Just over a century ago, on a rare rainy day in Jerusalem, Turkish troops made a final stand on the Mount of Olives before backing away. It took a few days to work out the details of surrender, but on Dec. 11, 1917, Izzat, the Ottoman mutasarrif, or provincial governor, of Jerusalem, sent a note to the British forces that surrounded the city. “Due to the severity of the siege of the city and the suffering that this peaceful country has endured from your heavy guns; and for fear that these deadly bombs will hit the holy places, we are forced to hand over to you the city … hoping that you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years.”
Look again at that last sentence, especially the part that says “more than five hundred years.” Only weeks after that note was sent, Turkish forces were driven completely from the area that is now Israel and Jordan. Less than a year later, a Turkish representative came aboard the British battleship Agamemnon, anchored off a small island in the Aegean, and signed away the remnants of the Ottoman Empire to Great Britain and the allied powers. Even the names on that document—Mesopotamia, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica—testify to the vast span of time in which these territories had been under rule from Istanbul—before it was Istanbul.
Within the area turned over under that treaty was the territory that is now Syria, but that was then just a minor part of what Turkey had controlled at the beginning of the First World War. Though many considered the Ottoman Empire at the opening of the 20th century to have been a nation in decline, it was a vast, multicultural, multilingual, Muslim-controlled territory that had withstood invasion and revolution since the time of the Crusades. Then it was gone.
For a frustrated and beaten Turkey, there is an ache around not just what once was; that wound is also salted by what almost was. Within a decade after the Allied nations took control of the the fallen empire and carved Turkey’s former territories into the modern Middle East, the economics of the area began a vast swing. After more than half a millennium, Turkey lost its territories just a decade before what was under all that sand would have made it by far the wealthiest nation on Earth.
Great age and vast span doesn’t mean that the Ottoman Empire was good. As with any state that grew through conquest and assimilation, it depended on military and economic domination of its various territories and a genuinely byzantine collection of bureaucratic and religious institutions. Western nations generally regarded the Ottomans as “decadent,” and the empire was commonly depicted as something of a doddering old man whose time was long gone well before it became engaged in the Great War. But that isn’t an accurate picture of an empire whose decline was far more economic than cultural.
During the 19th century, the Ottomans went through a series of relentless restructurings and modernizations. There’s little to show that the empire was either less efficient, or more corrupt, than most other states at the time—including the major European states that were still busily colonizing in Africa and elsewhere.
The ragged, decaying empire of decadent, opium-smoking, carpet-slipped Turkish bureaucrats was 99.9% the creation of Western prejudices, and the idea that European forces could easily stroll through these dusty, backward lands, widespread when World War I began, pretty much ended at Gallipoli. That was where a bungled amphibious assault—stage-managed at a distance by a young Winston Churchill—resulted in an amazing 500,000 casualties and a disaster that played out over a year.
What was not mythical about the Ottoman Empire was the harsh line it took with groups within its borders that were seen as, to appropriate a term, “uppity.” Not only was the empire 500 years old, but it had 500 years of records, and 500 years of grudges, resentments, and its own convoluted conspiracy theories about which groups were likely troublemakers. And throughout those centuries of domination, the general response to troublemakers remained the same: kill them. Kill them all.
That was still true in 1915, when Turkey used the cover of the war to start Armenian genocide in earnest. The idea that the “unruly” Armenians might use the fact that Turkish forces were out fighting the allies as an opportune moment for rebellion was just one of the justifications put forth for why able-bodied Armenian men were first conscripted, then imprisoned, then simply executed. Then women and children were forced to leave their homes and face deportation into the Syrian desert—taking them down some of the same roads now traveled by displaced Kurds. Without food or water, and subject to horrible abuse of all kinds along the way, few of those women and children actually survived the journey.
Just as the machinery behind the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazis was also used to kill those of other communities viewed as inferior, the Turks weren’t all that particular about just killing Armenians while they were carrying out genocide. It was also a period in which Greek, Assyrian, and other communities inside the Ottoman Empire simply disappeared along roadsides and in villages, shot down by hundreds and by thousands.
That kind of action definitely influenced what really turned the tide against the Ottomans in World War I: the uprising of some of those groups that had been under their thumb for centuries. Among those groups that began to look for independence, the Arab uprising was at first dismissed as a “sideshow of a sideshow” (and not just in Lawrence of Arabia), but it formed a critical part of the Allied victory in the Eastern Theater. In particular, two large Arab families joined up with Western European troops to provide territory from which British and French forces could launch attacks. One of those families was named Saud. As in Saudi Arabia.
Kurdish forces in World War I were split. Many Kurds served alongside Ottoman troops—especially during the fight against Russia. But some Kurds also worked with British forces. Kurds also came in for their own round of ethnic cleansing and displacement, some of it delivered as clear revenge for what the Turks saw as disloyalty. Some of the distrust in their subject peoples helped shape Turkish actions late in the war, when Turkish troops attempted to seize territory from revolution-shocked Russia rather than defend their traditional territory, where they feared uprisings as much as they did Allied troops.
Following the war, British, French, Greek, and other Allied forces occupied strategic points throughout the former Ottoman territories, including points in Turkey. Including Constantinople, which was occupied by French forces within days of the Ottoman surrender. Turkish officials and members of the royal family watched, from what was essentially house arrest, as the Allies divided up their empire and handed it off, either to each other, or to forces they regarded as rebels. That included dividing up the area of modern Turkey.
Within weeks of the Allied occupation, a man named Mirliva Mustafa Kemal Paşa, formerly the war adviser to the Ottoman sultan and a hero of the battle at Gallipoli, was given the job of providing a census of remaining Ottoman forces for the purpose of cashiering the army and sending them home. Instead, he started moving forces around secretly and organizing resistance cells. In the next few months, he developed both the political and the military power that was necessary to openly revolt against the controlling powers—a revolt that began with the slaughter of forces composed chiefly of Armenians. A year and several battlefield victories after that, the renamed Atatürk declared the new, secular, modern state of Turkey.
For pulling together a homeland in the process of being dismembered, Atatürk is held in high regard as the founding hero of Turkey. His efforts to secularize and modernize the state—sometimes at gunpoint—were directly responsible for creating the nation that is Turkey today. That’s why his name is found on towns, schools, airports, hydroelectric dams, money, and pretty much anywhere an American might find the name of George Washington in their own country. Unlike in the U.S. when it comes to Washington, however, there are actual laws in Turkey making it a crime to dishonor Atatürk. Both the man and the state he created are supposed to be the model by which everything in Turkey is measured.
Still … there had been an Ottoman ruler on the throne in Constantinople for more than five decades when Columbus set sail from Spain. There was still an Ottoman ruler on that same throne a decade after the Wright brothers flew.
Recep Erdogan, like many others in Turkey, looks back to a time when his nation was one of the world’s Great Powers. When the Kurds were under the control of that power. Along with all the rest of Syria. And Lebanon, and Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and all of Israel, including the ancient city of Jerusalem.
None of that justifies war crimes and atrocities. None of it makes it even slightly all right that Turkish-backed militia are gunning down Kurdish civilians along roadsides in northern Syria, or driving families into the night. But there’s a difference between understanding and accepting. Understanding Erdogan means knowing that when he looks across the border to Syria and beyond, he sees it all as his territory, overrun by traitors and occupiers.