Review: Lawrence in Arabia

Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia is, quite obviously, about the famous T. E. Lawrence “of” Arabia. The book ranges significantly wider than Lawrence’s personal account, however, shifting between the perspectives of Ottoman officials, German spies, American spies, Zionist spies, and of course British spies.

I read this book concurrently with The Berlin-Baghdad Express, so my apologies if some of my memories overlap and I ascribe to one book content actually found in the other. The two books complement each other very well; The Berlin-Baghdad Express basically focuses on the German/Ottoman side of the war, with special attention given to the characters of Max von Oppenheim and his protégé Curt Prufer; while Lawrence in Arabia focuses more on the Allied side of the war, following primarily Lawrence (of course), Jewish spy Aaron Aaronsohn, American oil-spy William Yale, and occasionally Ottoman officials like Enver Pasha.

If you only have time to read one book, I’d recommend Lawrence in Arabia, because it also covers the lives of Prufer and Oppenheim, but you’d be missing out on the true depths of the German-Ottoman strategy.

World War One is not light reading. Most of the war can be best described as “insane human carnage over absolutely nothing.” The Arabian end of the war is slightly less bad simply because the Arabs did not have the numbers to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their deaths. Lawrence quickly realized that the usual British fighting strategy of “kill your own men as quickly as possible” wouldn’t work in Arabia, and came up with a daring alternative strategy of striking the enemy’s vital points while risking minimal deaths to his own troops. Unfortunately, of course, troops still did die.

Lawrence found himself caught in a bind, however. As the British liaison to the rebel Arab army, his job was to convince Prince Faisal and the troops to put their lives on the lines in exchange for British support and promises of post-war independence. As a British intelligence officer, he knew these promises were lies: he was privy to the Sykes-Picot agreement long before many others in the region. Lawrence wanted neither to betray his own government, least of all in the midst of war, nor to ask men to fight and die for promises he knew were lies.

Lawrence ultimately solved this conflict by simply telling Prince Faisal about the Sykes-Picot agreement. While he was certainly not authorized to do this, he rationalized his action on the grounds that it was, ultimately, in Britain’s interest that it not lie to its allies. Informed allies today might not take as many deadly risks on behalf of the British, but also wouldn’t feel themselves betrayed at the end of the war and demand retribution for their sacrifices. Still, the result of telling Faisal about Sykes-Picot wasn’t “forthright honesty between the British and Arabs” but “no guarantees at all of what the British will decide at the end of the war and ordinary men still asked to fight and die for forces that might very well turn on them.”

Beyond end-of-war agreements, Lawrence’s duty to Britain often called upon him to use the Arabs he was advising or leading to advance Britain’s ends, not their own. For example, it might be in the Arabs’ interest to take some town, while it’s in the British interest that the Arabs attack a nearby railroad depot and the British take the town. In his capacity as a British officer, it was of course Lawrence’s duty to carry out his nation’s military plans, but this meant actively sabotaging the efforts of the Arab men fighting under and for him. A man cannot serve two masters, and this inherent conflict of motives could never truly be resolved so long as Lawrence insisted on seeing his men as human beings and not pawns to be moved at will across the battlefields.

The British command, for its part, might be excused somewhat by the justification that this was war; with thousands of British men being sacrificed by the day upon the fields of Europe, the deaths of a few handfuls of foreigners for the cause hardly even bore noticing. Of course, the sensible response to discovering that your men are marching into an insatiable meat grinder is to stop marching men into the meat grinder, not to throw some Arabs in after them, but don’t look to WWI for wise decisions.

Lawrence was basically able to ignore/rationalize his way around his direct orders on the Arab front and go do more or less what he wanted simply because the front was so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the war. Maybe Lawrence and 25 men would blow up a bridge, maybe they wouldn’t. Meanwhile, nearly a half million men threw themselves at the shores of Gallipoli in a disastrous experiment to see whether humans could withstand machine gun bullets attempt to take Constantinople. 50 thousand Allied men perished on those beaches (along with 56 thousand Ottoman defenders.) So the Arabs are inexplicably in a spot where they weren’t expected last week: who even cares?

While Lawrence was not completely forthright with his men, when push came to shove, Lawrence tended to side with his men over his commanders, advising the Arabs to take actions that would hopefully benefit themselves in the eventual peace accords. Under normal circumstances, this might have been termed “treason” and Lawrence hanged, but everyone loves a winner and Lawrence’s strategy of “not marching directly into a meat grinder” was so comparatively successful that he could not help but be forgiven.

In the end, it didn’t really matter. Britain’s strategy of “tell everyone what they want to hear until we get out of this mess” eventually boiled down to “splitting the conquered territory with France.” With the war finished on the Western Front, the remaining British and French forces so outweighed the small Arab force that they more or less dictated the terms of the settlements with the Ottomans. The Arab troops were helpful for distracting and worrying Turkish troops during the war, but once the fighting was over, their utility was spent.

The adventures of Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale were also quite interesting.

