Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 / Edition 1

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Overview

Empires of the Sand offers a bold and comprehensive reinterpretation of the struggle for mastery in the Middle East during the long nineteenth century (1789-1923). This book denies primacy to Western imperialism in the restructuring of the region and attributes equal responsibility to regional powers. Rejecting the view of modern Middle Eastern history as an offshoot of global power politics, the authors argue that the main impetus for the developments of this momentous period came from the local actors.

Ottoman and Western imperial powers alike are implicated in a delicate balancing act of manipulation and intrigue in which they sought to exploit regional and world affairs to their greatest advantage. Backed by a wealth of archival sources, the authors refute the standard belief that Europe was responsible for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the region's political unity. Instead, they show how the Hashemites played a decisive role in shaping present Middle Eastern boundaries and in hastening the collapse of Ottoman rule. Similarly, local states and regimes had few qualms about seeking support and protection from the "infidel" powers they had vilified whenever their interests so required.

Karsh and Karsh see a pattern of pragmatic cooperation and conflict between the Middle East and the West during the past two centuries, rather than a "clash of civilizations." Such a vision affords daringly new ways of viewing the Middle East's past as well as its volatile present.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times

A readable, scholarly re-examination of a long and complicated Middle Eastern history...The Karshes provide useful historical backgrounds to the emergence of independent countries in Egypt, Greece, the Balkans and former Danube principalities like Serbia and Romania. But the main purpose of this very detailed and broad-shouldered history is to revise many of the standard interpretations that have been given to Middle Eastern history over the last two centuries. Most generally the Karshes dispute the idea that the main events and developments in the region stem from the machinations of the great powers, especially Britain and France. The 'main impetus behind regional developments,' they write, was 'the local actors'...The authors write clearly and authoritatively and with great geographical sweep. They provide crisp and informed accounts of the main events involving the Ottomans and the rest of the world...Those who do not know much of these events will learn a great deal from this book, while specialists with views differing from the Karshes' will face a robust challenge to their interpretations.
— Richard Bernstein

Washington Times

A provocative new history of the Middle East that in important respects is different from any one had read before...The Ottomans were around for a thousand years, the European portion of their empire for about half of that time. That the ramifications are still with us—so soon afterwards in the long view—should not surprise. The Karshes' important book throws new, in places probing, light on many of those ramifications.
— Colin Walters

Boston Book Review

Contrary to the supposition, popular with historians from the East and the West, that the Ottoman Empire was slowly bled to death by the great powers of Europe who later fed upon its imperial remains, Efraim and Inari Karsh argue that the great powers repeatedly bolstered the toppling empire, that the Ottomans played a considerable part in their own demise, and that 'the main impetus for the developments of this momentous period came from the local actors'...All in all, the Karshes make a strong case that 'greed rather than necessity drove the Ottoman Empire into the First World War.'
— Charles M. Stang

Commentary

In a tour de force that offers a profoundly new understanding of a key issue in modern Middle Eastern history, Efraim and Inari Karsh review the relations between Europe and the Ottoman empire in the final century-and-a-half of the latter's existence, and in the process nearly reverse the standard historical interpretation...Drawing on a wide range of original sources, and writing in a clearly organized fashion and in fast-paced prose, the Karshes make a very compelling case for their revisionist position, establishing it point by point and in elegant detail...In all, I can hardly remember last reading so important and daring a reinterpretation of Middle Eastern history, or one so laden with implications.
— Daniel Pipes

Lingua Franca

According to most accounts, the British sold dreams of Arab unity and sovereignty down the river with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But in their revisionist history The Empires of the Sand, Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh argue that this tale of betrayal and Western culpability is itself a mirage...Efraim and Inari Karsh will not escape the cloud of controversy that surrounds them with this new history...Whatever the historical record yields on [their] points, one thing is clear: Pan-Arabism, despite its decline as an active political agenda in the region, remains a live wire. Karsh and Karsh, with their blunt contention that the allies 'generously rewarded' the Hashemites 'in the form of vast territories several times the size of the British Isles,' are likely to spark a maelstrom of debate.
— Anna Secor

Sunday Times

A complex and challenging revision of Middle Eastern political history.
— Anthony Sattin

Sunday Telegraph

This is a fascinating book.
— Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Booklist

In this striking reinterpretation of the modern history of the Middle East, the authors discard the traditional view of Middle Eastern rulers and peoples as passive, near helpless victims of Western imperialist machinations. Rather, they convincingly portray both Ottoman and Arab leaders as active players in the game of power politics...The authors have superbly integrated an interesting cast of characters with broad historical forces. The result is an original and provocative reexamination of the recent history of this vital region.
— Jay Freeman

