Category Archives: Mediterranean

U.S. Bureau of Secret Intelligence, 1916

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 7212-7257:

The thirty-four-year-old [Leland] Harrison enjoyed a similar Yankee blueblood background to [William] Yale’s. After being educated at Eton and Harvard, he’d joined the U.S. diplomatic corps and held a succession of posts at some of the most important American overseas missions. His swift rise had been cemented when Secretary of State Robert Lansing brought him to Washington in 1915, where Harrison quickly gained a reputation as Lansing’s most trusted lieutenant.

Both fierce Anglophiles, Lansing and Harrison had shared a deepening disenchantment with Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to American neutrality in the war. Another source of Lansing’s favor for Harrison was undoubtedly his subordinate’s profound sense of discretion. One State Department staffer would say of Leland Harrison that “he was positively the most mysterious and secret man I have ever known.… He was almost a human sphinx, and when he did talk, his voice was so low that I had to strain my ears to catch the words.”

Where this became significant was that prior to American entry in the war, Lansing had acted as the leader of a virtual shadow government within the Wilson administration, a secretive cabal that quietly maneuvered for intervention on the side of the Entente. Just how secretive was indicated by Lansing’s creation of something called the Bureau of Secret Intelligence in 1916. In hopes of uncovering evidence of German treachery that would make the argument for intervention irresistible, the bureau’s special agents spied on diplomats and businessmen from the Central Powers residing in the United States, an activity that obviously undercut Wilson’s public vow of impartiality and would have infuriated other branches of government had they been told. But they weren’t told. Instead, Lansing had used State Department discretionary funds to create the bureau, enabling it to operate without the approval or even the knowledge of Congress or most of the rest of Wilson’s cabinet. Pulling Leland Harrison from the Latin American division, Lansing had placed his young protégé in charge of this “extra-legal” new office, tasked to overseeing “the collection and examination of all information of a secret nature.” While this element of conspiracy within the State Department had been somewhat mooted by American entry into the war, it provided Harrison with a precedent when, upon reading William Yale’s Syria report, it occurred to him that it might be very useful for the United States to have its own source of intelligence in the Middle East. The snag was that such an enterprise fell out of the purview of the existing domestic intelligence agencies and, with the United States not at war with Turkey, beyond the scope of the army intelligence division as well. The solution was to bring Yale in under the umbrella of the Bureau of Secret Intelligence; to that end, he was summoned to the State Department in early August.

At that meeting, Harrison put forward a remarkable proposition: Yale would return to the Middle East as a “special agent” for the State Department. At a salary of $2,000 a year plus expenses, his mission would be to monitor and report on whatever was happening that might be of interest to the American government—or, perhaps more accurately, of interest to Leland Harrison. From his base in Cairo, Yale would send weekly dispatches through the American embassy’s diplomatic pouch to Washington, where they would be routed exclusively to Harrison’s attention. Unsurprisingly, Yale quickly accepted the offer. On August 14, and under Secretary Lansing’s signature, he was named the State Department’s special agent for the Middle East.

After a brief trip home to see his family in Alder Creek, on August 29 Yale boarded USS New York in New York harbor for another transatlantic crossing. En route to Cairo, he was to stop off in London and Paris to take a sounding of those British and French officials most directly involved with Middle Eastern affairs. As Harrison cabled to the American ambassador in London, “[Yale] is to keep us informed of the Near Eastern situation and, should the occasion arise, may be sent on trips for special investigation work. He is favorably known to the British authorities, who offered him a commission. Please do what you can to put him in touch with the right authorities.”

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to fully grasp the utter provincialism of the United States as it entered World War I in 1917. Not only was its standing army one-twentieth the size of Germany’s, but it was dwarfed in size by even some of Europe’s smallest actors, including Romania, Bulgaria, and Portugal. In 1917, the entire Washington headquarters staff of the State Department fit into one wing of a six-story building adjacent to the White House, a structure it shared with the command staff of both the Departments of Navy and Army.

Those examples notwithstanding, perhaps more remarkable is this: for most of the remainder of the war, the American intelligence mission in the Middle East—a mission that would include the analysis of battlefield strategies and regional political currents, the interviewing of future heads of state, and the gathering of secrets against governments both friendly and hostile—would be conducted by a single twenty-nine-year-old man with no military, diplomatic, or intelligence training. To these deficiencies, William Yale could actually think of a few more: “I lacked a historical knowledge of the background of the problems I was studying. I had no philosophy of history, no method of interpretation, and very little understanding of the fundamental nature and function of the [regional] economic and social system.”

