Islamic history, religion, Syrian history, Western Colonisation

Ashshams: Part 2, The Background

Earlier Massacres, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Persians, Decline of the Turkish Empire, Russia and British Colonialism


The following events involved many European powers but this post considers only the interrelationship between the Ottomans, the Russian and of Britain. It has to be said from the outset that both the Russians and Britain, just like today, sought the territories in Eastern Europe and Asia minor, that would safeguard their trade and that were financially viable. Both powers cosied up to the Ottomans on occasion and both supported reforms proposed during the Tanzimet era, 1839-1876, when it was apparent the empire was crumbling.

An Earlier Massacre, Partition by two opposing Islamic Empires, Wars in the Caucuses and the Crimea

Armenian history is complex so for the sake of brevity the post begins in the 17th century when Armenia was divided into two and the  Persian Safavids governed the area to the east and the west was ruled by the Seljuks and then the ottoman Turks. This created a proverbial playground for the two opposing Islamic empires to air their differences. As they were often caught in the crossfire, by 1915 the Armenians were no strangers to genocidal acts.

In 1604 the Safavid emperor Shah Abbas 1  pursued a”scorched earth” policy against the Ottoman Sultan, Dighazade Sinan Pasha, during which the Armenian town of Julfa was requisitioned. Abbas was playing a cat and mouse game and when he heard of the approach of the Ottoman army he destroyed the town to prevent his enemy from acquiring territory or supplies. Around 300,000 Armenian people were forced to leave with the his army and  many were killed or died of starvation. see

For the Armenians it would have been uncomfortable living under Islamic rule as they were said to have adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD and many had embraced the religion as early as 60AD. In the interim Christian monotheism was subordinate to the ancient Zoroastrian principle; a combination of the absolute power of God and a belief in the religious dualism of good and evil. Though they were not forced to convert and for the most part lived quiet lives, it may have been somewhat of a relief when, in the 19th century, Russia drove out the Persians.

The Russia/Persian wars in the Caucuses occurred in the  early 1820s and resulted in defeat for the Persians. Though Russia won much territory and the sole rights to a navy in the Caspian Sea, the struggle was far from straight forward. It certainly contributed to the fall of the Ottoman empire and, as such, the subsequent massacres of the Armenians in Turkey. Britain was fearful of Russia’s incursion into the Caucuses and keen to protect its trade route to India. As such it sided with the Persians and at one point the latter almost formed an alliance with the Ottomans to curtail Russian expansionism.

The Ottoman Empire Begins to Crumble

The next European war to challenge Russian imperialism was in the Crimea, situated to the west of the Caucuses in the Black Sea and on the edge of the Balkans. Britain played a major role and succeeded once again to maintain its trade routes, which was to the detriment of not only to Russia but to Britain’s allies the Ottomans, not to mention the 20 million ordinary people who were slaughtered, maimed or died of starvation on the battlefields. Ottoman rule was protected by the Treaty of Paris 1852 and the Treaty of Stefano, 1878 brought a peace deal between it and Russia, the cracks were showing.

Subsequent events  paved the way for Turkish nationalism and the dissolution of the empire in 1923. This was inevitable as the attempts at restructuring the empire by a succession of Sultans,  (the Tanzimet), failed to salvage it. To make things worse Egypt had acquired partial  autonomy from the Ottomans in 1867 and a nationalist movement began to grow there, which was hostile to the European powers. Britain had to safe-guard its trade routes and took advantage of Egypt’s mounting national debt, accrued by Ibrahim Pasha’s spending on the infrastructure and managed to buy shares in the Suez canal in 1875.

British Trade Takes Precedence

Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 an action, which followed closely on the heels of the withdrawing Napoleonic troops and was not sanctioned by the European powers. (Egypt and Europe in the 19th Century,  In 1878, under the Cyprus Convention, the Ottoman sultan Ab’ulhamid 2 ceded the administration of Cyprus to Britain, an action that was to have an everlasting impact on the Greeks and the British as well as the Turkish and the Greeks. Though it was said to provide protection for the Ottomans from Russia, strategically the island provided a means to defend the Suez canal and British trade. All these measures served to weaken the Ottoman empire, even though .

Donald Bloxham in his book The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians writes that those, who maintain it was the interventionist policies of powers like Britain and Russia that instigated the Armenian revolt, are merely apologists for the actions of the Ottomans. It cannot be denied though, that the Armenian revolutionaries were inspired by events in the Balkans, not least the Bulgarian rebellion of 1876 and as, Mr Bloxham asserts, Armenian revolutionary tendencies did shape Ottoman policy towards them.

William Gladstone, the British liberal politician and former prime minister, who was in opposition at the time, wrote a pamphlet entitled The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, which condemned the treatment of the Christians by the Ottomans. His stance invoked much popular support in Britain but for the then Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, the preservation of Britain’s empire and its economic interests was the main priority. The prevention of the Russian incursion into the Balkans and Asia minor thus entailed the continued alliance with the Ottoman authorities.

The politicking between the British Liberals and the Tories at this time is fascinating. John Charmley gives an account of the power struggles, both outside and inside Britain as he describes the astute statesmanship of Benjamin Disraeli. See Splendid Isolation?: Britain, the Balance of Power and the Origins of the First World War

This entry is getting a bit long so will continue in part 3, the Balkans and the Armenian revolutionaries.




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