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The Ottoman Tales VIII: Christians, Keep Your Promises

This continues a series inspired (somewhat) by Noel Barber’s The Sultans.  The previous instalment is here.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was a process written in blood, as was their inclusion in the Sultan’s realm.  The Romanian count who is known as Dracula fought to keep up the independence of his people from Ottoman rule, and did so with cruelty he probably learned from the Turks themselves while held hostage.  By the late 1870’s, the largest realm in the Balkans still entirely under Turkish rule was Bulgaria, and as was the case elsewhere the Turks spared no means in their attempt to keep the land under their control.

But the world was changing; now mass communications media and the expansion of democratic process in Europe meant that public opinion mattered more than ever before.  British opinion in particular was horrified at the Turkish massacres, putting their own government–which was trying to stall the end of the “sick man of Europe”–in a particular bind.  It was a boost to the Russians, who decided that the time was right to make their big move on Constantinople.  In 1877 the Russians declared war on the Turks, who responded by raising the Banner Named Barack.

The Russians invaded Bulgaria.  The time seemed perfect: the Turks were in their usual desultory state, and the British were caught between their outraged public and their strategic interests.  It seemed like the Russian red, white and blue (basically the same flag the Russian federation has now) would soon be flying over the Bosporus.

But the Turks didn’t become the dread of Europe for nothing.  The Turkish general Osman Pasha decided to dig in at the Bulgarian town of Plevna and block the Russian invaders.  In doing so he had learned a few lessons from the American Civil War (in places like Petersburg) and of course the idiotic British Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, that a well-entrenched force with the then-modern weaponry was formidable against attack.  (Kemal Ataturk repeated the same feat at Gallipoli).

When the Russian force finally arrived at Plevna, Osman and his Turks were ready.  The Turks repulsed the first Russian offensive on 19 July 1877.  The Russians then called in Romanian reinforcements, but through August and September they were unable to break Osman’s fortifications.  They were able to cut his supply line by taking the town of Lovech, and the battle of Plevna became a siege.

Osman realised that he could not hold out indefinitely without more supplies and reinforcements.  For both he appealed to Sultan Abdul Hamid II.  Unfortunately, for all the gaudy rhetoric, the latter did not back up his words with action, and when he did send a sorry excuse of a relief force the Russians dispatched it.  Moreover Osman’s superiors blocked his requests to abandon the town, which gave the Russians and Romanians time to completely encircle it.

Osman had managed to gain some goodwill in Plevna itself by executing Turkish soldiers for looting.  Up against it, he attempted a break-out in early December.  Unable to take the Turkish wounded with him, and knowing the local custom, he gathered the local hierarchy of the Bulgarian Orthodox church and made them swear on the Bible that they would not harm the Turks he left.

Osman’s break-out attempt almost succeeded.  “Almost” turned into defeat on 10 December when Osman and his Turks surrendered to the Russians, who treated the officers honourably.  The prisoners of war, however, were allowed to freeze in the cold, and the Bulgarians broke their oath and massacred the wounded they had promised to protect.

Although a loss, Plevna stalled the Russians’ march to Constantinople, and turned public opinion in Europe back the Turks’ way.  The British sent the Royal Navy to Constantinople, and the Russians decided to quit while they were ahead at the Congress of Berlin. Bulgaria became an independent nation again, but the Bosporus would stay in Turkish hands.

There are Christian traditions which take the following to the letter:

 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Never break your oath, but give to the Lord what you swore in an oath to give him.’  But I tell you don’t swear an oath at all. Don’t swear an oath by heaven, which is God’s throne,  or by the earth, which is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, which is the city of the great King. (Matthew 5:33-35 GW)

Others interpret it a little more broadly:

As we confess that vain and rash swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, so we judge that Christian religion doth not prohibit but that a man may swear when the magistrate requireth in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet’s teaching in justice, judgement, and truth. (Articles of Religion XXXIX)

Irrespective of this, the Christian should learn to keep his or her promises, not only as a witness but also (in this case) to stop the cycle of bloodshed which was all too common in Ottoman times and which has not stopped at present.


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