Ottoman Great Vizier and Sultan in 1812

The Ottoman Empire was weakened in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by British, French and Italian imperialism, nationalism in Greece and the Balkans and aggression by Austria and Russia, Ottoman tolerance and the inability of the Ottomans to modernize.

Over time the Islamic courts became corrupt under the control of local pashas; Europeans began regarded Ottoman rule as too Islamic; and Muslims regarded it as too European. Madrassahs began rebelling. The military grew undisciplined. Trade declined as a result of European competition. The was more corruption and tax abuse. The rich got richer; the poor got power.

The sultans no longer wielded absolute power and were increasingly out of touch with their subjects. The government was largely run by the viziers. The meritocracy for the military and the bureaucracy began to break down and the best and the brightest were no longer in charge. The government became bloated. The number of civil servants increased from 2,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to 35,000 at the end of the century.

Threats from the West presented great challenges to reform that had never existed before. For the first time the Ottoman and the Muslim world felt threatened by the West. There was a great deal of soul searching within the government and religious community on how this threat should be addressed. Reforms were made but they were generally too little, too late. Even though Turkey was in a bad state, the empire stayed in place and sultans continued their reign into the early 20th century.

According to the BBC: “The power of the empire was waning by 1683 when the second and last attempt was made to conquer Vienna. It failed. Without the conquest of Europe and the acquisition of significant new wealth the Empire lost momentum and went into a slow decline. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

Ottoman-backed Muslim Mamluks defeated by Napoleon during the Battle of the Pyramids

The Ottoman Empire began to show more serious signs of decline in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century European powers had begun to take advantage of Ottoman weakness through both military and political penetration, including Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, subsequent British intervention, and French occupation of Lebanon. Economic development of Syria through the use of European capital — for example, railroads built largely with French money — brought further incursions. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

“Several other factors contributed to the Empire's decline: 1) The European powers wanted to expand; 2) Economic problems; 3) Competition from trade from the Americas; 4) Competition from cheap products from India and the Far East; 5) Development of other trade routes; 6) Rising unemployment within the Empire; 7) Ottoman Empire became less centralised, and central control weakened; 8) Sultans being less severe in maintaining rigorous standards of integrity in the adminstration of the Empire; 9) Sultans becoming less sensitive to public opinion; 10) The low quality Sultans of the 17th and 18th centuries; 11) The ending of the execution of Sultan's sons and brothers, imprisoning them instead; 12) This apparently humane process led to men becoming Sultan after spending years in prison - not the best training for absolute power |::|

“Soon the very word Turk became synonymous with treachery and cruelty. This led Turks like Kemal Ataturk, who was born late in the nineteenth century, to be repelled by the Ottoman Turkish political system and the culture it had evolved. Seeing little but decay and corruption, he led the Turks to create a new modern identity. |::|

“The empire officially ended on the 1st November 1922, when the Ottoman sultanate was abolished and Turkey was declared a republic. The Ottoman caliphate continued as an institution, with greatly reduced authority, until it too was abolished on the 3rd March 1924. |::|

Websites and Resources: Ottoman Empire and Turks: The ; Ottoman Text Archive Project – University of Washington ; Wikipedia article on the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on the Ottoman Empire ; American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century Shapell Manuscript Foundation ; Ottoman Empire and Turk Resources – University of Michigan ; Turkey in Asia, 1920 ; Wikipedia article on the Turkish People Wikipedia ; Turkish Studies, Turkic republics, regions, and peoples at University of Michigan ; Türkçestan Orientaal's links to Turkic languages ; Turkish Culture Portal ; ATON, the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University ; The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Islam’s Defeat at the Hands of the West

Bernard Lewis wrote in The New Yorker: “Then came the great change. The second Turkish siege of Vienna, in 1683, ended in total failure followed by headlong retreat—an entirely new experience for the Ottoman armies. A contemporary Turkish historian, Silihdar Mehmet Aga, described the disaster with commendable frankness: “This was a calamitous defeat, so great that there has been none like it since the first appearance of the Ottoman state.” This defeat, suffered by what was then the major military power of the Muslim world, gave rise to a new debate, which in a sense has been going on ever since. The argument began among the Ottoman military and political élite as a discussion of two questions: Why had the once victorious Ottoman armies been vanquished by the despised Christian enemy? And how could they restore the previous situation? [Source: Bernard Lewis, The New Yorker, November 19, 2001]

“There was good reason for concern. Defeat followed defeat, and Christian European forces, having liberated their own lands, pursued their former invaders whence they had come, the Russians moving into North and Central Asia, the Portuguese into Africa and around Africa to South and Southeast Asia. Even small European powers such as Holland and Portugal were able to build vast empires in the East and to establish a dominant role in trade.