Not that any of this caused him undue anxiety. An exemplar of the American can-do spirit, William Yale also held to the belief, quite common among his countrymen, that ignorance and lack of experience could actually bestow an advantage, might serve as the wellspring for “originality and boldness.” If so, he promised to be a formidable force in the Middle East.

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Mark Sykes, Amateur at Play in the Middle East

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3104-3162:

His name was Mark Sykes—or, more formally, Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet, of Sledmere.

Few people in history have so heedlessly caused so much tragedy. At the age of thirty-six, the handsome if slightly doughy Sykes epitomized that remarkable subclass of British aristocrats of the late imperial age known as the “Amateurs.” Despite its somewhat derogatory modern connotation, the term derives from the Latin “for the love of,” and in this context denoted a select group of wealthy and usually titled young men whose breeding, education, and freedom from careerist pressures—it was considered terribly déclassé for such men to hold down bona fide jobs—allowed them to dabble over a broad range of interests and find all doors flung open to them. Raised on a thirty-thousand-acre ancestral estate as the only child of a Yorkshire aristocrat, Sykes, like so many of his fellow Amateurs, seemed intent on living the lives of ten “ordinary” men. Educated at Cambridge, he had traveled extensively throughout the Ottoman Empire, authored four books, been a soldier in the Boer War, served as parliamentary secretary to the chief administrator of Ireland and honorary attaché to the British embassy in Constantinople—and those were just the highlights up to the age of twenty-five. In the succeeding eleven years before his arrival in Cairo that autumn, he had married and had sired five children—a sixth would soon be on the way—won a reputation as an accomplished caricaturist, invented an early version of the overhead projector and, since 1912, served as the Conservative member of Parliament for Hull Central.

Sykes’s appearance in Cairo was a result of the most recent addition to his résumé. The previous spring, Lord Kitchener had appointed him as an advisor to the de Bunsen Committee, an interdepartmental government board designed to guide the British cabinet on Middle Eastern affairs. Unsurprisingly, Sykes had quickly emerged as the dominant member of that committee, and in July 1915 set out on an extended fact-finding mission to the region with the intention of imparting his firsthand impressions to the cabinet upon his return.

Lawrence and Sykes first met that August, during Sykes’s stopover in Cairo on the outgoing leg of his fact-finding mission. Like most everyone else, Lawrence took a quick liking to the charming and personable MP. He and others in the Cairo intelligence staff were also gratified to finally find someone in the senior branches of the British government who appeared to appreciate their ideas for unconventional warfare. That estimate was initially fortified upon Sykes’s return to Egypt in November; he had spent the previous two months meeting with officials in British India, a group vehemently opposed to the war-by-proxy plots emanating out of British Egypt, and the returned Sykes made no secret that his sympathies lay with the Egyptian approach.

Yet for all his astounding achievements, Mark Sykes exemplified another characteristic common among the British ruling class of the Edwardian age, a breezy arrogance that held that most of the world’s messy problems were capable of neat solution, that the British had the answers to many of them, and that it was their special burden—no less tiresome for being God-given—to enlighten the rest of humanity to that fact. Sykes’s special skill in this regard was a talent for bold and refreshingly concise writing, the ability to break down complex issues into neat bulleted-point formulas that provided the illusion of almost mathematical simplicity. He was a master of the PowerPoint presentation nearly a century before it existed. One example—there were to be many more in the years just ahead—was an analysis he composed during his August stopover in Cairo that purported to chart the various intellectual elements at work in the Middle East. After first dividing those elements between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns,” Sykes offered up subcategories. Thus, Class I of the Ancients were the orthodox (“hard, unyielding, bigoted and fanatical”), while Class I of the Moderns (“the highest type”) denoted “a person of good family who has entirely absorbed a Western education,” not to be confused with the Class II Moderns, who were “the poor, incompetent, or criminal who have received an inferior European education and whose minds by circumstances or temperament or both are driven into more sinister channels than the first class.” Not content to end there, Sykes proceeded to apply his formula to various regions of the Middle East, offering his British readers an easy-to-follow guide to their nation’s standing in each. It was not a pretty picture in a place like Egypt, frankly: from the Class I, II, and III Ancients, absolute hostility, benevolent apathy, and mild approval, respectively, joined to constitutional opposition and unforgiving enmity among the Class I and II Moderns.

It certainly wasn’t the first time such silly racialist formulas had been put to paper, but it spoke volumes to the British leadership’s own smugness—as well, no doubt, to their perpetually harried states in grappling with a conflict that spanned the globe—that such drivel, well organized and confidently stated, took on the flavor of wisdom. Upon Sykes’s return to London and a bravura performance before the de Bunsen Committee, the British government would essentially hand off to the thirty-six-year-old Amateur one of the thorniest—and from a historical standpoint, most profoundly important—assignments of World War I: sorting out the competing territorial claims of Great Britain and her allies in the Middle East.

