Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque

Imperio-Otomano

Turned back at the gates of Vienna!

Ottoman history is undergoing something of a revision in Turkey these days. Despite its portrayal in the West, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious state. The concept of Turkishness and Turkish nationalism emerged in the late 19th century in response to the rise of national independence movements within the Ottoman Empire, encouraged by the so-called Great Powers of Europe. During the 19th century, the Empire lost much of its former territory as a result of wars which the European powers justified by claiming to champion the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. When oil began to replace coal as the fuel of choice, and it was discovered that vast resources of “black gold” lay within their domains, it became increasingly fashionable to brand the Ottoman government as bloodthirsty barbarians slaughtering their poor downtrodden minorities.

At its greatest extent, in 1683, The Ottoman Empire covered more than 3 million km2 spread over three continents. As late as 1820, Muslims made up no more than 60% of its population. The website Lost Islamic History has this to say:

Yıldız Hamidiye

Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque – opened 1886

“While analyzing the Ottoman Empire’s Islamic character, one must keep in mind that much of the empire’s population was not Muslim. Large communities of Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Catholics all lived in the empire. At some times, Muslims even formed a minority of the empire’s population. At no time in the empire’s history were non-Muslims forced to abide by any Muslim laws. Instead, a system of religious pluralism, known as the millet system, was implemented. In the millet system, each religious group was organized into a millet, or nation.

Each millet was allowed to run by its own rules, elect its own leaders, and enforce their own laws on their people. For example, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had the Orthodox Christian community of the city elect a new patriarch, who served as their leader. By not enforcing Islamic laws on non-Muslims, the Ottoman Empire ensured social and religious stability and harmony within its borders for much of its history. Contrary to this, throughout the rest of Christian Europe, religious freedom only began to take root in the 1700s and 1800s. Denial of rights and persecution of non-Christians continued, however, as is seen in the Holocaust of the 1940s and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnians in the 1990s.”

dome

The dome in Yıldız Mosque

The Encyclopedia Britannica elaborates:

“The purpose of the millet system was to keep the different peoples of the empire separated in order to minimize conflict and preserve social order in a highly heterogeneous state. Christian hatred of Muslims and Jews, however, led to constant tension and competition among the different millets, with the Jews being subjected to “blood libel” attacks against their persons, shops, and homes by the sultan’s Greek and Armenian subjects. Those attacks intensified during the week preceding Easter, when Greeks and Armenians were driven into a frenzy by the old accusations, invented in ancient times by the Greek Orthodox Church, that Jews murdered Christian children in order to use their blood for religious rituals. The sultan intervened to provide protection for his Jewish subjects as much as possible, though the fact that many of his soldiers were Christians converted to Islam who retained the hatreds instilled in their childhoods made that intervention difficult.”

Yıldız parkı

The redeveloped Yıldız Park

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after the end of the First World War, what little remained was saved by the efforts of a nationalist resistance movement that employed, of necessity, the uniting principles of Turkish identity and the Muslim religion. The secular republic that emerged from the struggle was, perhaps ironically, more exclusively Turkish and Muslim than the Ottoman state had ever been. An important aspect of its founding mythology was the need to deny a connection with the once-great empire from whose ashes it was emerging.

What has been happening in recent years is a greater willingness to acknowledge the fact that the Ottoman Empire, its history, culture and achievements, are an important aspect of the heritage of the modern Republic of Turkey. Movies such as Fetih 1453 (The Conquest of Constantinople), Dedemin İnsanları (My Grandfather’s People), and popular TV series like Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century) and Payitaht Abdülhamid (The reign of Abdülhamid II), have been bringing Ottoman history to life and making it palatable to new generations in the 21st century.

sultan-2-abdulhamitThe case of Abdülhamit II is possibly the most striking example of the revisionist revolution taking place in Turkey. Condemned for years in the West as “The Red Sultan” or “Abdül the Damned” for his alleged atrocities against Armenians, Abdülhamid ascended to the throne in August 1876 at a bad time in Ottoman history. His older brother, Murat V, had been deposed after a brief eight-month reign. Murat himself had taken over from his uncle Abdülaziz who had been ousted and forced to commit suicide. Shortly after getting the top job, Abdülhamid found himself involved in a disastrous war with Russia, which ended with a victorious Russian army at the gates of Istanbul. The British Government intervened to keep Russia in its place, but the Ottomans again lost territory – including the İsland of Cyprus, which the Brits grabbed as a “protectorate”.

Abdülhamid managed to keep his rickety empire afloat for a further 33 years, in the face of increasing threats from within and without. In 1905 he survived an assassination attempt by Armenian revolutionaries, but was overthrown by a coup in 1909, in which, according to a Turkish source, there was Jewish involvement. The Sultan had upset powerful Jewish interests by opposing their plans for a Jewish state in Palestine – at that time in Ottoman territory.

balcony

Elaborately decorated interior, Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque

During his reign, the third longest in the empire’s 623-year history, Abdülhamid:

  • Modernised the army
  • Opened many schools and hospitals
  • Extended postal, rail and telegraph networks
  • Introduced major law reforms
  • Left an impressive architectural legacy

The Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque was opened in 1886 near the Sultan’s new residence on the hill above Beşiktaş. Interestingly, the architect was an Armenian, Sarkis Balyan, whose family had served the Ottoman dynasty for several generations. A substantial portion of the palace grounds have been preserved as a public park – the 46-hectare Yıldız Park has recently undergone substantial redevelopment, and is a restful oasis in the megalopolis that is present-day Istanbul. I’ve been waiting impatiently for restoration of the mosque to be completed. After four years, it was re-opened in March to mark the 100th anniversary of Abdülhamid’s death. I’m told the cost of renovation amounted to 27 million TL (around $US 5 million), and the result is spectacular.

There is a three-storey clock tower in the courtyard. The mosque is entered by a double stairway of white marble, and the interior decoration was designed to exceed that of the palace itself. In recent years students have been learning the neglected skills of Ottoman art and decoration, of which the Yıldız Mosque is a magnificent exhibition. Some of the elaborate woodwork in the interior is said to have been made by the Sultan himself, a skilled cabinet-maker in his spare time.

exterior

Mosque dedicated to Sheikh Tunuslu Muhammed Zafiri

A hundred metres or so downhill towards the centre of Beşiktaş is a smaller mosque dedicated to a Sufi Sheikh, Tunuslu Muhammed Zafiri. Abdülhamid Khan took his religion seriously, and was apparently a devotee of the Şâzelîlik sect that originated in North Africa.

