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The rise, decline and fall of an Islamic empire

The Ottoman Turks
Justin McCarthy
Addison Wesley Longman Ltd 1997

On Horseback Through Asia Minor
Frederick Burnaby
First publ. 1878 (not, as stated 1898), republ. in pb by Oxford University Press, 1996, introduction by Peter Hopkirk.

The Turks have been a European problem for nearly a thousand years. The process began in the early eleventh century when the Seljuk Turks, invaders from south central Asia and converts to Islam, took control of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Welcomed as fellow-believers, they rejuvenated the core of the Muslim world. In 1071 they broke the barrier into Asia Minor that the Byzantines had held against Islam since the seventh century. The response of Christendom, the Crusades, was inadequate and misdirected. The Turks were left to consolidate their position and, at the end of the thirteenth century, about the time the Crusaders were being finally ejected from the Holy Land, a small Turkish state was founded by one Osman or Othman in Northwest Asia Minor which by continuous conquest over the next three centuries became, and then for the next three centuries remained, the Ottoman Empire. Nomadic empires normally disintegrated rapidly: the Ottoman Empire was to be the exception.

Professor McCarthy describes and explains the events of these six centuries very satisfactorily, especially for beginners, though the more learned may carp that his text is not cumbered by any notes or bibliography. The maps are adequate and there is a sequential family tree of the sultans (unlisted, however, in the Table of Contents) on pages 45, 75, 160 and 288. If a historian can be both objective and sympathetic, he seems to have managed it, though perhaps by glossing over the devastation of conquest and emphasising the crippling financial restraints imposed by western bankers on sultans desperately trying to modernise a state two or three centuries too late and defend it at the same time.

One reason for the rise of the Ottomans was the destruction of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum by the Mongols around 1250, and the resulting fragmentation of the Turkish presence in Asia Minor (Anatolia). This setback to Islam had been of no use at all to Christendom, which had been itself fragmented by the activities of Crusaders who had captured and sacked Constantinople in 1204 and then divided up amongst themselves those parts of the Byzantine Empire they could lay hands on. Although the Byzantines recovered Constantinople in 1261, this merely distracted their attention from their Anatolian lands which they had held while waiting for this opportunity. Less than a century later, these were all gone and the Ottomans crossed the Dardanelles to Europe – and stayed there. By 1400 they had conquered most of the Balkans – the territory now Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania and northern Greece – and mopped up Anatolia, cleverly using their Christian subject allies to do so. Even the defeat and capture of the Turkish sultan Bayezit by Tamerlane in 1402 was a mere blip (he turned east, failed to start his project to conquer China, and died in 1405). But the disruption it caused, including a decade-long succession struggle between Bayezit’s four sons, postponed the fall of Constantinople, after an epic siege, until 1453.
The Ottoman Empire was now well-established, secure from internal break-up, ruled by an autocrat, at least in theory, in a line that lasted for twenty two generations, with thirty seven sultans (some being brothers). By the universal Islamic policy, Christians were tolerated as second-class subjects and taxpayers. While Anatolia became largely Islamicized, with the notable exception of the Armenians, the European populations remained Christian, with the Turks constituting a sort of long term military occupation. Their numbers were not negligible and they made converts, but overall Muslims remained a minority, aside from the parts so well-known today – Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo.

The Empire was essentially organised as a military state, with a number of categories. There was a diminishing nomadic element, employed at the periphery of the empire to exercise its raiding and plundering propensities on its neighbours rather than its inhabitants. Turks who settled down on the land could still be called up as fighting men, supported by their villagers; this system degenerated into militia. At least in the early centuries, Christian units were well-integrated into Ottoman armies. But the most effective fighters were the so-called “slave-soldiers”, far from a novel feature in the Islamic Near East, and the personal possessions of the sultan. The Ottomans originally recruited them from prisoners of war, but after their incursion into Europe they instituted a levy on the young boys of Christian parents. Selected for vigour and intelligence, indoctrinated as Muslims, they were the kapi kullari or devshirme, legally slaves. Most became Janissaries (“new troops”), the sultan’s elite soldiers, the best trained, armed with the latest weaponry, including the earliest hand guns, and proverbially the most fanatical. Others rose to the highest administrative positions, to the extent of excluding the old Turkish nobility, which became territorial rather than military.

