To send content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about sending content to .
To send content items to your Kindle, first ensure firstname.lastname@example.org
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about sending to your Kindle.
Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
In the roughly three centuries between Sultan Selim’s victorious entry into Cairo and that of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, the regime that the Ottoman sultans imposed on the Arab lands had evolved and adapted to changes brought about by global forces. Istanbul had lost its ability over the course of the eighteenth century to influence who would represent it in much of the empire, but the Ottoman sultans had maintained their legitimacy to rule in the vast lands that stretched from Algiers to Basra. The survival of the empire in the Arab provinces was in part fortuitous as neither a military power nor a compelling political ideology had emerged to break the bond that linked the House of Osman to its Arabic-speaking subjects. Nonetheless, Bulut Kapan Ali Bey’s two invasions of Syria had demonstrated that the empire was vulnerable on its southern flank. The dynasty had dodged a potential disaster in Egypt, but its ability to withstand more formidable challengers was yet to be tested.
Napoleon in Egypt
A European army arrived on the shores of Egypt on 1 July 1798, commanded by the self-styled champion of the Enlightenment’s view of “progress,” Napoleon Bonaparte. The French found little opposition from the mamluk emirs and quickly advanced on Cairo. There on 21 July in the suburb of Imbaba on the western side of the Nile River, the French dealt the “neo-Mamluk” regime in Cairo a blow almost as stunning as the one their erstwhile nominal predecessors had suffered at the hands of Sultan Selim. Despite their victory at the “Battle of the Pyramids,” as French spin masters labeled the clash, the French had not delivered a coup de grace and the surviving mamluk emirs continued a campaign of guerrilla-style warfare from Upper Egypt.
Two recent events illustrate the ambivalent space that the Ottoman Empire occupies in the historical imagination of Arabs living in the twenty-first century. In January 2002 Saudi developers razed Qasr Ajyad, an Ottoman-era fortress that had stood watch over Mecca for two centuries. They envisioned in its place a hotel with splendid views of the holy city that would provide luxurious surroundings for wealthier pilgrims and visitors. The decision to demolish the fortress was unproblematic from a Saudi perspective. Qasr Ajyad was of a recent vintage when compared to other Middle Eastern historical monuments, and there was no local outcry for its preservation. Nonetheless, İstemihan Talay, Turkey’s minister of culture, compared its leveling to the Taliban’s wanton destruction of the statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan in the previous year. With popular outrage growing at home over what was portrayed in the Turkish media as a slight to the honor of the nation, Minister Talay requested that UNESCO condemn the Saudi action as it had the obliteration of the “world heritage” site in Afghanistan. Arab commentators, in contrast, were dismissive of the protests, which they ascribed to a residual bitterness on the part of the Turks that their ancestors had lost control of the Arabian Peninsula in 1918. In the end, UNESCO decided that as the fortress was not on its list of places that merited preservation, its fate was a matter solely within the purview of the Saudi authorities.
The consolidation of Ottoman rule over the Asian Arab provinces that began with the Ottoman reoccupation of Syria in 1840 was nearly complete at the start of the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1909). By the end of his reign, new technologies, such as the telegraph and railroad, linked many of the provincial capitals to Istanbul. No place was quite as distant as it once had been. There were nonetheless regions in the Arab lands that seemed alien and distinctly uncivilized to the Ottoman bureaucrats posted there. Underscoring that perception, Arabistan emerged as trope in the Ottoman discourse on civilization and progress. With their gaze fixed on the West, Ottoman would-be modernizers viewed the Arab lands as socially backward, undeveloped economically, and ignorant. In securing his provinces in the east and south, Abdülhamid could rely on an increasingly professional bureaucracy and disciplined officer class. Both included Arabs although they were significantly underrepresented in either in terms of their percentage of the empire’s population. Despite the changes that were occurring, most European observers were unimpressed by the empire’s faltering steps toward modernity. Perceptions of both reform and modernity, it seems, were relative.
Better communication and an expanded bureaucracy facilitated greater surveillance by the state’s security apparatus as independence movements, propelled by ethnically based nationalist ideologies, blossomed in the Balkans and took tentative first steps in Anatolia. The Arabic-speaking population of the empire was not immune from the siren song of cultural nationalism as pride in the glories of the Arabs’ past was a hallmark of the intellectual discourse in the closing decades of Ottoman rule. In contrast to the troubled Tanzimat era for the region, however, Abdülhamid’s reign was spared outbreaks of sectarian violence in the Arab lands. But storm clouds were emerging in the distant Balkans and closer still in southeastern Anatolia.
