Back to the days when the Ottoman Empire was one of the mightiest and longest-lasting dynasties in world history, this Islamic-run superpower ruled large areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North Africa for more than 600 years!
The empire had exercised formal sovereignty over the lands of Arabia since the early 16th century. For much of that time, it had ruled with a comparatively light touch, garrisoning key trading ports and maintaining an official presence in the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. They ruled almost the entire north coast of Africa and west to Egypt and the Holy Lands of modern-day Israel and Palestine. Their navy ruled the waters of the Mediterranean while their traders rivaled those of Spain, Portugal, and the Italian city-states. The empire was governed from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and its ruler was the Sultan, the heir to a powerful royal family.
However, for centuries after the Crusades, when Europeans talked of their conflicts with Islam, they invariably referred to the Turks, not the Arabs. The Ottoman Turks had swept out of Central Asia during the 14th century, conquering nearly all of modern-day Turkey, and then set about expanding their empire in the Arab Middle East and into Europe. The empire the Ottomans created was an Islamic state and for a time the challenger to European control of the Mediterranean.
It was basically the power politics of powerful states, and the Ottoman Empire was part of the European system of strong states struggling for territorial gain.
Organization before the War
There were three main components of the Middle East: the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Arabia.
· During World War I, the centuries-old Ottoman Empire mostly encompassed the areas around Turkey, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia and Palestine (Israel hadn’t been created yet).
· Persia (modern-day Iran) was divided into three spheres of influence before the war: Russian-controlled, British-controlled, and a neutral zone. During the war, it became a battleground for Russian, Turkish and British troops.
· Arabia: This encompassed most of modern-day Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. Parts of it were fought over by the Ottoman Empire for a century prior to the war when power had gone back and forth, but the region remained relatively autonomous during World War I.
Carving Up the Region
In the midst of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s foray into Egypt in 1798 began a long string of European adventures in the Middle East, leading to colonization, resistance, and eventually war.
Eventually, the British would take Egypt, Sudan and the small states of the Persian Gulf. France would seize Algeria and Morocco. And Arab resistance to European encroachment would prompt much bloody violence. Napoleon’s effort to conquer Egypt had little to do with Egypt and the Egyptians, who were then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. It had everything to do with Europe and his rivalry with Europe’s other great powers.
Ottoman defenders were little match for Napoleon’s disciplined French troops, and the defeat was a major blow for the Arab world. But the British navy soon joined the battle, opposing the French forces, and proved a far more challenging adversary. Resistance to the French in Algeria and the British in Sudan provided the first hints of Arab nationalism, a movement that would sweep the Arab world in contemporary times.
Still, by the early 20th century much of the Middle East and Africa — which had previously been under control of the Ottoman Empire — was ruled by the Europeans.
Degradation and decay
The 19th century was one of the problems and degradation, as the Ottomans struggled to retain control of their empire in the face of external pressure and internal turmoil. As in other large empires of the time, the Ottomans were confronted with rising nationalism and opposition, as ethnic and regional groups demanded self-determination and independence. Centuries before, the Ottomans ruled the world’s richest empire – but by the 1800s they had long been overtaken by the trading strength of the British, French and other European powers. By the 1870s the Ottomans owed more than 200 million pounds to European banks; the annual repayments on their loans and interest comprised more than half the national revenue. The once-formidable military power of the Ottoman Empire also decreased significantly during this period. Recognizing their weakening military position and incapacity to wage war, Ottoman leaders began seeking alliances with European nations.
The quest for alliances
European leaders – particularly those of Britain, France, and Germany – all sought some form of Ottoman alliance in the early 1900s for their own gain in form of control over industries and trade markets. This placed Ottoman politicians in the precarious position of having to choose foreign allies – or proceed with none at all. There was little support in the sultan’s ranks for an alliance with France since its closest ally was Russia, a bitter enemy of the Ottomans. A moderate faction favored an agreement with Britain, which controlled nearby Egypt and southern Iraq and could offer trade deals. Others among the Ottomans preferred neutrality, believing the empire should remain disconnected from European intrigues and tensions. It was Germany’s strong position against Russia, along with promises of financial support and the construction of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway that ultimately won the day.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire
Starting in the 1600s, the Ottoman Empire had already begun to lose its economic and military dominance to Europe, which had strengthened rapidly with the Renaissance and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Other factors, such as poor leadership and having to compete with trade from the Americas and India, led to the weakening of the empire. This loss in the Battle of Vienna added to their already waning status. Over the next 100 years, the empire began to lose key regions of land. After a revolt, Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. In 1878, the Congress of Berlin declared the independence of Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria. During the Balkan Wars, which took place in 1912 and 1913, the Ottoman Empire lost nearly all its territories in Europe.
Middle East in WWI
The modern boundaries of the Middle East emerged from the war. So did modern Arab nationalist movements and embryonic Islamic movements.
On the eve of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was in ruinous shape. The people were demoralized and tired. What the Empire needed was time to recover and to carry out reforms; however, there was no time, because the world was sliding into war and the Ottoman Empire was highly unlikely to manage to remain outside the coming conflict. Since staying neutral and focusing on recovery did not appear to be possible, the Empire had to ally with one or the other camp as there were neither adequate quantities of weaponry and machinery nor the financial means. Most European powers were not interested in joining an alliance with the ailing Ottoman Empire.
However, Germany needed the Ottoman Empire on its side, as this would mean greater access to industries and markets. Thus the “Ottoman–German Alliance” was ratified shortly following the outbreak of World War I which was created as part of a joint-cooperative effort that would strengthen and modernize the failing Ottoman military, as well as provide Germany safe passage into neighboring British colonies.
The British, French and Russians had been jockeying for position over the declining Ottoman Empire for decades before World War I. But as the war unfolded, Germany’s spreading influence in the region brought concern from all parties. Great Britain wanted to protect its interests in the region – mainly oil and mobility via the Suez Canal – so Britain and its most important colony, India, sent troops to Bahrain and declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The fight eventually moved into the Middle East. With such an outbreak, the Sultan Mohammed V of the Ottoman Empire declared a jihad (holy war), calling on Muslims everywhere to rise up against Britain, France, and Russia. Later, French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries. That agreement was superseded by another which established a mandate system of French and British control, sanctioned by the new League of Nations under which, Syria and Lebanon went to the French, the British took over Palestine and three Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia and created modern-day Iraq.
World War I transformed the Middle East in ways it had not seen for centuries. The Europeans, who had colonized much of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, completed the takeover with the territories of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, playing a significant role in shaping the modern-day map of the Middle East.