Well, there’s only so much history we can absorb at a sitting – but I’m pleased that the current ongoing review of Ottoman history is opening new angles on the world we all inhabit. It’s not possible to find answers until we know what questions to ask – and I’m constantly finding new questions to which I’m seeking answers.

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Greece’s Hidden Centuries – Revising History and Forgiving the Turks

A news item earlier this year announced that a mosque in Thessaloniki, had been opened for Muslim worshippers. Not such a big deal, you might think, if you are resident in another major European city where mosques are a not uncommon feature of post-modern multi-culturalism. The situation in Greece, however, is an altogether different story, for a number of reasons.
  • First, until the early 20thcentury there were over twenty mosques in that city, known in those days as Selanik, and a major city of the Ottoman Empire. Now there is one, and that opened in April this year.
  • Second, Athens is the only European capital city that does not have a functioning mosque.
  • Third, the newly re-opened mosque in Thessaloniki is actually 111 years old but served in its intended capacity for only twenty-one of those years. It was closed, along with all the other mosques in the city, in 1923, after the unsuccessful Greek invasion of Anatolia necessitated a population exchange according to religious affiliation.
  • Fourth, the Yeni, or New Mosque, as it is called, designed by an Italian architect, is notable for its interior and exterior design. One writer describes it as: ‘A hybrid of European and Islamic styles, fusing Baroque, neoclassical, and Byzantine, it also contains Jewish features.’ The reason for this last peculiarity is that Thessaloniki/Selanik, was, in Ottoman times, one of Europe’s main centres of Jewish religion and culture. Some of those Jews, however, as a result of events I have described elsewhere, converted, at least overtly, to Islam – while continuing, according to some, to retain the practices of their original faith behind closed doors. 

