The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire

This hook investigates how events during and directly after the First World War have influenced the current situation in Iraq and Syria.

“Map of Ottoman Empire in 1914”

“Map of Ottoman Empire in 1914”, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Aug-2014.


Homasa David in the video “Why I can’t go back to Iraq”

Homasa David in the video “Why I can’t go back to Iraq”. From The Wireless NZ.


In 1914, the Ottoman Empire stretched from modern-day Turkey down to Yemen and Oman. There had been three wars in this region between 1911 and 1913. Alliances and conflicts in these wars had left the Ottoman Empire weak and needing support from a stronger nation. The empire’s need for support was one of the catalysts for the Turco-German Treaty, signed by the Ottoman minister for war and the German ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in August 1914. This secret alliance between the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire meant that if either was attacked by Russia, the other would support it against Russia. 

Another reason for the Ottomans supporting Germany was a conflict over battleships. Before the war, the Ottomans ordered and paid for two battleships to be built in England. In 1914, just before the Ottoman crew took possession of the ships, Winston Churchill embargoed them to be used by the British. The Ottoman government was not compensated for this loss. Germany responded by presenting the empire with two German battleships. These ships, operated by German officers and crew wearing the Turkish uniform, were used in the Black Sea against the Russians during the war. 

There was unrest within the Ottoman Empire leading up to the First World War. Factions from Central Arabia condemned the Ottoman government as anti-Islamic. One of these factions, the Hashemite clan, asked for British support to oppose the Ottoman government. In 1915, letters between the Sharif of Mecca (the leader of the Hashemites) and the British high commissioner in Egypt led Arabs to believe that they would be given back Turkish-occupied land in exchange for fighting against the Ottoman Empire. (This correspondence is called the McMahon Agreement.) In 1914 and 1915 the British also secretly sent money and weapons to support the Arabs. The Hashemites also received support from Al-Fatat, a nationalist group in Syria. This unrest led to the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918. 

However, the British had also made the Sykes–Picot Agreement in 1916, a secret arrangement between Britain and France to divide up the Ottoman Empire between Britain, France, and Russia after the war. This agreement superseded the McMahon agreement and ultimately led to tension between the leaders of the Arab Revolt and the French and British after the rulers of the Ottoman Empire had agreed to an armistice. Importantly, the Sykes–Picot divisions largely ignored tribal or ethnic distinctions (especially relating to religion). This approach meant that communities and cultures were either arbitrarily split by new borders or forced together into uncomfortable new arrangements. Some claim that the Sykes–Picot divisions were one of the factors leading to development of Islamic State (IS). 

Possible discussion questions 

What are some implications of the boundary changes in the Ottoman Empire? Why did Homasa’s family leave Iraq? In what ways might her life be different if they hadn’t left? 

What other factors may have influenced the Ottoman Empire choosing to support Germany in the First World War? 

Why might certain groups have thought the Ottoman government was anti-Islamic? 

Why do you think Britain supported the Arab Revolt in secret? What may have been the consequences if they hadn’t supported the Arab Revolt or had done so publically? 

What if Britain had honoured the McMahon agreement? How might things be different today? 

What do you know about the situation with Islamic State? To what extent has the historical situation impacted its development? How do you think these historical events should be considered when choosing how to respond to the situation in Iraq and Syria? 

What can we learn from these historical events to help us in the future? How should these events influence New Zealand’s involvement in Iraq and Syria? How should these events influence how New Zealand responds to Iraqi and Syrian refugees?

  • LBLF
  • Print.
  • Share.