The history of the Ottomans in Hejaz

Talal al-Torifi
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Zekeriya Kurşun wrongly believes that the Ottoman service to the Two Holy Mosques represents a key historical argument in his recent articles. As usual, the Turks, and the historians who followed suit, focus on a positive image of the Ottomans' control of the Two Holy Mosques.

In reality, however, the Ottomans have a shameful historical legacy in the Hejaz. Although some historians attempt to cover up this legacy, they are unable to discredit the historical sources that document them.

I think the greatest issue Turkish historians have is related to these sources rather than the Arabs themselves.

This is because it is impossible to conceal these sources and their clear condemnation of the Ottomans and their rule of the Hejaz.

The Two Holy Mosques

Kurşun’s argument about the Two Holy Mosques is based on the fact that Ottoman Sultans held the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, although they were not the first in this as Saladin held it before them.

Discussing the Two Holy Mosques is an attempt to undermine Saudi Arabia’s service to them and the Kingdom’s series of accomplishments that clearly causes some confusion for the Turks. Evidently, there is no room for comparison between the Ottoman and Saudi services to the Two Holy Mosques.

The Saudis carried out their mission based on noble principles: first, the pure Islamic law that encourages serving holy places in the Two Holy Mosques; second, the desire to serve the Islamic ummah and Muslims all over the worlds; and third, the fact that the Two Holy Mosques represent an integral part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in their holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 8, 2019. (Reuters)
Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in their holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 8, 2019. (Reuters)

In contrast, the Ottomans served the Two Holy Mosques for one singular purpose: political propaganda for their empire, utilizing it to claim control over the largest geographical area in the Islamic world and thereby sanctifying their authority. According to historical evidence, however, most of the Arab world, including the Arabian Peninsula, was suffering from political and economic neglect.

The Arab Gulf was left for Europeans and their colonial aspirations, and Andalusia was crying for help from the Ottomans, who never exerted any true attempt to protect it. While all of this was happening, the Ottoman Empire was trying to achieve its policies regarding Europe and extending its diplomacy to France and elsewhere without any serious consideration for advancing the places it claimed to have under its control and purported to protect.

This led Arabs, including those in the Arabian Peninsula, to know the true colors of the Ottoman Turks and the manner in which they were depleting their homelands. As a result, the people of the Arabian Peninsula opposed the Ottoman presence and rejected the solutions that imposed Ottoman domination.

This was done through supporting the national legitimacy represented by the imams of the Saudi state, whether at the end of the first Saudi state, during the period between the two states, or during the second Saudi state and the era of King Abdulaziz.

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia. (File photo: AP)
The Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia. (File photo: AP)

When the Ottomans tried to achieve their political domination by using a member of the Saudi family in the second Saudi state to take over the rule in their name, they failed, as the population refused to submit to them or their representatives, leading to the failure of their colonial aspirations.

Another argument that proves that the Ottomans did not serve the Two Holy Mosques for religious reasons is that none of their sultans visited the Two Holy Mosques or performed the Hajj pilgrimage. Serving the Two Holy Mosques requires the custodian to take care of them, visit them, and supervise the services provided there as he is directly responsible for them.

This is something the Ottomans committed to do during their rule over the Hejaz, but never actually did in reality.

To better understand the political motivations of the Ottoman control over the Two Holy Mosques, let us remember that they did not have dealings with the first Saudi state, which they sought to undermine, until the latter annexed the Two Holy Mosques.

Kurşun himself stated that the Ottomans did not take action against the first Saudi state until after the annexation of Makkah. According to Kurşun, "the Ottomans were outraged over Makkah’s seizure, and they immediately informed neighboring governors and ordered them to take necessary measures."

A picture taken June 23, 2020 shows pilgrims housing tents located between the holy sites of Arafat and Mina in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca. (AFP)
A picture taken June 23, 2020 shows pilgrims housing tents located between the holy sites of Arafat and Mina in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca. (AFP)

It should be mentioned that the Ottomans allied themselves with foreign powers, including Great Britain, to topple the first Saudi state. This is evident from the visit of the British Captain George Forster Sadleir to the camp of Ibrahim Pasha in 1334 A.H./1819 A.D., where he congratulated him on toppling the Saudi state, and discussed with him the mobilization of local and regional powers to carry out a joint Ottoman-British attack on the last allies of the first Saudi state in Ras Al-Khaimah and Sharjah, the Al-Qasimi Sheikhs, with the goal of eliminating the Saudi influence even after the fall of the state.

Consequently, Britain launched its fourth campaign on Sharjah using Ottoman services and in coordination with the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman hatred of the Saudis reached its peak as evidenced by Brydges, who said: “That was the end of a government that was created by people who were weak and are now strong, and who scared the Turkish pashas in Asia and their Sultan in Constantinople. The Wahhabis were wrong about the extent of their power and they imagined that they could challenge the British government.” This shows Britain's support for the Ottomans to topple the first Saudi state.

As for the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques held by Selim I, it is funny to see him proudly claim that he was the first to use it while adding, “after Saladin.” How does that make him the first one to bear the title then? Anyone can claim to be the first to do something after the person before them. Besides, serving the Two Holy Mosques is not a matter of titles and precedence, it is a matter of actions and historical evidence.

It is true that the Ottomans provided some services to the Two Holy Mosques, but they were not as ideal as Kurşun describes them. Selim I declared himself the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in 922 A.H./ 1516 A.D. before he defeated the Mamluk Sultanate. At the time, he announced that his goal was to take over the Two Holy Mosques.

