It is October 1918. Times are looking very grim indeed for the once mighty Ottoman Empire. Having already lost their once extensive European and African territories prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the Ottoman Turks had thrown in their lot with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. It proved to be a fatal mistake. At first things went well for them, thwarting a British attempt to capture the Dardanelles Straits at Gallipoli in 1915-16 and capturing a British expeditionary force at Kut-al-Amara in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). After that it all went downhill as the British Colonel T.E. Lawrence "of Arabia" led the Ottomans' Arab subjects in open revolt against their masters before the British themselves launched invasions from Egypt and Kuwait into the Ottoman provinces of Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. By October 1918 the Ottoman forces in the Middle East were collapsing, having lost Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus to the advancing British. Facing the prospect of an enemy invasion of the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia (the area roughly comprising modern Turkey), the leadership signed an armistice with the allied powers on October 30th.
After the war the defeated Ottoman Empire was punished severely by the victorious powers. Under the terms of the 1920 treaty of Sevres her Arab territories were handed off to the British (Iraq and Palestine) and French (Syria and Lebanon). Anatolia was partitioned into various "spheres of influence" whilst the hated Greeks took over several western areas around the Aegean Sea. The Ottoman capital, Constantinople, was demilitarised and placed under international control. The humiliation of the former European superpower was seemingly complete.
Anyone looking at the Ottoman Empire's dire situation in the aftermath of the First World War would have struggled to believe that, less than 250 years earlier, this defeated and demoralised nation had dominated south-east Europe, the Middle East and much of northern Africa. At its greatest territorial extent in 1683, the empire of the Ottoman Turks straddled three continents, stretching west to east from Morocco to the shores of the Caspian Sea and south to north from the Horn of Africa to the gates of Vienna. For centuries, Ottoman armies of Muslim warriors were scourge of European Christendom, sweeping Eastern Orthodox Christianity aside and spreading Islam deep into the heart of the continent.
The history of the Ottoman Empire dates back to the beginning of the 14th Century when the Sultanate of Rum, a state established in Anatolia by the Seljuk Turks, collapsed in around 1300. Anatolia had traditionally been dominated by the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, the informal name given to the Eastern Roman Empire, which had been in existence since around 306AD when it split from its western counterpart (which collapsed in 476AD), until the Seljuks forced them out. The Rum Sultanate fragmented into a number of so-called "Ghazi emirates", one of which was ruled by Osman I. It is from his name that the name Ottoman was derived. Osman's emirate became the founding lands of the new Ottoman Empire, with he himself as the first Sultan.
Over the next century the Ottoman lands expanded across Anatolia, taking advantage of the terminal decline of the neighbouring Byzantine Empire. By 1400 they had expanded across the Dardanelles into Greece and the Balkans, surrounding Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. An invasion of Anatolia by the Timurid Empire bought more time for the Byzantines but it was only a matter of time before the Ottomans made an effort to capture the heavily-defended port city, which stood at the strategically vital crossroads between Europe and Asia. The time finally came in 1453 when Ottoman forces under Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to Constantinople and captured it, finally bringing an end to the 1000 year-old Eastern Roman Empire. The last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI was reportedly last seen throwing off his imperial regalia and charging headlong into the fighting, dying alongside his soldiers.
|A victorious Mehmed II enters Constantinople.|
The victorious Ottomans consolidated their control of Constantinople and made it their new capital, converting the main cathedral into the present Hagia Sophia mosque under Mehmed's orders. Nonetheless The Ottomans expressed toleration towards Orthodox Christianity and the Christian community accepted them in return, largely because of their historically poor relations with there Catholic counterparts in Western Europe. The Ottomans then spent the next century enjoying a period of impressive territorial expansion, advancing northwards deep into Europe as well as south into Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt. The growing Ottoman dominance of the eastern Mediterranean sent alarm bells ringing in Europe, especially in Hungary and Habsburg Austria which were next in the firing line.
Under the rule of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) the advance into Europe continued unabated. His forces captured Belgrade in 1521 and had occupied most of the Kingdom of Hungary by 1526. The turning point came in 1529 when Suleiman attempted to capture Vienna, the Austrian capital. Ottoman troops laid siege to the city but were unable to take it before the onset of Winter forced them to retreat. Another attempt in 1532 also ended in failure. With their advance into Europe stalled, they turned east and captured Baghdad from the Persians in 1535, cementing Ottoman rule in Mesopotamia and providing direct access to the Persian Gulf. By the time of Suleiman's death in 1566, the Ottoman Empire ruled over fifteen million people.
