Do Empires make a Difference?

The Ottoman and British Empires
Two decades before I was born, the Ottoman Empire ended and evolved into a group of new countries superimposed on old real estate. About the same time (1918-1960s) the British Empire also wound down. These large entities, both of which had had centuries of global political and economic influence, came to an end. They were followed by two superpowers or kind of empires, the U.S. and the USSR which exist today (the latter as Russia), both with waning influence, more so in the case of the USSR, and both engaged in international conflicts.

Fast forward to 2015. How are the influences of these two empires reflected in today’s geographical areas and issues of conflict? Empires make a difference, but often in unpredictable ways. Is it the case, that the toxic situations which now exist in the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, the former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine for example, can be linked to events surrounding both but especially the Ottoman Empire?

My schooling was deficient (probably in many ways). It exposed me to the history of the Roman and British empires, but with little attention paid to the Ottoman Empire. Understanding the rise and fall of the Ottomans may be a crucial factor in appreciating what is happening today. Those interested can view a three part BBC television series (available on the web) which provides an excellent summary of the rise and demise of the Ottomans.

Similarities and differences

  1. The genesis of the Ottoman Empire was a town in Turkey, whence it expanded to rule parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. A map shows the furthest scope of the Ottomans with its boundaries of influence waxing and waning over six centuries from the 1300s. See: (other maps on the web provide similar information.)


  1. Today’s Arab Spring and recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and southern parts of what was the USSR such as the Ukraine and the Crimea, coincide with areas once controlled by the Ottomans. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a risky form of argument, but it may be worthwhile seeing whether the circumstances of the Ottomans help explain today’s conflicts.


  1. Another major player to consider at least for part of this period is the role of the British Empire. As a maritime empire with its lands spread around the world, the British, English at first, had a variety of preoccupations. North America evolved as a colony of settlement, at first with people mainly from what became the UK, and then from other European countries and later those from Asia and Latin America. Australia and New Zealand were also settlement colonies, unlike the Indian subcontinent where the British went mainly for reasons of trade in competition with other European countries, especially Portugal, France and the Netherlands in the East Indies. Maritime power and control over trade routes were crucial to Britain’s imperial development. In India, England interacted with an ancient civilization.


 “In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England. (Indian Summer, Alex Von Tunzelmann, 11).”


  1. Places like the West Indies, Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands were colonised for reasons of either control over trade routes or for trade itself. British actions involving the Suez Canal were also trade related. While the Ottomans were not uninterested in trade, part of their motivation was to expand political control over neighbouring lands, and to tax the subject peoples


  1. The religious dimension was different for the two empires. While Christian missionaries were active in parts of the empire such as Africa, in India the British rulers were content to let the local religions (muslim, hindu, sikh) operate with minor interference to prevent practices like suttee (widow burning), which was outlawed by the British Raj in 1829. Trade predominated in British territorities, and different religions could pursue their traditional customs if they didn’t interfere with trade.


  1. The religious dimension of the Ottoman Empire was different. The lands they ruled embraced Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious sects, and the holy places of worship in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The Hagia Sofia, originally a Christian place of worship for the Greek Orthodox Church from 537 to 1483, converted to an Imperial Mosque until 1931 when it became a museum. The Ottomans appeared adept at ruling peoples of different religious faith. They extended their reach to neighbouring lands, but had little interest in developments taking place further afield, such as across the Atlantic. They appear to have imploded but for reasons other than religion. I am not sure why, but while the British Empire was continually revitalising itself, until it finally became overextended at least financially, the Ottomans were more inward looking and were gradually pushed back, especially after their defeat by the Austrians at Vienna in 1683.


    The two empires cooperated and competed at various times after 1800. The Crimean War (1853 – 1856) pitted Russia against an alliance of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Competing religious factions saw the Russians promoting the interests of orthodox Christians and the French the rights of Catholics in lands controlled by the Ottomans. The British and French also allied to prevent the Russians gaining territory and power at the expense of the Ottomans who were declared “the sick man of Europe.” In particular, the British wanted to prevent Russia getting access to the Mediterranean which could threaten its trade route to the east. The Suez Canal opened in 1869, but the Mediterranean was seen as part of the trade route before this. Three Afghan wars were also fought by the British in order to prevent southward expansion by Russia, a country short of warm water coastal ports.


    The British and Ottoman empires came into direct military conflict when Turkey allied with Germany against Great Britain during WW1. Churchill promoted the action which led to the British defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, but overall defeat of the axis powers resulted in the final dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in the peace negotiations after 1918. Gallipoli also saw the rise of Ataturk as the Turkish ruler who would create a modern Islamic state where Christians and Muslims coexisted, although not always peacefully. Today Turkey has a leader who is leading more towards Muslim side of the coin.


  1. Today, the footprint of the British Empire is found in the Commonwealth, an association of 53 countries, two of which Madagascar and Rwanda were never part of the Empire. The member countries account for 25% of the world’s land area, about one-third of the world’s population and 17% of world GDP. If the US is added, the share of world GDP climbs to 35%. Before its rebellious exit, the US was the jewel in the imperial crown. The Commonwealth countries are united by a combination of language, history, culture, shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.


  1. A similar report card for the Ottoman Empire would be viewed less favourably in most parts of the world. The most obvious difference is that today, racial and religious violence is taking place in many of the places which were once ruled by the Ottomans. Even if there is not global acceptance of universal human rights, which are seen by some to be western-oriented rights, there is universal horror of the torture, beheadings and genocidal tendencies taking place in parts of the world. Most of these places were once part of the Ottoman Empire. Maybe it’s a coincidence and I repeat, post hoc ergo propter hoc is a tricky path to follow,but its worth thinking about. It coincides with David Pilling’s conclusion (Financial Times Feb. 27, 2015) that “The Middle East is completely imprisoned in the past. Nobody can let go.”



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