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The State of Turkey
By C N Conder, from the Scottish Review of 1896


THE critical condition of the Turkish Empire in Asia may render interesting a short account of the various mixed populations—Moslem, Christian, and Jewish—which are mingled together, in Asia Minor, Syria, and Arabia, under Turkish rule, and of the changes slowly occurring during the last forty years in their relative position. The Armenians especially attract notice for the moment, but the discontent of subject population is not confined to that unfortunate race, or indeed to Christians only.

The Armenians are the only Aryan race ruled by the Sultan with the exception of the scattered Greek population found in the cities of Syria, and forming a strong factor in the West of Asia Minor. Herodotus informs us that the Armenians of his day were Phrygian colonists, and the Phrygians belonged to the European family of the Aryans, and entered Asia Minor from the West. The Armenian language is one of the most interesting of early Aryan tongues, being most nearly connected with the Slav languages. It has become somewhat corrupted by the introduction of Turkish and even of Arabic words, but it is substantially Aryan in grammar and in vocabulary, and its words often throw light on the origin of terms which would otherwise remain doubtful. Even the term Arya, which has so variously been explained, is perhaps best connected with the Armenian Ayr for a man. The two great streams of migration which brought the Aryans into Asia Minor appear to have followed the northern route from the West, and the southern route from the East. In the ninth century B. C., the Medes had advanced from near the Caucasus to the shores of Lake Van, superseding an earlier Mongol population in Matiene; and in the Persian period the Lycian language is more nearly akin to the Iranian tongues than to the European, though strongly influenced already by Greek. The early Phrygian inscriptions appear on the other hand to belong to the European family of Aryan speech. In our own time the Armenians represent the northern immigrants, while the very corrupt Georgian language, traceable back to the Middle Ages, is also Aryan but more probably of Medic origin. The Armenian has however borrowed from the Georgian, and the Georgian from the Armenian.

The early history of the Armenians is to a great extent legendary. Their civilisation (including their alphabet) was, like that of the Georgians, derived from the Greeks of Constantinople, but the controversies of the sixth century resulted in the separation of the Armenian Church from that of Byzantium, and they were, like most of the Oriental Christian Churches, converted to Monophysite belief by Jacob Baradaeus, In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Christian kingdom of Armenia became an important bulwark of civilisation, long-resisting the attacks not only of the Turkish and Kurdish tribes of Baghdad, but also of the Mongols when advancing on the tottering Frank kingdom of Palestine. In the thirteenth century especially the Norman feudal system became the model of the Armenian State. The 'Assizes of Jerusalem ' were then translated into Armenian; the Templars and Hospitallers were given lands and castles in all parts of the kingdom. Some of the Armenian clergy were reconciled to Rome, and founded the still existing though unimportant sect of Armenian Catholics. The kings of Armenia were allied by marriage to the Norman Princes of Autioch, and their armies joined the Frank forces in opposing the Tartars. Even from the first the Crusader Kings had married Armenian wives, and the power of the Counts of Edessa, who held the highroad from Baghdad by which alone an advance on Syria was possible, was confirmed by the Armenian alliance. To speak of Armenia as only a geographical expression is to ignore its history, and the services of its kings to the cause of civilisation in Western Asia. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the power of the old Seljuk conquerors, who under Melek Shah had ruled from India to the borders of Egypt, and to the gates of Byzantium, was entirely broken down by the Crusaders on the West and by the Armenians on the East. The Sultans of Iconium, from whom the Osmanli family traces its descent, were then hemmed in by the Greeks on the West, and by the Armenian Christian State on the East. They ruled a very mingled population, and were already themselves of mixed stock, Georgian and Armenian wives being sometimes the mothers of the Turkish heirs. The destruction of civilisation thus painfully built up by European statesmen was not due to any Turkish effort, but resulted from the great wave of Mongol outbreak which swept over Western Asia and Russia. The Turks suffered equally with the Christians from this barbarian invasion. Only when the Egyptians under Bibars and Kelaun had driven the Franks out of Syria, and when the Mongols had laid waste Armenia, did the Turkish power begin to revive: and the Sultans of Iconium inherited the ruins after the Tartar retreat.

The Armenian race in our own times is perhaps not purely Aryan, and like the Kurds—descended from the ancient Par-thians—they have no doubt in their veins a strong infusion of Turkish and Mongol blood. In physical type they are among the finest of West Asiatic races—tall and strong, with ruddy faces, but with dark eyes and hair like Mongols. They are reputed to be one of the cleverest races in the Turkish Empire, but they cannot be said to be popular. Their power of acquiring wealth by usury renders them as odious to the peasantry of other stocks as are the Jews, and they are despised by Moslems on account of their drunkenness, which is a common vice among them, as also among the Oriental Christians. Fanatical hatred has no doubt an important part in the persecution of Armenians, but the grudges of the Moslem peasants have also no doubt been paid on usurers, at a time when the ruling power has become alarmed at the spread of revolutionary ideas among its Christian subjects, and seeks to stamp them out with a barbarity which has always characterised the Turks when their rule is disputed by any subject people, whether Moslem or Christian. The subjugation of Syria, within the present century, was marked by cruelties as ruthless as those of to-day, but directed against the sturdy Moslem peasantry, who fought for liberty during many years in the mountains of Galilee and Samaria.

