The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone

The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone

by Janet Klein

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At the turn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman state identified multiple threats in its eastern regions. In an attempt to control remote Kurdish populations, Ottoman authorities organized them into a tribal militia and gave them the task of subduing a perceived Armenian threat. Following the story of this militia, Klein explores the contradictory logic of how states incorporate groups they ultimately aim to suppress and how groups who seek autonomy from the state often attempt to do so through state channels.

In the end, Armenian revolutionaries were not suppressed and Kurdish leaders, whose authority the state sought to diminish, were empowered. The tribal militia left a lasting impact on the region and on state-society and Kurdish-Turkish relations. Putting a human face on Ottoman-Kurdish histories while also addressing issues of state-building, local power dynamics, violence, and dispossession, this book engages vividly in the study of the paradoxes inherent in modern statecraft.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804777759
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/31/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Janet Klein is Associate Professor of History at The University of Akron.

Read an Excerpt

The Margins of Empire

Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone
By Janet Klein


Copyright © 2011 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7570-0

Chapter One

A Manifold Mission

* * *

Officially, the Hamidiye was formed to "protect the country against foreign assaults and aggression" and to find a way to enforce conscription in a region that contributed relatively few recruits to the Ottoman army, and accordingly, was attached to the "just aim of increasing and multiplying the general strength of the Ottoman forces." Later scholars writing on the Hamidiye have, however, found different motives for the creation of this institution. Most writers concur that the regiments were formed for various reasons, including bolstering the Ottomans' military might along the borders, serving as a counter to Armenian revolutionary activities, and finding means to control the Kurds and attract their loyalty. Each writer, however, has emphasized a different aspect of these plans and has contributed valuable insights to the task of understanding what was behind the Hamidiye enterprise. When added together, nuanced, and elaborated, their contributions can offer a much more complex appreciation for how the Hamidiye fit into its historical moment and what its architects had in mind as they drafted the plans for these irregular cavalry units. However, while all of these motives may have been present throughout the history of this tribal militia, some among them took precedence over others at certain times. Mapping the Hamidiye and tracing the locations of these regiments as they were raised, for example, provides small clues about some of the roles the sultan and his advisors assigned to them. First, however, to better understand the manifold nature of the Ottoman mission to fashion these irregular cavalry units, it is in order at this point to present a snapshot of the situation in southeastern Anatolia and the empire at large when the Hamidiye regiments were being planned and formed.


In less than eight months after Sultan Abdülhamid ascended the throne in 1876, war broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and in two years left much of eastern Anatolia in ruins. The war and its aftermath only increased the sense of impending doom felt by many in the empire as they had witnessed the loss of most of their Christian territories earlier in the century, and feared that one of the last areas where Christians formed a significant part of the local population—Armenia—was about to be severed from the empire. A limited number of Armenians had offered assistance to the Russians during the Russo-Ottoman War (1877–78), and, following the war, the British had put forth a program of reform in 1879. Both were acts that Ottomans saw as further steps toward their impending loss of control over this region. The sultan considered it his personal mission to find ways to revive the empire and its people after the devastating war.

Certain Kurdish groups that came together in 1879 under the leadership of the prominent Sheikh Ubeydullah and soon rose in revolt against the central government also sensed that the region was about to be lost to the Armenians or their European supporters. Fearing the implementation of reforms as outlined in Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin, which were designed to guarantee the security of Armenians in the region against the incursions and depredations of Kurds and Circassians, Sheikh Ubeydullah built a broad-based and mighty coalition composed of leading Kurdish tribal chiefs in response to this perceived threat. He also held that neither the Ottomans nor the Iranians were capable of ever controlling the region to the extent necessary to bring about stability in the region, and believed, then, that the Kurds should control their own destiny. He was initially supported by the Ottoman government in his attempts to invade Iran, as the latter saw his movement as a good counterbalance to any Armenian ascendancy in the region and perhaps also as a means to compensate territorial losses incurred during the war. However, the Ottoman government soon realized that such a powerful alliance of Kurdish chiefs and sheikhs could eventually undermine its own already weak authority in the region, and worked to suppress the movement in 1881.