Napoleon in Egypt in 1798

“For most historians, Middle Eastern and Western alike, the conventional beginning of modern history in the Middle East dates from 1798, when the French Revolution, in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, landed in Egypt. Within a remarkably short time, General Bonaparte and his small expeditionary force were able to conquer, occupy, and rule the country. There had been, before this, attacks, retreats, and losses of territory on the remote frontiers, where the Turks and the Persians faced Austria and Russia. But for a small Western force to invade one of the heartlands of Islam was a profound shock. The departure of the French was, in a sense, an even greater shock. They were forced to leave Egypt not by the Egyptians, nor by their suzerains the Turks, but by a small squadron of the British Royal Navy, commanded by a young admiral named Horatio Nelson. This was the second bitter lesson the Muslims had to learn: not only could a Western power arrive, invade, and rule at will but only another Western power could get it out.

“By the early twentieth century—although a precarious independence was retained by Turkey and Iran and by some remoter countries like Afghanistan, which at that time did not seem worth the trouble of invading—almost the entire Muslim world had been incorporated into the four European empires of Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands. Middle Eastern governments and factions were forced to learn how to play these mighty rivals off against one another. For a time, they played the game with some success. Since the Western allies—Britain and France and then the United States—effectively dominated the region, Middle Eastern resisters naturally looked to those allies’ enemies for support. In the Second World War, they turned to Germany; in the Cold War, to the Soviet Union.

“And then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the United States as the sole world superpower. The era of Middle Eastern history that had been inaugurated by Napoleon and Nelson was ended by Gorbachev and the elder George Bush. At first, it seemed that the era of imperial rivalry had ended with the withdrawal of both competitors: the Soviet Union couldn’t play the imperial role, and the United States wouldn’t. But most Middle Easterners didn’t see it that way. For them, this was simply a new phase in the old imperial game, with America as the latest in a succession of Western imperial overlords, except that this overlord had no rival—no Hitler or Stalin—whom they could use either to damage or to influence the West. In the absence of such a patron, Middle Easterners found themselves obliged to mobilize their own force of resistance. Al Qaeda—its leaders, its sponsors, its financiers—is one such force.”

Survey of the Turkish Empire, 1799

Sir William Eton wrote in “A Survey of the Turkish Empire, 1799: “It is undeniable that the power of the Turks was once formidable to their neighbors not by their numbers only, but by their military and civil institutions, far surpassing those of their opponents. And they all trembled at the name of the Turks, who with a confidence procured by their constant successes, held the Christians in no less in contempt as warriors than they did on account of their religion. Proud and vainglorious, conquest was to them a passion, a gratification, and even a means of salvation, a sure way of immediately attaining a delicious paradise. Hence their zeal for the extension of their empire; hence their profound respect for the military profession, and their glory even in being obedient and submissive to discipline. [Source: Sir William Eton, A Survey of the Turkish Empire (London, 1799), pp. 61-62, 68-75, 98-101, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

“Besides that the Turks refuse all reform, they are seditious and mutinous; their armies are encumbered with immense baggage, and their camp has all the conveniences of a town, with shops etc. for such was their ancient custom when they wandered with their hordes. When their sudden fury is abated, which is at the least obstinate resistance, they are seized with a panic, and have no rallying as formerly. The cavalry is as much afraid of their own infantry as of the enemy; for in a defeat they fire at them to get their horses to escape more quickly. In short, it is a mob assembled rather than an army levied. None of those numerous details of a well-organized body, necessary to give quickness, strength, and regularity to its actions, to avoid confusion, to repair damages, to apply to every part to some use; no systematic attack, defense, or retreat; no accident foreseen, nor provided for...

