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Review: James Gelvin's 'The Modern Middle East: A History'

Michael has been an online freelancer and writer for many years and loves discovering and sharing about new experiences and opportunities.

Middle Eastern Regret: Regression through Modernization

How is it that 16th century states throughout the Middle East strove towards but failed to reach a state of economic and technological superiority? How, with policies that seemed to push them further up the ladder of global greatness, did they come tumbling down into the hands of colonialist and imperialist suppression? What choices did Middle Eastern empires make that sent them down a backward path to the subservience of Western desires? James Gelvin, through his book, The Modern Middle East: A History, sheds a shining light on these questions, and this article aims to recapitulate the central arguments that explain the seesawing status of these nations, as well as how (what we have come to refer as) the modern Middle East came to rise.


Richard Lachmann, through States and Power (2010), gave us an illuminating look at how the evolution of the modern nation state influenced the way the world was connected and interconnected. The history of the Middle East, however, was also influenced heavily by the evolution of a world economy—and by the growing need to take advantage of international trade. Indeed, with the Protestant Reformation of 1517 splitting up Christian states into both militarily and economically competing units, the need for Middle Eastern states to become more competitive had dramatically risen, especially in the wake of the Commercial Revolution in Europe—wherein European trade had progressively increased. In fact, this Revolution, which included “technological breakthroughs, such as the use of the compass and adjustable sails and […] institutions for organizing trade and banking; [and] the introduction of new crops,” (James L. Gelvin, 8) among others, would have substantial effects on the Ottoman and Safavid Empires of the time—who themselves were at war and in a race for expansion.

The previous, and unstable, “military-patronage state” (24) of the Middle East had slowly transformed into a more bureaucratic system, whereby an Ottoman sultan or a Safavid shah would come to head a government that had a grasp extending to all areas of its land. And this was achieved through gunpowder weapons. Indeed, it was the Ottoman’s initial venture into these expensive, trade-necessitating and industrial development-needing weapons that set the trend for state investment and global commerce—and which provided the ability to “subdue tribes, […] protect their realms against invasion, […] collect revenue, […] and […] provide security for agriculture” (25). It was such a strong device that it enabled the Ottomans to bring an end to the Roman Empire, and it was only strengthened as Ottomans engaged in devshirme for soldiers (and as the Safavids acquired ghilman slaves) who were all trained to be loyal to the empire.

With these huge expanses of land under their control, both empires engaged in tax farming on land, ports and enterprise. According to Gelvin, this was thought to have a positive influence on private profiteers, who would feel included in the empire’s bureaucratic system and would want to maintain it. And the government, attempting to increase its wealth, established monopolies over industries and created guilds to ensure efficient tax collection. Religion itself also took on a significant role in government as the Ottoman leaders declared themselves to represent Sunni Islam, and the Safavids Shici Islam. But mostly, it was these empires’ abilities to adapt that allowed them to survive for centuries—but that also caused them to decline in the face of unforeseen economic and world events.


One of these disastrous events was the Price Revolution of the seventeenth century across the Eurasian continent. Indeed, once these empires had built a regime that consisted on the loyalty of armies and bureaucrats—who had to be paid, increasing prices made such a system untenable for seemingly always cash-strapped nations. Due to a rise in population numbers, or because of increasing competition between state and private sectors, or increased trade, or the debasement of currency, or even the influx of new currency from the Spanish conquests, inflation during this period was high and caused private profiteers to smuggle goods such as metals and silk and wood out of their homelands to fetch higher prices in foreign markets. These businessmen thus undercut governments, reduced their revenues, and limited their abilities to maintain social order. The Price Revolution, and the actions of the people affected by it, thereby introduced the Middle East into the modern world economy—wherein producers in the primary and secondary sectors began to see the benefits of selling their products on the international market over the mere personal consumption of their labor. This process was most visible in Western Europe, which was the core of the system due to many reasons (including better adoption of the Commercial Revolution, the “second serfdom”, and Merchant republics), and continued to spread over time to less economically and technologically advanced nations, labelled as the periphery and semi-periphery.

The Ottomans and Safavids thus turned away from their timar/tiyul systems of tax collection and tax farmed to even greater extents in order to quickly make up revenue shortfalls caused by the Price Revolution. They also sold bureaucratic and military offices, increased taxation, and debased their currencies. It wasn’t enough to keep them outside of the international market, and the Middle East was integrated into the system as its periphery. Even local warlords “asserted themselves against weakened central governments, refused to send taxes or tribute to the imperial capital, and often waged war” (72), making the empires weak both internally and externally. Indeed, in terms of trade, the Middle East was set on an irreversible path as subsistence farming transformed into cash crop farming for opium, cotton, tobacco… because of their higher return in foreign markets. And Western powers, hungry to purchase these goods, constructed railroads and ports to accommodate them, and in so doing reshaped the region as one subservient to their colonial buying power.

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Capitulations with foreign powers such as France, Denmark, Britain, and Russia, as early as 1569, had simultaneously played a role in the West’s penetration into the Ottoman Empire. And it was due to these interests that raised the Eastern Question for these nations as the Ottoman Empire grew weaker and more susceptible to being overtaken. Indeed, Russia—under the guise of a Christian state—pursued control of the Black Sea and Turkish Straits at the expense of war with the Ottomans—who themselves lost the most. Moreover, the battle for power between France and Britain led to the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, which quickly doubled the prices of coffee and grain in Istanbul soon after. The result of this was an Ottoman alliance with the British and Russians to retake Egypt, which eventuated in Mehmet Ali’s dynasty there. This, alongside further efforts to protect its own interests against Russia, led to increased intervention of Ottoman affairs by the British Empire. Spliced with the rise of nationalistic ethos in the Balkans, as well as Russian desire to have these transitioning states as allies, the Ottoman Empire was slowly falling into the hands of stronger powers.

