This is the most iconic Ottoman propaganda map, present here in the extremely rare original large format ‘poster’ size. It was made in 1916, during the height of World War I, on the orders of the Young Turk regime to channel popular rage against what was perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall the Turkish people. In the wake of the First Balkan Wars (1912-3), the Ottoman Empire lost the great majority if its European territories, in the Southern Balkans, that it had controlled for over 500 years; these lands having been conquered by Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. Over the half a millennium of Ottoman rule, many generations of ethnic Turkish Muslims had developed their own distinct communities and cultures in ‘Rumelia’ (the Ottoman term for the Southern Balkans), forming an intense connection to the only land that they ever knew. During and immediately after the Balkans Wars, hundreds of thousands lost their lives, while 800,000 Turks were forced into exile. As the refugees flooded into Istanbul and cities across Western Anatolia, the spectre of their misery had a deep emotional impact upon all Turks, while the national embarrassment of such an overwhelming defeat stung bitterly.
Fast forward to World War I, while the Ottomans won a phenomenal victory during the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915, whereby they defended the gateway to Istanbul from a massive Anglo-French invasion, the summer of 1916 only brought bad news, of Ottoman reversals in Egypt, Iraq and Arabia, while the war against Russia was proving difficult. As Ottoman casualties mounted, the Young Turks desperately needed something to serve as rally cry, to motivate the Turkish people to redouble their efforts.
In this vein, the Ottoman ministries of the Interior and Education coordinated an elaborate propaganda campaign to capitalize upon a national grievance that had never lost it is resonance. Through a concerted media blitz, the government confronted the Turkish public with the tragedy of the loss of Rumelia, the mere mention of which often sparked rage, and so channeling that energy towards collective action. Numerous books, pamphlets, posters and flyers were published, often graphically depicting the loss of Rumelia, to be handed out at news kiosks, posted on message boards and disseminated in offices, public bureaus and schools and universities.
Entitled ‘Revenge’, the present map was perhaps the most powerful and best known of the rhetorical devices created by the campaign. A large, ephemeral ‘poster map’, printed on cheap, newsprint-like paper, it would have been posted in very public places, such as on newsboards on busy streets, and shown in schools and universities. The map embraces the band of the southern Balkans that ran from Istanbul over to Albania. The massive swath of Ottoman territory that was lost during the Balkan Wars is shaded a bold jet black, representing ‘death’, in sharp visual contrast to the dull, skeletal appearance of the surrounding territories. The sea of despair is interrupted only the name ‘Rumelia’, which runs across it, along with roundels featuring the names of ‘lost’ major cities and towns. An inset, in the bottom centre, details Crete, an island formally forfeited by the Ottomans in 1912, and which had a large Turkish population. Indeed, on the map the psycho-trauma of the loss of Ottoman Europe assumes an overwhelming physical form, with devastating effect.
Curiously, amidst the powerful, dark imagery is a hint of whimsey, as in the blank space within Anatolia, in the lower-right quadrant, appears printed sketches of an Ottoman man looking up at an airplane, while books fly in the air. Additionally, in the Aegean Sea, are several contemporary manuscript sketches in pencil of named warships, plus, in the Ionian Sea, is a rudimentary pencil sketch of Ottoman soldiers. These details are perhaps a commentary on the wonderment inspired by the of the ongoing war, with all its new technology.
While the present large poster map was by far the grandest and best-known version of the ‘black map’ of Rumelia, many small-scale iterations, drafted by different artists, appeared in books and pamphlets, assuming various forms and styles.
The ‘Revenge’ campaign was no doubt successful in motivating as least a good number of Turks to redouble their participation in the war effort, as even though the Ottomans ended up losing war, their troops fought hard, often surprising the British with the tenacity. After the war, the Ottoman Empire fell apart; the Western powers even attempted to dismember Anatolia. General Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, and a native of Salonica, reassembled the remnants of the Ottoman forces and during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23), vanquished the foreigners, saving Anatolia, Istanbul and Eastern Thrace as the basis of a new Turkish state. While a painful decision, Kemal, who became President ‘Atatürk’, decided that the new Republic of Turkey’s destiny would be as a mainly Asiatic country, moving the capital from Istanbul to Ankara. In the what was known as the Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey (1923), 1.2 million Greeks were compelled to leave Turkey, while 400,000 of the remaining Turks in Greece left for Turkey. Many of the Turks that remained in the other Balkan lands also migrated, with only Bulgaria retaining a sizeable Turkish minority. With that, over 500 years of the Turkish presence in ‘Rumelia’ was pretty much erased, while over 2,500 years Greek life in Anatolia similarly disappeared.
