‘The Damascus Events’ and ‘Sea of Troubles’ review

Sea of Troubles by Ian Rutledge and The Damascus Events by Eugene Rogan watch as the ‘sick man of Europe’ turns violent.

Massacre of Christians in Syria, French illustration, late 19th century. Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

In July 1860 Dr Mikhayil Mishaqa narrowly escaped death when an angry mob tried to lynch him in the backstreets of Damascus. A successful silk merchant and adviser to Lebanese princes, Mishaqa left his Levantine village for the city in 1834, where he trained as a doctor before becoming a US vice-consul. Ensconced in the heart of Ottoman Syria, Mishaqa soon joined the ranks of the Damascene Christian notables. But his prestigious position offered him little protection that July as Muslims in Mount Lebanon and Damascus turned on their Christian neighbours, killing more than 10,000 and 5,000 respectively in what Eugene Rogan calls a ‘genocidal moment’. Mishaqa and his family suffered numerous injuries and saw their house ransacked. Miraculously, they survived.

The Ottomans were no strangers to violence. The descendants of Osman Gazi cut a bloody path out of Anatolia to conquer and enslave until they had built a vast empire encompassing southeastern Europe, North Africa and much of the Middle East. But by the 16th century Sultan Suleiman I – known in the West as ‘the Magnificent’ and in Turkey and the Arab world as ‘the Lawgiver’ – had established the rule of law and sectarian bloodletting became a thing of the past. During the 19th century this began to change. Instances of violence between Ottoman Muslims and Christians became more frequent and more bloody all the way up to the end of the First World War. What had unsettled the order established by Suleiman? The question is addressed in two new books. In his enthralling Sea of Troubles Ian Rutledge offers a grand overview of the tensions that led to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and locates their source in the spread of capitalism and the ensuing inter-imperialist struggle. Rogan, meanwhile, zooms in and brilliantly captures the tragic outcome of this struggle. Read together, they shed much light on Ottoman modernity.

During the 18th century, the once-backward territories of Europe pulled themselves together and began building vast, globe-straddling empires of their own. Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798 dramatically illustrated this westward shift in global power. Short-lived though it was – France’s forces were defeated at Acre the following year – the emperor’s excursion was an early expression of what would characterise much of the next century: the rivalry over the lands to the south and east of the Mediterranean. Rutledge argues that it was the azure sea and its hinterlands – not sub-Saharan Africa, Asia nor the Pacific – which witnessed ‘the most historically and politically significant sphere of imperialism and inter-imperialist rivalry’ in this period. Ultimately, he argues, this competition, fuelled by industrial capitalism, would result in the First World War.

Rutledge’s twist on Lenin’s thesis about the origins of the Great War – ‘an imperialist, capitalist war, a predatory war, a war for the oppression of small and foreign nations’ – is convincing. During the century or so between Napoleon’s ill-fated Levantine adventure and the Treaty of Versailles, Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Austria-Hungary all competed for control of Ottoman territory. Istanbul made alliances to maintain its imperium, but this did not prevent, for example, France’s invasion of Algeria in 1830. Geopolitically speaking, the Ottomans were falling behind.

The same can be said of the empire’s progress in the economic realm. Ottoman trade with Europe increased throughout the 19th century but the terms of this trade were not necessarily to the former’s advantage. Quite the opposite, in fact. As Ottoman attempts to keep up with Europe’s industrial advances failed, ‘the Islamic Mediterranean gradually converted into an economically subordinate role as an agro-exporting region’, as Rutledge puts it. As if this wasn’t enough, Christian nationalists in the Balkans, egged on by one or another foreign power, began to take up arms against their Muslim overlords. Inspired by the French Revolution, Serbs (1815) and Greeks (1821) rebelled, determined to shake off the fetters of Ottoman rule. Istanbul responded as empires are wont to do in such situations: it hit back with scorched-earth brutality and attempted to crush all talk of liberty, equality and fraternity. From the perspective of the Sublime Porte, the imperial house was beset by enemies from within and without. The Ottoman Empire was far from the ‘sick man of Europe’, but it was certainly starting to look unwell.

The sultans and viziers in Istanbul did not just passively accept the Empire’s decline. As well as violently cracking down on nationalist movements, they also attempted to initiate far-reaching, centralising reforms, starting with the military. In July 1826 Mahmud II disbanded the Janissary Corps and began building a modern army that could hold its own on the international stage while crushing separatists. These initial changes were taken further after the insubordinate governor of Egypt, Mehmed Ali Pasha, decided to turn on his Ottoman masters and occupy Syria in 1830. Shaken by the rebellious pasha’s successes, the Ottoman government launched the Tanzimat (‘Reorganisation’) in 1839. This bold programme sought to secure Western support against Mehmed Ali and to make the five-century-old empire fit for the modern world. This involved a push to centralise power, update the tax system and further modernise the military. In 1856 it was also declared that Muslims, Christians and Jews were equal before the law.