The janissaries entered Syria in 1516 as the shock troops of an empire that had undergone two centuries of political evolution. In that regard, the Ottomans were unique among the various non-Arab dynasties that succeeded in seizing power in the Arab lands beginning in the tenth century as the Abbasid caliphate went into its long decline. The slave soldiers and tribal leaders who established the dynasties that ruled from Morocco to Iraq in the transitional centuries between the “classical age” of Islam and the early modern period were typically illiterate, with no experience in governing states with a bureaucratic tradition. Often alien to the culture of the cities they seized, the self-styled sultans were content to co-opt the Arabic-speaking religious elite to serve as the public face of their regimes. The arrival of the Ottomans challenged that monopoly of knowledge exercised by local scholars, whose position was eclipsed by bureaucrats who took their orders from Istanbul. Faced with a profound shift in the geographical locus of political power, the scholarly elite in Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad had to be content with provincial rather than imperial horizons.
The imposition of Ottoman institutions on the Arab provinces required the local Sunni Arabic-speaking elites to mediate a place within the sultan’s regime. The Ottomans made few concessions to adapt their rule to conditions preexisting in the Arab lands, other than to stress the commonality of their faith in Islam with that of most of their Arab subjects. The Ottoman officials who governed them spoke a language that was largely incomprehensible to the Arabs they ruled, but Islam provided a common political rhetoric both rulers and subjects could understand. In retrospect, an appeal to a common faith was the cornerstone of their relationship. Sunni Muslims came to accept that their status within the empire was secure and they viewed its institutions as their own, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Chief among those was the institution of the sultanate.
The Ottoman conquests of the Arab lands occurred in an age when the boundaries of what had been the known world were expanding. Historians of Asia have long been aware that transregional networks of commerce and cultural exchange were not unique to the sixteenth century, even if most western Europeans had been only dimly aware of them before. In contrast to their insularity, the peoples of the Middle East had played a vital role in those contacts for millennia. But the incorporation of parts of the Americas into European empires and the intrusion of armed European ships into the trade of Asia in the sixteenth century greatly expanded the geographical horizons for many around the globe. The creation in 1513 of the Piri Reis map, which showed the partial Atlantic coastlines of both Africa and South America, was indicative of an awareness of a “new” world” (yeni dünya) among the sultan’s advisers. Ottoman naval expeditions to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century were yet another sign of the sultan’s recognition of the possibility for creating a global strategy. The expansion of contacts among peoples across oceans and continents led to the introduction of new crops, shifts in trade routes, and improvements in technology, as well as the arrival of previously unknown pandemics and military conquerors.
The impact on the sultan’s Arab subjects of their incorporation into this “world economy,” to borrow Immanuel Wallerstein’s formulation, was not as dire as it was for the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the Middle East suffered a contraction of its wealth after the sixteenth century. The shifts in global trade patterns in that century were partly to blame as the cities of the eastern Mediterranean ceased to be the key intermediaries in the east-west trade. The underlying cause of the decline for the Ottoman economy was more likely, however, the introduction of large quantities of silver from the Americas, which distorted the traditional ratio in the value of gold to silver in Middle Eastern economies.
Ibrahim al-Khiyari, a scholar from Medina, set out for Istanbul in 1669 following the Sultan’s Road, as the pilgrimage route from Üsküdar to Mecca was called. He left for posterity a journal of his year-long adventure that led him to Bulgaria and an audience with Sultan Mehmed IV (1648–87) and then back again to Arabia by way of Cairo. Although his account lacks the wealth of local color found in the more widely known travelogue of his contemporary Evliya Çelebi, he meticulously recorded those who hosted them along the way. They included Ottoman officials who had served in the Hejaz and religious scholars whom the author had met in his native city. Choosing not to travel, Muhammad ibn Kannan began a chronicle in Damascus at the end of the seventeenth century in which he noted, among other things, the Muslim scholars who stopped in his city while on the hajj. The correspondence of ibn Kannan’s contemporary, cAbd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1731), with scholars in Cairo, Medina, Van, Istanbul, Edirne, Tekirdağ in Thrace, and Sombor in Serbia points to a network of correspondence across the empire. Such informal and often personal contacts created a network for the exchange of ideas on a variety of topics. As most of the scholarship produced by the empire’s ulama was in Arabic, regardless of the language they spoke at home, Arabic-speaking scholars, most of whom knew no Turkish, were active participants in an ongoing dialogue across the empire.
