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Rivalries in the Middle East 1856 – 1912

THE MIDDLE EAST where Europe, Asia and Africa meet had long been known as one of the great crossroads of the world. Most of its people were Moslems, but among them were many Christians and Jews. They spoke languages as different as Arabic and Latin, Slavic and Turkish. They had little in common except that they were all subjects of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople.

The Ottoman Empire — so called after its early founder, Othman — was the last of several empires to rule over a large part of Islam. Unlike the earlier empires, it was dominated not by Arabs, but by Turks. Centuries before, the Turks had fought their way west from Central Asia and founded a new homeland in the West Asian peninsula of Turkey. From there, they had pushed outward, conquering lands and peoples. In 1699, however, they had lost Hungary to the Austrians. After that, while the nations of western Europe grew stronger, the Ottoman Empire became weaker.

Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Ottoman sultans had to combat enemies both within and without their empire. Their foreign enemies were the European powers, which snatched up their outlying lands. Their enemies at home were the subject peoples, especially in the Balkan Peninsula of southeast Europe, who demanded their freedom. Unrest was chronic and the Ottoman Empire, which was usually called simply Turkey, came to be known as “the sick man of Europe.”

By the 1850’s, Turkey had lost lands north of the Black Sea to Russia and Algeria‚ in North Africa, to France. Of its former Balkan holdings, Greece was independent and both Serbia and Rumania had some freedom. A native Arab dynasty ruled much of Arabia. In Egypt, a former Turkish governor had set himself up as hereditary khedive, or viceroy, but the Ottoman holdings were still huge reaching from Tunisia to the shores of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

In the Crimean War of 1354-56, the Turks were rescued  from the attacking Russians by the British and French. The war showed them how far behind the Europeans they were in science, technology and practically everything else that counted in the modem world. They saw they must either strengthen their empire or watch it fall to pieces. In 1856, the sultan announced sweeping changes. Moslems as well as Christians and Jews were now required to pay taxes. Torture was abolished and strict punishments set for dishonest officials.


For twenty years the reformers strove to bring the creaky old empire up to date. Newspapers were printed and liberal Western ideas circulated. Schools and colleges were founded, including an American school, Roberts College. The government borrowed money abroad and a railroad was built between the Black Sea and the Danube River. The subject peoples were given a greater say in their affairs.

However, the reformers had enemies in high places. The powerful religious leaders, unwilling to give up their authority over their followers, resisted them strongly. Reforms were blocked by ordinary men, too. The Balkan peoples, for instance, no longer thought of themselves as Christian subjects of a Moslem ruler, but as Bulgars, Greeks, Rumanians, Serbs, or Armenians. They cared nothing about reforming the Ottoman Empire; they wanted to get out of it and they were willing to fight for their freedom.

In 1876, a new Sultan, Abdul Hamid, came to power. He issued a constitution which promised his subjects personal liberty, freedom of religion, education, the press and an elected government, but the next year he showed his true colors. The first parliament in Turkish history had hardly met when he sent its members home and tore up the constitution.

Abdul Hamid crushed the reformers’ hope of a Turkish revival. He lived, as one historian wrote, “like a terrified animal, fighting back blindly and fiercely against forces that he could not understand.” His fear of all change infected his entire government. When a shipment of dynamos arrived in Constantinople the Turkish customs officers learned that the dynamos made several hundred revolutions a minute. Fearful even of the word “revolution” they refused to let the dynamos into the country. Chemistry books for the American college were destroyed out of fear that the chemical symbols on their pages were coded messages to agitators plotting against the government.

Panicked by the slightest move to modernize Turkey, the sultan put all the reformers he could into prison, where they were tortured and killed. The reformers fought back by assassinating his officials. Thousands of persons fled into exile, especially to Paris, where they plotted to overthrow “Abdul the Damned.” The Sultan was frightened, too, of nationalist agitation among his non-Turkish subjects. On his orders, Turkish troops slaughtered uncounted tens of thousands of peasants — Bulgarians, Armenians and others. The massacres horrified the people of western Europe, who demanded that their leaders do something about it. While the West European governments deplored the bloodshed, they had no intention of supporting the aim of the Turkish reformers. They all had interests in the Middle East and wanted to keep “the sick man of Europe” from recovering.


