Fall of the Ottoman Empire

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This article details the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th to 20th centuries. For the rise of the empire see the Rise of the Ottoman Empire.



The Ottoman Empire failed to keep up technologically with its European rivals, especially Russia. It suffered a huge naval loss at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In the Balkans region it was constantly contested by Habsburgs and for atime the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Its border with the Commonwealth was that of semi-pernament warzone, with Tatars raiding the southern Commonwealth and Cossacks raids pillaging areas as far as Istanbul suburbs. Fighting Persia to the east, Commonwealth and Habsburgs on the west and Russia in the north, the Ottoman Empire was unable to hold any of its gains for long. It barely managed to repulse foregin intervention from Moldavia (1593-1621). After its defeat at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 the Ottoman Empire began a long decline and for a long period was known as the Sick man of Europe. The empire was for many years supported by the western powers, who were trying to counter Russia. The empire finally collapsed in after the defeat of the empire by the Allies in World War I.

Early Attempts at Reform

The late 18th century saw the Ottoman Empire fall behind the west militarily. Wars and territories were lost to Austria and Russia. Areas of the empire such as Egypt were independent in all but name. Thus when Selim III came to the throne in 1789 an ambitious effort of military reform was launched. All the efforts at reform were geared towards securing the Ottoman Empire. The sultan and those who surrounded him were conservative and desired to preserve the status quo. No one in power in the Empire had any interest in social transformation.

Western military advisors were imported but their abilities to enact change were limited. A parade of French officers were brought in, and none of them could do a great deal. One example of an advisor who achieved limited success was the Baron de Tott, a French officer. He did succeed in having a new foundry built to make artillery. He also directed the construction of a new naval base. Unfortunately it was almost impossible for him to divert soldiers from the regular army into the new units. The new ships and guns that made it into service were too few to have much of an influence on the Ottoman army and de Tott returned home.

Interestingly when they had requested French help a few of years earlier from the Directory a young artillery officer by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte was to be sent to Constantinople. He did not go, for just days before he was to embark for the Near East he proved himself useful to the directory by putting down a Parisian mob in the Whiff of Grape-Shot and was kept in France.

The most important change was the creation of an elite new infantry unit. The nizam-i-jedid was set up using European uniforms, weapons, and training. This group offended the Janissaries, however. Once the elite forces, the Janissaries had become a conservative elite using their military power to advance themselves commercially and politically. In 1806 the Janissaries, with support of the ulema and the provincial governors revolted against the Sultan and his new force and replaced him with Mustafa IV.

In 1808 he was replaced by Mahmud II who restarted the reform efforts. His first actions was to ally with the Janissaries to break the power of the provincial governors. He then turned on the Janissaries, massacring them in their barracks in Constantinople and the provincial capitals. The event is called The Auspicious Incident and it cleared the way for substantial reforms.

Again these reforms were implemented mainly to improve the military. British, Prussian and French advisors were imported. Most importantly a series of schools teaching everything from math to medicine were set up to train the new officers.

Mahmud adopted other western ideas, however. The government was overhauled and redesigned on European models. European clothing styles were also imported and the Sultan and the elites abandoned the fez and turban. The first Turkish newspaper, an official government publication, was also published during this time. This period of reform continue after the death of Mahmud in 1839. In 1849 a massive new program of reforms known as the Tanzimat was launched.

Russian Expansionism

Fringe territories were lost to Russia in the north, but more importantly the Empire began to fall behind technologically compared to the west. The outside world was still mostly unaware of the extent of the Empire's decline until the 1820s, when it became clear that the Ottoman armies had no way to put down the Russian backed revolt in southern Greece. The great powers of Europe decided to intervene to give Greece its independence. Thus Greece became the first independent country created out of a section of the Ottoman Empire. Russian aspirations for a section of the empire and bases on Russia's southern flank provoked British fears over naval domination of the Mediterranean and control of the land route to India.

When in 1853 Russia destroyed the entire Ottoman fleet at Sinop, Britain and France concluded that armed intervention on the side of the Ottomans was the only way to halt a massive Russian expansion, on the grounds that the Ottoman armies could do nothing to stop a Russian march on Constantinople.

