By Manal Lutfi

Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat- From food prices to widespread epidemics, from the education system to oppositional political movements, from the relationship of the governors (valis) with the Sublime Porte and the Ottoman sultan to daily life within the palaces and the famous artists; information on all of this can be found in the Ottoman Archives that have preserved the memories of the Ottoman state for the four past decades.

The Ottoman archives provide an insight to the political history of the Arabs and the Turks as well as the social, cultural, judicial and religious history. The overall picture however will remain incomplete to the region’s historians unless a large number of these documents are translated by the Arabs, argues Kamal al Khouja, an expert who specializes in Ottoman archives.

Kamal al Khouja was born in 1973 in Aleppo, Syria. He studied at the University of Damascus and then went on to study theology in Turkey. Since 1966, he has worked as a Turkish-Arabic translator and for many years he presented television programs related to Syria in Turkish. In 1993, al Khouja moved to Turkey and ever since he has specialized in translating Ottoman documents for various scientific centres and research institutions, including the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), subsidiary of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul, the American University of Beirut and research centres in Arab universities.

Following is the text of the interview conducted by Asharq Al-Awsat with al Khouja in Istanbul:

Q: When you refer to Ottoman documents, what do you mean specifically?

A: The Ottoman documents include “Hamayon scripts”, that is, the sultanate decrees and correspondences between the Ottoman sultan and the governors of Ottoman states throughout the existence of the Ottoman Empire. These also include the correspondences between the sultan’s palace and the Sublime Porte (the government) that was assumed by the “Alma Bayn” administration which was the most important in the sultan’s palace. Tahsin Pasha was one of the leading figures of the Ottoman state. The archives were separated into various categories such as internal management, external management and miscellaneous. The documents were placed in these categories and were written by historians who witnessed historical events firsthand.

Q: How many Ottoman documents exist?

A: The number of the Ottoman documents is estimated at 250 million, but the number of documents that relate to the Arab world is estimated between 80 and 100 million, of which only 50,000 documents have been translated so far.

Q: Is there demand from Arabs to translate the Ottoman documents?

A: There are demands from individuals. Even today there is not much demand from institutions, some of which are affiliated to states. Each country, for example, is searching for something that is related to its own history within the Ottoman documents and only translating the relative parts.

The King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives in Riyadh has shown interest in translating some documents. However, the major problem in translating Ottoman documents is that there are not enough translators to do the work especially since the Turks cut ties with the Ottoman script a long time when it, along with its Arabic borrowings, was prohibited in the 1920s. The Turks today no longer know their history through the Ottoman documents in their original language; they have to translate them from Ottoman Turkish into Turkish.

Q: Is learning the old Ottoman language difficult for modern Turks and Arabs?

A: Yes. The Ottoman language is a mixture of Turkish, Arabic and Persian. Moreover, it includes many Arabic words that are used in the non-original sense of the words. Because of this difficulty, institutions of countries that have shown an interest and that have the financial potentialities should support groups of professional translators, which require funding and time. The student that wants to learn the Ottoman language must be familiar with modern Turkish and Arabic and then may be able to read Ottoman documents in the correct manner. This would be the first step in translating Ottoman documents. The truth is that there is a desperate need to establish a research centre to train translators so that this heritage, which is related to Arabs, can be passed on. The Turks have translated all that relates to them into the modern Turkish language. When the Ottoman state collapsed, it dismantled into over 50 countries. Therefore, all of these countries have links to the Ottoman archives, at the top of which are the Arab countries.

Q: Which Ottoman documents are of most interest to the Arabs?

A: The most interesting documents for the Arabs would be those relating to Palestine and other documents that are linked to the history of the Hijaz, Basra and the Arab national movement. There is a repetitive idea in some Arab history books that depend on Western documents for their sources that states that the Ottomans neglected Palestinian land and that the Palestinian people themselves sold their land under Ottoman rule. This claim is refuted by the historical documents that are available to us. By documents I mean the correspondences between the governors and the Ottoman sultan, all of which signified that the Ottoman state did not sell Palestinian land; in fact, it was keen to keep it and categorically refused to sell any land to the Jews and even prevented Jews living in Palestine. After having allowed Jews to embark on one or two-month visits, the Ottoman state soon banned this.