Aaronsohn’s family was one of many that moved to Palestine in the early years of the Zionist movement, but they came from–more or less–within the borders of the Ottoman Empire itself. The Ottoman Empire used to rule a significant chunk of south-eastern Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, and several nearby areas, and as the Empire lost its territories in Europe, former citizens were faced with the question of whether to stay put and become subjects of their new nation, or pack their bags and stay part of the Empire. Since Aaronsohn’s family was Jewish, they were never accepted into their newly formed nation, and so the family kept their Ottoman citizenship, packed their bags, and moved.

At the time, many other Jewish families were also moving to Palestine from other parts of the world. Some came from Germany; others came from Russia. Russia is generally regarded as the worst of the worst for Jews in those days, and Jews were eager to get out.

Aaronsohn grew up in a company town literally run by the Rothschilds in something resembling an NRX dream. He was very bright, so the community paid for him to go to college in America, where he studied agronomy (these were he days when simply growing enough food to feed everyone was still a pressing concern). It was clear to Aaronsohn, based on historical accounts from the time of the Roman Empire, that Palestine ought to be able to grow more food than it currently was. Aside from importing modern farming techniques, he figured out that there were untapped water reserves–People simply needed to drill more wells.

When WWI began, all of the belligerent nations were faced with the problem of what to do with their resident alien populations. Those from allied nations posed no difficulties, but immigrants from countries they were now at war with posed potential security threats. In particular, since the Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of Germany and against Britain, France, and Russia, the Empire’s German Jews were allowed to stay put, but its Russian Jews were expelled and sent back to Russia–despite the fact that if there was one country in the world that Jews hated, it was Russia, and if there was one group of Jews that the critically-short-on-manpower Ottoman army might convince to take up arms against Russia, it was Jews who had fled Russia and been given sanctuary in the OE. But never mind that; they were simply expelled, creating a mass exodus from Ottoman-controlled-Palestine to the nearest Russia-allied country, British-controlled-Egypt.

Since Aaronsohn’s family consisted of actual Ottoman subjects, they did not have to move, but they witnessed the expulsions of many in their communities and the subsequent Ottoman army requisitions of virtually everything not nailed down–food, horses, fence posts, plows, clothes, baby clothes, women’s underwear–“for the cause.”

And then the locusts came. Locust swarms of Biblical proportions descended upon the land, devouring everything the army hadn’t. Children and animals were actually going blind because the locusts would land on their eyes while they were asleep and drink the moisture from their eyeballs. The war had barely even begun and the population was already facing starvation.

The Ottomans hired Aaronsohn to head the locust eradication program, giving him sweeping powers to do whatever was necessary to get rid of the bugs. Unfortunately, local authorities were often less than eager to listen to a Jewish guy, preferring the eradication strategy of “doing absolutely nothing.”

And then the Armenian Genocide started. (This is obviously what the Ottoman army needed to be spending its energy on at this point in the war, right?) Most able-bodied Armenian males were simply shot, but the women, children, and elderly were force-marched into the desert to die of thirst/starvation. Train stations were clogged with throngs of desperate, starving people. Train tracks were clogged with the corpses of formerly desperate people who’d been run over by the trains. Many of the skilled workers on the railroads were themselves Armenian, and with the official expulsions were also transformed into starving, desperate corpses, because what army needs a functioning railroad during a war?

It was basically the zombie apocalypse.

To his credit, Enver Pasha, who apparently wasn’t informed of the “kill all the Armenians” policy, actually tried to save the starving people streaming into his city by requisitioning food and other resources for them, but there wasn’t anything to be had because there was already a famine going on.

Meanwhile, Aaronsohn and some of his close family were travelling up and down the locust-affected-area, watching all of the destruction and thinking, “Oh my god; the Ottomans are murderously incompetent; we have to get the British to invade and start running things or we’re all going to die.”

And so Aaronsohn became a spy (or at least tried to become a spy), but that’s a story that I’ll let you read the book to learn the end of.

William Yale hailed from the family that had gifted the famous university with its name, but his particular branch of the family had fallen on hard times and Yale went to work as a common laborer for Standard Oil in Oklahoma. But Yale was ambitious and hard-working, and the company soon decided to send him to the Middle East to scout for oil.

And so, William Yale was stranded in the Ottoman Empire when the war broke out. At the time, the US was neutral, not a combatant, so he just hunkered down and tried to look out for Standard Oil’s interests until drilling could resume. His status protected him from most of the war’s worst privations, but he still saw the destruction around him. Eventually he made it back to the US and joined the war effort in his capacity as a “Mid-East expert,” or yet another spy, though he never abandoned his true loyalty to Standard Oil.

The US plays a rather small role in the book, since it had almost no part in the Ottoman theatre–in fact, the US never even declare war on the Ottomans. The US only comes in as player at the end of the story, with the Americans attempting to influence the creation of a new world order at the Treaty of Versailles, which by all accounts involved a bunch of naïve ideas born of no real experience with the regions under dispute. (But that shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve been paying any attention to the past hundred years of US foreign policy.)

