What was the Impact of the Tanzimat Reforms on the Ottoman Empire in the Nineteenth Century

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The Tanzimat reforms were carried out between 1830 and 1870 in the Ottoman Empire. They were a wide ranging series of reforms. They included educational, political and economic reforms. They are widely seen as part of the process of modernisation to stop the apparent decline of Ottoman power. The process of modernisation as in so many other countries involved adopting the models and practices of western countries and societies. This was motivated by the need to ensure that the Ottomans were able to compete against the western powers and to preserve their Empire. The modernization process in the Ottoman Empire was a way of ensuring that they did not become the subjects of the western powers.[1] During the nineteenth century much of the world became subject to the western powers, especially Britain and France. The Tanzimat reforms were only partially successful and did not halt the Ottoman decline.

Ottoman infantry soldiers

Decline of Ottoman Empire

Until the 18th century the Ottoman Turks were at least as powerful as the great European powers. However, from the mid-1750, it became apparent that the Ottomans could not compete militarily with the great European powers, including Russian and the Hapsburg Empire.[2] In successive conflicts the armies of the Sultan, once invincible, were defeated and the Empire was losing territory. It appeared that their Christian enemies were slowly dismembering the Empire and that the existence of the realm was in danger.’.[3] It soon became apparent that the Ottoman armies, could not compete with the European armies. This meant that the Ottoman Turks were increasingly vulnerable to the European. The economic system that prevailed in the Empire in 1800 was largely similar to that of the fifteenth century, it was clearly unsuitable to the needs of a society that had to compete with the European nations, who were being transformed by the industrial revolution. [4] There was a recognition that there needed to be economic changes and also accompanying political and legal reforms. These were necessary because the Sultan and his advisors accepted that the Ottoman Empire had to modernize in order to preserve the Empire.

Entrance to the Divan Istanbul in the nineteenth century by Thomas Allom

Political and Legal Changes

Among the most significant changes of the Tanzimat reforms were education. Previously education was dominated by the Islamic Clerics, and this was changed during the period.[5] The Ottoman government established schools and universities on the western model. This was designed to allow the Ottomans have the skills to run the economy and society in a modern way and to develop the technology they needed to develop modern armies and the economy need to sustain such forces. The Tanzimat reforms also provided political changes that were designed to improve the status of the non- Muslim population. They were granted equal status before the law with Muslims, for the first time.[6] These reforms sought to secure the allegiance of the diverse ethnic and religious groups of the Empire. The reforms also attempted to restrict the power of the Sultan and to ensure the rule of law throughout the land. There were even attempts to start a multi-party system. The Ottomans sought to emulate the more advanced western models to enable their society to modernize. The Ottoman government began to centralize authority into its own hands in order to ensure that the Tanzimat reforms succeeded despite the opposition of Islamic religious leaders and the majority Muslim population.[7]

Economic Reforms

The Ottoman Empire’s economy was much influenced by Muslim economic theories. These favoured state intervention, protectionism and frowned upon the profit motive. The Ottoman reformers knew that they had to liberalize the economy if they were to have the resources to contend with the Europeans. The Tanzimat reforms attempted to introduce many ambitious economic and financial reforms, including the abolition of guilds, free trade, the right to private property and a new tax system. New banks were established, despite the Islamic religious elite denouncing interest payments as Riba or usury, which was contrary to the Koran. The Sultan and his government also began to move towards the lifting of barriers on trade and abandoned protectionism. The Ottoman government in order to implement their secular projects as part of the Tanzimat Reforms, established courts that oversaw economic regulation. The Napoleonic Trade Laws were adopted from the 1850s.[8] The Islamic courts still issues decrees on Sharia Law, both in urban and tribal areas, but increasingly they were unable to arbitrate in the areas of economic regulation. These changes were all designed to develop the Ottoman Economy. The changes made were all based on the western model. This was partly because the Ottoman Caliph sought to replicate the policies of the western governments to become as powerful as they had in recent decades.[9]

Impact of the Tanzimat

The reforms had a real but limited impact on the Ottoman Empire. The education system was completely secularized and a new secular elite was to receive their education in this schools. The economic reforms did change the nature of the Ottoman Economy and ended the religious regulation of the economy. The economic changes brought a measure of prosperity to the population. This was mainly because as the Turks traded more with Europeans they had access to new technologies and this helped to modernize the economy. Many of the inhabitants lives in the Empire were not really changed . It should be noted that while Banks were established and modern economic practices were introduced the majority for the population were not impacted upon. The rights of individual citizens were technically improved but in reality the Sultan still had almost unlimited power over his subjects. Furthermore, the Sultan remained the absolute rule of the Empire. The reforms had changed the Empire but it had failed to modernize the realm. The Ottomans still had failed to modernize their country and they remained behind their European neighbours, to whom they continued to lose territory, in the Balkans.


The Ottoman Government was forced to adopt economic reforms in order to ensure that it had the resources to compete with the western powers. They adopted modernizing and secularizing policies in order to transform the economy. The reforms were radical and contrary to the Muslim ethos of the Empire and the Islamic scholars. The Ottoman Government was able to impose its will on an often reluctant population, as it bid to make the changes necessary to ensure the survival of the Empire. The reform projects were only partially successfully as they failed to modernize the realm and ensure its survival beyond World War I.


  1. Inalcık, H. and Quataert, D. An Economic and Social History of The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 189.
  2. Qetvket Pamuk "Institutional Change and the Longevity of the Ottoman Empire, 1500–1800". Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol xxxv:2, Autumn, 2004, p.247.
  3. Parmuk, p. 235.
  4. Inalcık, H. and Quataert, D. An Economic and Social History of The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 189.
  5. Incalek and Quatert, p. 103.
  6. Suleyman Celenk Secularization Process in the History of Turkish Education. Journal Social Science, vol 19(2): 2009, p. 101
  7. Attila Ayetkin, Peasant Protest in the Late Ottoman Empire: Moral Economy, Revolt, and the Tanzimat Reforms. International Review of Social History. Vol 57, August 2012, pp 191-227
  8. Hanioglu, M. Sukru. A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 141.
  9. Jason Goodwin, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. (Penguin Books, Hamondsworth,2003, p. 189.

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