The Jerusalem Post

[The Karshes'] ambitious aim in Empires of the Sand is threefold. Firstly, they want to show that the Ottomans, even in decline, were far from helpless, and used their diplomatic wiles with some success in a rearguard action...Secondly, the authors maintain that after the First World War, the boundaries of the new nation states were determined not by popular demand of the inhabitants, but by the ambitions of the local potentates. Finally, the Karshes blame Ottoman imperialism itself for its downfall, and discount the effects of the spread of European nationalist doctrines...The Karshes make their case well, and their analysis of the events leading to Turkey's entry into the war is thorough and convincing...Empires of the Sand is an excellent and stimulating work that deserves a readership beyond the world of the professional historian. The Karshes have suggested interesting answers to hard questions, and are worthy of thanks.
— Ralph Ameian

MESA Bulletin

The chief goal of the authors of Empires of the Sand is to explain the volatility of the twentieth-century Middle East in terms of its origins in the nineteenth century…In seeking to do so, they have presented a carefully-researched and well-written work.
— William Ochsenwald

New York Times - Richard Bernstein
A readable, scholarly re-examination of a long and complicated Middle Eastern history...The Karshes provide useful historical backgrounds to the emergence of independent countries in Egypt, Greece, the Balkans and former Danube principalities like Serbia and Romania. But the main purpose of this very detailed and broad-shouldered history is to revise many of the standard interpretations that have been given to Middle Eastern history over the last two centuries. Most generally the Karshes dispute the idea that the main events and developments in the region stem from the machinations of the great powers, especially Britain and France. The 'main impetus behind regional developments,' they write, was 'the local actors'...The authors write clearly and authoritatively and with great geographical sweep. They provide crisp and informed accounts of the main events involving the Ottomans and the rest of the world...Those who do not know much of these events will learn a great deal from this book, while specialists with views differing from the Karshes' will face a robust challenge to their interpretations.
Washington Times - Colin Walters
A provocative new history of the Middle East that in important respects is different from any one had read before...The Ottomans were around for a thousand years, the European portion of their empire for about half of that time. That the ramifications are still with us--so soon afterwards in the long view--should not surprise. The Karshes' important book throws new, in places probing, light on many of those ramifications.
Boston Book Review - Charles M. Stang
Contrary to the supposition, popular with historians from the East and the West, that the Ottoman Empire was slowly bled to death by the great powers of Europe who later fed upon its imperial remains, Efraim and Inari Karsh argue that the great powers repeatedly bolstered the toppling empire, that the Ottomans played a considerable part in their own demise, and that 'the main impetus for the developments of this momentous period came from the local actors'...All in all, the Karshes make a strong case that 'greed rather than necessity drove the Ottoman Empire into the First World War.'
Commentary - Daniel Pipes
In a tour de force that offers a profoundly new understanding of a key issue in modern Middle Eastern history, Efraim and Inari Karsh review the relations between Europe and the Ottoman empire in the final century-and-a-half of the latter's existence, and in the process nearly reverse the standard historical interpretation...Drawing on a wide range of original sources, and writing in a clearly organized fashion and in fast-paced prose, the Karshes make a very compelling case for their revisionist position, establishing it point by point and in elegant detail...In all, I can hardly remember last reading so important and daring a reinterpretation of Middle Eastern history, or one so laden with implications.
Lingua Franca - Anna Secor
According to most accounts, the British sold dreams of Arab unity and sovereignty down the river with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But in their revisionist history The Empires of the Sand, Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh argue that this tale of betrayal and Western culpability is itself a mirage...Efraim and Inari Karsh will not escape the cloud of controversy that surrounds them with this new history...Whatever the historical record yields on [their] points, one thing is clear: Pan-Arabism, despite its decline as an active political agenda in the region, remains a live wire. Karsh and Karsh, with their blunt contention that the allies 'generously rewarded' the Hashemites 'in the form of vast territories several times the size of the British Isles,' are likely to spark a maelstrom of debate.
Sunday Times - Anthony Sattin
A complex and challenging revision of Middle Eastern political history.
Sunday Telegraph - Geoffrey Wheatcroft
This is a fascinating book.
Booklist - Jay Freeman
In this striking reinterpretation of the modern history of the Middle East, the authors discard the traditional view of Middle Eastern rulers and peoples as passive, near helpless victims of Western imperialist machinations. Rather, they convincingly portray both Ottoman and Arab leaders as active players in the game of power politics...The authors have superbly integrated an interesting cast of characters with broad historical forces. The result is an original and provocative reexamination of the recent history of this vital region.
The Jerusalem Post - Ralph Ameian
[The Karshes'] ambitious aim in Empires of the Sand is threefold. Firstly, they want to show that the Ottomans, even in decline, were far from helpless, and used their diplomatic wiles with some success in a rearguard action...Secondly, the authors maintain that after the First World War, the boundaries of the new nation states were determined not by popular demand of the inhabitants, but by the ambitions of the local potentates. Finally, the Karshes blame Ottoman imperialism itself for its downfall, and discount the effects of the spread of European nationalist doctrines...The Karshes make their case well, and their analysis of the events leading to Turkey's entry into the war is thorough and convincing...Empires of the Sand is an excellent and stimulating work that deserves a readership beyond the world of the professional historian. The Karshes have suggested interesting answers to hard questions, and are worthy of thanks.
MESA Bulletin - William Ochsenwald
The chief goal of the authors of Empires of the Sand is to explain the volatility of the twentieth-century Middle East in terms of its origins in the nineteenth century…In seeking to do so, they have presented a carefully-researched and well-written work.
New York Times
A readable, scholarly re-examination of a long and complicated Middle Eastern history...The Karshes provide useful historical backgrounds to the emergence of independent countries in Egypt, Greece, the Balkans and former Danube principalities like Serbia and Romania. But the main purpose of this very detailed and broad-shouldered history is to revise many of the standard interpretations that have been given to Middle Eastern history over the last two centuries. Most generally the Karshes dispute the idea that the main events and developments in the region stem from the machinations of the great powers, especially Britain and France. The 'main impetus behind regional developments,' they write, was 'the local actors'...The authors write clearly and authoritatively and with great geographical sweep. They provide crisp and informed accounts of the main events involving the Ottomans and the rest of the world...Those who do not know much of these events will learn a great deal from this book, while specialists with views differing from the Karshes' will face a robust challenge to their interpretations.