Only belatedly would British leaders recognize another aspect of Sykes’s character, one that might have given them pause had they spotted it earlier. Perhaps to be expected given his frenetic pace and catholic range of interests, Mark Sykes had a very hard time keeping his facts, even his own beliefs, straight. Impressed by the last person he had spoken with, or the last idea that had popped into his fecund mind, he was forever contradicting positions or policies he had advocated earlier—often mere days earlier.

Lawrence began to get a glimmer of this in the time he spent around Sykes during that November stopover. There was something altogether disquieting about the cavalier way the young MP disregarded inconvenient evidence that didn’t fit his currently held view, often only to seize on that same evidence when his opinion changed. As Lawrence would later write in Seven Pillars, Sykes was “the imaginative advocate of unconvincing world movements … a bundle of prejudices, intuitions, half-sciences. His ideas were of the outside, and he lacked patience to test his materials before choosing his style of building. He would take an aspect of the truth, detach it from its circumstances, inflate it, twist and model it.”

But there was yet another side to Sykes’s personality that boded ill for the crucial role he was about to assume. It seems the man was something of a sneak. Whether due to a need to prove he was always the cleverest person in the room, or a con man’s desire to get one over simply for the sport of it, the young Amateur would make an art form out of bending the truth to suit his needs, of playing one side against another by withholding or manipulating crucial information. The result would be a most peculiar place in history for Mark Sykes: it’s hard to think of any figure who, with no true malice intended and neither a nation nor an army at his disposal, was to wreak more havoc on the twentieth century than the personable and brilliant young aristocrat from Yorkshire, havoc that a small group of his countrymen, including T. E. Lawrence, would try very hard to set right.

Which isn’t to suggest that Sykes uniquely possessed these traits. Indeed, when it came to duplicity, the Amateur had a lot of very accomplished competitors in the Middle East just then.

The highly credentialed professionals don’t seem to be doing any better.

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Berber Awakenings in the Maghreb

In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, The American Interest published a backgrounder article headlined The Berber Awakening by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, who had just published a book on The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (University of Texas Press, 2011). Here are a few excerpts from the article.

North Africa has long been the neglected stepchild of Anglo-American Middle East academe and policy institutes. This region, commonly known as the Maghreb, was traditionally the near-exclusive preserve of European (mainly French) policymakers and scholars, owing to proximity, colonial experiences, linguistic familiarity and economic interests.

This neglect is now coming to end. North African studies have flourished recently in the scholarly realm, in English as well as French. On the policy side, the wake-up call came for some with the radical Islamist challenge and bloodletting in Algeria during the 1990s. For others, it came with the discovery of young men of Moroccan and Algerian origins in the ranks of al-Qaeda. For democracy and civil society promoters, Morocco under King Mohamed VI offered a model to emulate. But if any of these didn’t happen to grab your attention, there was Tunisia 2011, which provided the spark for the explosions of popular protest rumbling across the entire Arab world and parts of the Muslim world beyond….

Constitutionally, Algeria and Morocco are certainly Arab-Islamic states, with Arabic being the sole official language. Organizationally, they are both members of the 22-nation League of Arab States, as well as the largely moribund five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (along with Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania). Beginning in the 1930s, the ideologues of Algeria’s national movement proclaimed the Arabic language, along with Islam and territorial nationalism, as the central pillars of their challenge to a century of French settler-colonialism and incorporation into metropolitan France. Morocco’s urban nationalist elite had a similar Arab-Islamic orientation.

Upon achieving independence, both countries directed their educational and cultural nation-building efforts toward the east, toward the Mashriq, linking their societies’ roots to the rise of Islam and the spread of its Arabic-language civilization across North Africa beginning in the late 7th century. Both Algeria and Morocco had to work hard at “becoming Arab”, importing thousands of teachers from the Mashriq to instill a standardized version of written Arabic to replace French as the language of administration. This Arabic differed sharply from the North African dialectical Arabic (darija) spoken in daily life—let alone from the widely spoken Berber dialects. There are three primary dialects in Morocco, and two primary ones in Algeria, along with two additional ones spoken by smaller groups.

So who are the Berbers, and why are they worthy of attention? Simply put, the Berbers are North Africa’s “natives”, the population encountered by the region’s various conquerors and “civilizers”: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arab-Muslims and Europeans. Berber social organization was classically tribal, and they spoke varieties of a single, mainly unwritten language classified today as Afro-Asian. Their encounters with foreign forces, which generally were more powerful, produced a variety of responses ranging from resistance and retreat to acceptance and assimilation. Overall, Berbers straddled multiple worlds, assimilating the “other” with whom they were engaged in one form of accommodation or another, but retaining distinct attributes of their own.

