Count­ing the cost of the Ot­tomans

Saul David on a bril­liant trav­el­ogue through eleven coun­tries that were once part of the Ot­toman em­pire

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

TOTTOMAN ODYSSEY

320pp, River­run, £20, ebook £13.99

he First World War did for the Ot­toman Em­pire – as it did for so many oth­ers – and in 1923, Ataturk’s Repub­lic of Turkey rose from its ashes. Al­most a cen­tury on, Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan is try­ing to re­as­sume the Ot­tomans’ role as leader of the Mid­dle East, which seems as good a time as any for Alev Scott to ask: what was the legacy of Ot­toman rule for the peo­ple of the Balkans, the Cau­ca­sus and the Le­vant? And what im­pact is that hav­ing on the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial make-up of this trou­bled re­gion?

To an­swer these ques­tions, the An­glo-Turk­ish Scott – re­cently banned from re­turn­ing to her Istanbul home for writ­ing ar­ti­cles crit­i­cal of Er­do­gan – goes on her own odyssey through 11 coun­tries of the for­mer em­pire. Among her in­ter­vie­wees are de­scen­dants of an­cient mi­nori­ties that flour­ished in the em­pire, but have since been in­tim­i­dated, or even ex­pelled; and those who live far from Turkey but who iden­tify as “Ot­toman in some vague but vis­ceral sense, en­cour­aged by the cur­rent Turk­ish gov­ern­ment’s at­tempts to res­ur­rect re­gional in­flu­ence”.

Along the way, Scott quizzes them – and her­self – about dif­fi­cult sub­jects such as “forced mi­gra­tion, geno­cide, ex­ile, di­as­pora, col­lec­tive mem­ory and iden­tity, not just about re­li­gious co­ex­is­tence”. One of the most mov­ing sec­tions of this beau­ti­fully writ­ten book – which com­bines his­tory, travel writ­ing and per­sonal dis­cov­ery – is when Scott, an avowed Turkophile, vis­its Yerevan’s Geno­cide Mu­seum in Armenia, set up in mem­ory of the mil­lion or so Ar­me­ni­ans killed by the Turks in 1915. As a child, Scott “ab­sorbed a cer­tain sus­pi­cion that the West had used the geno­cide un­fairly as a stick with which to beat Turkey for the crimes of their Ot­toman pre­de­ces­sors”. The trip to the mu­seum changes ev­ery­thing. “There was,” she writes, “so much proof, too much proof that a geno­cide had taken place.”

Com­par­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Turkey and Armenia with that of Is­rael and Pales­tine – “his­tor­i­cal claims to land, dis­placed peo­ple, re­li­gious par­ti­san­ship, geno­cide recog­ni­tion and be­lea­guered diplo­macy” – she worries that coun­tries that fail to ac­knowl­edge their dark past are in dan­ger of re­peat­ing their crimes. The so­lu­tion, she feels, is for Turkey to take a leaf out of Spain and Por­tu­gal’s book – both have of­fered citizenship to Sephardic Jews to atone for the In­qui­si­tion – and of­fer res­i­dency to all Ar­me­ni­ans.

Scott is sim­i­larly clear-eyed about the forced mi­gra­tion of mil­lions of Greek-born Mus­lims to Turkey and the re­cip­ro­cal dis­patch of Ot­toman Chris­tians to Greece, as per the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lau­sanne. De­spite their re­li­gion, many spoke only their na­tional lan­guage – Turk­ish in the case of the for­mer group, Greek for the lat­ter – and were un­der­stand­ably trau­ma­tised by the up­heaval.

But there has been the odd sil­ver lin­ing. Mod­ern eth­ni­cally cleansed Turkey – and Greece for that mat­ter – is less sus­cep­ti­ble to the sort of in­ternecine strife that is tear­ing Syria apart. Scott thinks it is no co­in­ci­dence that the res­i­dents of Les­bos – about 60 per cent of whom are de­scended from Chris­tians de­ported from Turkey – have shown great gen­eros­ity to the thou­sands of Syr­ian refugees who have de­scended on their shores.

Vis­it­ing Jerusalem, she notes the alarm­ing statis­tic that, in 1917, in the last days of Ot­toman con­trol, “Arabs made up 90 per cent of the

Al­most a cen­tury on, Er­do­gan is try­ing to make Turkey leader of the Mid­dle East again

CON­QUERORA 16th-cen­tury paint­ing of the Ot­toman Sul­tan, Suleiman I the Mag­nif­i­cent

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