ABDÜLHAMID II HAS been more harshly judged by history than any other sultan. His life is as obscured by myth as that of Sultan Süleyman I – ‘The Magnificent’ in western parlance. But whereas Süleyman is universally admired as the epitome of sultans, Abdülhamid exemplifies all that the West found most reprehensible about the Ottoman Empire. The picture of him as ‘Abdul the Damned’, or the ‘Red Sultan’, as the cruel and paranoid scion of a dynasty whose days were numbered, echoes the views of the European statesmen whose eyes were covetously trained on his domains and has survived to today. In 1876, following the intercommunal massacres that year in Bulgaria, William Gladstone condemned the Sultan and his people with the words ‘from the first black day they entered Europe, they [have been] the one great anti-human specimen of humanity’.1
In modern Turkey there are two competing views of Abdülhamid: a historian of his age has recently written that the political actors of the time should be ‘rescued both from their Kemalist denigrators and their “fans” on the lunatic fringe of the Turkish Right’, as well as from Abdülhamid’s western detractors.2 The ‘Kemalist denigrators’ are those who view the last years of the Ottoman Empire as an obscurantist and somewhat shameful past from which their country was delivered by the leadership and vision of Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk]; to the Kemalists, Abdülhamid’s reign serves as a counterpoint to the new age that dawned with the final collapse of the empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. To ‘the lunatic fringe of the Turkish Right’, by contrast, Abdülhamid is a hero, the sultan who reverted to a more conservative path after the experimentation of the Tanzimat, re-emphasizing the Islamic character of the Ottoman state and championing Muslims against the other peoples of the empire, the non-Muslims being seen in this reading as the root of the crisis which brought about the empire’s collapse.
If the western judgement of Abdülhamid and his times derives from the characterization of the late Ottoman Empire as supine,* the homegrown versions ‘spin’ aspects of the period which suit modern political purposes. Nevertheless, these contrasting verdicts do provide signposts indicating significant events such as the dénouement of the so-called Eastern Question, Abdülhamid’s use of Islam as a cement to hold together his disintegrating empire, and the agonies that surrounded the end of that empire and the search for a new and secure format for the national state that replaced it. They must be examined in the context of their times, however, not stressed to support a particular modern agenda.
The origins of Abdülhamid’s suspicious personality remain obscure. Nevertheless, whatever influences may have shaped his life before he came to the throne, the violent circumstances of his accession would have been enough to rattle the most stable character. In the opinion of one modern specialist,
He was a striking amalgam of determination and timidity, of insight and fantasy, held together by immense practical caution and an instinct for the fundamentals of power. He was frequently underestimated. Judged on his record, he was a formidable domestic politician and an effective diplomat.3
Abdülhamid appreciated drama and European music, and built a charming theatre at his palace at Yıldız in which to enjoy them; like Murad V he was a skilled woodworker, and furniture attributed to him can still be seen in Beylerbeyi and Yıldız Palaces; and he enjoyed nothing more than having the detective adventures of Sherlock Holmes read to him before going to bed. To the Hungarian scholar and British agent Arminius Vámbéry, who knew him well, he was ‘the very personification of the bourgeois monarch’.4
In the heat of the clamour which preceded the removal of Sultan Abdülaziz, Murad, as heir-apparent, had suggested that he would be favourable to a constitution once he was sultan. When it became clear that he could not long remain on the throne, a similar undertaking was wrung from the reluctant Abdülhamid. Although any reference to a constitution was absent from the speech made immediately upon his accession,5 the new sultan kept his promise, and held meetings to discuss the merits of various constitutional arrangements. It seemed that the aspirations of the Young Ottomans – few in number though they were – might at last be realized. They were not united in their aims or methods, but their ideas could be characterized as ‘a defence of liberal values with Islamic arguments’ in contrast to what they saw as the Tanzimat bureaucrats’ imitation of western norms which had set Ottoman political culture adrift from its Islamic roots. On 23 December 1876, three months after his accession, and even as the Powers were deliberating resolution of the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgarian crises, Abdülhamid proclaimed an Ottoman constitution and the creation of an Ottoman parliament.
Midhat Pasha chaired the commission charged with producing the constitution, and expended determined efforts to frame it so as to ensure that the new political arrangements would work. Four days before its promulgation he was appointed grand vezir; only six weeks later, however, he was exiled from Istanbul to Brindisi, in a rare instance of exile abroad rather than to a distant location within the empire. Abdülhamid had always mistrusted Midhat, a man who had deposed two sultans.6 Moreover, the constitution of 1876 – unlike the Edicts of 1839 and 1856 – failed to appease the Powers who were deciding the empire’s fate, and Russia was still mobilized for war. Midhat’s legacy survived until 14 February 1878, when, as the British fleet entered the Sea of Marmara and peace negotiations with the Russians were about to take place, Sultan Abdülhamid suspended the constitution and, less than a year after its official opening on 19 March 1877, prorogued the first Ottoman parliament. It did not seem to him that an untried and imperfectly understood form of government could rescue the empire from the crises which now enveloped it. Salvation, he considered, could only be achieved by a reversal of the liberal and constitutional currents represented by Midhat Pasha and his fellows, and a restoration to the sultanate of the powers which had passed to the government and the bureaucracy as a result of Tanzimat reforms. Abdülhamid’s overriding priority was to hold on to what remained of the Ottoman domains, and his subsequent policies were directed to this end.
One member of the Young Ottomans made a startling appearance on the public stage, when in May 1878 the radical journalist Ali Suavi masterminded a plot to restore Murad V. This was the third attempt of Abdülhamid’s reign to restore the former sultan – and the most dramatic. After returning to Istanbul from exile in Paris on Abdülhamid’s succession, Ali Suavi was appointed to government office but soon fell from grace; he began speaking out in public and writing in the press about the parlous condition of the empire, and on 20 May 1878 stormed Çırağan Palace at the head of a band of some 250 fighters – disaffected men who had been forced to migrate from Bulgaria to Istanbul by the recent Russian–Ottoman war. Murad had been informed of the plot and was dressed and waiting for them, but Ali Suavi and 23 of his fellows were killed by palace guards, 30 more were wounded and many were apprehended; Murad was removed first to a pavilion in the grounds of Yıldız Palace in the hills above Çırağan before being held under strict supervision in the Feriye Palace, where Abdülaziz had met his end. In the subsequent inquiry into the incident, the intellectuals and statesmen found to be complicit in the plot were sentenced to three years’ hard labour, to monetary fines, or to imprisonment or internal exile.7
For Sultan Abdülhamid the Treaty of Berlin was a conspiracy against the Ottoman Empire and Islam.8 Under its terms, 8 per cent of the empire’s territory – much of it rich and productive – and almost 20 per cent of its population were forfeit. Christians formed the majority of the estimated 4.5 million people who were no longer Ottoman subjects.9 The corollary of this was that Muslims now formed a higher proportion of the empire’s population, a proportion that had been increased still further by the influx during and after the war of 1877–8 of Muslim refugees from the Caucasus, the Crimea, Kazan and Azerbaijan. It became ever clearer to many in power as well as in opposition that unity at home was a prerequisite of any effective resistance to further territorial dismemberment of the empire by the Great Powers and their Balkan clients, and that with the altered demography of the empire post-Berlin a new basis for loyalty to the state was needed – the ‘Ottomanism’ of the Tanzimat reformers, intended to counter the desire for self-determination of an empire of diverse religions and national aspirations, was no longer appropriate for a state whose population was three-quarters Muslim.
Recent events had revealed once again how ephemeral European protestations of friendship could be, and in particular those of Britain, whose aid in the war against Russia the Ottomans had hoped for in vain.10 Nevertheless, at one level Ottoman confidence remained undented: like their predecessors, Abdülhamid and his statesmen still considered themselves the equal of their European fellows, and the Ottoman state the peer of the European Powers. The liberal ethos of the constitutional monarchies of Britain and France seemed to give rein to any with secessionist ideas, so Abdülhamid preferred to portray himself as a proud autocrat in the mould of the German Kaiser or the Austrian Emperor – although any resemblance to the equally autocratic Tsar Alexander II of Russia was downplayed. Most tellingly, the Sultan and his circle presented themselves and their world as ‘modern’, and deserving of respect as such: any public manifestations of ‘Ottoman-ness’ – as in the tableaux and stalls at the World Fairs in which the Ottomans participated – that might be construed by spectators as exotic or uncivilized were strictly forbidden, on the grounds that they laid the empire open to ridicule.11 Where the Ottoman Empire clearly differed from European states was in the matter of religion, but this the Ottomans in no way considered a mark of inferiority. To the contrary: Abdülhamid made a virtue of it, bending the Islamic faith of the majority of his subjects to provide a parallel to the ethnic and linguistic nationalisms espoused by his European peers.
Recognizing that the Tanzimat notion of the disparate peoples of the empire embracing a common identity as Ottoman subjects was outworn even before his accession, and with the example of Russia’s pan-Slavism – not to mention pan-Hellenism and pan-Germanism – before him, Abdülhamid supported the formulation of a new and more relevant ideological principle. He took the latent notion of the Ottoman sultan as caliph and refashioned it to command the allegiance not just of his own people but of all Muslims, asserting more insistently than any Ottoman sultan before him the potency of his identity as caliph, and the appropriateness of Islam as a focus of loyalty for the state. In the opinion of Sir Henry Layard, British ambassador in Istanbul between 1877 and 1880, Abdülhamid considered his position as caliph superior to that of sultan and accorded it more importance.12 If this was the case, it was because he saw no other way of saving the empire.