“As long as the sultan and the central government maintained a high degree of control, the army . . . was for long the most powerful force in Europe, perhaps in the world (p. 125).”

With this superb instrument, the sultans, still active warriors, expanded their empire during the century following the capture of Constantinople, culminating in the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66). Mehmet II might have capped his prize of the Byzantine capital by taking Rome, but at his death in 1481 his army withdrew from its vicinity. Luckily for Europe, the next sultan, Bayezit II (1481-1512) preferred peace to war, while his son, Selim I (1512-20) had to turn his attention eastwards. Appropriately named The Grim, he removed his father, killed his brothers and, perhaps mindful of his own filial dereliction, killed all his sons except Suleyman. The eastern problem was that much of the Anatolian territory recently appropriated had been Shia Muslim, whilst the Ottomans were Sunnis. Selim dealt severely and successfully with his own Shias, but then had to confront Persia, which was then, as it is now, Shia, with a recently installed Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, fanatically attached to that creed. Selim marched east with a slimmed-down army, sending taunts to his enemies, who were using the correct withdrawal tactics, that they were too cowardly to fight. These taunts worked and, turning to fight on the wide plain of Chaldiran, the Safavids were soundly defeated (1514). Despite provoking wasteful and inconclusive conflicts, they never again so seriously threatened the Ottomans, but kept a scorched-earth belt between the two of them. Selim then annexed Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the strip of Arabia that included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

After Selim’s early death, his surviving son Suleyman extended his conquests in the east through Mesopotamia (Iraq) to the Persian Gulf and down the shores of the Red Sea to Yemen. By the time he moved west, Europe was a little better prepared than it had been to undergo another Ottoman onslaught. The amalgamation of Germanic and Spanish lands under the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1555) created a great power just strong enough to halt further Ottoman conquest. As it was, Suleyman subjugated all but a strip of Hungary in 1526 and besieged Vienna, though unsuccessfully, in 1529. In his reign Ottoman power – and the sultanate – reached its apogee. “The Magnificent” is a title bestowed by the west, impressed by his buildings, his riches and his power; the Turks themselves style him “the Lawgiver”. But Suleyman was more a tidier-up and codifier than an innovator. Such a role was not as simple as it might seem: the Empire was an Islamic state and it was difficult for a ruler to take a line which the religious authorities seriously disagreed with.

One practical example, which also illustrates a very characteristic feature of Ottoman society, was the matter of vakifs, or religious charitable trusts (p. 116-8). Any public activity that was not the responsibility of the state came by default under the supervision of the religious authorities, a rather loosely organised consensus of clerics. If a rich man wished to found a charitable foundation, for, say educational or medical purposes, it was automatically a religious foundation – and, as such, tax exempt. This ostensibly public-spirited act could, however, include other motives. Secular wealth could at any time be confiscated by the sultan, a vakif not only kept it out of his hands, but could also be established with a trustee, and a hereditary trustee at that, well-paid and inevitably a descendant or relative of the donor. Of course a sultan could – and did – declare that such a device was a mere subterfuge and close it down, but done on a large scale, this aroused clerical animosity: many vakifs siezed by Mehmet II were returned by his pious son Bayezit II. McCarthy sees vakifs as “a form of capital formation and investment” and finds it “hard to imagine commercial life in the Empire without them”, though he does not explain how a business could plausibly be set up as a charity. Vakifs certainly did, however, run such as there was of a welfare state.

Though the Empire remained a great power for more than a century after Suleyman’s death, problems had already started to accumulate. The sea route round the Cape of Good Hope, pioneered by the Portuguese and taken over by the Dutch and the English, reduced the trade brought overland which ultimately passed through Ottoman territory. It also brought about the development of the robustly-built ocean-going sailing ship, with its heavy broadside armament, consigning the oared galley to history. The discovery of the Americas, something that the Empire could in no conceivable way exploit, flooded Europe with gold and silver, giving rise to a general inflation that the Empire was least able to cope with.