“The artillery they have, and which is chiefly brass, comprehends many find pieces of cannon; but notwithstanding the reiterated instruction of so many French engineers, they are ignorant of its management. Their musket-barrels are much esteemed but they are too heavy; nor do they possess any quality superior to common iron barrels which have been much hammered, and are very soft Swedish iron. The art of tempering their sabers is now lost, and all the blades of great value are ancient. The naval force of the Turks is by no means considerable. Their grand fleet consisted of not more than seventeen or eighteen sail of the line in the last war [Russo-Turkish war of 1787-92], and those not in very good condition; at present their number is lessened.

“The present reigning Sultan, Selim III, has made an attempt to introduce the European discipline into the Turkish army, and to abolish the body of the Janissaries. [He has] caused a corps to be recruited, set apart a branch of the revenue for their maintenance, and finally declared his intention of abolishing the institution of Janissaries. This step, as might be expected, produced a mutiny, which was only appeased by the sultan's consenting to continue their pay during their lifetimes; but he at the same time ordered that no recruits should be received into their corps. The new soldiers in the corps are taught their exercise with the musket and bayonet, and a few maneuvers. When they are held to be sufficiently disciplined, they are sent to garrison the fortresses on the frontiers. Their officers are all Turks and are chosen out of those who perform their exercise the best.”

Breakdown of Ottoman Trade and Regional Power

Pasha and Janisarry officer

In 1826, the Janissaries revolted in 1826 and caste was abolished after thousands were killed. Mahmud II founded French-style military academies, modernized the army and introduced new technologies.

By the 18th century the balance of power between the Ottoman sultanate and regional governments began to shift in the direction of the regional governments, which enjoyed relative autonomy while remaining faithful to the interests of the Ottoman state. The regional leaders were sometimes called “local Ottomans.”

Merchants and traders began bypassing the Ottoman government and dealing directly with buyers in Europe or other contacts. Wealthy families and military leaders grabbed up land. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, some of these people began learning European languages and educating their children and setting up offices in Europe. The result was a dual society with a wealthy merchant and landowning class with ties to the foreign community and an underclass of peasants. This in turn spurred migration to cities, many of which were coastal cities, booming with trade.

Ottoman dominance was also undermined by the age of exploration, which was motivated in part by European nation seeking a way to avoid the Venice-Ottoman monopoly on eastern Trade. Early Portuguese and Dutch trade didn’t have much impact on Asian trade through the Ottoman Empire and what impact it did have was more than offset by profits made by the Ottomans in the coffee trade. The Ottomans weren’t really hurt until the 17th century when the Dutch East India monopolized the spice trade between Indonesia and Europe and the British moved into India in a big way. The British ultimately took over much of the coffee trade too. Coffee and many of the spices valued from Asia began being produced more cheaply on the Caribbean islands.

As was true in the fall of the Soviet Union, some parts of the Ottoman empire declared their independence and other parts were ruled by proxy before the collapse. Nationalist sentiments stirred up by the French Revolution was passed to the subjects of the Ottoman Empire who became increasingly unruly.

Ottoman Empire Begins to Break Up in Europe

As Ottoman power over its provinces was in decline, Europe was challenging the Turks and whittling away at the territory from the west and north. At the same time Europeans began taking over the major trade routes between east and west and producing products that the Turks wanted rather than the Turks trading products Europeans wanted.

The Russian navy won a decisive battle against the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean in 1774 and occupied the Crimea, annexing it in 1783. From then on the Black Sea was no longer an Ottoman lake and the new Russian port of Odessa became a major trading center. After Napoleon’s victory in Egypt in 1798, the French occupied Egypt for three years and prepared to advance on Syria before they were persuaded not by the British and Ottomans. The Battle of Navarini in 1817 accelerated the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The treaties signed by the Ottomans were regarded as capitulations because the Ottomans could no longer negotiate as equals with their increasingly powerful European rivals.

Russia and the European powers began sponsoring rebellions and defections in Serbia, Greece, Egypt, Bosnia, Bulgaria and what is now Romania. They all acquired independence or semi-independence with foreign help. Serbia revolted in 1808 and won semi independence in 1815 and an autonomous state in 1830. Greece began fighting against the Turks in 1821 and won a degree of independence in 1829 and became an independent state in 1833. With most of it European possessions gone the Ottoman Empire became a largely a Turkish-Arab state.

