Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

From Antiquity to the ‘Turkist’ Movement

Rock tombs of Myra, Antalya, where remains of Lycian, Greek, Roman and early Christian ages have been preserved / Photo Shutterstock
Rock tombs of Myra, Antalya, where remains of Lycian, Greek, Roman and early Christian ages have been preserved / Photo Shutterstock


The Byzantine Era
The Ottoman Era
Decline of the Ottoman Empire
The ‘Turkist’ Movement

Mesopotamia and Anatolia – one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world – witnessed the birth of many societies and prehistoric states, including those of the Acadians, the Hittites, the Phrygians and the Lydians. However, the ancient times were marked by three groups: the Greeks, the Armenians and the Persians. The Greek communities, from 1200 BCE onwards, established a number of sites such as Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna (modern İzmir) and Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul).

Alexander the Great

During the 6th and 5th centuries BCE Anatolia fell under the control of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. In 334 BCE it was conquered by Alexander the Great. After his death in 323 BCE Anatolia was split up in a series of small Hellenistic kingdoms. They in turn were became part of the Roman Republic by the mid-1st century BCE, later of the Roman Empire.

The Kingdom of Armenia, which included large parts of Eastern-Turkey, was the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion at the beginning of the 4th century.

Photo Shutterstock
Photo Shutterstock

The Byzantine Era

 Hagia or Aya Sophia in Istanbul
Interior of the Hagia or Aya Sophia in Istanbul, originally built between 532 and 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian; converted into a mosque in 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by Sultan Mehmed ‘The Conquerer’

In 285 CE Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire’s administration into eastern and western halves. The Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, controlled most of Anatolia –and far beyond, along the Mediterranean coast up to North Africa – from the capital, Constantinople (renamed Byzantium), and took over the Kingdom of Armenia in 1045.

In its more than a thousand years of existence the Byzantine Empire would produce a splendid civilization in which Greek, Roman, Oriental and Christian elements came together.

However, from the 11th century onwards the Byzantine Empire faced the Turkish expansion from Central Asia, especially after the victory of Alp Arslan of the Seljuq Turks (1029-1072) over the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert (1071). Thereafter large parts of Anatolia became part of the Seljuq Sultanate of Rūm. In addition, the conflict between the Seljuq Turks and the Byzantine Empire had religious dimensions. The Seljuq Turks had converted to Islam whereas the Byzantine Empire was considered the centre of Orthodox Christianity.

In his threatened position Emperor Alexius I appealed for help to the Roman Catholic pope. Not in vain. In 1095 Urbanus II called for a crusade, not just to come to the aid of Constantinople, but to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim (Seljuq) domination.

A crusader army led by Frankish and Norman knights set off from France and Italy in 1096. Having reached Constantinople the army marched further in the direction of Jerusalem, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. After an eight-month siege the well-defended city of Antioch (Hatay province) was taken and pronounced the capital of one of several crusader principalities and counties to be created along the Eastern Mediterranean coast. Jerusalem was finally taken in 1099 and became part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was recaptured by Saladin in 1187. The First Crusade – as it would go down in history – was followed by a further six, not all of which passed through Anatolia.

After the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the seizure and ransacking of Constantinople (1202-1204), the weakened Byzantine Empire was no longer in the position to take advantage of the disappearance of the Great Seljuq Empire in Anatolia (1077-1308), leading to the emergence of many independent Turkish beyliks including those of the Dulkadirids, the Karamanids, the Sarukhanids, the Aydinids, the Menteşe and the Germiyanids. One of those beyliks founded by Osman I in 1299 made its mark on the history of the 14th and 15th centuries in Anatolia and the Balkans (the capture of Bursa in 1326, Nicaea in 1331, Karasi between 1334 and 1335, Nicomedia in 1337, Serbia between 1371 and 1375, Kosovo in 1389 and Bulgaria in 1396).

The Ottoman Era

The Ottoman beylik was the successor of the Byzantine Empire after Mehmed II the ‘Conquerer’ (1432-1481) conquered Constantinople in 1453.
Ottoman territorial expansion continued under the successors of Mehmed II, especially Selim I (also known as ‘The Cruel’ and ‘The Brave’, 1470-1520) and Suleiman the Magnificent (‘The Lawgiver’, 1494-1566). After Ottoman expansion reached central Europe, the Ottomans concerned themselves with the east and the south, especially the Arab world. Following the ‘Shiite threat’ – which, under the (Turkic) Safavid dynasty, gave rise to messianic expectations in Turkish communities abandoned by the increasingly bureaucratic Ottoman Empire – Selim I stabilized the borders with Persia in 1514 through his victory in the battle of Chaldiran. The Arab conquests of Selim I paved the path to Egypt and allowed him to seize the title of Caliph, a title that belonged to the ‘House of Osman’ until the abolition of the caliphate in 1924.

