(This is part two of Prof. Trifkovic’s three-part series, “Reflections on the Tragedy of the Hagia Sophia.” Read part one here.)
The Ottoman zenith was reached in the 16th century, when the Turks controlled Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, held Persia at bay, and pushed into central Europe after defeating the Hungarians at Mohács. The decline of the empire began late in that century. It was rapid, and visible in the corruption and degeneracy of the sultans and of their ruling class. The influence of the favored women of the harem over Sultan Murad III was inordinate. When he died in 1595, his son Mehmed III had his 19 brothers murdered, and seven of his father’s pregnant concubines were sewn into sacks and thrown into the Sea of Marmara. He did not kill all his many nephews but kept them under arrest in the Kafes, the “Cage” of the Seraglio, where they vegetated in constant dread of their lives.
In the next century, on the death of Murad IV, the throne came to Ibrahim, who had not stepped out of the “Cage” since the age of two. Depraved cruelty of the Ottoman Empire peaked with this monster, who executed his grand vizier for daring to mutter some remarks about his excesses, and in anger threw his baby son into a cistern. One morning after a debauch, feeling jaded with his harem, Ibrahim had all 300 women put into sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus. Only one survived by being picked up by a ship bound for France.
The act that resonates with modern Turkish propaganda was the invitation to the Jews of Spain to resettle in its lands after expulsion. But the status of Jews and Christians, nominally regulated through the millet religious court system, deteriorated with the gradual decline of the state. The fact that the Ottoman Jews held a favored status within the Empire over the Christian giaours is as much a reason for celebration of the Ottomans’ “tolerance” as the fact that the Nazis were “tolerant” of occupied Slavs in comparison to their treatment of the Jews.
As Turkey declined, its provincial governors and warlords—often, though not always, local converts to Islam with a suppressed guilty grudge against their former co-religionists—grew stronger, and increasingly asserted rebellious independence. Notably in the Balkans, it was demonstrated in far harsher treatment of their Christian subjects than was either mandated or normally practiced from the Bosphorus.
Early in the 19th century, Napoleon conquered Egypt and briefly controlled it. This forced the moribund Ottomans to face reality while helping open up Egypt to contact with the West, especially through the introduction of printing and modern education to the Arab world. Sultan Selim III (reigned 1789–1807) attempted to reform the Ottoman system by abolishing the Janissary corps and replacing it with the Nizam-i Cedid (new order) army. The Janissaries overthrew him and massacred most of the reform leaders.
Defeats at the hands of Russia and Austria—which often did not treat the Turk with kid gloves—coupled with the success of national revolutions in Serbia and Greece, and the rise of the powerful independent governor of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, so discredited the Janissaries that Sultan Mahmud II was able to destroy them in 1826. He inaugurated reforms, which continued during the Tanzimat reform era (1839–1876) and the reign of Abdul Hamid II (1876–1909).
The weakening of Turkey enabled ascendant European powers first to take an interest in the destiny of the remaining Christian communities under Muslim rule, and next to try and alleviate their condition. The effort was conducted through bilateral agreements between the Ottomans and the victorious European powers Russia and Austria, or voluntary contacts with the friendly ones (Britain and France). Some improvement resulted in the granting of a Western-style constitution in 1839, which eventually led to the abolishment of the old millet system and, at least, nominal equalization of rights between the three main religious communities. In part, these reforms were defensive in nature, as the Turkish government hoped to placate the Europeans and remove the grounds for interference.
Paradoxically, though, “Westernization” of state institutions was accompanied by escalating oppression of the Christians. Indeed, the last century of Ottoman rule—from the defeat of Napoleon until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War—witnessed a more thorough and tragic destruction of the Christian communities in the Middle East, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, than at any prior period. The number of victims of the slaughter at Missolonghi in 1823 is known precisely: 8,750. Thousands of Assyrians were murdered in the province of Mosul in 1850, and in 1860 some 12,000 Christians were put to the sword in Lebanon. The butchery of 14,700 Bulgarians in 1876 was almost routine by Turkish standards. At the town of Batal, 5,000 out of 7,000 inhabitants were murdered, the fact that was unsuccessfully suppressed by the British government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
In many cases, the massacres of Christians resulted from local Muslim revolts against any decree granting them greater rights than those that were regarded as divinely ordained by Caliph Umar. At the same time, the Western powers, and Great Britain in particular, actually supported the Turkish subjugation of Christian Europeans on the grounds that the Mohammedan empire was a “stabilizing force,” a counterweight to Austria and Russia. The scandalous alliance with Turkey against Russia in the Crimean War reflected a pernicious frame of mind that has manifested itself more recently in the overt, covert, or de facto support of certain Western powers for the Muslim side in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Chechnya, Cyprus, Sudan, East Timor, and Kashmir.
From the dozens of anti-Christian pogroms in the 19th century, the “Bulgarian Atrocities” are remembered because they provoked a cry of indignation from British Prime Minister William Gladstone (to the chagrin of Disraeli), who asserted, “No government ever has so sinned, none has proved itself so incorrigible in sin, or which is the same, so impotent in reformation.”
The European sovereigns, notably in St. Petersburg and Vienna, were often reluctant grantors of religious rights to their Catholic and Protestant subjects respectively. In Turkey’s case, by contrast, intolerance was the very foundation of the system, and institutionalized oppression divinely mandated by the revealed word from on high, merely conveyed by the prophet of Islam.
The advocates of Turkophile policy at Westminster went beyond Realpolitik in arguing for the lifeline to the Sick Man of the Bosphorus: they devised the theory that the Ottomans were in reality agreeable and tolerant, and only needed a friendly, supportive nudge to become like other civilized people. The tragedy of Christian communities under Turkish rule, as Gladstone saw it, was not “a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race.”
In a speech at Blackheath in 1876, Gladstone told the Ottomans:
You shall retain your titular sovereignty, your empire shall not be invaded, but never again, as the years roll in their course, so far as it is in our power to determine, never again shall the hand of violence be raised by you, never again shall the flood gates of lust be opened to you…
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. [Image by: Arild Vågen / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, resized]