Introduction: ‘Bag and Baggage’

  • David S. Katz


When the Allies in 1917 called for ‘the expulsion from Europe of the Ottoman Empire’ they were simultaneously affirming that Turkey was at that time considered to be a part of Europe. This is a book about some of the principal writings that have shaped the perception of Turkey for informed readers in Britain, from Edward Gibbon’s positing of imperial ‘decline and fall’ to the proclamation of the Turkish Republic (1923), illustrating how Turkey has always been a part of the modern British and European experience. Many people have written about Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, but the five celebrated authors discussed here were especially influential in moulding the image of the country. Despite the philhellenic prejudice that was the natural result of the typical English educational programme based on the study of classical literature, these authors’ close study of the Ottoman Empire or personal encounter with it shaped in each a much more positive appreciation of the Turks.


Literary History European Economic Community Late Eighteenth Century Inaugural Lecture Turkish Republic 
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On 18 December 1916, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States sent a formal diplomatic communication to all nations involved in the conflict that would become known as World War I, asking for their views on what the future peace might look like. Since the United States was still considering if and when it would enter the war, the answer to Wilson’s question was of the highest importance. The Allied governments replied on 11 January 1917: ‘The Entente objects of the war are well known’, they insisted, and went on to list the points that the ‘civilized world knows that they imply’. Among these were ‘the enfranchisement of populations subject to the bloody tyranny of the Turks’ and ‘the expulsion from Europe of the Ottoman Empire, decidedly alien to Western civilization’. The ‘civilized world’ of the Allies was the European world, based upon cultural foundations that rested on the soil of Rome, and, beneath that, the bedrock of ancient Greece. The Osmanlı Turks, the Ottoman descendants of Ertuğrul and his son, the eponymous Osman Gazi, were invaders who had swept down from somewhere out in central Asia and whose presence had caused nothing but trouble for real Europeans during the past six hundred years. The Ottoman decision to tie their fate to that of the Germans was only further evidence for the Allies of inherent Turkish barbarity. The defeat and surrender of the Ottoman Empire, and the occupation of Istanbul by the Allies in November 1918, offered an opportunity to redraw the map of Europe, partly by restoring some of the shattered glory of Greece and the Byzantine world. With the support of the British government and the approval of the Allies, Greek forces landed at Smryna on 15 May 1919 and proceeded to gobble up large segments of western Anatolia. Not only was the Ottoman Empire to be expelled from Europe; so too were the progeny of Osman to be driven away from the Mediterranean shores where the ‘civilized world’ was born. By 9 September 1922, this Allied delusion was in ruins, as the last Greek soldiers clambered on board their ships from the same port city of Smyrna and returned home in utter defeat. A little more than a year later, on 29 October 1923, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) (1881–1938) declared the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

When the Allies in 1917 called for ‘the expulsion from Europe of the Ottoman Empire’ they were simultaneously affirming that Turkey was at that time a part of Europe. When Turkey in 1959 made its first application to become part of the European Economic Community, Ankara was really saying that it wanted to be readmitted to Europe. The debate over the renewed inclusion of Turkey in the European Union has been fierce at times, conducted not only at the level of rational discourse, but also against the historical and emotional background of how the Ottoman Empire has been perceived in the West.

This is a book about some of the principal writings that shaped the perception of Turkey for informed readers in Britain, from Edward Gibbon’s positing of imperial Decline and Fall to the proclamation of the Turkish Republic, illustrating how Turkey has always been a part of the modern British and European experience. Many people have written about Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. But the five celebrated authors discussed here were especially influential in shaping the image of Turkey, helping to balance the philhellenic prejudice that was the natural result of an educational programme based on the study of classical literature. No doubt there were other writers who might have been included, but certainly these five authors have a compelling claim to be among the shapers. These works were enormously influential in that their audience was the political nation, people whose views mattered in Britain, where decisions were taken in that period that had an enormous effect on the modern Near and Middle East. Strictly in terms of political history, the final scenes of the movement for Turkish independence were played out against the background of British strategic and conceptual blundering, so this study is more than an adventure up blind alleys, but rather the re-creation of a vanished mental landscape on which the modern Turkish Republic was built and the present map of Europe was drawn.