— Richard Bernstein
Lingua Franca
According to most accounts, the British sold dreams of Arab unity and sovereignty down the river with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But in their revisionist history The Empires of the Sand, Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh argue that this tale of betrayal and Western culpability is itself a mirage...Efraim and Inari Karsh will not escape the cloud of controversy that surrounds them with this new history...Whatever the historical record yields on [their] points, one thing is clear: Pan-Arabism, despite its decline as an active political agenda in the region, remains a live wire. Karsh and Karsh, with their blunt contention that the allies 'generously rewarded' the Hashemites 'in the form of vast territories several times the size of the British Isles,' are likely to spark a maelstrom of debate.
— Anna Secor
Booklist
In this striking reinterpretation of the modern history of the Middle East, the authors discard the traditional view of Middle Eastern rulers and peoples as passive, near helpless victims of Western imperialist machinations. Rather, they convincingly portray both Ottoman and Arab leaders as active players in the game of power politics...The authors have superbly integrated an interesting cast of characters with broad historical forces. The result is an original and provocative reexamination of the recent history of this vital region.
— Jay Freeman
Sunday Times
A complex and challenging revision of Middle Eastern political history.
— Anthony Sattin
Sunday Telegraph
This is a fascinating book.
— Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Washington Times
A provocative new history of the Middle East that in important respects is different from any one had read before...The Ottomans were around for a thousand years, the European portion of their empire for about half of that time. That the ramifications are still with us--so soon afterwards in the long view--should not surprise. The Karshes' important book throws new, in places probing, light on many of those ramifications.
— Colin Walters
Commentary
In a tour de force that offers a profoundly new understanding of a key issue in modern Middle Eastern history, Efraim and Inari Karsh review the relations between Europe and the Ottoman empire in the final century-and-a-half of the latter's existence, and in the process nearly reverse the standard historical interpretation...Drawing on a wide range of original sources, and writing in a clearly organized fashion and in fast-paced prose, the Karshes make a very compelling case for their revisionist position, establishing it point by point and in elegant detail...In all, I can hardly remember last reading so important and daring a reinterpretation of Middle Eastern history, or one so laden with implications.
— Daniel Pipes
Boston Book Review
Contrary to the supposition, popular with historians from the East and the West, that the Ottoman Empire was slowly bled to death by the great powers of Europe who later fed upon its imperial remains, Efraim and Inari Karsh argue that the great powers repeatedly bolstered the toppling empire, that the Ottomans played a considerable part in their own demise, and that 'the main impetus for the developments of this momentous period came from the local actors'...All in all, the Karshes make a strong case that 'greed rather than necessity drove the Ottoman Empire into the First World War.'
— Charles M. Stang
The Jerusalem Post
[The Karshes'] ambitious aim in Empires of the Sand is threefold. Firstly, they want to show that the Ottomans, even in decline, were far from helpless, and used their diplomatic wiles with some success in a rearguard action...Secondly, the authors maintain that after the First World War, the boundaries of the new nation states were determined not by popular demand of the inhabitants, but by the ambitions of the local potentates. Finally, the Karshes blame Ottoman imperialism itself for its downfall, and discount the effects of the spread of European nationalist doctrines...The Karshes make their case well, and their analysis of the events leading to Turkey's entry into the war is thorough and convincing...Empires of the Sand is an excellent and stimulating work that deserves a readership beyond the world of the professional historian. The Karshes have suggested interesting answers to hard questions, and are worthy of thanks.
— Ralph Ameian
MESA Bulletin
The chief goal of the authors of Empires of the Sand is to explain the volatility of the twentieth-century Middle East in terms of its origins in the nineteenth century…In seeking to do so, they have presented a carefully-researched and well-written work.
— William Ochsenwald
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This survey of the demise of the Ottoman Empire reeks of academic turf wars. In assessing the last 130-odd years of the Turkish empire, the authors assault the prevailing wisdom that the decline of the "Sick Man of Europe" was inevitable; they claim, rather, that it resulted from a series of poor choices made by its leaders. This approach is both provocative and productive, as the authors, relying on an impressive array of archival and secondary sources, demonstrate how the Ottoman leaders sealed their own fate--their decision to play cat-and-mouse with both sides during WWI was only the final error in a series of blunders. The two London-based scholars also debunk the myth of early Arab nationalism and show that, as the empire was being divvied up after the war, Arab leaders grabbed whatever land they could get in search of personal gain. But the authors' relentlessly negative depictions of the motivations of Turkish and Arab leaders--"Greed rather than necessity drove the Ottoman Empire into the First World War," for example--in contrast to the nonjudgmental ways in which they describe Western leaders seem to derive from an anti-Eastern animus. Indeed, this apparent bias undermines their plausible argument that "there has been no `clash of civilizations' between the Middle East and the West in the past two centuries, but rather a pattern of pragmatic cooperation and conflict," and prevents this otherwise comprehensive text from being a much more useful source. Dec. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jay Freeman
The authors have superbly integrated an interesting cast of characters with broad historical forces. The result is an original and provocative reexamination of the recent history of this vital region.
—Jay Freeman, Booklist
R. Stephen Humphreys
... the Karshes bring a lot of artillery to bear, and their book is distinguished by both clear, vigorous writing and much new research. The tale of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is hideously complicated, but they hold it all together in a narrative that is not only coherent but often dramatic...The Karshes have, as they intended, given us a controversial book, and its forceful and provocative presentation will make it an important contribution to the literature.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674005419
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/2/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 426
  • Product dimensions: 0.90 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Efraim Karsh is Professor and Director of the Mediterranean Studies Program at King's College, London.