The Battle of Vienna, 1683

At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, the Ottoman Empire experienced violent internal rebellions known as the Jelali revolts and financial crises that led to riots, even in the capital. Many sultans were dethroned and some killed. The Ottoman failure to conquer Vienna in 1683 made Austria a great Central European power and shook the Ottoman presence in Europe. This was followed by a series of defeats in Europe and the Caucasus (the latter was the target of Russian expansion).

New Order

The year 1789, during which Selim III (1761-1808) was enthroned, was crucial for the Ottoman Empire. As it could not remain a Nizam-i Alem (Universal Order), the empire had to adopt a Nizam-i Cedid (New Order) that imitated the administrative, military, economic, and legal models of the European states to ensure its survival. Although Selim III was killed in 1808, following a revolt of the Janissaries (a former elite corps that was a real obstacle to changes), reforms did not stop. The reforms were followed by the Tanzimat (reorganizations), beginning in 1839.

Decline of the Ottoman Empire

According to historian Selim Deringil, the reforms of the Tanzimat planned during the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839) and implemented during the reign of Abdülmecid I (1839-1861) founded the modern Turkish state and allowed the integration of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. Although the Ottoman Empire was able to confront Russia in the Crimean War (1853-1856), thanks to its alliance with France and Great Britain, it had to go it alone in a new war in 1877-1878, which gradually reduced the Ottoman presence in the Balkans (in the context of the emergence of nationalism and the quest for Greek and Bulgarian independence, among others).

In the wake of these wars, the Constitution promulgated by Sultan Abdülhamid II for the sole purpose of convincing the European forces of his sincerity in implementing the reforms was suspended. Furthermore, the Parliament was dissolved, and the architect of the reforms, Midhat Pasha (lived 1822-1884) – who was accused of killing Sultan Abdülaziz in 1876 – was assassinated in prison in Taif in Saudi Arabia.

The long reign of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), called ‘The Crimson Sultan’ by his opponents, was meant to be a restoration; the sultan was authoritarian, Westernized, modernized, and Islamized all at one time. His reign ended with the Young Turk Revolution, following the proclamation of the Committee of Union and Progress (or Young Turks), a secret society that had, since 1906, been under the control of young Ottoman officers who had served in the Balkans and some nationalists, such as Bahaeddin Shakir (1874-1922) and Nazim Bey (1870-1926) of Thessaloniki. Bey was hanged in Ankara in 1926 after an attempted assassination of Atatürk.

After the restoration of the Constitution in July 1908 and the beginnings of an atmosphere described by historian François Georgeon as the ‘drunkenness of freedom’, the Committee of Union and Progress gradually constructed a power based on single-party rule (from 1913). The period between 1908 and 1913 witnessed the radicalization of the Committee of Union and Progress – which considered itself the ‘Spirit of the State’ and the ‘Kaaba of Freedom’ – and the increase of the power of Turkish nationalism. The fraternization between imams, priests, and rabbis during their celebration of ‘freedom’ in July 1908, and the political and cultural effervescence experienced by many Ottoman cities, gradually faded, making way for the principle of ‘Order and Discipline’ that the ideologists of the unionist movement justified by the need to confront ‘the doctrine of human rights spreading like a germ’.

The ‘Turkist’ Movement

The disciplinary clamp down associated with the ‘Turkist’ movement is obvious as of 1905-1906 in the internal correspondence of the Central Committee of the Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P.). It was, however, part of a process marked by an urgency that can be explained primarily by the international context – the Bulgarian proclamation of independence, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary, the Albanian insurrection and independence, the occupation of Tripoli of Barbary by Italy, and the 1912 defeat by the coalition of the Balkan States – which created a sense of humiliation and a panic among the Unionists. A columnist at the time explains: ‘We have already lost Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Crete, and now we are about to lose Rumelia, and in two years we will lose Istanbul. Holy Islam and the respectable Ottoman Empire will move to Kayseri, which will become our capital, and Mersin our port, and Armenia and Kurdistan our neighbours, and the Muscovites our lords.’ However, the dizzying chronology of the internal policy of the Ottoman capital – marked by the revolt against the young unionist officers (Young Turks) in Istanbul in 1909 who ‘insult our religion’; the weakening of the unionist government and its overthrow on 12 July 1912; and the emergence of a secret competing military committee – made the unionists feel as though they were backed into a corner. The coup d’état of January 1913 organized by Enver Pasha, one of the two iconic officers of the 1908 proclamation, resulted from these events