It was traditional for a sultan to emphasize his devotion to Islam at the outset of his reign, and the choice of sword used in the girding ceremony that had become part of Ottoman accession ritual from the time of Sultan Selim II in 1566 had a significance that cannot have been lost on contemporaries. In recent times, Sultan Mahmud II had been girded with two swords on his accession in 1808, those supposedly belonging to the Prophet Muhammad and to Osman I – the first of the Ottoman sultans – in a statement of his parallel dynastic and religious claims; his choice of the sword of Osman – known to posterity as ‘Gazi’, ‘Warrior’ – rather than that of any other sultan, may be interpreted as symbolizing his intention to restore the military might of the empire. In 1839, however, Abdülhamid’s pious father Abdülmecid chose to be girt only with the sword of the Caliph ‘Umar, second caliph of Islam, who had adopted the title of ‘Commander of the Faithful’ to indicate his spiritual authority over the emerging Muslim community. Sultan Abdülaziz had chosen likewise in 1861, but Abdülhamid was, like Mahmud, girt with the sword of Osman as well as that of Caliph ‘Umar. Abdülmecid had asserted the Islamic character of the Gülhane Edict promulgated soon after his accession; the constitution Abdülhamid promulgated referred to an Ottoman claim to the ‘supreme Islamic caliphate’.13
The title of caliph had been used by Ottoman sultans from the time of Selim I, but in an ill-defined and not overtly political sense. Ottoman claims to inherit the caliph’s spiritual authority over all Muslims rested on the belief not only that Selim had brought back the relics of the Prophet from his campaign to conquer Egypt in 1517–18, but that he had also been invested with the office of caliph by the last Abbasid incumbent.14 The idea that the Ottoman sultan was caliph, the ‘representative of God on earth’, was given contemporary force by Ahmed Cevdet Pasha who, writing of the girding ceremony of Sultan Abdülaziz, stated that,
When Sultan Selim [I] conquered Egypt and brought the Abbasid Caliph to Istanbul, the Abbasid Caliph girded Sultan Selim with this sword [of ‘Umar] and thus transferred the Islamic Caliphate to the house of Osman.15
Ahmed Cevdet Pasha’s elaboration of this myth was prescriptive. He was Sultan Abdülhamid’s guide in many aspects of his politics of Islam, and his copious writings on the issue of the caliphate were reflected in the Sultan’s policies.16
The issue of the sultan’s political-legal role as caliph had been aired from time to time in the centuries since Selim’s conquest of Egypt – during the reigns of Süleyman I and Mehmed IV for instance – but what prompted the Ottomans to emphasize the religious authority over Muslims everywhere of the sultan as caliph were the Austrian and Russian assaults on Ottoman territory of the later eighteenth century.17 A heightened consciousness of the Ottoman sultan’s function as caliph began when the Crimea was lost to the empire and came under strong Russian influence: the sultan’s spiritual authority over the Tatars – in his capacity as ‘Caliph of all Muslims’ – was enshrined in the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca of 1774. In 1783 Empress Catherine declared the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, and one result of the shock of this loss of Muslim territory was Ottoman insistence on the sultan’s role as protector of all Muslims regardless of who their temporal ruler might be. It did not take long for the notion to appear in print; one of the earliest mentions of the formal transfer of the caliphate to Selim I appeared very shortly after 1774, in 1787, in the celebrated Tableau général de l’Empire othoman by the Istanbul Armenian İgnatius Mouradgea d’Ohsson, who began his career as dragoman at the Swedish Legation and rose to become minister plenipotentiary and head of the legation.
Despite the lingering hostility between the two states, the Russian tsar’s deference to the sultan-caliph in matters concerning Islam in the Crimea continued to be symbolized intermittently between 1863 – or possibly earlier – and 1914 by the sultan sending a high-ranking envoy, whenever the tsar visited his summer residences at Livadya* near Yalta, or Sevastopol, or Odessa, to welcome him to territory where the sultan was spiritual leader.18 The European Powers referred to the sultan as caliph when it suited their purpose: more often, however, it was the Islamic leaders of Asia, whose states were becoming European colonies, who appealed to him as caliph, as their protector.19
A potential stumbling-block to the imposition of Sultan Abdülhamid’s new orthodoxy was the historic preference that the caliph must be a descendant of the Qurayshi tribe of the Hijaz, to which the Prophet Muhammad had belonged. But the Ottoman state espoused the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence which was lenient on this issue, and the other schools – Shafi‘i, Hanbali and Maliki – had long since put no obstacles in the way.20 Ahmed Cevdet Pasha argued that in the past the caliph had come from the Qurayshi tribe only because they were in the majority.21 The rumblings of discontent with Ottoman rule that occurred across the Arab world from time to time were a cause of concern to Abdülhamid on two counts in particular: he feared the Arabs might raise objections to his caliphate on the grounds of his non-Arab descent; and, more worryingly, that the British might use any hint that a rival Arab caliphate was in the making to foment a movement for Arab separatism from the empire. Events in Egypt in 1881–2 – when what began as a military mutiny gathered wide support from a civilian population united in a desire to throw off European control of the economy, but was then followed by British occupation of this still nominally Ottoman province – only served to feed a fear of British interference elsewhere.22
Abdülhamid’s fear of collusion between the British and a rival Arab candidate for the caliphate was not unfounded: almost at the start of Abdülhamid’s reign his ambitious representative in the Hijaz, Sharif Husayn, had been found to be making overtures to the British behind a mask of loyalty to the Sultan.23 The sacred places of Mecca and Medina had been saved from the Wahhabis early in the nineteenth century with the assistance of Mehmed Ali of Egypt, but the Ottoman hold on the soil the sultan must possess in order to claim pre-eminence in the eyes of the Muslim community clearly needed reinforcing. Because thousands of pilgrims visited the Holy Places every year, the question of their possession had implications throughout the Islamic world. It was the responsibility of the Ottoman sultan and his agents to provide for the security and well-being of the pilgrims, and it was clear that more attention must now be paid both to the pilgrimage, and to the sultan’s Arab subjects, hitherto the objects of usually benign neglect by Istanbul.
The early 1880s accordingly saw great material and infrastructural improvements in the Hijaz undertaken by the energetic governor Osman Nuri Pasha, whose aim was to extend the government’s reach into this distant and sensitive area. Government buildings were constructed all over the province, and barracks and military hospitals were built. Osman Nuri engaged in public works, printed provincial almanacs, and repaired the shrine at Mecca and its water system.24 Suspicions of British intentions were compounded by the fact that local Bedouin tribes were unruly, reluctant to submit to the authority of any but their own leaders. The ‘stick’ of increased central government presence in the Hijaz and elsewhere in the Arab lands was accompanied by the ‘carrot’ of listing the Arab provinces ahead of those in the Balkans and Anatolia in official registers, and the payment of higher salaries to governors of Arab provinces25 – a modern variant on the old Ottoman policy of offering inducements to foster cooperation among local leaders whose allegiance could not be taken for granted.
The role of the Ottoman sultan as the chief benefactor of the Muslim Holy Places was more important than ever now that ‘Islamism’ had replaced Ottomanism, and Abdülhamid’s jealousy in respect of the Holy Places led him to feel threatened whenever other Islamic leaders offered gifts to these shrines: he forbade the practice, and also refused them permission to acquire property in the Hijaz.26 The building of the Hijaz railway from Damascus to Medina between 1900 and 1908 represented a further Ottoman commitment to Muslims the world over, making the pilgrimage incomparably easier.
Abdülhamid made an ‘Islamic Vatican’ of his palace at Yıldız. As part of his policy of building Arab support for his pretension to the caliphate as well as for increased central government involvement in the Arab lands, he invited Arab religious leaders to live in Istanbul as his advisers, and employed them on missions to the Arab provinces. Like earlier ‘hostages’ at court, they were also responsible for the good behaviour of their constituencies at home. Few Arabs had been intimates of a sultan, so they were a curious sight to Abdülhamid’s contemporaries; they were assumed by their detractors to be soothsayers and astrologers. One among them was Sheikh Muhammad Abu’l-Huda al-Sayyadi, a Syrian who, besides serving Abdülhamid’s purposes in his writings – which included the proposition that absolute government had originated with the rise of Islam – used his position of authority to fabricate genealogies for his followers in Syria which would enable them to claim the greatly-enhanced status that accompanied descent from the Prophet. Abdülhamid acknowledged these mythical genealogies and exempted Abu’l-Huda al-Sayyadi’s clients from military service – as was the right of descendants of the Prophet. Another consequence of these closer contacts between the Sultan and Arab religious leaders was generous state support for certain dervish orders, largesse that served to reinforce the provincial reverence for the Sultan-Caliph expressed in Abu’l-Huda al-Sayyadi’s pamphlets.27
In Syria, however, the thirty years since the promulgation in 1856 of the Reform Edict, with its promise of equal civil and political rights for Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and the decentralizing provincial reforms of the 1860s, had seen the gradual formation of a Syrian consciousness based on geographical and linguistic rather than on denominational grounds. This had been assisted by the combining of the three Syrian provinces of Damascus, Sidon and Tripoli into a single ‘super-province’ encompassing Syria as a single geographical and administrative unit. So, too, the Tanzimatreforms had succeeded better here than they had in many other places in integrating people professing different religions, because all spoke a single language and were encouraged by local intellectuals to think of themselves as Arabs rather than as members of different faiths. Abdülhamid’s insistence on Islam as the foundation of loyalty to the Ottoman state sat uneasily with this development, and influential propagandists like Abu’l-Huda al-Sayyadi had a vital role to play in supporting the implementation of his ‘Islamist’ policy in Syria, especially after Midhat Pasha’s tenure as governor between 1878 and 1880. Dissemination of ‘Islamist’ propaganda was aided by the censorship of the Syrian press and control of local publishing output, which had to be submitted to Istanbul for vetting; Abdülhamid’s manipulation of provincial boundaries also helped to sever people from their identity as members of a Syrian whole.28
Abdülhamid’s calculated assumption of the caliph’s political authority brought a break with the practice of his recent predecessors, who had valued public appearances before their subjects in all the panoply of pomp and circumstance as valuable expressions of the temporal power of the sultan. Fostering the notion of the sanctity of the Sultan-as-Caliph was another matter, and Abdülhamid’s was in any case a character predisposed to seclusion. He hid himself away in Yıldız Palace and appeared in public only rarely – on his way to Friday prayers in the mosque which he had built nearby for the purpose, for instance – glimpses intended to enhance his mystique. His fear of deposition was justified: in addition to the attempted coups early in his reign, opposition groups tried to remove him in 1895, 1896 and 1902–03, for instance, and concocted assassination plots in 1899 and 1905.29
Although by this time overwhelmingly Muslim, the Ottoman Empire was far from homogenous. Its official faith had to have resonance for all – Turk and Kurd, Arab and Albanian, Sunni and Shia, and the shades of belief and practice which fitted none of these overlapping categories. The creed of Shiism was as potentially subversive in the Sunni Ottoman state as the nationalism of the Balkan Christians, and the beliefs of the Turcoman population of eastern Anatolia had indeed been a matter of official concern in earlier times: the course of Ottoman–Iranian relations had historically revolved around Istanbul’s heavy-handed efforts to win over those suspected of Shia sympathies, and much of the population of the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul was Shia, as were the Zaydis of Yemen. As well as buying loyalty to the Sultan-Caliph on the part of the Shia and those professing beliefs at odds with Sunnism by the award of honours and gifts, an official version of Islam was spread by missionary and educational efforts.30Outright conversion to Sunni Islam was also attempted, and was met in these same provinces by efforts emanating from the Shia holy cities of Karbala’ and Najaf to ‘turn’ the nominally Sunni tribes of the area to Shiism.31 Closer to home, the ignorance of the Muslim population of the Anatolian heartland required the despatch of preachers ‘to teach religion and to correct beliefs’.32 During anti-government rebellions in Erzurum in 1906–7, it was decided that an elementary school should be built there ‘to correct the religious precepts of the Alawites* and to thwart their conspiracy’.33 The widespread Christian missionary activity which flourished following the commitment to freedom of religion contained in the 1856 Reform Edict only made the saving of Sunni Muslim souls before they were lost for ever seem a matter of the greatest urgency.
