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The End of the Caliphate

In October 1923, the National Assembly at Ankara unanimously approved the formation of the Turkish Republic and elected Mustafa Kemal first president.

In the preceding months, Kemal had formed a party marginalizing his rivals and critics, and called elections. The new party, emerging from local Defense of Rights Committees was called the (eventually Republican) People’s Party, and won an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. Kemal followed his streak of triumphs with the most controversial move yet. In early March 1924 the National Assembly voted to abolish the caliphate.

The Grand National Assembly at Angora has decreed the abolition of the Caliphate in the House of Othman, and ABDUL MEJID, the last of the long line, has been expelled from the Ottoman Dominions and conducted under escort to the frontier. Of all the vast changes wrought by the war the downfall of the Hapsburgs, the Romanoffs, and the Hohenzollerns, the transformation of the maps of all three continents of the Old World, the resurrection of ancient States and the rise of States, unknown before the evolution of novel forms of government, and the emergence of new ideas and new feelings among man kind no single change is more striking to the imagination than is this and few, perhaps, may prove so important in their ultimate results.17

Abolishing the caliphate astounded many of Kemal’s admirers. But in the atmosphere of post-war trauma and crisis, his success in salvaging some independence insulated Mustafa Kemal from the worst criticism.

In an atmosphere of worldwide shock among Muslims, Sharif Husayn, one-time British-anointed king of the Hijaz, declared himself caliph. In this decision, as in his wartime decisions, Husayn exhibited unerringly poor timing and instincts, and he failed to realize that he had outlived his usefulness to anyone, most particularly his British former patrons. British war-planners had sought Husayn as an anti-Ottoman Arab caliph in 1915 in their effort to occupy the Ottoman eastern flank, but in 1924, British colonial officials were preoccupied with Kemal and retention of Iraq. He had rebuffed British efforts to declare him caliph during the war, but in 1924, to the extent the Arabian Peninsula captured British attention, it focused on the more romantic and mysterious figure of Ibn Saud (cAbd al-cAziz al-Sacud), and when Ibn Saud led his forces against Husayn in 1924, first at Ta’if, and then at Mecca, Husayn found himself alone against forces his former British patrons enthusiastically supported. Ibn Saud captured Mecca in 1925, making Husayn, like the Ottoman sultan he had served and abandoned, an exile. He spent the last years of his life a guest of his sons and was buried at Jerusalem, not far from the resting place of the last Ottoman sultan-caliph at Damascus.

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