July 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the fall of the all-powerful Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had victoriously marched the streets of Damascus on September 26, 1516, but 402 years later they had to taste defeat.
The Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful Islamic Empires (1290-1918). In 16th century, entire Middle East and North Africa came under the rule of Sultan Selim I (Yavuz), followed by the rule of Sultan Suleyman (Kanuni) who overtook North Africa excluding Morocco. Known as the ‘Protectors of the Pilgrimage’, they once ruled over Mecca and Medina.
History has shown that once an empire collapses, its remnants somehow remain. We see President Vladimir Putin trying to sell Russian national ideas in Crimea. A similar debate happening in Ankara is no exception to this rule. Through the epochs of history, we have heard praises of Ottoman commerce, laws and several aspects of their civil administration that existed in the 20th century.
Ottomans were known to create a power structure designed to overcome challenges in governance because the empire was spread over vast geographical spheres covering an entire spectrum of social organisations – from urban cities to rural populations. In fact, nomadic pastoralist communities like Berbers, Bediuns, and Turkmen still exist as races.
Many missionaries, dervishes, pilgrims, and traders brought with them their language, religion and culture, and contributed vastly to the Ottoman empire – Druzes, Christians, Slavic languages, Russian dialects to name a few. No one can deny the deserving survival of the Ottoman architecture, its influence on music, cuisine, Arab language, heritage among others till today. The reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in Ottoman Palestine is well recorded apart from other role models. ‘Ottoman Empire has left an imprint on history which was backed by modernisation and self confidence,’ claims Albert Hourani.
Having said that, not many modern Middle East observers of history have commented on the bad side of Ottoman history. The grotesque side of Ottoman army has not been articulated well in media machines where all male subjects of the empire between 17- 55 were forcefully recruited into the army. The officer class was often pampered by the Sultan, while foot soldiers were often left as under privileged. Rich young boys often used to give bribes to manage their way out of the service. They were eventually sent to combat in far off places.
The tales of the dreaded war of Safar Barlik were often recorded by elite few and many used to be punished in the battlefront. Over 2.8 million were sent to war where 325,000 died between 1914 and 1918. This anguish of war was destructive to both rich and poor in Ottoman Syria, where many families shivered in the winter of 1915. More agony followed in the same year when famine broke out in the Port of Beirut, where many flocked into Damascus and died of hunger. The population there dropped from 180,000 to 75,000 from 1914 to 1916. “There were people dying on the streets everyday,” ascertains Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian and a Carnegie scholar.
Turkish leaders like Prime Minister Erdogan know about their mournful history. He therefore wants to promote the good side of the Ottoman era- and thus is working for its revival. Although being in alliance with the British against the Arabs, by not selling the Ottoman Palestine to the Zionists in the Great War, Turkey today wants a brotherly expansion of the Ottoman culture in the Arab region. His approach has worked well to some extent, by engaging with the political actors in Damascus, who now root the good side of Ottoman – Arab history as well.
The early Ottoman traditions looked at French oriented culture in Europe for inspiration and alliances. The AK Party in Turkey takes pride in its centre – right position in Turkish politics – a slogan which resonates in average Anatolian populations. The country also wants a similar British commonwealth role in the Arab region. However, the present ruling AK party views Turkey as part of the western coalition but is also posing a clear departure from the late Ottoman period. These political stances are part of the neo-Ottomanism strategy implemented by Turkey internationally, which are mostly economic and political in nature. In Ankara’s political chambers, the debate rages to balance the historic Ottoman view of governance to the current scenario. Their actions are getting implemented because of the consciousness and interpretations of their history.
Importantly, there was an urgent realisation of the fact that the geo-political position of Turkey in the world should prove beneficial regionally but also with a prudent global strategy. However, more recently, formation of the so called ‘Syrian Army’ and Turkish backed ‘Syrian National Council’ has breached the UN Charter and have attacked Syrian sovereignty with the help of Turkish intelligence, that again has raised questions regarding peace and development in the region.
The rise of Qatari – Turkish backed FSA has also faded to Salafi-backed organisations in Syria, especially to ISIS who have already declared a ‘Caliphate’ in the territory it has occupied. So what’s in store in terms of Ottoman revival? More war and less peace, to be precise.