For non-Ottoman Muslims, acceptance of Abdülhamid as their caliph and protector seemed to offer an allegiance with which to challenge the colonizing European empires. Appeals to the Sultan by the Muslim rulers of Indian Ocean states for help against the Portuguese in the sixteenth century were a precursor of those which now emanated from the Muslim subjects of the imperial powers – of the French in Algeria and Tunisia (as we may now call them), the Dutch in Indonesia and Malaysia, the British in India and in occupied Egypt, and the Russians in central Asia. Previous Ottoman sultans had not invariably put Muslim wishes first: when the British appealed to Sultan Abdülmecid during the Indian Mutiny, only a year after he had obliged them with the proclamation of the Reform Edict, he co-operatively responded with a letter to be read out in Indian mosques enjoining the people to remain calm.34
Africa’s Muslim populations were now almost all outside the Ottoman Empire: following the establishment of French protectorates in the province of Algiers in 1830 and in Tunis in 1881, and British occupation of Egypt in 1882, Tripoli* was the only North African territory still nominally under Ottoman rule. Relations with Muslim leaders in Central and East Africa were considered to be especially important, not least because the region had recently become of interest to the European powers who were already an established presence in North Africa. The use of Islam as a tool with which to build allegiance to the Sultan-Caliph was therefore extended, and a new foreign policy devised to strengthen what remained of Ottoman influence in the continent. Little justification was needed: the author of a book written at the behest of the palace noted that Africa was a ‘dark continent’ where ‘civilized’ powers sent colonists and, further, that it was beneficial to spread ‘the light of Islam’ into these ‘savage’ regions.35 The Ottomans were not initially invited to the 1884–5 Berlin conference on the future of Africa but they asserted their right to attend, and their delegate was instructed to defend their historic rights, their material and moral interests, and ‘the sacred rights of the great Caliphate’. The Ottomans did not, however, seek to exert direct control over their fellow Muslims, who appreciated their restraint.36 Insignia and honours were lavished on foreign Muslim leaders, from the Sultan of Zanzibar who received the Mecidi Order of Sultan Abdülmecid in 188037 to lesser African tribal leaders who were presented with Ottoman flags in 1894 by a special agent sent from Istanbul on an information-gathering mission. This agent recommended that the chiefs should receive robes of honour, an imperial edict and a copy of the Koran, in exchange for which they would be expected to include the Sultan’s name in their Friday prayers.38 Russian and Chinese Muslims were also targets: as Russia pushed further into central Asia, the Ottomans sought to subvert its efforts by reinforcing their appeal to the Muslims of central Asia; and in 1901 the young military officer who would later win notoriety as Enver Pasha visited Shanghai, leaving behind the two clerics who had accompanied him. Following the visit of another delegation sent by the Sultan in 1907, a Hamidiye Institute of higher education was founded in Beijing.39
In 1903 a proposal reached the Ottoman government suggesting the commemoration, in due course, of the four-hundredth anniversary of the transfer of the caliphate from Abbasid to Ottoman hands: ‘We seem to have somehow missed this sacred occasion three times and if we let it go by again a hundred years will elapse before we get another chance’. The suggested participants were Muslim leaders from around the world, including ‘the Islamic leaders of Australia’.40 The conference never materialized, because in 1917 Europe was in chaos and the Ottoman world was fast disappearing. The transfer of the caliphate had not previously been celebrated simply because it had not been regarded as of great importance.
Sultan Abdülhamid’s design for preserving what remained of the Ottoman Empire was conservative in its approach to government as well as in its ideological underpinnings and although he eschewed the innovations in bureaucratic organization characteristic of the preceding years, yet his conservatism allowed for measures he considered would bring prosperity to his realm. He knew that a strong economy was essential to the achievement of his aims, for without modernization of infrastructure and communications the potential of Ottoman agricultural and industrial resources would remain untapped. Nevertheless, while military and administrative expenditures increased during his reign – and averaged about 60 per cent of government expenditure – the amount spent by the state on public works, education, health, agriculture and trade accounted, together, for a rather insignificant average 5 per cent of the annual budget. What proved a debilitating handicap in realizing Abdülhamid’s dreams was that almost 30 percent of annual expenditure went towards servicing the public debt.41
The stability of the grand vezirate during the Tanzimat years, when the office alternated between Fuad Pasha and Ali Pasha, vanished after Ali’s death in 1871. In the nearly five years between 1871 and the deposition of Sultan Abdülaziz the office changed hands nine times, as factional struggle and the Sultan’s whim again subverted the work of government. Abdülhamid frequently changed his grand vezir: of the sixteen terms served by various holders of the office during the first six years of his sultanate, only one was longer than a year. Between 1882 and his deposition in 1909 there was greater stability, and Mehmed Said Pasha, Mehmed Kamil Pasha, Ahmed Cevad Pasha, Halil Rifat Pasha and Mehmed Ferid Pasha served for longer periods. Unlike Abdülaziz, who left affairs in the hands of his two vezirs for most of his reign, Abdülhamid interested himself closely in the government of his empire, and engaged in detailed and often heated debates over policy with his grand vezirs. If he prevailed in argument – and dismissal was the price for questioning his final decision – his most prominent vezirs nevertheless felt able to express their views vigorously.42 What made it possible for him to exert his will over his closest advisers was, in the words of one historian,
. . . the failure [of government] to reach a consensus concerning the ‘structure of authority’, or an organisational framework within which to reconcile conflicting interests under the new circumstances created by the Western challenge [as] existing principles of legitimacy faded.43
It was part of the Ottoman ethos for the sultan to demand unquestioning personal loyalty from state servants and this was truer than ever under Abdülhamid. In the past, those who failed to live up to this ideal had been punished by execution or exile, while those who repented were brought back into the fold. Despite their vehement displays of opposition to the ruling order, the contrite among the rebellious governors of seventeenth-century Anatolia, for instance, had been offered new posts, often on the far side of the empire: the unrepentant, however, had been hunted down. The nineteenth-century version of this was the bestowal of state office on figures in the political opposition – the leading Young Ottoman Namık Kemal, for example, who like Midhat Pasha had been involved in the preparation of the constitution, was imprisoned in 1877 and then exiled to government posts on a succession of Aegean islands – Lesbos, then Rhodes, and finally Chios, where he died.
Concentration of power in his own person was the ultimate expression of Abdülhamid’s fear of the decentralization of authority which in his view had presented the Balkan provinces with the opportunity to secede from the empire. This prescription for ensuring the continued survival of the empire was diametrically opposed to that of Midhat Pasha, a true representative of Tanzimat optimism, who believed that separatist tendencies could best be countered by demonstrating the benefits of ‘good government’.
Abdülhamid’s treatment of Midhat Pasha was among the sorriest episodes of his reign. From his exile in Brindisi Midhat Pasha travelled widely in Europe but in 1878 was allowed to return to internal exile on Crete. It was not long before he was invited to re-enter the ranks of the Ottoman bureaucracy as provincial governor of Syria, where he endeavoured to undertake reforms similar to those he had set in train in the Danubian province and in Baghdad some fifteen years before. Receiving reports that led him to believe Midhat Pasha to be seeking to arrogate to himself powers beyond those appropriate to a governor, Abdülhamid removed him from Syria to become governor of Aydın province in western Anatolia: nearer at hand, he would be less of a threat. On 17 May 1881, after only a few months in that post, Midhat Pasha was arrested. Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, now justice minister, travelled to İzmir to bring him back to Istanbul, where with thirteen other suspects he was put on trial for the murder of Sultan Abdülaziz44 – a remarkable turn of events, for the verdict of suicide had been generally accepted, even by Ahmed Cevdet,45 now one of his accusers.
The interrogation and court proceedings took place at Yıldız. Some of the suspects were tortured to obtain a confession – Abdülaziz’s under-chamberlain Fahri Bey left a chilling description of his own ordeal in which, he said, Abdülhamid himself participated.46Eleven men were found guilty, including Midhat Pasha, Fahri Bey and two of Abdülhamid’s brothers-in-law, Damad Mahmud Celaleddin and Damad Mehmed Nuri; these named and five others were condemned to death, the remaining two to ten years’ hard labour. The sentences were reviewed, and although a majority, including Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, favoured their implementation, the Sultan commuted them to life imprisonment, fearing the adverse reaction the executions were bound to arouse.47 The convicted men were sent to Ta’if in the Hijaz, imprisoned in a fortress in the most uncomfortable conditions and denied all contact with the outside world;48 Sheikhulislam Hasan Hayrullah Efendi, who had given the juridical opinion for Abdülaziz’s deposition, was already incarcerated there. In 1884 Midhat Pasha and Damad Mahmud Celaleddin were murdered on the Sultan’s orders;49 only three men, including Fahri Bey, returned alive to Istanbul in 1908 when Abdülhamid’s regime was overturned.50
The murder of Midhat Pasha, a man feared by Abdülhamid as the focus of a constitutional movement which he viewed as setting limits on his authority, reveals the depths of the Sultan’s insecurity. Abdülhamid was well aware that it was an unacceptable act – and it was covered up. Midhat’s murder was the first of a leading statesman since 1837, when the revulsion engendered by the execution of Mahmud II’s grand vezir Pertev Pasha had prompted legislation to outlaw this sultanic prerogative. That the influence of theTanzimat was not to be negated at the mere whim of the Sultan had already been demonstrated by the fate of the 1876 constitution: it was not abrogated but suspended, it remained on the statute books, and continued to be referred to in the annual state almanac.
If the loss of most of the predominantly Christian Balkan territories of the empire in the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 had already proved Midhat Pasha’s plans for provincial reform idealistic, the emergence of a separatist movement among the Albanians, of whom some 70 per cent were Muslim, could but reinforce this judgement; and if Arab susceptibility to British blandishments proved a shock to the Ottoman body politic, Albanian unrest was even more so, since the Albanians were traditionally among the most loyal of Ottoman populations. The Albanian separatist movement had its roots in sentiments not dissimilar to those which prompted Sharif Husayn’s overtures to the British – apprehension that further territorial dismemberment of the empire would not long be delayed.51
The borders of the sub-province of Albania established by the Ottomans in 1432 underwent many modifications over time, and by 1878 ‘Albania’ denoted a region inhabited by ethnic Albanians – predominantly Muslim, but also Catholic and Orthodox – consisting of territory falling within the provinces of Shkoder, Kosovo, Monastir and Ioannina. In the north of the region lived the Ghegs, and in the south the more sedentary Tosks.52 Since the loyalty of the Albanians had long been taken for granted, scant consideration had been given to their ‘national’ inclinations during the administrative reorganizations made earlier in the nineteenth century to accommodate the more militantly nationalist Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians.