Inevitably, given their relative weakness, this collection of tribal groupings was branded by a derogatory term: “Berbers”, from the Greek and Roman appellations for “barbarians.” Subsequent Arab-Muslim conquerors quickly adopted the term, and it has stuck ever since. Not surprisingly, modern-day Berber militants reject such stigmatization imposed from the outside, and prefer to call themselves Amazigh, which translates into “free men.”

The Amazigh are worthy of our attention for several reasons, one of which is their underappreciated demographic significance. Speakers of one of the Berber/Tamazight dialects constitute approximately 40–45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20–25 percent in Algeria, 8–9 percent in Libya and about 1–5 percent in Tunisia. They total some 15–20 million persons, a number that exceeds the total population, for the sake of comparison, of Greece or Portugal. These numbers, while considerable, are significantly lower as a percentage than they were a century ago, thanks to complex processes of economic and political integration that have occurred throughout the region.

Indeed, it is this very decline that has helped spur the modern Amazigh identity movement, one which explicitly foregrounds a collective Amazigh “self”, complete with a flag, anthems, collective memory sites (lieux de memoire), a “national” narrative and ancient and modern icons. Thus the movement seeks to renegotiate the terms of Berber accommodation with various “others”: the nation-state, Islam and modernity. The movement’s central demands are recognition by state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. The most immediate and concrete manifestations of that recognition would be to make Tamazight an official language equal to Arabic and to begin redressing the multitude of injustices which they say have been inflicted on the Berbers in both the colonial and independence eras through corrective educational, social and economic policies. More generally, the movement challenges the fundamental national narratives of these countries, which until recently consigned Berber cultural expressions to state-sponsored folklore festivals, complemented by National Geographic-type television programs on remote and exotic mountain villages, on par with the nomadic Touareg “blue men” of the desert.

In their efforts to fashion a “modern” ethno-cultural collective identity out of the older building blocks of their societies, the Amazigh activists are part of a more general trend that challenges hegemonic Arab-centered nationalism. Ironically, the ever-accelerating processes of globalization, which some thinkers have heralded as the harbinger of a long-awaited post-national age, are also generating an intensified “politics of identity.” The new politics of identity in the Muslim world is marked by the ethno-cultural assertion of formerly marginalized minority groups, combined with a demand for the democratization of political life. For some, like the Kurds, this has reached a critical mass, morphing into full-fledged nationalism. For others, like the Muslim residents of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, this kind of nationalism is forming fast. Berbers have not yet reached that stage, and they may never reach it. But they, too, have achieved a measure of recognition and self-definition that was inconceivable a generation ago.

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The Arab Awakening in 1915

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2832-2871:

BY THE MIDSUMMER of 1915 on Gallipoli, so many men were dying in such a confined space—in some spots, the opposing trenchlines were less than thirty yards apart—that informal truces began to be called in order to gather up the dead. The arrangements were usually worked out by local commanders, so that at a specified time grave-digging parties from both sides would step out into no-man’s-land and begin their ghastly work.

This certainly appeared to be the intent of the Ottoman lieutenant who, on the morning of August 20, climbed from his army’s forward trench and, under the cover of a white flag, started across no-man’s-land. Instead, upon reaching the British line, the young officer announced to his startled hosts that he wished to surrender.

Following standard procedure, the man was bound and blindfolded and passed down through the Med-Ex trenchworks to regimental headquarters. If standard procedure had continued to be followed, he would have been interrogated there by an intelligence officer, then sent on to the central prisoner-of-war stockade before eventual transfer to a POW camp in Cyprus or Egypt. But there was nothing at all standard about this prisoner. His name was Mohammed al-Faroki, and despite his unassuming appearance—he was just twenty-four and very slight—the story he told was so remarkable that successive British officers felt their superiors needed to hear it.

He claimed to be a member of a secret military society called al-Ahd (the Awakening), comprised largely of Arab officers like himself, that had been waiting in vain for months for the right conditions to stage a revolt against their Turkish overseers. Rumors of shadowy fifth-column networks inside the Ottoman Empire had become rather commonplace by that summer, but what was different about Faroki was that he supplied a list of his alleged al-Ahd coconspirators, most of them high-ranking officers, complete with details on which units they commanded and where they were currently deployed.

Testament to the importance given the lieutenant’s claims, on August 25, General Ian Hamilton, the overall commander of the Gallipoli campaign, fired off a report to War Secretary Kitchener himself. Deciding that the intelligence unit in Cairo was best equipped to judge the truthfulness of the lieutenant’s story, London ordered Faroki put on board a warship bound for Egypt.