Soon after the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the British, who used it more than any other nation, began to think of it as their “lifeline of empire.” In 1875 the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, learned that the Khedive of Egypt was almost bankrupt. He immediately bought the Khedive’s shares in the Suez Canal, amounting to almost half the total stock and Great Britain became the chief owner of the canal.

The canal was on Ottoman territory and the Turks were again being threatened by the Russians. For generations, the Russians had dreamed of taking over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, the straits which led into and out of the Sea of Marmora. The straits would give Russia an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. In claiming the Turkish territory, the Tzar’s government used the doctrine called Pan-Slavism as an excuse.

Pan-Slavism was the idea that all peoples of Slavic birth must stand together. The Russians offered to help their fellow Slavs in the Balkans get rid of their Turkish masters and to protect them thereafter. Many Bulgars, Serbs and other Balkan Slavs feared that Russian “protection” would really mean Russian rule, but even so they welcomed the Russian offer.

In 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Its armies overran the Balkans, reached Constantinople and forced the Turks to sign a treaty. The Treaty of San Stefano, as it was called, granted independence to Rumania and Serbia and some self-rule to a. new state, Bulgaria. Alarmed by Russia’s success, the British people clamoured for war against Russia and sang:

We don’t want to fight,

but by jingo‚ if we do,

We’ve got the men,

we’ve got the ships,

we’ve got the money, too.

From this popular song came a new word in the English language-“jingoism,” meaning a warlike attitude toward a foreign nation.

Everyone knew that an Anglo-Russian war could easily become a European war. To prevent this, the German chancellor, Bismarck, summoned the powers of Europe to Berlin. To get them to agree on a settlement, it seemed necessary to give them something — and the gifts turned out to be parts of the Ottoman Empire. The Congress of Berlin kept peace in Europe at the expense of Turkey.

Russia was persuaded to give up the Treaty of San Stefano, but it kept its conquests on the south side of the Caucasus Mountains and won independence for the Serbs and Rumanians. Montenegro was also recognized as independent. Bulgaria was left in the Ottoman Empire, but divided into zones with more or less self-government. Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia, but not to annex it. Great Britain took over the large island of Cyprus, near Suez. France gained Tunisia, on the eastern Bank of Algeria. Italy was put off with a vague hint that it might someday be allowed to occupy little Albania — for‚ as Bismarck privately complained. “the Italians have such a large appetite and such poor teeth.” Germany took nothing. Bismarck boasted that he was an “honest broker,” with no interest except peace.

The Treaty of Berlin did prevent war, but it left many problems unsolved. Neither the Russian Pan-Slavs nor the Balkan nationalists were satisfied with it. Both Abdul Hamid and the reformers who opposed him were furious over the further loss of Turkish territory.

In 1882, rioting broke out in the Egyptian port of Alexandria against the unpopular khedive and his British and French backers. British warships bombarded the city and British troops landed, put down the riot and took the khedive into their protection. Egypt was important to Great Britain, not only because of Suez, but also because it furnished much of the raw cotton used by British textile factories. The British set up a protectorate over the country and they stayed on, to the annoyance of the French, who consoled themselves by pushing west from Algeria into Morocco. This move displeased both the British and the Germans. Thus rivalry over the spoils of the Ottoman Empire caused bad feeling among the powers.

In 1908, Turkish reformers finally seized power from the aged Abdul Hamid. They hurriedly pushed through reforms but they acted too late to hold on to what was left of the empire. By this time, Bulgaria had declared its independence and Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia. In 1911 and 1912, Italy seized the Dodecanese Islands and Libya, in North Africa. In the two Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, Turkey lost almost all of its territory in Europe to Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and to Albania, which became independent in 1912.

Meanwhile, to the growing concern of Great Britain, France and Russia, Germany had gained more and more influence in Turkey. German engineers had planned and partly built with German money — a great railway to run from Berlin all the way to Bagdad. This railway when completed, would give Germany access to important Middle Eastern resources, including oil. The British were particularly unhappy about this project, which they saw as a threat to their empire in India.

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