Armenian nationalism was also a growing force that challenged the control of the Ottoman government over eastern Anatolia. Already a palpable intellectual movement by the middle of the century, ideas of socialism and nationalism combined with attempts by Armenians to protect their peasant compatriots who were too often becoming victims of oppression by local Kurdish bandits and who were not sufficiently protected by the state. Some of them began to establish various revolutionary organizations with aims that ranged from the struggle for equality within an Ottoman framework and other reforms to outright independence. In 1880 a secret society called the Defense of the Fatherland was established in Erzurum, with the goal of procuring arms and acquiring military training. In 1882, the Ottoman government became aware of these activities when the Ottoman police seized a document of the organization, and subsequently arrested some four hundred Armenians. By 1885, small revolutionary bands were reported as appearing in districts from Elesgirt to Dersim. The next five years saw the establishment of three important revolutionary organizations: the Armenakan (est. 1885), the Henchak Party (est. 1887), and the Dashnaktsutiun (est. 1890). The Armenian community had already become increasingly suspect in the eyes of the government for the backing it received from the Russians as well as the diplomatic attention it drew from European powers. These nationalist revolutionary organizations and their armed activities only strengthened the suspicions, and indeed bitterness, of many in the empire, including the sultan himself.

The Ottomans' control over the region was further tested by local magnates—urban notables in cities like Diyarbekir and Van—who prevented Ottoman governors from ruling effectively, and Kurdish tribal chiefs, who were virtually independent of all authority but their own throughout much of the region. Economically, large parts of these provinces remained distant from the grasp of the central authorities, as taxes went unpaid by most of the pastoral Kurds, and as Armenian and Kurdish peasants were too squeezed by their Kurdish overlords to pay taxes to the state. Caravan trade was increasingly disrupted by brigandage, and the overall sense of security in the region, felt not only by Christians but also by the weaker Muslim elements, was in decline. Steps taken earlier in the century by Ottoman rulers toward reform and centralization did not seem to bear healthy fruit in the early years of Sultan Abdülhamid II's reign. In the years immediately preceding the formation of the Hamidiye the central government was seriously concerned with controlling tribal feuds and lawlessness.

Facing challenges from all directions as he stepped into his reign, Sultan Abdülhamid II worked to combat these affronts to his authority by initiating a rigorous plan of centralization, devising carrot-and-stick policies to keep alternate sources of power balanced, promoting a program of modernization, continued from his predecessors, and elaborating a symbolic framework of loyalty to strengthen the ties of Sunni Muslims to the empire and to his person. He wished to extend the state's arm domestically, keep foreign influences at bay, and prevent further territorial losses. All of this occurred in the context of the wider global transformations involving modern statecraft, particularly the transition to the nation-state and the larger processes that accompanied this shift. The Ottoman Empire continued to be an empire, but was now "thinking" like a nation-state in many regards. Its rulers were concerned with expanding administrative power and governmentality in all of its domains, but particularly in its "nonstate" spaces or "tribal zones." To this end, the state embarked on a project of internal colonization in its borderlands, but this involved a shift in perceptions of peoplehood as well. New identities emerged in this transformation as the concern with borders—which necessarily had to be less porous than frontiers—was accompanied by a mission to define, if not create, the peoples who occupied the lands on either side of these borders, and to further control their relationships with one another and with the state. The Hamidiye Light Cavalry was created in this historical moment, from which its inspiration and implementation cannot be divorced.


Late in 1890, plans were underway for the recruitment of tribes to establish these irregular cavalry regiments, the idea for which had been brewing in the sultan's elite circles for at least five years. There were many compelling reasons for raising the tribes in this irregular military formation. First, it would bring elements that were outside the reach of central authority into the fold. Access meant control: the opportunity to learn about and thus regulate the movements and activities of a largely mobile people; the ability to collect taxes and recruits for the regular army from a people who scarcely contributed either; and the chance to introduce the sultan as a higher authority than the local chiefs. It would balance the existing powers, each a certain threat to central rule, playing one against the other and backing some over others, but ensuring that such support was clearly a gift from the sultan and could be withdrawn at any time. It could penetrate a region where the notion of "Ottomanness" was weak at best, could help "civilize" and assimilate the people who lived there, and could further the Ottoman project to extend state power, or "governmentality." It would help to bolster military forces against a future Russian invasion. And lastly, it would act as a counter to the newest, and seemingly most potent, of threats—the perceived Armenian "conspiracy" and the budding Armenian revolutionary movement.

