The last of the three sixteenth-century events that defined the modern world was the Protestant Reformation. From 1517 (the year of Martin Luther's public denunciation of church doctrines and practices) through 1648 (the end of the Thirty Years' War), Europeans engaged in numerous conflicts pitting Catholics against Protestants. The Protestant Reformation ended the dream of a universal Christian empire in Europe. The Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War recognized fixed territorial boundaries among the states of Europe and established the principle that the religion of a state's ruler would be the religion of the state. Europe was now permanently divided into a number of highly competitive sovereign states which sought to defend themselves against each other, gain advantage over their adversaries, and, at times, establish a balance among themselves. In effect, both the modern state and the international political order assembled from those states — the modern state system — might be traced to the Protestant Reformation. We shall discuss the spread of the modern state system to the Middle East in a later chapter. First, however, it is necessary to see how the emergence of modern states in Europe affected the region in other ways.
The Middle East was one of the places where the competition among European states played itself out. In the eastern Mediterranean, this competition came to be known as the “Eastern Question.” At first, the Eastern Question involved Britain and France. Over the course of the nineteenth century, it came to include Britain, France, and Russia, then, finally, Britain, France, Russia, and Germany. On the northern frontier of Persia, a related competition pit Great Britain against Russia. This competition was known as the “Great Game,” a term popularized by the British writer Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim. Both competitions are the subject of this chapter.
Let us begin by looking at how the Eastern Question evolved. From its founding in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire played a role in the European balance of power. The sixteenth century was the glorious era of Ottoman expansion. The empire pushed forward its borders in southeastern Europe at the expense of the Habsburg Empire, the dominant power in much of central Europe and the Balkans. As mentioned before, the Ottomans even laid siege twice to the Habsburg capital of Vienna. On the seas, the Ottomans fought Venice for naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. By the last quarter of the sixteenth century, the Ottomans had conducted raiding expeditions on the Mediterranean as far west as Italy, and even captured the western Mediterranean port city of Tunis from the Spanish.
To ease their military expansion at the expense of Venice and the Habsburg Empire, the Ottomans made alliances with anti-Habsburg states that were more than anxious to encourage Ottoman diplomatic interference in European affairs. Thus, in 1533 (four years after the first siege of Vienna), the Ottomans sent ten thousand gold pieces to Francis I of France so that he might join with Britain and some German states in an alliance against the Habsburgs.
The Protestant Reformation played a direct role in Ottoman strategies with regard to Europe. The Ottomans viewed the Protestant movement and Protestant states as natural allies in their common struggle against the pretensions of the Catholic Habsburgs. The Ottomans supported Protestant movements because they viewed them as a potential fifth column in Europe, and actually encouraged Calvinist missionaries to propagate their doctrines in the Ottoman-controlled area that is now Hungary and Transylvania (yes, that Transylvania), a region in contemporary Romania. Likewise, Protestant and anti-Habsburg monarchs of Europe were not blind to the strategic value of Ottoman friendship. When Henry VIII of England broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England, he confiscated church property. Brass church bells were melted down and the tin they contained found its way to the Ottomans. Tin was an essential ingredient in the manufacture of artillery. It was scarce in the Ottoman Empire but not in the place the ancient Romans had once called the “Tin Islands”—Great Britain.
The Ottomans took the offensive in trade policy as well. In 1569, they granted the first effective capitulations to the French. Capitulations were clauses attached to treaties that granted special economic, commercial, legal, and religious rights and privileges to representatives of foreign powers in the Ottoman Empire. For example, capitulations might grant European traders the right to establish commercial enclaves in the Ottoman Empire, to construct a church for their exclusive use, to have recourse to the courts of their own nations, or to be exempt from taxes. The granting of capitulations was an important part of the Ottoman diplomatic arsenal. It enabled the Ottomans to gain the favor of potential allies in the Christian world. At the same time, capitulations enabled the imperial government to increase customs revenues and obtain goods needed by the empire. Here we see a perfect correspondence between the economic policies of the mercantilist states of Europe and those of the Ottoman Empire: Mercantilist states wanted to accumulate gold by exporting more than they imported; the Ottomans were concerned with maintaining stocks of vital commodities for which they were willing to pay. The capitulations provided both with the means to realize their economic strategies.
