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Lesson 4.1: Beyond Golden Age and Decline


Lesson 4.1: Beyond Golden Age and Decline


Topic 1: Beyond Golden Age and Decline


Topic Overview

At the beginning of this period in 1450, two great empires were forming at either end of the Mediterranean: Spain and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans under Mehmet II were poised to conquer Constantinople and put an end to the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire. On the Iberian peninsula, the last outpost of Muslim rule in Spain was on the verge of extinction, and the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella would celebrate the completion of their conquest of Spain in 1492 with the siege and fall of Granada. In the same year, they financed the voyage of Cristobal Colon to seek a westward path to the Indies.

For this is also the period of what is called the Age of Exploration, when Europeans discovered both two new continents to the West and a sea route to the Indian Ocean around Africa. Exploration in both directions was driven by a hunt for access to the sources of high-value trade goods, and both had repercussions far beyond their original intent. The success of these European voyages relied upon non-European agents and accumulated local knowledge regarding geography and navigational science.

By the end of this period in 1800, northern European states like Britain and France were clearly in a more dominant position compared to the Ottoman Empire and Spain. Textbooks still often portray Ottoman history as experiencing a brief Golden Age, particularly under Suleiman the Magnificent/the Lawgiver (r. 1520-1566), followed by a long decline until its eventual collapse in 1923. This passage from a well-known text sums up the older view of historians on decline:

The Ottomans did not realize at once that they had lost more than just a great ghazi [warrior] with the death of Suleiman the Magnificent…. By the end of the century, however, some observant foreign ambassadors to Constantinople and some astute Ottoman men of letters would concur that somehow the empire's golden age had come to an end. Keenly aware of the Ottoman fall from grandeur, they would lay the blame upon the corruption of the empire's classic institutions that had flowered in Suleiman's reign. [from Norman Itzkowitz, The Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1972, p. 37.

However, most recent research has debunked this “decline” thesis, providing historical evidence that demonstrates that we should think instead in terms of reform and transformation in a rapidly changing economic and military environment. In addition, Ottoman bureaucrats and writers themselves frequently wrote about “decline” in state efficiency in order to argue for innovations or reform in military science, technology or statecraft.

Similarly, older historical interpretation held that Spain reached its apogee under Charles V (r. 1516-1556, a contemporary of Suleiman) and then began to decline, never recovering the power and splendor that it had commanded during his rule. Critics in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century argued that Spain had to return to the values that underlay its Golden Age, revitalize its commitment to Catholicism and purge itself of suspect, impure elements.

In recent decades, historians of both Spain and the Ottoman Empire have challenged the “decline thesis” on a variety of fronts. In the first place, the definition of a golden age is ambiguous. In the two cases here, as soon as the empires stopped conquering new territories, their raison d’être seemed to be compromised—but must all states continually expand to be successful?

Secondly, the centralization of the state and absolutism of the ruler are taken as sources of strength, but this view from the center doesn’t always reflect the complex views of other groups in society or at the margins of the empire and state. In any event, decline for one group might represent opportunity for another, because central authorities could no longer impose their will absolutely on other actors in society. Thus social and political communities of different sorts enjoyed more flexibility for their own commercial and other ambitions when the central state exercised less absolute control. In northern Europe, the development of alternative bases of power to the crown is often seen as a precursor to limited government, and a good thing—however, in Spain and the Ottoman Empire, it is seen as a harbinger of decline.

That turns out to be, in part, because observers within those societies whose interests were aligned in some way with a strong central government themselves saw the lessened reach of the state as decline, and for a long time the writings of these hand-wringing reformers were the basis upon which we evaluated Ottoman and Spanish governance.

It is certainly the case that both the Spanish and the Ottomans faced enormous challenges in the 16th and 17th centuries, despite their grandeur and achievements. Both states lost battles and eventually significant territory. At the same time, however, both states attempted to adapt to changing circumstances through a variety of financial and bureaucratic innovations, with varying measures of success. And while their economies and societies were transformed in many ways, they remained an integral part of the European and Mediterranean systems for centuries. In the Ottoman case, historian Baki Tezcan calls this transformation and survival in difficult circumstances the “Second Ottoman Empire” rather than decline.

It is important, however, to examine the literature of decline, both that written while the state was facing these challenges and that of historians looking back from our own times. It has a lot to tell us about how different groups within each Empire felt their interests were threatened or supported by a strong central state, and it can also teach us about how we tend to write history from our own perspective. For example, many of our textbooks today still see the Ottoman Empire as something of a foil for Europe. It is used as a counter-example for all that Europe became in the modern age—where Europe saw itself as civilized, the Ottomans were barbaric; where Europe had justice and the rule of law, the Ottoman empire had tyranny. Progress/stagnation, Renaissance/stultifying tradition, reason/fanaticism—we see many such comparisons between “West” and “East,” all “proving” why “Islam” never developed capitalism, had a Reformation, made scientific advances, cultivated democracy, etc. In the end, many of these comparisons are asserted rather than proven with evidence. The reality is much more complex and uneven, and far more interesting.

Lesson Overview

This lesson provides a set of primary source documents that showcase different views of the Ottoman Empire and Spain in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The juxtaposition of these texts should be used to stimulate discussion on how the concepts of golden age or decline are often used not merely as objective descriptors, but as polemical devices to argue for change. Students will analyze the terms “golden age” and “decline,” and work to understand their weaknesses as explanatory paradigms for the Ottoman Empire and Spain in the 16th-17th centuries. Students will recognize that both “Golden Ages” and “Declines” have their winners and losers, and that the rhetoric of decline and of comparison with an “other” is often used as a political tool to advocate for certain policies. Having analyzed the documents, groups of students will storyboard and create political attack ads for television emphasizing a negative perspective about an early modern political leader or societal issue.