A Note on Rarity
The present map is extremely rare, which is not at all surprising, given that it is a large format ephemeral piece printed upon cheap, fragile newsprint-like paper. The present example only survives because it was previously folded and safely stashed away for generations.
While there are clearly some other original examples in Turkish institutions, and the image is today well known in Turkey, we cannot trace any examples outside of that country. Within Turkey, the map is considered to be an outstanding rarity, and hardly ever appears on the market.
The Psycho-Trauma of the Loss of Ottoman Rumelia
During the period from the mid-19th century until World War I, the Ottoman Empire was popularly known as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. While the country had actually done many impressive things to modernize its economy, military and society, it was still overwhelmed by internal rebellions and wars with its neighbours, resulting in massive territorial losses (it had already lost control of good parts of Greece, Serbia and Romania) and financial crises.
During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, an alliance of Russia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria throttled the Ottomans. Serbia and Montenegro gained their de facto independence; Bulgaria won its autonomy; Bosnia came under de facto Austrian control; while Russia conquered parts of the Caucuses and Eastern Anatolia. Most worryingly, the enemy forces had swept through virtually all of European Turkey to approach the outskirts of Istanbul at San Stefano. Only the last-minute diplomatic intervention of Britain (which was weary of Russia) prevented the conquest of the Ottoman capital.
Despite their losses, following the war the Ottomans still maintained large amounts of territory in Europe, extending from Istanbul over the north coast of the Aegean (including Thrace, Macedonia), up into Kosovo and Novi Pazar (today Serbia), and then west to Epirus and Albania.
Importantly, the Ottomans had controlled these territories since the late 16th Century, and unlike most of the European lands that they had already lost, which were borderlands or occupied territories, ‘Rumelia’ was deeply precious to the Turkish people. These territories were home to large, longstanding Turkish Muslim communities who over the centuries had formed their own distinct cultures and unique attachment their surroundings, while still maintaining their Turkish identity. True, they lived amongst the peoples who had been there even longer (Albanians, Greeks, Serbs, Macedonians, Bulgarians, etc.), although in international terms, the Turks had resided in Rumelia for over a century longer than Europeans had been in the Americas. In many areas, the Turks were represented the majority of the local population. For Turks, both in Europe, and in Anatolia, Rumelia was not a colony or an occupied land, but an inalienable part of the Turkish sense of identity. The same was also true of Turks from Crete, an island that had been ruled by the Ottoman for centuries but had even before the Balkan Wars fell from the Ottoman grasp (it remained a de jure part of the empire until 1912).
It is also important to note that the Southern Balkans contained Salonica (today Thessaloniki, Greece) one of the great commercial hubs in the Ottoman Empire and a major centre of Turkish (as well as Greek and Jewish) culture, while Monastir (today Bitola, North Macedonia) was home to one of the empire’s most important military academies.
All considered, the connections between the Rumelian and Cretan Turks to the land was so intense, that even today, their ancestors in Turkey still often refer to themselves as ‘Albanian’ or ‘Cretans’, etc., even though no one in their families had stepped foot in those lands in over a century.
Yet, while the Rumelian Turks held a strong sense of their ethnic-national identity, so did the regions’ Albanians, Greeks and Slavs, who wanted to control their own destiny free of the Sublime Porte. Indeed, the region was the most ethnically diverse and politically complex in Europe. During the late 19th Century, these peoples mounted constant insurgencies against the Sublime Porte’s authority, all the while encouraged by Russia and other foreign actors. By the early 1900s, the Ottomans were hanging on to their Balkan domains by the skin of their teeth.
During the beggining of the next century, the authority of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876 – 1909) came to recede, in good part due to the turmoil in the Southern Balkans. This opened the door for the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), popularly known as the ‘Young Turks’, a group of army officers based in Salonica, to progressively take over the Ottoman government in two revolutions in 1908-9. While the Young Turks started out advocating a liberal platform of democracy and pan-ethnic unity, they later degenerated towards an ugly form of militaristic Turkish ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism.
