The Ottoman Empire: Institutions and Economic Change, 1500–1914
- Şevket PamukŞevket PamukDepartment of Economics and Economic History, Bogaziçi University
The Ottoman Empire stood at the crossroads of intercontinental trade for six centuries until World War I. For most of its existence, the economic institutions and policies of this agrarian empire were shaped according to the distribution of political power, cooperation, conflicts, and struggles between the state elites and the various other elites, including those in the provinces. The central bureaucracy managed to contain the many challenges it faced with its pragmatism and habit of negotiation to co-opt and incorporate into the state the social groups that rebelled against it. As long as the activities of the economic elites, landowners, merchants, the leading artisans, and the moneylenders contributed to the perpetuation of this social order, the state encouraged and supported them but did not welcome their rapid enrichment. The influence of these elites over economic matters, and more generally over the policies of the central government, remained limited. Cooperation and coordination among the provincial elites was also made more difficult by the fact that the empire covered a large geographical area, and the different ethnic groups and their elites did not always act together.
Differences in government policies and the institutional environment between Western Europe and the Middle East remained limited until the early modern era. With the rise of the Atlantic trade, however, the merchants in northwestern European countries increased their economic and political power substantially. They were then able to induce their governments to defend and develop their commercial interests in the Middle East more forcefully. As they began to lag behind the European merchants even in their own region, it became even more difficult for the Ottoman merchants to provide input into their government’s trade policies or change the commercial or economic institutions in the direction they preferred.
Key economic institutions of the traditional Ottoman order, such as state ownership of land, urban guilds, and selective interventionism, remained mostly intact until 1820. In the early part of the 19th century, the center, supported by the new technologies, embarked on an ambitious reform program and was able to reassert its power over the provinces. Centralization and reforms were accompanied by the opening of the economy to international trade and investment. Economic policies and institutional changes in the Ottoman Empire began to reflect the growing power of European states and companies during the 19th century.