The Ottoman Turks, who had already established themselves in Asia Minor during the middle of the 15th century and made Constantinople their capital, met little resistance when they swept into Syria in 1516, led by the sultan Selim I (1512-1520). Under his rule, the Ottomans extended their empire into Egypt, capturing the last Mamluk sultan, and even into Arabia, taking the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His successor, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), further extended the empire to include Serbia, Hungary, Mesopotamia and all of North Africa except Morocco. Thus present-day Syria formed just a small part of a vast empire.
Nevertheless, the region benefited considerably from its incorporation into this new empire. An efficient administrative system was put in place, new trading links were established and ambitious building projects undertaken. It was during Suleiman’s reign that the great Tekkiyeh as-Suleimaniyeh complex in Damascus was built. One of the first things Selim I had done on capturing Cairo was to proclaim himself caliph (since the final collapse of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258, the title had been held by a puppet of the Mamluks). The Ottomans took great care also to ensure that the great pilgrimage route to Mecca, which they now controlled almost in its entirety, was managed properly. As a result, they soon succeeded in legitimizing their assumption of the caliphate and establishing themselves as Protectors of the Faith. Damascus flourished in its role as the last great staging post on the Hajj to Mecca. Aleppo, meanwhile, was opened up to European traders by ‘capitulation’ treaties with the European powers and prospered even more vigorously, its souqs and khans thronging with commercial activity.
Inevitably for such a vast empire, Ottoman rule was rarely directly applied, with pashas or local governors holding office in the major cities and exercising control over large administrative districts. As long as taxes were collected and paid on time, and peace maintained, the sultans in Constantinople were happy not to interfere. At times, the local governors, or even their subordinate tax collectors, were able to carve out what amounted in effect to more or less fully independent kingdoms for themselves.
The 18th century saw a period of stagnation in the Ottoman Empire, which was followed in the 19th century by a more serious revolt. The viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (1805-1849) succeeded in establishing his own independent power base there, shaking off the authority of the Ottomans. His son, Ibrahim Pasha, carried the uprising into Syria and Lebanon in 1831, ousting the Ottoman forces from the region and carrying out wide ranging modernizing reforms. At one stage it seemed that the Ottoman Empire would collapse, but in 1840 the European powers chose to intervene on the side of the Ottomans, alarmed at this upset to the balance of power in the region and the threat that it posed to their interests.
The immediate result of greater European involvement was to open Syria up to greater European influence. Christian educational/missionary schools were established in Damascus and Aleppo and the latter began to flourish as a point of commercial and cultural contact with Europe. At the heart of Ottoman political power in Constantinople, meanwhile, the Ottoman sultan was deposed in 1909 by the revolutionary movement known as the ‘Young Turks’, who established the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). This brought with it an upsurge of Turkish nationalism which served to awaken amongst the Arab peoples a sense of their own Arab identity.
First World War and the Arab revolt
The modern political geography of the Middle East was largely shaped during the decade from 1914 to 1924. The onset of the First World War was of enormous significance to the region, which suddenly became a focus of international concern. The decision of the Ottoman Turks to ally themselves with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) placed them in direct opposition to the Allies. The harsh indifference of the Turks to local Arab peoples, along with a breakdown of civic administration as the Turks focused their attentions on the war, brought widespread famine and epidemics. Arab feelings against the Turks increased, culminating in the Arab Revolt, with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, as the figurehead.
As the concept of Arab nationalism began to develop at the turn of the century, notably amongst the urban middle classes of Syria, it soon became clear that the only source of leadership to which they could turn was provided by the emirate of Mecca – an Arab Dynasty of great Islamic standing that was directly descended from the Prophet. Among those who had recognized this were the British, who in 1882 had established themselves across the Red Sea in Egypt. The contacts that the British had established early on with the various sharifian factions paid dividends when the Ottomans entered the First World War on the side of the Central Powers.
When the CUP’s puppet caliph Muhammad V declared the expected jihad against the Allies on behalf of the Islamic world, the impact on the Muslim populations in the Arab world and India was in fact negligible. The Ottoman-German advance into Aden did, however, mean that the Central Powers could threaten Allied shipping in the Red Sea and Suez Canal area (particularly now that the Germans had U-boats). Furthermore, their armies could be resupplied and reinforced by way of the Hejaz railway. Thus, for the Allies (and British in particular) a revolt in the Hejaz and Syria against the Ottomans would not only disrupt the Central Powers resupply lines to Aden, it might actually cut off the whole of the Ottoman-German forces in southern Arabia. Henceforth efforts were made by the British staff at the Arab Bureau in Cairo to increase contacts with Sharif Hussein and his sons.
The subsequent call to armed revolt against the Ottoman Empire that Sharif Hussein made in 1916 – the Arab Revolt – has been the subject of much reinterpretation over the years. How much the revolt was British inspired and how much it was the result of an indigenous bid for Arab independence is a moot point. Certainly, the Arab Revolt was of minor significance in the wider scheme of things. However, it was important in that by harassing vital Turkish lines of communications, most notably the Hejaz railway line which TE Lawrence and his band spent so much time blowing up, it forced the Turks to tie up large bodies of troops defending strategically unimportant corners of the Arabian peninsula (Medina included), allowing the British to consolidate their military position in Palestine, Egypt and the Red Sea.