The present moment recalls to mind the condition of Asia under the Seljuk Turks at the close of the eleventh century, A.D. The Koran not only does not sanction, but its teaching discourages the persecution of Christians, who, according to Muhammad, were nearer to Islam than Jews or Mazdeans. All 'People of a book, ' both those who accepted the Gospels, those who revered the Hebrew Scriptures, and those who preserved the Persian Zend-Avesta, were placed in quite a different category from that of the Kufar or Pagans, who belonged to neither of the great religious existing in Muhammad's time. So the Kafir was given the choice of 'the Koran or the Sword,' but Christians were only reduced to tribute; and the Koran precepts were observed alike by the first Arab Khalifs of Damascus, and by the latter Abbaside Khalifs of Baghdad. Harun-er-Rashid gave to Charlemagne the keys of Jerusalem, and persecution only began in the eleventh century, when the fanatical and heretical Fatimite Khalif of Egypt seized Jerusalem. Before his time El Mukaddasi speaks of the Syrian Christians as being extremely independent, in bearing, and of the Moslems as constantly suffering from Byzantine inroads on the coast cities. The Seljuk Sultans, who protected the last feeble descendants of the great house of Abbas, in Baghdad, having become converts to the Sunnee or more orthodox teaching of Islam, distinguished themselves after the death of Melek Shah by their persecution of Christians. It was the cruelty of the sons of Ortok in Jerusalem which roused the wrath of all Europe against the Turks, and which led to the first Crusade, just as in our own time the wrath of Europe is roused by Turkish persecution of Christians in the East.

But it must not be forgotten that for nearly a thousand years the Turks have been the ruling race in Asia. Even in Egypt, since the twelfth century, the rulers have never been Arabs, though the population did not include any important Turkish element in any age. The Mongols indeed appear at at the very dawn of history as the dominant people, in Chaldea, in Armenia, in Syria, and in Egypt; and the Semitic races, which ruled Western Asia for fifteen centuries before the Persian Conquest, only again attained independence for four hundred years between the time of Muhammad and of Melek Shah. During the remainder of historic time they have been subject either to Mongols or to Aryans—the Persians, Greeks, Romans and Franks. The great struggle of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries produced not a single conqueror of Arab race, for Saladin was a Kurd, and Bibars was also of Turkish origin. The force of Arab genius seems to have been expended a few centuries after Muhammad, and though it is to the Arabs that we owe the preservation and diffusion of that civilisation, which they learned from Greek, Persian, and Indian subjects, it cannot be said that the Arab race has shewn great ruling qualities, since the decay of the Abbaside power which reached its zenith in the ninth century of our era.

The Turks themselves learned much from Persia and from Greece, through their first relations with subject races in Asia. The Turkish palaces of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Asia Minor, like those erected by the Mongols at Samarkand and elsewhere in Central Asia, are evidence of the influence of Persian architecture on these rude conquering Turanians. The Turks adopted the Arab alphabet, as the Mongols adopted the Syriac of the Nestorians. The modern Turkish dialect of Stamboul is so full of Arab and Persian words, for which there were often no terms in Turkish proper, that only about a tenth part of the Stambuli vocabulary now traces to pure Turkish brought by the Seljuks from the Oxus. The majority of the ruling class in Turkey is of mongrel origin, and only among the peasantry of Asia Minor is the purer Turkish type to be discovered: for in Europe it is mingled with Slav blood, and in Kurdistan with Persian. But the tradition of a rude and masterful domination survives from the time of Osmanli Conquest, and the Aryan and Semitic subjects of the Sultan possess no tradition of independent, self-government. The harsh bondage of four centuries has stamped out the spirit of freedom, among Moslems and Christians alike, unless it is still to be recognised among Armenian rebels.

