First off, let me apologise for my recent, unplanned, irregularity. It’s been a very busy summer for me thusly far as I kick off my ‘new life’ here in Seattle. I should hope it won’t be such a long pause in between blog posts again.
Okay, that out of the way, let’s get back into history. And we’re going to pick up where we left off with one of my personal favourite empires, the Ottomans. When you’re a historian like me, who does a lot of comparative work between empires, you start to accumulate certain favourites. For example, I prefer the Ottomans over the French, the French over the Spanish, and the British over them all. The Mughals, the Marathas, the Fatimids, and the Safavids all fit in there too, someplace in between Britain and France. (Germany, Portugal, and Spain all sit at the very bottom of my list. At the absolute bottom? Belgium).
Good Lord, I need to get back on track, right then, the Ottomans. Okay, so, as a lover of the Ottomans, or perhaps admirer, we don’t want things to get too serious, you know, I don’t want to creep the Ottomans out, but as an admirer of all things Ottoman, there’s a great deal of sadness for me when the Ottomans go into collapse. It’s like that time my Granddad came back from hospital with an Oxygen Machine for the first time, and it was clear that ol’ Billy wasn’t what he used to be, in terms of health. You know something great is in decline, nearing its end, and it brings sadness to it, as you begin to recall the mortality of all things…
The 18th century, through to the Napoleonic War, had been an era of Ottoman stagnation. And much like the Second World War acting as a marker between one era of empires and the next, the Napoleonic War brought an end to the notion of dynastic empires reigning supreme in Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was out, nationalism was in, and the Ottomans began their swan song in the face of this rapid change post-Napoleon. Indeed, in one of my British entries, I discuss the rise of Greek nationalism in the 1820’s, and while we shall revisit that as we talk about Ottoman decay, as the Greeks were a sign of it, let’s also visit the lands right next to the Ottomans.
Namely, there’s one region in question here, for today’s entry. And this confusing term, ‘Central Asia’ that is strange because if you look at a proper map of Asia, ‘Central Asia’ is actually more or less the western border of Asia. I think ‘Central Eurasia’ would’ve been a better phrasing, because with a continent the size of Asia, I don’t think the part of Asia that touches Europe and Africa should be called ‘Central Asia’. Especially since the part of Asia that we call ‘South Asia’ (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) is closer to the mid-section of Asia than ‘Central Asia’ is. But, you know, we’re battling a couple centuries of Eurocentric history and geography as we move through our terms.
So that brings us back to the part of the world we’re talking about. Now, if you can recall my intro-post to the Ottomans from a couple, well, now, months, ago, the Ottomans were the continuation of a long line of ‘Muslim’ empires that occupied the Arabic peninsula, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. Here, I put the quote marks around ‘Muslim’ because while the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire used the Islamic Religion to justify their sovereignty, this makes them an ‘Islamic Empire’ in much the same way that Britain, France, et al are ‘Christian Empires’. Yes, the majority of the people within the metropole ascribe to the main religion, and yes, initially the monarchs of these realms used religion to justify their rule, but in reality, the state is the state, and will always be a symbol of secular humanity. The Ottomans no more represent the Islamic faith than the historically very secular French government represents Christianity. That is to say, don’t judge a religion by those who abuse it to claim power.
But it’s important nonetheless to identify the Ottomans as ‘Muslim’. Why? For the same reason we identify the British as ‘Christian’. You see, in many areas of the empire building process, the Ottomans and the British actually have a great deal in common. How so? Well, religion is one of these. Here’s where we shall play the comparative empires game once again. Let’s look at Spain, Portugal, or to a slightly lesser extent, France. The ‘Catholic Empires’ of Europe. When these empires began their growth in the 16th century, the Pope, under siege from separationists and reformers in present-day Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and Northern Europe in general, used the loyally Catholic Iberians (Portugal, Spain) and French to showcase Catholic might and strength to the poor, unsuspecting world. (The author used to be Catholic, and most of his family still is, so this isn’t ‘Hate on the Catholics’ rather, ‘hate on the Catholic power structure that drove the author straight into the arms of the Anglicans’).