Greece and its next-door neighbour Turkey have a strange relationship, whose intricacies can only be understood by a study of their shared history. Visitors from one country to the other find great similarities in the cuisine – and citizens of both nations argue heatedly about who actually invented Turkish/Greek coffee, the delicious sweet pastry baklava, or the stuffed vine-leaves known as dolma/dolmas. It has been said jokingly of Britain and the United States that they are two countries divided by a common language. It might be said of Greeks and Turks that they are one people divided by two religions.
Some months ago I referred to a book I had been reading, ‘Greece, the Hidden Centuries’, and I undertook to write about it in more detail. In the mean time, my attention was captured by political events in Turkey and Egypt, and my promise remained unfulfilled. The situation in Turkey, at least, appears to have settled down somewhat, and what’s happening in Egypt is there for all to see – so the time has come to tell you about that very interesting book.
The author, David Brewer, seems to be an unusually modest chap and you won’t learn much about him personally from Amazon’s author page, or even a Google search. The notes in my copy of the book told me simply that Mr Brewer ‘is the author of “The Flame of Freedom: The Greek War of Independence, 1821-1833”. After studying Classics at Oxford University, he divided his life between teaching, journalism and business before devoting himself to the study of the history of Greece.’
What you will find, if you visit the Amazon website, is an interesting range of opinions indicating clearly that the author has ventured into controversial territory, and challenged the strongly held beliefs of some readers. As one reviewer comments, the book is obviously anathema to the average Greek whose notions of the period are derived from his grandmother, his church, and from Greek political thought.’
One such Greek writes: ‘it is evident by his conclusions that it is simply biased and one sided. I am sorry Mr Brewer, but you have it very wrong on this one. I do not recommend this book.
With all due respect to that Greek reviewer and his grandmother, you’d have to think that an Oxford Classics graduate would have some sympathy for the Greek cause. That he took the trouble to write a history of the Greek War of Independence (fought to break free from the Ottoman Empire) would suggest a continuation of that sympathy into modern times, and perhaps some detailed knowledge of the subject. In his introductory notes to the book under discussion, Brewer informs the reader that, out of respect for the Greeks who prefer to hold that they were ruled by Turks rather than Ottomans, and have never accepted the loss of their Byzantine Empire, he will speak of Turks and Constantinople (rather than Istanbul). This in itself should convince an objective reader that the author has gone to some lengths to avoid upsetting Greeks – even at the risk of offending Turks.
Brewer sets out the rationale for the book in his prologue, subtitled ‘The Greek View of Turkish Rule’, which he begins with an anecdote about the arrival of an Ottoman official in a Greek village in 1705. The purpose of his visit was to recruit fifty youths who would be taken to Istanbul to be trained for service in the Sultan’s court or the elite military unit known as Janissaries. There could be no refusal of course, but the villagers not only refused – they killed the official then formed a band of outlaws whose principal occupation was robbing and murdering Turks. Needless to say, the Ottoman authorities took a dim view. Retribution was forceful and brutal.
The anecdote illustrates the approved Greek view of Ottoman rule. Greeks were virtual slaves, the flower of their male offspring were torn from their families by force, and any attempts to assert their human rights met with vicious suppression. This state of affairs continued from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the foundation of the modern kingdom of Greece in 1833. During that black period of almost 400 years, referred to as Tourkokratia, Greeks were under constant pressure to change their religion, were not allowed to build churches, had to educate their children in secret to keep their language alive, and were heavily taxed. It was a dark age where Greeks were cut off from the processes of modernisation going on in the rest of Europe, and the Turks left nothing of value to show for their four centuries of rule.
Challenging this received version of history is not a task undertaken lightly. In his final chapter, ‘Some Conclusions’, Brewer gives an account of an attempt by the Greek government in 2006 to introduce a new school history textbook for twelve-year-olds. He quotes the Minister of Education, Marietta Yannakou, as saying, ‘I believe in truth, in what really happened in history. We must not tell children fairy tales at school.’ In the face of fierce opposition from the Church, some academics and the leader of the far-right political party, the textbook was withdrawn for some judicious revision. In spite of that, Ms Yannakou lost her parliamentary seat in the 2007 election, and the book disappeared from the education agenda.
Between his prologue and his concluding remarks, Brewer covers all the pertinent issues in a detailed but readable fashion. What was the status of Greeks before the Ottomans arrived? What actually happened when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople? Would Greeks have been free and happy if not for the Ottomans? Were all Greeks of one mind on the question of freedom and independence? Did they get what they wanted in the end?
Brewer limits his discussion largely to the Greek mainland and the islands in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas generally considered to be their territory. In fact, however, as he says in his prologue, the Greek dream, formulated shortly after gaining independence from the Ottomans, was the recreation of former Byzantine glory, a Great Idea (Megali Idea) envisaging an empire centred, not on Athens, but on Constantinople. The likelihood of this, however, had disappeared long before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II led his victorious troops into that city.
The once great Roman Empire had lost its western half when the city of Rome fell in 476 CE. The increasingly Greek eastern Romans had two peaks of imperial greatness in the 6th and 10thcenturies – but found themselves constantly under threat from Arab and other Islamic expansion from the south and east, and later from their Crusading western Christian brethren. The latter, despite their stated purpose of evicting the Muslim infidels from the ‘Holy Lands’, set up kingdoms and principalities in former Byzantine territories, even besieging, sacking and occupying for 57 years, the imperial capital in the early 13thcentury.
In fact, long before 1453, Greeks were predominantly a subject people – and even after that year, their overlords were not Turks alone, but Europeans, especially Genoese and Venetians, masters of the Mediterranean until the rise of Ottoman power largely supplanted them. So, it was not from the Greeks themselves but from the Venetians that the Ottomans seized mainland Greece, Chios and other Aegean islands in the early 16thcentury, and Cyprus in 1570. Venetians had ruled the island of Crete for 400 years before finally surrendering it to the Ottomans in 1669, and for twenty years after that, were still trying to reconquer the Greek mainland. Brewer suggests it is at least open to debate whether Greeks were better off under Venetian or Ottoman rule, given that the Italians were Catholics whose Church had no great love for their schismatic eastern cousins.
President Obama meets with Bartholomew I,
Patriarch of the Orthodox Church
based in Istanbul, Turkey
Contrary to the commonly painted portrait of the Turks as brutal suppressors of subject peoples, Muslims viewed Christians and Jews as ‘people of the book’. Orthodox Christians, Jews and Armenian Christians ‘each formed a partly self-governing community, a millet. Each had a spiritual head who was also to some extent the political leader: for the Jews it was the Chief Rabbi, for the Armenians the Gregorian Patriarch, and for the Orthodox, the Orthodox Patriarch’. According to Brewer, 100 years after the conquest of Constantinople there were 77 churches on either side of the Golden Horn. Even today, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs continue to minister to their flocks from headquarters in Turkish Istanbul. My research indicates that there are sixteen synagogues in modern Istanbul and somewhere between forty and 123 churches. I can’t account for the discrepancy, but even the radical Armenian website Armenian Weekly admits that there are 28 active Armenian churches. According to Wikipedia, at the beginning of the 20th century (70 years after mainland Greece became independent) there were 1.8 million Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire. Even after the enforced population exchange of 1923, 200,000 of those ‘were permitted to remain’ – all of which suggests that life under Ottoman rule must have had some compensations.
Returning to Brewer’s book, the author makes the interesting suggestion in his prologue that ‘Greek bitterness about past rulers largely depends upon what happened after that rule ended, and has rather less to do with the nature of the rule itself.’ Genoa and Venice, even Italy itself, no longer wield much power in world affairs, so there is little to be gained from venting spleen on them. Russia proved an unreliable ally over the centuries of Ottoman rule – but in the end, with Britain and France, helped to win the naval battle[1]that secured Greek independence. Besides, they are fellow Orthodox Christians (at least in history and traditional culture), so it’s harder to hate them. It might have been a different story, however, if they had been allowed to fulfil their ambitions of capturing Constantinople/Istanbul and controlling the Bosporus Straits.
The Turks, however, for better or worse, continue to occupy that city of cities, and show no signs of relinquishing their hold. It was Turkish nationalists who turned back the Greek invasion of Asia Minor, on which they had embarked with the encouragement of their European allies, especially Great Britain. When their erstwhile friends left them in the lurch, there was little to be gained by aiming recriminations in that direction. It was Turks who drove the Greek army into the sea in the victory that ensured Ottoman Orthodox Christians would have to be uprooted from their ancestral homeland, to be exchanged for Muslims expelled from the Greek mainland, in what Greeks came to know as the Asia Minor Catastrophe. For Turks, on the other hand, it is the War of Liberation..
Brewer concludes his final chapter with a quotation from a modern Greek poet, George Seferis: ‘The Greeks say it was the Turks who burned down Smyrna[2],the Turks say it was the Greeks. Who will discover the truth? The wrong has been committed. The important thing is: who will redeem it?’
It’s a step in the right direction that the Greek government is reopening a mosque in Thessaloniki – though we might wonder why they chose that one, with its dubious Islamic provenance, rather than the 15th century Hamza Bey Camii, which suffered the indignity of being used as a cinema before being abandoned to decay. As for Athens, plans for a mosque there seem to have stalled for a variety of reasons. Again, rather than reopening one of the historic mosques in that city, despite Turkish government offers to finance the project, the Greek government planned to erect a new building from scratch, according to a Reuters report, in a disused naval base littered with weeds and rubble in a rundown neighborhood.’ Even that humble proposal, however, seems to have foundered on the rocks of opposition from the ultra-right Golden Dawn Party. Greek construction companies are showing a reluctance to tender for the job, allegedly from ‘fears of intimidation’.
Brewer’s achievement in this book is to draw attention to a major act of historiographical distortion. Of course all countries prefer to view their own history in terms flattering to themselves, or evoking sympathy for their plight. In this case, however, the Greek ‘fairy tale’ has found wide acceptance beyond their own shores. It is not merely 400 years of history that have been hidden. From the final conquest of the Greek city states by the army of Rome in 146 BCE to the foundation of the independent kingdom in 1832, there was no Greek political entity as such. The Byzantine greeks are a Western construct. That empire considered itself Roman, and its church, Roman Orthodox (Rum Ortodoks in Turkish). It has suited Western powers, for various political and quasi-religious reasons, and for a thousand years or more, to pretend otherwise.
Thanks to David Brewer for lifting the veil. I found his argument to be well researched and convincing. While detailed notes and an extensive bibliography lend scholarly credibility, the author’s style is lively and accessible to the non-academic reader. I think he has got this business pretty right, and I emphatically recommend this book.
Greece: The Hidden Centuries: Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence David Brewer (IB Tauris, 2010)


[1] Battle of Navarino, 1827
[2] Modern Izmir

Dersim and the Politics of Inclusion

I first came to Turkey just after Mel Gibson and his team won five Oscars for their 1995 cinematic hit, ‘Braveheart’. For some reason that romanticised tale of kilted Scots fighting manfully but futilely against their powerful southern neighbour struck a chord or two with Turkish audiences. The film ran for three years in Istanbul cinemas without a break. ‘Titanic’ didn’t come close in this part of the world!