So, do I recommend it? Yes. It’s a good book, especially if you’re interested in the late Ottoman Empire, Lawrence of Arabia, or WWI. I’ve now begun reading Lawrence’s personal memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and while I am enjoying it, I find that I am quite glad I read Lawrence in Arabia first. Even though Seven Pillars is 650 pages long, the material is dense and many events are covered so quickly that I wouldn’t know what Lawrence is talking about if I hadn’t already read about it in more depth in Lawrence in Arabia. (I’m sure this was less of an issue back when the book was published and the general public was more familiar with the course of various WWI battles.)

Review: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

Note: This book is not actually about the Berlin-Baghdad Express railway. It has a few good chapters on the subject, but the bulk of the book is actually on Ottoman-German political relations and the Ottoman sphere in World War One. That said, it is a good book about WWI, if that’s what you’re looking for.

McMeekin’s The Berlin-Baghdad Express probably should have been named “Oppenheim’s Jihad.” The book traces the peculiar German notion that they could, perhaps in exchange for some bribes, inspire the Muslim world to come together in an anti-French, British, and Russian jihad in support of German efforts in WWI. They managed to get the Ottoman Turks, who wanted to take back Egypt and the Suez Canal from the English and to oppose Russian advances on their northern border, to go along with their jihad idea, but the rest of the Muslim world was far from convinced. The Bedouins, who depended largely on British traffic for their food and income, took German bribe money and disappeared. The Sherif of Mecca, perhaps the most important person in the world to get behind an Ottoman-declared jihad, decided the new Ottoman government was dominated by secular modernizers and declared war on them instead. The Sudanese and Libyans were less than enthusiastic about trekking across a continent or two to help the Germans. A Muslim uprising within British Egypt never materialized. The Germans never quite overcame the Sunni-Shia split, and while the Afghanis ostensibly signed on, there was never any practical way to get men and materials to and from Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the largest Muslim country in the world at the eve of WWI was not the Ottoman Empire, but the British Empire–which ruled over millions of Muslim subjects in India. The ultimate realization of the Germans’ scheme was for Muslims in India and Egypt to revolt against British rule, causing havoc in the colonies and cutting off the Suez, thus distracting the British from the Western Front where they and the French had bogged down into a grinding death-match stalemate with the Germans. German propaganda pamphlets undoubtedly made it to India, but the jihadi stampede never materialized.

Compared to the colossal cost of the European theaters in WWI, these African and Asian adventures were small potatoes–a week’s worth of guns, men, and bribes might bring whole armies over to the German side. In essence, they were small bets with small odds but the potential to pay off grandly, if any of them worked. Unfortunately for the Germans, they all failed. Jihad might be the duty of all Muslims, but traipsing across a continent to wage jihad in a foreign country on behalf of the Germans did not sound particularly appealing to the vast majority of Muslims (especially when you could just wage jihad at home against local infidels). The Ottoman Empire’s declaration of a holy war against the infidels did, however, make the Empire’s 25% non-Muslims rather insecure (and in some cases, very dead).

The war was an absolute disaster for the Ottomans, who simply had no ability to wage it. They were broke, without the manpower transportation networks, or equipment necessary to undertake a world war. The Ottoman Empire might look impressive on a map, but much of that territory was desert, wasteland, or desert wasteland. Much of it was sparsely populated by nomads who dabbled in tribal warfare and banditry; the hinterlands had not at all been pacified and brought under central control. The British-supported Muslim rulers in Egypt didn’t want to trade their positions of relative power for subordination to the Ottomans, and no one wanted to pay higher taxes.

Unlike central Europe, the Ottoman Empire had very few completed train lines, especially across its vast deserts, and even roads were scarce in some areas–not to mention water. Down in Mecca, the economy was based on the pilgrimage, and as mentioned above, the world’s biggest Muslim country was British India. British ships brought the pilgrims, grain and other foods to a region that could do very little farming for itself. War with the British meant, for the Arabians, economic ruin and starvation.

The German attempt to build railroads across the Ottoman Empire so that troops and equipment wouldn’t have to be transported by wagons and camels across the desert kept running into setbacks, from paranoid sultans who were afraid of too much work being completed at once to funding issues to mountains to the sudden loss of all of their Armenian employees (a non-trivial part of the work crews in a country where almost the ethnic Turkish population had been drafted). The Armenian Genocide was, of course, both a humanitarian and strategic disaster. While some Armenians did side with Russia during the war, the majority of Armenians were in fact loyal subjects and the state could hardly afford to lose both subjects and the money it cost to kill them. (Their corpses also literally clogged up rivers, wells, and rail lines. It’s hard to overstate just how horrifying a million dead people are.)