When Sultan Abdülmecid I (1839–61) issued his “noble decree” (Hatt-ı Şerif) at Gülhane Park in Istanbul on 3 November 1839, its preamble made it clear that reform was necessary to restore the empire to the halcyon days of its past. The surface message was that that he did not seek to impose on his subjects anything that was new. Imbedded in the call to a restoration of what had been, however, were hints of a future that would see radical breaks with that past. These included the end of tax farming, a call for universal male conscription, and the rather vague sentence “the Muslim and non-Muslim subjects of our lofty Sultanate shall, without exception, enjoy our imperial concessions.” Historians of the Ottoman Empire have debated how to characterize the series of initiatives that were undertaken between 1839 and 1876, which were known in Ottoman Turkish as the Tanzimat (Reordering). Because the terms “Westernization” and “modernization” have fallen out of favor for some, a consensus has lately emerged that “the age of reform” is the appropriate, nonjudgmental designation for the period.
The questions of the reform of what exactly and to what ends have not produced any agreement among historians, however. Şükrü Hanioğlu has argued that the framers only inserted the language of the preamble in a final draft of the proclamation to appease potential critics of the initiative among the ulama. In his interpretation, the reformers did indeed seek to “modernize” the empire, following Western models. Hanioğlu thus situates himself within the Turkish republican historiographical tradition, which interprets the Tanzimat as having been both self-consciously “modernizing” and “Westernizing,” initiating a process that would ultimately result in the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
They (Europeans) began their new life in the fifteenth century, while we were delayed by the Ottoman Turks until the nineteenth century. If God had preserved us from the Ottoman Conquest, we should have remained in unbroken touch with Europe and shared in her renaissance. This would have fashioned a different kind of civilization from the one in which we are now living.
Taha Husayn (d. 1973), who was arguably among the most formidable intellectuals of twentieth-century Egypt, did not think much of the Ottoman legacy in his country. He was not alone in his opinion, as most Arabs of his generation judged the Ottoman centuries harshly. At the end of the empire, the Arabs had become a trope for cultural backwardness and religious obscurantism for “progressive” Ottomans. Many Arab intellectuals in the twentieth century would characterize the Ottoman Empire as having those same negative qualities. Added to the consensus that the Ottoman regime had retarded Arab intellectual, social, and political progress was the stereotype of brutish behavior by Ottoman soldiers and officials, which is often featured in literary and cinematic representations of the Ottoman past in Arabic-language media. When asked about the Ottoman centuries, many elderly Arabs will respond with a simple phrase, zulm al-turk, the “oppression of the Turks.” It is safe to say that there is little nostalgia for the ancien régime in the Arab lands, although the complete proverb from which the phrase is taken is more ambivalent: Zulm al-turk walacadil al-cArab, “The oppression of the Turks is better than the Bedouins’ justice.”
The Ottoman Empire expanded into the lands that today compose most of the member states of the Arab League during the reigns of Selim I (1512–20) and Süleyman (1520–66). The empire had already achieved major successes in the Balkans and Anatolia when its forces moved south in 1516. The conquest of the Arab lands marked, however, a significant geopolitical shift in the empire’s territorial expansion from the European periphery of the Dar al-Islam (“The House of Islam,” i.e., the lands under Muslim rule) into its historic heartland. The campaigns of the sixteenth century brought the fabled cities of Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo under the dynasty’s rule. The first two cities enjoyed prestige among Sunni Muslims as having once served as the seat of the caliphate, while a titular caliph still held court in Cairo when the Ottoman army arrived. The new territories also included Islam’s three holiest cities: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Highlighting that responsibility and the honor it conferred upon him, Selim added the title “Servitor of the Two Holy Places” to the long list of titles he already held. His son Süleyman could boast, “I am Süleyman, in whose name the hutbe [Friday sermon] is read in Mecca and Medina. In Baghdad I am the shah, in Byzantine realms the Caesar, and in Egypt the sultan.”
The Ottomans ruled much of the Arab World for four centuries. Bruce Masters's work surveys this period, emphasizing the cultural and social changes that occurred against the backdrop of the political realities that Arabs experienced as subjects of the Ottoman sultans. The persistence of Ottoman rule over a vast area for several centuries required that some Arabs collaborate in the imperial enterprise. Masters highlights the role of two social classes that made the empire successful: the Sunni Muslim religious scholars, the ulama, and the urban notables, the acyan. Both groups identified with the Ottoman sultanate and were its firmest backers, although for different reasons. The ulama legitimated the Ottoman state as a righteous Muslim sultanate, while the acyan emerged as the dominant political and economic class in most Arab cities due to their connections to the regime. Together, the two helped to maintain the empire.
Cures for the various diseases that give rise to dementia remain elusive and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Our current capacity to slow disease progression or to manage symptoms is far from satisfactory. Pharmacological interventions have made only a modest impact to date, and carry risks as well as possible benefits (Ritchie, 2007)