No matter how much Turkish leaders today try to sugarcoat the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, the result will always come out bitter. Turkish President, Erdoğan can bemoan European imperialism as much as he wants, but that will never whitewash his own people’s history. It is time for him and his people to admit that the Ottomans, who they are often fond of praising, were some of the most ruthless imperialists humanity ever witnessed. The Ottomans were invaders and occupiers who wreaked havoc on the indigenous population of the eastern Mediterranean for centuries.
The Ottoman rule was cruel and barbaric, especially on the Armenians, who commemorated on April 24 the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. But, they were not the only ones to endure discrimination, starvation, displacement and slaughter. The Greeks, the Cypriots, the Assyrians and other Levantines, especially the Christians, the Alawites, Druze, Jews, Shia, and of course the Kurds did, too.
While the Ottomans were killing hundreds of thousands of Armenians, they were also blockading the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, especially the very important port of Beirut, preventing any food or medical supplies from reaching the Levant. The blockade caused thousands of deaths from widespread famine in the Levant. In Lebanon alone, one third of its population died. That was genocide in itself!
It was not only murder that the Ottomans committed. They systematically prevented the education and intellectual development of the population they ruled. Travel to any country that was formerly occupied by the Ottomans, from Greece to Lebanon, and one would not find one school or university built by them. Sultan Selim I, regarded as one of the greatest sultans of the Ottoman Empire, even passed a law that punished with the death penalty anyone who used the newly-invented printing press in his empire. The shrewd Italian merchants who were selling him the printing press convinced him to allow non-Muslim subjects to use the printing press. He acquiesced, allowing some minorities to use the new invention. The first Jewish press was established in 1494 in Istanbul and the first Christian press was established at the Convent of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in Lebanon in 1610. Muslims, however, would not be allowed to use the printing press for centuries. The first Turkish press was only established in the 18th century, almost 300 years after the invention of the printing press. Thus, as Europe was going through the Age of Reason, which was a direct result of the invention of Gutenberg’s press, the population of the Ottoman Empire lay dormant in ignorance thanks to its sultans.
Moreover, the Ottomans committed a number of environmental atrocities. Their army, for example, cut down entire forests to fuel their trains. In Mount Lebanon 60% of the cedar forests were cut down in three years.
This is our truth, and Turkish denial will never change it. C. Northcote Parkinson once said, “Delay is the deadliest form of denial” so Turks can delay the apology, but it is inevitable because we will always insist on it. Turkey as the inheritor of the legacy of Ottoman Empire must apologize for its neighbors, starting with the Armenian Genocide but not stopping there. The Greeks, Cypriots, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Kurds are all waiting for apologies, too.
Ignoring history does not make it go away. It only helps repeat it as we have seen over and over again, and most recently against the Christians and Yazidis in Iraq. It is time for Turkey to face up to its past. When Pope John Paul II apologized for the actions of the Crusader attack on Constantinople in 1204, he said to the Patriarch of Constantinople, “Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day.” The wounds that the Ottomans left in the Armenians, Greeks, Lebanese, Cypriots, Kurds and other Levantines are centuries deep and passed from one generation to another. If Turkey wants an honest and a functioning relationship with its neighbors, an apology can go a long way. As Lynn Johnston, the Canadian cartoonist once said, “An apology is the super glue of life. It can repair just about anything.”