Inari Karsh is a scholar of Middle East history and politics.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


RIDING THE
NAPOLEONIC STORMS


The French Revolution was a nightmare for the European monarchies, but for the Ottoman Empire it was a blessing in disguise. While its enemies were tied up elsewhere, Istanbul was granted a precious respite to gather forces. For Sultan Selim III, who ascended the throne in 1789, the very same year that the cry for "Liberté, Légalité, et Fraternité" reverberated throughout Europe, the message ran loud and clear: "Modernité." The young sultan was determined to acquire the best in Western technology and know-how in order to save his empire from external and internal threats alike. Not only did he establish permanent embassies in the major capitals in an attempt to incorporate the Ottoman Empire into the European political and diplomatic milieu, but he also turned to France, which he held in great esteem, for help in creating the "New Order," Nizam-i Jedid, for his men in arms.

    This honeymoon soured, however, following the appearance of a brilliant young Corsican general who spread the revolution right to the Ottoman doorstep. In 1797, following a string of shining victories in Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte dictated peace to Austria in Campo Formio, rendering France for the first time in history a direct neighbor of the Ottoman Empire. In May of the following year Bonaparte, together with some thirty-eight thousand troops and an impressive cohort of scientists and scholars, set sail to conquer Egypt.

    The invasion fell upon the Egyptians like a bolt out of the blue. Scarcely awareof the revolutionary fervor in Europe in general and of Bonaparte's military ambitions in particular, the Mamluk beys, who were the effective rulers of Egypt under nominal Ottoman suzerainty, responded with contempt and disbelief: "Let the Franks come; we will crush them beneath our horses' hooves." Soon enough they swallowed their words. Confronted with a far superior army, the Mamluk forces proved a poor match for their French adversaries. On July 21, 1798, the remnants of Mamluk resistance were crushed in the Battle of the Pyramids, just outside Cairo.

    As the French tricolor was hoisted beside the Ottoman flag throughout the country, the bewildered Egyptians realized that they had acquired a new foreign master. They nicknamed Bonaparte al-Sultan al-Kabir, and the general, elated over his conquest, went out of his way to present himself, or for that matter all Frenchmen, as men of the Prophet. "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. There is no God but Allah," ran a French appeal to the Egyptian religious authorities, "tell your nation that the French are also faithful Muslims."