Since the capitulations encouraged European imports, European merchants and the governments that backed them used the capitulations to bring about the economic penetration of the Ottoman Empire. As a matter of fact, it might be said that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the capitulations provided the means by which Europeans were able to penetrate Ottoman markets. After the French, the Ottomans granted the Dutch, the British, and the Russians capitulatory privileges. Capitulations were not abolished in most of the Ottoman domains until 1914. The end of capitulations in Egypt had to wait until 1937. Well before that time, capitulations had become a major bone of contention between the Ottomans and Europeans, particularly because Ottoman merchants felt they had to operate at a disadvantage compared to their European counterparts, who could avoid taxes and customs duties.
During the seventeenth century, the nature of Ottoman-European relations began to change. The Ottomans were no longer the unbeatable foe they had once been. In 1656, the Venetians destroyed the Ottoman fleet not far off the coast of Istanbul, and in 1699 the Ottomans were forced out of the territories of contemporary Hungary, Croatia, and parts of Romania by the Habsburg Empire. But worse was yet to come. New, more powerful states supplanted the Habsburgs and Venetians as the main Ottoman adversaries, and as the new Atlantic economy displaced the Mediterranean economy, a wider area for conflict between the Ottomans and Europeans emerged.
The Ottomans were thus pushed onto the defensive, and as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed, the problem faced by European statesmen was no longer how to defend against Ottoman expansion. Instead, the problem became what to do about an increasingly enfeebled Ottoman Empire. Ottoman collapse or retreat from Europe would, after all, have a disruptive effect on the balance of power in Europe. Thus, a series of new questions arose in international affairs. If the Ottoman Empire collapsed, what would become of the territory under its control, particularly the Turkish Straits (the narrow channel connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean)? If the Ottomans were pushed out of Europe, what would be the fate of its possessions in the Balkans, such as the territories that are now Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia? What would be the role of Russia in the European balance of power, and since Russia was the strongest Orthodox Christian state, what would be Russia's relationship with Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Balkans and Middle East? All these questions were elements of the Eastern Question.
These questions were not posed in a void. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, three processes forced European statesmen to confront them time after time: the consolidation of the Russian imperial state under Peter the Great (r. 1689-1725) and Catherine the Great (r. 1762-1796) and its relentless drive to the south; the overflow of British-French rivalries into European, Mediterranean, and Indian affairs; and the internal fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire as a result of secessionist movements in the Balkans and attempts by leaders of Egypt to gain autonomy for their province. Over the course of two centuries, these processes created crisis after crisis for European and Ottoman diplomats.
The Siege of Vienna Made Palatable
The second Ottoman siege of Vienna began in July 1683 and lasted for two months. For the inhabitants of the Austrian capital, the experience was horrific. According to one eyewitness account:
After a Siege of Sixty days, accompanied with a Thousand Difficulties, Sicknesses, Want of Provisions, and great Effusion of Blood, after a Million of Cannon and Musquet Shot, Bombs, Granadoes, and all sorts of Fire Works, which has changed the Face of the fairest and most flourishing City in the World, disfigured and ruined most part of the best Palaces of the same, and chiefly those of the Emperor; and damaged in many places the Beautiful Tower and Church of St. Stephen, with many Sumptuous Buildings. After a Resistance so vigorous, and the Loss of so many brave' Officers and Souldiers, whose Valour and Bravery deserve Immortal Glory. After so many Toils endured, so many Watchings and so many Orders so prudently distributed by Count Staremburgh, and so punctually executed by the other Officers. After so many new Retrenchments, Pallizadoes, Parapets, new Ditches in the Ravelins, Bastions, Courtins, and principal Streets and Houses in the Town: Finally, after a Vigorous Defence and a Resistance without parallel. Heaven favourably heard the Prayers and Tears of a Cast-down and Mournful People, and retorted the Terror on a powerful Enemy, and drove him from the Walls of Vienna.
With all due respect to Count Staremburgh, the decisive factor in forcing the Ottomans to abandon their siege and withdraw their forces was the arrival of a detachment of Polish cavalry under the command of Jan III Sobieski. The Viennese, who shortly before the siege was raised had been contemplating the horrifying consequences of defeat, now reveled in their seemingly miraculous victory. In keeping with the triumphant sentiment, Viennese bakers decided to celebrate the victory by baking their bread in the shape of the Ottoman symbol — the crescent moon — which their customers then symbolically ate. Thus were croissants invented.
