A series of decisive victories in a long chain of conquests led the Turks to the zenith of their military power and glory. An unbroken succession of ten brilliant and great Sultans led the Ottomans to acquire in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a vast empire "embracing many of the richest and most beautiful regions of the world" and stretching from the gates of Vienna to the straits of Bab-el-Mandib, and from the Caucasus across North Africa, almost to the Atlantic Ocean.
The history of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century is one of increasing internal weakness and deterioration in the machinery of Government and of sustained external pressure by the Great Powers, which ultimately led to the dissolution of that Empire. If the Empire was "on the edge of disruption and collapse" who would inherit its vast territories in Europe, Asia and Africa? The history of the Ottomans and their relations with Europe in this century were dominated by the major and vital question known generally as the Eastern Question. In a letter to The Times on September 9, 1876, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe wrote: "The Eastern Question has by degrees assumed such large proportions that no one can be surprised at the space it occupies in all public discussions whether of the tongue or of the pen". The following very brief summary of this period will help to bring to the attention of the reader its major events and outstanding features.
With the opening of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire became subject to a series of political pressures from friends and foes alike among the European Powers. All these Powers tried to find in the vast dominions of Turkey an outlet for their territorial ambitions, commercial expansion, national prestige, jealousies and fears. The capital of that Empire became the focal point of a sinister game of power-politics played by the Ambassadors of the Great Powers with all the astuteness of nineteenth century diplomacy. To Great Britain, the maintenance of the "Balance of Power" in Europe became more vital than ever, and for the maintenance of this balance, it became imperative to preserve the integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, two major events greatly affected the Eastern Question. The first was the invasion of Egypt and Syria by Napoleon (1798-1801) and, the second, the occupation of Syria by Muhammad Ali Pasha's troops (1830-1840). Both brought French, Russian and British intervention in the Near East. The advance of Muhammad 'Ali Pasha's forces in Anatolia, as far as Kutahia, forced Sultan Mahmud to accept Russian aid for the defense of Constantinople (Istanbul); hence, the signing of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi (July 8, 1833). Napoleon and Muhammad Ali Pasha were both defeated. Turkey was saved, albeit it had grown weaker. Indeed, in 1837, as a result of the war of Greek independence, Turkey lost Greece and the latter became a self-governing nation.
The events leading up to the Protocol of London in 1841 convinced Tsar Nicholas that Turkey was dying and he made no secret of his views. In 1843, he visited Vienna and Berlin and in 1844, London. In all these capitals, he told the responsible Governments that the downfall of Turkey was imminent. All that he wanted was to "come to an understanding" over the property of the dying man, particularly Constantinople, "before it is too late". In England, he told the Aberdeen Government: "In my Cabinet there are two opinions about Turkey: one is that she is dying; the other is that she is already dead".
Tsar Nicholas waited for nine years hoping that Britain would change her policy towards Turkey, l'homme malade, --- the "sick man" of Europe. Exasperated by the attitude of the British Government and tired of waiting, the Tsar finally took the matter into his own hands. The result was the Crimean War of 1854-1856. The Treaty of Paris which ended the Crimean War in 1856 guaranteed "the Independence and the Territorial Integrity of the Ottoman Empire". Russia was once more prevented from achieving her favorite object of conquering Istanbul. "This declaration of the independence of Turkey", wrote the Duke of Argyll "was the best form in which they (the Powers) could repel and condemn the attempt of Russia to establish the special dependence of Turkey upon herself..."
The twenty years which followed the Crimean War were a period of comparative calm in the field of international rivalry in the Ottoman Empire, with two exceptions: the civil war of 1860 in Lebanon and the sanguinary insurrections of 1866-1868 in Crete, an island with a Christian majority of Greeks and a privileged Muslim minority. The events in Lebanon led to the intervention of five Powers in Istanbul. These Powers, Great Britain, Russia, France, Austria and Prussia submitted a "Protocole" to the Porte which was accepted by the latter. According to this "Protocole", Mount Lebanon was detached from the vilayet of Syria and became an autonomous Province (Sanjak) ruled over by a Christian Governor (Mutasarrif) and an Administrative Council of twelve members. This led to the further weakening of the government machinery of the Ottoman Empire.