This is a study in the history of ideas, specifically the image of Turkey in the mind of what literary critic Stanley Fish called ‘the informed or at-home reader’ in England who lived (and read) in the long nineteenth century. 1 Fish’s work promoted among English speakers the approach of reader-response criticism and reception theory that had developed in Germany following upon the inaugural lecture of Hans Robert Jauss (1921–1997) in April 1967 at the University of Constance, subsequently soon published. Jauss believed in ‘a dialogical and at once process-like relationship between work, audience, and new work’ and proclaimed ‘an aesthetics of reception [Rezeptionsästhetik] and influence’. He insisted that we need to be aware of ‘the historical sequence of literary works’ since we read texts one after another and are therefore inevitably influenced in our reading by what we have read before:

A corresponding process of the continuous establishing and altering of horizons also determines the relationship of the individual text to the succession of texts that form the genre. The new text evokes for the reader (listener) the horizon of expectations and rules familiar from earlier texts, which are then varied, corrected, altered, or even just reproduced. 2

To the notion of a ‘horizon of expectations’ approached by each reader when confronted with a new text, Stanley Fish added the idea of ‘interpretive communities’ which are ‘made up of those who share interpretative strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts’. Like Jauss, Fish believed that ‘these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around’. The strategies are constantly changing as we approach and crest each succeeding horizon of expectations. 3

Edward Said argued that, for Europeans and Americans, the Orient was ‘a textual universe’, that is, ‘less a place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of characteristics, that seems to have its origin in a quotation, or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone’s work on the Orient, or some bit of previous imagining, or an amalgam of all these’. 4 No doubt this was true for most people, who had never travelled to Istanbul and parts east and south and formed their views of the (Middle) East from print. But not everything written about that part of the world relied on caricature and borrowed knowledge. There were many writers who went to these places or studied them dispassionately with a mental horizon of expectations which yielded readily when transversed, replaced with images based on what was actually before their eyes. But Said was certainly correct in insisting that ideas (and ideologies) do indeed have real effects, something often forgotten when historians become overwhelmed with material explanations for past events.

Some of the writers discussed here achieved everlasting glory, such as Edward Gibbon (1737–1794). Despite the title, the final three of the six volumes of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788) actually deal with Asia Minor and the Ottomans and are therefore seldom read or studied today, but they were essential texts at the end of the eighteenth century and long afterwards. Gibbon’s tomes were important for another reason: they established in the public mind the trope of ‘decline and fall’. Gibbon was not the first to speak in those terms, and there were other writers who chose to contemplate the paradox of great empires declining and falling. But every informed reader in Britain read Gibbon (or at least dipped into his massive volumes) and he set the framework for understanding imperial decay, a model which shaped the way Turkish history was perceived from the late eighteenth century until our own times.

Lord Byron (1788–1824) also provided a prism through which to view Turkey, but in a way that was radically different from Gibbon’s. Byron became the symbol of the struggle for Greek independence from the Turks, and his fame was ruthlessly exploited by English philhellenes and Greek exiles in London. As it happened, in reality Byron was not very keen on Greeks. What attracted him to Greece was the romance of the East, and the people in Greece he admired were really Muslim Albanians. When Byron first visited Greece in 1809, the entire area was under Ottoman rule. The Greeks, Turks and Jews in any case were defined primarily by religion rather than by linguistic or ethnic criteria. Like most nineteenth-century British travellers to the East, Byron was quickly disabused of the notion that modern Greeks were anything like the heroes he had read about in classical literature. He and many Victorians were distinctly unhappy until they found more satisfying and authentic experiences when they reached Istanbul.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) was an ardent admirer of Byron, and made a Grand Tour in the great poet’s footsteps over the course of a year in the East (June 1830–July 1831). From London, Disraeli voyaged by way of Gibraltar, Spain and Malta to Albanian Greece (like Byron), visiting many of the same sights. Byron’s faithful manservant Giovanni Battista (‘Tita’) Falcieri (1798–1874), who was with him when he expired at Missolonghi and who brought Byron’s body back to England, was even hired by Disraeli and his friends and came with them on their travels. Disraeli, like Byron, had a wonderful time in Istanbul, a life-changing experience. Turkey was followed by Jerusalem and finally Egypt, giving Disraeli a background in reality on which to pin his Oriental fantasies. This Grand Tour to Ottoman lands then became the foundation for Disraeli’s life-long pro-Ottoman foreign policy, which also had the effect of introducing racial arguments (including modern antisemitism) into British political discourse.