There is another story about the culinary effects of the siege of Vienna which, according to most historians, does not stand up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, it is a good story and deserves repeating. According to this story, the Jewish bakers of Vienna decided that they, too, would bake their bread in a celebratory shape. Wishing to memorialize the heroic exploits of Jan III Sobieski's cavalry, the bakers decided to bake their bread in the shape of a stirrup — round, with a hole in its center. The German word for stirrup is bügel. Hence, of course, the invention of bagels. (While a good story, most etymologists trace the word “bagel” to the German verb “biegen,” “to bend.”)
During the eighteenth century, Russia became the principal antagonist of the Ottoman Empire. There were two reasons for this. First, the tsars and Orthodox establishment saw Russia as the center of Orthodox Christianity (after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople they called Moscow “the Third Rome”) and protector of Orthodox populations outside its borders. Many of those populations lived within the Ottoman Empire. In addition — and probably more important — was the strategic factor that motivated Russian confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Russia was landlocked for much of the year because freezing temperatures prevented use of its northern harbors. Russian governments therefore coveted the warm-water ports of the Black Sea and Turkish Straits as a commercial and naval outlet to the Mediterranean. Only one thing stood in the way of Russia's Mediterranean ambition: the Ottoman Empire.
Beginning in 1768 Russia and the Ottoman Empire became involved in a series of wars, all of which ended badly for the Ottomans. The first of these wars ended in 1774 with the signing of the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarja. According to the terms of the treaty the Ottomans ceded to the Russians parts of the Crimean Peninsula, which gave Russia a foothold on the Black Sea. Just as bad for the Ottomans, the Russians won freedom of navigation on the sea and the right of their merchant ships to pass through the straits.
With Russia on the Black Sea and, after another war with the Ottomans, Russian influence guaranteed in the Caucasus, the Russians began to put pressure on Persia. In 1801, Russia incorporated the Kingdom of Georgia. Twelve years later, Russia won the exclusive right to have warships on the Caspian Sea. Nevertheless, the Russian drive south might have been of minimal concern to other European states, particularly Great Britain, had it not been for the second element of the Eastern Question: the British-French colonial rivalry.
In the eighteenth century the profitability of colonies established by France and Britain over the course of previous centuries declined. Each state sought to consolidate its possessions and frustrate the strategic ambitions of the other. Each state attempted to seize control of the other's colonies. The result was a series of long-forgotten wars, such as the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession, that dragged in most European powers and that were fought on several continents at the same time. The most important of these wars was the Seven Years' War (17561763), known in the United States as the French and Indian War. As a result of the war, France lost to Britain almost all its colonial possessions in North America east of the Mississippi and in India, retaining only a few scattered trading stations.
The Seven Years' War thus made Great Britain the dominant European power in India. For the next two centuries, protecting its position in India and protecting the route from Great Britain to India would be a primary concern for British governments.
With the virtual eradication of French power on the subcontinent, the greatest threat to that position came from the north — Russia. Hence, the Great Game, the competition between Russia and Britain for influence in Central Asia and Persia, considered by British strategists the gateway to India. George Nathaniel Curzon, British viceroy of India, wrote in 1892:
Not content with a spoil that would rob Persia at one sweep of the entire northern half of her dominions, [Russia] turns a longing eye southwards, and yearns for an outlet upon the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The movements... along the south and east borders of Khorasan, the activity of her agents in regions far beyond the legitimate radius of an influence restricted to North Persia, her tentative experiments in the direction of Seistan — are susceptible of no other interpretation than a design to shake the influence of Great Britain in South Persia, to dispute the control of the Indian Seas, and to secure the long-sought base for naval operations in the east.
The Ottoman Empire, 1774-1915
On the other hand, at the end of the Seven Years' War France had few options to obtain raw materials and market finished goods. France lacked control of the seas, had a growing urban population, and had an inadequate food supply. With the Atlantic under British domination, France began to focus on the Mediterranean. Over time, policy makers in France began to look to western North Africa as a site for colonization and to Egypt as a source of grain to overcome their overcrowding and food supply problems.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, then a general acting under the orders of the French Revolutionary Directorate, invaded Egypt. Some in the directorate had wanted Napoleon to attack Britain, but this seemed too risky to the general. Instead, he landed troops in Egypt to gain access to Egyptian grain and to threaten the British route to India from the Mediterranean. Napoleon did not think that his invasion would create difficulties between France and the Ottoman Empire. Under the latter-day mamluks, Egypt had been virtually independent, and Napoleon claimed he was willing to govern Egypt in the name of the sultan. But the French invasion created economic chaos in the Ottoman Empire. Prices of grain and coffee doubled in Istanbul within the year, and the Ottomans were not fooled by Napoleon's declarations of disinterest. Thus, the Ottomans allied themselves with the British (and the Russians). In the Battle of the Nile, the British destroyed Napoleon's communication lines with France and made Napoleon's position in Egypt risky. The British and Ottomans eventually forced the surrender of the French army in Egypt. By that time, Napoleon had already sailed back to France to seize power there.