On 10 June 1878, three days before the Congress of Berlin was convened, a number of activists attended a meeting in Prizren, where they formed the ‘Albanian League’ to protest against the possibility of Albanian-populated territories being occupied by a foreign power. At first the activists won encouragement in Istanbul, but the spectacle of the Austrian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the award of Ottoman territory to Greece and Montenegro soon set the League and the government at odds, and the League’s aspirations for national autonomy were encouraged by Britain. When the time came for implementation of outstanding clauses of the Berlin treaty, which did indeed include forfeit of Ottoman land in the Albanian provinces, an armed uprising broke out over a wide area and by September 1881 had been put down by the Sultan’s army. The League was then disbanded after three years of activity.53
Violence in eastern Anatolia in the mid-1890s again made Abdülhamid’s government particularly unpopular abroad. In the disappointment that followed the Treaty of Berlin a number of Armenian organizations with nationalist ambitions had been formed. Two – the Hunchaks, founded by émigrés in Geneva in 1887, and the more anti-Russian Dashnaks, founded in Tiflis in 1890 – espoused violence as a means of securing Armenian independence and were not averse to provoking Muslim reprisals as a way of attracting foreign attention.54 In 1891, concerned about possible Russian designs in the remote and barely-governed east Anatolian provinces, Abdülhamid raised the ‘Hamidiye’ irregular cavalry regiments among the Kurds to police the region and provide a security force of first resort. The Kurdish tribes were jealously independent, and forging them into a formal organization would, he hoped, also serve to restrain their lawlessness and increase their loyalty to the distant government in Istanbul.55 The timing of this intervention could scarcely have been more unfortunate: coinciding as it did with increased Armenian revolutionary activity, it upset the existing if imperfect balance of power in the region. The Hamidiye regiments became participants in the turmoil, and in 1894 particularly savage encounters between Hamidiye and the Armenians at Sason in Bitlis province prompted Britain, France and Russia to intervene with proposals of administrative reforms; they could not agree among themselves, however, and the Sultan was not party to the deliberations. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the Hunchaks took their cause to Istanbul and, hoping to influence the outcome of the discussions then under way, on 30 September 1895 tried to force their way to the headquarters of the government to present a petition. They clashed with troops on the way, and many Istanbul Armenians were killed by Muslim mobs in the ensuing chaos.56
International reaction to this incident forced Abdülhamid to concede some reforms in the eastern provinces, recognizing the place of non-Muslims in local administration and agreeing that the Hamidiye regiments would be armed only when on active duty. His concessions were made reluctantly, and he did not publish the decree for a year: he considered his own understanding of the situation and of the possibility of adverse reaction on the part of the Muslim population of the region to be superior to that of the Powers, and in this he was proved correct. During the remaining months of 1895 and on into 1896 there was terrible violence as government authorities, Armenians, Kurds and Turks fought one another, ensuring – thanks to the wealth of despatches sent from the region by consuls (mostly British) and missionaries (mostly American) describing the suffering they witnessed – that the names of the towns of Harput and Zeytun (now Süleymanlı), to cite only the best-known, would long be remembered as the sites of intercommunal massacres. In August 1896 the Dashnaks in their turn attacked the headquarters of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul in another bid to attract outside attention, and conducted a bombing campaign in the city. Again there were reprisals against the Armenians of Istanbul in which hundreds if not thousands were killed. Fearful that foreign intervention might be the response, Abdülhamid published the decree regarding the reforms he had conceded the previous year, extending them to cover all his domains except the Hijaz,57 thus further alienating the Muslim population of the empire whose allegiance he needed so desperately to retain. Many Ottoman Armenians were themselves deeply uneasy about the turn events were taking, as Russian Armenians who had come to Anatolia and Istanbul as agitators in the 1890s threatened and on occasion even assassinated them for not providing financial support or for continuing to assert their allegiance to the Ottoman state.58
Armenians and Albanians were not the only subjects of the Sultan to express their deep discontent violently during the final years of the nineteenth century. Crete was still an Ottoman province, and revolts there were not infrequent. King George of Greece was of one mind with Greek nationalists in wishing to annex the island, and in 1897 sent a fleet and soldiers there. Great Power pressure forced Abdülhamid to offer Crete autonomy under Ottoman sovereignty, but soon Greek troops were mobilizing in Thessaly, Greece’s northern border with the empire. Following Ottoman humiliation under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, Abdülhamid had turned to Germany, the one Great Power with no tradition of interest in the Near East, for support against the rest; German civilian and military advisers had been active ever since, as Germany replaced Britain as the Power most trusted by the Sultan.59 The Greek forces were no match for the German-trained and German-equipped Ottoman army called against them, and were soon defeated. Furthermore, Greece was required to pay a hefty war indemnity to compensate the Ottomans for the territory won by them in Thessaly and returned under the terms of the peace, and payment of interest on the Greek debt came under the oversight of an international financial commission. Abdülhamid’s offer of autonomy for Crete was now accepted by the Powers.60
Intellectuals were in full agreement with Abdülhamid’s aim of saving what remained of Ottoman territory, but were unsympathetic to his efforts, frustrated as much by his autocratic style of government as by his too-obvious failure to resist the partition of the empire. In the early part of his reign dissent came from many quarters – from romantic liberals and constitutionalists, from clerics, from freemasons, from bureaucrats and palace officials. This opposition was as disorganized and disunited as the Young Ottomans had been, and initially unsuccessful as much for this reason as any other – although the ministry of police founded in 1880 was aided in its work by an unofficial network of spies responsible to the palace, and this web of informers betrayed the dissidents.
Only in 1889 did another form of opposition to Abdülhamid and his policies – which would in the long run prove to be as disruptive as the violence of the Armenian activists – find the beginnings of an organizational structure. In that year, some students in the military medical college founded a secret society which aimed to restore the constitution and parliament. The society was discovered, however, and those of its members who evaded arrest fled to Paris where they continued their opposition to the Sultan. Resistance to Abdülhamid’s rule coalesced in 1894 when a variety of underground factions adopted the umbrella name ‘Committee of Union and Progress’ (CUP), popularly known as the ‘Young Turks’.61
Over the next years the activity of the Young Turk opposition developed from an intellectual into a pragmatic political endeavour; periods of great vitality alternated with periods of infighting and intrigue among the members of the CUP at home and, increasingly, in exile. As might be expected during a time of extreme political ferment, they espoused a variety of often competing ideas, and the removal of Abdülhamid was the only cause on which all could agree. CUP members were of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, and the organization soon had branches across the empire and in Europe, but it was very much an elitist enterprise and did not seek to mobilize a mass following.62
Abdülhamid was quite successful in suppressing the activities of the CUP inside the empire, and tried to do the same abroad. In 1899, through the good offices of his German allies, he requested of the European states where the CUP was active that they, too, take measures against them – the Swiss agreed to investigate, the French were less than enthusiastic. In December of the same year the Sultan’s brother-in-law Damad Mahmud Celaleddin Pasha (his name was identical with that of another brother-in-law who had been murdered in Ta’if in 1884) left Istanbul with his sons Prince Sabaheddin and Prince Lutfullah for Europe, where they became involved in the opposition movement.63 With the CUP in a parlous state, Sabaheddin and Lutfullah proposed a congress of those opposed to the Ottoman regime, and it was held in Paris in 1902 after the French government – the focus of much lobbying by the Princes and French deputies, journalists and statesmen persuaded of their cause – had condemned the Ottoman government and issued the necessary licence. Participation in the congress was closely controlled by Prince Sabaheddin – or Sabaheddin Bey as he was commonly known. The delegates included members of Armenian opposition organizations who allied themselves with Sabaheddin’s faction – which shared their conviction that outside intervention was the remedy for the empire’s ills – against that headed by Ahmed Rıza, a polymath and former bureaucrat who categorically rejected foreign intervention in Ottoman affairs. Although they were in the minority at the congress, Ahmed Rıza and his supporters had been dominant in the CUP since its foundation, whereas Sabaheddin Bey’s group, though part of the numerical majority, had only recently allied itself to the organization. The European press naturally applauded the pro-interventionist faction, but events were to prove Ahmed Riza and his fellows the more resilient.64
Sabaheddin Bey’s faction maintained strong links with Armenian and also with Albanian and Macedonian opposition groups following the Paris congress, and was execrated by its opponents for soliciting outside help to overthrow Abdülhamid’s regime. The Sultan mounted a determined campaign against them, to which they responded by plotting, with British support, an elaborate coup attempt. Ahmed Rıza’s coalition, on the other hand – their ideology in stark contrast to that of Sabaheddin Bey’s faction – worked hard to provide a sound organizational basis for the future. This invited the participation of all peoples of the rump empire – or at least of the revolutionary groups deemed to represent them; Ahmed Rıza and his followers favoured ‘Turk’ rather than ‘Ottoman’ to describe a subject of the sultan, and declared all attempts to find a common purpose with the non-Turkish – by which they meant non-Muslim – opposition to be fanciful. They valued Islam not as a religion but as a vehicle to focus incipient national consciousness.65
Ahmed Rıza’s programme was one of gradual change, and those in his coalition who preferred a more activist approach initially had little influence. This changed in 1905 when Bahaeddin Şakir, doctor to Prince Yusuf İzzeddin who was second in line to the throne, was exiled to Erzincan because of his links with the CUP and fled from there to join the organization in Paris. His aim was to forsake evolution for revolution and engage in some form of common action with the revolutionary Armenian groups, but the Armenians rejected his approach.66 In January 1906 he named his faction the Committee of Progress and Union (CPU) and it was not long before its members made the critical decision to invite the military to play a role in the movement, an idea apparently derived from the Prussian soldier and writer Colmar, Freiherr von der Goltz.67 Von der Goltz had spent more than ten years reorganizing the Ottoman army (in which he achieved field rank) in the 1880s and 1890s, and continued to maintain close ties with it. Though eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reformers had tried to unravel the relationship, the military and the political had been intertwined throughout the Ottoman centuries, so the idea of military participation in political activity was not hard to accept; it did, however, leave at a disadvantage those in the CUP who rejected it in principle.
Events abroad engendered optimism in those struggling to remove Abdülhamid. The first Russian revolution of 1905 had shaken Tsar Nicholas II and forced him to concede a degree of constitutional reform; it also left Russian liberal groups who favoured gradual change out of step with the peasants and workers, who saw that something – but not enough – had been achieved by means of strikes and protests and the murder of policemen. Iran had won a written constitution and an elected assembly from its Qajar rulers following the almost non-violent, Tehran-based revolution of 1905–6. This movement had drawn inspiration from the Young Turk opposition to Abdülhamid, and its success encouraged the CPU to think the time had come for greater urgency in their own efforts.
