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