These were external, unexpected challenges; the sharp decline in the quality of the sultans was a fundamental internal defect. There being no rule as to succession, there was very often a struggle over it, entailing the elimination of the failed competitors. If the reigning sultan decided to anticipate this, as did Suleyman’s father and Suleyman himself, it could not be certain that the choice was the right one; Suleyman certainly picked a loser in Selim the Drunkard. Selim’s grandson, Mehmet III, was the last sultan who spent any part of his early life outside Constantinople before coming to the throne, learning something about the world there, though it didn’t seem to do him much good. For various reasons, one of which was humanitarian, princes from then on were effectively imprisoned in the palace until needed or, much the same thing, “available as pawns in palace intrigues.” Though they could be well educated, it was not in statecraft. The Empire was run by the devshirme, slave-bureaucrats, recruited from the Christian population as described. They were highly intelligent and had risen on merit – but mainly the merit of being skilled in palace, rather than in foreign politics, which was what was really needed. The women of the harem also made their contribution, but being as ignorant of the outside world as were the sultans, often disastrously.

It cannot be without significance that the Ottoman Empire, like the rest of the world, did not participate in, or even be aware of until far too late, the European “take-off”, that sequence of movements which began with the wake-up call of the Renaissance, continued with the upheavals of the Reformation and ultimately resulted in the Age of Enlightenment and the French and (the more useful) Industrial Revolutions. It may be that what started everything – Europe’s discovery and intellectual interest in its pre-Christian past – could have had no parallel in the Islamic world. The ruins of past civilizations on which it sat were long buried and forgotten and would probably have awakened as little interest if discovered in the fifteenth century as they did when European archaeologists uncovered them three or four centuries later. Professor McCarthy gives no space to the arts and sciences and though the aesthetic interests of sultans are mentioned, these are either peripheral to a real life, or substitutes for one. He does not give intellectual curiosity and speculation as a characteristic of the Ottoman elite, and certainly not about what interested their Christian enemies. In a sense this was pardonable, for what use to their own society could these be? In technology, the two systems were still much on a par. The architectural achievements of the great Sinan (1490-1588) are unmatched, and the cover of this paperback depicts the splendid decorations of his mosque-masterpiece in Edirne, but one technology that did not interest the Ottomans at all was printing. This must surely be a sign of a cultural deficiency; it was not taken up until the early nineteeth century, though there had been a false start a century earlier.

If the Renaissance was undetected by the Ottomans as a symptom of European vitality, the Reformation could only have been regarded with satisfaction as one of weakness and decay. Though it must have sapped its Habsburg antagonists, now separated into Spain and Austria, preserving its northern border and its dominance of the Mediterranean for the duration of the seventeenth century, it concealed the fact that Europe’s economic and political centre of gravity had moved north. The Near and Middle East was becoming a backwater as trade routes altered, and the great power in charge of it was unaware of the fact. Furthermore, a new enemy was pressing down from the north east, still semi-barbarous but (for a change) Christian – Russia. McCarthy dislikes the term “decline” and points out that the Empire took about 250 years over this hypothetical process and then reinvented itself as modern Turkey. However, it should be pointed out that during this time the Empire had ceased being a menace to Europe. Nor was the contiguous great power, Germanic Austria, especially keen to acquire not very valuable territory with not very assimilable Slavs – it had trouble enough with Hungarians after it re-conquered Hungary in 1699.

After this change, the Balkan border remained stable, but towards the close of the eighteenth century, under Catherine the Great, Russia expelled the Ottomans from the northern Black Sea coast, including the Crimea, and started to penetrate the Caucasus, not Ottoman territory, but getting close to it. Since Russia had also advanced into Europe by helping to obliterate Poland and keeping most of it, it had become a player on the European political stage and this fact was driven home when it was a major cause of the defeat of Napoleon. For the next century the threat of Russian expansion further into Europe and towards the Mediterranean tended to make the European powers, and especially Britain, prop up the Ottoman Empire, rather than encourage its dismemberment. Britain had particular reasons; it did not want a Russian navy in the Mediterranean and as Russia moved further and further south into Central Asia, it feared that its presence too near northern India might further destabilize that far from stable region.

