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Thinking of Turkey – Tragedy in Istanbul, Rattigan’s Ross and The Fall of the Ottomans

July 5, 2016

Fall of the Ottomans

OK, enough about Brexit for the time being. There are things happening in other parts of the world that are worth writing about. In Turkey, for example.

The trickle of reports about an attack on Istanbul’s airport turned into a torrent. The grainy videos showed a sudden flash, people running for safety. Lives ruined, fear redoubled, and the inevitable reaction. All so familiar to cities – Beirut, Baghdad, Dammam, Sana’a, London, Paris, Brussels, New York, Dhaka, Jakarta, Kabul – that have experienced such traumas, some many times over. Wait a few days to comment on an attack in one city, and attention has shifted to another. Last week Istanbul, this week, Baghdad and Madinah.

Istanbul – sitting on the edge of Asia, suffered its latest attack in a week when we on the Western extreme of Europe remembered the Somme, where more than twenty thousand British soldiers died on the first day of the offensive a hundred years ago.

At that time, Britain was at war with the predecessor of the Turkish state. The Ottoman Empire, even after a century of decline, still presided over a land mass comparable to that of the present-day European Union. In addition to the current territory of Turkey, most of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq answered to the Sultan and his government in Istanbul. Its population included Turks, Arabs, Circassians, Kurds and Armenians. Although the ruling class was Muslim, its people also embraced Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

We British, along with our cousins in Australia and New Zealand, think mainly of Gallipoli when we remember the war against the Ottoman Empire. We might also recall Lawrence of Arabia, and his part in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hejaz, now the western half of Saudi Arabia.

Before the First World War, for most British people the Ottoman territories were “faraway countries of which we knew little.” Wealthy travellers might visit Istanbul and Anatolia. Merchants would travel to the Levant for business. Pilgrims and priests would go to Jerusalem. And the occasional explorer would venture forth to the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Ottoman Empire, to the extent that it impinged on our conscious at all, was the “Sick Man of Europe”. Its Balkan dominions had fractured into a set of belligerent nation states – Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist was the catalyst for the outbreak of the First World War. The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The consequences were fatal for the 400-year old empire.

My interest in Turkey and its Ottoman heritage comes from two directions. I spent nearly a decade in Jeddah, the commercial capital of the Hejaz. For many Jeddawis, Lawrence was not just a remote historical figure. The parents and grandparents of people with whom I rubbed shoulders knew him. Some fought with him. Remnants of the Hejaz Railway that the Bedouin tribesmen attacked are still there to be visited in the desert. Many in the region think of themselves as Hejazi first, and Saudi second.

I’m also deeply interested in the Byzantine Empire. The last remnant of the eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The city we now know as Istanbul entrances me. Not so much because of the Byzantine traces – the land walls, Aya Sofia and other buildings from the period – but because of what came after – Topkapi, The Blue Mosque, the cafes, the markets, the bridges, the wooden palaces along the Bosporus.

I love the food, the music and the coffee of Turkey. I love the works of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. That doesn’t make me an apologist for fratricidal sultans, the Armenian massacres and the penchant of the present government for locking up writers. But it does mean that I look on the tribulations of today’s Turks with sympathy, not with contempt and condescension. And I don’t believe that people always get the governments they deserve. How could I, living in Brexit Britain?

Aside from the tragedy in Istanbul, I have two other reasons for thinking about Turkey at the moment.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a production of Terence Rattigan’s Ross at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Joseph Fiennes was superb in the role of the tortured T.E. Lawrence as he sought anonymity by enlisting in the lower ranks of the Royal Air Force under the alias of Aircraftman Ross. The play looked back at his career in the Hejaz with the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War. Whether Rattigan accurately captured the complex character of the hero with any accuracy is debatable. There was a post-show chat between audience and cast to which one or two people contributed who clearly knew a lot about Lawrence. One of them, for example, quoted a relative who served with him in the RAF, and who was convinced that he was not, as some biographers contend, gay. The discussion was almost as interesting as the play itself.

Overall, it was a compelling production, well-acted and directed. If I had a reservation, it was the portrayal of the Turkish protagonists. In the way that they were acted, they came over almost as cartoon baddies – sadistic and supercilious. Lines that could have been delivered otherwise were played for laughs. The effect made the production somewhat lopsided. The British – Lawrence, Allenby and Storrs – and Auda abu Tayi, the Bedouin tribal leader (played by Anthony Quinn in the movie Lawrence of Arabia) were believable. The Turkish governor wasn’t.

I suppose that was understandable. Rattigan wrote the play in 1960. It was a time when Britain’s other arch-enemy, the Germans, rarely had a sympathetic portrayal in the numerous war films that celebrated the defeat of Nazism. Good Germans, in the estimation of the dramatists, and so perhaps good Turks, were in short supply.

An antidote to Rattigan’s caricature portrayal of the Ottomans comes from The Fall of the Ottomans, Eugene Rogan’s history of the First World War in the Middle East. Historians tend to take a more balanced view of protagonists in major conflicts – or at least they do these days.

The Great War was as much a tragedy for the people of the Ottoman Empire as it was for the Western combatants. Famine in Lebanon, slaughter at Gallipoli and the death of between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians (depending on who you listen to) were major events. But throughout the period, there were other smaller but no less vicious encounters as the Ottomans sought to defend their territory on several fronts simultaneously.

Rogan is excellent on the doomed Gallipoli campaign, and on the woes of the Anglo-Indian expeditionary force in Mesopotamia that culminated in the British defeat at Kut. Both campaigns resulted from a perception that the Ottomans were the weak link in the Central Alliance, and that to take them out of the war would bring the overall conflict to an early close. Those who advocated the operations, Winston Churchill among them, were gravely disappointed. The Ottomans with commanders and logistic support from Germany, fought with great courage and inflicted damaging defeats on the British-led expeditionary forces.

