The first cholera epidemic of the 1820s, coming out of India, invaded Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, Asia Minor, and the Caspian shores. It was stopped only by a very severe winter in 1824. The next epidemic of the same disease occurred in the 1830s when it devastated the population of Mecca by 1831. There were 40 epidemics in the Middle East throughout the 19th century.


Nationalist opposition to Ottoman rule was aroused by a revival of the Wahhabi movement which had begun in the 18th century. Its cause was strengthened by the support of the founder of the present ruling family of Saudi Arabia. The first “Saudi state” established in 1744 in the area around Riyadh, rapidly expanded and briefly controlled most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia. Its success was short-lived as it was conquered in 1818 by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha. A much smaller second “Saudi state,” located mainly in Nejd, was established in 1824. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the Al Saud contested control of the interior of what was to become Saudi Arabia with another Arabian ruling family, the Al Rashid. By 1891, the Al Rashid were victorious and the ruling members of the house of Al Saud were driven into exile in Kuwait. In 1902, Abdul Aziz—later to be known as Ibn Saud—recaptured control of Riyadh with the backing of the Ottomans, thus creating a third “Saudi state.”


A map of Saudi Arabia shows the Kingdom of Hejaz (Source: Wikimedia)

The area of Hejaz on the eastern shore of the Red Sea was controlled by the Egyptians from 1811 to 1840, then by a local ruler under Ottoman control until the 20th century. Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, remained an independent sheikdom under the Al Khalifa family. Aden, at the southwest tip of the peninsula, was annexed by British from India for use as a coaling station in 1839. Kuwait, at the head of the Persian Gulf, was an autonomous sheikdom under the al Sabah family, with the Ottomans claiming sovereignty until the British took it under formal protection after 1899. Jordan remained passively under Ottoman rule.


A new colonization of the Palestine area from Europe began about 1870. Although Lebanon was under Ottoman control, this area was permitted autonomy and powerful families rose periodically to rule. The Druze, a religious community based on several extant philosophies including Gnosticism, Islam, and Neoplatonism, inhabited the mountainous regions in Lebanon. In 1840, social disturbances erupted between Druze and their Christian Maronite neighbors, who had previously been on friendly terms. These culminated in a civil war in 1860.

The civil war was not a strictly speaking a religious war, but rather a political war with religious undertones. It was a violent conflict in which over ten thousand Maronites in Damascus, Zahlé, Deir al-Qamar, Hasbaya, and other towns of Lebanon were slaughtered. The bloody events led France to intervene and stop the massacre after Ottoman troops refused to act. Following the intervention of France, the Ottoman Empire agreed on August 3, 1860 to allow 12,000 European soldiers to reestablish order in Lebanon.


These two areas remained important regions of the Ottoman Empire. Ibrahim Pasha, from Egypt, seized Syria from the Ottomans in 1832 and 1833, but later had to withdraw under pressure.


In Persia, the Qajars continued as rulers throughout the 19th century. Between 1804 and 1827, Russia defeated Persia in three wars and annexed Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. Persia also lost control of the southern portion of Afghanistan in the Treaty of Turkmnchay in 1828. Russia exerted control over foreign trade and gradually thereafter gained control of the northern districts of Persia. The wild horsemen of Persia and Turkistan were no longer a match for armies equipped with European and Chinese weapons.


This map shows the location of Azerbaijan and its neighbors, including Iran, Georgia, Armenia, and Russia (Source: Wikimedia)

The three tribes of the Bakhtiari living in the central Zagros mountains and the adjacent northeast Khuzistan plain, in an area of approximately 20,000 square miles, proved to be important in this century. A highly organized group, its leaders were arranged in pyramidal fashion through the khans and finally at the top, the Ilkhani. The holder of that title benefited greatly in wealth and prestige and in return ensured that his people paid taxes and homage to the central government in Persia. Towards the end of the 19th century, there was considerable squabbling about the position of Ilkhani between two families of the Bakhtiari. It was agreed with the support of Nasir al-Din Shah and the British that both families should be honored, one with the Ilkhani and one with an assistant Ilkhani to be called the “ilbigi.” Finally, between 1872 and 1905, a series of protests took place in response to the sale of concessions to foreigners by Qajar monarchs Naser-ed-Din and Mozaffar-ed-Din, that led to a Constitutional Revolution in 1905.