At least initially, neither Gilbert Clayton, the overall commander of the British military intelligence unit in Cairo, nor any of his subordinates knew quite what to make of the young man brought to their Savoy Hotel offices on September 10. Their attention was piqued, however, when Faroki suggested the British had squandered a profound military opportunity by not going ashore at Alexandretta in the spring of 1915. According to Faroki, not only had Alexandretta been guarded primarily by Arab-conscript units at the time, with many of their commanders committed al-Ahd members, but these units had even carefully sabotaged the city’s defensive fortifications in anticipation of an imminent British landing force. Those efforts had come to naught, obviously, when the British instead launched their disastrous Gallipoli campaign. That wasn’t the worst of it, however. Once Gallipoli started, Djemal Pasha had swiftly sent the Arab units in Alexandretta to the battlefront; as a result, Faroki explained, many of the would-be conspirators of al-Ahd now lay dead on the Gallipoli hillsides, killed by the very “enemy” they had hoped to join.

Up to this point, much of Faroki’s story was easy enough to verify. The founder of al-Ahd, a man named Abdul Aziz al-Masri, was living in exile in Cairo, and he was brought in to vouch for Faroki’s bona fides. As for his claim that Alexandretta had been guarded by troops anxious to mutiny, this was precisely what Lawrence had ascertained from his interviews with Ottoman prisoners and had stressed in his lobbying for a landing there. But Faroki had more to tell. A lot more.

For some time, he claimed, he had served as a kind of liaison between al-Ahd and another Arab secret society, al-Fatat, in Damascus. From this linking, al-Ahd had learned of the covert negotiations between al-Fatat and Emir Hussein in Mecca toward staging a joint uprising against the Turks. In the process, al-Ahd had also learned of the secret correspondence between Emir Hussein and the British in Cairo. The upshot of all this was that, if armed and supported by Britain, both Arab secret societies, the civilian al-Fatat and the military al-Ahd, were now prepared to join Emir Hussein in revolt against the Turks.

Such a partnership would come with a price, though: British recognition of an independent Arab nation encompassing virtually the entire Arab world, from Iraq in the east to Syria in the west and extending down to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The precise parameters of this Arab nation were open to some limited negotiation—the would-be rebels recognized Britain’s colonial claim to Aden and its commercial interests in southern Iraq—but the one absolute precondition was that the French were not to have a controlling presence anywhere. If all that was agreed to, Faroki explained, then the British could have their revolution in the heart of the Ottoman world.

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Death of Venice’s Stato da Mar, c. 1500

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 5454-5511:

Vasco da Gama returned from India in September 1499, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Republic dispatched an ambassador to the court of Lisbon to investigate; it was not until July 1501 that his report came in. The reality of it fell on the lagoon like a thunderclap. Terrible foreboding gripped the city. For the Venetians, who lived with a particularly intense awareness of physical geography, the implications were obvious. Priuli poured his gloomiest predictions into his diary. It was a marvel, incredible, the most momentous news of the time:

… which will take a greater intelligence than mine to comprehend. At the receipt of this news, the whole city … was dumbfounded, and the wisest thought it was the worst news ever heard. They understood that Venice had ascended to such fame and wealth only through trading by sea, by means of which a large quantity of spices were brought in, which foreigners came from everywhere to buy. From their presence and the trade [Venice] acquired great benefits. Now from this new route, the spices of India will be transported to Lisbon, where Hungarians, Germans, the Flemish, and the French will look to buy, being able to get them at a better price. Because the spices that come to Venice pass through Syria and the sultan’s lands, paying exorbitant taxes at every stage of the way, when they get to Venice the prices have increased so much that something originally worth a ducat costs a ducat seventy or even two. From these obstacles, via the sea route, it will come about that Portugal can give much lower prices.

Cutting out hundreds of small middlemen, snubbing the avaricious, unstable Mamluks, buying in bulk, shipping directly: To Venetian merchants, such advantages were self-evident.

There were countering voices; some pointed out the difficulties of the voyage:

… the king of Portugal could not continue to use the new route to Calicut, since of the thirteen caravels which he had dispatched only six had returned safely; that the losses outweighed the advantages; that few sailors would be prepared to risk their lives on such a long and dangerous voyage.

But Priuli was certain: “From this news, spices of all sorts will decrease enormously in Venice, because the usual buyers, understanding the news, will decline, being reluctant to buy.” He ended with an apology to future readers for having written at such length. “These new facts are of such importance to our city that I have been carried away with anxiety.”

