A concept coined in the initial stage of the Greek War of Independence (1821–1829) to describe the territorial effect of the political decline of the Ottoman Empire on great-power diplomacy in Europe.
In the seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire, at its greatest extent, sprawled across southeast Europe (Hungary included), southwest Asia, and northern Africa (Morocco excluded). The weakening of the sultan's power began in the last decade of the reign of Sultan Süleyman (1520–1566). Europe, however, remained paralyzed by religious wars until the Peace of Westphalia (1648), and the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman imperial government) did not admit its growing frailty vis-à-vis Europe until the end of the seventeenth century. Only then did it negotiate treaties and other international acts, chiefly with the great powers of Europe. In the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), for the first time, the sultan ceded large tracts in Christian Europe—in this instance to Austria and Poland—which were never recovered.
For a century longer, Ottoman military might was still respected on the Continent. Tsar Peter I (1682–1725), the first European monarch to send troops into Ottoman Asia, occupied the Sea of Azov and its Crimean rim in 1696, only to lose the short-lived conquest along with a claim to power over the Black Sea after a disastrous defeat (1711) at the Prut River (later in Romania). The Ottoman recapture of the Crimea's Tatar khanates was ratified in 1713, in the Treaty of Edirne (Adrianople). That delayed for six decades—until Catherine II (1762–1796), after a six-year war with Turkey—Russia's taking the first solid step toward establishing itself as a Black Sea power through the treaty of Kuçuk Kaynarca (1774), which detached the khanates from the sultan's realm by declaring them independent. Russia did not annex them until nine years later. Finally in 1792, after four more years of war, the Sublime Porte, in the treaty of peace at Jassy, the capital of the Ottoman province of Moldavia (later part of Romania), at last acknowledged this segment of the Black Sea coast as Russian. The victories set in motion Ottoman territorial attrition in southwest Asia; it spread to North Africa in 1830, when France began its conquest of Algeria.
Europe's expansion into the Ottoman Empire at times appeared to consist of predators rushing as far and as fast as they could, paying no heed to the risks of collision. Such a judgment, however, belies the realities. Contenders for the same or overlapping districts were sensitive to one another's interests. Avoidance of conflict became the name of the game as early as the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815). At the end of the Congress the conveners—Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia—styled themselves the Concert of Europe to act as a permanent executive for settling all their disputes by conference or consensual diplomacy.
In 1818, at Aachen, the four powers admitted France to their ranks and promptly instructed the restored Bourbon monarchy to join Britain, as the Concert's sole maritime powers, in suppressing the institutionalized piracy in the western Mediterranean, carried out by the sultan's autonomous ocaklar (garrisons) or provinces of Tripoli (Libya), Tunis, and Algiers. A dozen years elapsed before the Barbary garrisons of the Ottoman Maghrib were finally put out of the piracy business.
Only once between 1815 and 1914 did the great powers resort to war over a dispute arising from the Eastern Question. In that case Britain, France, and Russia were the Concert's belligerents in the Crimean War (1854–1856); Austria served as mediator, and Prussia stayed aloof. The entry of the Kingdom of Sardinia, alongside Britain and France, as allies of the Sublime Porte against Russia served, in effect, as its application for membership in the Concert. Having led the Risorgimento for the political unification of the city-states in the Italian peninsula after 1848, Sardinia provided the monarchs following the emergence in 1861 of the kingdom of Italy, which was promptly made a member of the Concert.
The great-power contest for ownership or denial of the sultan's strategic realm reflects the pace and the modes of Europe's expansion into Asia and Africa. The Ottoman Empire spanned the heart of the eastern hemisphere by joining its three continents. The desire to control the Turkish Straits, which separate Asia and Europe while linking the Black and Mediterranean Seas, became a fixed, if also thwarted, aim of Russia after 1774. The Black Sea remained closed to Russia's naval power while the tsardom was exposed to possible attack by hostile maritime powers, as occurred in the Crimean War.