In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire suffered from a serious lack of good leadership. A long string of short-lived, incompetent sultans (sixteen of them) failed to extend the empire’s prowess. Strong factions arose in the empire, and the divisions this created allowed outside powers to claim or reclaim territory. Internally, corruption became a hallmark of Ottoman rule. The sultans also proved unwilling to pursue technological modernization at the same time as their European rivals.

The Ottomans lost territory to European countries throughout the nineteenth century. The Austrian Empire had already forced the Ottomans out of Hungary in the 18th century, and the Austrian armies continued to threaten the Ottomans in the new century. The Ottoman Empire eventually lost control of almost all of their provinces in the Balkans because of nationalist movements that forced them out of Greece and Serbia. In 1912, the Italians took Libya from the Ottomans, marking a further degree of European penetration into Ottoman territory.

The greatest threat to the Ottomans came from Russia, however. Russian armies advanced steadily south throughout the nineteenth century and captured many Ottoman lands in the Caucasus. The Russian’s advance into Ottoman territory worried other European powers, chiefly Britain. Concerned that these conquests would make Russia a major power in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, in the Crimean War of 1854–56, Britain and France allied with the Ottoman Empire to repulse Russian armies in the Crimea. Russia continued to threaten the Ottoman Empire for the rest of the century, but various European powers sided with the Ottomans, which helped to prevent a Russian attack. Paradoxically, at the end of the century European advance was both the greatest threat to Ottoman survival and the best guarantee of that survival.


During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses cleaned up the military hospitals and set up the first training school for nurses in the United Kingdom. (Source: Wikimedia)

Political reforms within the Ottoman Empire began in the 1820s with the ouster of the powerful Janissary Corps. The Janissaries were the most powerful faction in the Ottoman military and had resisted change in the past. The new Sultan, Mehmed II, arranged for the Janissaries to mutiny, and then slaughtered them and their families. This was a particularly brutal way to sideline his opponents, but it helped him as he continued to stifle opposition.

For the rest of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman state brought about many Western-style reforms. The telegraph was introduced, the postal service organized, and rail lines built. University education was remodeled on the Western example, and in 1876 a constitution was enacted. The reforms, however, created much opposition. Mahmud II’s successor, Abdul Hamid, sought to return to the absolutist rule of his predecessors. He persecuted those who wished Mahmud’s reforms had gone further. While this helped Abdul Hamid to rule until 1908, it did not stop many Western-style modernizations like railroads and educational reforms. Moreover, it provided the impetus for his overthrow.

Abdul Hamid’s repression drove many liberal-minded Ottoman citizens underground or into exile. One such group, the Ottoman Society for Union and Progress, was founded in Paris in 1889. The Young Turks, as they came to be called, published many pamphlets advocating their belief that the reforms of Mahmud II should be resumed and extended. In 1908, after several attempts, a group of Young Turks successfully assassinated Abdul Hamid, albeit with the complicity of the military.

The Young Turks’ tenure was promising but short. While they did not come to power – a group of officers took control of the empire – their ideas did govern much of what happened in the empire’s last ten years. The officers restored Mahmud’s constitution and liberated the press once again. They also promised reforms in administration, education, and even women’s rights. In the early decades of the 19th century, however, political infighting slowed down the pace of reform, as various factions jockeyed for position, and the onset of the First World War effectively put an end to the effort.


A lithograph celebrating the Young Turk Revolution, featuring the sources of inspiration of the movement, Midhat Pasha, Prince Sabahaddin, Fuad Pasha and Namık Kemal, military leaders Niyazi Bey and Enver Pasha, and the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity.”


The Young Turks published a new Constitution when they came to power in 1908. Modeled on both American and European constitutions, it sought to codify the reforms initiated by Mehmed II as indicated in the excerpts below:

3. It will be demanded that all Ottoman subjects having completed their twentieth year, regardless of whether they possess property or fortune, shall have the right to vote.  Those who have lost their civil rights will naturally be deprived of this right.

9. Every citizen will enjoy complete liberty and equality, regardless of nationality or religion, and be submitted to the same obligations.  All Ottomans, being equal before the law as regards rights and duties relative to the State, are eligible for government posts, according to their individual capacity and their education.  Non-Muslims will be equally liable to the military law.

10. The free exercise of the religious privileges which have been accorded to different nationalities will remain intact.

14. Provided that the property rights of landholders are not infringed upon (for such rights must be respected and must remain intact, according to law), it will be proposed that peasants be permitted to acquire land, and they will be accorded means to borrow money at a moderate rate.

16. Education will be free.

You can read the full Constitution here.


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