    Sultan Selim was not impressed. Although Bonaparte went to great pains to present the invasion as a gallant attempt to save the Ottoman Empire from the claws of the unruly Mamluks, Selim preferred to choose his own would-be saviors. Having no intention to remain a passive spectator to the occupation of his lands, he promptly declared a jihad against the infidel French invaders. Meanwhile, he arranged for other infidels, namely, Britain and Russia, to defend his Islamic order.

    Discussions began as early as July 1798. Britain felt its imperial lifeline to India threatened, while Russia feared a French attack on its southern flank. In September, for the first time ever, the Russian Black Sea fleet crossed the Turkish Straits to the Mediterranean to join forces with its Ottoman counterpart. Soon afterward negotiations produced a historic secret military alliance between the Muslim Empire and the Christian Powers: on January 3, 1799, the Ottomans joined forces with Russia, and two days later with Britain.

    Before long this coalition squeezed the French out of the region. Forced to live under intolerable conditions, Bonaparte's men were cured of any romantic notions of an Egyptian "noble savage." They realized that in the eyes of the Egyptians they remained unwelcome "Nazarene" plunderers. Worse, they were deserted by their own leader—who had to return to France—and their retreat became a humiliating affair. By 1802 Sultan Selim's territories had been fully recovered, with France even becoming a guarantor of his imperial order. The dark cloud of Bonaparte's ambitions over the Ottoman horizon had disappeared.

    Or had it? As France and Britain renewed hostilities in the spring of 1803, Istanbul was teeming with European diplomats vying to win the Ottomans over to their cause. Even Bonaparte, eager to tie Russia down in the Balkans, went out of his way to convince the Ottoman Empire to join his anti-Russian coalition. Yet he was playing an unscrupulous double-game: at the same time that his envoy was pleading with the sultan, Bonaparte's agents were still fomenting sedition in various quarters of the Balkans and charting options for occupation should that become a possibility. Bonaparte even approached Tsar Alexander I with the suggestion that they partition the Ottoman Empire, only to be turned down. In October 1804 Russia joined Austria in guaranteeing the integrity of the Ottoman Empire; the following year the two countries joined Britain in its war against France.

    Not surprisingly, the question of a renewed anti-Napoleonic coalition in the Middle East loomed large. No sooner had Selim indicated his willingness to conclude an alliance with Russia than both London and St. Petersburg agreed to join him. In the Treaty of Defensive Alliance of September 1805, Russia vowed to defend the integrity of the Ottoman Empire against France and its "projects of aggrandizement," while the Ottomans promised to join the anti-Napoleonic coalition and, most desirably for Russia, to facilitate the passage of Russian warships in the Turkish Straits.

    For his part Napoleon toiled tirelessly to draw the two Middle Eastern empires—the Ottoman and the Persian—into his anti-Russian axis. "Are you blind to your own interests—have you ceased to reign?" he asked the sultan:


If Russia has an army of 15,000 men at Corfu, do you believe that it is directed against me? Armed vessels have the habit of hastening to Constantinople. Your dynasty is about to descend into oblivion ... Trust only your true friend—France.


In the summer of 1806 Napoleon sent General H. L. Sebastiani as ambassador extraordinary to Istanbul to convince the Porte to cancel all special privileges granted to Russia, to open the Turkish Straits exclusively to French warships, and, above all, to join France in a war alliance against Russia. In return, Napoleon promised to help the sultan suppress an anti-Ottoman rebellion in Serbia and to recover lost Ottoman territories, particularly the Crimean Peninsula, whose capture by Catherine the Great was still a painful thorn in the Ottomans' side. "It is my mission to save your empire, and I put my victories at our common disposal," he wrote to Selim.

    The French emperor was preaching to the converted. Having signed the Treaty of Defensive Alliance, Selim began to have second thoughts. He was willing to sup with the Russian "devil" in 1799, and yet again in 1805, to protect his imperial possessions, but he had neither forgiven Russia's past seizure of Ottoman lands nor forgotten its ominous threat to his empire. Nor had Selim's basic admiration for France diminished following Napoleon's Middle Eastern adventure and his European expansion. Now that the French were going from strength to strength—defeating the Austrians in Austerlitz (1805) and routing the Prussians in Jena and Auerstadt (1806)—the sultan was reconsidering his priorities. Perhaps, after all, Napoleon was the answer to the Ottomans' imperial predicament. Perhaps he really could enable the Ottomans to regain their lost possessions.

    Hence, Selim refused to ratify his 1805 agreement with Russia, let alone renew the alliance with Britain. In February 1806, after two years of equivocation, he recognized Napoleon as emperor. And, to Russia's detriment, the sultan also stipulated that Russian warships could pass through the Turkish Straits only after a formal request, a euphemism for the de facto closure of the waterway.