The power of the Christians in Turkey lias, however, steadily increased within the last forty years. The massacres of Damascus led to the establishment of a Christian State in the Lebanon, answering roughly to the old county of Tripoli under the Franks. Protected by the European powers, with a constitution which prevents the Turk from levying arbitrary taxes, and with a Christian police, under a Christian governor elected by the powers, the province of the Lebanon presents to us the one bright spot in an empire filled with cruelty and oppression. When this state was first established by Lord Dufferin, its population was quite as mixed as that of Armenia. The Druze nobles, who dominated the Maronite Christians, answered to the Kurds of Armenia, and the separation of Christian and Moslem presented a problem quite as difficult in appearance of solution. Yet the establishment of this province has been so successful that we have heard no more of any massacres in Syria. The Druzes have gradually and peacefully retired to Hermon and Bashan, and an independent Christian peasantry has prospered so greatly, under just government, that the Lebanon is unable to contain them, and they have gradually overflowed into other parts of Syria, Cyprus, and neighbouring regions. The lesson so learned may surely leave us to suppose that if it were possible to extend to North Syria the same system of government, including the regions round Aleppo and Merash from which the latest news of Armenian massacres now reaches us, we might witness in time a natural sifting of population, as the Armenians gathered into a new province under Christian rule, in which the fierce Kurds and Turks would find themselves powerless to oppress. Following the example of the Druzes they would no doubt betake themselves to wilder districts.

To expect that any Moslem power will, of its own free-will, place Christians on an equality with Moslems, and divide equally between them the offices of government, is hopeless. It is coutrary to the Moslem creed, and no Sultan could dare so to outrage the prejudices of his Moslem supporters. The superior education of Syrian and Armenian Christians has always led to their employment in minor offices, as secretaries and scribes under Turkish governors, just as the Copts in Egypt have long occupied similar positions. But the only instances in which Christian governors have been sanctioned by the Sultans are those in which European compulsion has forced them on the Turk. The establishment of a mixed Christian and Moslem police is as contrary to Turkish ideas as would be the service of Christians in the army. The law of Turkey is theoretically the law of the Koran, interpreted to the governor by the religious Kadi. The decisions of the Sultan rest on the dicta of the Sheikh el Islam, and on the inspired utterances of the Derwish orders. The equality of Christian and Moslem is a heresy which, if proclaimed by a Moslem ruler, would probably cost him his throne. The Sultan, whose only support is found in the acceptance by Islam of his claim to be regarded as Khalif, based on his rank as Hami el Haramein or 'Guardian of the two sanctuaries' of Mecca and Jerusalem, is no free agent in his own dominions, and can yield only to Christians on compulsion. The establishment of village councils under a Mukhtur, which figures as a new reform in the recent edict, is no new feature of administration. The Mejlis or council of native Moslem elders—sometimes admitting Christian and Jewish members—already exists in every town or village, but the governing power rests with the ruler who has at his command an irregular mounted police, backed by regular Moslem troops. The more the decree is examined the more will it be found to alter nothing which already exists. It is not the law of the Koran which entails suffering on Christians, but the spirit in which that law is administered, with a fanatical harshness which has throughout history characterised Turkish rule. That the fanatical spirit of Islam is not yet dead we have already learned to our cost, and may see in recent events at Stambul and in Armenia. Such events must raise throughout the Turkish empire an excitement among Moslems which is one of the gravest and most dangerous features of the situation. Disunited as they are among themselves, and undermined as Islam is in the west by scepticism, there yet remains in the wilder districts a memory of the great age of Moslem conquest, which leads all Moslems to regard the Christian as fit only for slavery.

The Turkish population is confined to its ancient home in Asia Minor, where it maintained its independence even in the days of Frank rule in Armenia and Syria. The Popes sought in vain to convert the Sultans of Iconium, who never proved reliable allies even when siding with Christians against the Egyptians. The larger part of the Sultan's dominions is occupied by the Arab nation, to whom the Turk is a stranger by race and by language. Even in Western Asia Minor the Greek population forms an important element. In Cyprus the Turkish immigrants are confined mostly to the hills, the Greeks and Maronites holding the plains. In the Lebanon and in Palestine, in Mesopotamia and Arabia, the Turk only is found as a government official. Among all the Arab-speaking peoples —Christian or Moslem—he is hated as a foreign oppressor, yet these regions are the very ones which—as Khalif—it is vitally necessary for the Sultans to possess. The loss of Mecca and of Jerusalem means the loss of his only claim to the Khalifate —a dignity which ceased to exist for three centuries, until it was revived and usurped by the Osmanlis, who were not even of the Prophet's race.