The French adventure in Egypt is important for two reasons. The first is the emergence of Mehmet Ali, the leader of an Albanian contingent attached to the Ottoman army that fought the French in Egypt. After the French, British, and most other Ottoman troops had left Egypt, Mehmet Ali took advantage of the chaos they had left and assumed power. He and his heirs would rule Egypt, first as Ottoman governors, then, after 1914, as kings. The Mehmet Ali dynasty of Egypt lasted until 1953.
In addition to the emergence of the Mehmet Ali dynasty in Egypt, the French adventure forced Britain to reassess its role in the eastern Mediterranean. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt demonstrated to the British the vulnerability of their communication and supply lines to India. For the most part, British policy would remain one of ensuring the survival, and sometimes the territorial integrity, of the Ottoman state, if only to prevent competition from one or another European power in the eastern Mediterranean. The occasional deviation notwithstanding, this policy was only reversed with the onset of World War I in 1914.
Provoking a Global War
During the eighteenth century, European powers fought a series of wars that were global in scope. For the Middle East, the most significant of these wars was the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), which was fought in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Africa, and North and South America. As a result of the war, the French adopted their “Mediterranean strategy”and Britain, now the undisputed European power in India, came to view the protection of the route to India as its overriding imperial interest.
As in the case of many other momentous conflicts throughout history, a minor incident sparked the Seven Years' War. Worried about French expansion into the Ohio River Valley, Governor Robert Dinwiddie of the British Virginia colony appointed an untested twenty-one-year-old surveyor to lead a detachment of troops to warn the French out of the area. Coming upon a French encampment in an area that is now western Pennsylvania, the Virginians surrounded their adversaries and opened fire. They killed ten of the French party and captured another twenty. The French protested, calling the incident an unprovoked attack on a diplomatic party. After they captured the surveyor, the French even got him to sign a statement in which he called the killing of the leader of the French party "l'assassinat" an assassination. Britain and France soon went to war. In the words of British statesman Horace Walpole, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” Perhaps the young Virginian panicked. Perhaps he was correct to assume that the French party was a war party. Whatever the case, the young Virginian whose action sparked a global war would later redeem himself to posterity. Acting in concert with the French, George Washington, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, went on to eliminate much of the British empire in North America — an empire built in the wake of his youthful impetuousness.
At the close of the Napoleonic era, the third process mentioned above — the internal fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire — began to redefine the nature of the Eastern Question. For the rest of the nineteenth century, the Eastern Question was concerned with the conflict between the Ottoman government and its Balkan subjects, on the one hand, and between the Ottoman government and its unruly governors in Egypt, on the other. When Balkan nationalists demanded independence, or when Mehmet Ali and his descendants demanded greater autonomy for Egypt, the Ottoman government resisted, as imperial governments are wont to do. Often, European powers stepped into the fray in an attempt to find some solution that would protect the interests of each state while not upsetting the overall balance of power in Europe.
There were several reasons for the rise of Balkan nationalism during the immediate post-Napoleonic period. Most important was the consolidation and spread of the world system of nation-states. Starting in the nineteenth century, the nation-state became the gold standard for political organization worldwide. At the root of any modern nation-state lies the belief that because a given population shares (or can be made to share) certain identifiable characteristics — religion, language, history, and so on — it merits an independent existence. Any people that wanted to play in the big leagues of international politics had to join the world system of nation-states and be recognized as the local franchise of the system.