The result? Well, the Spanish, Portuguese, and French Empires begin their empires with the zeal of the Evangelical, helping the ‘pagan savages’ they encountered educate themselves right into the Catholic church, and then enslaving/genociding those who didn’t embrace this overwhelmingly violent expression of Christianity. Much like ‘Vote or Die’, only with ‘Love Jesus, or die’.
Of course, in much of the Spanish Empire, and the French Empire this meant that ‘infrastructure’ meant ‘Church’. Instead of schools proper, like what the British built, you had missions. Instead of cross-culture clashes and understandings like what you had in the Dutch, British, or Ottoman Empires, you had a policy of cultural assimilation in the Spanish Empire and the French Empire. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution, the French wouldn’t accept anyone unless they became ‘culturally French’, and sentiment that is maintained to this day. (Thusly, the banning of the Burka and the Hijab). The British and the Ottomans were different in this respect. Perhaps the Economic nature of these empires gave room to this, well, this other viewpoint, but for the most part, the majority of the power structure in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, and the British Empire throughout its history, really didn’t care for forcing a certain religious practice on the inhabitants, much to the ire of some of those more conservative elements within the respective churches, and so in the Ottomans, like in the Fatimids, and like in the British Empire, the Jews, the ‘other’ Christians, the ‘other’ Muslims are allowed to exist in a certain peace. Granted, this is a culture of tolerance, and not acceptance, but it’s still preferable to genocide.
The difference here between the Ottomans and the British, however, is the head of state. In Britain, as a result of increasing reforms beginning as early as 1215, and accelerating in the 1650’s, the British ‘executive branch’, the Monarchy wasn’t by any stretch of the definition an absolute monarch. Indeed, much of the Monarch’s power was shared with the House of Commons in Parliament. This meant, means, that the British Monarch reigns in conjunction with the Parliament, instead of rules. Also, while the British Monarch sits as the ‘head of the Church of England’, this role means little, as one, the Church of England has no jurisdiction over Parliament, and two, the Archbishop of Canterbury does most of the executive duties of the Anglican Church. So, despite its name, the Church of England has no real grip on Britain, (despite what some of the ultra-left assert) and has often played the part of opposition to both Monarchs and Parliament alike. But at any rate, the Church of England stayed, and stays outside of the power structures of the British Empire and Commonwealth, much to its own dismay. When Napoleon, and Adam Smith both refer to Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ this serves partially as a reminder that the people, and the businesses, of Britain are what built the empire, not royal dynasties nor churches.
This is contrary to the Ottomans. You see, while I wouldn’t necessarily call the Ottoman Sultan an absolutist monarch in the strictly European sense of the term, there are certainly comparisons to be made. For one, as I stated before, the Ottoman Sultan, since the final demise of the Fatimid Empire, took upon himself the title of ‘Caliphate’ of the Sunni sect of the Islamic faith. Again, for my predominantly western audience, for the sake of simplicity we shall compare the office of the Caliphate in Sunni Islam to the office of the Papacy in Catholic Christendom, or lesser so, to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Anglican Christendom. Essentially, the Caliphate is the head of Church.
Indeed, the ‘cabinet’ or, more accurately, the court, of the Sultan would be as much a religious ruling body as it was the lead of the secular state. And, especially at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, the Ottoman court served not only as the ruling court of the Ottoman legal system, but also of the Islamic faith globally. To put it bluntly, the Ottoman Sultanate proclaimed upon himself, and his empire, to be the ‘defenders of the Islamic faith’. And with the expansion of various European Empires, both religious (Spain, Portugal, France, Austro-Hungarian) and secular (Britain, the Netherlands, eventually the United States) the Islamic faith needed a lot more defending than it did in the days when the Christian were weak and mostly at war with each other. As Europe expanded and threatened the Ottoman hegemony of Central Asia and Northern Africa, where in the Safavids of Persia, the Mughals of India worked with the Ottomans as the premiere Islamic state, and Europe was the mercy of the Ottoman sword. As the Ottoman hegemony was threatened by Europe’s rise, the Ottoman Empire went into full-blown reactionary mode, and became more and more of a theocracy as Europe rose to prominence.
