Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Saladin’s Pilgrims and the War to End Wars
In 1898, as part of a grand tour of the realms of his Ottoman brother monarch, German Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the great Ottoman city of Damascus. To Wilhelm, Damascus was a city of Roman antiquity, of Saint Paul, and of Saladin. Especially Saladin. Salah al-Din Ibn Ayyub as he had been known in the Middle East, was the medieval sultan who had defeated and expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187. Saladin’s memory had been revived in a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century works of popular literature published in German and English, satisfying a romantic thirst for stories of Oriental fantasy and adventure. Wilhelm II, perhaps more than other contemporary heads of state, crafted a self-consciously romantic public image and visual representation of his rule.1 His visit to the Ottoman realms glamorized his notions of Roman imperial antiquity, medieval chivalry, the Crusades, and German imperial ascendance within a parade of romantic evocations.
Unlike Wilhelm, the Ottoman citizens of Damascus were not thinking of the ancient past, but of a promising future for their city and empire. Saladin’s memory (and his modest tomb) was probably foremost among many, sometimes dimly, remembered sultans and princes. But for the citizens of the city, Wilhelm’s visit represented their arrival on the world stage, and underscored the respect and importance, the city, its elite cosmopolitan citizens, and the Ottoman state under its sultan, hoped to enjoy. By all accounts they threw a party and reception for the ages to welcome Wilhelm. A century later the memory of the party survives in oral history among Damascenes. The following decades of revolution and war, culminating in the Great War of 1914 18, dashed the optimistic hopes of the dawn of the twentieth century.
The visit to the Ottoman realms so impressed Kaiser Wilhelm that he commissioned a number of lavish gifts for his friend Sultan Abdul- Hamid II and the Ottoman people. The gifts include the splendid gilded tile fountain still prominent in Istanbul’s historic imperial center, a large marble plaque in the Baalbek Roman temple in today’s Lebanon, and finally a beautiful gilded bronze wreath, almost one meter in diameter, made by the best German jewelers and metal smiths, which was sent to adorn the modest tomb of Saladin. The wreath read, in Arabic, “This crown was presented by His Majesty, the Emperor of Germany, eminence Wilhelm the Second in commemoration of his pilgrimage to the tomb of eminence Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi.” For his part, Abdul-Hamid gave archeological gifts to Wilhelm that form the core of the collection of Berlin’s Pergamum Museum, which, a century later, is Germany’s most visited museum.
The Great War of 1914 18 ended the Ottoman state after seven centuries and ended the German monarchy of Wilhelm after forty-seven years. It also ended centuries of Russian and Hapsburg monarchy. In Damascus, the War brought the end of 402 years of mostly peaceful and prosperous Ottoman rule. Immediately after the fall of Damascus, another famous European visited Saladin’s tomb. In the days after the British entry into the city and the retreat of the Ottoman army north toward Aleppo, and today’s Turkish border, Colonel T.E. Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, visited the site in the garden just outside the Umayyad Mosque in the old city. Lawrence had long been an enthusiast for the history of the Crusades and had visited the city, its monuments, and the tomb before, in summer 1909, as an Oxford undergraduate, when he spent three months on foot visiting the Crusader castles of Ottoman Syria. Lawrence titled the resulting thesis, “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture to the End of the 12th Century,” for which he received first-class honors.
On October 31, 1918 Lawrence returned not as a student, or as an archeologist, which he had been in 1912 and 1913, but as a new conqueror of an ancient, fabled city and empire. He seems to have envisioned himself a crusader or desert knight. Lawrence proceeded directly to the tomb of Saladin, where he took the heavy gilded bronze wreath and silk sash, carried it to his billet, and took it with him when he returned to England by ship a few days later. Back in London, Lawrence brought the trophy to the newly established Imperial War Museum, where it remains today. He attached a handwritten note with the donation, reading “as Saladin no longer required it.”2
A month or so later, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George consented to the wish of his wartime counterpart French Premier Clemenceau for south eastern Anatolia, and the northern parts of Ottoman Syria including Beirut, Damascus, and Aleppo. By mid 1920 a French army marched east from Beirut to conquer and occupy the great city of Damascus and expel the once-British sponsored Arab government
Lawrence and Amir Faysal had set up in 1918. Immediately after claiming the city, another famous European soldier visited the tomb of Saladin.