Barbara Petzen


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


2-3  class periods of 45-50 minutes


• Students will be able to define and explain the concepts of golden age and decline.

• They will be able to identify major persons and time periods associated with these concepts in the Ottoman Empire and Spain.

• They will be able to analyze primary source documents and identify the point of view, goals, main arguments, rhetorical devices, and evidence used by the writers.

• They will be able to compare the positions and goals of the authors of different primary source documents on a single issue.

• They will be able to recognize bias in polemical political advertising, and to identify the strategies used in such advertising to promote a certain perspective.


• Student Handout 4.1.1: Reform Narratives of Ottoman and Spanish Golden Age and Decline

• Student Handout 4.1.2: Attack Ad Storyboard Template

• Video editing software (optional)(iMovie, Movie Maker, YouTube video editor at, or other)

• Image collection of the Ottoman Empire and Spain (Because some content on some image collections, including Wikimedia, may be inappropriate for your classroom, it is advised that you create a collection of images your students can use for this activity and link directly to those images.

Here are some suggested images and image collections from which you can choose.),_millers,_breadmakers.jpg

Lesson Plan Text

1. Open discussion by asking students to define the term “golden age.” What makes a golden age, and who gets to decide it? Ask students to give examples of golden ages in history. Now ask students to define the term “decline.” Again, ask how a decline is calculated, when it begins and ends, and who decides. Ask again for historical examples of societies in decline.

2. Read the paragraph above about the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Compare your world history textbook. Does it discuss Ottoman decline? What reasons for decline does it give, and along what timeline? Now compare the discussion of Ottoman decline to the textbook discussion of Spanish decline. What are the similarities and differences between the two treatments of empires in decline? [NOTE: If you don’t use a world history textbook in your school, you may substitute the Wikipedia articles on the history of the Ottoman Empire and on Hapsburg Spain, as representative cloud-sourced amalgamations of widely-held views on these topics.]

3. Distribute the Student Handout 4.1.1: Reform Narratives of Ottoman and Spanish Golden Age and Decline. Have students read through the selections written by several reformers, then have them re-read the selections closely, and answer the following questions for each set. This exercise may be done individually in class, as a homework assignment, or in groups.

  • What society is the writer from, and what society is he critiquing?
  • What are or should be the sources of strength in the society the writer is discussing?
  • What does the writer see as the sources of “decline” in his society?
  • Take notes on specific complaints the writer has about his society. What rhetorical devices does he use in pointing these out?

4. Discuss with the class how they answered the questions. Note that each reform writer uses either the past or an “other” as a foil against which to marshal his complaints about society.

5. Point out that in some ways, these reform treatises represent “attack ads” against certain people or practices in society. Tell students that they are going to create a television attack ad that criticizes the practices or weaknesses of a particular person or group in the Ottoman Empire or Spain as contributing to societal decline. [You may want to incorporate a short lesson on propaganda and attack advertising in political campaigns so that students have a good idea of the techniques used in this sort of political ad. You may reference, for example, CSPAN’s lesson on election campaign ads.]

5. Divide students into groups of 3-4. Have students create a storyboard for an attack ad using Student Handout 4.1.2: Attack Ad Storyboard Template, thinking about how they can use images, sound, emotion, special effects and voiceover to influence their audience. Direct them to the image bank of images of Spain and the Ottoman Empire you’ve created (see materials, above). They should create at least ten slides, and incorporate images and sound. Ask them to use as many details as possible in their storyboard, to create as complete a sense of the final ad as possible.

6. Students should create their television attack ads in a simple video editing application (like iMovie, Movie Maker, or YouTube’s free editor at

7. When students have completed their ads, have groups pair up to evaluate one another’s work. What techniques did the group use to portray the weaknesses or faults of the target figure or group? Did they effectively marshal those techniques to paint a negative picture of the target? Is the ad clear and creative? Have the two groups sit down together to discuss one another’s ads, incorporating their evaluations.

8. Adaptation: You may opt to have students create only the storyboard for the ad if access to video editing technology is difficult, or have students create a negative billboard ad rather than a television ad. You may also work with the school’s technology teacher or consultant or the media specialist(s) to support students as they work with the video editing technology.

9. Extension: Students can extend their understanding of the golden age and decline paradigm by analyzing its use in the contemporary American context. Have students research current articles and books on the decline of the United States. [You might start with the Huffington Post’s tagged articles on this topic at, but there is a plethora of current literature.] What are the causes different authors assert for American decline? What evidence of decline do they emphasize? What other states do they believe will be able to take advantage of American decline, or are entering their own “golden age” according to each author? What authors deny that America is in decline, and what evidence do they present in rebuttal? What rhetorical devices do proponents and critics of the thesis of American decline use to convince their audience? Ask students to compare the rhetoric of American decline to the passages on Ottoman and Spanish decline they read in Student Handout 4.1.1: Reform Narratives of Ottoman and Spanish Golden Age and Decline. What arguments were used in the 16th and 17th century that still resonate today? Have students write a short letter to the editor of a regional newspaper putting forward their opinion on whether America is in decline or not, and why, and suggesting remedies or critiquing the arguments of the declinists.

10. Assessment: Peer assessment strategies for political ad projects above; teacher assessment should follow the same rubric with additional consideration for effective participation in the group.



Barbara Petzen, “Lesson 4.1: Beyond Golden Age and Decline,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed January 19, 2018,

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