"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 25, 2016

Eastern Christian Suffering in the Violent Decline of the Ottoman Empire

I've just had a chance to finish Eugene Rogan's splendid study, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (Basic Books, 2015), 512pp.

It is a very cogently written study that begins in the late 19th century, but is of course largely concentrated on the First World War, though with considerable attention paid to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

Parts of the book revisit well-trod territory for those who have some background in the history of the Great War--e.g., the chapter on the Allied attempt to invade by the Dardanelles and the related Gallipoli campaigns in 1915.

Parts of the book also show the great (and relatively underwhelming and only partially successful) attempts made by the Young Turks and their German patrons to arouse Muslim hatred against the Entente Powers by repeated calls for jihad, a term with which, alas, we have only become ever more familiar in the last hundred years. In the case of British India, this campaign produced almost no uprisings, so loyal were Indian subjects to the king-emperor George V. In most other places, it aroused only minimal attention for a variety of reasons. In all places, it seems, it was recognized by Arabs, Turks, Germans, and Brits alike as a political tool to be trotted out when convenient and retired when necessary. It does not seem to have had quite the same purchase as it does today in the hands of some (e.g., ISIS). Once again one sees the ease with which all parties--Muslim and non-Muslim alike--are able to use Islamic terminology, concepts, and practices as ideological tools in the service of empires and would-be nation-states.

The chapters on the Arab Revolt, which began 100 years ago this past June, are very interesting to watch the intrigue between Britain and the Hashemite tribes of Arabia. This gives rise to plots between Arabs and Brits against the Ottoman Turks; between Arabs and the Turks against the British; between the British and the French (e.g., the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement) against the Arabs; and then between the British, French, and Russians against the Turks and possibly with the Arabs onside, but clearly in a dependent role. Fascinating too is the sudden creation of a "king" in the Arab world in the person of Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, who gave himself the regal title and status. Most monarchies tend to be shabby (if disguised) ramshackle affairs of sordid origins, but this one is especially déshabillé.

There is also a very well done chapter on the Armenian Genocide which also gives considerable attention to the slaughter of the Assyrian Christians at the same time--to say nothing of the campaign to drive the Greeks out of western Anatolia. For those who want to understand the genocide in its wider context, this book does a very good job. But for those who want the genocide summed up without reading any number of the many lengthy studies of it, this book's chapter does a good job in conveying the details succinctly without sparing the reader some of the details of the horrors faced--horrors that stagger one to this very day.

Rogan's treatment of the slaughter of Armenian Christians draws considerably on a first-hand eye-witness report, Armenian Golgothaone of the first ever written, by Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian priest who barely survived, and who was forced to witness the genocide in all its manifold horrors

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