After reading the fascinating initial chapter of Eugene Rogan’s new history of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, I was struck with a recurring thought: The wonder is not so much that this sprawling 600-year-old Muslim empire fell victim to the convulsions of world conflict in 1918, but that it somehow managed to survive at all as a world power up to the war’s opening salvos.
Founded by Central Asian Muslim tribes in 1299, at its height in the late 17th century the empire spanned three continents, taking in the Balkans in southern Europe, Arab lands from Mesopotamia to Morocco, and much of Asia Minor. Since the beginning of the 18th century Istanbul found itself almost continually at war with Europe’s imperial powers. Invariably, it came out on the losing end. Egypt and most of North Africa were lost to Britain and France by 1882, while Russia gobbled up one province of eastern Anatolia after another.
Nor were the predations of the Great Powers the only serious problem. The Ottomans were mired in internal conflicts between the dominant Turks and the many other peoples who paid allegiance to the Sultan in Istanbul, including Serbs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, and Arabs. These groups had begun to absorb Western ideas of nationalism and self-determination—ideas that sparked numerous rebellions and crackdowns on suspected subversives within the Empire. The most notorious of the latter would ultimately fester into the 1915-1916 deportation-mass murder campaign against the Christian Armenians from their Anatolian homelands. As many as a million defenseless Armenians lost their lives.