The Tanzimat would be successful in securing support against Mehmed Ali; he was driven from Syria in 1840. But the reforms would prove controversial as it meant Istanbul accruing more power vis-à-vis local leaders. It also meant giving more rights to minorities.

The Ottomans adhered to the Islamic precept that Christians and Jews were protected as ‘People of the Book’ but were essentially second-class subjects. They could not be equal to Muslims. The 1856 decree was a direct challenge to this divinely ordained order. In the words of Shaykh Muhammad Said al-Ustuwani, the esteemed preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, equality between religious communities represented ‘ashes upon all Muslims’. The idea of equality threatened Ottoman Muslim privilege, which was one of the factors behind the violence in 1860.

But as Eugene Rogan shows in The Damascus Events this is far from the full story. Ottoman Muslims in the 19th century were painfully conscious that their world was shrinking. European powers were encroaching on their territory and Christian separatists were casting off the yoke of Istanbul’s rule. Muslims could also see that their Christian neighbours were doing well for themselves. Thanks to 16th-century treaties known as the Capitulations, foreign merchants and diplomats enjoyed extraterritorial rights within the empire and were able to extend these to Ottoman Christians and Jews. These arrangements, a product of a time when the Ottomans were the unchallenged masters of the Mediterranean, gave minorities legal and economic advantages not enjoyed by Muslims. As trade between the expanding European states and the retracting Ottoman realm increased during the 19th century, the Capitulations enabled many Christians – and, to a lesser extent, Jews – to accrue small fortunes operating as middlemen.

Resentment was the result. For many Ottoman Muslims it looked as though local Christians were working in cahoots with their European co-religionists to undermine the Islamic empire and making lots of money doing so. Combined with the 1856 decree, a conspiracy theory claiming influential Christians such as Dr Mishaqa were going to displace Muslim notables as the ruling elite of Syria began to circulate. By 1860, Rogan writes, ‘it took only a spark to turn that hostility to violence’. Of course, not all Muslims in Mount Lebanon and Syria joined in the bloodletting. The Algerian notable Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir, who had spent much of the 1830s leading the fight against French colonialism in his homeland before retiring to Damascus, gave sanctuary to thousands of Christians. The Ottoman government, too, opposed the killings. Fearful that the European powers would use the massacres as an excuse to intervene, the Sublime Porte sent one of its most capable politicians, Mehmed Fuad Pasha, to punish those responsible, compensate the victims and rebuild the affected areas. The 1860 events and the rebuilding served to inoculate Damascus from sectarianism for the foreseeable future. However, the killings foreshadowed the violence that would plague Muslim-Christian relations in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, imperial rivalry and nationalist separatism continued. Ottoman territories in North Africa fell one by one to French or British control with Italy invading Libya in 1911. The Balkans, a hotbed of sectarian violence as nationalist movements fought their Ottoman rulers, continued to be the site of intense geopolitical competition between Russia, Austro-Hungary, Britain and France. It was this tinderbox, as Rutledge reminds us, that ignited the First World War. Against this background, the Sublime Porte became increasingly hostile to Christians. Once protected as ‘People of the Book’, increasingly Christians were viewed as fifth columnists. This view would contribute to the genocide of Armenians and Assyrians during the First World War.

None of this was inevitable. Ottoman Muslims and Christians had co-existed – albeit unequally – for centuries. Many also continued to live together peacefully throughout this tumultuous period. However, the advent of modernity in the 19th century, characterised by Western imperialism and capitalism, the centralising reforms of the Tanzimat and nationalism, shook up Suleiman’s well-ordered domain. Some good came of it; brief experiments with constitutional rule, for example. But modernity had a bloody price tag for many in the lands of the Ottoman Empire.

  • The Damascus Events: The 1860 Massacre and the Destruction of the Old Ottoman World
    Eugene Rogan
    Allen Lane, 400pp, £30
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

  • Sea of Troubles: The European Conquest of the Islamic Mediterranean and the Origins of the First World War, 1750-1918 
    Ian Rutledge
    Saqi, 584pp, £25
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

William Eichler writes on the history and politics of Israel, Palestine and Turkey.