As Zeki Pasha, the supreme Hamidiye commander, set out on a tour of the region to promote his new militia and to recruit tribes, he had many tribes to choose from—hundreds, in fact. What initially determined which tribes would be selected was their location and also their willingness to enroll. The Hamidiye regiments, eventually numbering sixty-four or sixty-five in all, were recruited in batches, the first lot being drawn from tribes based largely in the vicinity of the Russian Caucasus and Iranian borders and around Lake Van. At a glance, it appears that the principal concern motivating the Ottomans as they recruited tribes to form this irregular cavalry was to protect the empire's eastern borders from incursions by neighboring powers. This was certainly the official reason given for the Hamidiye in its regulations and was surely a consideration in its architects' choice of locations. However, even though the Ottomans were well aware of the slow but steady movement of Russians southward with their eye on the Ottoman border regions, the central Ottoman government was also growing increasingly suspicious of Russian intrigues among the border populations in the region, both Kurds and Armenians. They knew that the Kurds were generally motivated by the desire to work with whichever power allowed them the most independence and privilege, but they viewed the Armenians as having conspiratorial designs in cahoots with the Russians. Therefore, the more pressing mission becomes clear when we consider the demographics of the region and bear in mind where the Armenian population centers as well as the budding hubs of Armenian revolutionary activity were in relation to these tribes-turned-militia.

Several authors who have commented on the Hamidiye have contended that the militia was created as part of the Ottoman government's anti-Armenian policies at the end of the nineteenth century,14 but none of these authors has offered much evidence for this claim, aside, perhaps, from pointing to the role of the Hamidiye Kurds in the horrific massacres of Armenians that bloodied many parts of Anatolia in 1894–96. Mapping the Hamidiye does, however, substantiate at least the connection between the establishment of the Hamidiye and the state's desire to establish control over what was believed to be a Russian-Armenian conspiracy as well as to suppress revolutionary activities as they intensified. It also demonstrates that while not the sole motive in this manifold mission, the suppression of Armenian nationalist-revolutionary activities was of increasing importance especially in the years immediately following the establishment of the organization.

In southeastern Anatolia at the end of the nineteenth century, Armenians comprised a significant segment of the population in the "Six Provinces," although they did not form the clear majority anywhere but in the kazas of Karcan, Adilcevaz, Bergiri, and Moks in the central sancak (subgovernorate) of Van. In fact, this was the only sancak in which the Armenian population reached 50 percent of the total, with the remainder of the population being mostly Kurdish. In these provinces, Armenians' numbers were spread across the region, in both rural, and especially, urban areas. Major southeastern Anatolian towns, such as Van, Bitlis, Erzurum, Arabkir, Diyarbekir, Harput, and Mus, had considerable Armenian populations. Although they were a largely urban people, they also comprised a healthy segment of the agricultural countryside, particularly in the Erzurum and Mus plains and in various regions of the Van province. There were also sizeable Armenian populations elsewhere in the Bitlis, Diyarbekir, Sivas, and Harput provinces. In the cities, Armenians pursued various professions, often concentrating in occupations dealing with trade and money lending. Many were artisans and shopkeepers as well. In the countryside, Armenians tended to be peasants who farmed small garden plots of their own or larger tracts belonging to their villages, but who were increasingly forced into sharecropping and tenancy; in this they lived a life much like their settled Kurdish neighbors.

Armenians from predominantly urban centers (and even some rural areas at this point) were exposed to the latest ideas through literature delivered to them by their cosmopolitan compatriots, who would visit their hometowns after residing in the empire's capital or abroad, and also through the various missionary schools that Europeans, and especially Americans, established for their education. Socialism and nationalism figured prominently in the ideas espoused by a growing segment of the literate Armenian population, and revolutionary societies, which first emerged in centers abroad, gradually proliferated throughout the towns and villages of the Armenian plateau in southeastern Anatolia. Beginning in the late 1880s and especially in the early 1890s, revolutionaries would sometimes transport their numbers, accompanied by literature and weapons, across the Iranian, and particularly Russian, frontiers into the empire. 19 Incidentally, these borders had also been serving as an escape route for villagers who, in the face of growing poverty and oppression, sought to emigrate illegally. Relatively fluid borders further allowed revolutionaries, most of whom were from Russia, to cross over into the empire, carry out a raid, and duck back across the frontier so as to avoid capture by the Ottoman authorities (a tactic long employed by frontier tribes). While revolutionary activity was certainly on the rise during these years, it could not, however, be considered large-scale. The heightened level of activities, coupled with the Ottomans' memory of how some Armenians behaved during the Russo-Turkish War, nonetheless produced an image of serious threat in the minds of many local Muslims and ruling circles.


Excerpted from The Margins of Empire by Janet Klein Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Hamidiye Light Cavalry in the Ottoman Tribal Zone,....................1
1. A Manifold Mission,....................20
2. The Hamidiye Under Abdülhamid II, 1890–1908,....................52
3. The Tribal Light Cavalry Under the Young Turks, 1908–1914,....................95
4. The Hamidiye and the "Agrarian Question,"....................128
5. The Hamidiye and Its Legacy,....................170
Appendix: Map of Hamidiye Regiments, ca. 1900,....................185

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