The key moment in Anglo-Turkish relations came in 1876, the year when W.E. Gladstone (1809–1898) harangued Great Britain in his Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. His arch-rival, Disraeli, was merely continuing traditional British foreign policy in supporting an intact Ottoman Empire as a barrier against Russian encroachment and as a more peaceful alternative to carving up the sick man’s carcass. But for Disraeli the Ottoman Empire was also part of his beloved East, inhabited by Jewish and Arab Semites whose history and inherent racial characteristics destined them for glory. Although Disraeli managed to set British foreign policy almost until his death, and to look out for Turkey’s interests (and Britain’s) at the Congress of Berlin (1878), Gladstone returned to office in April 1880 and proceeded to steer the ship of state in an entirely new direction.

Gladstone saw his mission as liberating Christians from the barbarous Ottomans and began the process that evicted Turkey from Europe, no matter how much European land was under Ottoman rule:

Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbachis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned. This thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to the memory of those heaps on heaps of dead; to the violated purity alike of matron, of maiden, and of child; to the civilisation which has been affronted and shamed; to the laws of God or, if you like, of Allah; to the moral sense of mankind at large. 5

The Ottomans, in need of European support, were forced to shift their allegiance to Germany, a change symbolized by the visit to Istanbul of Kaiser Wilhelm II in October 1898. This was a fateful decision that would bear poisoned fruit less than twenty years later in the First World War.

It was in that Great War that John Buchan (1875–1940) had his military moment, serving as an Intelligence Corps major in France. Following on the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Buchan produced another blockbuster novel called Greenmantle (1916), which painted a rather favourable view of Turkey and its people, based in part on Buchan’s visit to Istanbul only five years earlier. Together with his popular historical writing, Buchan helped detach Turkey in British public opinion from its alliance with the German enemy in the First World War. At the same time, Greenmantle reflects the contemporary British fascination with the Islamic institution of the caliphate, and the fear of a Muslim uprising that might undermine their rule in India. For Buchan, popular literature was the continuation of mobilized history by other means, and he was a pioneer in the use of mass-market non-fiction and historical novels as a subtle means of constructing public opinion.

Buchan was a close personal friend of the celebrated classicist and secret spy-master Gilbert Murray (1866–1957), whose daughter would marry historian Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975). Toynbee made his own year-long Grand Tour to Greece (1911–1912), and like Byron before him, was cured of the English schoolboy fantasy that ancient Greeks lived on in their ancestral homeland. During the Great War, Toynbee, like Buchan, was employed in manufacturing propaganda that would help the British war effort, and in that service he drew up a detailed report, The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915–1916, published in London in 1916. While trying to be as accurate as possible, Toynbee was actually tasked with assembling materials that would help build a case against the Turks. What he left out of his investigation was the puzzle of why Armenians and Turks hated each other.

This was the question on his mind when five years later he took a leave of absence from his post-war position as professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek History and went off to Turkey as the Manchester Guardian’s special correspondent covering the Turkish War of Independence. Toynbee spent nearly eight months in Turkey in 1921, not just as a frontline witness to the battles between the Greeks and the Turks, but as an active participant. Indeed, in May and June 1921, he and his wife Rosalind (Murray) personally saved the lives of hundreds of Turkish civilians (including many women and children), huddled on the shore at Yalova on the Sea of Marmara across from Istanbul, trapped by retreating Greek forces who were determined to massacre as many Turks as possible. It was on 17 September 1921 en route to London aboard the Orient Express that Toynbee had the idea to write his grand (if misguided) A Study of History (1934–1961), twelve volumes inspired by the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire that he himself had witnessed.