Crimean War

The Crimean War illustrated how modern technology and superior weaponry were the most important part of a modern army, and a part that the Ottoman Empire was sorely lacking. While fighting alongside the British, French, and even the Piedmontese, the Ottomans could see how far they had fallen behind. While the industrial revolution had swept through western Europe, the Ottoman Empire was still relying mainly on medieval technologies. The vast empire had no railroads, and few telegraph lines. It took days before the major naval defeat at Sinope was learned of in the capital. The poor communications made it very difficult for Constantinople to control its provinces. Thus the provinces in the Balkans, Africa, and Asia became almost autonomous. Serbia was now an independent nation in all but name, paying only token tribute to the Sultan. Most of the other provinces also paid only fractions of the tribute required by law. Even the areas under the Sultan's direct control had an outdated and corrupt tax system, drastically depleting revenues. The disorganization and corruption permeating the nation also discouraged trade, hurting both itself and its relations with other nations. Compared to any other European power the Ottoman empire also had virtually no industry, and its raw materials were not being harvested. It is not surprising then that at the mid point of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was at the mercy of the Russians until outside forces intervened.

Things began to change after the Crimean war. The western powers had invested a great deal of resources in the Crimean war and they did not wish to come to the aid of the faltering Empire again. Thus the nation was invaded by British, French, and Austrian businessmen and administrators who came to reform and rebuild the economy. This period known as the Tanzimat saw great changes. During the period after the Crimean war a national bank was created, the tax system was revised and strengthened, the law was altered to emulate the Napoleonic Code, a public education system based on that of the French was created, the Orient Express railroad was constructed, as well other railroads were built that travelled along the coast of Anatolia and into the Balkans. Another change was that Serbia was permanently granted its independent status. This pleased both Austria, who feared a Serbian revolt on its borders, and Russia who long supported the Slavic nation's independence. Other changes began to occur as Europeans for the first time saw the trading opportunity of Turkey. The amount of money entering the nation through trade was soon dramatically increased. As well the government received a great deal of extra money from a uniform tax system with little corruption. The Sultan also managed to get a tighter grip on the provincial beys and increased the tribute they had to pay. Regrettably Abd-ul-Aziz, the Sultan at the time, used much of this money on furnishing and creating great palaces to rival the great ones in England and France, which he had visited. The Empire was undergoing a revolution, throughout Anatolia a new Ottoman nationalism was appearing, and for the first time the Empire had a middle class. It seemed as though it might be possible for the Empire to turn its decline around.


Loss of the Balkans

Missing image
Ottoman losses in the Balkans after the Crimean War, from Literary and Historical Atlas of Europe, by J.G. Bartholomew, 1912

Then on Friday, May 9, 1873 disaster struck. The Vienna stock market crashed and took with it the economy of Europe. The money and loans from abroad stopped pouring into Constantinople and the government entered a financial crisis. Unable to deal with this the Sultan, Abd-ul-Aziz, began to rapidly switch Grand Viziers. Unable to repay foreign loans, the empire was forced to default on them, and ask for assistance from Europe. Soon the Sultan could avoid a fetva no longer and he was deposed. Eventually Abd-ul-Hamid II was girded with the sword of power. The monetary and governmental collapse combined with a new threat from Russia began the final stages of the Empire's collapse. Russia had been forced by the Crimean War to give up its ambitions of owning Constantinople and controlling the Bosphorus. Instead it decided to focus on gaining power in the Balkans. The population of much of the Balkans were Slavs, as were the Russians. They also mainly followed the Eastern Orthodox Church, as did the Russians. When new movements in Russia, such as that of the Slavophiles, started to enter the area, it became agitated and prone to revolution. When the government in Constantinople tried to initiate measures to prevent an economic collapse throughout the empire it touched off a revolt in Herzegovina. The revolt in Herzegovina, quickly spread to Bosnia and then Bulgaria. Soon Serbian armies also entered the war against the Turks. These revolts were the first test of the new Ottoman armies. Even though they were not up to western European standards the army fought effectively and brutally. Soon the Balkan rebellions were beginning to falter. In Europe, however, a new problem was developing. The papers of Russia were filled with reports of Turkish soldiers killing thousands of Slavs. Soon more than Russian propaganda was moving southwards and a new Russo-Turkish war had begun.

Despite fighting better than they ever had before the advanced Ottoman armies still were not equal to the Russian forces. This time there was no help from abroad, in truth many European nations supported the Russian war, as long as it did not get too close to Constantinople. Ten and a half months later when the war had ended the age of Ottoman domination over the Balkans was over. The Ottomans had fought well, the new navy of Ironclads had won the battle for the Black Sea, and Russian advances in the Caucasus had been kept minimal. In the Balkans, however, the Russian army, supported by rebels, had pushed the Ottoman army out of Bulgaria, Walachia, Romania, and much of East Rumelia and by the end of the war the artillery firing in Thrace could be heard in Constantinople.