The Ottoman Empire’s military forays were just as disastrous. They tried to attack Russia in the middle of winter, which worked out exactly like you’d think. They schlepped men and equipment across the Sinai desert to attack the Suez, only to discover that the British had machine guns. Their army hemorrhaged men through death and desertion so quickly that they were soon enlisting men in their 50s. About the only thing that worked out in their favor was the British inability to do anything even remotely intelligent, thus sparing the Ottomans attacks on their weakest points. Instead they threw their men into the (literal) bloodbath that was Gallipoli, just about the worst possible place they could have chosen to attack on the entire Ottoman coastline.

If you’re trying to make sense of the absolute mess that was WWI, this book is a good place to start. It shows how each decision, looked at in isolation, basically made sense–and yet when you zoom out to look at the big picture, what you get is nonsense. The British decisions to attack the Dardanelles (the straight connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) directly made sense. The British could use their impressive Navy in the attack, opening the Dardanelles would let their allies the Russians move more easily into the Mediterranean, and their forces could be brought to bear directly on Constantinople, the Ottoman capitol. If it had worked, it would have been a stupendous victory. Unfortunately, the British should have paid more attention to the fact that Constantinople has been conquered only a handful of times in 2000 years–it’s a difficult city to take. When the naval attack failed because the Turks figured out how to mine the waters around the Dardanelles, the British decided they needed to land a ground force to support their naval force. Gallipoli, they decided, was a good spot to provide ground support to their naval force, so that’s where they landed their forces. Unfortunately, Gallipoli was extremely easy to defend, the Turks quickly moved in machine guns, and the British were slaughtered. And slaughtered. And slaughtered.

If you’ve seen Futurama, the British are basically Zapp Branigan:

Gallipoli was such a stupid place to attack that at first the defenders didn’t really believe the British were attacking it. They assumed the attack was just a diversion, and that the real attack would come somewhere weaker and more difficult to defend. The Germans essentially couldn’t believe that the British would actually be this stupid, but the “real” attack never came: against all logic, they were actually trying to attack Gallipoli.

In the end, Gallipoli was a terrible loss, an absolute humanitarian catastrophe that produced nothing of worth for anyone. But like the entirety of WWI, each step that led up to the decision to land at that point made sense in isolation. Likewise, the German dream of pan-Islamic jihad on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan (a weak puppet of the Young Turks’ CUP gov’t that had deposed the former sultan) looked good on paper–and was an absolute disaster in reality.

Anthropologyish Friday: Oriental Prisons pt. 4 Egypt

Relevant: Outsourcing Torture and Execution

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re finishing up with Arthur Griffith’s oddly named The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons. Griffiths was a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.


The Code of Hammurabi

“The land of the Pharaohs has ever been governed by the practices and influenced by the traditions of the East. From the time of the Arab conquest, Mohammedan law has generally prevailed, and the old penal code was derived directly from the Koran. Its provisions were most severe, but followed the dictates of common sense and were never outrageously cruel. The law of talion was generally enforced, a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Murder entailed the punishment of death, but a fine might be paid to the family of the deceased if they would accept it; this was only permitted when the homicide was attended by palliating circumstances. The price of blood varied. It might be the value of a hundred camels; or if the culprit was the possessor of gold, a sum equal to £500 was demanded, but if he possessed silver only, the price asked was a sum equal to £300. …

Compensation in the form of a fine is not now permitted. … The price of blood was incumbent upon the whole tribe or family to which the murderer belonged. A woman convicted of a capital crime was generally drowned in the Nile.

Blood-revenge was a common practice among the Egyptian people. The victim’s relations claimed the right to kill the perpetrator, and relationship was widely extended, for the blood guiltiness included the homicide, his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, and all these were liable to retaliation from any of the relatives of the deceased, who in times past, killed with their own hands rather than appeal to the government, and often did so with disgusting cruelty, even mangling and insulting the corpse. Animosity frequently survived even after retaliation had been accomplished, and blood-revenge sometimes subsisted between neighbouring villages for several years and through many generations.

“Revengeful mutilation was allowed by the law in varying degrees. Cutting off the nose was equivalent to the whole price of blood, or of any two members,—two arms, two hands, or two legs; the removal of one was valued at half the price of blood. The fine of a man for maiming or wounding a woman was just half of that inflicted for injuring a man, if free; if a slave the fine was fixed according to the commercial value of the slave. The whole price of blood was demanded if the victim had been deprived of any of his five senses or when he had been grievously wounded or disfigured for life….

“The modern traveller in Egypt will bear witness to the admirable police system introduced under British rule, and to the security afforded to life and property in town and country by a well organised, well conducted force. In former days, under the Pashas, the whole administration of justice was corrupt from the judge in his court to the police armed with arbitrary powers of oppression….

“Until 1844 the Egyptian police was ineffective, the law was often a dead letter, and the prisons were a disgrace to humanity and civilisation. Before that date the country was covered with zaptiehs, or small district prisons, in which illegal punishment and every form of cruelty were constantly practised. It was quite easy for anyone in authority to consign a fellah to custody. One of the first of the many salutary reforms introduced by the new prison department established under British predominance was an exact registration of every individual received at the prison gate, and the enforcement of the strict rule that no one should be admitted without an order of committal duly signed by some recognised judicial authority.”


