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The Decline Of The Middle East In The 18th Century

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Was the Middle East really in decline in the eighteenth century, like the "paradigm of decline" claims it? And if this is the case, what did actually decline and what happened to other aspects of society and the economy? I will first discuss the two approaches regarding the "paradigm of decline" and their critics, and I will then explain why the Middle East was indeed in decline before the modern era.

To begin with, the "paradigm of decline" is composed of two different approaches. First the meta-narrative, which focuses on the story of the state, perceives Islamic history as characterized by constant rises and declines, with the apogee being always lower and lower. This theory is simplistic since it focuses only on one aspect of history and omits the story of culture and society. Moreover, it perceives the Middle East as having been in constant decline, a viewpoint that's difficult to validate considering that the Ottoman Empire managed to live for 600 years.

On the other hand, the narrative approach perceives the sixteenth century, characterized by the rule of SÐ"јleyman the Magnificent, as marking the apogee of the Ottoman Empire, a period followed by the decline of the Middle East. This explanation is based on two sources. First, in the 1500's, the Europeans feared sultan SÐ"јleyman and the Middle East in general. But as a shift occurred from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century and Europe gained strength, it progressively came to consider the Middle East unfavorably. Secondly, as the Ottoman state became weak in the eighteenth century, officials close to the government came to compare the state to what it had been back in the good days, that is in the sixteenth century, and concluded that the Middle East had undergone a decline ever since that period. The European sense of superiority in the eighteenth century, as well as the lack of distance of the Ottoman officials, contribute to the weakness of this approach and its lack of objectivity.

However, whereas the Ottoman state had been highly centralized in the sixteenth century, there is no doubt that the power of the central state had decreased in the eighteenth century. But can we really speak of a decline? In every single city he studied, in a period of 200 years, AndrÐ"© Raymond discovered that the city, as well as the population, had experienced of 20% growth. This contributed to undermine the "paradigm of decline", and to raise serious questions about the meta-narrative.

But as I will argue, the Middle East did decline before the modern era.

First of all, the eighteenth century witnessed a shift in the balance of power as, for the first time, the Middle East went from being in the center to being in the periphery. This happened for several reasons. The sixteenth century's commercial revolution in Europe played a great role. Technological innovations, for example in navigation, allowed for the discovery of new lands, the exploitation of which led to an enormous increase of capital. Also, as a result of improvements in military technology, a shift in the military balance occurred and moved away from the Ottomans, in favor of the Europeans.

The shift in military advance helps explain in part another element of decline, that is the important military defeats and the loss of territories the Ottomans suffered during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and which contrasted with the large successes they had experienced in the last three centuries. Also, the wars of the early modern period, leading to high level of casualties and to the loss of territories, were in part responsible for the decrease of the Ottoman population from the late sixteenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century, an additional element constituting a proof of decline.

Another major factor that contributed to the shift in the balance of power was the phenomenal change of the world economy in the sixteenth century. Around 1500, the "system of world empires" vanished in favor of a system of "modern world economy", implying a world economically united in a sole market. As West European states led the system of modern world economy, the Ottoman state gradually became an exporter of primary goods, thereby moving to the periphery. Previously crucial for the Europeans, the Ottoman market saw its commercial importance decline in the eighteenth century and a colonial-style trade was established between Europe and the Middle



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