In response to the Russian proximity to the straits the British, against the wishes of the Sultan, intervened in the war. A large task force representing British naval supremacy entered the straits of Marmara and anchored in view of both the royal palace and the Russian army. The British may have saved the Ottoman empire once again, but it ended the rosy relations between the two powers that had endured since the Crimean War. Looking at the prospect of a British entry into the war the Russians decided to settle the dispute. The treaty of San Stephano gave Romania and Montenegro their independence, Serbia and Russia each received extra territory, Austria was given control over Bosnia, and Bulgaria was given almost complete autonomy. The hope of the Sultan was that the other great powers would oppose such a one-sided resolution and a conference would be held to revise it. His desire became reality and in 1878 the Congress of Berlin was held where Germany promised to be an "honest broker" in the treaty's revision. In the new treaty Bulgarian territory was decreased and the war indemnities were cancelled. The conference also again hurt Anglo-Turkish relations by giving the British the island of Cyprus. While annoyed at British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the Sultan had nothing but praise for Otto von Bismarck who forced many of the major concessions upon Russia. These close Germano-Turkish relations would persist until both empires' very end.

Internal Collapse

The autocratic Sultans of the Ottoman Empire had remained unchanged in centuries, while the rest of the world slowly became more democratic and liberal. The loss of nearly a quarter of the Empire's territory added to the already existing economic problems to make a situation ripe for revolution. The situation was especially dangerous in Constantinople, which contained thousands of refugees fleeing the Balkans. A number of small coups broke out, trying to overthrow the Sultan. None of them were well organized or even remotely successful, but they filled Abd-ul-Hamid II with a paranoia that lead to a self-imposed isolation in the palace of Yildiz. The entire Ottoman Empire was built around the Sultan, but this Sultan never left his palace and would only see a few trusted advisors. Unlike in the other states of Europe, such as Germany, where a weak ruler could be made up for by a powerful Prime Minister, there was no one who could make up for a weak Sultan. While in his self-imposed exile the Sultan's Empire continued to fall apart. Egypt had long been only loosely connected to the Ottoman Empire and in 1882 the British incorporated it into their empire to protect the Suez canal. In 1896 Crete revolted and received aid from the Greeks. This soon lead to a war between the Ottoman Empire and its former province. For the first time in centuries the Ottoman Empire won a war unaided. Greece was invaded from the North and the Ottoman armies marched south as far as Thermopylae before King George I of Greece agreed to an armistice. Greece lost some of Macedonia, and had to pay an indemnity to Turkey. Crete was, however, given almost complete autonomy to appease Britain and Russia who did not want to see its Christian inhabitants returned to the Turks.

The military victory did nothing to stop the rise of revolutionary sentiments. In 1902 a meeting in Paris brought together the leadership of the "Young Turks" - a group, mainly made of students, who were fervent Turkish nationalists wishing to do away with the archaic Empire. In Bulgaria and Macedonia terrorists started bombing Ottoman banks and government buildings demanding total independence. The two rebellions eventually joined in 1908 when an army regiment stationed in Macedonia rebelled and fled into the hills. It was joined by Macedonian rebels as well as large numbers of Young Turks. This group called itself the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Soon other regiments in Bulgaria and Rumelia mutinied as did many of the Anatolian soldiers sent in to end the rebellion. Abd-ul-Hamid had no choice but to give into the revolutionaries' demands. A constitution was adopted and a parliament created, Abd-ul-Hamid was now the leader of an Ottoman constitutional monarchy. Soon after the first election, which CUP won easily, there was a counter coup by the more conservative military officers. The coup failed to destroy the new government, mainly due to the skill of an unknown Adjutant-Major named Mustafa Kemal. When the liberals discovered that the Sultan had aided the coup they decided that he must go. Thus a fetva was issued and Abd-ul-Hamid II's long reign was at an end.

Final Destruction and Rebirth

Italy declared war on the Empire on September 29, 1911, demanding the turnover of Tripoli and Cyrenaica. When the empire did not respond, Italian forces took those areas on November 5 of that year (this act was confirmed by an act of the Italian Parliament on February 25, 1912).

Later that same year, a nationalist uprising broke out in Albania, and on October 8, the Balkan League, consisting of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria, mounted a joint attack on the Ottoman Empire, starting the First Balkan War. Albania declared independence on November 28, Turkey agreed to a ceasefire on December 2, and its territory losses were finalized in 1913 in the treaties of London and Bucharest. Albania became independent, and the Empire lost almost all of its European territory (Kosovo, Sanjak of Novi Pazar, Macedonia and western Thrace) to the four allies.