In a visionary flash, Priuli foresaw, and much of Venice with him, the end of a whole system, a paradigm shift: not just Venice, but a whole network of long-distance commerce doomed to decline. All the old trade routes and their burgeoning cities that had flourished since antiquity were suddenly glimpsed as backwaters—Cairo, the Black Sea, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Smyrna, the ports of the Red Sea, and the great cities of the Levant, Constantinople itself—all these threatened to be cut out from the cycles of world trade by oceangoing galleons. The Mediterranean would be bypassed; the Adriatic would no longer be the route to anywhere; important outstations such as Cyprus and Crete would sink into decline.

The Portuguese rubbed this in. The king invited Venetian merchants to buy their spices in Lisbon; they would no longer need to treat with the fickle infidel. Some were tempted, but the Republic had too much invested in the Levant to withdraw easily; their merchants there would be soft targets for the sultan’s wrath if they bought elsewhere. Nor, from the eastern Mediterranean, was sending their own ships to India readily practical. The whole business model of the Venetian state appeared, at a stroke, obsolete.

The effects were felt almost immediately. In 1502, the Beirut galleys brought back only four bales of pepper; prices in Venice steepled; the Germans reduced their purchases; many decamped to Lisbon. In 1502, the Republic dispatched a secret embassy to Cairo to point out the dangers. It was essential to destroy the Portuguese maritime threat now. They offered financial support. They proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. But the Mamluk dynasty, hated by its subjects, was also in decline. It proved powerless to see off the intruders. In 1500, the Mamluk chronicler Ibn Iyas recorded an extraordinary event. The balsam gardens outside Cairo, which had existed since remote antiquity, produced an oil with miraculous properties highly prized by the Venetians. Its trade symbolized the centuries-old commercial relationship between Islamic countries and the West. That year, the balsam trees withered away and vanished forever. Seventeen years later, the Ottomans strung up the last Mamluk sultan from a Cairo gate.

Tome Pires, a Portuguese adventurer, gleefully spelled out the implications for Venice. In 1511, the Portuguese conquered Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, the market for the produce of the Spice Islands. “Whoever is lord of Malacca,” he wrote, “has his hand on the throat of Venice.” It would be a slow and uneven pressure, but the Portuguese and their successors would eventually squeeze the life out of the Venetian trade with the Orient. The fears that Priuli expressed would in time prove well-founded; and the Ottomans meanwhile would systematically strip away the Stato da Mar.

The classical allusions of de’ Barbari’s map already contain a backward-looking note; they hint at nostalgia, a remaking of the tough, energetic realities of the Stato da Mar into something ornamental. They perhaps reflected structural changes within Venetian society. The recurrent bouts of plague meant that the city’s population was never self-replenishing; it relied on immigrants, and many of those from mainland Italy came without knowledge of the seafaring life. It was already noticeable during the Chioggia crisis that the volunteer citizens had to be given rowing lessons. In 1201, at the time of the adventure of the Fourth Crusade, the majority of Venice’s male population were seafarers; by 1500, they were not. The emotional attachment to the sea, expressed in the Senza, would last until the death of the Republic, but by 1500, Venice was turning increasingly to the land; within four years, it would be engaged in a disastrous Italian war that would again bring enemies to the edge of the lagoon. There was a crisis in shipbuilding, a greater emphasis on industry. The patriotic solidarity that had been the hallmark of Venetian destiny had been seen to fray: A sizable part of the ruling elite had demonstrated that, though still keen to recoup the profits of maritime trade, they were not prepared to fight for the bases and sea-lanes on which it depended. Others, who had made fortunes in the rich fifteenth century, stopped sending their sons to sea as apprentice bowmen. Increasingly, a wealthy man might look to reinvest in estates on the terra firma, to own a country mansion with escutcheons over the door; these were respectable hallmarks of nobility to which all self-made men might aspire.

It was Priuli again, acute and regretful, who caught this impulse and pinpointed the declining glory it seemed to imply. “The Venetians,” he wrote in 1505, “are much more inclined to the Terra Firma, which has become more attractive and pleasing, than to the sea, the ancient root cause of all their glory, wealth, and honor.”

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Smyrna, 1919: Mustafa Kemal’s Last Chance

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 240-242:

The armistice was barely a month old when Mustafa Kemal reached Constantinople, after month of fighting the Arabs. He found the enemy everywhere – British warships in the Bosporus, French troops in the capital, Italians guarding the railways. The Ottoman Empire had been smashed, all the leaders of the Young Turks were abroad in hiding, the Government was led by an old pro-British diplomat from the reign of Abdul Hamid called Tewfik Pasha.

