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Modern Education and a Late Ottoman Childhood

At the end of the nineteenth century a 10-year-old boy began a long walk away from home. He kissed his mother, perhaps for the last time, cried a little, and left, carrying some belongings, carefully packed for the journey, accompanied by his father, an uncle, or older brother. They soon passed beyond beloved and familiar sights, through unfamiliar villages, or neighborhoods, over the passage of hours, or even days. Finally they reached the grand doorway of a large stone building, with an inscription neither could likely read, bearing the signature of the Ottoman sultan, and reading “Imperial Military Middle School.” The boy kissed his father, perhaps cried a bit more, but furtively, and passed through the doorway into the seemingly durable embrace of the modernizing state.

Attending a state middle school was an experience of anxiety and wonder for children in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. In Damascus, Beirut, Adana, Salonica, and other provincial capitals, the journey to school started by leaving the family home. The path might have taken the parent and child through olive groves, fruit orchards, or wheat fields, and neighboring villages, and down the mountains, toward a town nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean, or along a large river. It would surely have been the largest town, and probably the largest building, the boy had ever seen. Anxiety and dread gave way to excitement and pride when the boy received his splendid new woolen uniform, complete with brass buttons bearing the imperial coat of arms, and a crimson fez.

In the nineteenth century in Europe and the Mediterranean basin, most people were peasants and most died not far from their birthplace. It would not have taken the child long to realize that his life was about to change in a way different from the lives of his parents or grandparents. Education and association with the state would indeed open new vistas on a world beyond the village or neighborhood. School would be jarring, eased by new friends, and a dormitory full of boys just as alone and disoriented. Teachers spoke unfamiliar languages and new words, and there would surely be a huge and frightening quantity of things to learn. Military or civil middle school would, however, be the first real step in becoming part of a late Ottoman elite, and children would meet peers with whom they would share experiences and outlook over the coming decades. Everything they learned and did conditioned them to believe they were the foremost guardians of the Ottoman state, its sultan, and its Muslim people. They came to form a self-conscious elite and expected to assume leading roles in the army and politics. Similarly conditioned men played singular roles in all the countries that marched to war in 1914. In the former Ottoman lands, they continued their central role after the defeat in 1918.

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