Daily Archives: 22 November 2009

The Near Eastern Crisis of 1875-78

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 167-169:

Beginning with a peasant uprising in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the troubles spread in 1876 to Bulgaria and the Danubian provinces and ended with an invasion by the Russian army the following year. The Treaty of San Stefano, which Russia imposed on the empire early in 1878, created a vast new Bulgarian state which passed just to the north of Salonica itself and cut it off from its hinterland. Even after the other Great Powers forced Russia to back down and tore up the San Stefano agreement, there was no disguising the humiliation suffered by the Porte: at the Congress of Berlin, Serbia was declared independent, an autonomous (if smaller) Bulgaria was established under Russian control, Cyprus was occupied by British troops (as the price for supporting the Turks) and the Great Powers forced the Ottoman authorities to pledge a further programme of administrative reforms.

These events deeply affected Salonica. As always in time of war, the city was in a febrile state—filled with soldiers, requisitioning agents, tax-collectors and rumours. Muslim notables criticized the diplomacy of the Porte and feared for the first time “being driven out of Europe.” The Bulgarian insurrection actually broke out just three days before the killing of the consuls in Salonica; rumours of the rising had reached the city, together with reports of outrages on Muslim villagers and of plans to drive them from their homes. At one point the authorities feared that Salonica’s Christians too would rise to prompt a Russian advance on the city itself, and the Vali warned he would quell any insurrection in the harshest manner. “I know him to be of the party in Turkey,” wrote the British consul, “who believe the Eastern Question can only be solved by the destruction, or at least the expatriation of all Christians from the European provinces of Turkey, and replacing them by Circassians and colonists from Asia.”

The spectacle of vast forced movements of populations crisscrossing the region was no fantasy. While the eyes of Europe were fixed—thanks to Gladstone’s loud condemnation of the “Bulgarian horrors”—on the Christian victims of the war, thousands of Muslim refugees from Bosnia, Bulgaria and the Russian army were headed south. Added to those who had earlier fled the Russians in the Caucasus—somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 Circassians and Nogai Tatars had arrived in the empire between 1856 and 1864—the refugee influx which accompanied the waning of Ottoman power was well and truly under way. A Commission for the Settlement of Refugees was created, and the figures provided by this organization show that more than half a million refugees crossed into the empire between 1876 and 1879 alone.

In January 1878, the Porte ordered the governor of Salonica to find lodging for fifty thousand throughout the province. The following month it was reported that “the whole country is full of Circassian families, fleeing from the Russian army and the Servians, in long lines of carts … panic-stricken, they strive to embark for Asia Minor and Syria.” While Albanian Ghegs and uprooted Nogai Tatars settled around the town, thousands more left weekly on steamers bound for Smyrna and Beirut. Many of these refugees had been settled in the Bulgarian lands only a decade earlier; now for a second time they were being uprooted because of Russian military action. Destitute, exploited by local land-owners, many—especially Circassian—men formed robber bands, and became a byword for crime in the region. Two years after the end of hostilities, there were still more than three thousand refugees, many suffering from typhus or smallpox, receiving relief in the city, and another ten thousand in the vicinity. The Mufti of Skopje estimated that a total of seventy thousand were still in need of subsistence in the Sandjak of Pristina. By 1887, so many immigrants from the lost provinces had moved to Salonica that house rents there had risen appreciably.

The political outlook for Ottoman rule in European Turkey was grim. Only Western intervention had saved the empire from defeat at the hands of the Russian army; the consequent losses in Europe were great. The powers openly discussed the future carve-up of further territories, and Austrians, Bulgarians and Greeks fixed their eyes on Salonica. As discussions began at the Congress of Berlin on the territorial settlement, one observer underlined the need for a further sweeping reform of Ottoman institutions and the creation of an “impartial authority” to govern what was left. In view of the patchy record of the past forty years’ reform efforts, few would have given the imperial system long to live. Indeed many expected its imminent collapse, especially after the youthful Sultan Abdul Hamid suspended the new constitution barely two years after it had been unveiled. But they had to wait longer than they thought. The empire had another few decades of life left, and in that time Salonica itself prospered, grew and changed its appearance more radically than ever before.

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Belated Ottoman Religious Reform

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 152-153:

In 1851 Christian testimony was admitted in a local criminal court for the first time, but it was not for another decade that it was given decisive weight when contradicted by Muslim witnesses. “Are we the masters of this empire or not?” demanded some of the beys, protesting on the “part of Islamism” against the constant infringement by foreign powers of the “rights of the Turkish nation.” A visiting dervish preached that Europe was “devoted to the extermination of Muslims,” and claimed that the sultan, by giving in to their demands, had shown himself to be no more than a gavur. “Let us massacre the infidels whom the Prophet and our first Sultans conquered,” he went on, “And then we will go throughout Frenghistan [the land of the Franks] sword in hand, and all will be well with us.” When Abdul Mecid died in 1861, the view in the local coffeehouses was that he had been “too favourably disposed to Christians,” and many of Salonica’s Muslims, including highly placed functionaries, openly hoped that his successor would bring back the janissaries and revoke the reforms.

This did not happen. Instead the number of non-Muslims in the civil service rose, and in 1868 a Council of State with non-Muslim members was created. In the provinces progress was slower: as late as 1867, justice in Salonica was still loaded against non-Muslims, taxes remained inequitable and the clause relating to Christians being appointed to official positions remained a “dead letter.” Ibrahim Bey, the mufti, resisted reform of the local courts, and as he was very popular among the poorer Muslims of the city, Salonica’s governors hesitated to take him on. But the lead from the top was clear: the Porte instructed Salonica’s mollah to speak respectfully when he addressed the Greek metropolitan, and to refer politely to the “Christian” religion. “Looking at things reasonably,” wrote the British ambassador, Sir Henry Bulwer in 1864, “it is but just to observe that this government is about the most tolerant in Europe.”

The old ideology of the sultan as Defender of the Faith was now no longer appropriate for the new-look empire. It was supplanted by a new creed of Ottomanism, an allegiance to the dynasty itself that supposedly crossed religious boundaries. As the government gazette for the province declared in May 1876:

Even though for centuries among us there has not existed something we might call public opinion, on account of our different religions, nonetheless Ottomans, Christians, Jews and in a word all those bearing the name of Osmanli and living under the sceptre of His Imperial Excellency have lived as faithful subjects of all ranks, as patriots and as a single unit of nationalities, each lending a helping hand to the other as brothers, none ever daring to attack the honour, property, life or religious customs of the other, and everyone enjoying complete freedom in the exercise of his social privileges.

The new policy was underlined in religious holidays and official ceremonies. After the Ottoman fleet arrived in port, Greek priests from the city performed mass for its Christian sailors in the Beshchinar gardens, and Turkish naval officers complimented the archbishop on a “very appropriate sermon.” When the chief rabbi Raphael Ascher Covo died at the end of 1874 after twenty-six years in office, his funeral was attended by the staff of the governor, the president of the town council, the Greek archbishop, consuls and other notables: the procession was “one of the largest ever witnessed in European Turkey.” All shops were closed, Jewish firemen in the service of the North British and Mercantile Insurance companies provided the guard of honour lining the streets, and bells were rung as the bier passed the Orthodox cathedral.” A century earlier, such an occasion would have been inconceivable.

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