Mustafa Kemal should have been in a unique position, for with Enver gone he had no rival as the only successful general in Turkey. He was also kn own to have consistently opposed joining the Germans in the war. Yet political power eluded him, largely because of his own lack of tact. He passionately advocated ‘Turkey for the Turks’ in political speeches, demanding generous peace terms. He publicly attached Tewfik’s government and the occupation forces; he tried to stem the timid acceptance of total defeat; he tried to form a new political party as the months rolled by – until Turkey was shocked by a blow which to them was even graver than defeat.

In February 1919, Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister, made a formal claim to the Peace Conference in Paris for the possession of the city of Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. It was the price which Britain and France had already agreed on as a reward for Greek entry into the war. So many Greeks lived on the Aegean coast that Venizelos’ demands seemed reasonably fair, but there was also a more cogent argument in favour of them. Lloyd George regarded Venizelos as ‘the greatest statesman Greece had thrown up since the days of Pericles’ and it seemed to him highly expedient for the Greeks to replace the Turks as protectors of the British route to India. To President Wilson, a Greek occupation of Smyrna would be preferable to Italian threats to make the Mediterranean an Italian lake. According to the American author Edward Hale Bierstadt, ‘at the suggestion of President Wilson Greece was authorised to occupy Smyrna in order to forestall any Italian move in that direction’.

Three months later, on 15 May, 20,000 Greek troops landed at Smyrna, backed by British, American and French warships, and, as Churchill put it, ‘set up their standards of invasion and conquest in Asia Minor’. Delirious crowds of Greeks – for centuries a subject race of the Ottoman Empire – welcomed their ‘liberators’ who immediately sought revenge by massacring as many Turks as they could find in the city and province.

At first the Turks could not believe the Greeks were in Smyrna. It was one thing to suffer the occupation even of Constantinople by alien troops of the victorious Western powers, but for a former subject people to be presented with one of the greatest cities in Anatolia was an altogether different kind of humiliation. A crowd of 50,000 gathered in protest before the mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Constantinople. Under the machine guns of Allied troops, they carried black flags while black curtains shrouded the national flag of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal was there and (as he later wrote) was obsessed with only one thought – somehow to reach Anatolia and organise resistance to the Greeks, and the docile Turkish government which had given Smyrna away.

To Mustafa Kemal, distrusted by both Turks and British, it must have seemed an impossible dream. He was already known to the Allied occupation authorities as an intractable hotthead with dangerous left-wing sympathies. And, though respected for his military prowess, he was at this time hardly a figure to inspire confidence. Furious and impotent, he had let himself run to seed. Down-at-heel, short of money, he was living at the modest Pera Palace Hotel overlooking the Golden Horn. His face was lined and grey from a recurrence of his disease.

Yet, unknown to Mustafa Kemal, the British, even before the Greeks stepped ashore at Smyrna, had suggested that the Sultan should send a high-ranking officer to deal with increasing violence in the area. The request was not exactly a threat, but it masked an alternative distasteful to the Sultan. If the Turks could not keep their Anatolian house in order, the Allies would have to send in troops.

Mustafa Kemal was the last man anyone would have imagined would be nominated to handle the gathering storm in Anatolia. And yet that is exactly what happened, for he was the last man – the only man – available. At their wits’ end, the Sultan and Damad Ferid, the Grand Vizier, turned to him. The British were horrified; they already had evidence that he was concerned with plots to prepare centres of resistance, and his name was on a list for possible deportation to Malta. The Grand Vizier, however, finally persuaded the British that the troubles in Anatolia were due to rebel factions loyal to the memory of Enver and anxious to restore the Committee of Union and Progress….

Mustafa escaped from Constantinople by barely and hour, thanks to the blundering jealousies of the Allies. Urgent orders were certainly sent to intercept him, but the British, French and Italians all played varying parts in the control of passenger vessels, and each distrusted the others. While they were bickering, Mustafa Kemal slipped through the net.

He landed at Samsun on the Black Sea coast on 19 May 1919 – four days after the Greeks had occupied Smyrna. His orders were to disband the Turkish forces in the area. Instead he immediately started to organise a resistance movement and raise an army.

The Anatolian Greeks and Armenians would pay an especially dear price for these external interventions.

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Venice’s Indecisive Leader, Decisive Loss, 1470

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4978-5023:

On the morning of July 11 [1470], after three days of heavy gunfire, [Sultan Mehmet II] was about to launch what he hoped might prove the final assault when he was stopped dead in his tracks.

