Posted on 04-12-2009
Filed Under (History) by Rashtrakut

Interesting NY Times article on the Turkish nostalgia for the Ottoman past.  Obviously such nostalgia is not uncommon and often bears limited touch to reality.  Even the Taliban claims that they want to create the ideal conditions that supposedly existed under the Rashidun Caliphate, overlooking the fact that the last three of those Caliphs were assassinated (and the last two assassinations were political).  Even in the United States people nostalgically look back to life in the 50s or the alleged nobility in public life under the Founding Fathers.

As far as nostalgic dreams go the Turks sure have a lot to daydream about.  For the descendants of a steppe tribe whose conquest of Anatolia was almost accidental they blazed their way across the global stage.  The battle of Manzikert was a Turkish victory because of a comedy of errors and treachery and even then with the Byzantine army almost intact did not have to be one of the major turning points in history.  But the Byzantines lapsed into one of their ill timed episodic civil wars and in the ensuing decade most of Anatolia was lost for ever.  Numerous opportunities to reverse the flow were wasted in the coming century.  With the Byzantine Empire reduced to a hollow shell after the disastrous Fourth Crusade, the stage was set for the Ottomans.  The Ottoman rise was meteoric.  From a minor tribe in northwestern Anatolia in the early 1300s they had conquered the Balkans and most of Anatolia in 100 years.  After a brief setback at the hands of Timur, the next 120 years saw the conquest of Constantinople, Syria, Egypt and Hungary, the humiliation of the new Safavid Persian Empire and the first siege of Vienna.

The long decline that lasted the next 350 years (interspersed with occasional flickers of strength) commenced with the death of Suleiman the Magnificent.  Gradually many of the European and North African conquests were lost.  The Empire survived largely because, like Austria-Hungary, nobody could agree who would fill the vacuum.  The coup de grace was delivered by World War I.  Outrage at the humiliations imposed by the Treaty of Sevres gave rise to the nationalist movement under Ataturk and the elimination of the dynasty.

It is dangerous to romanticize Ottoman rule too much.  The Ottomans generally tolerated all faiths and sometimes provided better governance than the states that preceded them.  But as the Bulgarians and Armenians found out, they could also brutally suppress any insurrection.  Many of the prominent generals and viziers who effectively ruled the state were not even Turkish.  Albanian, Greek and other Balkan converts to Islam rose close to the top of the Ottoman hierarchy.  But ultimately it was an alien regime that eliminated national states in the Balkans and beyond.  Advancement did require an abandonment of culture and religion.  It is not surprising that various ethnic minorities repeatedly chose to rebel, and as the Empire weakened they were successful.

Ataturk, like Peter the Great, forced Turkey into the modern age by breaking down the old feudal systems of the Ottoman Empire.  The forced population exchanges after the Greco-Turkish War, which essentially ratified painful ethnic cleansing and whose impacts are felt today, brought an ethnic and religious homogeneity (with due respect to the Kurds in the east) that did not exist before.  The resulting Turkish state is a stronger national unit as a result.

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