Similarly, on occupying Egypt in 1798, Napoléon declared, in the name of France, his intention to construct and own a manmade waterway from the Mediterranean's landlocked southeast corner to the Red Sea. By cutting across Asia and Africa, such a canal would reduce the distance (and the time) of uninterrupted travel from western Europe, notably from Britain and France, to India by two-thirds, and by lesser amounts to all points along the African and Asian shores of the Indian Ocean.
Given the challenge of two rivals, the cautious shaping by Britain, as the world's foremost maritime and naval power, of its own strategy to deny Russia and France a naval presence on the Mediterranean's eastern littorals was remarkable.
As the decades passed, Saint Petersburg's aspiration became an obsession. In preparation for the expected takeover of the Turkish Straits, Russia continued swallowing Ottoman property that circled the Black Sea in both Europe and Asia, in the latter from the Crimea through the Caucasus; the last bit was the adjacent corner of Anatolia in 1878. To support the quest for the Turkish Straits even before the Crimean War, Russia established precedents to assert its right to protect the sultan's Orthodox subjects in Anatolia and Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine). In 1856, the Islahat Fermani (Reform Edict) of Sultan Abdülmecit I (1839–1861), reinforced by Article 9 of the Treaty of Paris ending the Crimean War, briefly interrupted, but did not end, the Russian practice.
Meanwhile, over Britain's resolute opposition, French investors in the late 1850s launched the Suez Canal Company, which in 1869 completed the waterway. Backed by the government of France, these entrepreneurs also preempted Britain's moves to take control of the company's policy-framing executive before and after Britain's occupation of Ottoman Egypt in 1882. By 1914 Algeria and Tunisia were part of France's empire, although the Sublime Porte withheld formal recognition of the protectorate in Tunisia. Of the surviving Ottoman provinces in Asia, France's interest centered on Lebanon and Syria from 1860 on. After a lapse of about a century, France in the 1840s had revived earlier treaty rights to custody of papal institutions and their members, covering affiliated eastern Uniate churches as well as Roman Catholicism. Finally, the financial community of France bankrolled railway, harbor, and other concessions in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine and became the dominant shareholder in the Ottoman Imperial Bank, the Ottoman Empire's official agent.
But above all, the overseers of Britain's empire saw the shrinking Islamic state as both a continuing barrier and an unfolding passage to India. In both functions, the Ottoman Empire had grown into a major asset for Britain. Little wonder that, under Britain's persistent lead, the Concert of Europe in 1840 began nearly four decades as guarantor of the integrity of Ottoman Asia and Africa. The chosen formula was that of a self-denying protocol, first used in the Concert's convention of 1840 for "the Pacification of the Levant," which stated that "in the execution of the engagements resulting to the Contracting Powers from the . . . Convention, those Powers will seek no augmentation of territory, no exclusive influence, no commercial advantage for their subjects, which those of every other nation may not equally obtain." Even France, which had upheld Egypt in the crisis, rejoined the Concert in 1841.
Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, the strategy's author, saw in Egypt's threats to the Osmanli dynasty's survival (1831–1833, 1839) a threat to the British Empire. With the appearance of the steamship in the 1820s, Britain belatedly discovered what the East India Company had begun learning under sail more than half a century earlier: that through the sultan's realm there ran developing routes of communication and transportation between the métropole and the empire in India. In the regional contest of the 1830s, Russia backed the sultan, and France, the viceroy. The main problem, in Palmerston's diagnosis, was to keep Russia and France apart, for if they joined forces, Britain would suffer along with the Osmanli dynasty. Palmerston preferred a weak Ottoman Empire to a powerful Egypt. He thus responded favorably in 1839 and 1840 to the tsar's proposal for joint military intervention, with the cooperation of the Sublime Porte, to contain an ominous threat to the survival of the Ottoman Empire posed by Muhammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, backed by France. Austria and Prussia adhered to this plan of action.