Nationalism emerged in the Balkans during the early nineteenth century for another reason as well. Nationalist movements can only emerge under a proper set of circumstances. The appearance of these circumstances does not guarantee the emergence of nationalist movements; rather, the circumstances form the preconditions without which nationalist movements could not exist. We can identify three such circumstances that enabled the emergence of nationalism in the Balkans. First is the emergence of an intelligentsia that could articulate the doctrines and rationale for nationalist movements. This intelligentsia acts as a mediator between the international community and the population. Such an intelligentsia emerged in the Balkans during the nineteenth century. The second circumstance necessary for the emergence of nationalism is the spread of market relations among a population. Market relations unite the population economically and create a division of labor within proposed national boundaries. It just so happened that there was an enormous economic growth and internal economic differentiation in the Balkans in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Finally, there is the presence of a clearly identifiable “other” against which nationalist movements might mobilize. This “other” is anyone who does not share whatever distinguishing characteristics a nationalist movement credits to the nation. In the case of Balkan nationalisms, this “other” was usually the Turkish-speaking Muslim elites who governed them, although in some cases “Greeks” would do.
This is not to say that the Ottoman Empire was an alien power that imposed its presence on preexisting nations of Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, and so on. That would be the equivalent of saying that nations are timeless and natural entities rather than entities that are modern and fabricated. While some would argue that the former is the case, most scholars of nationalism working today do not agree. Instead, most would say that once the logic of nationalism is accepted — the oneness of a population on the basis of shared characteristics — those who do not share those characteristics become unabsorbable “others.”
The final reason for the emergence of Balkan nationalisms was that these nationalisms were encouraged from the outside. The Russians, for example, wanted allies in the Balkans. If independent states in the region were to emerge from the Ottoman Empire, those states would, more likely than not, want to use Russia as a counterweight to the Ottoman Empire. In return, the Russians would be able to gain their strategic goal. The Russians were not alone in supporting Balkan nationalisms, however. Throughout Europe the cause of Greek independence, for example, became acause célèbre, drawing in a diverse group of liberals and Romantics, including the English poet Lord Byron. He described the struggle of his idealized Greece thus:
The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set....
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on to sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave____
The Ottoman Empire, 1798-1914
And William Gladstone, the sometime prime minister of Britain during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, coined the term “unspeakable Turk” in his 1876 pamphlet, “The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East.” Gladstone used his pamphlet as a stick to beat his political rival, Benjamin Disraeli, who quite logically seemed more concerned about maintaining Britain's strategic position than about Bulgarian independence.
Thus, starting in the second decade of the nineteenth century a series of revolts took place against Ottoman control in the Balkans. From these revolts, a host of independent states emerged, from Serbia and Greece to Romania and Bulgaria. These states arose at the confluence of three empires: the Ottoman, the Habsburg, and the Russian. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Balkans had thus become a tinderbox, arraying nationalist movements against each other, empires against nationalist movements, and empires against each other. The Prussian foreign minister Otto von Bismarck once remarked that a world war would one day be sparked by some “damned fool incident in the Balkans.” He was, of course, right.
The Greek revolt of 1821 is particularly important, for it endangered the balance of power in Europe by threatening the very integrity of the Ottoman Empire. To put down the revolt, the Ottomans called on their nominal vassal, Mehmet Ali, who had by this time built the best army in the empire. The Ottomans promised Mehmet Ali control over Syria if he suppressed the revolt. At first Mehmet Ali's army was successful in putting down the insurgents. But when reports reached Europe that Egyptian troops had conducted mass deportations — ethnic cleansing — the great powers intervened. At the Battle of Navarino a combined British/French/Russian fleet destroyed the Egyptian fleet and ultimately forced the Ottoman Empire to accept Greek autonomy, then Greek independence.
Nevertheless, for Mehmet Ali a deal was a deal, and Syria belonged to him. In 1831, his army invaded Syria and then, when the Ottomans protested, it began a march on Istanbul. To save themselves, the Ottomans initially threw themselves into the arms of Russia — an act which naturally worried the British. In response, the British for the first time committed themselves to protecting the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, issuing the following statement:
His majesty's government attach great importance to the maintenance of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, considering that state to be a material element in the general balance of power in Europe.
In 1840, the British and Ottomans together forced the Egyptians out of Syria. To ensure that Russian influence over the Ottoman Empire would be limited, the British organized a conference in London that made the concert of European powers — not any single power — the ultimate guarantor of the Ottoman Empire.
Overall, the concert of European powers managed both to protect the interests of the individual European nations in the Ottoman Empire and to diffuse crisis after crisis through diplomacy. Only once during the remainder of the century — during the Crimean War of 1853-1856—did European nations go to war to resolve a dispute involving the Ottoman Empire. But the establishment of a united Germany in 1871 disrupted the European balance of power, and thus disrupted the concert of Europe. And the end of the concert of Europe in 1914 heralded the end of the Ottoman Empire. But here we are getting ahead of ourselves.