Mel Gibson strikes a blow
for Scottish nationalism
I’m sure you remember the final stomach-churning scenes of the film, where the defeated but unrepentant William Wallace is hanged, drawn and quartered by his English conquerors as an example to others who might seek to emulate his troublesome ways. Wallace’s tormentor gives him the option of a quick death on condition of swearing allegiance to His Majesty, the King of England. However, the Scots hero draws strength to undergo the agony ahead from a small boy in the crowd, who will clearly carry on the fight if Gibson (sorry, Wallace) shows the necessary fortitude.

Scotland was an independent nation in those days – we’re talking about the early 14th century – so it was perhaps a bit rough to treat Wallace as a traitor. Nevertheless, that gruesome punishment remained in force in the United Kingdom for the crime of high treason into comparatively modern times. The Crowns and Parliaments of Scotland had been well united by the time Prince Charlie led his ill-fated rebellion against King George II in 1745. It was only 60 years since his grandfather, James II, had allowed Judge Jeffreys to butcher survivors of the Monmouth Rebellion, so the Bonny Prince knew what to expect if he was caught. He wasn’t, luckily for him (speeding off to the Isle of Skye on his bonny boat, as the old song has it, and thence to a life of exile in France), but the Scots Highlanders who had supported him were not so fortunate. The Battle of Culloden lasted just over an hour, say the records. However, the aftermath of the English victory was not only a massacre of the wounded, but a prolonged killing or displacement of the clansmen, their women, children and the elderly. It was a systematic programme, more or less successful, to civilise the highlands, bring them under the rule of law, and to suppress the Gaelic language and tribal culture.

Hanging drawing and quartering was apparently not considered a seemly punishment for women, for whom burning was the favoured punishment in those times. The last burning in England took place in 1789 – the year of the French Revolution (‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, you remember!). The more anatomically specific alternative for males remained in force rather longer. The last man in England to suffer the fate of William Wallace was hanged and beheaded in 1817. Several more fortunate rebels actually faced the penalty in 1839 – but their sentence was commuted to transportation, and butchering as a punishment was finally removed from British law in 1870.

Well, that’s all very interesting, I hear you say, but what relevance does it have for the post-modern world. Even Turkey, with its reputation for human rights abuses, could not possibly condone such treatment of political prisoners or even terrorists. And you’d be right. Capital punishment itself was abolished completely in Turkey in 2004.

Nevertheless, an event in 20th century Turkish history has recently seen the light of day, and warrants a little examination. Dersim, now known as Tunceli, is an area in eastern central Anatolia, traditionally home to Alevi, Zaza and Kurdish people. According to one source I came across[1], this was the last area within the Turkish Republic to be brought under government control. It is not easy to come to a clear understanding of who these people are. Kurds are an ancient race, of Iranian origin, speaking a language with Indo-European roots. Many of them espouse the Alevi branch of Islam, held to spring from the Shi’a sect (not of much consequence in Sunni majority Turkey), but with connections to earlier religions and much older folk traditions. Zazas, it seems, generally incline to Alevism, but there is scholarly debate about whether their language is related to Kurdish, or distinct from it.

Be that as it may, it seems that the inhabitants of Dersim/Tunceli had been resisting all attempts to bring them into the fold of civilisation for some time before the watershed events of 1937-38. According to van Bruinessen 1,

the only law they recognized was traditional tribal law. Tribal chieftains and religious leaders wielded great authority over the commoners, whom they often exploited economically. They were not opposed to government as such, as long as it did not interfere too much in their affairs . . . There was a tradition of refusing to pay taxes — but then there was little that could be taxed, as the district was desperately poor. Young men evaded military service when they could . . .’

Undoubtedly there was a certain amount of brigandage and banditry, and government attempts to impose the rule of law may have met with actual physical discouragement. We may think that the situation was similar to that of the Scottish Highland clans prior to the final solution discussed above, with one major difference: we are talking about the 20th century here, rather than the 18th. The Turkish Republic was a mere fourteen years old, and in a pretty parlous state. Republican reformers, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were attempting to forge a nation from the ashes of the defeated, divided and defunct Ottoman Empire. They were trying to create an identity based on the hitherto unpopular concept of Turkish nationalism; to establish a modern, secular democracy in a land whose tradition was Islamic, monarchic and borderline medieval. Their eyes were fixed on European models of civilisation, most of whose representatives had long since suppressed and/or civilized their last remnants of nomadic or pastoral tribalism.

Furthermore, we are talking about the 1930s, not a period much renowned for the tolerant treatment of troublesome and undesirable minorities. So what happened in Dersim? It seems the government of the day made attempts to assimilate the Alevi Zazas into their brave new secular civilized Turkish Republic – and the local tribes objected, to the point of open rebellion. The government, needless to say, had recourse to military coercion. Many died, villages were destroyed, local people were displaced, martial law was established, there was a general ban on the Kurdish language, dress, folklore and names, and, as one would expect, a good deal of anger and enmity continued to seethe underground. Well, you can’t make a civilisation omelet without breaking a few eggs, it seems.

So what’s the solution? The present day government of New Zealand is not about to hand Aotearoa back to its indigenous Maori inhabitants; just as the British government continues to resist attempts by Scottish nationalists to cede from the Union and go it alone. No Turkish government will ever accept the handing over of its eastern provinces to an independent Kurdistan, even if the majority of ‘Kurds’ wanted it – something which is by no means certain. However, the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr Erdoğan, recently apologized publically [2] for the events known collectively as the ‘Dersim Massacre’.

It’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it! You can’t ever right the wrongs of history. History itself is a progression of successive societies, chieftains, monarchs, invaders and whatnot, asserting their pre-eminence, and imposing their will on others by the right of might – irrespective of whether the ‘others’ may have had a prior and better claim to the territory in question. Nevertheless, smart leaders of the victorious party tend to apply the principle of enlightened self-interest. The new nation you seek to establish, the new civilisation whose superiority you assert, will have a better chance of long-term success if you give the conquered people a share of its fruits.