On the Armenian massacres, he writes at some length not only about the event but also about the motivation. Armenian Christians had long agitated for a level of autonomy in the east of the Empire. When the fighting with Russia broke out, some Armenians joined their fellow-Christians and took up arms against the Sultan. The city of Van briefly rose in rebellion. It was fought over by the Russians, the Ottomans and the rebels, and changed hands several times. When the Ottomans finally regained the city, the triumvirate of Young Turks who ruled the Empire decided that the Armenians were unreliable subjects and needed to be dealt with.

Across the Empire, Armenians were sent on forced marches out of their main centres of population. Many died of thirst and starvation. Many, according to reports at the time, were killed by their captors. What was interesting to me was that despite the trenchant denial by the modern Turkish state that the Armenians were the victims of genocide, there were many accounts of what took place. Genocide and holocausts are emotive words. Successive Turkish governments have insisted that they were victims of war rather than of a deliberate act of extermination. Be that as it may, hundreds of thousands perished, and not at the hands of the Empire’s enemies.

Yet after the war, as Rogan points out, the victorious allies encouraged the new Ottoman government to put those responsible for the fate of the Armenians on trial before military tribunals. As a result, the three primary Young Turk instigators, who escaped to Germany, were sentenced to death in absentia. A small number of lesser perpetrators were hanged. The 1946 Nuremberg trials were not the first war crimes prosecutions of the 20th Century.

Another aspect that is little known by those who, like me, are not deeply familiar with the war in the Middle East is that the Ottoman leaders prevailed upon the Sultan, in his role as caliph, to declare jihad against the enemy powers. Throughout the war, the British were nervous at the effect the pronouncement might have on the loyalty of their Muslim Indian troops. Likewise, the French were concerned about their colonial forces from North Africa. In the event, there were desertions to the Ottoman side, but not in numbers that made a material difference to the outcome of the war. A reminder though, that the use of jihad in modern times didn’t start with Afghanistan in the 1980s.

As for the Arab revolt in the Hejaz, and Allenby’s campaign in Palestine and Syria, T.E. Lawrence takes his place in the narrative as an influential figure, but not as the principal instigator around which the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was built. Although the British encouraged and funded the revolt, it didn’t gain universal acceptance in the Arab world, let alone among the wider Muslim constituency. We look on the Middle East today primarily through the lens of faith – as a Muslim region with embattled pockets of Christians, and with a Judaic state sitting defiantly in the centre. Christian communities at the beginning of the 20th century were far larger, and many leading nationalists were driven more by ethnic than by religious considerations. It took Allenby’s army to tip the balance. His capture of Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for the Ottomans in the region.

As part of the post-war settlement, the Empire was partitioned. The British and the French acted according to the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement and established their spheres of influence over the Levant, Palestine and Iraq. The British occupied Palestine and the Jewish immigration – sanctioned by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – began. Thus the seeds of all the subsequent conflict in the Middle East were sown.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal, the victor of Gallipoli, overthrew the Sultan, and Turkey became a republic. Kemal, now given the title Ataturk (father of the Turks), became its first president. Ataturk abolished the symbols of the Ottoman Empire – among them the fez and the veil. He disbanded the religious orders, banned Arabic script in the education system and established a secular state. He is so revered in Turkey that anyone insulting his memory is still liable to prosecution.

Rogan’s narrative ends with the abdication of the last Ottoman sultan. His account of the war in the Middle East is a heart-breaking story of political duplicity, civilian suffering, remorseless fighting, courage on all sides of the conflict. Hopes of a unified Arab Kingdom that fuelled the revolt in the Hejaz were dashed. Another kingdom, Saudi Arabia, emerged in the Arabian Peninsula. The sons of Sharif Hussein, the figurehead of the revolt, took their places as Kings of Jordan and Iraq. When finally free of Anglo-French domination, Egypt, Iraq and Syria led the surge of Arab nationalist sentiment, and the descendants of Ibn Saud, enriched by the mineral wealth that lay beneath the desert, consolidated their power.

The Fall of the Ottomans doesn’t explain everything that has happened in the region since the Great War. And the Ottoman Empire has a rich history that is well worth exploring if you want to understand why the Middle East has come to be as it is today.  But he’s produced a clear narrative of a conflict overshadowed in Western European memory by the horror of the trenches.

Few people in Iraq are likely to remember the Somme. But they will remember Kut, the fall of Baghdad, their Hashemite king and the Gallipoli campaign in which their conscripts died alongside Turkish comrades. And, thanks in part to ISIS, they especially remember the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Which takes us back to those who died, it appears, at the hand of ISIS in Ataturk International Airport, the gateway named after the hero of Gallipoli. As an admirer of Turkey and its rich heritage, I grieve for their people, just as I grieve for the dead of Baghdad, of Palestine, of Lebanon and Syria. The people of the former Ottoman Empire have paid dearly in blood over the past century for the accident of their geography – for their civilisation, their beliefs, their culture and their rich and diverse heritage.

The successors of the Ottomans are a proud and sometimes prickly people. The people of Istanbul are, Orhan Pamuk contends, suffused with melancholy – perhaps for good reason. But they are also kind, warm and creative. Turks don’t deserve to be demonised. Especially they don’t deserve to be used as a political football by the xenophobes in my country who have stoked up fears of a flood of Turkish immigration. In short, they deserve a break.

  1. John Douglass permalink

    What a wonderful article, Steve. I will be sharing with others, for sure…..John D

  2. Thanks John – great to hear from you!

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