“There are few notable buildings in Turkey constructed primarily as prisons. In fact there are few buildings of any sort constructed for that purpose. But every palace had, and one may almost say, still has its prison chambers; and every fortress has its dungeons, the tragedies of which are chiefly a matter of conjecture. Few were present at the tortures, and in a country where babbling is not always safe, witnesses were likely to be discreet.

“In and around Constantinople, if walls had only tongues, strange and gruesome stories might be told. On the Asiatic side of the Bosporus still stand the ruins of a castle built by Bayezid I, known as “the Thunderbolt” when the Ottoman princes were the dread of Europe. Sigismund, King of Hungary, had been defeated, and Constantinople was the next object of attack, though not to fall for a half century. This castle was named “the Beautiful,” but so many prisoners died there of torture and ill-treatment that the name “Black Tower” took its place in common speech.”

EvX: I believe this is Bayezid’s fortress, the Anadolu hisarı, which awkwardly has an i with no dot over it:

Bayezid himself was an interesting character. According to Wikipedia:

Bayezid I … He built one of the largest armies in the known world at the time and unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople. He adopted the title of Sultan-i Rûm, Rûm being an old Islamic name for the Roman Empire.[6] He decisively defeated the Crusaders at Nicopolis (in modern Bulgaria) in 1396, and was himself defeated and captured by Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402 and died in captivity in March 1403.

Bayezid I held captive by Timur, painting by Stanisław Chlebowski (1877)

Back to Griffiths:

“Directly opposite, on the European side of the Bosporus, is Rumili Hissar, or the Castle of Europe, which Muhammad II, “the Conqueror,” built in 1452 when he finally reached out to transform the headquarters of Eastern Christendom into the centre of Islam. The castle was built upon the site of the state prison of the Byzantine emperors, which was destroyed to make room for it. The three towers of the castle, and the walls thirty feet thick, still stand.

“In the Tower of Oblivion which now has as an incongruous neighbour, the Protestant institution, Robert College, is a fiendish reminder of days hardly yet gone. A smooth walled stone chute reaches from the interior of the tower down into the Bosporus. Into the mouth of this the hapless victim, bound and gagged perhaps, with weights attached to his feet, was placed. Down he shot and bubbles marked for a few seconds the grave beneath the waters.

“The Conqueror built also the Yedi Kuleh, or the “Seven Towers,” at the edge of the old city. This imperial castle, like the Bastile or the Tower of London, was also a state prison, though its glory and its shame have both departed. The Janissaries who guarded this castle used to bring thither the sultans whom they had dethroned either to allow them to linger impotently or to cause them to lose their heads. A cavern where torture was inflicted and the rusty machines which tore muscles and cracked joints, may still be seen. The dungeons in which the prisoners lay are also shown. A small open court was the place of execution and to this day it is called the “place of heads” while a deep chasm into which the heads were thrown is the “well of blood.”

“Several sultans, (the exact number is uncertain) and innumerable officers of high degree have suffered the extreme penalty here. It was here too that foreign ambassadors were always imprisoned in former days, when Turkey declared war against the states they represented. The last confined here was the French representative in 1798.

The Cage or Kafes, Istanbul

“Another interesting survival of early days is the Seraglio, the old palace of the sultans, and its subsidiary buildings, scattered over a considerable area. In the court of the treasury is the Kafess, or cage, in which the imperial children were confined from the time of Muhammad III, lest they should aspire to the throne. Sometimes however the brothers and sons of the reigning sultan were confined, each in a separate pavilion on the grounds. A retinue of women, pages and eunuchs was assigned to each but the soldiers who guarded them were warned to be strict. The present sultan was confined by his brother Abdul Hamid within the grounds of the Yildiz Kiosk, where he had many liberties but was a prisoner nevertheless. Absolutism breeds distrust of all, no matter how closely connected by ties of blood.”

EvX: The Kafes, strange as it sounds, was real–a prison for princes. According to Wikipedia:

Thereafter, the “rule of elderness” was adopted as the rule of succession in the House of Osmanli so that all males within an older generation were exhausted before the succession of the eldest male in the next generation. …

It became common to confine brothers, cousins and nephews to the Cage, generally not later than when they left the harem (women’s quarters) at puberty. This also marked the end of their education and many sultans came to the throne ill-prepared to be rulers, without any experience of government or affairs outside the Cage. There they had only the company of servants and the women of their harems, occasionally with deposed sultans. …

At different times, it was the policy to ensure that inmates of the Cage only took barren concubines. Consequently, some sultans did not produce sons until they acceded to the throne. These sons, by virtue of their youth at the time of their fathers’ deaths, ensured that the rule of elderness became entrenched …

Confinement in the Cage had a great impact on the personalities of the captives in the Kafes and many of them developed psychological disorders. At least one deposed sultan and one heir committed suicide in the Cage. …

The last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI Vahidettin (1918–22) was aged 56 when he came to the throne and had been either in the harem or the Cage his whole life. He was confined to the Cage by his uncle (Abdülaziz) and had stayed there during the reigns of his three older brothers.