Nelson Mandela understood this when he became the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Mandela had spent 27 years of his life in prison, a victim of the apartheid political system that allowed white people, making up 10% of the population, to rule and oppress the non-white 90%. It would have been understandable if he had taken the opportunity to exact revenge from his persecutors, now that he was in power – but he didn’t. He encouraged his people to work on a process of reconciliation, to heal the wounds of the past and take the reborn nation forward.

The Ottoman Empire, for all its failings, survived for more than six centuries, and one reason for its longevity may have been the millet system, whereby it granted freedom of religion, use of language and practising of traditions to the disparate groups within its borders: Orthodox Greeks, Armenians and Jews, as well as Muslims of all shades. The British Empire may have been geographically the largest the world has known, but even the most generous historian would not grant it a span of much more than 300 years. More realistically, the 19th century and twenty or thirty years either side of it would encompass its actual period of dominant power. Interestingly, the British one was probably the only Empire that never had an Emperor. Its subjects owed fealty to the King (or Queen) of England – a rather remote concept for most of them, and the requirement to accept a homogeneity of language and culture may have hastened the empire’s demise.

But I’m not here to criticize the Brits. My purpose is to congratulate Mr Tayyip Erdoğan for his efforts in reaching out to the unhappy Kurds and Zazas among the citizens of Turkey. Admittedly, his motives have been called into question by some. He has been accused of taking advantage of a sensitive issue to score points against his main political rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose family apparently has Kurdish/Alevi origins in the Tunceli/Dersim area. Well, it’s an unusual politician who does not avail himself of an opportunity to make political capital, and I’m not going into that matter either. Mr Erdoğan’s words will be measured against his actions in the future. Any apology for past wrongs will be hollow without governmental measures to extend financial support to Turkey’s impoverished and disadvantaged citizens in the east, many of whom are Kurdish. Schools and hospitals are needed, and industrial development to provide employment opportunities. Poverty and deprivation are the soil in which rebellion and terrorism flourish. Alleviating these conditions will not make all the malcontents disappear overnight – but it will at least deprive them of a receptive audience.

In February 2008, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the aboriginal people for more than a century of cruelty, oppression and marginalization inflicted on them by successive governments. It’s too early to say whether Mr Rudd’s words will result in action to reduce the dreadful rates of infant mortality, educational failure and unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse, petty crime and imprisonment, among Australia’s indigenous people – but certainly, without recognition and apology, nothing can change.

I want to make two points here. The first is that, unfortunately, no civilized society can tolerate outlaws, despite their traditional romantic appeal. Pretty much every modern civilized society you care to examine has, somewhere in its history, an event or two where it felt obliged to use force to suppress a group whose continued existence was perceived as a serious threat to its own integrity and stability. We’ve mentioned the United Kingdom and Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. We could go on to look at the United States’ treatment of Native Americans, or its catastrophic Civil War, fought to prevent a division into Union and Confederacy – but you get the gist. My second point is that such use of force can, however, only be justified in the long-term if the result is a stable civilized inclusive state, the benefits of which extend to the vast majority of its citizens.

The Republic of Turkey has, since its inception, looked to the West as a model of cultural and economic development, of democracy and civilisation. The West, for its part, has often chosen to judge and belittle Turkey for its perceived backwardness and barbarity. It is important, then, for Western nations, if they are to maintain the moral high ground, that their civilized democratic institutions demonstrate a capacity for inclusion. Unfortunately, recent events seem to suggest that they do not. ‘Occupy Wall St’ protests have spread to major cities all over the developed world, suggesting a ‘Capitalist Spring’ (or ‘Autumn’) that has elicited outbursts of government force to suppress it. One of the rallying cries has been ‘We are the 99%’ – the supposed proportion of society held in economic servitude to the 1% elite.

I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but I have to say that I feel a 99:1 split may be exaggerating the situation a little. However, one statistic I did come across in the last week gave cause for alarm. A General Election was held in New Zealand the weekend before last, and reports are saying that voter turnout was, at 65%, the lowest in more than a century. Certainly, the implication that 35% of the voting-age population are so disaffected that they do not bother to exercise their democratic right is disturbing. General Elections in the UK in recent years have produced a similar ominous trend. Figures in the USA are even more striking. Statistics show that the proportion of eligible voters turning out to choose a new President hovers around 50 to 55%. If you look at mid-term Congressional elections the percentage drops below 40!

Well, it would require more exhaustive research than I have time for, to demonstrate a clear correlation between these voting patterns and the August riots in UK cities, the Wall St protestors, the general increase in terrorist activity around the globe, and the huge popularity of movies with anti-establishment heroes like William Wallace. All I can say for certain is that I applaud Tayyip Erdoğan for extending a hand of apology and reconciliation to the victims of the Dersim rebellion  – and I fervently hope that his words translate into actions which will achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth in his rapidly developing nation.


1The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38)’, Martin van Bruinessen
2  23 November 2011

Who Killed the Armenians?