    Tsar Alexander was enraged. On September, 8, 1806, the Russian ambassador to the Porte, Andrei Italinsky, issued a warning to Selim to abide by his treaty obligations with Russia and, moreover, to renew the alliance with Britain. His country had a 90,000-strong army at the Dniester, the ambassador intimated. Whether this force would be used in support of the Ottoman Empire or against it was up to the sultan. These pressures were reinforced by the British, who demanded that Istanbul end its flirtation with France and allow Russian warships to pass through the straits. When Selim failed to comply, eloquently explaining that the straits could not be opened to Alexander's vessels of war owing to the Ottoman obligation of neutrality, the Russians invaded the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in November 1806. To sweeten the pill for the sultan, the tsar presented the invasion as a temporary move to protect the Ottoman Empire against Napoleon, promising to withdraw his troops from the Ottoman provinces as soon as Istanbul respected its treaty obligations.

    Selim would not budge. On December 24, 1806, he ordered Italinsky to leave Istanbul; three days later he declared war on Russia. This in turn put the Ottoman Empire on a collision course, not only with St. Petersburg, but also with London. In no time the British ambassador to the Porte, Charles Arbuthnot, was pressuring Selim to expel Napoleon's envoy, declare war on France, cede the Danubian Principalities to Russia, and surrender the Ottoman fleet, together with the forts on the Dardanelles, to Britain. To underscore the seriousness of these demands, a British squadron, commanded by Admiral John Duckworth, entered the Dardanelles on February 19, 1807, destroyed an Ottoman naval force in the Sea of Marmara, and anchored opposite Istanbul.

    Selim kept his nerve. Having secretly mobilized his forces, he rebuffed the British ultimatum and opted for a military alliance with France, "our sincere and natural ally." This shook the British, who suddenly realized the vulnerable position of their naval forces in the straits. To escape encirclement, Duckworth sailed back to the Mediterranean, but not before suffering humiliating losses.

    Routing the British forces, however, was meager consolation to Selim, whose hopes of recovering lost Ottoman territories "from the yoke of Russian domination" were continually thwarted. The ill-prepared and poorly equipped Ottoman army proved no match for its Russian adversary. By the time Selim declared war on Russia in December 1806, the latter had already advanced as far as Bucharest; shortly afterward Russia was in complete control of Wallachia and Bessarabia. In the summer of 1807 the Russian fleet blockaded the mouth of the Dardanelles and crippled the Ottoman navy in two major encounters: the Battle of the Dardanelles (May 22) and "the Russian Trafalgar" (July 1). Military aid from France was too little too late to save the day.

    To make matters worse, the sultan made a tragic blunder on the domestic front. Taking advantage of the departure of his elite fighting force, the Janissaries, for the battlefront, he sought to establish a new, more efficient fighting force along European lines. This triggered a violent response from all those who feared that Selim's "Frankish manners" would undermine their vested interests, including those Janissaries who remained in Istanbul, the reactionary party in the Divan, and the religious authorities, the ulema. The Janissaries overturned their soup kettles as a sign of revolt, and before long the sultan was replaced by Mustafa IV "in the interest of the House of Osman." Selim, having warned his successor off too many reforms, reportedly sought to poison himself, but Mustafa grabbed the chalice from his lips. Selim retreated to palatial imprisonment. But the days of Ottoman trouble were far from over.


In one crucial respect Mustafa continued, and even accelerated, his predecessor's policy: the French connection. At the time of his ascendancy, Franco-Ottoman negotiations were at a stalemate, with the French demanding a permanent offensive alliance directed against both Russia and Britain, and the Ottomans insistent on a defensive alliance against Russia for no longer than three years. To break this deadlock Mustafa agreed to accommodate the French position, sending his new foreign minister, Halet Efendi, to Paris. Halet offered to continue the war against Russia and Great Britain, but demanded French guarantees for the restoration of Ottoman territories, first and foremost the Crimea, in the framework of a final peace treaty.

    By now, however, the French war strategy had gone full circle. Having defeated Russia in Friedland in June 1807, Napoleon no longer needed an Ottoman alliance. Instead, he performed a spectacular diplomatic feat by reaching out to the Ottoman archenemy, Alexander I, in an attempt to harness him to France's struggle against England. The tsar, for his part, war-weary and saddled with food and supply shortages in his army, was willing to desert England. In a historic meeting between the two emperors in the German town of Tilsit, on July 7, 1807, a secret agreement was struck. Napoleon abandoned his alliance with the Ottomans and undertook to force them into a settlement with Russia; in return, Alexander recognized the French conquests and agreed to hand back the Danubian Principalities to the Porte and to leave the Ionian Islands and Dalmatia to France. Failing the conclusion of a Russo-Ottoman peace, France would join the war against the Ottomans and make arrangements to divide their European colonies, leaving only Istanbul and the province of Rumelia to the sultan. When Alexander requested the cession of the Ottoman capital to Russia, Napoleon reputedly gave an adamant response: "Constantinople? Never!"