Ottomans Versus Russia

In the early eighteenth century, Russian Tsar Peter the Great (Peter I) initiated a long-lasting goal of Russian foreign policy, to gain access to warm-water ports at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Peter first moved to eliminate the Ottoman presence on the north shore of the Black Sea. Russia's main objective in the region subsequently was to win access to warm-water ports on the Black Sea and then to obtain an opening to the Mediterranean through the Ottoman-controlled Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. Despite territorial gains at Ottoman expense, however, Russia was unable to achieve these goals, and the Black Sea remained for the time an "Ottoman lake" on which Russian warships were prohibited.*

Balkans in 1877

During the next two centuries, Russia fought several wars to diminish Ottoman power. In a ruinous sixteen-year war, Russia and the Holy League — composed of Austria, Poland, and Venice, and organized under the aegis of the pope — finally drove the Ottomans south of the Danube and east of the Carpathians. Under the terms of the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the first in which the Ottomans acknowledged defeat, Hungary, Transylvania, and Croatia were formally relinquished to Austria. Poland recovered Podolia, and Dalmatia and the Morea were ceded to Venice. In a separate peace the next year, Russia received the Azov region. In 1774 the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kaynarja gained Russian ships access to Ottoman waterways.

The Ottoman Empire fought three wars with Russia in the nineteenth century. The Crimean War (1854-56) pitted France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Under the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, Russia abandoned its claim to protect Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and renounced the right to intervene in the Balkans. War resumed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1877. Russia opened hostilities in response to Ottoman suppression of uprisings in Bulgaria and to the threat posed to Serbia by Ottoman forces. The Russian army had driven through Bulgaria and reached as far as Edirne when the Porte acceded to the terms imposed by a new agreement, the Treaty of San Stefano. The treaty reduced Ottoman holdings in Europe to eastern Thrace and created a large, independent Bulgarian state under Russian protection.*

Russians and Crimean War

The Russians and Turks fought in 1806 and again in 1828-29 with the Russians taking the Caucasus and the east coast of the Black Sea. In 1851, Russia’s Nicholas I called Ottomans the "the sick man of Europe”

In the 19th century, Europeans became obssessed with the “Eastern Question” — who will take over strategic regions such as the Bosporus and Dardanelles if the Turks loss control of them. With these concerns in mind, Britain helped prop up the Ottoman Empire as a means of containing Russian expansion while Russians began asserting the right to "protect" Orthodox lands in the Ottoman territory.

In the Crimean War of 1854–56, France and Britain sided with the Ottoman Empire against Russia, which lost the war and saw its power in southeastern Europe reduced. The last great hurrah for the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean War took place north of the Black Sea on the Crimean peninsula and gave us Florence Nightingale, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the first modern war correspondents.

Crimean war

The Crimean War was a Victorian-era Vietnam for Britain and France. The aim of the conflict was to keep tsarist Russia out the Mediterranean, curb Russian expansion and prevent disruption of French, British and Turkish trade routes to Asia. After a long stalemate Turkey won.

Queen Victoria described the Crimean War, the only British-European War, of her reign unnecessary but authorized the use of force in numerous colonial wars and conflicts. British officers cared little about the fate of their troops and the casualties figures were unnecessarily high and there was general disregard for the health of the troops.

See Separate Article Under Russia RUSSIA AND THE CRIMEAN WAR

Treaty of Paris and Lose Territory in the Middle East

The Treaty of Paris in 1856: 1) brought peace between the Ottomans and its European neighbors, 2) formally welcomed the Ottoman sultan into the family of European monarch, and 3) forced the Ottoman sultan to be more responsive to the needs of his subjects, making it easier for states within the empire to assert themselves and break away.

As the Ottoman weakened Europeans began moving into the Middle East. Egypt and Algeria were effectively separate political entities long before they formally broke form the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ali took control of Egypt in 1805 and fought wars against the Ottoman sultanate in 1832 and 1839. France took over Algeria between 1830 and 1847. It was the first major conquest of an Arabic-speaking country by a European power.

By the early 19th century European diplomats and merchants began gaining significant influence in Ottoman territories. The Port of Aden was occupied by the British in 1839. Britain entered by the Middle East after taking over the Suez Canal in 1869 and eventually came to control all of Egypt. Tunisia and Algeria became French protectorates in 1881. Turks lost control of the region by 1882.