Unfortunately, from the propping-up point of view, the Balkans were tending to fall apart of their own accord, the end result of the Ottoman policy of allowing religious communities to rule themselves. This arrangement easily led to territorial nationalism and by the end of the century, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia existed in an unfinished condition, each hoping to expand into the ethnically mixed territory of Macedonia and Thrace, all that remained of Turkey in Europe. Romania, formed from the two trans-Danubian provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, also broke free. Rather surprisingly, this chaotic rearrangement provoked only one major clash, the Crimean War, between Russia and Turkey, supported by Britain and France, (and, for some reason, the Kingdom of Piedmont) which, though notoriously mismanaged (at least according to the contemporary British press) achieved the purpose of the Allies and kept Russia quiet for some twenty years. The next crisis came when Russia, emboldened by France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, attacked Turkey in 1877 to turn Bulgaria into a very much enlarged client-state. It was solved by the Congress of Berlin, in which the European powers, mainly Britain and Germany, cut back the bloated Bulgaria and settled the Balkan borders until 1913. For its good offices, Austria took Bosnia and Herzegovina as a protectorate, annexing it later, an acquisition which did it no good at all. Britain occupied Cyprus, under the same terms.

For a snapshot of conditions in Ottoman Anatolia just before Russia started the war in 1877 to fashion a Greater Bulgaria in the Balkans, one could hardly do better than read Captain (later Colonel) Burnaby’s On Horseback Through Asia Minor. Burnaby had made a name for himself with A Ride to Khiva, an account of his journey there the year before after he had heard that the Russians had forbidden any foreigner to visit it, their latest conquest in central Asia. Fortified with a publisher’s advance of £2,500, which one must multiply forty or fifty times to get a present-day value, he set out to travel from the Bosphorus as far east as the empire’s border at Kars and Khoi. Since his leave began in the middle of November, as in the previous year, this had to be done in the depths of a winter which was similarly truly frightful, though probably no more so than normal. Burnaby was physically well equipped for the task; at six feet four and fifteen stone he was reputedly the strongest man in the British Army. He was also an excellent linguist, fluent in Turkish, Arabic, Russian and German and proficient enough in other languages. A Russophobe and a Turcophil, he had no difficulty in finding that Russian intrigue was attempting to stir up disaffection amongst the Armenians: their consequent persecution by the Turks would be a pretext for intervention. Burnaby claimed that, in fact, the Armenians declared they would rather live under the Ottomans than under the czars. He also asked the Christians, both Greeks and Armenians, in each town he arrived at whether they’d been ill-treated by the Turks. Oh no, they invariably responded, not here but – and they would name a town further on where such and such had happened. When Burnaby got there, the named town’s Christians would give a similar answer as the last. His lodgings, whether provided by Muslims or Christians, were almost invariably filthy and the infections he picked up occasionally laid him low for a day or two, despite an obviously iron constitution, as they did more often his invaluable servant Radford, a trooper of his regiment whose blunt observations on the natives are models of political incorrectness.

So much for history. Underlying this record of decline lay economic causes, as Turkey failed to match European innovations. It had, just to start, no banking system, the mechanism of investing money to make more money, to put back profits to make more profits, until the Ottoman Bank was founded in 1856 – by European investors. It had no universities and its education was, essentially, religious education. The base of a literate, skilled workforce did not exist. As has been noted, Turkey missed the Industrial Revolution and so could only export raw materials. And if it borrowed money, it couldn’t pay it back, for the infrastructure to make investments generate returns simply was not there. McCarthy seems to regard the fact that Europeans made the most of their advantages as a sort of economic warfare, but trade is not plundering (which was how the Ottoman Empire paid for its expansion) and no businessman wants to kill a customer. Countries in a similar position have modernised: Russia had come a long way since the seventeenth century, when it was at much the same stage as the Empire was; Japan, with perhaps the greater advantage of isolation from external threats and a more homogeneous population, had eagerly taken up the challenge in the late nineteenth century. Even China, which had to be prised open with an Opium War, and didn’t want to trade at all, ended up doing so and Shanghai arose out of a swamp for that purpose. By the end of the century, Turkey was modernising and, quite probably, but for the relentless hostility of Russia, might have succeeded.