On November 5, 1914 the United Kingdom annexed Cyprus, and together with France declared war on the empire. The final end to the aged and crippled empire came in the First World War. Close relations with Germany and the continued enmity towards Russia pushed the empire into joining the Central Powers. The empire at first held its own honourably. Its armies did well in the Balkans, preventing any Russian advance, and — commanded by the dynamic Mustafa Kemal — the Ottoman forces won a great victory against Allied forces at the Battle of Gallipoli. These successes were quickly reversed, however, by the revolt of the Arabs, who were advised and led by a British military genius, T. E. Lawrence. Allied forces, including the Arabs, eventually defeated the Ottoman forces in the Middle East. At the end of the war the Ottoman government collapsed completely and the empire was divided amongst the victorious powers. France and Britain got control of most of the Middle East while Italy and Greece were given much of Anatolia. At the same time an independent Armenian state was established in eastern Turkey, and an autonomous Kurdish area was also created.

The Turkish people refused to accept this arrangement, however, and under Mustafa Kemal the remnants of the Young Turk movement formed a government in Ankara and created an army. They defeated the Greeks and forced them out of Anatolia. The Italians had never managed to get a substantial presence in their holdings and in the weakened state could do little to try to recapture them after they were in Turkish hands. The British and French, exhausted by the war had no interest in intervening, especially to stop a movement of national self-determination of the type they had been supporting in other lands.

Thus the new state of Turkey was proclaimed on January 20, 1921 and Mustafa Kemal, who took on the name Atatürk, became its first president.

Armenian Genocide

Main article: Armenian Genocide

After World War I the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) - more commonly known as the "Young Turks" - decided to carry out a genocide against the Armenian people under Ottoman control. It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians were massacred between 1915 and 1923, out of the previous population of around two million. The Armenians were subjected to torture, massacre and expropriation of their wealth. The great majority of the Armenians were forced from their homes in Armenia and Anatolia and left to die of hunger and thirst in Syria where they fled.

There was a strong outcry in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia against the mistreatment of the Armenians. The Allies demanded that the Young Turks be tried for warcrimes. However, there was no intervention beyond helping the small remainder of the Armenians who were still alive in Syria. After the war there were no restitutions to the Armenian people for their loss of wealth and human lives by the Ottomans.

Reasons for the decline of the Ottoman Empire

The cause of the decline of the Ottoman Empire has long been debated by scholars and historians.

Changing world economy

Changes in technology and the global economy occurred at an ever increasing pace the Ottoman Empire became peripheralized. Once almost all trade between Asia and Europe had had to pass through Ottoman lands or seas, the revolution in shipping in Europe beginning in the 16th century allowed European traders to by-pass the Empire.

This also caused a major shift in trade patterns from the Mediterranean Sea to the oceans. With most of the Empire's population and major centres located on the Mediterranean this greatly affected the Empire as well as other southern European states such as Italy.

The Industrial Revolution saw even greater changes. The Ottoman Empire did not have a social structure well adjusted to the free market capitalism needed to build factories. The Empire also lacked crucial supplies of coal and other needed commodities.

As a result the Empire shifted from being a producer of manufactured goods to being a producer of raw materials for European industry. Different parts of the empire moved towards producing different commodities. Mount Lebanon became a centre of silk production. Syria, once one of the world's great steel producers, grew foodstuffs. Egypt became one of the world's largest producers of cotton.

An inevitable side effect of this large scale trade with Europe was increasing links between Ottoman provinces and Europeans. As Britain became dependent on Egyptian cotton for its textile mills Britain became ever more involved in the internal politics of that country, eventually declaring it a protectorate in 1882. The Lebanese silk was mostly shipped to Marseilles, and increasingly France came to dominate that area. Many of the provinces were more closely linked to Europe than to Constantinople. When railways were built, largely by Europeans, they linked to the coast, not to the capital.

Weak leadership

In any effort to modernize or reform the empire the Sultan was always opposed by the powerful military and religious elite who did not want to lose their traditional powers. One of the most powerful of these elites, was the powerful religious body known as the ulema. If the ulema was displeased with a Sultan a decree known as a fetva would be issued and the Sultan would be removed from power. The threat of a fetva was a powerful weapon used many times by the ulema to force the Sultan to back down from reforms.