Ottomans were outnumbered by Europeans at the Treaty of Paris negotiations

Ottoman Decline in Syria

The Ottoman Empire began to show signs of decline in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century European powers had begun to take advantage of Ottoman weakness through both military and political penetration, including Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, subsequent British intervention, and French occupation of Lebanon. Economic development of Syria through the use of European capital — for example, railroads built largely with French money — brought further incursions. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Western penetration became decidedly political after the Druze uprising in the Syrian province of Lebanon in 1860. The revolt began in the north as a Maronite Christian peasant uprising against Christian landlords. As the revolt moved southward to the territories where the landlords were Druzes, the conflagration acquired an intersectarian character, and the Druzes massacred some 10,000 Maronites. France sent in troops and removed them a year later only after the European powers had forced the Sublime Porte to grant new laws for Lebanon. By the Statute of 1861, for the first time Mount Lebanon was officially detached from Syria, and its administration came increasingly under the control of France.*

Because of European pressure as well as the discontent of the Syrian people, the Ottoman sultans enacted some reforms during the nineteenth century. The Egyptian occupation of Syria from 1831 to 1839 under the nominal authority of the sultan brought a centralized government, judicial reform, and regular taxation. But Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Egyptian ruler, became unpopular with the landowners because he limited their influence, and with the peasants because he imposed conscription and taxation. He was eventually driven from Syria by the sultan's forces. Subsequent reforms of Turkish Sultan Mahmud II and his son were more theoretical than real and were counteracted by reactionary forces inside the state as well as by the inertia of Ottoman officials. Reforms proved somewhat successful with the Kurds and Turkomans in the north and with the Alawis around Latakia, but unsuccessful with the Druzes — who lived in the Jabal Druze (now known as Jabal al Arab), a rugged mountainous area in southwest Syria — who retained their administrative and judicial autonomy and exemption from military service.*

Although further reform attempts generally failed, some of the more successful endure. Among them are the colonization of Syria's frontiers, the suppression of tribal raiding, the opening of new lands to cultivation, and the beginnings of the settlement of the beduin tribes. Attempts to register the land failed, however, because of the peasants' fear of taxation and conscription.*

Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), sometimes known as Abdul Hamid the Damned, acquired a reputation as the most oppressive Ottoman sultan. Opponents died quickly; taxes became heavy. Abdul Hamid tried to earn the loyalty of his Muslim subjects by preaching pan-Islamic ideas and in 1908 completing the Hejaz Railway between Istanbul and Medina. However, the sultan's cruelty — coupled with that of his deputy in Acre, known in Syria as The Butcher — and increasing Western cultural influences set the stage for the first act of Arab nationalism; World War I opened the next.*

Ottoman Bashi-Bazouk troops escape with Romanian loot in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)

Further Decline of the Ottoman Empire

In the late 19th century the Ottoman Empire was described as "ramshackle empire held together by the glue of Islam." Reforms were largely stymied. Even a coup led by reformers in 1875 brought about very little change. The Ottoman Empire begin to collapse.

Sultan Abdullah II (1876-1909) was a reactionary and a conservative. Reforms and a new constitutional proclaimed in 1876 were shelved. He adopted a Pan-Islamic policy and forged a relationship with Germany, which had a less than friendly relationship with Russia and the Western states.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, Russia advanced on Istanbul and almost took it and forced the Turkish sultan to sign the harsh Treaty of Stefano, which would have ended Turkish rule in Europe. Again the Western European powers saw the Russians as more of a threat than the Turks and convened the Congress of Berlin and again worked out schemes to prop up the moribund Ottoman Empire.

In an effort to modernize the country Abdullah II built railways, established a telephone system, created industries and opened mines with money borrowed from European banks that demanded concessions as the Ottomans went deeper and deeper into debt. Foreign creditors were given large control over Ottoman revenues and were able to make decisions regarding the Ottoman government’s finances.

In the meantime the Ottoman Empire army had grown restless and demoralized because there no wars from which they could enrich themselves and the population in Ottoman territories was straining under heavy taxes and Ottoman officials were increasingly corrupt.

