“In all that great assembly no single man owed his dignity to anything but his personal merits and bravery; no one is distinguished from the rest by his birth, and honour is paid to each man according to the nature of the duty and offices which he discharges. There is no struggle for precedence, every man having his place assigned to him by virtue of the function which he performs. The Sultan himself assigns to all their duties and offices, and in doing so pays no attention to wealth or the empty claims of rank, and takes no account of any influence or popularity which a candidate may possess: he only considers the merit and scrutinises the character, natural ability and disposition of each. Thus each man is rewarded according to his deserts, and offices are filled by men capable of performing them.”
This was the observation made by a Flemish nobleman Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq concerning the Ottoman court under the reign of Suleyman the Magnificient approximately around the 1550s.
In an age where feudalism and lordship still reign in much of the rest of the Europe, his account of the meritocratic nature of the Ottoman court and bureaucracy must have been nothing short but revolutionary from his point of view.
It was a system of governance which effectively pools, recruits and promotes the best of talents it has at its disposal.
It was thus a resilient and organic society which is able to continually adapt and re-invent itself to face the challenges and obstacles that comes in its way.
It was also a flexible society where one can simply rise through the rank to hold the top offices solely by virtue of one’s merits and achievements.
It was a system that ensures transparency, equal opportunity and fairness in all levels of the government, freeing it from the worries of corruption and favouritism.
Privileges must be earned, rather than born with.
It was meritocracy at its best - genuine, consistent and honest; not patchy or half-hearted.
Whilst the rest of Europe - mired with feudal infighting and sucession feuds - stagnates, the Ottoman Empire steadily propels itself forward, its fundamental framework being continually rejuvenated with fresh talents.
I believe that this was one of the main reasons for their long-lived empire; their ability to refashion and remould themselves to suit the demands of the time.
Their bold insight to place more importance on merits and abilities rather than birthrights or privileges was a masterful stroke which firmly cements their dominant role in world affairs of the time.
Why then did the empire finally crumble in the early 1920s?
I believe that one factor which contributed to their slow decline was their failure to re-invent themselves with respect to the other modern Western powers of that time, through a unfortunate mix of complacency, ignorance and incompetency.
They failed to catch up and put themselves ahead in the steady march towards modern progress in the early 20th century, eventually losing out and its territories ravenously carved up by the other Western powers.
The Ottoman Empire then gained the infamous nickname ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, signifiying just how much it has degenerated since the golden era of Pax Ottomana.
It is a path that many empires and nations have trodden - but no one seemed to take the time to pause and take heed of its dangers.
How history must be laughing at mankind for our follies…