The spirit of political intrigue, which has always existed among the Christians of the Turkish Empire, has become yet more prevalent as the result of political events. Once more, as in the twelfth century, the Christian powers of Europe are pressing Eastwards. The Turkish dominion is lopped of its outlying provinces in Europe and in Africa, and Western civilisation has reached Cyprus, and presses into Palestine. The Christian state in the Lebanon presents a nucleus for the non-Moslem populations in Syria itself. The railway has reached Jerusalem and Damascus, and an invasion of Jews, driven out of Russia, has doubled the non-Moslem population of Jerusalem, aud has spread a dozen. Jewish agricultural colonies over the Holy Land, even as far east as Bashan. The Christians are still held down by a government supported by Moslem troops, but they watch with intense interest every movement of the European powers, and though bitterly divided among themselves, according to the ancient antagonisms of Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Georgian, and Nestorian Churches, there is no doubt that all alike hope to be finally rescued by European aid. The Arab Moslem population of Syria is meanwhile rendered disaffected to the Turks by long experience of their unjust rule, and the half subjected Bedouin of the deserts, who though nominally Moslems have practically no religion beyond a belief in ancestral ghosts and desert demons, watch as ever their opportunity to raid and pillage Christian and Moslem peasantry alike, whenever the central power shall have become too weak to control them.

In Arabia the Turks have their most difficult task, on account of its remote position and of its desert lands. It was in Arabia that the Turks crushed out the only attempt made to reform Islam by returning to the original teaching of the Koran. The persecution of the Wababi sect was perhaps as savage as any persecution of Christians, and the aspirations of the Arabs point to the establishment of an Arab Khalif in the person of the Sherif of Mecca.

With all these elements of discontent, and possible revolt, the Turks have long been familiar. The immediate dissolution of the Turkish empire was expected half a century ago. Yet they have stubbornly held on to their conquests, and have even rendered more complete their subjugation of the various and mingled elements of population whom they rule. We have so far witnessed no general convulsion, but a gradual decay of Turkish power beginning at its furthest frontiers, and the slow growth of small Christian states, appearing sporadically and gradually becoming independent. The Turks know well how unwilling all European statesman must be to fan the flames of a great conflagration, and how jealously they eye each other whenever the question of dividing up the Sultan's empire is forced to the front by popular misery. An united Europe could no doubt reduce the Sultan to-morrow to his original position as Turkish ruler of Iconium, were it not for the question who is then to be ruler in Stambul, in Mecca, in Syria, and at Baghdad, or in Armenia? Until such thorny questions are settled, by agreement or by accident, the Sultan no doubt intends to rule his people according to the ancient Turkish policy of repression and extortion.

The danger of a revolt of the army is the greatest that lies before the Turk. As Moslems they can be relied on against Christians, but as human beings there must be a limit to their powers of enduring a condition in which they are not only deprived of pay, and unable to earn money for themselves, but even deprived of food, and sometimes on the verge of starvation. A ruler who is unable to feed, or to pay for the transport of his troops, stands in great danger of a military revolt—especially among Syrian, Albanian, and other regiments of non-Turks. The Turkish army has proved its fighting powers not long since, in spite of treachery and incompetence among some of its leaders, but while the greater part of the force must be kept locked up in Europe, on the north-west frontier of the empire, the presence of troops is urgently needed in Armenia and in Arabia, and the most pressing question is how they can be spared, and how they can be sent to such remote districts.

Among the subject Christians the Armenians alone have so far found courage in despair, in their attempt to win freedom from an intolerable double tyranny—of Kurdish chiefs and Turkish Pashas; but if success were in the end to crown their efforts the Armenians would not stand alone. The Christians of North Syria—Greek or Syrian in creed—have many grievances of their own. The more fortunate Maronites of the Lebanon province, who have a Christian police, and who are keen politicians, might become innoculated with the idea of independence. The flame of fanaticism once lit would not distinguish Greek and Armenian Christians. Any success against the Turks in Armenia would lead to insurrection in other provinces.

Amid so many dangers the danger of Moslem disaffection must seem greatest to a Moslem ruler, convinced that the European powers are most unwilling to proceed to extremities. The attention of Russia is turned to the far East, and no power but. England is really earnest in the Armenian cause, this earnestness being confined perhaps mainly to religious circles and to liberal politicians. The real rulers of Turkey are not those ministers who are moved as pawns in the game, but the secret Derwish orders on whom the Sultan relies. They form powerful organisations bitterly opposed to all Western ideas, and perfectly informed, through their lower initiates, of all that goes on in the various provinces of the empire. The realities of government in Turkey are very different from its diplomatic exterior appearances; and the Khalif dominates the Sultan.

It may be that the Turks will once more assert their old predominance over their subjects, since their successor has not yet appeared. The Armenians are destined either to work out their own future or to perish in the attempt. It is practically impossible for Europe to interfere, unless Europe is ready to undertake the administration of new provinces in Asia. The subject populations are so much split up, and have so long been unaccustomed to rule themselves, that nothing but anarchy can be expected if the Turkish administration is overthrown. The happiest outcome that could be expected would be the creation of a new Christian province in North Syria or in Armenia, where the oppressed might find refuge, and learn by degrees to rule themselves, until fit for independent existence as a Christian state.

C. R. CONDER.


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