Unstable leadership was also a problem the second most powerful man in the Empire was the Grand Vizier, the advisor in chief to the Sultan. This position was also considerably weakened by the fact that to prevent a fetva or coup the Sultan would often sacrifice his Grand Vizier. In turbulent times Sultans would thus frequently go through dozens of Grand Viziers in only a few years. This prevented a stable government, the thing most required in turbulent times.

Other practices weakened the Empire's leadership. One of the most problematic was the method of ensuring that an uncle or brother of the Sultan did not try to seize power. For the duration of the Sultan's reign they would be locked away in a small apartment, known as a kafe and never see the outside world. Whenever a Sultan died or was deposed with no male heir, his brother or uncle would be taken out of the kafe and be made ruler of the Empire.

Fratricide in the harem

It must be remembered that sultans could take several wives and many concubines. The sultan had a harem, and there could be between 200 and 600 women there. It was thus possible for a sultan to have many children, and in particular, many sons. A practice of fratricide grew up, in which on the death of a sultan, one of the sons would become the new sultan, and would then order the execution of all his brothers. Although this did not always happen, many were executed. The thought behind this practice was that it was considered important to remove any possibility of having different focal points for power, and a rationalisation was that the death of a few would be a small price to pay for political stability. The fear of civil war, in which many could die, was a strong driving force for this practice.

The women in the harem also jostled for power, and the mother of the sultan became a powerful force. Each mother in the harem would try to promote her own son to become sultan, as they knew that the alternative would be that their sons would be killed.

Corruption of Janissaries

To create a modern state out of the Ottoman Empire the area that most needed redevelopment was the military. Most Sultans realised this, but their efforts were repeatedly repelled. The most powerful group in the empire, and the one most averse to change, were the members of the Sultan's personal army. These were known as the Janissaries. They were first created from a tax, known as the devsirme. The devsirme was imposed on all Christians living in Ottoman controlled territory. Every five years one in five Christian sons were given to the Sultan. Some entered the civil service, some went into politics, and a few managed to rise to the position of Grand Vizier. The majority of the boys, however, entered the army. They were trained to be master warriors supremely loyal to the Sultan, and became known as the Janissaries. They were strictly lead by an ancient code of honour and were ready to sacrifice themselves for their Sultan at any time. Overtime, however, the Janissaries, with their great strength and close attachment with the Sultan, gained a great deal of power in the empire. With power comes corruption, and during the 18th century the Janissary code of honour gradually disappeared. The Janissaries became rich through bribes and theft. They used their power to control the government, and to do all that was possible to prevent changes to their traditional powers. By the 1820s the Janissaries were no more than a group of heavily armed thugs rebelling at even minor military changes. The situation was desperate, the Ottoman army had fallen so far behind the rest of Europe that any aggressive power could take the capital. In 1826 the Janissaries revolted against the Sultan's decree that forced them to wear western military uniforms. Rather than back down to the Janissary threat as all previous Sultans had, Mahmud II used his new artillery regiments against the Janissary barracks in Constantinople. The barracks was destroyed and all the Janissaries trying to flee were killed. Outside the capital most of the Janissaries peacefully disbanded, but many of them were still executed on charges of treason. With the removal of the Janissaries the path to military reform was now open, but after centuries of Janissary interference the Ottoman army could never fully recover.

Failure of outside assistance

To modernise the army and bring it up to European standards, outsiders had to be brought in. Unfortunately, these outsiders were regarded with suspicion by the empire's elite. The senior members of the army and government still thought that they were back in the 17th century when the Ottoman army was more powerful than any other on Earth; however, the signs of decline were already evident. Catherine the Great had annexed the Crimea and Georgia at the end of the 18th century, and the Sultan had no way to intervene. Bessarabia was lost in 1812 after the Ottomans attempted to take advantage of Russia's war with Napoleon. The first losses to Russia, an enemy of the empire for centuries, were a great embarrassment, but they were not enough to motivate reform. In the early part of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was allied with France, and thus it was to them that the Sultan turned for aid in rebuilding his military might. When they requested help from the Directory, a young artillery officer by the name of Napoleon Buonaparte was to be sent to Constantinople. He did not go, for just days before he was to embark for the near east he proved himself useful to the directory by putting down a Parisian mob and was kept in France. It is interesting to think of what a man of Napoleon's skill might have done with the Ottoman army. In his place a parade of French officers were brought in, but none of them could do a great deal. One example of an advisor who achieved limited success was the Baron de Tott. He did succeed in having a new foundry built to make artillery and he directed the construction of a new naval base. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible for him to divert soldiers from the regular army into the new units. The new ships and guns that made it into service were too few to have much of an influence on the Ottoman military and de Tott returned home.

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