One important document is the eight-page articles of incorporation for the Suez Canal that is signed by the Ottoman state and French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. There are many documents about Egypt that are important to the Ottomans particularly in relation to the rule of Hijaz. The Turks had directly ruled Egypt through the khedive, whereas in the Gulf and the Levant, the majority were pashas. Therefore, despite the fact that Syria is closer to Turkey, the Egyptians were more influenced by the Ottomans.

There is an important document on a number of leading Arab revival figures such as Faris Nimr, Yaqoub Suruf and Shahin Makarios, all of whom were Maronites who moved from the Levant to Egypt at the invitation of an Egyptian minister. They were given the right to publish magazines and newspapers, the most prominent of which is ‘Al Muqaddam’ newspaper. Through their newspapers and magazines, they tried to provoke ideological conflict between the Arabs and the Turks, but the reaction to this was strong because of their national ideologies. According to the documents, they joined the Masonic lodge and established secret and public associations to liberate the Levant in the name of nationalism. Furthermore, they contacted the English and the French. Because the Masonic lodge acted publicly to weaken the Ottoman state, the Ottoman state criticized its role and others who called for Arab nationalism on the basis that this contributed to weakening the Ottoman state. The Ottoman documents depict these calls for Arab nationalism as non-Arab aiming at undermining the Ottoman state for the French and the English in particular. But the truth is that when we look at what happened in the past and what is taking place now there are many similarities. For example, all the current events taking place in Lebanon and sectarian disputes had occurred in the 19th century perhaps in the same manner.

Most documents from the Ottoman archives relate to Bahrain, Qatar and Egypt, however most notably to the Hijaz and the period before the fall of the Ottoman state. Since 1993, I have been translating documents that are related to Basra. In addition, there is an important document written by Sheikh Muhammed Abdo to the Ottoman sultan to draft a project for reform for religious education in the Ottoman state.

Q: What is the overall image of Arabs in the Ottoman documents? After the Arabs allied with the English in World War I, were they portrayed as traitors?

A: The Arabs have always held a special position in the eyes of Ottoman sultans based on the consideration that they are descendants of the Prophet [PBUH]. They held a special position in the state as they were exempt from paying some taxes and salaries were given to al Ashraaf [descendants of the Prophet].

Q: In the documents, was the idea that the Ottoman state would fall depicted during the period that was dubbed ‘The Sick Man of Europe’?

A: Yes. They did feel that there was danger and this is reflected in the documents related to the concessions that were given to foreigners and through the concessions given by the Ottoman state to prevent Muhammad Ali Pasha from seizing the Levant and Anatolia. Muhammad Ali Pasha also had played a role in this sedition. When he ruled Egypt, he took his armies to an area about 450 kilometres from Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman state; the Ottoman state consulted the representatives of the superpowers, namely, France, Russia and Britain. The Ottoman state promised these countries that it would offer special concessions to the Christians of the Levant to force out Muhammad Ali from this region. But after Muhammad Ali was driven out, the Ottoman state realized the danger in offering concessions to one category of people over others; it realized that this would lead to conflict. But it was too late since the conflict between the Maronites and the Druze had already begun. The Druze did not act spontaneously; rather they were incited by the English. As for the French, they defended the Maronites. Intrinsically, Muhammad Ali Pasha was an indirect cause of the conflict in Lebanon and the collapse of the Ottoman state.

Q: What is the image of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the Ottoman archives?

