The Ottomans



   Ottoman history in the nineteenth century is dominated by European wars and expansion. The Europeans madly scramble for territory throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some of this is European territory, but far and away, the bulk of the territory that Europeans desired was non-European. Human history has never seen such rapid and frenetic annexation of territory as occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The end result for the Ottomans was the loss of Empire, and, finally, the loss of the Ottoman dynasty itself.

The Crimean War

   The first major Ottoman war came with Russia, the Crimean War (1854-1856). Like so many of the later conflicts with Europe, this one was initiated not by the Ottomans, but by the Europeans. Russia was primarily interested in territory. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Russia had slowly been annexing Muslim states in Central Asia. By 1854, Russia found itself near the banks of the Black Sea. Anxious to annex territories in Eastern Europe, particularly the Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Walachia (now in modern day Czechoslovakia), the Russians went to war with the Ottomans on the flimsiest of pretexts: the Ottomans had granted Catholic France the right to protect Christian sites in the Holy Land (which the Ottomans controlled) rather than Orthodox Russia. That, according to the Russians, justified going to war with the Ottomans.

   This war is unique in Ottoman history in that the outcome wasn't heavily influenced by the Ottomans. The war soon became a European war when Britain and France allied with the Ottomans in order to protect their lucrative trade interests with the Ottomans. The war ended badly for the Russians, and the Paris peace of 1856 was unfavorable to the Russians. In textbooks, the Crimean War is presented entirely from the perspective of the Europeans, for it brought home the fact that more European powers were willing to overthrow the old order than to maintain. It had, though, important consequences for the Ottoman Empire, as well. From this point onwards, the Ottoman Empire saw itself as being heavily controlled by Europeans. The Crimean War initiated a decline in Ottoman morale and a helplessness. Europeans, for their part, no longer saw the Ottomans as an equal force to be reckoned with, but as a tool to use in larger European concerns.

The Balkan Rebellion

   In the twilight of Ottoman history, the European power that looms largest was Russia. The expansionist Russians desired several key territories from the Ottomans, and the only thing that really prevented them from aggressively annexing them was the balance of power in Europe. In particular, they feared Austria and Germany, which did not want to see Russian in control of Eastern Europe. The real prize for the Russians was the city of Istanbul, which the Russians still called Constantinople. If they could seize this city, that meant that they would control all trade between Europe and Asia that proceeded through the Black Sea. The Ottomans, for their, had lost morale. The old military state of conquest, confident in its ability to protect the Islamic world from European predation, was crumbling in its confidence because of a series of defeats and draws in wars with Russia.

   In 1875, the Slavic peoples living in the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina (currently the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina), led an uprising against the Ottomans in order to gain their freedom. The general weakness of the Ottomans led two independent, neighbor Slavic states, Montenegro and Serbia, to aid the rebellion. Within a year, the rebellion spread to the Ottoman province of Bulgaria. The rebellion was part of a larger political movement called the Pan-Slavic movement which had as its goal the unification of all Slavic peoples—most of whom were under the control of Austria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire—into a single political unity under the protection of Russia. Anxious also to conquer the Ottomans themselves and seize Istanbul, the Russians allied with the rebels, Serbia, and Montenegro and declared war against the Ottomans.

   The war went very badly for the Ottomans, and by 1878, they had to sue for peace. Under the peace treaty, the Ottomans had to free all the Balkan provinces, including Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria. Russia also took substantial amounts of Ottoman territory as "payment" for the war. The Ottomans fell out of the picture, but the victory of the Russians produced a European crisis over the expansion of Russia. That, however, is not our concern.

The Balkan Wars

   The history of Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth is a sordid history of land grabbing and conflict among European states. The Ottoman Empire, nearing its death, was dragged into these conflicts and beaten into its grave.

   In 1911, Italy and France were in competition over Libya. Fearful that France might attack the Ottoman Empire and seize Libya, the Italians attacked first. They defeated the Ottomans and, through a peace treaty, obtained the Dodacanese Islands and Libya from the Ottomans.

   Seeing this as a good idea, the states of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro attacked the Ottomans hoping to gain all of the Ottoman provinces in the north of Greece, Thrace, and the southern European coast of the Black Sea. They easily defeated the Ottomans and drove the Ottomans almost to the very edge of Europe. The Second Balkan War erupted just two years later (1913), when Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro disapproved of the amount of territory that Bulgaria had annexed. Joined by the Ottomans, these three powers managed to roll back Bulgarian territorial gains. This was the last military victory in Ottoman history. It is a strange note in history that this last defeat and triumph for the Ottomans would precipitate a situation that would snowball into the First World War. Although this is a story for another day, the Ottoman territories that fell into European hands precipitated a crisis among European powers that would eventually cause directly World War I.

   As a result of this conflict and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Ottomans lost all their territory in Syria, Palestine, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. The European powers fought each other in Africa and the Middle East by encouraging revolution among the peoples there. The British, for instance, promised Arabs independent states if they revolted against the Ottomans and aided the British. By 1919, the Ottoman Empire was reduced to Turkey only, which extended from the southern European shores of the Black Sea, to Asia Minor in the west, to Iran in the east, and Syria and Iraq, newly created states in 1919, in the south. Ottoman power had effectively come to an end. The Russians, torn apart by a revolution in 1917, never did annex Istanbul and the Dardanelles; the city is still under the control of Turkey.

The Republic of Turkey

   In 1922, Ottoman rule officially came to an end when Turkey was declared a republic. While the Ottomans were suffering from defeats in Europe, internally they were faced with revolution by liberal nationalists who wished to adopt Western style governments. These nationalists called themselves the "young Turks," and in the early 1920's, they began an open revolt against the Ottoman government. The goal of the revolution was to modernize and Westernize Turkey, and the primary theoretician of that change was Mustafa Kemal who is called in Turkish history, Ataturk, of "Father of the Turks." As president of Turkey from 1922 to 1928, Ataturk introduced a series of legisltative reforms that adopted European legal systems and civil codes and thus overthrew both the Shari'ah and the kanun . He legislated against the Arabic script and converted Turkish writing the European Roman script. He legislated against the Arabic call to prayer, and eliminated the caliphate and all the mystical Sufi orders of Islam. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ataturk is one of the most significant political figures in Islam, for he was the first to theorize and put into practice the secularization of the Islamic state and society. Nothing like it had ever happened in the whole of Islamic history, and, despite the radicality of Ataturks reforms, the Turkish republic has remained an independent and secular Islamic state. Efforts to emulate this secularization, however, have by and large been unsuccessful in other Islamic states.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-20-97