    As rumors of Tilsit reached Istanbul, a feeling of betrayal crept in despite French assurances. Yet, assessing that Ottoman interests would be better served under a victor's umbrella, the sultan announced his intention to sign an alliance with France and expressed readiness to make peace with Russia. This, in turn, allowed France to mediate an armistice between Russia and the Ottoman Empire on August 24, 1807, in accordance with the Tilsit Treaty: Russia agreed to evacuate Moldavia and Wallachia within thirty-five days, while Ottoman forces were to move south of the Danube.

    Only the Ottomans kept their end of the bargain. Because he was reluctant to relinquish control over the principalities, the tsar refused to ratify the armistice agreement under the pretext that his representative lacked the authority to sign it. Moreover, in his second meeting with Napoleon in September 1808, Alexander cemented a secret deal whereby Moldavia and Wallachia would be given to Russia. Apart from the principalities, Napoleon guaranteed the integrity of all Ottoman possessions. The question of partitioning the Ottoman Empire, which Napoleon had occasionally toyed with in the past, was dropped from the agenda.


Napoleon's failure to secure Russia's compliance with the armistice agreement confirmed the Ottomans' fears of betrayal, pushing them into British arms. On January 5, 1809, the Ottoman Empire and Britain concluded the Dardanelles Treaty of Peace, Commerce, and Secret Alliance, which terminated "every act of hostility" between the two countries. The Porte restored extensive British commercial and legal privileges in the empire—or the Capitulations, as they were called. In secret articles, Britain promised to protect the integrity of the Ottoman Empire against the French threat, both with its own fleet and through weapons supplies to Istanbul. Last but not least, Britain committed itself to helping secure a Russo-Ottoman peace treaty that would restore the "complete integrity of Ottoman Dominions."

    Under these circumstances the new ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mahmud II, who had ascended to the throne after the deposition of Mustafa, was in no mood for adventurism. When approached by Napoleon in early 1812 with proposals for a secret alliance, he declined. The temptation was powerful indeed—restoration of the Danubian Principalities and the Crimea—but the attendant cost was exorbitant: enforcement of the Continental Blockade against Britain and support for a French invasion of Russia. Besides, there was a bitter sense of déjà vu in Istanbul. Had Napoleon not promised all these things before, only to renege on his promises at the first opportunity? Rather than embark on an uncertain bear hunt with a dubious partner, Mahmud preferred to tame the beast on his own: he began direct negotiations with Russia.

    For their part the Russians were showing greater flexibility. Confronted with the ominous threat of a French invasion, they were willing to remove the main stumbling block to Russo-Ottoman peace: the question of Moldavia and Wallachia. Hence, in the Treaty of Bucharest, signed on May 28, 1812, the principalities were returned to the Ottoman Empire under their traditional autonomy, together with all Russian gains north of the Black Sea and in the Caucasus. In return, Russia received Bessarabia, with its boundary on the Pruth River, and the Ottomans agreed to respect a measure of autonomy for Serbia.

    When in the following month Napoleon declared war on Alexander and invaded Russia, Mahmud was beside himself with rage. Regretting his haste to sign the agreement, he dismissed his grand vizier and had his peace negotiators beheaded. Yet he did nothing to reverse the situation. Notwithstanding the loss of Bessarabia, the Treaty of Bucharest was unquestionably an Ottoman victory, in which a vastly inferior power skillfully exploited a window of opportunity to impose most of its terms on a superior neighbor.


As the final curtain dropped on the Napoleonic upheavals, the Ottomans could count their blessings. While the greatest powers on the Continent collapsed in succession, and vast territories were overrun by Napoleon's armies, the Ottomans managed to weather the storm almost unscathed, despite their domestic degeneration and external weakness.

    The Ottomans' survival was due in great part to the empire's fortunate geopolitical location, on the fringes of the Continent; but to no small measure it was the product of Ottoman political acumen. For while their peripheral position spared the Ottomans the need to take the brunt of Napoleon's main onslaught, their direct contiguity to the Russian and the Habsburg empires, and their control of the Turkish Straits, made them targets of Napoleon's imperial designs—first through his invasion of the Middle East in 1798, and then through his plans to dismember the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, this strategic location increased great-power interest in Ottoman goodwill and friendship and afforded the empire more room to maneuver.