Meanwhile, an outstanding event took place in the Near East, which probably more than any other decided the fate of the Arab world as far as West European imperialism was concerned, namely, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This 101-mile waterway brought London nearer to Bombay by 4500 miles and to Abadan by 4800 miles. When in November 1875, Khedive Isma'il wanted to sell his 176, 602 shares for £4,000,000, Lord Derby, the Foreign Secretary, and Disraeli acted quickly and bought them. Meanwhile, Russia was preparing herself to make one more attempt to solve the Eastern Question in her favor. In July of that same year, the spark of rebellion set Bosnia and Herzegovina on fire. The revolt spread to Bulgaria.
The Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 which followed brought the Russians dangerously close to Istanbul --- at San Stefano. But the firm attitude of the British Government and the presence of the British fleet in the sea of Marmara, near Istanbul, led to the signing of the peace treaty of San Stefano in March 1878. This treaty was shortly afterwards modified at the Congress of Berlin in favor of Turkey and a new treaty, the Treaty of Berlin, was signed in July 1878. The Ottoman Empire in Europe was saved from utter destruction and Istanbul continued to remain in Turkish hands.
This was the first disastrous event to mark the long reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid's thirty-three years which began in August 1876. During this time, the interests and rivalries of the various great Powers in the Ottoman Empire became sharper and more clearly defined. It now became evident that the "sick man" was, indeed, very dangerously sick and could not be saved. The downfall of the "Ottoman ramshackle and worm-eaten state" was no more a remote contingency. The Ottomans had practically lost the greater part of their European Empire. The new and crucial question of the day was how were they going to keep their Asiatic Empire, i.e. mainly the Arab lands of the Near East. This question became one of the main preoccupations of British foreign policy after 1878. hence, the secret Convention which Disraeli concluded with Turkey on June 4, 1878 as a result of which Great Britain was "to occupy and administer" the island of Cyprus --- to defend and protect the Asiatic possessions of the Sultan against Russia. Cyprus was an island which strategically commanded at once "the coast of Syria and Egypt".
A little over four years later, in September 1882, Britain occupied Egypt, an event which was closely related to the acquisition of Cyprus and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the possession of which as "the Key of India", was essential for the protection of that sub-continent.
The occupation of Cyprus and Egypt transformed the situation in the Near East. As a Power ruling over India and as a Mediterranean Power, it was necessary for Great Britain to have a secure position in the Asiatic possessions of the Ottoman Empire.
Before the end of the century, another turning point in the history of the Eastern Question was marked by the growth of German influence in the Ottoman Empire. The German policy of penetration and of "Drang nach osten" was viewed with alarm by England, France and Russia. The visit of Emperor William II to Palestine, Lebanon and Syria at the end of October and beginning of November, 1898, inspired Professor Hasse, the Chief of the 'Pan-Germanic Union' to write: "Full steam ahead! Forward to the Euphrates and to the Tigris and to the Persian Gulf! And let us have the land route to India in the hands of those to whom alone it ought to belong --- in the hands of Germans who rejoice in battle and in toil".
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the ever growing fear of Germany produced a number of marriages de convenance among the Powers. The menace to British interests of the aggressive policy of the new German Empire led Great Britain, in the words of Harold Bowen, "to seek the friendship of Russia and, consequently, to modify the long-standing British policy opposing Russia's designs of expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire". Actually, the conflicting interests of Great Britain, France and Russia were temporarily reconciled by various accords and alliances, such as the Entente Cordiale of 1904 between France and Britain and the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907.
Meanwhile, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the internal situation of the Ottoman Empire had been deteriorating rapidly. Discontent, corruption and anarchy were spreading with alarming speed. It had been known for some time that both Arab and Turkish reformers were planning and plotting to curb the autocratic powers of Abdul Hamid. After the deposition of Sultan Abdul Aziz on May 30, 1876 and of Sultan Murad on August 31, 1876, Abdul Hamid was proclaimed Sultan, having given a prior pledge to Midhat Pasha, a most enlightened and courageous reformer, that he would support the Pasha's Constitution and promulgate it. And so it was that on December 23, 1876, in an imposing ceremony held at Istanbul, the Imperial Rescript (Hatti Humayun) of Abdul Hamid addressed to the grand vezir Midhat Pasha, followed by the text of the Constitution, were read.