Despite their emphasis on land campaigning, a major key in the success of Ottoman expansion was their naval strength. Ottoman fleets enjoyed a streak of crushing victories against Christian navies before coming unstuck at Malta in 1565. Their failure to capture the strategically important island from the Order of the Knights Hospitaller curbed Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean. Christian naval supremacy was re-established following the Catholic victory at Lepanto in 1571.
|The Ottoman and Catholic fleets clash at Lepanto.|
The setback at Lepanto all but destroyed any remaining illusions with regards to the "invincible" Ottomans but the empire and its navy recovered quickly, continuing to expand albeit at a slower rate than had been seen in the days of Suleiman. The other European powers had begun to get wise to Ottoman battlefield techniques and were seeing advances in military technology that the Ottomans, stifled by religious and intellectual conservatism, were missing out on. Nonetheless expansion went on in North Africa and the Middle East, with the Ottomans taking control of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, reaching the Caspian Sea at Baku in present-day Azerbaijan. Ottoman expansion finally came to an end in 1683 when one final attempt to capture Vienna was thrown back by European forces. Vienna remained in Christian hands and the European powers were now ready to go on to the offensive.
After the Ottoman Empire reached its maximum territorial extent in 1683 it did not take long for the rot to set in, although the next century-and-a-half is generally seen by historians as being a period of stagnation rather than decline for the Ottomans. Up until the 19th Century the empire's vast territories largely held up although some land on its northern fringes in Europe was lost to the Austrian Habsburgs, who were in the process of consolidating their ancestral holdings into their own vast multi-ethnic empire, which would go on to eventually become Austria-Hungary.
The real cause of the Ottomans' post-1683 slide into a second-rate European power was the regime's reluctance to implement the same reforms that were working wonders in other countries. As I have already mentioned, the Ottoman's were already starting to fall behind even before they reached their maximum territorial boundaries. The 16th Century revolutions in military technology that had taken place in other European countries, such as the development of firearms and improved artillery, had largely passed the Ottomans by. They were lagging behind in other areas too. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450 but it would be a further forty-three years before the first one was set up in Constantinople by Spanish Jews fleeing from the Inquisition.
As the Ottomans' downward slide continued, their once-feared swordsmen, archers and Sephi cavalry were suddenly having a hard time when coming up against the Austrians' cannon and muskets. Religious conservatism at home meant that the Islamic Caliph and his cohorts often rebuffed any attempts at political or military modernisation. By 1700 they had already lost Hungary and soon realised that the empire was no longer able to pursue its policy of aggressive expansionism and that they must, in Europe at least, go over to the defensive.
There were no serious attempts to reform the Ottoman military forces until the dawn of the 19th Century. Sultan Selim III was the first ruler to attempt to modernise the army along European lines but again the attempts were blocked by conservatives and reactionaries within the government, the Islamic clerical establishment and the army. Particularly strong resistance came from the archaic-minded and ineffectual leadership of the Sultan's personal bodyguards and household troops, the Janissary Corps. In 1807 the Janissaries staged a revolt and removed Selim from his throne and within a year the ex-Sultan was dead. The situation was not resolved until 1826 when Selim's successor Mahmud II massacred the troublesome Janissaries and then abolished them altogether. A major barrier to reform had been removed but by then it was already far too late, as the situation in Europe had already begun spinning out of Constantinople's control.
With the Ottomans preoccupied by the prospect of Austrian and Russian expansion into their Balkan territories, they were caught off-guard by the rise of an all new threat that came from within their own lands, regional nationalism. As the big guns of Europe squabbled who owned what territory, they gave little attention to the increasingly obvious fact that the little man was desiring to make a go of it on his own two feet. The first Ottoman territory in Europe to break away was Greece which declared independence in 1821, prompting a struggle that was not resolved until 1829 when Constantinople relented under British, French and Russian pressure and recognised the new Greek state.
The loss of Greece marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's final terminal decline. During the 19th Century the European colonial powers began poaching her African territories whilst yet more nationalist movements sprung up in the Balkans. The Ottoman regime, wracked as was by corruption, repression and inefficiency, was unable to do much about it, prompting people and publications to begin referring to the shrinking empire as "the sick man of Europe". The Ottomans were no longer in a position to initiate wars on their own, instead joining military coalitions beside other more powerful nations such as in the 1850s when they took up arms alongside Britain and France against the Russians in the Crimean War. The financial strain caused by that conflict drove the Ottoman's into serious debt and economic difficulties.
The terms of the peace treaty that ended the Crimean War also required that the Ottoman Empire give Muslims and non-Muslims equal status under the law but they did not implement this requirement fully and certain aspects of Islam's legal supremacy remained such as the rule that a Dhimmi (the term used to refer to a non-Muslim living under Sharia Law) would not have their testimony against a Muslim accepted by the courts, effectively giving Muslims immunity from prosecution for offences committed against non-Muslims. This demonstrated the regimes lack of genuine religious toleration and caused friction with the other European powers. It also exacerbated the problems in the Balkans where the predominantly Christian populations were being kept subjugated by Muslims who exploited their immunity status to terrorise the Christians, often with the full support of the authorities.