    Indeed, on several occasions during these turbulent years the Ottoman Empire found itself in the enviable position of having too many, rather than too few, options. Simultaneously courted by Russia, Britain, and France, Selim opted for the French connection, in a surge of imperialist greed. Although this proved a cardinal mistake, leading to the loss of the Danubian Principalities to Russia and to Napoleon's Tilsit betrayal, the Ottomans managed to rebound, and in grand style. In 1809 they regained British guarantees to their territorial integrity, and by 1812 they had recouped the Danubian Principalities. Last but not least, despite its alliance with Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna (1815), which reconstituted the Continent after the Napoleonic Wars, recognized the Ottoman Empire as essential to the European status quo. This was a spectacular achievement for an empire that not only had been defeated on the battlefield but could hardly contain its possessions.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Part One Imperial Sunset

1. Riding the Napoleonic Storms

2. The Greek Tinderbox

3. Muhammad Ali's Imperial Dream

4. Losing Egypt

5. Out of Europe

6. The Young Turks in Power

Part Two Demise of the "Sick Man"

7. The Ottoman Road to War

8. The Entente's Road to War

9. The Lust for Glory

10. Genocide in Armenia

11. Repression in the Holy Land

12. Istanbul and the Arabs

13. The "Great Arab Revolt"

14. Hussein's Imperial Bid

15. Dividing the Bear's Skin

Part Three: Unite and Rule

16. The Balfour Declaration

17. The Undoing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement

18. Losing Syria

19. A K ngdom for Faisal

20. And One for Abdullah

21. From Empire to Nation

Epilogue

Abbreviations

Notes

Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2002

    Eastern imperialism

    People best remember their own experience and the recent past--a "framing effect" that behavioral scientists have successfully applied to the study of finance. These historians look beyond the recent Western "frame" at Middle East history, exposing the falsity of Arab claims that the region was illicitly colonized: in fact Arab and Ottoman rulers were the true architects of the modern Middle East. Hardly isolated from Europe, the Ottoman empire often called great Western powers to its aide: Napoleon Bonaparte's 1789 conquest of Egypt prompted Sultan Selim III to declare Jihad against the French and join the infidel British and Russian empires to keep his own in tact. In 1804, the Russian and Austrian empires similarly guaranteed the Ottoman empire's integrity. A falling out with Russia produced an Ottoman treaty with the British in 1809. And so on. Arab and Ottoman pleas brought Britain to Egypt too. The British, French and Ottoman empires originally opposed the Suez Canal, which they feared would violate Ottoman integrity, harming overland trade routes to Asia. But successive Egyptian khedives pushed the idea, concessions for which the Sultan ratified in 1866. Khedive Ismail's bribes to Abdul Hamid II brought Egypt to near-bankruptcy; he sold his Suez shares to Britain in 1875. In the following upheaval, the Sultan begged Britain to take control of Egypt. Prime Minister Gladstone refused. Only renewed Ottoman pleas convinced the reluctant British to send a naval squadron to quell an Egyptian rebellion in 1882--ironically making Britain the Canal's chief beneficiary, an entanglement from which she tried mightily to withdraw. The Sultan snubbed Britain's offer to give Egypt back. Similarly, Ottoman escapades redrew Europe's map. In 1854, the Ottomans aligned with Britain and France against Russia in the Crimea--beginning a war that they theoretically could not win--only to harness the great powers and fight "as a full-fledged member" of the coalition. Russia left Serbia, Moldavia and southern Bessarabia (seized in 1812); the Black Sea was neutralized. Eventually, Romania emerged, triggering a Balkan eruption. In 1875, the Ottomans met new Balkan threats with harsh reprisals culminating in bloodbaths. Abdul Hamid II balked at proposed British and Russian solutions. The resulting war cost the Ottomans more territory. Ottoman Europe fell after the Balkan War in 1913. Yet Europe's great powers remained loathe to devour the Ottoman carcass, by then controlled by the Young Turks. Russia even offered to go to war to prevent another power from taking Constantinople. In 1914, despite secret Ottoman-German and Ottoman-Bulgarian alignments, the triple Entente again guaranteed Ottoman territorial integrity--in exchange for Ottoman neutrality, which Enver Pasha violated, weighing into World War I on the losing side. The Arabs willingly followed. In short, the Ottomans, with Arab support, brought ruin on themselves--by pursuing an imperialist World War I plan to again expand the empire, a catastrophe ironically exacerbated by their wins at Gallipolli and Mesopotamia, and territorial gains from Russia's 1917 withdrawal. Europe cannot be blamed, either, for the Ottoman genocide of 1.4 million Armenian men, women and children; the slaughter of 150,000 Christians in Assyria; or the order to deport from Palestine all non-Ottoman subjects among 100,000 Jews there, which took 10,000 Jewish civilian lives before the Germans and U.S. intervened. The Arabs emerged decided victors: Sharif Hussein of Mecca convinced the British (falsely) that he had full Arab backing for a Caliphate to replace the Ottoman empire--creating lasting friction among Arabs and between Arabs and the West. His rule would exclude Palestine (then running from the Mediterranean to all of current-day Jordan)--which Hussein, negotiator Muhammed Faruqi and the de Bunsen Committee all accepted in 1917, despite Hussein's later denials. Yet Hussein four sons w

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