This system sounds like it couldn’t possibly have produced good rulers. So after the Turkish sultans condemned their posterity to prison, who actually ran things?

That’s all for today. Everyone take care, follow the law, and stay out of prison!

Turkey: Not very Turkic (a genetic history of the Turkic peoples)

Ironic, isn’t it? The geographic distribution of Turkic languages is amazingly vast-yet-splotchy, extending from the eastern border of Bosnia to the far western end of Siberia, where Russia approaches Alaska: Carte_peuples_turcs (I’d really like to see this map laid atop a topographic map, because that might explain some of the splotchiness–not a lot of people speaking anything in the Taklamakan Desert, for example.) Our oldest known Turkic inscription–thus, our first known use of the Turkic language–comes from the Orkhon Valley, which is located smack dab in the middle of Mongolia. Which, you may have noticed, is not today a Turkic-language speaking place. The Mongolian Language family is, ironically, much less widespread than the Turkic-family:


Given that the Mongols recently conquered almost all of Asia, decimating local populations and leaving behind their genetic legacy (polite speak for “raping all the women,”) they’ve made remarkably little linguistic impact. If we want to get controversial, some linguists propose that the Mongolian family and the Turkic family might be related to each other within a broader “Altaic” language family, which makes plenty of geographic sense, but might not make true linguistic sense. Being me, I always root for nice fancy language family trees, but we’re going to have to call this one “just a theory some guys have and some guys oppose” for now. (The difficulty with reconstructing proto-Turkic or proto-Altaic or the like is that there aren’t a ton of old inscriptions in either family, and not many linguists are trained in them.) Languages get complicated because they can contaminate each other in unexpected ways. To use a familiar example, even though English is a Germanic language, our “do” constructions, eg, “Do you walk?” “I do walk!” and “Do walk with me,” appear to come not from Old or Proto-Germanic, but from Celtic languages. When the Anglo Saxons moved to England and conquered the Celtic peoples living there and made them start speaking Anglo-Saxon, the Celts retained some of their old grammatical structures. But Celtic and Germanic languages are not all that different; they’re both Indo-European, after all. Imagine what craziness you could get by combining peoples who originally spoke languages separated by much vaster gulfs of time.

The English example reminds us of another difficulty in attempting to use linguistics to tell us something about groups and their histories: widely disparate groups can speak the same language. Not only are the English, despite speaking a “Germanic” language, only about 10% German by ancestry (more or less;) but the US has almost 40 million African Americans who all speak English and aren’t genetically English. Even though most people learn to talk by imitating their parents, people have picked up and promulgated many languages that weren’t their ancestors’.

We have a similar situation with Turkey, where the majority of the population clearly speaks a Turkic language, but the genetics shows far more in common with their local Middle Eastern neighbors:

Click for full size
From Haak et al.

Zooming in on the relevant portion:

TurkishDNA2fromHaak ChechenDNAfromHaak

I like Turkey’s DNA because it’s always easy to spot in these charts. Turkey has some real variation in the distribution of different ancestral populations–the Japanese population, by comparison, is far more genetically homogenous.

The really anomalous guys in the Turkish sample are easily explained–they’re just Greeks, (and the anomalous guys in the Greek Sample are Turks.) Turkey ruled over Greece for quite a while, so it’s not surprising that some Greeks live in Turkey and some Turks live in Greece.

Chechens through Kumyks are all groups from the Caucus Mountains area, which is just north of the Turkish-Iranian border, so it’s not too surprising that all of these groups resemble each other. The Greeks, though, are much closer to their neighbors to the north, like the Albanians.

The Chechen and Lezgian languages are from the “Northeast Caucasian” language family (aka Caspian language family). Remarkably, this geographically tiny splotch of languages (and the similarly named but apparently not linguistically similar Northwest Caucasian language family, [aka Pontic language family,]) is considered, like Indo-European, one of the world’s distinct language groupings:

Primary_Human_Language_Families_MapThe Adygei (or Adyghe) speak a Northwest Caucasian language.

The Balkars and Kumyks speak Turkic languages, and the Ossetians speak an Indo-European language, (Indo-Iranian branch.)

Remarkably, even though these Caucasian groups speak languages from four different language families–one of which may have originated in far-off Mongolia–they are genetically quite similar to each other.

from Haak et al.

The Iranians have a small but noticeable chunk of bright green, which shows up in tiny quantities in some of the other populations in this group. The bright green is highly characteristic of India, where it is found in large quantities.

Iran speaks an Indo-European language, of the Indo-Iranian branch. (Given present politics, it is a bit of a wonder that the Aryan Nation and its ilk are actually named after the Muslim nation of Iran, but there you go, that’s history for you.) So I suspect that Iran got its language due to a small group of Indians conquering the place, imposing their language, and marrying into the local population, but this isn’t really supposed to be a post on the history of Indo-European.