Between 1905 and 1907, popular dissatisfaction with the government erupted in widespread rebellion in the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia. Here as elsewhere in the empire at this time able-bodied men were being conscripted for a new phase of an unpopular war in Yemen – which the Ottomans had reoccupied in 1872, but where their forces came under constant attack from the local Arabs: this mobilization caused wide popular discontent, and the costs of the Yemeni campaign were a drain on the Ottoman budget.68 The rebellions demonstrated that when it came to the lives of his subjects as individuals, Abdülhamid’s studied campaign to enhance his sanctity as caliph was worth little and his efforts to enforce his autocratic rule were less than successful. Not for the first time, taxation was one of the chief grievances of the rural and urban population of Anatolia as the burden imposed by a state trying vainly to meet the costs of servicing its public debt and modernizing its infrastructure and armed forces became ever more onerous.69
Abdülhamid had been well aware since his accession of the need to ameliorate the desperate lot of the majority of his subjects, and one of his first actions had been to set up a financial commission to consider the reorganization of the rural tax system. Administrative problems and the bureaucracy’s imperfect knowledge of the rural economy prevented the orderly implementation of its recommendations, however, and resulted in misappropriation by those appointed to collect the taxes, whether government agents or tax-farmers. Early in the twentieth century two new rural taxes were introduced in addition to the agricultural tithe – which, theoretically set at 10 per cent of agricultural production, was the largest single item of state revenue. Both were, of course, unpopular: the new poll-tax was seen as overburdening the poor at the expense of the better-off, while taxes on livestock were raised arbitrarily rather than in line with market values. To compound these problems, Ottoman producers were finding it increasingly difficult to compete in world markets as prices for agricultural goods and, especially and most critically, cereals fell, and this in turn discouraged further investment.70
Against the general background of deep-seated grievance felt by the people of eastern Anatolia as the result of the conditions of their everyday lives, the immediate and particular causes of the insurrections that broke out in a number of Anatolian towns were various. In the two years following the first revolt, in Diyarbakır, in August 1905 – this one began as a reaction to the rapacity of a local Kurdish tribal leader – there were violent disturbances in Erzurum, Sinop, Kastamonu, Trabzon, Samsun, Giresun, Sivas, Kayseri, Van, to name only some.71
The revolt in Erzurum in 1906–7 was particularly alarming to the authorities. Here, Armenians and Muslims alike joined in protesting against the poll-tax and livestock taxes. On 31 March 1906, three weeks after the revolt began, protesters cut the telegraph line linking Erzurum to the army headquarters in Erzincan. Troops were sent to Erzurum to investigate: the governor was replaced, and the new livestock tax was lifted. When this failed to quell the protests the new governor promised to lift the poll-tax as well, but this verbal undertaking was not backed by the government, which insisted that a way must be found to collect both taxes. News of the governor’s arrest of three of the ring-leaders leaked out, and he was seized and held hostage by the demonstrators before being exchanged for the three. The government declared an amnesty, and in March 1907 both taxes were abolished throughout the empire. Deprived of their casus belli the protesters were quick to adopt new forms of disobedience: rural Armenians converted to Islam en masse, robbing the state of taxes peculiar to non-Muslims, and in the Erzurum garrison soldiers mutinied for their arrears of pay. The bankrupt treasury was unable to meet the soldiers’ demands and further violence ensued, but when representatives of the central government melted away and locals took over the administration, it completely subsided. A grain shortage some months later brought a new round of unrest; this was eventually quashed by government forces and those held to have been responsible for the eighteen months of insurrection were tried and sentenced.72
The CPU played no part in the Anatolian revolts; the ‘League of Private Initiative and Decentralization’ did. Unlike the CPU which targeted bureaucrats, intellectuals and army officers, this Paris-based organization formed by Sabaheddin Bey in response to the breaking-away of the CPU had forged links with provincial leaders in Anatolia and had agents in the region; his co-operation with the Dashnaks ensured that Armenians and Muslims were united against the government not just in Erzurum but also in other places that experienced disturbances in 1905–7.73 According to a recent authority, ‘we may confidently contend that the Young Turks abroad and in Eastern Anatolia were responsible for turning regional disturbance[s] into a fully-fledged constitutional movement’.74
In 1907 a second congress of the Ottoman opposition took place in Paris, under the presidency of Ahmed Rıza, Sabaheddin Bey, and Khachatur Maloumian of the Dashnaks. The atmosphere of the congress was tense, and CPU mistrust of alliance with an Armenian organization – indeed the insincerity of their collaboration from the start – was subsequently made very clear by the CPU leaders in their writings.75 This failed attempt to unite the leading Young Turk organizations was in any case overtaken by events as the torch of protest passed from expatriate organizations forced to disseminate their message through the written word to activists inside the empire. Young Turk involvement in the Anatolian rebellions of 1905–7 was only a sign of what was to come.
The establishment in Thessalonica in September 1906 of a secret organization known as the Ottoman Freedom Society (OFS) gave the CPU a new base, within the empire. A leading figure in the OFS was a postal official, (Mehmed) Talat Bey, and other founder members – many of whom had been members of the old CUP – included a landowner, an accountant, and a lieutenant. Other officers of the Third Army based in Thessalonica were also attracted to the OFS, among them one Major (İsmail) Enver. In September 1907 the OFS merged with the CPU, losing its name but continuing its existence as an autonomous organization. The document laying out the conditions under which the two bodies merged stated that the ‘essential purpose’ of the merged committee was ‘to bring about the implementation of the Constitution of Midhat Pasha proclaimed in ’.76
The merger enabled the CPU to build upon the strong presence of the OFS in Thessalonica, and gave it a new orientation and sense of urgency in seeking the removal of Abdülhamid and the restoration of constitutional government. The revitalized CPU modelled its regulations on those of the activist Dashnaks and also of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) founded in 1893 in Thessalonica, its object to establish a Macedonian state in the wedge of land comprising the multi-ethnic Ottoman provinces of Kosovo, Monastir and Thessalonica which cut a swathe across the southern Balkans from present-day Albania to Thrace.77 In 1895 IMRO had spawned a breakaway faction intent on liberating Macedonia from the Ottomans and making it part of a united Greater Bulgaria, and the recently-created states of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, bordering Macedonia, put forward conflicting territorial claims which IMRO sought to counter. The struggle by these neighbour states to assert national rights over Macedonia was at first religious and cultural, and spearheaded by institutions which could concentrate confessional loyalty. A Bulgarian exarchate had been created in 1870 and Greek interests had the support of the Oecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul; Serbia, whose position was weakest, achieved formal religious independence from the Oecumenical Patriarch in 1902 with the creation of the Skopje bishopric. The aggressive propaganda contest for the allegiance of the Christians of these Ottoman provinces was a cause of real concern to Abdülhamid’s government, for it realized that Great Power intervention would not be long delayed.78
Meanwhile, the CPU was becoming a truly revolutionary organization, recruiting individuals prepared to sacrifice themselves for the cause, encouraging assassinations, and authorizing the killing of anyone deemed ‘hazardous’. Nevertheless, its rituals were rather comical: new members were inducted blindfold, with one hand on the sacred book of the candidate’s religion, and the other on a dagger or revolver, or on an Ottoman flag. The CPU also adopted a coat of arms described thus by its most recent historian:
On top rested the constitution in the form of a book under a shining sun. Pennants reading ‘pen’ and ‘weapon’ hung from spears flanking the right and left sides respectively. From beneath each spear jutted a cannon. Unlike the cannon of the Ottoman imperial coat of arms* this pair of cannons were being fired, symbolizing ideological dynamism. In the centre stood a large upturned crescent reading ‘fraternity, freedom, equality’. The word ‘justice’ hung above the middle of the crescent. Below the crescent snaked a ribbon emblazoned ‘Ottoman Committee of Progress and Union’, while at the bottom of the coat of arms, below the ribbon, two clasped hands symbolized mutual understanding among the Ottoman peoples.79
IMRO guerrilla practice provided a model for a strike force of CPU military officers, while Muslim guerrilla bands were organized along the lines of the anti-IMRO bands already operating in Macedonia – and the latter put their experience at the disposal of the CPU for the purpose of saving the remaining European provinces of the empire from further dismemberment. In the space of just over a year from the merger of the OFS and the CPU, the CPU had established branches in more than 75 Balkan towns and cities as well as in Istanbul and, less successfully, in Anatolia. The revamped CPU considered revolution impossible without the participation of the army, in which it had total faith. It planned carefully and specifically targeted its propaganda at the regular army troops serving on the Anatolian west coast, knowing they would be used to put down the revolution when it began.80
The ‘Macedonian Question’ was one of the most intractable of the territorial issues facing the Ottoman government. There was nothing common to the three provinces on which to base Macedonian identity, and the Ottoman security forces were unequal to the task of controlling the violence between the various ethnic and religious groupings. In 1897 Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Franz Joseph of Austria had defined their spheres of interest in the Ottoman Balkans; a fierce uprising incited by IMRO in 1903 brought Tsar and Emperor together again. The result of their deliberations – which took note of British recommendations – was a proposal that a Russian and an Austrian adviser be appoined to the governors of each of the three Macedonian provinces; that a European should command the security forces in Macedonia; that the security forces be composed of Christians and Muslims in proportion to their numbers in the general population; and that Russia and Austria should each be responsible for ensuring calm in a part of Macedonia. The Ottomans were forced to accept this proposal in principle but by means of tenacious diplomacy and prevarication were able to subvert its implementation.81 April 1905 saw rebellions against the poll-tax and livestock taxes in Macedonia comparable to those in Anatolia.82
Fears that Abdülhamid would be forced to accede to European pressure fed into the momentum for change being generated in the CPU. The CPU’s Paris-based journal concentrated almost exclusively on the Macedonian Question, and this and other extensive propaganda efforts convinced Muslims and non-Muslims alike that revolution was inevitable. The CPU addressed itself to the population of the region at large as well as to Muslims in particular, well aware that an appeal to Muslims – or Turks – alone would have been counter-productive, serving only to alienate the large Christian population of Macedonia.* By 1908 earlier appeals to ‘Turks’ as the vanguard of the movement that must save the empire had been joined by appeals to ‘Ottomanist’ and ‘Islamist’ identity, a fluidity that assisted the CPU aim of forging links with a variety of revolutionary groups in Macedonia.83
The rapid growth of the CPU that followed its move to Thessalonica and the success of its propaganda efforts meant it could no longer remain entirely underground. The Ottoman government had long been aware of the clandestine organizations ranged against it, and a number of arrests had been made during the early months of 1908. On 13 May the true ambition and capability of the CPU, and the scale of the threat it posed, were revealed when the government received an ultimatum warning the Sultan that if the constitution was not restored ‘blood will be shed and the dynasty will be in danger’. The Minister of War was told to resign, or face the possiblity of assassination. The dire situation in Macedonia was discussed at a meeting between Tsar Nicholas II and King Edward VII between 9 and 12 June 1908 at Tallinn (Reval), the Estonian capital, for further deliberations on the ‘Macedonian Question’. Suspecting the imminent intervention of Russia and Britain, the CPU revolution entered its active phase, with a campaign of assassinations and guerrilla activity against government agents in the three provinces – the CPU continued to insist, nevertheless, on its liberal intentions.84
Appropriating the methods of Balkan fighters against a hated regime, bands of mutinous troops and armed civilians took to the hills in early July, spreading the demand for constitutional government as they moved through the region. Major Enver of the Third Army was one of the middle-ranking officers who figured most prominently in the adoption of these guerrilla tactics as government authority dissolved and, with the assistance of the Third Army, the CPU was able to take control in Macedonia. The Monastir branch of the CPU was in charge of the details of the revolution: after two days of feverish activity during which the town came entirely under CPU control, the Monastir committee instructed all its branches to complete the revolution by 23 July, from which date, it informed governors and other senior provincial officials, the Ottoman constitution would be reinstated by force. An ultimatum to the government demanded the restitution of the constitution, and threatened a march on Istanbul on 26 July if it were not complied with. In a gesture of conciliation Abdülhamid dismissed the Grand Vezir and the commander-in-chief of the army – but this proved insufficient. Following urgent meetings with his advisers, he issued a decree, published in the press on 24 July, ordering the restoration of the constitution and the holding of elections.85 As news of the revolution and its outcome spread gradually to the distant provinces of the empire, initial reactions varied from enthusiasm to disbelief.
