The last sultan, Mehmed VI, left his palace under British protection on November 17, 1922

Pat MurphyThe Turkish Ottoman Empire had a long run, stretching from the beginning of the 14th century all the way up to the end of the First World War. At its peak, the empire’s reach was awesome, embracing the Middle East, coastal North Africa, the Balkans, Romania and Hungary.

By the reign of the 10th sultan – Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) – Ottoman power was sufficiently pervasive that, in addition to being the temporal ruler of most Muslims, Suleiman was regarded as the religious leader of Islam.

There were even occasions when Western Europe seemed in jeopardy.

The Battle of Lepanto, fought in the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece on October 7, 1571, pitted the fleet of the European Holy League (Spain and several independent Italian states) against that of the Ottomans. Approximately 130,000 men and 400 ships went at each other in what was the last major naval engagement between galleys powered by human muscle. Estimates of fatal casualties range as high as 40,000.


The last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI, departs his palace in Istanbul after the abolition of the monarchy

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Europeans saw the Holy League’s victory as having saved Christendom, and it resonated for centuries. G.K. Chesterton’s famous celebratory poem Lepanto was written as recently as 1911.

However, the Ottoman expansionary threat wasn’t quite done.

More than a century later, a large Ottoman force laid an extended siege to Vienna in July 1683. Then, with the city on the verge of falling, a relief force commanded by John III Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, arrived to save the day. The ensuing Battle of Vienna on September 11/12 featured what has been described as the largest cavalry charge in history – 18,000 horsemen personally led by the Polish king. It was a rout that effectively ended further Ottoman ambitions in Europe.

Still, the Ottoman Empire stayed in business for quite a while. But it was showing distinct signs of wear and tear by the second half of the 19th century. And the rise of ethnic nationalism did it no favours, particularly with respect to its Balkan possessions. However, it was being on the losing side in the First World War that finally sounded the death knell.

Historian Margaret Macmillan describes the Ottoman decision to take the side of the Central Powers – Germany and Austria-Hungary – as “a gamble that failed.” Whereas their “empire had gone piecemeal before the war; now it melted like snow.”

And as defeat and disintegration beckoned, leadership was a problem. Macmillan’s assessment pulls no punches.

“The great line of sultans that had produced Suleiman the Magnificent had dwindled to Mehmed VI. His main achievement was to have survived the rule of three brothers: one who was deposed when he went mad; his paranoid and cruel successor, so fearful of enemies that he employed a eunuch to take the first puff of every cigarette; and a timid old man who ruled until the summer of 1918.”

Mehmed was 57 years old when he apprehensively took the throne. His fears were well-founded. He would be the last sultan.

It was one thing to lose imperial possessions. While you mightn’t like it, it was the sort of reverse that happened when wars were lost. But contemplating the carving up of what you considered to be your homeland was a different proposition. And the Turks took exception.

Part of the problem had to do with the fact that different ethnic groups shared the geography of the area and advanced their claims for a specific slice that would belong to them.

The Greeks, for example, argued that the port city of Smyrna was indisputably Greek from the twin perspectives of history and current demography. It should thus be theirs. And the Armenians and the Kurds wanted their own states.

The Greek occupation of Smyrna in May 1919 constituted a turning point. When word was relayed to the Turkish capital, the sultan wept. And the man who became the founding father of the Republic of Turkey – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – set out to militarily change the facts on the ground. Thanks to his efforts, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne ensured that the Turkish homeland would essentially remain intact.

In the process, Ataturk abolished the sultanate and Mehmed was expelled. The last sultan left his palace under British protection on November 17, 1922, was transported to Malta on a British warship and finally settled impecuniously in San Remo, Italy. He died in May 1926 and is buried in Damascus.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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