What about Turkey’s neighbors to the south? How much do Turks resemble them? Here are some folks in the local vicinity (Syria and Iraq border Turkey to the south, but Iraq doesn’t seem to have made it into this dataset):


The most noticeable thing here are the big chunks of purple, which reach their maximum in the Bedouins. However, I suspect the purple is (in some manner) related to the dark blue which it replaces; if you glance up at the dataset used for the image at the top of the blog, you’ll note that it shows the same basic ancestral DNA groups for the Middle Easterners as Europeans (albeit in different proportions.) The technical differences between these two data sets aren’t worth getting into; suffice to say that I think the Haak dataset is just showing us a finer grained level of detail, which is why I am primarily leaning on it.

At any rate, the purple is distinctive. The Turks (and Iranians) have some purple, but not a lot; the Caucasians very little. The Middle Easterners also have a bit of pink (and a touch of blue) which hail from Africa. These colors, interestingly, appear not to have made it into the Turkish samples at all.

So while the Turks are similar to the Syrians and other neighbors to the south, I hold that they are genetically more similar to their neighbors in Iran and the Caucuses.

DNA from various Asian peoples

But what about the red and yellow bits? Those come from central Asia. Russia has similar levels of red, which is found all over Siberia and northern Eurasia, including the Sami; Yellow is common across far east Asia, including China, Japan, and Mongolia. Most of the countries that Americans mean when they say “Asian” have a mix of red and yellow.

Since the first written Turkic we have comes from the middle of Mongolia, it is sensible that folks in Turkey, today, might have DNA that appears to have come from the region. However, they don’t have a lot of this DNA, suggesting that the overall number of migrants or conquerors, (Turkic or Mongolian or of some other Asian origin,) was relatively low compared to the rest of the population. Today’s Turks, therefore, are probably descended primarily from the ancient Anatolian population that was there before the Turks, Mongols, Indo-Iranians, or other folks showed up.

Geographically, Turkey is located on a plateau and markedly greener than its neighbors to the south. That alone may account for differences between the Turkish people and their southern, more desert-dwelling neighbors.

What about the other Turkic peoples?

There are a lot of them:

The term Turkic represents a broad ethno-linguistic group of peoples including existing societies such as the Turkish people, Azerbaijanis, Chuvashes, Kazakhs, Tatars, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Bashkirs, Qashqai, Gagauz, Altai, Khakas, Tuvans, Yakuts, Crimean Karaites, Krymchaks, Karakalpaks, Karachays, Balkars, Nogais and as well as past civilizations such as Yenisei Kirghiz, Dingling, Tiele, Chuban, Pannonian Avars, Göktürks, Bulgars, Kumans, Kipchaks, Turgeshes, Khazars, Seljuk Turks, Ottoman Turks, Mamluks, Timurids, Khiljis, and possibly Huns, Xiongnu, Wusun, Tauri and the Tuoba.

And we don’t have time to run through all of them. We will mention those who are included in Haak’s dataset, though:

TurkishDNAfromHaakNogai balkar Chuvash Kumyk Kyrgyz Turkmen Altaian yakut

(Chuvash? Are you sure?)

These guys have a lot in common–most of them have, at least broadly, similar varieties of DNA–but not enough to be considered a single ethnic group. Like most groups, they tend to be more closely related to their neighbors than to folks far off, and the Turkic peoples are pretty scattered. The especially odd thing about them, though, is that none of these–at least, none of the folks in Haak’s dataset–look like the Mongols, despite the Turkic languages having probably originated somewhere near Mongolia. (And the Mongolian-like DNA they do have might be more easily explained by Mongolian expansions than by Turkic ones.)

Wikipedia comes to a similar conclusion:

The physical characteristics of populations of speakers of Turkic language stretch across a range as wide as the land they inhabit. The Turkic peoples in Europe look European – with the exception of some Crimean Tatars and Turkics in the Caucasus (Kumyks, Nogays, etc.) who look European+Northeast Asian, while Turkics in the Middle East resemble the peoples of the Middle East, those in Central Asia mostly look mixed but have mostly northeast Asian features. Turkics in northeast Asia resemble populations in that region. In trying to answer such questions as what “race” were the Proto-Turkic speakers, neither anthropometric nor genetic studies have been of much assistance to date. What few DNA analyses have been done arrive at the problem as an answer: affinity to primarily western populations in the west, eastern in the east, and a mixture on a gradient from east to west or vice versa in between.[2] These biological circumstances suggest that racial evolution over the region is earlier than can be considered in the time of the distribution of languages; i.e., the languages may have evolved among populations that were already mixed.