Actually, the Constitution of 1876 was itself the outcome of the many attempts made at reforming or "westernizing" the institutions of the Ottoman Empire since the beginning of the 19th century. It was in a sense a child of the Tanzimat and the third in a series of Imperial Rescripts, the first being the Hatti Sherif of Gulhane of November 3, 1839 which promised to procure for the provinces of the Ottoman Empire the benefits of a good administration by means of law (last word redacted in original) institutions.
Elections were held on the basis of a Provisional Electoral Law and the inauguration of the first historic Ottoman Parliament took place on March 19, 1877. On February 14, 1878, it was dissolved sine die by the Sultan's command. All anti-Hamidian opposition and reform movements were driven either underground in the form of secret societies or beyond the boundaries of the Empire, particularly to Paris, London, Geneva and Cairo.
At the turn of the century, when Abdul Hamid celebrated on August 31, 1900, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his accession to the throne, Turkey's cup of misfortunes was already overflowing. The "Young Turks", successors to the "New Ottomans" were stirred to action to save Turkey from decay and ruin. The Young Turks' movement had branches in different parts of the Ottoman Empire but its nerve-center was at Soalonika, in Macedonia. The eventful years of 1905-08 gave this revolutionary movement a tremendous impetus. The Young Turks' Revolution of July 1908 restored the Constitution of 1876. Abdul Hamid, temporarily, gained much popularity. Elections were held for a new Parliament and the latter held its first meeting on Thursday, December 17, 1908 in the presence of the Sultan and the Ottoman princes. But while the democratic machinery had been introduced in the Empire of the Ottoman sultans, democracy itself with all its implications and philosophy of life, had few roots in that Empire. The masses were in almost complete ignorance of what a constitution meant. The sultan and the ruling class whether civilian or the religious hierarchy were, at heart, opposed to any system of Government that would curtail their powers. On April 13, 1909, there was an attempt at a counter-revolution in Istanbul. However, the Turkish army in Macedonia was ready. It marched on the capital and laid siege to the Sultan's palace at Yildiz. On April 27, Abdul Hamid was deposed in favor of his brother Muhammad Rashad, as Muhammad V, and was immediately exiled that evening to Salonika, where he was interned in Villa Alatini.
When the First World War burst forth upon Europe on August 1, 1914, the Young Turks made a disastrous foreign policy decisions. An overly hasty appraisal of Germany's military capability by the Young Turk leaders led them to break neutrality and enter World War I (1914-18) on the side of the Central Powers. Upon the end of the war, with defeat imminent, the CUP Cabinet resigned on Oct. 9, 1918, less than a month before the Ottomans signed the Armistice of Mudros.
In May 9, 1916, a secret convention made during World War I between Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. This secret arrangement conflicted in the first place with pledges already given by the British to the Hashimite dynast Husayn ibn 'Ali, sharif of Mecca, who was about to bring the Arabs of the Hejaz into revolt against the Turks on the understanding that the Arabs would eventually receive a much more important share of the fruits of victory.
On October 30, 1918, Turkey signed an armistice with the Allied Powers on board the British battleship Agamemnon, in the harbor of Mudros at Lemnos, in the Aegean Sea.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Eastern Question, as far as it concerned the question of which Power or Powers would inherit the vast and rich possessions of the "Sick man" upon its dissolution, i.e. which Power or Powers would take the place of the Ottoman Empire and fill the "vacuum" created by its disappearance --- in this specific sense, the Eastern Question ceased to exist. On the other hand, in its broadest sense, as an international question which dealt with the conflicting interests and rivalries of the Great Powers in the political and economic fields, in the Near and Middle East, the Eastern Question had by no means been settled. It had, in reality, become a western question and, indeed, a world question.
The subsequent history of the Near East after the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, was the birth of modern Turkey, the Turkish Republic of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, or Ataturk, and the gradual emergence of the independent Arab states in this area orchestrated by Britan and France (example: creation of the Jewish State in Palestine and Lebanon by cutting a piece from Syria). But this is not, obviously, within the scope of Ottoman history, which is the subject-matter of this work.