World War I was the most significant event in Middle Eastern history. The map that at the turn of the twentieth century displayed the Ottoman Empire encompassing northern Africa, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, the Levant, and parts of the Balkan; had transformed into a myriad of states and kingdoms by the interwar period. The inhabitants who were once Ottomans, now saw themselves as Egyptian, Turkish, Arab, or another nationalist identity. At first glance, it would seem that these nations had been suppressed for hundreds of years under the yoke of the Ottomans, only to be freed by its collapse in the Great War.

However, the preconditions for the nationalisms that emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire were shaped by developments within the empire over the last century. Along with nineteenth century modernization of the Ottoman state, nationalist movements in the last years of the empire were shaped by the conflict and circumstances brought out by world war. These nationalisms attributed to the creation of nations in the Middle East.

In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, a culture of nationalism was beginning to form along with other factors that attributed to the rise of the states that would remain after the empire fell. However, rather than imagining Ottoman states to have been subjugated by the empire for hundreds of years only to be freed with its disintegration, it is better to attribute the development of post-Ottoman nations to the empire itself. Specifically, from the modernization that occurred in the nineteenth century. Nationalism creates nations and is not a consequence of an existence of a nation. As Gelvin says, “the very Ottoman Empire the [nationalist] movements vilified had laid the foundation for the explosion of nationalisms in the post–World War I Middle East.”[4]

The tanzimat decrees in the nineteenth century legally identify Ottoman subjects as citizens. This began the transformation of the Ottoman empire into something that resembled a modern state. Summarized in the Gulhane Proclamation in 1839, the reforms intended to establish new institutions which the Ottoman government based on three primary principles. “(1) The guarantees insuring to our subjects perfect security for life, honor, and fortune. (2) A regular system of assessing and levying Taxes. (3) An equally regular system for the levy of Troops and the duration of their service.”[5]

With these new rights of citizenship came new obligations the Ottomans imposed over the citizenry and increased its control over individual’s lives in the empire. Ottoman citizens everywhere experienced the benevolence as well as the coercion of the state. Gelvin says, “By taking responsibility for functions it had previously disregarded, by standardizing institutions, by attempting to set norms for public and even private behavior, the Ottoman state created the conditions in which new ties among its citizens might emerge.”[6]

The Industrial Revolution in the Late Ottoman Period

The industrial revolution allowed for the centralization of the Ottoman state and eroded other local identities that citizens held, and the creation of new market environments rearranged older Ottoman regions. New technology allowed for new notions of social economic and cultural space to create a basis for future nationalist movements. For example, by the end of the nineteenth-century, trade and infrastructure development allowed for Greater Syria to become a distinct economic unit. By 1861, the cities of Aleppo, Beirut, and Damascus were connected by telegraph. By the 1880s, a system of roads connected the cities of Damascus, Tripoli, Sidon, and Beirut.[7]

By the 1890s, railways and carriage roads allowed peasants living in the countryside to travel and find work in urban centers. This interchange worked both ways as, “The introduction of new transportation technologies such as railroads and steamships not only opened up new markets, it expanded the traffic in labor and goods between cities and countryside.”[8]

In the upper levels of society, elite families in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Aleppo sought marriage alliances to achieve new commercial ties in Greater Syria.[9] Gelvin says that, “The expanded interchange between city and countryside brought urban values and norms to outlying areas. It also enlarged the social, economic, and cultural space in which people lived their lives.”[10]

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Imperial States and the Expansion of Bureaucracy

During the late Ottoman era, the structure of the empire transformed into a collection of states within an empire that had some independence from the center of power in Turkey. Jonathan Endelman describes these states as Tier I or Tier II states based on their relative autonomy. He says, “Ottoman officials called Tier I areas Eyalet-i Mümtaze or exceptional states to convey the distinction that, while part of the empire, they possessed a level of administrative independence reinforcing their distinctiveness from the center.”[11]

Tier I states would include Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. Tier II states include Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria, as they were not designated as discrete political entities but rather were territories subdivided and lead by local notables.[12] Tier I states were still confined to adhere to a dynastic line of governors, to send troops for the Sultan’s armies, make coinage baring the Sultan’s name, and other small concessions of obedience. However, in return, Tier I provinces were able administrated internally, and the local governor was able to act the part of an autocrat by striking deals with foreign powers if they did not harm the Ottoman state. The structure of the late Ottoman empire makes us question the common concept of state that is defined along the lines of European nations. However, states within the Ottoman empire do not resemble either provinces of an empire, imperial colonies, or nation-states of the European standard.

The term ‘Imperial States’ best describes the structure of the Tier I states in the late Ottoman empire. In these states within an empire the, “ideological component remains imperial even when their administrative apparatus resembles a state.”, Endelman explains, “Moreover, rulers of imperial states felt their countries derived more benefit by remaining within the empire than by leaving it.”[13] The Turkish Ottoman center, meets the same requirements to be called an imperial state itself, both a part of the empire and yet separate from it.

Egypt provides the strongest example of a Tier I state for several reasons. First, because Egypt’s large population, and its long tenure as a regional power, the Egyptian state has been extensively documented. Second, Egypt’s progress as an independent state within the Ottoman empire is more prominent than other Tier I states. Third, as Endelman argues, “Egypt had a particular impact on nineteenth-century Turkey so that discussions of Ottoman state development would be incomplete without a concurrent analysis of Egypt.”[14]

Comparison between the Ottoman center and Tier I states such as Egypt, begs the question of why by the onset of World War I, the Ottoman center had a democratic parliamentarian system, while other Tier I states did not. Certainly, all Tier I countries underwent reform programs that focused on military and bureaucratic standardization in imitation with European nations. In modern day Turkey, the reforms eventually caused the establishment of parliamentary institutions while Egypt did not. Endelman argues that this is because reforms in Tier I states such as Egypt were stymied by foreign military invasion, while Turkey was not. In the case of Egypt, the British invasion in 1883 radically altered the development of the state.[15]

The expansion of state bureaucracy transformed Tier I states in the Ottoman Empire into modern centralized governments. In Egypt and Turkey, the staff working in the rulers’ household grew into a modern bureaucracy similar to European states. In Turkey, the Sultan’s household originally held an entourage of such offices as affixer of the royal seal, head scribe, and chief of ceremonies. Over time this gradually evolved into a cabinet with ministers heading departments such as Foreign Minister, Chief Bailiff, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Finance. Additional heads of office occupied Ottoman embassies throughout the empire.

Egypt as well underwent an expansion of its bureaucracy under the reforms of Mehmed Ali, Egypt’s viceroy. What was once a small staff of Mehmed Ali’s household grew into a complex system of department heads who were experts on issues such as public health, statistical analysis, and education. Edelman describes, “The Egyptian government created a police force, regulated the possession of firearms, and cracked down on speeding carriages causing traffic accidents. These measures portray a government in control of its territory and able to perform its functions of protecting the people as a pastor does his flock.”[16]


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