The extremes of the Eurasian continent–Europe, India, SE Asia–have wide zones with a fair amount of genetic homogeneity (even where there are multiple ancestral groups.) In between these zones, however, we get a mixing zone, where different groups come together and new ethnicities are born. All of the Turkic groups here have, to greater or lesser degrees, the tri-color pattern typical of Europe (orange, teal, dark blue) and the di-color pattern typical of SE Asia (red and yellow,) though this is greatly attenuated at the extremes of Turkey and the Yakut. Some groups also have the green characteristic of Indo-Iranians, probably due to bordering those zones.

The Turkic language groups may therefore represent a kind of genetic mixing zone between the large, homogenous zones to their east, west, and south. How long have the steppes (and the mountains to their south) been mixing zones? We don’t know. But the idea that the Turkic peoples were ethnically mixed and heterogenous long before they began speaking Turkic languages at all seems reasonable.

But if Turks aren’t particularly Turkic, why do they speak a Turkic language at all?

Surprisingly, the Turks didn’t even exert military dominance over Turkey until about the 1,000. Prior to this, Anatolia, as we may call the pre-Turkic area–was ruled by the Byzantines, eastern successors to the Roman Empire. The local population was Greek-speaking Christians.

The origins of the Turkic peoples are shrouded in mystery, mostly because of the lack of good written records. There is much speculation, for example, about whether or not the Huns were Turkic, but unless someone can come up with a Hunnic dictionary, we’ll probably never truly know.

The first confirmably Turkic group we know of was the aptly-named Goturks, who lived in parts of China and Mongolia, beginning around the 500s. They apparently controlled a rather large region:


We know of the Goturks because they left behind written records of themselves (beginning in the early 700s,) the Orkhon inscriptions. Interestingly, these Old Turkic inscriptions are written in an alphabet derived from Aramaic (which is, in turn, derived from Phoenician):


What were a bunch of nomadic herders doing making a bunch of monuments inscribed with a derivative form of the Aramaic alphabet up in the middle of Mongolia in the 700s? For that matter, why weren’t they using something derived from Chinese, who lived much nearer?

My best guess is that the alphabet arrived with some eastern variant of Christianity, spread by Christian missionaries through the Persian empire and beyond. (Remember, Iran wasn’t conquered by the Muslims until 651; before that, Christianity had a much larger foothold in the East.) This is not to say that the Goturks were Christians in the way that we typically practice it today, (shamanism focused on the sky god Tengri, whom they shared with the Mongols, appears to have been the dominant religion,) but that they may have had contact with Christian missionaries or religious texts.

At any rate, it looks like the Turkic peoples get on too well with the Chinese, and probably weren’t too keen on the Mongols, (no one was too keen on the Mongols,) which may have inspired them to start migrating. (Or perhaps they were always migrating. They were nomads, after all.)  Either way, by the 800s, a Turkic-speaking people called the Seljuqs had pitched their yurts north of the Caspian sea.

From there they migrated southward, encountering Muslims in Iran, (where they picked up Islam,) and eventually reaching Turkey around the year 1,000. (These migrations probably should not be thought of as single, organized movements of people, but of many migrations, mostly of tribes simply wandering in search of pastures for their animals, conquering neighbors, fleeing conquerors, and generally being a complicated, disorganized bunch of humans.)

At any rate, the Seljuk Empire, founded in 1037, absorbed the crumbling Persian Empire, and invaded the Byzantine Empire in 1068. By 1092, it stretched from the Bosphorus, down through Palestine, across Iran, around Oman, through several -stans, and up to the far western end of China:


This all helped inspire the Crusades, launched in 1096 to help the Byzantines repel the Seljuks, but that is a story for another day. The Mongols showed up around 1243, but by the 1400s, the Turks were in charge again. In 1453, the Ottomans took Constantinople–now Istanbul (which is really just a slight corruption of the Greek for “to the city,” “εἰς τὴν πόλιν”)–ending the last vestige of the once vast Roman Empire.

An observer described the looting:

Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge. …

Old men of venerable appearance were dragged by their white hair and piteously beaten. Priests were led into captivity in batches, as well as reverend virgins, hermits and recluses who were dedicated to God alone and lived only for Him to whom they sacrificed themselves, who were dragged from their cells and others from the churches in which they had sought refuge, in spite of their weeping and sobs and their emaciated cheeks, to be made objects of scorn before being struck down. Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions, and a thousand other terrible things happened. …

Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged … sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. Saints’ shrines were brutally violated in order to get out the remains which were then thrown to the wind.

The Wikipedia estimates that 4,000 were killed and 30,000 deported or sold into slavery. 4,000 sounds like a low estimate to me, given the nature of warfare, not to mention reports like Barbaro’s:

Barbaro described blood flowing in the city “like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm”, and bodies of the Turks and Christians floating in the sea “like melons along a canal”.[50]

As I have mentioned before, I strongly recommend not getting conquered.

The Ottoman Empire continued to expand, reaching its greatest extent in 1683:


The few small Turkic-speaking communities in Europe today probably owe their genesis to the Ottoman empire, though some might have arrived on their own, via more northerly routes.

And as for the guys in Siberia? They probably just decided to try walking north instead of south.