In July 1920, French general and first High Commissioner for the French Mandates of Syria and Greater Lebanon, Henri Gouraud, made his first visit to the newly occupied city. Once in Damascus Gouraud went directly to the tomb of Saladin. In the garden outside the small tomb building, Gouraud delivered a speech in which he ignored the small crowd of anxious Damascene onlookers before him, and instead addressed Saladin directly, proclaiming, “arise Saladin, we have returned, and my presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”3
No less than Wilhelm, or Lawrence, General Gouraud was an important figure in the history of the Middle East in the century since the Great War and the end of the Ottoman state. General Gouraud, along with his secretary general, Robert de Caix, were the original colonial architects of political, legal, and governmental structures that still exert constant influence on the daily lives of millions of people of Syria and Lebanon. They, more than anyone, were the inventors of the states of Lebanon and Syria, as they exist today, and in a sense, the originators of conflicts that continue to afflict the people of the region.
Gouraud, Lawrence, or Wilhelm are not the focus of this book but their dreams and visions figure in it. It is instead the story of a collision, with effects that still reverberate, between an imperial fantasy world they shared, which melded ambitious, shifting imperial strategies and dreams of world domination, with fantasies of the past and present and a frequently outsized self-regard for their wisdom, abilities, and culture. Such fantastic visions collided with the forces and structures of an Ottoman authoritarian modernity, little different from ideologies of modernity, state patriotism and militarism that dominated all European Great War powers and roiled Europe’s twentieth century. This is the story of the late Ottoman vanguard who gambled and lost. It is also the story of a tradition of Great Power politics in the Middle East, and the pervasive habit of the Great Powers to occupy a Middle East fantasy world of their own invention, with predictably tragic consequences. The three victorious powers that emerged from the war, Britain, France, and the United States, conspired to deny the political agency of Ottoman Muslims, and instead resolved to emphasize something then called the “national idea,” which endeavored to fragment the world into a multitude of small and manageable national states, arranged hierarchically and accorded rights of self-representation according to their level of “civilization,” or national development. The former Ottoman peoples occupied an intermediate place above Africans and well below
Eastern European and Balkan Christians formerly part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire.
Middle Eastern historians have long been preoccupied with national histories and the rise of individual nationalisms. Modernity, ethnic nationalism, and the Middle East post-colonial nation-state are understood to be intertwined; a perspective that also lay behind the League of Nations and various post-World War I settlements.4 This book does not follow this pattern. It tries to imagine the viewpoint of many former Ottoman citizens who argued that the divisions of and governing arrangements of the post-Ottoman, colonial period were inferior, less free, and less representative than what had come before. Many protested that Ottoman rule had been better, more just, and perhaps more modern, than what we take to be the modern nation-state system of the Middle East. Their voices have been silenced by a hundred years of colonial and nationalist historiography, but if we want to know what was lost and what the world looked like in 1920, such voices are important. This book tells the story of the slow demise of a system of ordering the world that spanned centuries and regions and how people tried to survive this personal and political cataclysm. Obviously, many did not survive. The book takes as its frame of reference not the birth of something new, but the death of something old and evolving, and asks how did the old things, patterns, habits, cultures, ways of thinking, and possibilities affect what came after.
Loss from the collapse of the state and trauma from a decade of total war were the dominant experiences of the period. The modernizing Ottoman state, its system, its culture, and institutions had been increasingly present as backdrop in the lives of the people who lived through the decades surrounding the World War I. But by the early 1920s the state had disappeared from all its realms. Just as loss and disorientation were common experiences, so too was trauma and cataclysm that accompanied the decade of war at the end of the Ottoman years. In greater Syria as much as twenty-five percent of the population perished from war, famine, and disease between 1915 and 1919. These common experiences were shared and thus required little explicit explanation or discussion. Decades later we take this silence for inconsequence. This book argues the opposite; the cataclysm of war and the demise of the Ottoman state was so great it went without mention because of the ubiquitousness of the experience. No one escaped the suffering and no one needed to explain it.
This book is a history of an end, and a collapse so immense it has been forgotten and erased by near universal consensus. The book tries to re-imagine the world of the Middle East as it might have seemed to a formerly optimistic and privileged person at the moment of its collapse into something different and all together less optimistic. For a hundred years, historians have interpreted the history of the twentieth century in the Middle East as the birth of this or that nation, the emergence of this or that state, the rise of this or that idea. By contrast, this is the story of the end of plans, hope, prospects, and horizons, and how people survived, and made sense of the events that had overtaken them. It is the story of the collapse of a state and its institutions and the certainties that had ordered life for millions for centuries, albeit certainly with constant change, but also with hope, occasional optimism, and collective effort. The book tries to tell this story in a way which I hope would have been familiar to those most affected, and in a modest way, to take a step toward settling some long overdue accounts.
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