There is currently a resolution before the United States Congress to give official recognition to the event in 1915 often referred to as ‘The Armenian Genocide’, and to incorporate this recognition into US foreign policy. For the sake of brevity, this resolution is referred to as H.Res.252, and it was introduced in March 2009. Barack Obama, prior to his election as President, made it clear that he fully supported such official recognition. It is a measure, then, of the controversial nature of the issue that, two years on, the resolution has not been passed, and very likely never will be. Mr Obama, for his part, seems to have cooled off on the issue.
I doubt that any of my readers are ignorant of the claims underlying this resolution, but, to be fair, let’s hear them from the Armenian National Institute:
‘The Armenian Genocide was centrally planned and administered by the Turkish government against the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. It was carried out during W.W.I between the years 1915 and 1918. The Armenian people were subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation. The great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Large numbers of Armenians were methodically massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire. Women and children were abducted and horribly abused. The entire wealth of the Armenian people was expropriated. After only a little more than a year of calm at the end of W.W.I, the atrocities were renewed between 1920 and 1923, and the remaining Armenians were subjected to further massacres and expulsions . . . It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923.’
Sounds bad, for sure, and not something that can be easily dismissed. However, no event in history can be isolated from what preceded it, so I plan to take you on a trip back in time. Before departure, though, I want to draw your attention to a small but significant detail in the first sentence of the ANI statement above: the genocide was planned and administered by the Turkish government between the years of 1915-1918. Admittedly there is a reference, later in the same sentence, to the Ottoman Empire, but I am sure the distortion is deliberate. In fact, there was no Turkish Government until it was established when the Republic of Turkey came into being in 1923, just as there was no United States Government until independence from Britain was declared in 1776.
I am not, at this stage, taking issue with anything else in the ANI’s statement – merely clearing the way for our journey back to an earlier and arguably happier time in the Ottoman Empire, whose government should more correctly stand accused. Generally dated from 1299, it was one of the longer-lasting empires in world history, and one of its features, little-known but deserving of recognition, was the ‘millet’ system of government. A ‘millet’ was a community of faith whose members formed a relatively autonomous group within the empire. They had their own leader, administered their own laws at a local level, collected and disbursed taxes, practised their own religion, educated their children, spoke their own language – and lived alongside members of the other millets in comparative harmony.
There were five millets in the Ottoman Empire: Muslims (not just Turks, by the way), Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Jews, and later, Syriac Orthodox Christians. It was a system based on religion rather than race or nationality, because that’s the way the world was in those days. No doubt as a system of government it had its imperfections, but set it alongside what existed in Europe at the same time and it looks like a beacon of tolerance and open-mindedness. Take Spain, for example, as Roman Catholicism established itself in the Iberian Peninsula to the accompaniment of Inquisitorial torture, burnings and forced conversions of Muslims and Jews. Many of those Jews accepted the invitation of Sultan Beyazit to settle in the Ottoman Empire, and their descendants can be found in Istanbul today, worshipping in their medieval Spanish dialect.
Recently restored Armenian church,
Lake Van, Turkey

So maybe the question arises in your mind, as it did in mine: if the Ottomans were so tolerant and open-minded, why did they suddenly decide to commit genocide on those poor, harmless, law-abiding Armenians? The roots of the answer lie in the growth of the major European powers during the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the associated forces of Romantic Nationalism and Imperialism. The Ottomans had been a (if not the) major European power until the end of the 17th century, but times were a-changing. In particular, the imperial ambitions of its northern neighbour Russia were threatening its territorial integrity. Russia was expanding in all directions, but its southern march posed the greatest threat to the Ottomans. As they moved towards the Black Sea, into the Crimea and the Caucasus, the Russians pursued a policy of Russification, killing and displacing the majority Muslim inhabitants of those lands and replacing them with Christian Russians, Slavs and if necessary, Armenians.
As well as loss of territory, another negative result of this for the Ottomans was an enormous influx of penniless refugees who had to be fed, housed and settled – a huge financial drain on an empire that was already struggling economically. The Russian advance into Ottoman territory continued right into the First World War, and the Armenian population became an increasingly important tool in their expansion. It suited the Russian cause to encourage Armenian nationalism with promises of support for the creation of an independent state in return for assistance against their Ottoman overlords. The Ottoman government and its Muslim subjects, for their part, became increasingly intolerant of Armenian acts of insurrection and terrorism within their borders. It is interesting to note that, when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of the Great War, far from supporting their independence, the new Communist Government swallowed the Armenians into their Soviet maw in 1921, after a scant three years of national sovereignty.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself here. There was one positive outcome for the Ottomans, at least in the short term, from the emergence of the Russian threat. The other European powers, in particular Britain and France, began to take an interest in the unfolding events. For a start, they were determined to prevent the Russians from achieving their ambition of controlling the Istanbul straits and gaining free access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. One of the key issues in the foreign policy of all the European powers in the 19th century was what became known as ‘The Eastern Question’, the essence of which was: When will the ailing Ottoman Empire finally collapse, and which of us will get what parts of it when it does? The corollary of wanting to get the best bits for yourself, of course, was, naturally, ensuring that your rivals didn’t get them.
In practice, this involved encouraging national consciousness among the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire in order to hasten its fragmentation and demise. Needless to say, it is not to be thought that the European powers concerned had any great love of nationalism as a philosophy per se. If you have any doubts about this, ask the Irish or the Indians, or the Algerians, or the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The first ‘nation’ to benefit, however, was the Greeks, the success of whose struggle for independence was ensured by the intervention of the British, French and Russian navies, which combined to destroy the Ottoman fleet in 1827. A little publicized side effect of Greek independence was the massacre and displacement of thousands of Muslims whose families had lived there for centuries.
The original Greek state established at this time was perhaps only 40% of its present area. Over the next century, successive governments took advantage of the weakening and embattled Ottomans to expand their domains northwards and eastwards into Macedonia, the Balkans and the Aegean Islands. As they advanced, non-Christian minorities were slaughtered or driven out. An interesting example is the city of Salonika, which fell to the Greeks in 1912. At that time the second city of the Ottoman Empire, Selanik had the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Fifty percent of its inhabitants were Jewish, twenty-five percent Muslim and the remainder, mostly Orthodox Christian. In 1917, a mysterious fire broke out destroying most of the Jewish and Muslim parts of town. Subsequently most of the Jews and Muslims, prevented from rebuilding their homes and businesses, departed. There were still, however, a large number of Jews in Salonika when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941. As far as I know, there is no suggestion that the Greeks conspired with the Nazis to exterminate the Jews – but they certainly benefited from the destruction of the large historic Jewish cemetery, where the city’s university is now located.
Interestingly, if you visit Istanbul and make inquiries, you will be shown numerous Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish churches, synagogues and cemeteries occupying large and prominent sites in very expensive parts of the city. The land they stand on must be almost priceless – yet they remain, respected and untouched in this nation of Muslims. In contrast, Athens is, I’m told, one of the few European capital cities which lacks a functioning mosque, despite the existence of half a million Muslim residents.
Which brings me back to the Armenians – whom I am sure you were beginning to think I had forgotten. I mentioned, above, that the Russian Empire massacred and expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Tatars, Circassians and Abhazis as it expanded into the Crimea from the 1770s, and the Caucasus from the 1790s. An article in a recent Time magazine[5] discussing the January terrorist attack at the Moscow airport, alleges a link to Chechen activists, and blames the situation on 200 years of Russian oppression. As occupied territories were cleared of their Muslim inhabitants, they were systematically resettled by Christians, more likely to be supportive of their co-religionist overlords. Among the groups used as pawns in this game of Russification were the Armenians, many of whom were invited to occupy the homes and farms of the dispossessed Muslims. Undoubtedly the Muslim refugees who flooded into Ottoman Anatolia would have harboured some resentment against the peoples who were seen to be profiting from their tragedy, and we need look no further for the roots of the sectarian hatred that began to build through the 19th century.
As an interesting aside, there are attempts internationally to have present-day Russia acknowledge a ‘Circassian Genocide’ that allegedly took place in the second half of the 19th century. The Putin government, of course, rejects responsibility for events that took place under the Czarist regime – yet, according to the Time article [1] cited below, similar policies continue to be implemented against Muslims in the area to this day.
What happened in Anatolia during the 19th century, then, was increasing encroachment on Ottoman territory by the Russians, and increasing desperation in the Ottoman Empire as their boundaries retreated, impoverished refugees flooded in with tales of horror, and the Armenian ‘millet’ (see above), encouraged by the Russians, increasingly resorted to terrorist attacks and insurgency.
But let’s not pick on Russia alone. I recently came across writings of a gentleman by the name of Edward J Erickson. Apparently he is a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognized as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He writes of the activities of the Royal Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean from December 1914. In particular he refers to an RN cruiser, HMS Doris, commanded by a Captain Frank Larkin, which conducted operations around the Ottoman port of Iskenderun (Alexandretta), shelling shore installations and gathering intelligence from local Armenians. Erickson suggests that the Ottoman high command expected an allied invasion. They did not know where it would take place (with hindsight, we know it was directed at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles), but the rail links near Iskenderun were of enormous strategic importance to the Ottoman forces, and at the same time, very vulnerable to a sea-launched attack. Erickson suggests that the activities of Captain Larkin and the Doris, as well as the military incursions and machinations of the Russians, were instrumental in the decision to ‘relocate’ Armenians later in 1915.
In fact, ‘relocate’ is Dr Erickson’s word, not mine. Undoubtedly, Armenian people in the east of Anatolia suffered a terrible tragedy. I do not have the space here to discuss the extent to which the present Republic of Turkey should be held responsible for the sins of the Ottoman Empire; nor whether there was actually an official government decision, and if so, what its aims were. I do not intend to get involved in the discussion of how many Armenians died (also apparently a highly debatable issue), nor to question why so many Armenians remained in Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman Government, retaining their property, churches and cemeteries to the present day. My aim has been solely to suggest that whatever happened in that part of the world in 1915 needs to be seen in terms of events leading up to it in the previous 130 years. To compare what happened with the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire to the Nazi German extermination of the Jewish people is not only a distortion of historical evidence, but a grave injustice to the victims of the Nazi holocaust.