Rise of Armenian Nationalism Under the Ottomans

In 1878 Armenian delegates appeared at the Congress of Berlin, where the European powers were negotiating the disposition of Ottoman territories. Although Armenian requests for European protection went largely unanswered in Berlin, the "Armenian question" became a point of contention in the complex European diplomacy of the late nineteenth century, with Russia and Britain acting as the chief sponsors of Armenian interests on various issues. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Enver Pasha

The Armenian independence movement began as agitation on behalf of liberal democracy by writers, journalists, and teachers. But by the last decade of the nineteenth century, moderate nationalist intellectuals had been pushed aside by younger, more radical socialists. Armenian revolutionary parties, founded in the early 1890s in Russia and Europe, sent their cadres to organize in Turkey. Because of the self-destruction of one major party, the Social Democratic Hnchaks, and the relative isolation of the liberals and the "internationalist" Social Democrats in the cities of Transcaucasia, the more nationalist of the socialist parties, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak, a shortened form of its Armenian name), emerged by the early twentieth century as the only real contender for Armenian loyalties. The ARF favored Armenian autonomy in both the Russian and the Ottoman empires rather than full independence for an Armenia in which Russian- and Ottomanheld components would be unified. *

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Armenians' tendency toward Europeanization antagonized Turkish officials and encouraged their view that Armenians were a foreign, subversive element in the sultan's realm. By 1890 the rapid growth of the Kurdish population in Anatolia, combined with the immigration of Muslims from the Balkans and the Caucasus, had made the Armenian population of Anatolia an increasingly endangered minority. In 1895 Ottoman suspicion of the westernized Armenian population led to the massacre of 300,000 Armenians by special order of the Ottoman government. *

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Russian border, Armenian churches and schools were closed and church property was confiscated in 1903. Tatars massacred Armenians in several towns and cities in 1905, and fifty-two Armenian nationalist leaders in Russia were tried en masse for underground activities in 1912. *

Young Turks

Amid this decay and stagnation of Sultan Abdullah II’s rule, a secret society made up of young liberals called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), better known as the “Young Turks”, was founded. It pushed for reforms and began carrying out revolutionary activities outside of Turkey.

Young Turks: İshak Sükûti, Serâceddin Bey, Tunalı Hilmi, Âkil Muhtar, Mithat Şükrü, Emin Bey. Oturanlar: Eski Berlin Konsolosu Lutfi Bey, Doktor Şefik Bey, Nûri Ahmed, Doktor Reşîd, Münif Bey

The repressive policies of Abdül Hamid II fostered disaffection, especially among those educated in Europe or in Westernized schools. Young officers and students who conspired against the sultan's regime coalesced into small groups, largely outside Istanbul. One young officer, Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), organized a secret society among fellow officers in Damascus and, later, in Thessaloniki (Salonika) in present-day Greece. Atatürk's group merged with other nationalist reform organizations in 1907 to form CUP, which sought to restore the 1876 constitution and unify the diverse elements of the empire into a homogeneous nation through greater government centralization under a parliamentary regime. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995]

The Young Turks aimed at making the Ottoman Empire a unified nation-state based on Western models. They stressed secular politics and patriotism over the pan-Islamic ideology preached by Sultan Abd al Hamid. They reintroduced the 1876 constitution (this Ottoman constitution set forth the rights of the ruler and the ruled, but it derived from the ruler and has been called as at best an "attenuated autocracy,"), held elections throughout the empire, and reopened parliament. Although the Iraqi delegates represented only the well- established families of Baghdad, their parliamentary experience in Istanbul proved to be an important introduction to self- government. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988]

Young Turks: Proclamation for the Ottoman Empire, 1908

The Young Turks: Proclamation for the Ottoman Empire, 1908: “1. The basis for the Constitution will be respect for the predominance of the national will. One of the consequences of this principle will be to require without delay the responsibility of the minister before the Chamber, and, consequently, to consider the minister as having resigned, when he does not have a majority of the votes of the Chamber. [Source: "The Young Turks," trans. A. Sarrou, in Civilization since Waterloo, Rondo Cameron, ed. (Paris, 1912), pp. 40-42, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

“2. Provided that the number of senators does not exceed one-third the number of deputies, the Senate will be named as follows: one-third by the Sultan and two-thirds by the nation, and the term of senators will be of limited duration.

