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Turkey’s Hidden Past

The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876å?1909

by Selim Deringil
London: Tauris, 260 pp., $22.50 (paper; distributed in the US by Palgrave)

AtatÌ?rk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey

by Andrew Mango
Overlook, 666 pp., $40.00

A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History

selected and presented by Bernard Lewis
Random House, 469 pp., $35.00

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, citizens of the new state have been encouraged to accept a highly selective version of history. According to this version, the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic are mutually antagonistic—the first is a military feudal system run on reactionary, Islamic lines, the other is a secular republic inspired by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment. The empire is unlamented and the republic glorified. Any connection between the two is coincidental.

On no subject is Turkish historiography more inflexible than the comparative merits of Abdülhamid II, the preeminent sultan of the empire’s final half-century, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founder. Turkish historians like to describe Abdülhamid as a bloody dictator—murderous, paranoid, reactionary. It is true that he probably had the empire’s most prominent early constitutionalist done away with, and under his rule thousands of Anatolian Armenians died while rioting against Ottoman Muslims during the 1890s. Atatürk called Abdülhamid “a hateful figure, addicted to pleasure and autocracy,” and he rejoiced when the Sultan was deposed and sent into exile in 1909.

Ever since, republican Turks—“Kemalists,” for whom Atatürk is the founding father—have taken the same view of the Sultan. They make much, for example, of the failure of Abdülhamid’s attempts to promote pan-Islamic unity. He built the Hijaz Railway, which took pilgrims from Istanbul to the Ottoman-controlled Arabian holy places, but this did nothing to bring Muslims together politically. On the other hand, Atatürk had contempt for his Arab coreligionists and took a disdainful view of religion in general. While the Sultan is accused of diverting revenue from excise taxes to the empire’s foreign creditors, Atatürk is praised for having installed an efficient system of accounting. Under Abdülhamid, the empire clearly deserved the epithet “the sick man of Europe,” which is generally, but incorrectly, attributed to Tsar Nicholas I earlier in the century.1 Atatürk’s republic, on the other hand, could plausibly claim to be a sturdy and fast-growing young country.

Naturally, few people are more despised by the Kemalists than apologists for Abdülhamid. Defending this backward ruler, the Kemalists say, amounts to attacking Atatürk himself. It was therefore to be expected that when the historian Necip Fazil Kisakurek published Ulu Hakan II: Abdülhamid Han, his hagiographical biography of Abdülhamid, he would provoke bilious attacks from Kemalist journalists.2 The Islamist newspaper columnist Abdülrahman Dilipak—who is facing many years in jail if convicted on charges concerning his Islamist journalism—described Abdülhamid as “one of the cleverest of sultans.”

In his recent book The Well-Protected Domains, Selim Deringil has gone further in upsetting the conventional Kemalist wisdom. Deringil, a professor of history at Bogazici, Turkey’s most prestigious public university, is not an Islamist. He enjoys a glass of raki, the local anise-flavored spirit. And he hopes that Turkey will join the European Union after having been given candidate status in 1999. Yet he believes not only that Abdülhamid and his supporters need to be “rescued… from their Kemalist denigrators,” but that Abdülhamid and Atatürk “had much in common.” In providing an erudite and not unsympathetic examination of the Ottoman Empire during the thirty-three years of Abdülhamid’s reign, and of the regime’s attempts to sustain its authority among its disparate subject peoples, Deringil offers an alternative to the Manichaean world of Turkish historiography.

In a different way, Andrew Mango’s huge and admirable book Atatürk performs a similar function. Although Atatürk himself never quite comes alive in it, Mango’s work will surely become the standard biography because it gives a detailed and convincing account of Turkish life both under Atatürk and before him. Moreover, despite Mango’s admiration for Atatürk, he has written the most irreverent scholarly biography of him yet to appear. Mango describes in detail qualities that previous biographers avoided: his colossal arrogance, his exaggerated claims to have changed history, and the callousness and contempt with which he treated women. Atatürk, says Mango, was not above the “judicial murder” of former colleagues. At times, his regime came close to being fascist. The last major English-language biography of Atatürk, by Patrick Kinross,3 relied largely on Atatürk’s recollection of events. Mango does not, and his book is bound to have an effect on the Atatürk legend.


In the late thirteenth century, Osman Gazi, a Muslim Turkoman warlord, set out to expand his principality on the Anatolian frontier at the expense of the declining Byzantine Empire, which ruled much of present-day Turkey and Greece from Constantinople. (Osman was only distantly related to the Seljuk Turks who had controlled parts of Asia Minor since the eleventh century.) Within three hundred years, Osman’s descendants eliminated the Greek Orthodox Byzantines and turned Constantinople into the greatest mosque city in the world. They transformed Osman’s fief into a sophisticated, multiethnic theocracy generally tolerant of its non-Muslim subjects, but they were also dedicated to the prosecution of holy war against the nonbelievers whom they had so far failed to subdue. The Ottoman Empire’s power extended from the Danube to the Euphrates, and along much of the southern Mediterranean coast.

The Ottoman Empire also dominated the Muslim world. To bolster their claims to leadership of Islam, the Ottomans claimed that, in 1517, Sultan Selim I was handed the custody of the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina by the last Abbasid caliph. However dubious the veracity of this story, millions of Muslims throughout the Middle East and elsewhere then recognized the sultan as caliph, the prophet’s temporal and spiritual successor. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent—who expanded the empire’s boundaries to their broadest extent—declared:

I am head of Muhammad’s community. God’s might and Muhammad’s miracles are my companions. I am Süleyman, in whose name the hutbe (sermon) is read in Mecca and Medina. In Baghdad I am the Shah, in Byzantine realms the Caesar, and in Egypt the sultan.