France returned to the fold in 1841, as part of the settlement of the regional crisis. It reduced Muhammad Ali from quasi independence to Ottoman vassalage, but only upon his being recognized as the founder of a hereditary provincial dynasty with full domestic autonomy (though subject to Ottoman control of Egypt's foreign policy). "[A]ll the Treaties concluded and to be concluded between my Sublime Porte and the friendly Powers," read the Sultan's ferman, "shall be completely executed in the Province of Egypt likewise." This clause immediately imposed on Egypt the Porte's obligations to Britain, France, and the Netherlands to change the basis of Ottoman foreign commerce from protection to free trade. That deprived Muhammad Ali of the assured revenues from his commercial and industrial monopolies and put an early end to his integrated program of economic and military modernization. Those steps reduced the innovative, self-made, ambitious governor to manageable size. Later they enabled Palmerston, as foreign minister and prime minister, to delay for a dozen years execution of Egypt's grant of a ninety-nine year concession to a national of France to build and operate the Suez Canal.
In 1840 and 1841 the Concert had thus created a subsidiary system expressly to defuse crises in Europe arising from the rivalry over the Middle East (and North Africa) portions of the sultan's realm. For nearly forty years the great powers, with the Sublime Porte taking part and Britain playing the balancer in alternating alliances with Russia against France or the reverse, met five times—in London (1840–1841, 1871), Paris (1856, 1860–1861), and Berlin (1878)—and framed obligatory guidelines on policies toward the Ottoman Empire. Military occupation without time limit, commonly unilateral, was denied legitimacy; formal protectorates were legitimated by the powers, not by the Sublime Porte (in the end by the Turkish Republic); direct annexation was invariably solemnized by formal agreement with Constantinople. All three practices rested on general usage under (Western) international law.
Other styles of Europe's imperialism were particular to the Eastern Question. In the economic sphere the practices derived from the capitulations (nonreciprocal commercial treaties that the Porte had concluded with Europe's governments from the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries), assured Western residents unilateral extraterritorial privileges. They and their enterprises—banks, railroads, harbors, the Suez Canal—were immune from sultanic and provincial laws and taxes, and subject only to those of home governments. To such built-in dominance by Europe over key developmental aspects of the Ottoman economy was added guardianship of selected religious communities, with Russia and France the leading practitioners. The prevalence in the same districts of resident missionaries and their many charitable, medical, and educational, as well as religious, institutions attested to this.
Strategy apart, Britain's most valuable interest was commerce. As the sole industrializing nation from the last third of the eighteenth century through the Napoleonic wars, Britain speedily moved into first place in the foreign trade of the Ottoman Empire. By 1850, the Porte had become Britain's third-best customer. Britain clung to its commercial lead up to the outbreak of World War I. Financial investment by British nationals lagged far behind. The quest for oil in Ottoman Arab Asia quickened only when the Anglo–Persian Oil Company discovered commercial quantities in Persia in 1908, too late for the find to become practicable before the outbreak of war six years later. Still, the oil potential of the vilayet (province) of Mosul riveted the attention, during World War I and afterward, of Britain's companies and their bureaucratic supporters on the Sublime Porte's promise of a concession, in June 1914, to the Turkish Petroleum Company, a non-operating international consortium of British, Dutch, and German interests registered in London.
Meanwhile, Italy, upon its unification in 1861, promptly entered the fray. After losing a bid for Tunisia in Berlin in 1878, Italy finally occupied Libya and the Dodecanese Islands in a lackluster war with the Ottoman Empire (1911–1912). One of Italy's primary aims in entering the war in 1915 was to legalize the titles to both and, if possible, enlarge its imperial holdings.
Upon replacing Continent-centered Prussia in 1871, unified Germany was the final entrant into the competition. Otto von Bismarck moved into the role vacated by Benjamin Disraeli. Germany centered its regional activity after 1882 on serving as military and naval adviser and supplier to Sultan Abdülhamit II (1876–1909). And from 1903, German entrepreneurs, with their government's encouragement and protection, sponsored the building of the Baghdad Railroad to link Europe, across Anatolia through the vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, to the head of the Persian Gulf, with Ottoman assurances of privileged investment rights along the way.
