It’s always news when an empire falls. Or is it? My first introduction to any details of the Ottoman Empire came when preparing for a trip to Turkey and reading a biography of the founding father of the Turkish Republic, Attaturk. Father Turk. Or, as he was known in his pre-presidential life, Colonel Mustafa Kemal of the Ottoman army. Life for that new republic began in 1923. However, the Ottomans at that time had been ruling for over 400 years. Their territory covered from Russia to Jerusalem. A span of time and geography that encompassed equalled that of the Romans.
The Muslims captured Constantinople in the 15th century. Changed the name to Istanbul. Cut off the silk road and launched a thousand European ships (including Columbus’) looking for a sea route to India replace the lost overland route. But that’s another story.
Fast forward to the late 19th Century. Trouble in the Royal family. Pressure from the many borders of the far-flung empire. Russia, Europe, etc. Trouble inside the borders. Armenians and Greeks kicking up a fuss. The Ottomans were relatively benign rulers. You were supposed to be Muslim, but there were ways around that. Pay your taxes and keep your head down and you were all right in most instances. However, crisis breeds repression. Repression breeds rebellion. And thus it went for the Ottoman Pashas.
Eugene Rogan details in vivid prose in The Fall of The Ottomans how it happened that by the time all of Europe started shooting at one another, they began looking for allies. Likewise the Ottomans needed help to shore up the ruins of a crumbling empire. They chose Germany and the other entente powers. Fateful error.
The progress of the fighting sometimes reads somewhat like a chronicle of today’s bloodiest news. At other times it reads like the story of the decisions (treaties) that divided up the middle east and Europe in ways that triggered today’s bloodiest news. British-imposed Zionism; Europeans and Ottomans playing the Arabs off against one another. Russia playing footsie with the Eastern border of Turkey much in the way Putin plays with Ukraine and Crimea. Then, the intimate story of the Armenian massacre. Followed (didn’t know this) by the story of the post-war assassination of virtually every member of the key players in the genocide decision.
There are many villains and few heroes in this saga, and of course, we still–and will–suffer today from the artificial partition of Syria and Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq and on and on according to the greedy deal-making the victors indulged in. Deals that made the victors, in my mind, the defeated in the long run. Not that there are any victors, I think, in the long run to this, one of the ugliest of all messes in history.