Young Turks, First Congress of 1902

“3. It will be demanded that all Ottoman subjects having completed their twentieth year, regardless of whether they possess property or fortune, shall have the right to vote. Those who have lost their civil rights will naturally be deprived of this right.

“4. It will be demanded that the right freely to constitute political groups be inserted in a precise fashion in the constitutional charter, in order that article 1 of the Constitution of 1293 A.H. [Anno Hegira=] be respected.

“7. The Turkish tongue will remain the official state language. Official correspondence and discussion will take place in Turkish.

“9. Every citizen will enjoy complete liberty and equality, regardless of nationality or religion, and be submitted to the same obligations. All Ottomans, being equal before the law as regards rights and duties relative to the State, are eligible for government posts, according to their individual capacity and their education. Non-Muslims will be equally liable to the military law.

“10. The free exercise of the religious privileges which have been accorded to different nationalities will remain intact.

“11. The reorganization and distribution of the State forces, on land as well as on sea, will be undertaken in accordance with the political and geographical situation of the country, taking into account the integrity of the other European powers.

“14. Provided that the property rights of landholders are not infringed upon (for such rights must be respected and must remain intact, according to law), it will be proposed that peasants be permitted to acquire land, and they will be accorded means to borrow money at a moderate rate.

“16. Education will be free. Every Ottoman citizen, within the limits of the prescriptions of the Constitution, may operate a private school in accordance with the special laws.

“17. All schools will operate under the surveillance of the state. In order to obtain for Ottoman citizens an education of a homogenous and uniform character, the officials schools will be open, their instruction will be free, and all nationalities will be admitted. Instruction in Turkish will be obligatory in public schools. In official schools, public instruction will be free. Secondary and higher education will be given in the public and official schools indicated above; it will use the Turkish tongue. Schools of commerce, agriculture, and industry will be opened with the goal of developing the resources of the country.

“18. Steps shall also be taken for the formation of roads and railways and canals to increase the facilities of communication and increase the sources of the wealth of the country. Everything that can impede commerce or agriculture shall be abolished.

Ottoman postcard of Hurriet in Monastir

Activities of the Young Turks

In 1908, the Young Turks, took power in Istanbul. In 1909 they began a revolt with sympathizers in the Ottoman military to replace the Ottoman sultan with a constitutional government. This forced sultans to restore the constitution and introduce some social reform, industrialization and secularization. Around this time “Turkism,” a movement which prioritized the interest of the Turks and Turkish culture, began to gain supporters in the Turkish intelligentsia.

In July 1908, army units in Macedonia revolted and demanded a return to constitutional government. Appearing to yield, Abdül Hamid II approved parliamentary elections in November in which the CUP won all but one of the Turkish seats under a system that allowed proportional representation of all millets . The Young Turk government was weakened by splits between nationalist and liberal reformers, however, and was threatened by traditionalist Muslims and by demands from non-Turkish communities for greater autonomy. Abdül Hamid II was forced to abdicate and was succeeded by his brother, Mehmet V, in 1909. Foreign powers took advantage of the political instability in Istanbul to seize portions of the empire. Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina immediately after the 1908 revolution, and Bulgaria proclaimed its complete independence. Italy declared war in 1911 and seized Libya.Having earlier formed a secret alliance, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria invaded Ottoman-held Macedonia and Thrace in October 1912. Ottoman forces were defeated, and the empire lost all of its European holdings except part of eastern Thrace. *

The disasters befalling the empire led to internal political change. The liberal government in power since July 1912 was overthrown in January 1913 in a coup engineered by Enver Pasha, and the most authoritarian elements of the Young Turk movement gained full control. A second Balkan war broke out in June 1913, when the Balkan allies began fighting among themselves over the division of the spoils from the first war. Taking advantage of the situation, Ottoman forces turned on Bulgaria, regaining Edirne and establishing the western boundary of the empire at the Maritsa River. *

After a brief period of constitutional rule, the leadership of the CUP emerged as a military dictatorship with power concentrated in the hands of a triumvirate consisting of Mehmet Talat Pasha, Ahmet Cemal Pasha, and Enver, who, as minister of war, was its acknowledged leader in the war. *

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha, a junior officer in the Ottoman army of modest origins, joined the Young Turks in 1912. He led them in a successful coup against the Ottoman government that resulted in the killing of the Minister of War. In 1914, at the age of 31, Pasha became the Minister of War himself, married a niece of the sultan, and moved into Dolmabaçhe palace.