Thus began what historians of modern Turkey call ‘the second constitutional period’: Abdülhamid remained on the throne, but as a constitutional monarch. After the euphoria had died down, it became plain to the CUP – the name to which the CPU reverted after the revolution – that the task of arresting the collapse of the Ottoman Empire required a new strategy that would utilize the idealistic expectations which had inspired the revolution to the ends they had envisaged. The difficulty was that while the call for a constitution also implied the re-opening of parliament, an institution designed to restrain the excesses of the powerful, the CUP, in the view of its most recent historian, ‘had no desire for a pluralist political system in which various parties and societies would pursue their particular agendas. Rather, its leaders envisaged an umbrella organization under which all ethnic, religious and social groups would work together within limits carefully drawn by the CUP’.86 Although very ready to harness popular sentiment in the weeks leading up to their coup, the CUP leaders saw parliament merely as ‘an extension of the modern bureaucratic apparatus under the control of an enlightened governing élite’.87
During the remaining months of summer 1908 a variety of political proposals were put forward by the CUP. There was nothing remarkable in the CUP’s desire to complete the modernization of the state by reforming finance and education and promoting public works and agriculture, nor in its espousal of the principles of equality and justice revealed when its manifesto, issued prior to the parliamentary elections held in October and November 1908, reasserted the equality of the obligations and rights of all Ottoman citizens without regard to race or religion. The Christian communities of what remained of the Ottoman Balkans did not feel that the CUP any longer represented their aspirations, however, and expressed their hope for full implementation of the rights promised them – so they understood – under the Tanzimat reforms.88 Those in the vanguard of reform had appropriated the notion of Ottomanism, but the contradictions implicit in the practical realization of this ideology – in persuading Muslims and non-Muslims alike that the achievement of true equality between them entailed the acceptance by both of obligations as well as rights – posed them a problem.
October 1908 saw the new regime suffer a significant blow with the irrevocable loss of three territories over which the empire still exercised nominal sovereignty. During the first week of the month Ottoman Bulgaria declared its independence of the empire and its union with independent Bulgaria (semi-autonomous Eastern Rumelia had already become part of Bulgaria as the result of a coup in 1885–6), Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Crete, which had been under Greek administration for ten years, announced its union with Greece. The only crumbs of comfort were that the Ottomans could expect to be compensated by the winners for these territorial losses, and that the Sultan-Caliph’s continuing religious authority over the Muslims of these regions was recognized.
Elections for a new parliament went ahead under laws carefully prepared and detailed in their provisions, and were keenly contested in a spirit of elation. CUP-sponsored candidates were opposed by the newly-formed Liberal Union (LU), to which some of those hostile to the CUP were attracted. Sabaheddin Bey, who returned from his long exile in September 1908, was not a founding member of the LU but he was its éminence grise and it espoused his view that in non-homogeneous provinces decentralized government was best. The party was poorly organized in the provinces, however, and failed to convince many minority candidates that they should contest the election under its banner; lacking organization, it also failed to tap into the continuing support for the old regime in less developed areas.89 CUP candidates won a majority of the seats, and a bi-cameral parliament was opened by Sultan Abdülhamid on 17 December 1908.90
The Sultan and his closest advisers must have hoped that the cool reception accorded his opening speech did not mirror the general mood, but the reaction among the liberal classes to the grudging manner in which Abdülhamid had dealt with the re-opening of parliament was so unenthusiastic that it was decided to invite the deputies to a banquet at Dolmabahçe Palace at which the Sultan’s good intentions could be presented to them more clearly. His chief secretary Ali Cevad Bey was able to prevail on his master as to the content of the speech in which this was to be done: as he records in his account of the events of 1908–9, the deputies applauded without reservation. The press was not satisfied, however, and continued to attack the Sultan; he in his turn, feeling that he had done his duty, refused to descend from Yıldız Palace to the Çırağan Palace on the shore below for the customary Bayram reception, or to appear before parliament on occasions when protocol demanded his presence.91
Hand in hand with the dramatic developments of the summer of 1908 went an unprecedented liberalization in social and economic expression, particularly in the cities and above all in Istanbul. In 1901 women had again been the target of sumptuary laws detailing the length and thickness of the all-enveloping veil they were required to wear – even in a car, for those lucky enough to be driven in one – and, once such restrictive laws were relaxed, educated women eagerly seized freedoms they had hitherto been denied, dressing as they chose, becoming more visible in public life, attending meetings and setting up philanthropic and educational associations. It was in 1908 that the prominent intellectual and activist Halide Edip founded ‘The Society for the Elevation of Women’, which had links with Britain’s suffragette movement. But old attitudes died hard and the empire’s impotence in the face of the territorial losses of October 1908 brought crowds out onto the streets demanding the closure of theatres and taverns, prohibition on photography and – even as many were throwing off the veil – the re-covering of women: there were calls for nothing less than a return to the full implementation of Islamic law.
Another group which now felt free to protest against their conditions of existence were the workers. Ottoman subjects had always had the right to petition the authorities for the redress of perceived wrongs, and this means of defending their interests had persisted when other, non-traditional avenues of worker protest, arising from the unfamiliar forms and conditions of employment which were arriving in the empire as the industrialization of the economy proceeded, were proscribed in 1845 by a law – translated from a French law of 1800 – banning trades unions and strikes.This law had never entirely prevented episodes of intransigence and violence, and in 1908 protesters were prepared to risk reprisals on the part of police and troops in order to express grievances which had hitherto had no outlet. The protests multiplied as workers went on strike for wage increases and improved conditions in the mines, factories and railways where they laboured. The first anti-strike legislation since 1845 was passed by the government in October 1908 – even before parliament was opened – after a strike on the Anatolian Railway. In the three months following the revolution there were more than a hundred strikes: these were mainly in Istanbul and Thessalonica, but few regions of the empire remained unaffected and it is estimated that three-quarters of the industrial labour force of between 200,000 and 250,000 (comprising both men and women) went on strike at this time.92 The 1908 strike wave was an indication that the aggrieved were no longer willing to be subservient as they had been in the past, and the retreat of Abdülhamid’s repressive regime provided an opportunity, albeit limited, for the individual to seek an improvement in his conditions of life and work. According to a recent historian of the period, however, Ottoman strikers were ‘crushed by gunboats, battalions and anti-strike laws, their paths of action curbed and the domination of the state reasserted’.93 Like Abdülhamid and his predecessors, the CUP had little time to listen to the voices of ‘the people’, and saw any disturbance of public order as a threat to the tranquillity of the state – and gave its agents licence to suppress it.
For many of his subjects Sultan Abdülhamid still remained a being above criticism, the ‘shadow of God on earth’: at the time of the Anatolian tax revolts in 1905–7, for example, the population rejoiced and prayed for his long life whenever he intervened to dismiss bureaucrats and administrators they deemed corrupt. Such esteem and veneration forced political activists to find other causes to mobilize anti-government opinion.94 The months of February and March 1909 were troubled as opposition to the new order built up: the liberal opposition in parliament vociferously accused the CUP of authoritarianism and in late March an association called the Muslim Union was founded, which through its mouthpiece, the newspaper Volkan (‘Volcano’), incited Muslims to rise against the CUP.
On the day remembered by Turkish historians as 31 March 1909 – in fact, 13 April of the Gregorian calendar – a counter-coup began; this was based on the traditional alliance between disaffected clergy and disaffected troops – in this case, men of the First Army stationed in Istanbul and light infantry of the Third Army based in Thessalonica. The Third Army light infantry had gained notoriety six months earlier, when some of their number quartered in Istanbul put down a mutiny of soldiers who refused to embark for the ongoing campaign in Yemen. In mid-March 1909 they had been called upon again, this time to suppress a mutiny of Albanian troops stationed at the Yıldız Palace who refused to accept Anatolian troops serving with them. The women of the harem witnessed the arrival of the Third Army infantry and, anticipating the blood-bath which would surely ensue, screamed out in alarm, causing the order to fire to be rescinded: a volatile situation was defused before a shot could be fired.95 Now, however, disgruntled troops streamed into the Old City from their barracks across the Golden Horn to gather with other malcontents in the Hippodrome – scene of so many rebellions in the past. Their destination was no longer the Topkapı Palace, but the parliament building which lay hard by. Gradually the news came out that soldiers of the First Army and infantrymen of the Third Army had taken their officers prisoner. The cry which galvanized them as they marched on the city was a call for the restitution of Islamic law:96 under the modernizing regime of which the army was the agent, the mutinous troops claimed, they were allowed no time for religious observance. Abdülhamid’s preference had always been for officers who had risen through the ranks: he thought them more conservative, less likely to harbour liberal aspirations. Many such officers had been dismissed by the CUP after the 1908 revolution – which was spearheaded by graduates of the military academy rather than men up from the ranks. The dispossessed now seeking redress shared the same social background as the middle- and lower-ranking clergy who joined in their protest: these men were fast losing their role in public life as the empire changed. Moreover, since military service had been reduced to two years for those serving in particularly unhealthy climates such as Iraq and Yemen, rumours were rife that in order to raise more manpower, students at theological colleges were for the first time to become liable for conscription – this added extra tinder to the fire.97
The mob called for the heads of high-ranking CUP statesmen; the Sheikhulislam, acting as an intermediary, was informed of five demands: the dismissal of the Grand Vezir, the Minister of War and the President of the parliament; the removal of certain prominent CUP members; the full implementation of Islamic law; the dismissal of officers who were graduates of the military academies and the reinstatement of those who had come up through the ranks; and a promise from the Sultan that they would not be punished.98Resolution of the confrontation of 13 April was speedy: the government resigned, the rebels were pardoned, and the Sultan promised greater attention to Islamic law. The counter-coup, seen by some historians as the work of Abdülhamid and the palace – since members of the Ottoman family, among them one of the Sultan’s sons and one of his nephews, and high-ranking palace functionaries, were apparently behind the ‘31 March Incident’ and involved in planning its aftermath99 – had apparently been successful.
