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Empire of Refugees: North Caucasian Muslims And The Late Ottoman State

February 22, 2024 at 4:00 pm

Empire of Refugees: North Caucasian Muslims And The Late Ottoman State
  • Book Author(s): Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky
  • Published Date: February 2024
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9781503637740

The period between 1850 to the start of the First World War saw an unprecedented refugee crisis strike the Ottoman Empire. An estimated North Caucasian Muslims, which included Circassians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Tartars and others sought refuge in Ottoman lands from the expanding Russian Empire. The story of how Istanbul handled the migration crisis and the impact of Turkiye, the Middle East and Balkans is tackled in Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky’s Empire of Refugees: North Caucasian Muslims And The Late Ottoman State. Ottoman asylum policies shifted during the 1850s; up until the mid-nineteenth century, anybody, regardless of religion, could seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire, provided they pledged allegiance to the Sultan. Thousands of Jews, fleeing Spain and elsewhere in Europe, made Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire their home, as did many Christian groups fleeing other Christian empires. However, the rise of European power and the expansion of Russia changed the calculus in the Sublime Porte. Muslim immigration came to be seen as essential for preserving Ottoman authority throughout the empire, but the influx of foreign Muslims had the consequence of stoking sectarian tensions in the Levant and Balkans, argues Hamed-Troyansky. This approach was also mirrored in Russia, which saw Christianisation as the key to establishing loyalty to Moscow’s empire.

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Tales of resentment about the influx of Circassians into the Ottoman Empire are plentiful and offer insight into tensions in the late nineteenth century. In 1878, thousands of North Caucasian Muslims, who were displaced from their homeland, turned up in the Levant where they were greeted by a shortage of housing, food and inflation. The lack of food and outbreak of diseases meant, by 1880 in Tripoli, 60 refugees were dying daily and, while locals tried to provide aid, some began to turn on them. What made matters worse is that many of the Circassians coming into the Middle East, initially resettled in Bulgaria, where reports of Circassian bandits and raiding parties had made their way into Lebanon and Syria. “A British consul reported a local rumour that, upon leaving Bulgaria, Circassian refugees had abducted Christian girls and sought to sell them into slavery in Syria.” The rumour turned out to be false. An investigation by Beirut authorities did find one Christian girl had fallen in love with, run off with and married a Circassian man. She told authorities she voluntarily converted to Islam – the Beirut governor placed her under house arrest and the Greek Orthodox clergy tried to convert her back, but she refused. When the refugees started coming across into Ottoman boundaries, Istanbul was possibly the first state to adopt policies on refugees and to set up agencies to deal with them. “The term that North Caucasian refugees used to describe themselves was muhajir.” The term comes from Hijrah and refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) migration from Makkah to Medina. Traditionally, Muslim migrants would refer to themselves as muhajirs as a way of emulating his example. “By the nineteenth century, the term acquired anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiments, as many regions across the Muslim world were occupied by the European empires.”

Aside from tension, the migration of Circassians contributed to the rise of new villages, towns and cities. The largest city in the Levant is Amman in Jordan, which was founded as a Circassian village in the late nineteenth century. Amman had a history going back to the Babylonians, Romans, Byzantines and Umayyads; by the 1880s, it was largely abandoned and only old ruins survived. The influx of Circassians helped bring Amman back to life but, even here, there was tension as Circassians wanted to secure their land rights under Ottoman law; some of the lands were already claimed by Bedouins. “In the final decades of Ottoman rule, North Caucasian muhajirs facilitated the expansion of Ottoman networks of capital to the nomadic frontier of Transjordan.” Indeed, Transjordan always had a minimal Ottoman presence, but the arrival of Circassians prompted important changes, which increased the Ottoman state’s presence. Circassians registering land in Amman, with Ottoman authorities prompting Bedouins to do the same. The new population attracted trade and investment, which facilitated the growth of Amman into a city and this also enabled the development of railways and roads, giving the Ottomans more direct control over the territory.

Empire of Refugees offers a fresh take on the late Ottoman state and how the refugee question was a factor in many important events towards the end of the empire. A unique perspective on an under-explored topic, the book enriches Ottoman studies and makes for compelling reading for anyone interested in history. Special praise is certainly required for the cover design by Jordanian artist, Zaina El-Said, who has produced one of the most eye-catching and visually intriguing book covers I think I have ever seen. Of course, a word of caution is needed here: while Empire of Refugees is a much needed intervention into Ottoman studies, the reader must be mindful of two important factors. The first being the cause of major events, such as the Bulgarian Uprising in 1876 was multi-causal and fear and resentment about the influx of refugees from the Caucasus was one factor. The second is that, while stories about immigrants and refugees behaving badly are plentiful, just as they are today, this does not necessarily mean all of these stories are totally true. Hamed-Troyansky does not suggest otherwise in the book and, indeed, does a wonderful job of exploring the nuances of both points. Empire of Refugees is a wonderful and highly readable account that greatly adds to our understanding of the formation of the modern Middle East and Balkans. Anyone interested in pre-Second World War and non-Western refugee systems will find this book a necessary companion in exploring these issues.

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