Regarding the capture of the Hejaz, Kurşun overlooked the fact that Selim I was planning to send a military campaign to achieve that, contrary to what he said about the Sharif of Mecca voluntarily sending his son, as reported by Al-Sanjari in Mana’ih Al Karam.

He mentioned that Selim I was planning to send his army, but some people from Hejaz who were in Egypt after the defeat of the Mamluk Sultanate advised him to write to the Sharif first. Selim took their advice and wrote to the Sharif of Mecca. He asked the Sharif to send his son and pledge allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.

When the Ottomans took over Hejaz, they only created an administrative division (sanjak) in Jeddah, with the goal of monitoring Mecca, which remained self-governed by the Sharifs. This was the Ottoman policy when it came to annexing and managing many countries. The Ottomans were interested in the Two Holy Mosques for propaganda purposes. Therefore, they provided material assistance, and solidified the doctrine of having an official Sultanate through reconstructing the shrine of the Hanafi school in the Meccan Sanctuary.

In 932 A.H./ 1525 A.D., nine years after taking over Hejaz, the Ottomans egregiously violated the Meccan sanctuary. Ibn Fahd relates that “They committed outrageous actions in Mecca; they attacked the houses of the locals, kicked them out along with their wives, seized and destroyed their possessions, and lived in their houses. Locals cried for help but no one was there for them except Allah. The Ottomans' cruelty became worse as every resident of Mecca raised their hands to God and wished the Ottomans ill. The Ottomans were wicked; publicly engaging in adultery, paying little for food in the markets, or taking it without paying.”

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the holy Kaaba in Mecca. (File photo: Reuters)
Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the holy Kaaba in Mecca. (File photo: Reuters)

What kind of service starts with such violations? Historic sources detail many subsequent violations and atrocities. The construction services that the Ottomans and their historians claim they did for the Two Holy Mosques were at the repeated urgings of the Sharifs. Restoration and construction was extremely limited, given that architectural works, especially in the tenth century AH, were carried out with great caution by the Ottomans.

This was due to their extremist Sufi subjects who had an unrealistic view of construction works, stating that holy structures were inherently preserved and did not need restoration. Therefore, any construction or restoration works were extremely limited and carried out after many deliberations, meetings, and conflicts between different schools of thought.

Thus, gloating about the Turkish service to the Two Holy Mosques and the assistance provided by the Ottomans dissimulates the true reality of the matter. The level of the Turkish service cannot even be compared to the level of service the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia provides. According to historical sources, the Ottomans provided services followed by violations, and they took more than they gave when it comes to the service to the Two Holy Mosques. They also violated the sanctity of the Two Holy Mosques in many historical events, like Fakhri Pasha did in Medina in the Seferberlik incident, when he displaced its people and imprisoned about 170 of its scholars and leaders before exiling them to the Levant and Anatolia.

They were akin to prisoners during the World War I, living in forced alienation, displacement, and distress. Fakhri Pasha did not care about the tragic fate of these inhabitants, whom his soldiers arrested in the streets regardless of their gender, age, or status. Locals from Medina tell many more tragic stories about the unforgivable atrocities Fakhri Pasha and the Ottomans committed.

Whenever Fakhri gave a sermon at Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, he would insult and curse Arabs and accuse them of treachery. Fakhri put explosives around Prophet Muhammad’s room in the Holy Mosque, the Holy Grave, and the courtyards of Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, when he was cornered, and threatened to blow up Al-Masjid an-Nabawi.

Before that, he stole possessions from Prophet Muhammad’s room. Because of his tyranny, Medina reached a disastrous state of famine where people resorted to eating cats and dead bodies exhumed from graves.

The last action of the Ottomans against the Meccan Sanctuary was the most egregious one in the modern era.

When Sharif Hussein bin Ali announced the revolt in 1334 AH/1916 AD, the Ottomans fired artillery at the Meccan Sanctuary from the Ajyad Fortress. They hit the Sacred House just above the Black Stone, setting fire to the curtain of Kaaba and damaging the porticos of the mosque with their bombs.

Indeed, when retracing the Ottoman control over the Two Holy Mosques, one finds many contradictions in the books and research studies that exaggerate the Ottoman services. The Ottomans did not respect the sanctity of the Two Holy Mosques and were not bothered about engaging in forbidden acts and violating holy places. The examples above are indeed sufficient proof, but further historical investigation reveals even more Ottoman violations in the Two Holy Mosques.

Worshippers read Islam’s holy book Quran at the Prophet Mohammad’s Mosque in Medina. (File Photo: AP)
Worshippers read Islam’s holy book Quran at the Prophet Mohammad’s Mosque in Medina. (File Photo: AP)

In Mecca alone, not to mention Medina, the Ottomans committed worse acts than Abraha Al-Habashi did before Islam when he violated the sanctity of Mecca. They committed worse acts than what Al-Hajjaj did by when he catapulted the Kaaba. They were similar to the Qarmatians when they took pieces of the Black Stone during the era of Suleiman I.

I wish Kurşun had studied history broadly instead of limiting himself to official Ottoman papers. Boasting about the existence of Turkish documents and writings does not mean they reflect a historical reality, but rather represent an official viewpoint and the story they want to tell, not the history they want to hide.

Kurşun and others are merely spreading a distorted historical narrative founded upon an old heritage in an attempt to create a political force based on an ideology that aims to dispel a part of the natural order. They are attempting to live according to an aristocracy that places Turks above the rest of the world, including Arabs, and return back to a life devoid of toil and work, just as the Ottomans enjoyed when relying on the wealth of others.

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