Few people today have a good word for Toynbee, whose Study seems now to be a monumental, ramshackle folly of over-systemization. Yet Toynbee’s writings helped to reverse the trend that had been put so effectively in place by Gladstone after the death of Disraeli, shifting British public opinion in favour of Turkey once again. Across the Atlantic, Toynbee became America’s most celebrated historian in the years immediately after the Second World War, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1947.

Opinion makers, for better or worse, are those writers who manage to capture the public imagination, satisfying a thirst for general knowledge and a cogent explanation or interpretation of events. Then, as now, academics complained that the circulation of their own works was often limited to a small professional audience. The writings that caught the eye even of the educated public were often parasitic on the books and articles of historians and scholars of every variety. Samuel Huntington’s notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’ infuriated specialists of the Islamic world from Berkeley to Beijing, but this shorthand concept set the agenda for readers of the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the New Republic. The nineteenth century had its own Huntingtons, its own Fukuyamas and Da Vinci Codes, books that were in their time inescapable, centrepieces on which was painted a compelling picture for millions of readers.

This book looks carefully at those authors whose writings set the horizon of expectations about Turkey for British readers from 1776 to 1923, and is thus a study in the history of ideas. It is not a social history about publishing and print runs. It is most definitely not a political history of the Ottoman Empire during that period, and is drawn from the British point of view. But it is a great sweep of a story: from Gibbon as standard textbook, through Bryon the pro-Turkish poet, and Disraeli the Romantic novelist of things Eastern, followed by Gladstone’s Turkish volte-face, Buchan’s Greenmantle First World War espionage fantasies, and then Manchester Guardian reporter Arnold Toynbee narrating the fight for Turkish independence. Viewed from this long perspective, the contemporary struggle of the Turkish Republic to be given its place in Europe can be seen not only as a demand for readmission, but a recognition that what Gibbon could claim of Constantinople–Istanbul in the late eighteenth century is still valid in the early twenty-first, that it can never ‘be despoiled of the incomparable situation which marks her for the metropolis of a great empire; and the genius of the place will ever triumph over the accidents of time and fortune’. 6


  1. 1.

    Stanley E. Fish, ‘Interpreting the Variorum’, Critical Inquiry, 2 (1975–6), 476.

  2. 2.

    Hans Robert Jauss, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (Brighton, 1982), Chap. 1: ‘Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory’. The title of the original lecture in April 1967 was ‘What Is and For What Purpose Does One Study Literary History?’ a paraphrase of the title of Friedrich Schiller’s inaugural lecture at the University of Jena (1789), substituting the word ‘literary’ for ‘universal’. See also Wolfgang Iser, Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung (Munich, 1976), trans. as The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore, 1978).

  3. 3.

    Fish, ‘Variorum’, pp. 465–85, esp. pp. 473–4, 481, 483–4. Cf. idem, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’, New Literary History, 2 (1970–1), 123–62, esp. pp. 126–7, 140. On p. 145, Fish explains that ‘the reader is the informed reader’.

  4. 4.

    Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978): (Penguin edn, Harmondsworth, 1985), p. 177. Many scholars have applied Said’s paradigm to Byron, including Said’s nephew Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism (Cambridge, 1998), esp. Chap. 6. Among the angrier ones are Mohammed Sharafuddin, Islam and Romantic Orientalism: Literary Encounters with the Orient (London, 1994); Seyed Mohammad Marandi, ‘The Oriental World of Lord Byron and the Orientalism of Literary Scholars’, Critique, 15 (2006), 317–37; G.K. Rishmawi, ‘The Muslim East in Byron’s Don Juan’, Papers on Lang. & Lit., 35 (1999), 227–43; Shahin Kuli Khan Khattak, Islam and the Victorians: Nineteenth-Century Perceptions of Muslim Practices and Beliefs (London, 2008).

  5. 5.

    W.E. Gladstone, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (London, 1876), p. 31.

  6. 6.

    Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley (Penguin edn, London, 1994), iii. 969–70 (Chap. 68).


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© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • David S. Katz
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryTel Aviv UniversityTel AvivIsrael

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