The CUP reacted swiftly to what was perceived as a deal between Abdülhamid and the rebels. It was true that the government had tendered its resignation – albeit under duress – but the actions of the Sultan were those of an autocrat bound by no constitution and in defiance of parliament. Ten days later the Sultan and his staff found themselves isolated in Yıldız Palace and under siege by what was referred to as the ‘Action Army’ – troops mostly drawn from the main body of the Third Army, under its commander MahmudŞevket Pasha, hurriedly marched from Thessalonica. According to Ali Cevad Bey, by 27 April soldiers with bayonets were thronging every corner of the palace except for the harem, whose denizens were isolated and crying out in hunger. Mahmud Şevket protested that his troops had not come to depose the Sultan but the next day, following heated discussions in parliament, a delegation of deputies consisting of Aram Efendi, an Armenian, Karasu Efendi, a Jew from Thessalonica, and two Muslims, Arif Hikmet Pasha and Esad Pasha, arrived at the palace and announced that ‘the people’ had deposed the Sultan. Requesting that he be allowed to retire to Çırağan Palace, Abdülhamid, unable to accept that he was responsible for his own downfall, turned to Ali Cevad and chided him for being present when the oath of allegiance was sworn to his brother Reşad who now became sultan. Ali Cevad reports how he wept bitter tears as he protested his loyalty to Abdülhamid and the nation. Ali Cevad expected Abdülhamid to move to Çırağan the next day and was surprised when, that night, army officers attached to Mahmud Şevket arrived at Yıldız and ordered him to inform the Sultan of his immediate departure, ‘for his own safety’, to Thessalonica – home to the Third Army and headquarters of the CUP. Abdülhamid, carrying a small bag, and his immediate household – his youngest son Mehmed Abid Efendi, his fifth son Abdurrahim Hayri Efendi and a number of concubines – climbed into four carriages and set off for the railway station to begin their journey into internal exile. It was recorded in the press that the deposed sultan drank a glass of water at the station, rewarding the man who brought it to him with a generous tip. Pained by his master’s ingratitude, Ali Cevad Bey watched them go and in the morning retired to his house in the Bosporus village of Bebek.100
The constitution neither provided for the deposition of a sultan nor recognized the principle that sovereignty lay with the people: parliament therefore did not have sole power to sanction Abdülhamid’s removal. The CUP saw itself as the repository of the people’s will by virtue of its responsibility for the restoration of the constitution and its reimposition of order following the counter-coup, but lacked any legal justification for this view. The constitution did however declare Islam to be the religion of the state – so Islam could still be used to sanction the actions of those directing the state. The decision to depose Abdülhamid was therefore given legitimacy by resort to the solution acceptable in Islamic law: a juridical opinion of the Sheikhulislam.101 The delegation that went to Yıldız to inform the Sultan of his deposition bore this with them.102
Whereas the counter-coup – the ‘31 March Incident’ – had been almost bloodless, the CUP retribution that followed was merciless. Among the almost 80 men court-martialled and hanged in the immediate aftermath were more than 50 soldiers, two pashas and the publisher of the newspaperVolkan, Derviş Vahdeti, as well as members of Abdülhamid’s household. Many others were imprisoned, and common soldiers who had participated in the rebellion were sent to build roads in the Balkans.103 The ‘31 March Incident’ was not without repercussions in the provinces. During a mutiny of troops in Erzincan on 13 April – prompted by rumours that Islamic law was going to be re-instituted – the local CUP office was destroyed. Between 14 and 16 April, in circumstances that remain incompletely understood, thousands of Armenians were massacred in Adana and elsewhere in the area, and much of the city was burned. It was said at the time, on the basis of apparently reliable information, that the Sultan himself gave the order for the massacres and for the elimination of the local CUP, which still embraced the ideal of Ottomanism and counted on the support of Christians as much as of Muslims, and that agents provocateurs were sent to incite the Muslim population. In the city of Adana at least, Muslim religious leaders denounced the massacres and expressed their solidarity with the Armenian Church.104
Abdülhamid’s brother Reşad came to the throne as Sultan Mehmed V. Parliament recognized that the Ottoman constitution was out of date, and in the revised version produced in the summer of 1909 – taking account of the tests to which it had been put by recent events – it made itself the pre-eminent source of authority in the empire. The powers of the sultan were officially restricted so that he no longer ruled, but reigned, and his function in government was limited to confirming the decisions made by parliament or the cabinet.105 This was a very significant break with the past. One strong man emerged from the ‘31 March Incident’ – Mahmud Şevket Pasha, who now enjoyed significant power as inspector-general of the First, Second and Third armies, based respectively in Istanbul, Edirne and Thessalonica, a position that put him, in effect, both above parliament and also above the CUP, whose instrument he had been in master-minding Abdülhamid’s deposition. Parliament’s newly-won sovereignty had been infringed even before it was established, by the imposition of martial law at the time of Mahmud Şevket’s march on Istanbul to depose Abdülhamid: martial law remained in force for much of the following years.106
With the sultan rendered impotent in government, the next years saw competition between new contenders for power. Mahmud Şevket Pasha was never a CUP member, and insisted that the army should not be influenced by politics: he soon made plain his intention to act without constitutional restraint. The CUP had won a majority in parliament in the elections held in 1908, fielding candidates in its identity as an ‘association for the public good’, but the lines between its political and military membership were blurred, as were those between the recognized deputies who had gained their seats by means of CUP patronage and the ‘invisible’ men of the extra-parliamentary, underground Committee. Resolution of these contradictions began in 1909, when the Committee officially abandoned its secrecy and became a formal political party – the Party of Union and Progress, known as the Unionist Party.107
CUP leaders considered that maintaining the empire intact called for draconian methods, and measures passed in late 1909 that included a further anti-strike law and laws limiting freedom of assembly effectively curbed expressions of opposition to the government.108 Most significantly, a law for the conscription of non-Muslims was passed. As in past times, this again raised protest among minority community leaders, who demanded that their men serve in separate units from Muslim troops – and exemption could still be bought by those who could afford it.109
Parliament was slowly learning its role, but disagreement over the state budget in 1910 demonstrated where power really lay. Appointed to the cabinet as minister of war in the hope that this would limit his independence of action, Mahmud Şevket Pasha argued forcefully against a reduction in military expenditure – financial resources were scarce, and his colleagues wished to divert them to other ends – and had his way. He also triumphed in the matter of the fate of the treasures of Yıldız Palace: the military were suspected of having helped themselves freely when occupying the palace at the time of Abdülhamid’s deposition, but Mahmud Şevket successfully blocked calls for an inquiry.110
If the civilians in parliament could not entirely control the military as represented by Mahmud Şevket Pasha, neither could the CUP entirely control the political process. Soon after the establishment of the CUP as a political party, a group calling itself the People’s Party splintered off from the parliamentary Party of Union and Progress; outside parliament CUP repressions engendered opposition in the form of a number of political groupings which resembled one another only in their distaste for the CUP’s centralizing, heavy-handed conduct. The murder of a liberal journalist in June 1910 signalled another round of anti-opposition activity, however. A similar murder had occurred only a few days before the ‘31 March Incident’, and the authorities were wary. Arrests followed, and a story was put about of a plot afoot to overthrow the government.111
In November 1911 a party calling itself the Liberal Union – dissolved and reformed since it was founded in 1908 – had become the focus of opposition to the government, and in an Istanbul by-election it won the seat; determined to strengthen its grip on parliament still further, at a time when wars were under way in Yemen and Libya, the CUP responded by using its parliamentary majority to force the dissolution of parliament. Resorting to intimidation and electoral fraud, the CUP was again returned as the majority party in the elections of early 1912.112 Opposition voices had by now learnt from the CUP that unconstitutional actions achieved swifter results than waiting patiently for parliament to gain the confidence to assert itself without outside interference, and in July 1912 a secret organization of officers strongly opposed to the CUP forced the dissolution of parliament once more.113 The Sultan announced new elections, but before they could be completed the empire had been plunged into war in the Balkans. The elections were cancelled, and it was more than a year before they could be held again.114
Adjusting to the new concepts of governance introduced by the establishment of a constitutional sultanate was a painful process exacerbated by continuing tension in the provinces and foreign pressure on Ottoman territory. Like many other ethnic and confessional groups Albanians had been members of the clandestine CUP in the years leading up to the 1908 revolution; indeed the revolution is said to have begun on 3 July – more than two weeks before the events in Istanbul – when an Albanian, Captain Ahmed Niyazi, with 200 men, took to the mountains between Ohrid and Monastir from where, in his own name, he issued a demand for the restoration of the constitution.* The removal of censorship after the revolution gave Albanians, like other subjects of the empire, freedom of expression, and the lively press resulting seized the opportunity to stimulate the growth of a national consciousness. Albanians of all faiths and political persuasions put forward a number of vociferous demands for greater self-determination, but following the counter-coup of 1909, however, the CUP leadership in Istanbul became suspicious of the Albanian national movement, and stoutly resisted it: to have conceded its demands would have been to acknowledge that the supposedly united Muslim community was at odds with itself. Concessions were also unthinkable for strategic reasons: Albania was the buffer which protected the heart of the empire from the covetous Europeans. An Albania whose loyalties could not be counted on was a source of great anxiety for the government. The issue around which matters coalesced was a CUP ruling outlawing the use of the Latin alphabet for the Albanian language in the public arena; this heavy-handed action drove a wedge between the formerly united Christian and Muslim communities, and resulted in armed resistance by both against government authorities in the region.115
The CUP decided to make use of the Sultan-Caliph himself to secure the loyalty of the inhabitants of this troublesome region which in past centuries had provided the empire with many of its most prominent statesmen and its most courageous soldiers. On 5 June 1911, Sultan Mehmed V went from Istanbul by sea to Thessalonica, where he sent his secretary to visit Abdülhamid in his exile and held numerous audiences with local notables and government officers. Here he received the ‘honoured fighter’ Captain Niyazi, before travelling inland by train to Skopje and on to Priština. On 15 June, anniversary of the defeat of the Serbian King Lazar and his army by Sultan Murad I at Kosovo Polje in 1389, he led the Muslim congregation in prayer at the site of the battle. He had been greeted by large crowds as he progressed through the Balkans, but fewer people than expected turned up at Kosovo Polje to see him. Newspaper editorials greeting his arrival back in Istanbul opined that he had ‘returned with the keys to the hearts of the people of Rumelia’,116 but in truth neither his visit nor the attendant concessions made to local demands – such as the granting of amnesty to all convicts except murderers – served to forestall further unrest.
