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In 1683, when the Ottoman forces were besieging Vienna, the empire reached its high-water mark and then began its slow, steady decline after suffering a major defeat in this battle. Only very gradually did Europeans come to perceive it as the Sick Man of Europe, however, since it was still formidable enough to play an important role in the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War of 1854-56. This was its last major victory, however, since by 1878 it had lost most of the Balkans, or Rumelia as it was known to the Ottomans, and with it much of its tax revenue and the recruitment ground for the Janissaries. It lost Crete in 1896 and Macedonia and Thrace after the Balkan Wars in 1912-13, and ceased to be a European power. Compared to the Western powers that were becoming urban and industrialized in the 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire lagged far behind in science, manufacturing and technology, while foreigners took control of its banking and trade (Quataert, 2005, p. 57). At the same time, none of the Great Powers could afford to let it collapse completely, lest one of their rivals take over Constantinople and the Straights. This had been a longstanding Russian goal, of course, but it was not in the interest of any of its imperial rivals. Therefore the Ottoman Empire lingered on until the First World War, when Britain, Italy, Greece, France and Russia signed secret agreements to partition it. Russia never received the Turkish Straights, though, and after the 1917 revolution the Bolsheviks publicized all the secret agreements, much to the embarrassment of the Western powers. Britain and France occupied Constantinople and partitioned the Arab Middle East among themselves, according to the provisions of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Greece in particular had the Megali Idea, the Great or Grand Idea of nationalist irredentism, and their dream was to reestablish the Hellenistic Empire that had existed ever before Alexander the Great, when the Greeks dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It had continued on in the form of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople, at least until the Arabs and Turks conquered it. After the defeat of the Ottomans in 1918, Greece, Britain and France attempted to put the Megali Idea into practice but were defeated by Ataturk in 1922. As a result, over a million Greeks were expelled from Turkish lands, including from communities where they had lived for 3,000 years: none of these exist any longer. Crete and Cyprus were also scheduled to be part of this revived Greek Empire, and on Crete the Turkish minority was expelled. This would also have occurred on Cyprus had it reunified with Greece, except that the Turks landed troops there to protect the Turkish minority, and the conflict has not yet been fully resolved. For the Turks, this fight was no longer to preserve the empire that Ataturk despised, but a war for "the liberation of a Turkish homeland in Anatolia" (Quataert, p. 61).
In Nikos Kazantzakis's great novel Freedom or Death, set in the town of Megalokastro on Crete in 1889 with yet another rebellion against the Turks is brewing in the background, the Christian and Turkish leaders both look forward to the future with dread and pessimism. For the Orthodox Metropolitan of Megalokastro, who was of course a nationalist and supporter of the rebellion, Crete has taken the place of the crucified Christ in one of his paintings, and he replied to a visitor who thought the picture sinful that she was, "but she is worth it" (Kazantzakis 164). Only the two town idiots think that the Greeks and Turks should be able to get along, and even the Turkish Pasha agreed that they were wiser than himself and the Metropolitan, but the war went on regardless. In addition, the Pasha lamented the decline of the Ottoman Empire, saying "but now I've grown old. The State, too, has grown old. And it's the fault of this damned Crete" (Kazantzakis 122). When the Turks suppress the revolt, an army of medieval Dervishes lands on Crete, wearing "green skirts and pointed white hats, and with daggers in their belts. They clambered on to the mole, unrolled the green flag of the Prophet in front of the Harbor Gate, and began dancing round it, slowly, clapping their hands" (Kazantakis 267). They finally defeat the rebellion and drive Michalis and his men back up into the mountains, where they engage in a suicidal and pointless last stand at the climax of the novel. Captain Michalis saluted his nephew as an honorable warrior when he came to die with him at the climax of the novel, and proclaimed that they were all going to die for "Immortal Crete" (Kazantakis 470).
Repeated nationalist rebellions like these in Greece, the Balkans and North Africa in the 19th Century, in which the rebels were indeed quite as willing to die to the last man for their cause as Captain Michalis, were a chronic nightmare for the Ottoman Empire. Even worse from the viewpoint of the Sublime Porte were the constant interventions by France, Russia, Britain and the Hapsburg Empire in the name of protecting national and religious minorities. From the 17th Century to the 20th, "the Ottomans were the single most important enemies of the Russian state" which also faced an extremely hostile Hapsburg Empire as well (Quataert, p. 5). Paradoxically, only Ottoman weakness and instability prevented its enemies from devouring the empire completely, out of fear that their other imperial competitors would end up with a larger and better share than themselves. Even so, the eastern Question and the conflict between Russia and the Hapsburgs over the Balkans boiled up periodically before finally exploding in 1914. It produced continuous tension between all the Great Powers, in fact, who were mainly concerned that "total disintegration" of the empire would be an even worse alternative (Kent, 2005, p. 1).
After Russian intervention on behalf of Romania and Bulgaria in 1877, the Treaties of San Stefano and Berlin in 1878, turned out to be the most humiliating ever imposed in the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. They enlarged the borders of Serbia and Montenegro, assured independence for Romania and autonomy for Bulgaria, and major Russian gains in Central Asia. These treaties were a "triumph for Panslavism," Russian style, and "never had a Sultan accepted such terms" (Palmer, 2005, p. 155). Abdulhamid II did because the empire was bankrupt and dependent on foreign financiers, and throughout his long reign he always feared being overthrown and either assassinated or imprisoned for life in a dungeon by his very dissatisfied subjects. By 1875, half of the empire's budget consisted on interest and principle due on past loans, and in 1881 the Western Powers imposed a Public Debt Commission of the Ottomans, which was a major humiliation and loss of sovereignty. France also controlled the Imperial Ottoman Bank and European investors dominated almost all the trade, industry, banking, railroads and communications of the empire (Kent, p. 2).
Both Britain and Austria-Hungary were at least as alarmed by Russian expansionism as the frailty of the Ottoman Empire. Britain supported revision of the treaty and guaranteed the territorial integrity of the empire, in return for a permanent base in the Near East. At first they considered Crete but it was already attempting to be reunified with Greece, and instead received a base on Cyprus (Palmer, p.156). On the other hand, Britain and Austria also came to a secret understanding with Russia on how best to divide the empire. Abdulhamid learned of this and never trusted Britain as an 'honest broker' again. Austria gained administrative control of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the same time under the 1878 treaties, while Bulgaria remained autonomous and independent starting in 1885 -- although this was only officially confirmed in 1908. The Ottoman Empire lost 40% of its territory and 20% of its population, and ceased to be a European power although it held onto its Arab provinces until the First World War when they were finally partitioned between Britain and France (Palmer, p. 162). Egypt had long been lost to the empire, given its revenue from the Suez Canal and Britain assumed de facto control there by 1881.
Despite numerous attempts in the late-19th and early-20th Centuries, the Ottomans were never able to modernize and industrialize their empire, as the Japanese had done after the Meiji Restoration in 1867. Part of the reason was that the Sultans were also the Caliphs, the leaders of the Islamic faithful, and conservative religious groups opposed attempts at innovation and Westernization as a betrayal of Islam. This continued to be a problem until the Turkish nationalist Ataturk abolished the sultanate in 1922 and the caliphate a year later, officially proclaiming Turkey to be a republic. Of course, the desire to restore the Sunni caliphate has never disappeared, and the campaign to do so has taken on new intensity…[continue]
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