This all leads us to ask again: How could the Ottoman Empire, one that defeated the Roman Empire and that spearheaded investment into weaponry, succumb to the pressures of previously inconsequential states? The answer to this seems to be in the policies that it undertook throughout its reign. From foreign capitulations, to unstoppable private smuggling, to the reorientation of farmland, to diplomatic acquiescence, the Ottoman and Qajar dynasty (which took the place of the Safavid Empire after it fell under Afghan invasion) fell victim to their policies of defensive developmentalism—as well as by European imperialist conquest.

In particular, it was the efforts made from the early 19th century that eventually led to the demise of the empires. An initial step that they took was to emulate Western style militarism: Mehmet Ali specifically followed the “disciplinary, organizational, tactical, and technological strategies from European states” (73) in an attempt to defend his control of Egypt from the Ottomans, who had backtracked on their deal with him over Syria. Tunisia followed suit. In order to feed their armies, coordinate and discipline their populations and collect taxes, they then engaged in farming cash crops for revenue, eliminating tax farmers, and introducing legal reforms (the Ottoman Land Code of 1858) and standardized educational curricula for soldiers and bureaucratic administrators. However, many of these policies were met with backlash by the population as they sought to disadvantage tax farmers and to create an elite class of society. Even this elite class was a detriment to the governments because they revolted with the aspirations of gaining more power—and they often succeeded (the 1876 Ottoman constitution and Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905). Indeed, even peasants under the well-intentioned 1858 Land Code were demarcated from their land due to unaffordability or out of fear of tax and conscription.

Governments’ decisions themselves to create state monopolies and employ protectionist policies drew ire from European states around them—with Russia in 1828 being a prime example by forcing Persia “to agree to a ridiculously low 5 percent tariff on goods imported from Russia” (75). And in order to distribute the cash crops they were growing, Middle Eastern empires needed to borrow money from the Europeans to build railroads and modern ports to market the goods. This, as we’ve seen above, only helped to peripheralize them further. Moreover, when the Ottomans signed the Balta Liman treaty with the British in 1838 to rid Syria of Egypt’s Ibrahim Ali, they gave up the right to monopolies in Turkish territories and lowered import tariffs for British goods to 5%. This was not sustainable for internal industries that were still young and relatively inefficient/uncompetitive.

Egypt is an interesting case study as Mehmet Ali—who himself followed the example of Mahmud II—slaughtered the previously in charge mamluks, took over religious endowments and forced Bedouins into submission. His changes also put women to work and had men do forced governmental labor, which upset familial norms. Most importantly, his reliance on cash crops embedded Egypt into the international market and made it very dependent on prices of cotton. Although there was an increase in price during the American Civil War as their supply stopped, it plummeted soon after and caused great problems for Egypt—which had borrowed heavily for investment in cotton cultivation and infrastructure; this included the Suez Canal. When the 1873 international depression hit, its massive borrowings sent Egypt into bankruptcy and led to the cUrabi Revolt in 1881—which then led to the British occupation in 1882 until 1956. Thus, in an attempt to become an economic marvel in the Middle East, Egypt fell prey to its own ambitions—and to the British, who subsequently stopped any industry there that would compete or otherwise not serve their own purposes. Tunisia followed suit in many ways and also fell victim to bankruptcy and then to French rule.

It is in a similar way that the rest of the Ottoman Empire fell victim to defensive developmentalist policies. Attempts to establish state-run factories floundered due to international competition and a lack of investment capital, of which it attempted to attract through foreign concessions. Even plans that were well thought-out were often unsuccessful due to the sheer magnitude of its dominion and the diversity of its peoples and lands. As guilds and tax farmers and others were targeted by the new centralization policies, the resistance was felt through failure. Attempts to build identity, osmanlilik, led to intercommunal violence and increased sectarianism as Muslims wanted to maintain their predominance—and as Christians themselves did not enjoy being conscripted.

On the Persian side, the Qajar dynasty was more discrete in its control and actions, but it did experiment with defensive developmentalism policies, which also tended to backfire. Specifically, its establishment of the Dar al-Funun—an educational institution—led to its graduates participating in the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and majlis parliament, and the Cossack Brigade military force participating in the overthrowing of the dynasty itself. The Qajars also sold off concessions to Europeans, which again peripheralized the Empire, and cancelled some that were highly disadvantageous—leading to hefty fines from the British and increased borrowing. This also led to the d’Arcy petroleum concession, which led the foundation for future endeavors.

What we observe from James Gelvin's The Modern Middle East: A History, then, is that although there were intentions to distance themselves from the West and to become standalone economic, military powers, the Persian and Ottoman Empires only helped to seal their regressive fate as they employed policies engulfing them in the world economic system and fostering European penetration of their empires. Their actions, alongside the imperialist march of the West, including “diplomacy, ideological suasion, conquest and rule, planting colonies” and diplomatic coercion (90), only served to restrict the independence of their empires and to infuse them into the periphery of the modern world system.

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