Despite the reluctance to give up Sharia Law there were some genuine attempts to modernise the empire during this period. The period of Ottoman history between approximately 1839 and 1876 is known as the Tanzimat and was marked by significant efforts to stem the tide of decline. A parliamentary system of governance was put into use for the first time whilst increased cultural rights and civil liberties were introduced as well as some concessions for non-Muslim or non-Turkish populations, although the aforementioned abuse of Muslims' protection under the law did much to negate the effects. Most crucial of all from the Ottoman point-of-view was a programme of "Ottomanisation" which set out to integrate the minority populations into Ottoman society and culture, hopefully suppressing any simmering nationalist or secessionist tendencies. Unfortunately for the Ottomans these changes, as with almost every other reform they attempted, simply came along far too late to stop the rot.
After another, rather more disastrous war against Russia in 1878, the Ottomans were forced to hand the island of Cyprus to the British as well as accept the independence of Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, leaving them with but a mere rump of European territory sandwiched amongst these new ambitious countries. The situation in Africa was also looking bleak as the Ottoman administrations crumbled in the face of advancing European imperialism. The French took Algeria in 1830 followed by Tunisia in 1881. In 1882 British troops entered Egypt and the Sudan under the pretext of restoring law and order. Both countries remained nominally Ottoman territories but in practice had become British-administered protectorates. As the dying empire struggled into the 20th Century, it became obvious that Austria's interest had also not completely gone away.
In 1908 the Austro-Hungarian Empire set its sights upon the Slav-populated Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Ottomans were in no position to fight for those lands and pulled out, allowing the Austrians to take over. This move greatly annoyed the new Balkan states, especially the Serbs who desired to someday unify the Slavic peoples into a single state. The Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the subsequent regional tension it caused would prove to be a catalyst in the eventual outbreak of war in 1914 but before that there was still some unfinished business. Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria founded the Balkan league with the intention of driving the hated Ottomans out of Europe once and for all.
Meanwhile things continued to go badly for the Ottomans. The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 threw the empire into turmoil but did finally begin to bring reformist secularized thinking to the forefront of national politics. In 1911 the last directly-administered Ottoman territory in Africa, Libya, was lost to the upstart Kingdom of Italy. The following year, the Balkan League launched a surprise attack and the beleaguered Ottomans lost almost all of their remaining European territory, which the members of the league then divided amongst themselves. Some 400,000 Muslims, fearful of Greek, Serbian or Bulgarian atrocities, fled from the Balkans alongside the retreating Ottoman forces. The tiny province of East Thrace was the only land west of Constantinople that remained in Ottoman hands. By 1914 the once-vast Ottoman Empire consisted solely of Anatolia, East Thrace, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Mesopotamia and the western edge of the Arabian peninsula (including the holy city of Mecca). The stage was set for a final bloody showdown......
A New Nation
The Ottoman Empire's defeat in the First World War and the harsh terms imposed upon her by the victorious allies turned out to be the straw that broke the camel's back. The run-down, corrupt and ineffective imperial regime was gone within five years of the end of the war as people at least realised that sweeping changes were needed in order to drag the traditionally backward-looking Turks into the modern era.
It was an outbreak Turkish nationalist feeling, however, that was responsible for setting the ball rolling. The allied occupation of Constantinople and, more significantly, the arrival of Greek troops in East Thrace and western Anatolia resulted in the creation of the Turkish National Movement. This new political organisation set out to evict the occupying powers and establish a new Turkish state free from the stifling atmosphere that symbolised the Ottoman era. The movement, led by former Ottoman army officer Mustafa Kemal, quickly turned into a full-blown revolution, leading to an outbreak of hostilities with the occupying forces.
The strength of Kemal's nationalist movement was such that the allies were forced to abandon the Treaty of Sevres and pull their forces out of the country. In 1922 the revolution succeeded in overthrowing the Ottoman government and the last Sultan, Mehmed VI was forced to abdicate and went into exile with his family, bringing an end to the house of Osman's rule which had been constant throughout the old empire's 600-year history. It also became clear that the Turks wanted their new nation to be secularised and free from the bindings of religious conservatism, leading to the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate as well. In July 1923 the Turkish National Movement and the allies negotiated a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne which finally brought about a resolution to the situation. A new Turkish state consisting of Anatolia and East Thrace would be established.
In October 1923 the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed, with Mustafa Kemal as the first President and the Anatolian city of Ankara as the new capital, signifying a break with the new country's imperial past. Kemal's leadership ushered in an era of major reforms that finally brought Turkey into line with its western neighbours, including a programme of secularisation, education, economic and social reforms. As a final break with the past, the new regime insisted that the outside world officially refer to the old capital, Constantinople by its Turkish name, Istanbul, putting a stop to the age-old western habit of still calling it by the old Roman name during the Ottoman period.
They got their wish.