[1] Putin’s Terrorist Problem, Time European Edition, February 7, 2011

Genocide, and the Procession of History

There was an interesting exhibition in Istanbul recently – a collection of paintings by an artist called Faruk Kutlu. Not that the works themselves are likely to turn the art world on its head, but the title caught my eye: ‘Kafkasya’dan Sürgün’ – in English, ‘Deportation (or Exile) from the Caucasus’. It interested me because I’d recently visited Sakarya, a small city not far from Istanbul, and people there told me that their ancestors had come from the Caucasus region. I’m irresistibly fascinated by these little historical mysteries, so I had to check it out.

It turns out that representatives of the Adygeyans (which is apparently what the Circassian people of the Caucasus call themselves in their own language) have, for some time, been lobbying the Russian Government seeking an apology for an alleged genocide that took place in the 1860s. ‘Dammit,’ I hear you say. ‘This word genocide is going to lose its meaning if it gets bandied around so frequently and lightly’ – but I have to say’ this one is definitely worth a look.


The Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, was heir to the domain of the Russian Empire, officially dated from 1721. By the second half of the 19th century, under Tsar Alexander II, Russia had built the third largest empire in the history of the world, and as we all know, its religion was Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Well, like most generalisations, that’s only part of the truth. In fact the expansion of the Russian border to the south was largely at the expense of central Asian and Caucasian states, which, at the time, were overwhelmingly Muslim.