As in Albania, so in the Arab provinces of the empire both local and regional identities tended to prove more unifying than narrowly religious considerations. Consciousness of and pride in Arab culture had found expression since the Tanzimat, and particularly during Abdülhamid’s reign when Arabs, historically excluded from high office in central government, were courted by him to give legitimacy to his Islamist claims as much as to forestall Arab moves towards independence from the empire. Arab opinion regarding the changes that took place in faraway Istanbul following his removal was ambivalent. More than a quarter of the approximately 280 deputies in the 1908 Parliament were Arabs.117 Like the Armenians, many Arabs who participated in formal politics – either locally or in Istanbul – showed themselves more receptive to liberalism than to the radicalism and even violence of the CUP. As the CUP became more strident in its centralizing policies and, in keeping with its aim of forging an ‘Ottoman’ loyalty, in its refusal to recognize local diversities as a basis for representation, Arab sensibilities were offended. CUP imposition of Turkish in the secondary schools and law courts of the empire gave rise to the perception in some Arab circles that this struck not just at the very root of their Arabness but at the sanctity of the religion that united Turk and Arab, and this perception was used to bolster awareness of the threat CUP policies were seen to pose to the great measure of autonomy traditionally enjoyed by the Arab provinces.118 Ahmed Cevdet Pasha had warned Abdülhamid of the importance of respecting the Arabs, since their language was the language of Islam, and had pointed out the damage wrought by state officials who insulted Arabs by referring to them as ‘fellahin’, peasants.119
Attempts on the part of the CUP and the government to extend central government authority into areas hitherto controlled by local tribal chiefs resulted in serious uprisings in 1910 and 1911 in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, in particular. Arab response to the drama being played out in Istanbul was diverse: Egyptian intellectuals, for instance, looked to the capital for inspiration in their struggle against the alien British, emphasizing their allegiance to the Sultan-as-Caliph, while the feelings of Syrian intellectuals who had left their homeland for Cairo to escape the encroachment of Ottoman central government on their traditional freedoms were quite otherwise.120
Abdülhamid’s hopes of pre-empting European colonial designs in North Africa failed. Italy was unified in 1870, and following French occupation of Tunis in 1881 the Italian government began to state its interest in the region, and the Italian press to urge occupation of Tripoli. Italian claims continued to be repeated throughout the 1890s, and in 1902 local representatives met the Italian consul in Cairo to sound out Italy’s intentions should it occupy the province. The consul replied that Italy sought merely to prevent encroachment by other European powers, but that should occupation be necessary, it would respect Islam; soon the Italians began to arm local people who were fighting the French. To the chagrin of the CUP, Italian business interests were quick to gain a foothold in Tripoli, and Italy began to compete with the empire for influence. A new Ottoman governor was sent to the province in 1910, but the Italians complained that he was obstructing their interests; in late 1911, keen not to lose out in the increasingly competitive struggle for colonial possessions, Italy invaded.121 The Ottoman military forces of the province had been sent to fight in Yemen, where yet another rebellion was taking its course, and the defence of Tripoli – which, as War Minister Mahmud Şevket Pasha admitted, was indefensible – was undertaken by officers drawn from the CUP, including a young officer called Mustafa Kemal, and Major Enver, who encouraged local Sanusi tribesmen in a guerrilla war in the east of the province.122 Enver entertained fantasies of the province as his own ‘kingdom’, leading Friday prayers and even printing paper money bearing his signature, and he held out until the autumn of 1912.123 In April of 1912 Italian warships bombarded the Dardanelles, and in May went on to occupy the Dodecanese.124 The Treaty of Ouchy (near Lausanne) of October 1912 formalized the loss of the Ottoman province of Tripoli to the Italians. From now on, the Ottomans would be fighting a defensive war – almost without interruption – until 1923 and the end of the empire.
Hardly had the empire concluded its war in the Yemen – in 1911 – and begun peace negotiations with Italy, than a far more deadly struggle began in the Balkans, where the small, newly-created states in this volatile region vied with one another, even while feigning co-operation, to press their own national claims. Various alliances agreed between Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria following the outbreak of the war with Italy were translated into action early in October 1912 when these states, having demanded far-reaching administrative reforms in the Ottoman Balkan provinces, mobilized against the ill-prepared Ottomans. Thus began the First Balkan War.125 The remaining Ottoman Balkan territories were of immeasurably greater significance to the empire than Tripoli, and Enver left North Africa for the Balkans late in 1912, confident that he could save them. But by the time he and his fellow officers reached Istanbul, the Ottoman army had retreated to the Çatalca lines some 50 kilometres west of Istanbul – established in 1877–8 to defend the capital from Russian attack. The lines held, and in December the Balkan allies agreed a cease-fire. Deliberations at a subsequent peace conference in London were protracted by the irreconcilable claims of the various Balkan states.126
Some of the terms of the proposed treaty became clear at an early stage, however, among them that Edirne, still under siege by the Bulgarians, should pass to their possession. The Ottoman government headed by Grand Vezir Kamil Pasha (known as ‘İngiliz’ – ‘English’ – Kamil, from his close relations with Britain over more than twenty years) favoured concessions so unthinkable as to again prompt the military, as ‘guardians of the state’, to take action to compensate for the perceived failings of the parliament. On 23 January 1913, a contingent of troops led by Enver burst into the cabinet chamber, shot dead the war minister Nazım Pasha, and elicited Kamil’s resignation at gunpoint; Enver and his closest allies then requisitioned the Sheikhulislam’s car and drove to the palace where they forced the Sultan to appoint Mahmud Şevket Pasha grand vezir in Kamil’s place. He also became war minister again, having lost the office a few months previously.127 This precipitate and unconstitutional action left the course of domestic politics and the task of rebuffing the attacks of external enemies in Mahmud Şevket Pasha’s hands: his government rejected the peace terms emerging from the London Conference, and the Bulgarians resumed their bombardment of Edirne. Enver proposed to Mahmud Şevket that he lead an attack on the Bulgarians from the west but this plan to relieve the city ended in fiasco, and it surrendered to the Bulgarians on 24 March 1913; a peace agreement was signed in London on 30 May.128
Enver’s coup had overthrown the government, but it did nothing to enhance the ability of the Ottoman army to defend the empire’s borders, and it seemed likely that the CUP would lose support. The disaster of the First Balkan War discredited Mahmud Şevket Pasha. On 11 June 1913 he was assassinated, and the twelve men allegedly responsible for his death were hanged – this was an opportunity for the CUP to round up opponents. The Second Balkan War had begun when an outbreak of fighting between Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece over the division of territory caused Bulgaria to transfer forces from her new eastern border in Thrace to Macedonia. Ottoman troops moved westwards to fill the vacuum left by the Bulgarian retreat and won the CUP a chance to show its mettle. Edirne was retaken – Enver rode into the city at the head of the triumphant troops, upsetting the corps which had liberated the city – and the army pushed west across the Maritsa–Tunca line. The subsequent peace between the empire and Bulgaria left Edirne in Ottoman hands, and settled the western border of Turkey as it is today.129
The aftermath of the January 1913 coup left leading CUP members with a stranglehold on government, but the party had lost its Macedonian power-base in the Balkan Wars. British propaganda emanating from their base in Egypt was ever more strident in its denuciation of the Turks, and blatant in its efforts to drive a wedge between them and the Arabs. It was apparent to the Istanbul government that the single largest non-Turkish group in the empire must be conciliated. An article in the Egyptian Gazette on 22 April 1913 demonstrated this to be a matter of the utmost urgency:
The struggle is between Semitic Mohammedan and Turk Mohammedan. Race is the fundamental fact. And the Turk physically differs from the Arab as a drayhorse differs from a Derby winner. Greater still is the difference intellectually and spiritually, between the slow, placid, steady, autocratic, materialistic, unspeculative, unaesthetic Turk, and the quick-witted, restless, democratic, political, romantic, artistic, versatile Arab.130
The Istanbul government worked hard – and, considering its previous stance, surprisingly sensitively – to accommodate Arab demands for a more acceptable style of provincial rule. The reinstatement of Arabic in law courts and secondary schools, and in petitions and official communications, elicted much positive response: it was only a few years since the use of Turkish as the common language of the empire had been seen as a tool of integration, but the requirement to use it had been a cause of considerable bitterness among the Sultan’s Arab subjects. Another proposal under consideration for a time was to abandon Istanbul, so strategically vulnerable, for a more central, possibly Arab, capital. This idea had been favoured by Mahmud Şevket Pasha who was from Baghdad. He had thought Aleppo to be the location that would redress Arab feelings of estrangement from the Ottoman government; others, fearing that the Arabs would not in any case long remain within the empire, suggested an Anatolian capital.131
But the greatest compromise forced upon the CUP government in 1913 by the logic of prevailing circumstances was that it must use Islam as a political instrument to cement Arab allegiance to the Ottoman state and its caliph, and thus as a brake on separatist tendencies. This echoed Abdülhamid’s tactical use of religion: given that loss of territory had rendered ‘Ottomanism’ little more than an anachronism, there seemed no alternative to a version of ‘Islamism’ attuned to contemporary circumstances as a means of ensuring the loyalty of the Muslim Arabs of the empire. The 1914 elections saw better representation of Arabs in parliament than ever before.132 Like many another community alienated by an overbearing central government, Ottoman Arabs as a whole were nevertheless as yet unable to envisage a different framework for their existence: even the Libyan war and its exposure of the manifest inability of the Ottoman army to protect Arab Islamic lands from foreign aggression barely shook Arab allegiance to the empire.
The loss of western Thrace, Macedonia and Albania in the wake of the Balkan Wars was a body-blow to the Ottoman Empire which had controlled much of these territories since the fourteenth century. The refugee crises of the nineteenth century were re-enacted afresh as Balkan Muslims fled towards Istanbul. One who left Macedonia well in advance of his former subjects was the deposed Sultan Abdülhamid. In October 1912 he was put aboard a German ship in Thessalonica and taken to Istanbul, to the Bosporus palace of Beylerbeyi, where he lived out his days. It was not as secluded as Yıldız; at Beylerbeyi he was unable to shut out the world which was changing dramatically before his very eyes.
* Eric Hobsbawm has described it, jarringly, as ‘the most obvious evolutionary fossil’ by the standards of nineteenth-century liberalism (Deringil, The Well-Protected Domains 6).
* The Livadya Palace was the site of the Yalta conference where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin redrew the map of Europe in 1945.
* The Alawites (Alevis in Turkish) practise a form of Islam whose adherents, like the Shia, revere the Prophet’s grandson ‘Ali.
* The Ottoman province of Tripoli nominally extended eastwards across the vast desert towards Egypt. In nineteenth-century European usage the western part of the province was called Tripolitania and the eastern Cyrenaica. The name Libya is of ancient origin, revived as a geographical designation by the Italians in the first years of the twentieth century: after Italy had wrested Tripolitania and Cyrenaica from the Ottomans in 1911, the combined territories were thenceforward referred to as ‘Libya’.
* This was adopted early in Abdülhamid’s reign, and served as a model for the CPU coat of arms.
* Reliable population figures are hard to come by. The Ottoman census of 1906–7 shows Muslim and Christian populations as almost equal, at around one million each, with Christians slightly in the majority. Statistics submitted to the British Foreign Office prior to the Berlin Congress in 1878, however, inflated the number of Christians for political purposes, showing them to be double the number of Muslims (Karpat, Ottoman Population 45–6, 166).
* The 1908 revolution is commonly known as the ‘Young Turk’ revolution, and the part played in it by non-Turks, such as Albanians, is only grudgingly acknowledged by Turkish nationalist historians.