Unfortunately for Turkey, in 1907 Britain and France, until then its protectors, effectively switched sides. France saw Russia as a necessary ally against Germany in the east, with Britain another in the west. Britain and Russia settled their rivalries with regard to India, and the needs of Turkey were ignored; inevitably it turned to Germany. Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria took advantage of the situation in 1913 to occupy and divide up most of Turkey in Europe between them, complete with a most brutal ethnic cleansing. When the Great War broke out the next year, Turkey, in retrospect, should have clung at almost any cost to a policy of neutrality. But diplomacy, which should have been working overtime under the circumstances that were to lead to the Great War, did not seem to be working at all and certainly not between between Britain and Turkey, who had no reason to be enemies. Russia too had enough on its hands as it faced both Germany and Austria-Hungary on its western border. Even Germany would not think much gained by having Turkey as an ally. In fact, the Turks must take much of the blame for their involvement themselves. More precisely it should be fixed on their irresponsible Foreign Minister, Enver Pasha. First he failed to conciliate the British by interning two German warships that had escaped through the Dardanelles, and then allowed them to bombard Russian Black Sea ports. He then lost 75,000 men when he crazily mounted a midwinter offensive against the Russians in Eastern Anatolia.

The war ended in defeat for the Turks just before it did for the Germans. They had fought well and by defeating the British at the Dardanelles and holding up their advance into Mesopotamia, had prevented aid reaching the Russians, so assisting the collapse which brought about the Bolshevik Revolution. In the period of chaos that followed the war – including an incursion by the Greeks who had sat it out, more vulture than predator – the absence of a Russian military presence was of incalculable benefit to the Turks. The eastern border had been recovered after the Russians soldiers had simply deserted from the front there. Now under the breakaway leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), they cleared up southern Anatolia of French-backed Armenians and then turned to expel the Greeks, ending with a holocaust at Smyrna (Izmir). In 1922 the Grand National Assembly abolished the sultanate, and the Ottoman Empire came to an end. The Arab provinces were lost – almost certainly without regret – and became problems for the French and British. The war and its aftermath had been devastating:

“Slightly more than 300,000 Anatolian Greeks had died [out of 1,254,000 as of 1912], slightly less than 600,000 Armenians [out of 1,493,000], and almost 3,000,000 Muslims [out of 14,436,000]. . . it would take generations for the people and the land to recover.”

Three generations and more have passed since that time, which makes McCarthy’s last sentence something of a rhetorical flourish. The standard of living is certainly higher than it was in 1914 and the population, at 70 million, more than four and a half times what it was then – an investment in human beings (as Julian Simon has taught us) that no European nation is willing or able to make. Modern Turkey is the creation of Kemal Ataturk, if of anyone, and in considering other national leaders of equivalent power – Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Peron . . . down to the shudderingly ghastly examples of recent times, from Idi Amin to Saddam Hussain – can anyone fail to be impressed by his moderate use of it or the success of the result? Well, of course, more than a few can. Turkey is now a candidate for membership of the European Union, entry into which, more than anything else, would give it the international imprimatur of being a civilised state. There are, not too surprisingly, misgivings in member nations which even political correctness cannot stifle. Just a few facts will be enough to show why: Turkey will be the largest state in the EU; its entry will bring the Muslims in the EU to 20%; this percentage will increase; we don’t know how Islam will develop – if it’s 650 years behind Christianity, the correlation isn’t comforting.

Turkey is still a problem for Europe. It is the most civilised, secularised Muslim nation there is. Will letting it in be admitting a Trojan horse? Will keeping it out turn it into an enemy? Professor McCarthy’s book does not answer, or even put these questions, but it is an excellent introduction to the history of our large Muslim neighbour.

2 comments to The rise, decline and fall of an Islamic empire

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