The Ottoman Empire was, by contrast to the colonial acquisitions of Western Europe, a national empire only in the broadest sense. At the time of Mehmed the Conqueror, whose troops took over Constantinople in 1453, notions of ethnicity were submerged by the universalist obligations incumbent on a gazi, or holy warrior. “Holy war and colonisation were the dynamic elements in the Otto-man conquests,” writes Halil Inalcik, Turkey’s best-known authority on the Ottoman Empire.4 There is little evidence that Mehmed thought of himself as a Turk, for the word was then used pejoratively, and only very loosely with regard to ethnicity. Among Europe’s unsubjugated Christians, it had come to mean Muslim. On Ottoman soil, it meant something like country bumpkin.

To an outsider familiar with the racist character of European colonialism, it is the Ottomans’ indifference to ethnicity that makes the empire attractive. This tolerance was a departure from the segregation of non-Arab Muslims under the early, Arab caliphate, and it brought practical benefits. Many children of Christian subjects, particularly those engaged in agriculture, were conscripted by the empire and provided zealous new converts in the palace and harem, as well as members of the Janissaries—Europe’s first standing army. This combination of religious conversion and cooptation for public service won the loyalty of conquered peoples. It precluded the emergence of a complacent aristocracy, and reinvigorated the ruling class. Mehmed’s five grand viziers were all former slaves who had been conscripted to serve the sultan.

In addition to the Ottoman Empire’s openness to ethnic difference it was also relatively tolerant of religious minorities—a tolerance that was enjoined by the Quran, and that became a practical reality when the sultan emerged as the protector of millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the Balkans. When Sultan Bayezid II opened the empire’s frontiers to Jews expelled from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, his gesture was as canny as it was humanitarian; their descendants were to make a major contribution to the imperial exchequer. The 1893 census of the (by now shriveled) empire revealed that, of 17 million registered Ottomans—the real figure was probably far higher—nearly five million were Christians or Jews. In Istanbul itself, Muslims made up not quite 50 percent of the population.

At the end of the seventeenth century, European mercantile expansion and technological progress combined with Ottoman economic mismanagement and military and diplomatic reverses to prevent further growth of Ottoman power. The empire atrophied beneath the inefficiency of its administration, the ineptitude of many of its sultans, and the obsolescence of its army. By the time of Abdülhamid’s accession in 1876, the Ottomans were diplomatically and economically dependent on the European Great Powers. Their subject peoples, inspired by the nationalist movements that had emerged across central Europe, were demanding independence. When Atatürk entered Abdülhamid’s service as a young army officer, the empire’s survival was contingent on the manipulation of rivalries within European Christendom, as the Sultan tried, often with much success, to play off against one another the French, the British, the Russians, and the Germans.


Atatürk was born Mustafa Kemal in Ottoman-ruled Salonica, in 1880 or 1881, into an ungiving political landscape. He served his military apprenticeship amid gloom and defeat. In the year before the First World War, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece formed a military alliance to end once and for all Ottoman dominance of the Balkans. Allied with Germany during the war, the Ottomans hoped to check Russian expansionism, win back territory in the Balkans, and, eventually, as the war progressed, to create a new Turkic empire in Central Asia. Instead, the Ottoman officials watched their subjects collude with the enemy in expelling them from Arab lands. Allied troops occupied Istanbul, eastern Thrace, the Aegean port city of Izmir, and parts of southern Anatolia. By 1918 the “sick man” was dead, and the Great Powers were about to decide how to dispose of his remains, even though the Ottoman government still formally held power.

Atatürk was then a little-known brigadier, who had served conscientiously in Libya and Syria and fought with distinction particularly in repelling the allied assault on the Dardanelles in 1915. But Atatürk was ambitious and opinionated. He had disliked Turkey’s support of Germany in World War I. Rather than await the outcome of negotiations between representatives of Abdülhamid’s younger brother, Sultan Mehmed VI Vahdettin, and the allies, he set about organizing resistance in Anatolia. In his “War of Independence,” Atatürk defied not only the British, French, Greek, and Italian occupiers, but also the Ottoman regime that had capitulated so dishonorably.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres showed that Atatürk was wise to have acted preemptively. At Sèvres, the Allies indicated that they would accept the formation of Kurdish and Armenian states in Anatolia, and a Greek takeover of Izmir and its environs. The Ottoman government signed the treaty and this gave Atatürk an opening to appeal to the empire’s Turkish Muslims, promising them that their Anatolian homeland would not be divided. From Ankara, where he had set up a regime to rival that of Istanbul, the Grand National Assembly, Atatürk’s new parliament rejected the Sèvres treaty and declared that its Turkish signers had committed treason. Backed by an unlikely combination of like-minded Turkish nationalists, disaffected monarchists, and cutthroats, Atatürk started a military campaign to expel the invaders.

  1. 1

    I am indebted to Lady de Bellaigue, of the royal archives at Windsor Castle, for providing me with a copy of the letter, written by Sir G.H. Seymour, British envoy to St. Petersburg, in 1853, which has formed the basis of this erroneous attribution. In this letter, which describes a meeting held between Seymour and the Tsar, Nicholas I is reported to have referred to the Ottoman Empire not, as legend has it, as “the sick man of Europe,” but as a “man,” who “has fallen into a state of decrepitude.”

  2. 2

    Istanbul: Necip Fazil Kisakurek, 1981.

  3. 3

    Atatürk: A Biography of Mustafa Kemal, Father of Modern Turkey (Morrow, 1965; reprinted 1992).

  4. 4

    Halil Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300–1600 (London: Phoenix, 1994).

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