Britain's occupation of Egypt in 1882 helped draw Russia and France together, binding them twelve years later in a formal alliance. In all this time and for a decade longer, France kept urging Britain to fix a date for leaving Egypt, while Britain refused to ratify the 1888 Suez Canal Convention until France accepted, for the duration of the occupation, Britain's exercise of the supervisory powers of the projected international commission. Finally the two quarrelers signed an entente cordiale in 1904 that rested on a trade: Britain's responsibility for the canal's security by occupation in return for France's creating a protectorate in Morocco. Before the year's end, the Concert ratified the amended convention that implied approval of Britain's military presence in Egypt. Finally, Britain and Russia reduced irritants in their relations in the Ottoman Empire by reaching an accord on Iran, Afghanistan, and Tibet in 1907.
The three bilateral instruments underlay the formation of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) on the outbreak of war in 1914 against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria). For the first time, the Sublime Porte, which entered World War I in November 1914 as an ally of the Central Powers, placed itself simultaneously at war with the three countries that had territorial scores to settle with the sultan—Britain in Egypt (and Sudan), France in Tunisia, and Russia at the Turkish Straits. The secret accords of the Entente powers (the Constantinople Agreement of 1915 and the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916) proposed assigning the Turkish Straits and eastern Anatolia to Russia, parceling the Fertile Crescent (later Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan) under variable terms among the three allies, and declaring the Arabian Peninsula a British sphere of influence.
In April 1915, Italy associated itself with the Entente for the express aim of legitimizing its occupation of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands. Two years later, after the overthrow of the tsarist regime, Italy concluded a separate agreement (treaty of Saint-Jean de Maurienne) with Britain and France, to become a party to the Entente plans for sharing in the Ottoman spoils; to the Sykes–Picot arrangement were added zones for Italy's administration and influence in southern and western Anatolia. But the instrument never won the requisite assent from the Bolshevik regime, which seized power in the fall of 1917. After the war the unratified draft did not deter Italy from trying—but failing—to anchor itself in Anatolia.
Meanwhile, the secret correspondence of Sir Henry McMahon (Britain's high commissioner for Egypt) with Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca (the Ottoman governor of the province of Hijaz) served as the basis for mounting an Arab rebellion against the sultan. Clearly, Britain perceived McMahon's exchanges with Husayn, which were started and finished (July 1915–March 1916) before the Sykes–Picot negotiations (December 1915–April 1916), as a solidifying step in the Arabian Peninsula. They agreed on mutual military commitments but left unsettled their political differences that gave rise to bitter Anglo–Arab quarrels. The later conflicting Anglo–French–Arab claims in the Fertile Crescent were compounded by the Balfour Declaration: Britain's secret understanding with the Zionists and public declaration of sympathy for the formation in Palestine of a Jewish national home. This was the price that Britain's government had to pay for finally acquiring an exclusive mandatory presence in Palestine in defense of the Suez Canal.
The Eastern Question thus was not resolved until the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the empire's formal dissolution in 1922, and the peace treaty of Lausanne—the only such settlement negotiated but not imposed after that war—that the Entente and associated powers signed with the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and ratified a year later. Even then, Turkey's nationalist regime at Ankara contested the proposed transfer of two territorial slivers, losing one (the vilayet of Mosul to Iraq) in 1926 but winning the other (the return to Turkey by France, as mandatory of Syria, of the sanjak [provincial district] of Alexandretta) in 1939. In between, at Turkey's insistence, in the Montreux Convention of 1936, the naval signatories of the Treaty of Lausanne restored to the Republic of Turkey full sovereignty over the Turkish Straits by dissolving the International Straits Commission.
See also AbdÜlhamit II; AbdÜlmecit I; Balfour Declaration (1917); Capitulations; Crimean War; Fertile Crescent; Greek War of Independence; Husayn ibn Ali; Husayn–McMahon Correspondence (1915–1916); Lausanne, Treaty of (1923); McMahon, Henry; Montreux Convention (1936); Muhammad Ali; Palmerston, Lord Henry John Temple; Paris, Treaty of (1857); Sublime Porte; Sykes–Picot Agreement (1916).
Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 1774–1923: A Study in International Relations. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1966.
Hurewitz, J. C. The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record, 2d edition. 2 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975–1979.
Marriott, J. A. R. The Eastern Question: An Historical Study in European Diplomacy, 4th edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940.
j. c. hurewitz
"Eastern Question." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eastern-question
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Eastern Question, term designating the problem of European territory controlled by the decaying Ottoman Empire in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th cent. The Turkish threat to Europe was checked by the Hapsburgs in the 16th cent., but the Ottoman Turks still controlled the Balkan Peninsula. With the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire began, and Russia started to push toward the Black Sea.
In the 18th cent., France supported the Turks against Russia and Austria. The Eastern Question came into sharp focus during the reign of Czarina Catherine II with the first two of the Russo-Turkish Wars (1768–74, 1787–92), when Russia, in alliance with Austria, planned the partition of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople was the chief prize coveted by Russia, which lacked an adequate warm-water outlet to the sea. These designs aroused alarm in Prussia and, more especially, in Great Britain, which saw its dominance in the Mediterranean threatened by Russian ambitions. (Later it was the strategic importance of the Suez Canal that most concerned Britain.) The formation of a diplomatic alliance by Great Britain, Prussia, and the Netherlands and the Austrian defeats at the hands of the Turks offset Russian successes; yet the first stage of the struggle, terminating with the Treaty of Jassy (1792), left Russia with a foothold on the north shore of the Black Sea.
During the Napoleonic era, when attention shifted elsewhere, Russia, after another war with Turkey, again secured favorable terms in the Treaty of Bucharest (1812). Russian conquests against Persia and in the Caucasus were confirmed in the treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchai (1828). These developments and the outbreak of national aspirations among the oppressed peoples of the Balkans again made the Eastern Question a major European problem. The Holy Alliance was committed to defending the territorial integrity of Turkey, but the rival imperialistic interests of the Great Powers, each of which hoped to profit from Ottoman disintegration, soon caused the abandonment of this principle.
In the Greek War of Independence (1821–30), both England and Russia assisted the Greek insurgents, each trying to impose its influence on the newly formed state. The Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, connected with the Greek war, ended successfully for Russia (see Adrianople, Treaty of), but the subsequent Russian assistance to Turkey against Muhammad Ali of Egypt, followed by a Russo-Turkish alliance (1833), greatly disquieted Britain and France. Still, the five Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia) acted in concert in the final settlement of the Egyptian question, and a treaty signed (1840) in London offered international guarantees of the Ottoman Empire's integrity.
In 1853, however, rivalry among Britain, France, and Russia brought on the Crimean War. The treaty that ended it (see Paris, Congress of) attempted to deprive Russia of pretexts for intervention, to check Russia's naval power on the Black Sea, and to place the empire under international protection. By this time, Turkey had become the "sick man of Europe," and its disintegration could not be arrested.
Events in Bosnia and Herzegovina once more led to a Russo-Turkish War (1877–78); the Treaty of San Stefano was so favorable to Russia that Britain went to the verge of war to compel a revision. The Congress of Berlin (see Berlin, Congress of) revised the Treaty of San Stefano—a setback for Russian influence—but it created fresh problems. The new Balkan states, dissatisfied with their borders, turned to individual great powers to back their claims.
Austria, allied with Russia in the late 18th cent., had come to fear Russian influence in the Balkans; after its defeat by Prussia in 1866, it had joined in an alliance with Germany (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente). Germany, which had assumed the role of "honest broker" at the Congress of Berlin, became increasingly interested in extending its influence over the Ottoman Empire. The German-Austrian Drang nach Osten [drive to the East] policy became manifest in the reorganization of the Turkish army by German officers, the construction of Baghdad Railway, the crisis over Morocco, and the Austrian annexation (1908) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russian Pan-Slavism in the Balkans and the almost total disappearance of European Turkey in the Balkan Wars caused Turkey to seek German and Austrian support and to join the Central Powers after the outbreak of World War I. The war destroyed the Ottoman Empire and closed the old Eastern Question, but the problem of maintaining stability in the area once ruled by the empire remained.
See M. S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774–1923 (1966); A. J. Toynbee, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1970); D. Djordjevic and S. Fischer-Galati, The Balkan Revolutionary Tradition (1981).
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