Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Bastard of Istanbul

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The Bastard of Istanbul

by Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 368 pages

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At its height the Ottoman Empire, which had its capital in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), spanned three continents, controlling much of Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for about 600 years.

The "golden age" of the Empire was in the 16th Century during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. It was the only Islamic power to seriously challenge the rising power of Western Europe from the Renaissance onwards. The Empire steadily declined during the 19th century and collapsed in the wake of World War I. In the aftermath of the war, the Empire's lands were partitioned and new countries were created from the remnants (currently 40 countries exist in what was once one empire). An interactive map (only works with Internet Explorer) showing the borders of the Ottoman Empire by time period from 1300 to 1922, with an overlay showing current national borders.


The Republic of Turkey (1923) grew out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire with Turkish nationalists establishing modern Turkey at the close of the Turkish War of Independence in which the Turks fought against Greece, Britain, Italy, France and Armenia to establish its borders (read the excellent Birds Without Wings for a history of this period). It is said that the nationalists who founded the republic were careful to call it the Republic of Turkey (a territorial description), as opposed to the Turkish Republic (an ethnic description). The Republic of Turkey declared the Ottoman Dynasty as persona non grata in Turkey - it was not until 50 years later that the Grand National Assembly of Turkey granted descendants of the former dynasty the right to acquire Turkish citizenship.

Mustafa Kemal (known as Ataturk) was a leading founder and first president of the new Republic; under his leadership the Republic's first decade saw a steady process of reforms including the closure of Islamic courts and the introduction of a secular civil code (modeled on Switzerland) and penal code (modeled on Italy), recognition of equality between the sexes, and language reform (replacing the Ottoman alphabet with a new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin alphabet).

Turkey was admitted to the League of Nations in 1932. During WWII Turkey signed a peace treaty with Germany and remained officially neutral until near the end of the war when it declared war, largely symbolically, on Germany and Japan. Turkey joined the United Nations in 1945 and NATO in 1952.

Multi-party politics arrived in the '50s, but a period of high inflation and massive government debt caused the economy to fail and the government introduced censorship laws limiting dissent. There was a military coup in 1960 and another in 1971 with a period of unstable government coalitions in between, with mounting violence between nationalists and communists. A third military coup took place in 1980 but within two years the military had turned the power back to the civilian government. A period of one-party governance followed but in 1995 another period of instability began. In 1964 Turkey became an associate member of the European Community and, in the past decade, has undertaken a number of reforms to strengthen its democracy and economy, enabling it to begin accession membership talks with the European Union. The earliest date it could join would be 2013. Quick facts and links to more information about Turkey


The mountainous, landlocked country of modern-day Armenia (which was formerly the Eastern part of Armenia) to the West of Turkey on the southeastern edge of Europe, has a landmass slightly smaller than Maryland and a population of 3 million. As a nation it adopted Christianity in the early 4th century. Despite periods of autonomy, Armenia has spent much of its history under the rule of various empires including the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Persian, and Ottoman empires; and from the 1920s through to 1991, the Soviet Union.

The genocide against the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire was centrally planned and administered by the Committee of Union and Progress, popularly known as the Young Turks). During World War I, between 1915 and 1918, the great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the majority were sent into the desert to die. Large numbers were massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire. After a year of calm at the end of WWI, the atrocities were renewed between 1920 and 1923, and the remaining Armenians were subjected to further massacres and expulsions.

In May 1915, Great Britain, France, and Russia advised the Young Turk leaders that they would be held personally responsible for this crime against humanity, and there was a vocal public outcry in the United States against the mistreatment of the Armenians. However, no strong actions were taken against the Ottoman Empire either to sanction its brutal policies or to salvage the Armenian people from the grip of extermination. The Young Turk conspirators and other leading figures of the wartime Ottoman government were indicted for their crimes at the end of the war, but the main culprits fled the country and were found guilt of capital crimes in absentia.

Further massacres, expulsions and general mistreatment of Armenians were carried out by Turkish Nationalists between 1920 and 1923. The Turkish Nationalists were a different political movement to the Young Turks but shared their ideology of ethnic exclusivity.

It is estimated that up to one and a half million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923. There were an estimated two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire on the eve of WWI. By 1923 the entire landmass of Asia Minor and historic West Armenia had been effectively expunged of its Armenian population. Quick facts and links to more information about Armenia

This article was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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