A: Muhammad Ali Pasha went through various stages. He accomplished a lot. In Egypt, he was the treasurer of the Ottoman military. He had men in Sultan Abdul Hamid’s palace as he was Albanian and the Albanians were the striking force within the Ottoman army. The Ottomans did not discriminate between a Turk, an Albanian or an Arab. Even during the period before the collapse of the Ottoman state the Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha was Muhammad Ali Pasha’s grandson. He was a renowned intellectual who wrote many books that are published today in Turkey. After Muhammad Ali Pasha had his rival Khosru Pasha imprisoned and after he became governor of Egypt, his first act was to eliminate the Mamluks. This was no easy matter and came with a heavy price as he eliminated the Mamluks in Upper Egypt and Cairo. After that, when the independent movement of Wahhabism began, the Ottoman state could not move its armies to the Levant or Baghdad. All the officials gave flimsy excuses particularly the governor of Baghdad Suleiman Pasha who requested 60,000 camels in order to advance towards al Deraya along with the governor of the Levant Abdullah Pasha al Azem. Muhammad Ali Pasha would only act if he thought that the Ottoman state would reward him for it, specifically by appointing him as a governor of the Levant. When the Ottoman state refused to give him the Levant, he ordered his armies to seize it and advanced towards Constantinople. At that time, the Ottoman state considered him and portrayed him as a rebel.

Q: You said some Ottoman documents depicted the Arab national movement as a tool in the hands of foreign powers used to weaken the Ottoman state. What about the Turkish national movements such as the Young Turks and the Committee of Union and Progress? How were they depicted?

A: The Committee of Union and Progress was based on the Young Turks movement. Thessaloniki (modern day Greece) was known for its population of Jews who migrated from Spain and fled religious persecution in Europe in the late 19th century. Some argue that the migration of the Jews from Europe to the Ottoman state was plotted by the Jews and the Europeans under the pretence of religious persecution in order to sabotage the Ottoman state. However, I believe that the Jews encouraged nationalism amongst the Turks and were behind the establishment of the Young Turks and the Young Arab Society [Al Fatat] at the same time that was based in London.

Aziz al Masri was one of the leading founders of the Al Fatat party. It seems that both Sheikh Jamal al Din al Afghani and Sheikh Muhammad Abdo had ties with this movement. It is widely believed that they had links to the Freemasons however there is no evidence to support that. These accusations were frequently made because of the ‘Al Owra al Wuthqa’ magazine that was issued by al Afghani and Muhammad Abdo. This magazine was issued in Europe and entered the Arab states through the foreign postal system – that was not controlled by the Ottomans – and this was part of the foreign countries’ concessions in the Ottoman state. It supported the Arab national movements. Al Afghani was strictly monitored and was wanted by the Ottoman state; however, the sultan did not severely punish these figures, in fact he used to send them presents and invite them to the palace. The evidence is that Sheikh Muhammad Abdo loved sultan Abdul Hamid and considered him the caliph of Muslims. It is evident through the project that he launched to reform religious education in the Ottoman state, where Muhammad Abdo drafted it and Egypt was under the protection of the English.

As for the Young Turks, its founders were colleagues of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. They then became the Committee of Union and Progress that assumed power after the overthrow of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The most prominent leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress include Mahmud Shawkat Pasha and the war minister Anwar Pasha who decided to involve the Turks in the war alongside the Germans. That was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman state. There was also Jawid Pasha who was minister of finance and Jamal Pasha, the fourth army and naval commander in the Levant.

Q: The then opposition movements that appeared in the Arab countries and the Ottoman state and the critical newspapers such as ‘Al Owra al Wuthqa, al Muqtadaf, al Muqattam and al Ahram indicated that there was a margin of political freedoms in the Ottoman state. Is this true?

A: I have a list of publications that were issued in Istanbul before the collapse of the Ottoman state, which number over 130 newspapers and magazines in different languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Serbian, German and Russian, that is all languages that were spoken by those affiliated to the Ottoman state.

Reference: Manal, Lutfi. History of the Arabs in the Ottoman Archives. 27 Jan. 2008. Asharq Al-Awsat. <>

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