Enver Pasha was a kind of megalomaniac who was fond of making grand gestures. He was the Mikhail Gorbachev figure in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In an attempt to "preserve the empire by liberalizing it," according to writer Richard Kaplan, he succeeded only in "hastening its demise."

Pasha was also partly responsible for Turkey siding with Germany in World War I, and after the war he was forced to flee Turkey. Later he showed up in the Uzbek republic to fight against the Bolsheviks and died in a battle in 1922.

Young Turk parliament in Saloniki

Young Turks and Ottoman Collapse in Iraq

Most important to the history of Iraq, the Young Turks aggressively pursued a "Turkification" policy that alienated the nascent Iraqi intelligentsia and set in motion a fledgling Arab nationalist movement. Encouraged by the Young Turks' Revolution of 1908, nationalists in Iraq stepped up their political activity. Iraqi nationalists met in Cairo with the Ottoman Decentralization Party, and some Iraqis joined the Young Arab Society, which moved to Beirut in 1913. Because of its greater exposure to Westerners who encouraged the nationalists, Basra became the center from which Iraqi nationalists began to demand a measure of autonomy. After nearly 400 years under Ottoman rule, Iraq was ill-prepared to form a nation-state. The Ottomans had failed to control Iraq's rebellious tribal domains, and even in the cities their authority was tenuous. The Ottomans' inability to provide security led to the growth of autonomous, self- contained communities. As a result, Iraq entered the twentieth century beset by a complex web of social conflicts that seriously impeded the process of building a modern state. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The oldest and most deeply ingrained conflict was the competition between the tribes and the cities for control over the food-producing flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The centralization policies of the Sublime Porte (Ottoman government), especially in the nineteenth century, constituted a direct threat to the nomadic structure and the fierce fighting spirit of the tribes. In addition to tribal-urban conflicts, the tribes fought among themselves, and there was a fairly rigid hierarchy between the most powerful tribes, the so-called "people of the camel," and the weaker tribes that included the "people of the sheep," marshdwellers, and peasants. The cities also were sharply divided, both according to occupation and along religious lines. The various guilds resided in distinct, autonomous areas, and Shia and Sunni Muslims rarely intermingled. The territory that eventually became the state of Iraq was beset, furthermore, by regional differences in orientation; Mosul in the north had historically looked to Syria and to Turkey, whereas Baghdad and the Shia holy cities had maintained close ties with Iran and with the people of the western and southwestern deserts.

Although Ottoman weakness had allowed Iraq's self-contained communities to grow stronger, the modernization initiated by the Sublime Porte tended to break down traditional autonomous groupings and to create a new social order. Beginning with the tanzimat reforms in 1869, Iraq's for the most part subsistence economy slowly was transformed into a market economy based on money and tied to the world capitalist market. Social status traditionally had been determined by noble lineage, by fighting prowess, and by knowledge of religion. With the advent of capitalism, social status increasingly was determined by property ownership and by the accumulation of wealth. Most disruptive in this regard was the TAPU land reform of 1858. Concomitantly, Western social and economic penetration increased; for example, Iraq's traditional crafts and craftsmen gradually were displaced by mass-produced British machine-made textiles.

Chetniks during Hurriyet in 1908

The final Ottoman legacy in Iraq is related to the policies of the Young Turks and to the creation of a small but vocal Iraqi intelligentsia. Faced with the rapidly encroaching West, the Young Turks attempted to centralize the empire by imposing upon it the Turkish language and culture and by clamping down on newly won political freedoms. These Turkification policies alienated many of the Ottoman-trained intelligentsia who had originally aligned themselves with the Young Turks in the hope of obtaining greater Arab autonomy. Despite its relatively small size, the nascent Iraqi intelligentsia formed several secret nationalist societies. The most important of these societies was Al Ahd (the Covenant), whose membership was drawn almost entirely from Iraqi officers in the Ottoman army. Membership in Al Ahd spread rapidly in Baghdad and in Mosul, growing to 4,000 by the outbreak of World War I. Despite the existence of Al Ahd and of other, smaller, nationalist societies, Iraqi nationalism was still mainly the concern of educated Arabs from the upper and the middle classes.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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