The immediate consequence was the nomination of Mahmud Shevket Pasha (1856-1913), the general who formed the Army of Action during the 1909 uprising in Istanbul, to head a new government. The mysterious assassination of this powerful man (11 June 1913), who tried to protect the independence of the army from the unionists, gave the committee the opportunity to suppress political pluralism and execute or exile the leaders of the liberal opposition. The one-party regime that he established marks the advent of the triumvirate of the ‘Three Pashas’, Djemal (1872-1922), Enver (1881-1922), and Talaat (1874-1921). The first two had a career in the military, and the latter was trained in a military school and was an officer in the telegraph service.

The Armenian Genocide

Under pressure from all sides, the triumvirate in 1914 decided on the entry of the empire into World War I, siding with its German ally (and Austria/Hungary). This decision was taken without notifying the Sultan, the Grand Vizier, or the Parliament. The defeat of Germany led to the fall of the empire in 1918.

The Ottoman rulers did not succeed in formulating a political answer to the aspirations of the oppressed, predominantly Christian peoples within the empire seeking freedom and equality. Instead, they opted for violence in a bid to stifle the growing opposition. This, in turn, offered the intrusive Western powers an opportunity to meddle in Turkish affairs. As a consequence, the Serbs, Bosnians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Romanians managed to wrest themselves from Turkish rule in the course of the 19th century. In its wake, the Ottoman Empire lost around 60 percent of its territory. In addition, following the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, the empire lost most of its remaining territory in Europe. Nearly one million refugees, Muslims, left their homes as a result of the war. Fears arose among the Ottoman rulers that the end of their empire was at hand.

The triumvirate accordingly decided to politically engineer the expulsion of Christian peoples from its territory. In the same political vein, non-Turkish Muslim peoples – Kurds, Bulgarians, Bosnians and Arabs – were forcibly assimilated into Turks. The result was the creation of an ethnic-religious homogenous Anatolia, which was deemed more equipped to withstand the (Christian) enemy.
The first to be targeted as a result of these politics were the Greeks in Western Anatolia. Fleeing the violence of state-organized armed bands such as Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization), large numbers were subsequently deported to Greece over land or sea.
The around two million Armenians living in East Anatolia and in the large cities in Western Anatolia could not be deported. The most obvious course of action would have been deportation to neighbouring (Christian) Tsarist Russia. However, this country was allied to the empire’s Western enemies.
As a consequence, in 1915 the order went out to deport the Armenians to the south, to Syria and Mesopotamia. More was at stake than a ‘straightforward’ politics of deportation, as is evident from the widespread killings of representatives of the Armenian intelligentsia in the cities of Western Anatolia on the eve of the deportation, leaving the Armenian population bereft of its leaders.

The deportation went hand in hand with large-scale violence perpetrated by the abovementioned Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa, but also soldiers, (state) police officers, and neighbouring (Muslim) Circassians and Kurds, some of whom were members of the so-called Hamidiye regiments. Thousands of Armenians were slaughtered on the spot, women raped, young girls abducted, and their possessions looted. Most of the victims, however, died from the hardships on the long march from Anatolia to Syria and Mesopotamia (if they were not killed along the way). At least one million Armenians are estimated to have died.

Successive Turkish governments have always denied that there existed a politics of genocide in 1915 (and the following years). The same applies for the AKP, which has been in rule since 2002. Based on Article 305 of the 2006 Constitution it is punishable by law to use the term ‘genocide’ in describing the events of 1915. According to the official reading, the deportation policy was not directed towards the extermination of the Armenian population. Research conducted by Armenian, Turkish and other scholars, based on eyewitness reports of Armenians and other ethnicities, supplemented with archival research, has since offered sufficient evidence that the official Turkish reading of the 1915 events does not tally with the facts, and that a politics of genocide did indeed exist.