Turkey was a medieval state, unaffected by the developments in the rest of Europe. Turkish domination over the northern part of Africa (except Tripoli and Egypt) was never well defined or effective, and the eastern border was inconstant, shifting according to frequent wars with Persia. Of the vassal princes, only the khans of Crimea were generally loyal.
The sultans themselves had sunk into indolence and depravity. Until the ascension (1603) of Ahmad I, the succession to the throne was habitually contested by all the sons of the deceased sultan, and it was the patriotic duty of the victor to kill his rivals in order to restore order. Although this practice was barbarous, when it ceased other problems arose. The eldest male member of the family was recognized as the heir-designate, but to prevent threats to the sultan the imperial prince was denied any involvement in public affairs and was kept in luxurious imprisonment. When the prince finally ascended the throne, he was often alcoholic or lunatic.
Actual rule was usually exercised by the grand viziers, many of whom were able men (notably those of the Köprülü family). The sultans themselves often were the creatures of the Janissaries, whose favor was purchased by large gifts at the ascension of a sultan.
One of the most nefarious aspects of the court of Constantinople (known as the Seraglio and the Sublime Porte) was the all-pervading corruption and bribery that had been raised to a system of administration. The pashas and hospodars (governors) who administered the provinces and vassal states purchased their posts at exorbitant prices. They recovered their fortunes by extorting still larger sums from their subjects. The peasantry was thus reduced to abject misery.
A positive feature in Ottoman administration was the religious toleration generally extended to all non-Muslims. This, however, did not prevent occasional massacres and discriminatory fiscal practices. In Constantinople the Greeks and Armenians held a privileged status and were very influential in commerce and politics. The despotic system of government was mitigated only by the observance of Muslim law.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.