Venetian Observations on the Ottoman Empire

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Analysis Questions

  1. From the document, how does it appear that a new king is selected in the Ottoman Empire?

  1. How does the author evaluate the Ottoman army?

  1. Is Constantinople considered an attractive city by the author? Why or why not?

  1. Would you consider this a positive or negative account? Why? Write a POV statement for this document, as you would if it was part of a Document Based Question (DBQ).

The Decline of the Ottomans,” Lorenzo Bernado (1592)

The city of Istanbul, the former Constantinople, became a great cultural center under the Ottoman Turks. In the 200 years after its conquest in 1453, Istanbul took on an increasingly Islamic character, as society was irrevocably altered, buildings were modified, and architectural styles changed. Islam replaced Orthodox Christianity as the dominant faith.
However, despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire became powerful quickly, it had already started to decay by the seventeenth century. This fact was quickly noticed by European observers such as Lorenzo Bernardo, an ambassador from Venice to the Ottoman sultans in the late 1500s. While accounts of the decline may have been somewhat exaggerated by this European observer, Bernardo was also quick to praise the Turks for various accomplishments. In spite of any predictions about its collapse, the Ottoman Empire would exist until after 1918.
Three basic qualities have enabled the Turks to make such remarkable conquests, and rise to such importance in a brief period: religion, frugality, and obedience. 

From the beginning it was religion that made them zealous, frugality that made them satisfied with little, and obedience that produced men ready for any dangerous campaign. 

In former times, Serene Prince, all Turks held to a single religion, whose major belief is that it is "written" when and how a man will die, and that if he dies for his God and his faith he will go directly to Paradise. It is not surprising, then, that one reads in histories about Turks who vied for the chance to fill a ditch with their bodies, or made a human bridge for others to use crossing a river, going to their deaths without the slightest hesitation. But now the Turks have not a single religion, but three of them. The Persians are among the Turks like the [Protestant] heretics among us [Christians], because some of them hold the beliefs of Ali, and others those of Omar, both of whom were followers of Mohammed, but held different doctrines. Then there are the Arabs and Moors, who claim they alone preserve the true, uncorrupted religion and that the "Greek Turks" (as they call these in Constantinople) are bastard Turks with a corrupted religion, which they blame on their being mostly descended from Christian renegades who did not understand the Muslim religion. 

As for frugality, which I said was the second of the three sources of the Turks' great power, this used to be one of their marked characteristics. At one time the Turks had no interest in fine foods or, if they were rich, in splendid decorations in their houses. Each was happy with bread and rice, and a carpet and a cushion; he showed his importance only by having many slaves and horses with which he could better serve his ruler. No wonder then that they could put up with the terrible effort and physical discomfort involved in conquering and ruling. What a shameful lesson to our own state, where we equate military glory with sumptuous banquets and our men want to live in their camps and ships as if they were back home at weddings and feasts! 

But now that the Turks have conquered vast, rich lands they too have fallen victims to the corruption of wealth. They are beginning to appreciate fine foods and game, and most of them drink wine. They furnish their houses beautifully and wear clothes of gold and silver with costly linings. Briefly, then, they become fonder every day of luxury, comfort, and display. 

Obedience was the third source of the great power of the Turkish empire. In the old days obedience made them united, union made them strong, and strength rendered their armies invincible. They are all slaves by nature, and the slaves of one single master; only from him can they hope to win power, honors, and wealth and only from him do they have to fear punishment and death. Why should it be surprising, then, that they used to compete with each other to perform stupendous feats in his presence? This is why it is said that the Turks' strict obedience to their master is the foundation of the empire's security and grandeur. But when the foundation weakens, when the brake is released, ruin could easily follow. The point is that with those other state-preserving qualities changing into state-corroding qualities, disobedience and disunion could be the agents, which finally topple it. 

This is all the more likely now that the chief officials have no other goal but to oppose each other bitterly. They have all the normal rivalries and ambitions of ministers of state, but they also have unusual opportunities for undercover competition with each other, because many of them have married daughters, sisters, and nieces of the Grand Signor. These women can speak with His Majesty whenever they want and they often sway him in favor of their husbands. This practice throws government affairs into confusion and is a real source of worry to the first vizier, who fears to take the smallest step without notifying the sultan. 

Just as obedience to a prince creates a spirit of unity, so disobedience causes discord and strife. I have already said how much the pashas who are in office hate each other. In the same way, the massuli or dismissed pashas think of nothing but ruining the ones in office so they can return to their former posts.

The Grand Signor himself stirs up hatred and indignation among his subjects by making himself the heir of those who die rich, and grabbing their goods from their children. His avarice and penny-pinching are subjects for loud grumbling in every tavern and gathering place in the empire. 

It seems reasonable to say that if the Ottoman Empire rose so remarkably fast in a short time because the Grand Sultan went on the major campaigns and because his men hoped and struggled for rewards, then its decline may now be under way. Sultan Selim, the father of the present Grand Signor, was the first to hold that a king or emperor's real satisfaction is not to be found in brave deeds on the field of glory but in peace and quiet, in gratifying all his physical senses, in enjoying the pleasures and comforts of the seraglios in the company of women and jesters, and treating himself to jewels, palaces, loggias, and every other human creation his heart desires. Sultan Murad has followed his father's example -- in fact, he has gone further, because at least Sultan Selim occasionally left the seraglio and hunted as far away as

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