How the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the new Arab states

Another weekend, another one-day course at London’s City Lit. This was was entitled “From Ottoman Empire To New Arab States” and delivered by Dr James Chiriyankandath.

The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and long lasting empires in history. At its peak, it included what today are Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, parts of Arabia, and much of the coastal strip of North Africa. It existed from 1301-1922 – an incredible six centuries.

Following the spread of the 18th century nationalist idea in Europe, the origins of Arab nationalism lie in what is called al-Nahda’ (the Awakening), a cultural and religious renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Ottoman Empire effectively collapsed with its defeat in the First World War following the Arab Revolt in which the British officer T E Lawrence played a significant advisory role. The contours of the post-war Arab world were shaped by three documents of this time:

  • The correspondence between Sherif Hussein of Mecca and Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, which promised the creation of an independent Arab state
  • The agreement between British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat Georges Picot which determined the division of the Middle East into British and French spheres of control
  • The letter from British Foreign Secretary Henry Balfour to Baron Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community, which promised a national home for the Jews

However, the first two of these agreements were secret and the Balfour Declaration was brief and obscure.

It was only after the Second World War that the independent Arab states of today came into being. So most Arab states are recent – and, some would say, artificial – constructs. The only Arab states with a long history are Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.


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