The policy of successive Russian monarchs had been to ‘discourage’ the Muslim religion in the interests of civilisation, Christianisation and Russification. Perversely, the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus chose to reject the invitation to become part of this Orthodox Russian civilisation, and their resistance lasted from 1817 to 1864. The intervening struggle is variously known as the Caucasian War, the Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, and, apparently, the local Muslim population even had the temerity to call it the Holy War! But in the end, the result was pretty much as you would expect: the big guys beat the little guys, and the price exacted from the little guys was in proportion to the time and inconvenience they had put the big guys to.
What actually happened at this point is, of course, not easy to ascertain. Circassian sources claim that 400,000 of their people were killed and around 500,000 were forced to leave their homes and seek resettlement in the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, many of these refugees dying on the journey, or later in the crowded, insanitary conditions in which they were obliged to live on arrival. Russian sources are understandably less specific on details, but the matter of mass deportation is beyond dispute, as is the fact that Muslim populations within the expanded Russian Empire became minorities in areas where they had previously been the majority.
At this point, I want to turn my attention from the micro- to the macro-, and to introduce a political concept known as ‘The Great Game’. You are probably aware that the 19th century saw the beginning of a period in history often referred to as the Age of Imperialism. The major European nations (including Russia) were engaged in the process of empire-building, just as some formerly powerful empires were in the process of disintegration. Key aspects of the imperialism business were: maintaining the balance of power while seeking to grab as much territory as possible for your own empire, and at the same time, limiting the growth of the others.
No doubt you are also aware that India was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empress, Victoria; and of course, Vicki and her ministers were not amused to see that jewel threatened by the southward expansion of the Russians. ‘The Great Game’ is the name given to the conflict and rivalry between the British and Russian Empires for control in Central Asia. The ‘game’ became increasingly serious from the 1850s, when oil began to assume major importance as an economic resource. Political ‘game’ it may have been considered by some, but in reality, it was played at great expense in money and human life. Take as example the three Anglo-Afghan wars fought between 1839 and 1919. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the Afghans. But that’s another story.
Running parallel to, and occasionally overlapping this ‘game’ were the power plays related to ‘The Eastern Question’. This was another driving force in the policies of the European Great Powers during the 19th century and up to the end of the First World War. Essentially, the question can be put thus: When will the Ottoman Empire finally disintegrate, and who will get all the good bits when it does? As noted above, all the European empire-builders were keen to benefit from the Ottoman collapse; but at the same time they were equally keen that their rivals should not.
Once you grasp these relatively simple principles, a lot of the otherwise confusing activities of the European empire states, not to mention events unfolding in apparently distant unrelated places, become more intelligible.
Take, for example, the Crimean War. The Charge of the Light Brigade was no doubt a marvellous example of the incomparable bravery and discipline of the British fighting man. But what on earth were they doing over there fighting a war on Russia’s back doorstep for nearly three years? Well, in fact, they were part of a British strategy to keep Russia iced up in its frozen wastes and prevent it from gaining access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. In the 1850s, this strategy required bolstering up the Ottomans and helping them defend their realm.
Go back, however, a mere 26 years to 1827, and you would find the warships of Britain, France and Russia fighting together to destroy the Ottoman navy off the coast of southern Greece. At that time, it suited the European powers to encourage and then support Orthodox Christians to unite in a nationalist struggle and declare the independence of the Greek peninsula. We can guess that the British were keen to have a compliant puppet state in the eastern Mediterranean, but what was in it for the Russians? Most likely there was some deal going on – you help us out here and we’ll try to work something out for you over there. Turn a blind eye to what you’re doing to the Muslims in central Asia, for example? Incidentally, you might want to ask how those Russians got their ships into the Mediterranean to participate in the battle. That’s the trouble with history – you answer one puzzling question and it raises several equally troubling new ones.
But I refuse to be sidetracked. Our subject is genocide, and its euphemistic little sibling, ethnic cleansing. The Greek peninsula had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and its population had large Muslim and Jewish elements. In fact, at this point, it will be worth our while to take a look at the composition of the Empire. The Ottomans were a ruling elite, for sure with their origins in the Turkish migrations from central Asia, but, by reason of conquest, long residence and inter-marriage, considering themselves cosmopolitan, and even (dare I say it?) European. They regarded themselves, with some justification, as the legitimate heirs of the Byzantine Roman Empire; the Sultan’s mother would almost certainly have been a Byzantine princess, or Bulgarian, or Russian, but assuredly not Turkish. Their language, although based on Turkish, had a large admixture of Persian and Arabic. Their empire included a wide range of ethnic groupings, religions and languages, and interestingly, they didn’t really try to impose uniformity.
The Ottomans recognised four millets (nations) within their boundaries, based primarily on religion. Muslim was the state religion, but this group included Arabs and others, as well as Turks. Christians and Jews were ‘people of the book’, so they were permitted to retain their religious practices and languages, especially the local varieties of Christianity, Greek Orthodox and Armenian. They, with the Jews and the Muslims, made up the four milletsof the empire.
What happened at the time of the Greek ‘War of Independence’ was a forerunner of what was to follow as the Ottoman Empire fell apart. We could say that the repercussions have continued to be felt into our own times. For their own ends, the European powers encouraged nationalist sentiments among the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. They then presented themselves as protectors of the Christian minorities when Ottoman authorities, not unreasonably, came down hard on separatist movements within their borders. One side effect of the Greek War of Independence was the killing of rather a lot of Muslim civilians, whose families had been living on the Greek peninsula for centuries.
Similar scenarios were played out in Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans in the later years of the 19th century, as Russia and the geriatric Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire encouraged, also for their own purposes, (Christian) nationalist movements to rise up and throw off the chains of Ottoman hegemony. In fact, Muslims were still being slaughtered in the Balkans, and refugees streaming from Bulgaria into Turkey long after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, right up to the 1980s.
The fledgling state of Greece also took the opportunity to expand its territory at the expense of the beleaguered Ottomans. The important trading city of Selanik, birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and reputedly home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, was taken by the Greeks in 1912. Not long after, a catastrophic fire wiped out most of the Jewish and Muslim parts of town, and you will look hard to find a mosque or a synagogue in the modern Greek city of Thessaloniki.
When the First World War ended, the victorious vultures descended in force on the body of the dying Ottomans. It has been argued that the punitive damages imposed on Germany at that time contributed to the rise of Hitler and thence to the Second World War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, the Ottoman Empire was not merely to be punished; it was to be dismantled and the pieces given into the hands of outsiders. For the purposes of this article, the most significant event was the landing of a Greek army on the Aegean coast of Anatolia backed by the guns of warships from the European victors of the ‘Great War’.
What ensued was a three-year war, during which Christian inhabitants of the region at first welcomed their ‘liberators’ and many Muslims were killed, followed by a successful counter-attack by the newly formed Turkish nationalist forces. Needless to say, some revenge was undoubtedly exacted by the now victorious Muslims. The end result was a forced population exchange in which Muslims and Christians, who had existed side by side in relative harmony for centuries, were forcibly relocated: the Christians of Anatolia being sent to mainland Greece to be replaced by Muslims going the other way.

It’s a sorry tale, isn’t it! But history is history, and you can’t turn back its relentless tide, however much you may wish to. Before we finish, however, let’s return to the other theatre of conflict we were discussing earlier – the expanding southern borders of Russia. Of course, as the British well knew, the Great Bear would not be content with merely adding a few central Asian state-lets to its empire. A major goal was always access to the Mediterranean. Clearly the Bosporus Straits would be ever problematic, so another option was to drive a channel though eastern Anatolia, again, at the expense of the moribund Ottomans. Fortunately a pretext was available in the form of the Christian Armenians, who could be incited to rebellion, then offered ‘protection’ in the form of a Russian invasion to help them set up a nationalist state from which any inconvenient Muslims could be ethnically cleansed (though the term was not invented till later, of course). Again, we may suspect that Armenian independence would have been short-lived, or nominal.
However it was, Armenian nationalists in eastern Anatolia were enthusiastic about Russian support, and ready to create ‘incidents’ which would encourage Russian intervention on their behalf. The Ottoman government, for their part, had a clear example, in the Caucasus, of what was likely to happen in the event of the Russians gaining control. Whatever happened to the Armenian milletin 1915, and undoubtedly it was a tragic event, it needs to be remembered that, as always, there are at least two sides to the story. The Ottoman Empire was fighting for its life in a major war on at least three fronts. And, in an analogous situation, as the present-day Russian government has pointed out with respect to the Caucasus deaths, the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire was a different entity.
There is a short story, ‘The Whale’, penned by the New Zealand author, Witi Ihimaera, which ends with an elderly Maori leader weeping over the bodies of a pod of beached whales. The whales can be seen as symbolising the old culture and traditions of his people, the indigenous race of New Zealand, whose way of life has been irretrievably lost. ‘No wai te he?’ the old man cries. ‘Who is to blame?’