Ottoman lookouts suddenly became aware of the Venetian fleet sweeping down the Euripus channel from its northern end. There were seventy-one ships, short of Longo’s recommended hundred, but still a sizable force, including a powerful squadron of fifty-two war galleys and one weighty great galley, much feared by the Turks. They were under sail, making strong headway down the strait with the breeze and the tidal bore behind them. At a stroke Mehmet II was horribly vulnerable. The fleet had only to smash the pontoon bridges to sever the Ottoman line of retreat and isolate it on the island. Mehmet was said to have shed tears of impotent rage at the imminent ruin of his plan; he mounted his horse ready to escape from the island. On the walls of the citadel the defenders’ spirits rose. Relief seemed certain. Another hour and the bridges would be broken.

Then, quite inexplicably, the fleet stopped and anchored upstream. And waited.

Niccolò da Canal, captain-general of the sea, was a scholar and a lawyer rather than a seaman, more used to carefully weighing legal options than to decisive action. At that moment the lawyer’s instinct came into play. He was worried for the safety of his ships against gunfire and unnerved by the strange shifts of the current. He ordered the fleet to pause. His captains urged him forward; he resisted. Two Cretans begged to charge the first pontoon bridge in the great galley with the momentum of the wind and the tidal bore. Some of the sailors had family in the city; the will was there to do or die. Reluctantly permission was granted. The galley raised sail, but just as it was under way, da Canal changed his mind. It was commanded back by cannon shot.

On the walls, the defenders watched all this—first with joy at the prospect of rescue, then with disbelief, finally with horror. They sent increasingly desperate signals to the static fleet—torches were lit and extinguished, then the standard of Saint Mark was raised and lowered. Finally, according to Angiolello, “a great crucifix, the size of a man, was constructed and carried along the side of the city facing toward our fleet, so the commanders of the fleet might be moved to have some pity on us in ways that they could well imagine for themselves.” To no avail. Da Canal took his fleet back upstream and anchored. “Our spirits sank,” remembered Angiolello, “and [we] were left with almost no hope of salvation.” Others cursed: “May God forgive the individual who failed to perform his duty!”

Mehmet was quickest to react. Responding to this surprising turn of events, he immediately announced an all-out attack early next day and personally toured the camp on horseback promising the troops everything in the city by way of plunder. He then commanded a large detachment of handgunners to the upper bridge to protect it from da Canal’s fleet. In the dark hours before dawn, to the customary din of drums and trumpets, he ordered forward his least reliable troops—“the rabble”—to wear down the defense. As they were shot down, the regulars advanced over the trampled corpses and stormed their way in. The whole population, men, women, and children, participated in a last-ditch defense, barricading the narrow lanes and hurling scalding water, quicklime, and boiling pitch on the enemy as it battled forward, foot by foot, street by street. By midmorning, they had reached the central square; from the fortress on the bridge, the defenders hoisted a black flag as a last despairing plea for help. Da Canal responded too little and too late. A halfhearted assault was mounted on the pontoon, but when the sailors saw the Ottoman flag fluttering from the walls, the captain-general raised his anchor and sailed off, leaving the despairing populace to a ghastly fate….

Those who surrendered were slaughtered on the spot. Others were pointedly taken to the Church of the Holy Apostles to be killed. Their heads were piled up outside the patriarch’s house. In cold fury, Mehmet ordered any of his men hiding profitable captives to be beheaded along with their victims; he had the galleys searched accordingly.

So many tried to escape over the bridge that it collapsed, hurling them into the sea, but the fort in the middle was unreachable and still holding out. Eventually, the defenders surrendered with a promise of safe conduct. When this was reported to Mehmet, he turned furiously on the pasha responsible: “If you gave your word [to spare their lives], you did not remember my oath.” They were all killed. In some accounts, it was reported that the bailo was among those on the bridge and that Mehmet had agreed to spare his head. He complied to the letter: The bailo was sandwiched between planks and sawn in half. More likely he had died at the walls. It does appear that the sultan exacted terrible revenge. Particularly enraged by the mere boys who had shot down his men so effectively, he had all the male survivors ten years and older, about eight hundred, brought into his presence. Their hands were tied behind their backs; they were made to kneel in a large circle, then beheaded one by one, creating a pattern of corpses. The bodies were thrown in the sea, the surviving women and children marched off into slavery.

Despite Mehmet’s oath, a few did survive, among them Giovan-Maria Angiolello, taken off as a slave; and a monk, Jacopo dalla Castellana, who was probably able to disguise himself. His short account ends autobiographically: “I, Brother Jacopo dalla Castellana, saw all these events, and escaped from the island because I speak both Turkish and Greek.”

The Venetian fleet ineffectually tracked the enemy convoy back to Gallipoli, then trailed home in disgrace. The news from Negroponte was, if anything, more devastating than that from Constantinople seventeen years earlier.

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