The rise of the Ottoman reactionary theocracy meant more discord within her own borders and more of a disconnect with the Shi’a Muslims of the various kingdoms of Persia that rose in the wake of the collapse of the Safavid Empire in modern day Iran. The Ottoman hegemony collapsed on itself. With the Safavids gone and a great deal of dismay within the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans couldn’t defend Persia, couldn’t defend Morocco. Couldn’t hold Greece. The Ottoman Empire’s loss of power didn’t just symbolise a structural flaw within the Ottoman Empire’s border, it marked the collapse of several power structures within the Islamic world. From the Mughal Empire in the East to the Kingdom of Morocco in the West, the Islamic World had become vulnerable.
And here comes Russia. During the 18th and 17th centuries, the Islamic world was largely untouchable to the Europeans. The various armies of the Islamic world, most notably the armies of the Ottoman Empire, meant that the Islamic world was ‘off limits’ to the Europeans, unless they wanted protracted warfare. With the Ottomans no longer holding much of the Islamic world’s purse strings and military power, and the decay of the strong states of the Islamic world in general, a previously untouchable resource was now within Europe’s grasp.
And Russia and more to prove than the rest of Europe. A lot more to prove. You see, this notion, this stereotype we hold in our minds today of Russia as one large, vast, backwater lacking most of the creature comforts and ‘modernity’ of western Europe, and indeed, the world, isn’t a new perception. Even the 18th century courts and governments of Europe and Britain didn’t take Russia seriously, at all. For one thing, Russia had an on-going identity crisis. Were they European or were they Asian? For another thing, the Russian branch of Christianity was largely disconnected from most of the western branches of Christianity. It had never been a part of the Roman Catholic Church, and it had never gone through the Protestant Reformations.
For another thing, most of Russia’s interactions with Europe was through various Cossack raids and pogroms. Further planting in the European mind-set the notion of a barbaric, violent, backwards Russia.
By the 18th century and 19th century, Russia was trying to recoup its international image, and did so against the backdrop of the ‘Enlightenment’ in Europe. This meant a lot of higher education was needed, a lot of trade was needed, and a lot of culture was needed. Suddenly emergent, for example, were all the classical Russian Authors you probably hate, who had to create a ‘Russian Nation’ in literature and art that hadn’t existed before.
And so marks the rise of Russian Nationalism, under the Tsarist rule of the first Russian Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. And this Tsarist Empire had to prove to Europe that it had the same gusto, the same will, the same might that it had. That it was just as modern, ballsy, and worthwhile as they were. To prove this, Russia needed a ‘sphere of influence’ and colonies to expand into, and the weakened state of Central Europe after the Napoleonic War, especially after Russia’s gains from the Ottoman Empire, were too good for the Russians to pass up.
Of course, every time Russia even hints at having power, (and usually doesn’t deliver) outside of Russia herself, the west takes note, and usually feels threatened, even if there isn’t a real threat per se. Indeed, as I point out in previous posts, the 19th century after the end of the Napoleonic War is Pax Britannia, a time of global British hegemony. And believe you me, there was no corner of the globe that the British were going to let someone else have influence. Especially not Central Asia, which was dangerously close (in Britain’s eyes) to the British Empire’s interests and holdings in India.
So here begins a competition between Britain and Russia over the right to influence over a territory that for a long time had been under the leadership of the Ottomans and the Safavids. In many ways, this competition between Britain and Russia marked the end of any and all Ottoman hegemony and/or influence outside of her borders.
Again, this post is just an introduction to a topic that we will cover in later posts, sorry!
Next Up For the Ottoman Empire:
- Culture in a time of Stagnation and Decay, Ottoman Culture of the 1820’s
- The Economics of Empire, the Successes and the Failures of the Ottoman Economic System
- Analysing the Ottomans in the era of Post-post Colonial Theory
Next Up For the British Empire:
- 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation
- The Nation of Shopkeepers and the Inventions, Companies, and Expansion of the First Bourgeois Empire
AND INTRODUCING: The French Empire
- ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, A PR Nightmare, and the Demise of the French Monarchy
- Europe’s First Modern Dictator: The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte