The Long Decline: From the Ottoman Empire to the Mandate System

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The Long Decline: From the Ottoman Empire to the Mandate System

The rise of Islam during the seventh century ce in the Middle East contributed to a great period of unification, as the scattered peoples of the region converted, or switched over, to a single faith. Many countries began to consider themselves as part of the larger cultural force of Islam, which offered itself as the perfection of the previous monotheistic religions, religions that believed in only one god, such as Judaism and Christianity. First under the Islamic caliphate (a system of rule that united religious and political power), then under the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), which became the dominant regional power early in the 1500s, the Middle East enjoyed nearly a millennium of social and cultural progress and growth. Yet beginning in the late seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire slowly contracted, or grew smaller, due to territory being lost during various conflicts. At the same time, Islamic countries did not grow as fast economically or technologically as countries of the West (such as Britain, France, Germany, and later the United States). By the dawn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was so weak that it was destroyed by Western powers during World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), and the Middle East was divided up into a number of weakened nations and mandate states controlled by Britain and France.

The story of the Middle East's long decline in world economic, military, and cultural importance when compared to the West helps to explain the hostility that many Middle Easterners feel toward Westerners. Many modern conflicts in the Middle East reflect problems created by the rising power of Western countries and forces associated with the West, such as the rise of Zionism as a political force intent on creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Other elements of modern conflicts reflect the ways that Western political movements such as nationalism (devotion to one's own culture and nation above all else), socialism (system in which the government controls the distribution of goods and services), or secularism (system where religion holds little or no power over laws and political policy) have been adapted to fit the social and political circumstances of the Middle East. And there are still other elements of the conflicts that reflect ongoing religious differences between Islam and Christianity. It is clear that Western influences and Arab reactions to them played a critical part in reshaping the Middle East up to the early twentieth century, and continue to affect Middle Eastern life to this day.

The Ottoman Empire: Islam's shining beacon

By the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire contained one of the most powerful and culturally advanced civilizations in the world. From its beginnings as a small state founded in 1299 in the modern nation of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire expanded dramatically over the years. In 1453 the Ottomans captured Constantinople, thus destroying the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire (a section of the Roman empire that ruled from c. 330 ce to 1453 ce in Asia and the Middle East), and in 1516–1517 they had captured much of the modern Middle East, including the regions (later nations) of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. By the early seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire had expanded to include most of northern Africa and southeastern Europe, including the modern nations of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Heading the Ottoman Empire was the sultan, or emperor, who descended from the founder of the empire, Osman I (1259–1326). The sultan wielded immense power in the empire. In addition to being the sultan, he was also honored with the title of caliph, a title that made him the political and religious leader of the Muslims, or followers of the Islamic religion (which believes in Allah [God] and accepts Muhammad as the chief and last prophet of Allah). Most Turks were Muslims, as were the vast majority of people living in the Middle East, and they looked to the caliph as their leader. While the Ottoman Empire was officially a Muslim state, its rapid expansion placed it in control of areas with large populations of Christians and smaller populations of Jews. "Remarkably this polyethnic [many ethnicities] and multireligious society worked," wrote Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis in their Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. "The legal traditions and practices of each community, particularly in matters of personal status—death, marriage, and inheritance—were respected and enforced throughout the empire. ... Opportunities for advancement and prosperity were open in varying degrees to all the empire's subjects." Though they did not receive all the rights of Muslims, religious minorities enjoyed a much greater quality of life under Muslim rule than did similar minorities in Europe at the time.

At the height of its power and influence, the Ottoman Empire was perhaps the most advanced civilization on earth. It had a vast system of government capable of collecting taxes and raising armies to face its foes. It had a stable religious culture, with millions of faithful believers. During the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 ce), when learning and the arts had largely disappeared from Europe due to the fall of Greek and Roman civilizations and the creation of smaller kingdoms focused on survival and warfare, Muslim citizens of the Ottoman Empire preserved Greek learning and philosophy, and they created great mosques (religious temples) and works of art. In the early years of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims generally looked down on those from the West as barbarians who followed a fallen religion and had a more primitive society. However, as European cultures advanced during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, interactions between Ottomans and Europeans improved. Muslims offered Westerners agricultural items such as cotton, sugar, and citrus fruit; they introduced paper-making techniques they had learned from the Chinese, allowing the more rapid spread of printed books; and they shared their superior knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, and other sciences.

The sultan Suleyman I (1494–1566) ruled from 1520 to 1566, and the Ottoman Empire maintained its strength well into the seventeenth century. By the late seventeenth century,

The Death of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent

The Ottoman Empire reached its greatest heights under the sultan Suleyman I (1494–1566), known in Europe as Suleyman the Magnificent and in the Ottoman Empire as Suleyman the Lawgiver. Suleyman became sultan in 1520, and was known both for creating a system of laws that provided stability in the empire and for extending the empire's power into southeastern Europe. But one of the most interesting stories about Suleyman involves his death.

In 1566, Ottoman troops led by Suleyman were attacking a city in Hungary when Suleyman died in his tent. Suleyman's assistants worried that the attack would fail without their leader, so instead of telling the troops, they embalmed Suleyman's body and maintained the illusion that he was still in command. In the meantime, they sent word to the capital city that Suleyman's son, Selim II, was to take the throne. Only when Selim II was safely named as sultan was Suleyman's death revealed. Sadly, Selim II was an incompetent ruler. He is known in Turkish history as "Selim the Sot" for his drunkenness.

however, clear signs began to emerge of a major shift in the balance of power between the Western nations and the region controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Many historians look to the year 1683 as marking that shift, for it was in this year that Austrian troops defeated Ottoman armies attempting to take the Austrian capital of Vienna. Not only had the Ottoman armies performed very poorly, but the treaty that eventually ended the war between the countries, the treaty of Carlowitz, signed in 1699, punished the Ottomans, rewarded the Austrians, and revealed the negotiating skill of representatives from England and Holland. The military defeat and the humiliating treaty terms sent shock waves throughout the Ottoman Muslim community. According to Bernard Lewis, writing in The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, highly placed Muslims asked, "Why were the miserable infidels [a person who does not believe in a particular religion], previously always vanquished by the victorious armies of Islam, now winning the day, and why were the armies of Islam suffering defeat at their hands?" The answer, revealed over the next several centuries, was that the West had begun to surpass the Middle East in military power and technology, trade, political organization, and confidence.

Declining military power leads to disastrous wars

For years, Ottoman military power had rested on the abilities of well-trained soldiers wielding hand weapons, such as swords, axes, and bows, and traveling on horseback or on foot. Early in the history of the empire, Ottoman soldiers, called janissaries, were highly regarded and highly trained; they also received privileges and status, and took great pride in their skill as warriors. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the skill and prestige of these soldiers had declined due to changes in the way they were organized and recruited. Once feared for their strength and endurance, the Ottoman armies grew weaker and weaker over the years.

At the same time, Western armies grew more powerful. Their first advantage was in weaponry, especially in their use of guns, from rifles to cannons. Muslims originally avoided the use of such weapons, viewing their use as somehow outside the proper rules of warfare. But when Russian and Austrian soldiers began to use the weapons effectively against Ottoman soldiers, the Middle Easterners soon adopted their use. Because the West dominated the production of such weapons, however, and possessed greater financial means to purchase them, the Middle East lagged behind the West in the number and firepower of its weapons.

Another Western advantage was their military training. The introduction of guns, and also of warships, changed the way battles were waged. Western nations developed professional military schools to train their soldiers. As with weapons, the Ottomans first looked down on, and then tried to copy, Western training and strategy when it proved more effective in battle. Again and again, the West's head start in accessing the tools and strategies of modern warfare proved difficult to overcome.

From its founding in 1299 through the assault on Austria in 1683, the Ottoman Empire had enjoyed almost four centuries of physical growth made possible by the military invasion of other countries. From 1683 onward, however, Ottoman military victories became increasingly rare, and the military power of surrounding nations first matched and then surpassed that of the Ottomans. Austria won its first real victory against the Ottomans in 1683, and pushed forward to regain much of present-day Hungary. By the nineteenth century Austria and Hungary had joined in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and extended their control into the Balkan states, formerly held by the Ottomans.

A far more dangerous foe for the Ottomans was Russia, which lay to the north of the Ottoman Empire. Russia rose to power early in the eighteenth century by modeling itself on Britain, France, and Spain, and it set its sights on expanding southward. After early setbacks, the Russians began a hugely successful attack on the Ottoman Empire. The Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–74 (also called the Russo-Turkish War) saw Russia gain control of a region known as the Crimea, on the northern shores of the Black Sea. They also won shipping rights through the straits, or water ways, that connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and established themselves as the protectors of members of the Greek Orthodox Church (a branch of Christianity that split from the Catholics) within the Ottoman Empire. (By becoming the protectors of the Greek Orthodox Church the Russians were later able to influence politics within the Ottoman Empire.) Further wars in 1828–29, 1854–57 (the Crimean War), and 1877–78 saw the Ottoman Empire shrink considerably as the Russians gained partial control in the Balkan states, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, in addition to complete control of the northern shore of the Black Sea. By the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire had receded in the north and west nearly to the boundaries of present-day Turkey.

Internal conflicts in the Muslim world

In addition to the challenges posed by Western invaders, the Ottoman Empire faced challenges from within the Muslim world, especially from the other great Muslim power, the Persian Empire, centered in modern Iran. In 1501 a Turkish-speaking Shiite Muslim (a branch of Islam that believed that only those who descended from Muhammad, the founder of Islam, should lead) named Ismail I (1487–1524) rose to power as the shah, or ultimate leader, of the Persian Empire, which lay to the east. Like the caliph in the Sunni Muslim (a branch of Islam that believed that any person from the tribe of Muhammad, not just the descendants of Muhammad, could be elected as leader of the Islamic religion) Ottoman Empire, the Persian shah held both religious and political power. Ismail and later shahs led the Persians in a bitter contest with the Ottoman Empire for control of the eastern Arabian Peninsula (an area southwest of Asia between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf). Most of their actual battles were fought in the area of present-day Iraq; Baghdad, the capital city of the region, was especially prized by both empires. The conflict between these two empires continued in various battles and wars until 1823, when both sides agreed to new borders that gave equal land to both the Ottomans and the Persians. Part of the reason an eventual peace was made between the Persian and Ottoman Empires was that both were threatened by Russian expansion and needed to send armies and resources to battle the Russians. Regardless of the peace that was made, the long military clash between these two Muslim powers contributed greatly to the continuing distrust and animosity that exists between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The Ottomans also faced a series of challenges from independence movements within the empire.


From the moment that Egypt was brought into the Ottoman Empire in 1517, it proved a difficult region to control. Though populated by ethnic Arabs, Egyptians were proud of their distinctive cultural history, which dated back to ancient times, and they disliked taking instructions from Turkish imperial leaders. They fought with their Ottoman rulers to keep control of the wealth produced by their advanced agriculture, and they sought to keep control of the trade routes that provided passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Many local Egyptian governors contended for power with Ottoman military chiefs. One such Egyptian governor, Ali Bey (1728–1773), took control of Egypt in 1768, captured the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, and temporarily controlled Syria before he lost power. Offering its help to the Ottomans in the years following Bey's uprising, French troops conquered Egypt in 1798 and attempted to establish French control there. But another European power, England, helped the Ottomans remove the French by 1801.

England's involvement was intended to restore Ottoman rule, but after 1801 an Albanian-born ally of the Ottoman sultan named Mohammad Ali (1769–1849) emerged as the new force in the country. Ali was an able leader. He rapidly modernized Egypt, building irrigation canals to provide water to desert areas, improving agriculture technology, constructing schools, and developing a more powerful military. One of Ali's successors, Ismail Pasha (1830–1895), continued Ali's work and led the construction of the Suez Canal, an important water route linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. When Pasha's policies led Egypt into financial crisis, England and France got involved, virtually taking control of the country in 1879 before England established itself as the sole power in Egypt in 1882, a role it held until the country declared independence in 1953.


Another major challenge to Ottoman rule came from an Arab religious movement known as Wahhabism (wa-ha-BEE-izm). Wahhabism is named after its founder, Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). Al-Wahhab and his followers preached a fundamentalist version of Islam: they wanted Muslims to revere only the Prophet Muhammad and to follow Sharia, or Islamic holy law, very closely. Wahhabis believe in strict observance of daily prayers and the exclusion of women from such things as employment, leadership positions, land ownership, and other areas of life considered by Wahhabis to be reserved for men only.

In 1744 al-Wahhab allied himself with a tribal leader, or sheikh, named Mohammad ibn Saud (1710–1765), who ruled in the Arabian Peninsula region of Najd. Together, ibn Saud and al-Wahhab built a following and an army, and began to take power in the southern Arabian Peninsula. By the end of the century they controlled the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and had advanced troops as far north as Syria. While Egyptian forces were able to limit the spread of the Wahhabi movement, ibn Saud and his family maintained control in the desert regions of Arabia. During World War I, the Saudis provided support for the British against the dying Ottoman Empire, and in 1932 the region gained independence as Saudi Arabia. To this day, the Saudis follow the conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam.

The transforming power of trade

Far greater than Russian firepower, Egyptian desires for independence, or Wahhabi fundamentalism, was the power of Western European trade. From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, European nations developed their domestic infrastructure (roads, canals, and power systems, such as electric and steam), built a powerful middle class based on business, and established strong economies based on trade. However, this trade was not like the relatively free trade that exists in modern times, where countries import (bring in) and export (ship out) both raw and finished goods. Rather, European nations sought to find markets where they could purchase cheap raw materials, such as cotton, silk, or tobacco, and export expensive finished materials, such as guns or clothing. European ships sailed to many places and European traders sought to develop contacts and open markets in regions throughout the world. In underdeveloped areas, European powers established colonies. For example, England established a colony in India, and France established one in Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). In more developed areas or those already under political control—such as the Ottoman Empire or China—these European powers sought to negotiate favorable patterns of buying and selling. From the moment that trade started in the Middle East, European powers used their superior material goods and technology to gain power and create wealth through their interactions with the Ottoman Empire.

The first economic interactions between European nations and the Ottoman Empire came as European nations sought to secure or expand their trade routes—overland or sea routes used to ship goods, usually to and from the Far East. The first treaties, or agreements, the Ottomans signed with Russia and Austria gave the Europeans rights to trade in the Balkan region. Since these regions were under Islamic power, many European traders sought the ability to protect the rights of Christians who might come to trade in these places. This right of protection, first granted to France in 1740, became a way for many non-Islamic people to become wealthy in the Middle East. Protected Christians and some Jews became middlemen in trade arrangements, establishing businesses and expanding their wealth. The Ottomans often restricted the ability of Muslims to trade with foreign nations, unintentionally increasing the economic power of the Europeans who lived in Muslim countries. Not only did this arrangement advance economic inequality, it also built up resentments between Muslims and non-Muslims, as the non-Muslims experienced greater advantages thanks to their Western connections.

From the early nineteenth century onward, the combined effects of the agricultural and industrial revolutions (a shift from hand tools and home manufacturing to power-driven tools and factory production) only heightened the differences between the two cultures. In the West, farmers learned to dramatically increase the amount of food they could produce per acre, and manufacturers used modern power sources and production techniques to expand the number of goods they could produce while reducing their cost. As a result, the standard of living increased for people throughout the West, increasing the economic advantage of Western countries. Similar revolutions did not reach the Middle East until well into the twentieth century. Middle Eastern farmers still tilled their land using hand tools, and most household goods—clothes, food, and blankets—were handmade and locally produced. As a result, the Middle East fell behind the West technologically, and the majority of the people experienced a far lower standard of living than was known in the West. In a world where money was increasingly equated with power, the Middle East grew weaker as the West continued to gain power.

An empire collapses

From the late eighteenth century onward, Ottoman rulers recognized that their empire was in a state of decline. They attempted to reform their military, only to find that infighting between the new troops and the old threatened the stability of the empire. The Crimean War (1854–57; a war for land between the Ottoman Empire and European forces in Ukraine near the Black Sea) revealed how badly the Ottomans military technology compared to that of European countries: they had no rail lines to move troops nor telegraph systems to send messages. In the 1870s a series of revolts in the Balkan states, backed by Russia, forced the Ottoman Empire to give up most of its remaining European territory. The continuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire began to pose a real problem for the European powers, especially Britain, France, Russia, and the increasingly powerful Germany. The peace between these countries depended on a stable Ottoman Empire, for none of the European powers wanted to see their rivals take power in territory left by the Ottomans. European diplomats began to talk about how they would deal with the collapse of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire.

Within the Ottoman Empire, unrest increased by the end of the nineteenth century. Young people interested in politics began to argue that it was time for the sultan to step down, and for the empire to stop its attempts to rule distant regions. These people, who came to be called the Young Turks, eventually formed a political organization called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). The CUP seized power from the sultan in 1908, lost power in 1912, and regained it in 1913—just in time to see the Ottoman Empire thrown into the greatest conflict the world had ever seen.

In the latter years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century, the major European nations had been engaging in increasingly hostile efforts to expand their control in Africa, building colonies, supporting friendly governments, and establishing trade relationships. None of these countries were willing to see the balance of power change in Europe, however, so when war began in the Balkan states, all of the major powers joined in what would soon become known as World War I. In the complicated system of alliances that prevailed, Britain, France, Russia, and (after 1917) the United States—known as the Allies—joined together to combat Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the war, the Allied victory, combined with a political revolution in Russia and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, had radically changed the nature of politics in the Middle East.

World War I brings change

Each of the major combatants (countries fighting in the war) in World War I sought to use the war to further its interests in the Middle East. The Ottomans wanted to preserve their role as the dominant power within the Middle East and to stop Russia's attempts to capture their territories. Initially they had hoped to remain neutral, but this soon proved impossible. The Germans wanted to extend their power into the Middle East, and they believed they could do so by supporting the Ottomans. The Ottomans and Germans thus shared the goal of maintaining and increasing their respective power in the region.

As soon as the Ottomans committed to an alliance with Germany, the Russians, British, and French became free to act on their interests in the Middle East. Their shared interest was in limiting the power of Germany, which was emerging as an industrial and military superpower and a threat to Allied economic power. Britain was the most involved with Middle Eastern countries: it already controlled Egypt, and had economic interests in what would become Iraq—especially after the discovery of oil in 1908. Moreover, Britain had promised its support for groups within the Middle East who were competing for local control. Britain backed the Saudi family in the Arabian Peninsula, it supported Arab sheikhs in the regions of Iraq and Syria, and, most importantly, it offered its support for a cause known as Zionism, an effort by Jews to establish a Jewish national homeland in the territory of Palestine. France had similar, though more limited, commitments, for it supported local independence movements in Lebanon and Syria. Russia had long been an enemy of the Ottoman Empire, and it continued to want territory on the northeastern end of the empire as well as control over the oil fields that were being discovered and drilled in Iraq and Iran, as did France.

In the early years of the war, the two sides fought to a standoff in the Middle East, thanks to German military support for the Ottomans. But as the advantage in Europe shifted toward the Allies, Britain and France began to make real advances in the Middle East. Britain captured the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, and troops established power in southern Iraq, all the way to Baghdad. France secured its economic interests in Syria, and England and France began to plan how they would manage the region after the war. Russia proved unable to advance its interests in taking Ottoman territory. Not only were Russian troops needed to combat the Germans, but in 1917 a communist revolution (a movement that supported the government ownership of all property and resources so that all things could be equally shared) in Russia toppled its government and effectively removed Russia from the scramble to divide power in the region. At the end of the war, Britain and France, working through the League of Nations (a organization of nations created to promote peace and to assist countries with international relations), devised a complex plan that would influence the future of the Middle East. That plan was known as the mandate system.

The mandate system

Territories that are taken over during times of war are usually divided between those countries that won the war and become parts of those nations. In the Middle East, however, matters were far more complicated. Though England and France were clearly the victors in the Middle East after World War I, they did not want the responsibility of maintaining colonies in the region. They did, however, wish to ensure their continued access to trade, oil, and transportation in the region. They also felt the need to honor the desires for self-governance expressed by the local independence movements that had contributed to the Allied victory. The job of sorting out what would become of the territories fell to the League of Nations, which set up the mandate system to allow France and Britain the access they needed while creating countries that would eventually be able to function without outside help.

The political climate after World War I favored nationalism—the right of a people with shared ethnic, cultural, or religious identities to form themselves into a self-governing

The League of Nations

When World War I began, many observers felt that it would be a short conflict with little loss of life. But as the war continued on over several years, at the cost of millions of lives, politicians and diplomats began to think about how they might prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again. Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), the president of the United States from 1913 to 1921, argued that what was needed was an international governing body representing the world's advanced nations, which would help resolve conflicts between nations before they could escalate into armed conflict and disrupt the world's economies. When Wilson brought the United States into World War I on the side of the Allies, he won the political support in Europe to make the League a reality. (Even though Wilson created the League, the United States did not join, due to domestic political disputes.)

The League of Nations was formed in 1919 at the same Paris Peace Conference that officially brought World War I to an end. It provided for an international organization with voluntary membership that would strive to prevent war, settle disputes between countries through negotiation, and improve relations between nations. One of the early actions of the League of Nations was to establish the mandate system in the Middle East, which gave Britain and France responsibility for leading Middle Eastern nations toward independence. The League could not prevent the world from embarking on World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), however, for it held no real international authority. It was disbanded after World War II due to the creation of the United Nations, an international political organization founded with the power to promote peace, security, and economic development.

political body called a nation. Some of the people in the Middle East were ready for self-government. Turkey organized itself immediately after the war into an independent political body, establishing borders that were much reduced from those of the Ottoman Empire and declaring independence on January 20, 1921. Neither Britain nor France were able to influence any political or economic policy in Turkey after it claimed independence. Egypt and Iran had also developed some of the characteristics of modern nations: they had a system in place to collect taxes and use those taxes to pursue projects for the good of the nation, such as building roads and sewer systems; they had built legal and educational systems; they had functioning economies; and they had political representatives (though these were not elected representatives, as in much of the West).

But other regions, including Palestine, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Lebanon, and to the south the great desert expanses of the Arabian Peninsula, needed further development before they could become independent nations. Though each of these areas had existing cultural groups eager to claim responsibility for governing, the League of Nations accepted the argument of Britain and France that these regions were not yet ready for self-government. Instead, the League of Nations agreed to divide the region into several territories that would be governed under the authority of either Britain or France until such time as they were ready for self-government. The form of their rule would be called a mandate, and it was to be supervised and approved by the League of Nations so that these mandates would not just be colonies of the sponsoring countries. It was with this understanding that in 1920 the League of Nations, largely following the directives of Britain and France, divided the Middle East into nations that resemble those that exist today.

The eastern part of the region was granted to Britain. The larger part of the region was first known as Mesopotamia, but its name was soon changed to Iraq and the local governor was designated as King Faisal I (1885–1933). A smaller segment, known as Kuwait, was placed under British protection. The western part of the region was more complicated. The central and northern parts were assigned to France, which subdivided them into two republics: Lebanon, a small state on the coast of the Mediterranean; and Syria, a larger territory that stretched eastward toward Iraq. The southern portion was assigned to Britain, and it too was divided. The land between the Mediterranean on the west and the Jordan River on the east was known as Palestine. Control of this territory was fiercely contested between native Arabs known as Palestinians and Jewish immigrants eager to establish a nation in the region that had been ruled by Jews as Israel two thousand years previously. Because of this conflict, Britain placed this mandate under its direct control. To the east of the Jordan River was a territory named Transjordan (later Jordan), local control over which was placed in the hands of King Abdullah I (1882–1951).

To the south was the vast desert of Arabia. While Britain claimed some ties to the region, it held little real power or influence in the region. Instead, control was contested between a variety of sheikhs and tribal leaders, the most notable of whom was the head of the House of Saud, Abd al Aziz ibn Saud (c. 1880–1953). Believing that there was little economic or strategic interest in Arabia, the British and French left these Arabs to sort things out for themselves. Over the next fifteen years, ibn Saud would consolidate power in the region and establish the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

After the Ottomans

According to Bernard Lewis in The Middle East, "The First World War marked the culmination of the retreat of Islam before the advancing West." This long battle between the Islamic Middle East and the West ended in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of multiple nations with conflicting political and religious backgrounds. These newly established countries would struggle to create their own independent identities as time went on, but this would not be an easy process. Each country would face many problems both internally and from outside forces. Religious conflicts in the region, attempts by groups with extreme viewpoints to gain power, managing resources such as oil and water, and constant fighting to keep Western culture from destroying Middle Eastern traditions would all contribute to shaping the Middle East and would influence how each country developed.

For More Information


Braude, Benjamin, and Bernard Lewis, eds. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. Vol. 1: The Central Lands. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982.

Kort, Michael. The Handbook of the Middle East. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Smith, Charles D., ed. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. 4th ed. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Web Sites

Internet Islamic History Sourcebook. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

The Islamic World to 1600. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

League of Nations Photo Archive. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

The Ottomans. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

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The Long Decline: From the Ottoman Empire to the Mandate System

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