Monday, November 12, 2001

ATHENS About 130 years ago, as Ottoman rulers struggled to hold together their crumbling Muslim empire, a noted writer and political adviser returned from Central Europe with a gloomy report.
“I passed through the lands of the infidels. I saw cities and mansions,” wrote Ziya Bey. “I wandered in the realm of Islam. I saw nothing but ruins.”
Fast-forward to contemporary Afghanistan.
The night the U.S.-led strikes began on Oct. 7, Osama bin Laden released a videotaped diatribe with a similar lament about perceived inequalities.
His array of grievances reached back to the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Ever since, he claimed, the Islamic world “has been tasting humiliation and degradation” against the West’s wealth, might and technological achievements.
But there was a time when the Ottomans were the ones feared and admired to a degree that still resonates with groups as varied as Islamic scholars, Balkan nationalists and terrorists like bin Laden. [visit the Electric Library site on Ottoman Empire:]
The Ottoman Empire, named for its founder, Osman, was not the first major Muslim domain. As early as the eighth century a century after Islam developed through the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad the Muslim Moors began conquering Iberia, now Spain and Portugal. They remained until losing their last Iberian enclave in the late 15th century.
Founded on the remains of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman world reached its zenith in the 16th century. Its reach never extended as far east as Afghanistan, but it was vast all the same: from the Balkans and the Crimea in southeastern Europe to the heart of the Middle East: the Holy Land, the Muslim pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina, and the Nile basin. Ottoman armies plunged as deep into Europe as Vienna, where they were finally stopped.
The most illustrious Ottoman leader, Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, declared himself Islam’s supreme caliph, or Islamic leader. He was no less audacious with his grand projects of construction and culture. The empire’s seat of power Constantinople, now Istanbul became a center for the arts and literature that rivaled most cities in Renaissance Europe.
The mosques built by Suleyman’s chief builder, Sinan, are considered some of the world’s greatest architectural triumphs. This includes the Suleymaniye Mosque that rises over Istanbul’s Golden Horn. The walls of Jerusalem, familiar to pilgrims from all over the world, were Suleyman’s work.
Eventually, however, corruption among the rulers and unrest in the provinces began to erode the empire. The Crimea and Black Sea territories were lost in 1774 after war with Russia. The Greeks waged a successful revolt for independence in the 1820s. Ottoman control then began to crack in Egypt and the Holy Land.
In 1833, Czar Nicholas I of Russia described the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe.”
The ailing empire lost most of its European territory in the 1912-13 Balkan wars, then sided with the losing German-led alliance in World War I. The peace treaties in 1918 formally dismantled the empire, leaving European powers free to exert control over former Ottoman lands. The Holy Land, with its nascent Jewish community that would later become Israel, came under British rule.
Meanwhile, a group of Western-influenced reformers, called the “Young Turks,” overthrew the last sultan, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the secular Turkish Republic in 1923.
The deep imprint of the Ottomans, however, remains unmistakable even today.
It’s in the mosque calls in Sarajevo. It’s in the eastern rhythm of the folk music in Bulgaria. It’s in the kebabs and the sprinkling of Turkish- and Arabic-based words in Greece. In Jerusalem, the rules laid down by Ottomans still cover the guardianship of holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional burial place of Jesus.
And Ottoman battlefields shape modern politics.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic rose to prominence by whipping up Serbian nationalist fervor in Kosovo Polje, where Ottoman forces defeated a Christian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar in 1389.
Armenia has pressed a global campaign to recognize its claim that 1.5 million people were killed by Ottoman forces between 1915 and 1923. Turkey says that the death count is inflated, and that Armenians were killed or displaced as the collapsing Ottoman Empire tried to quash civil unrest.
“The past dies rather hard in the lands ruled by, or even impinged on by, the Ottoman Empire,” said Rhoads Murphey, a professor at the Center for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain.
Even the lives of contemporary figures offer a bridge to the Ottoman past.
The late Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, was born in Skopje, capital of present-day Macedonia, under Ottoman rule in 1910. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was born as the Ottoman Empire was retreating. Greek statesman Constantine Caramanlis, who died in 1998 at age 91, was born an Ottoman subject.
Bin Laden, too, apparently draws inspiration from the glory of the Ottoman Empire and its role as the last bastion of the centuries-old caliphate system, which used Islamic law to shape judicial and political tenets.
“It was the last great Muslim empire. After this we see the former Ottoman lands redesigned into the versions of the modern nation states with the notions of ethnicity and nationality,” said Cornell Fleischer, a professor of Ottoman history at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle East Studies. “The loss of the caliphate is still a very strong symbol for some.”
But there’s also a strong link between the Ottoman legacy and the region’s troubles, experts say.
Pivotal periods that shaped modern Europe the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution barely penetrated the Ottoman Empire. Its collapse left behind a political and cultural vacuum that was easily manipulated during the past century’s two epic chapters: the European power plays leading to World War II and the Cold War.
Then came events that further added to the sense of alienation: the dizzying pace of modernization and the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower.
“The contradictions besieging the Islamic world make this stage especially critical, as do the dramatic changes in the world order, which have placed the Islamic nations at the crossroads of confrontation,” wrote commentator Osama El-Dhazali Harb in the respected Al-Ahram newspaper.

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