During the Italo-Turkish War (September 29, 1911 to October 18, 1912), Italy took advantage of the political turmoil in Istanbul to conquered Ottoman Libya. While the Italians became bogged down in a guerrilla war waged by the local Senussi tribesmen, the Ottomans proved to be incapable of maintaining their last African domain from what was considered a second-rate power. Italy ended up gaining possession of both Libya and the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea.
While the Ottomans were preoccupied with the final throes of the Libyan conflict, the so-called ‘Balkan Alliance’ of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria suddenly mounted a full-scale attack upon all Ottoman positions in Europe, in what would be known as the First Balkan War (October 8, 1912 – May 30, 1913). Supported by Russia and Italy, the alliance made short work of the Sultan’s men, surging over their lines and conquering tens of thousands of square kilometres of territory. Meanwhile, Albania mounted a successful rebellion, declaring its independence on November 28, 1912.
By mid-November, 1912, the Bulgarian army had taken virtually all of Eastern Thrace, and had rushed towards the ‘Çatalca Line’, a series of forts and trenches that crossed the isthmus just to the west of Istanbul, acting as the capital’s last line of defence. There, the Ottomans mounted a spirited resistance, narrowly saving Istanbul from falling.
Meanwhile, the only remaining major Ottoman stronghold in Europe beyond Çatalca was Edirne (Adrianople), a city that has special significance to the Turkish people, as it had served as the former capital of the Ottoman Empire (from 1369 to 1453). During the Siege of Edirne (November 3, 1912 – March 26, 1913), which is notable for being one of the first battles to use airplanes for bombing, the Ottomans bravely resisted Bulgarian attempts to storm the city, but were finally compelled to surrender.
At the Treaty of London (May 30, 1913), the Ottomans had to agree to a humiliating peace, as they had been totally throttled by the Balkan Alliance. The Ottomans were to loose 83% of their European domains, with 69% of its European population. The new Ottoman boundary in Europe was to be the Enos-Midia Line, which ran from the mouth of the Maritsa River, on the Aegean, over to a point along the Black Sea that barely allowed the Ottomans to preserve the complete shorelines of the Sea of Marmara and only a very narrow defensive perimeter to the west of Istanbul. This settlement gave the Balkan Alliance almost all of what it wanted, while leaving the Sublime Porte in an untenable position.
The loss of Ottoman Europe has been described as devastating psychological catastrophe for the Turkish people, some say a trauma even more terrible than World War I. In one fell swoop, communities built over 500 years were suddenly erased. Terrible inter-ethnic violence occurred during and in the wake of the war, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 600,000 Muslims (mostly Turks), while many thousands of victims also fell on the other side. Over 800,000 Turks were immediately exiled from Europe, many arriving virtually penniless in Istanbul and Western Anatolia, bringing the national tragedy home to all Turks. In the months after the Treaty of London, the Sublime Porte and the Turkish people staggered about in a sense of denial, followed by mourning.
Meanwhile, with the 1913 Ottoman coup d‘état (January 23, 1913), the Young Turks violently toppled the imperial coalition government, taking full dictatorial control over the country. The empire was hence ruled by the ‘Three Pashas’, being Enver, Talaat and Djemal Pasha. These rash, young leaders, angered by the loss of Ottoman Europe, turned the country sharply upon a hideous ultra-nationalist course, lashing out at the country’s many ethnic minorities (many of whom had hitherto been loyal to the Sublime Porte).
Fortunately for the Ottomans, the Balkan Alliance soon crumbled. While the London Treaty set the Enos-Midia Line as the outer boundary of Ottoman Europe, it did not specific how the newly-conquered lands beyond were to be divided between the Balkan powers. As Greece and Serbia moved in to take the lion’s share of the spoils, Bulgaria felt cheated.
During the Second Balkan War (June 29, 1913 – August 10, 1913), Bulgaria allowed itself to be in conflict with all of its neighbours at once, including the Ottomans, Serbia, Greece and Romania (which opportunistically joined the conflict to gain territory from Bulgaria in the north). Bulgaria was, not surprisingly, defeated. The Ottomans regained Edirne and Eastern Thrace; Serbia conquered frontier regions of Macedonia held by Bulgaria; while Romania conquered the South Dobruja region. The Ottomans gains were ratified at the Treaty of Bucharest (August 19, 1913). The present map depicts the borders as revised by this treaty, showing that while the Ottomans regained some ground, the overwhelming majority of Rumelia remained unredeemed.
In part fueled by anger over the loss of Rumelia, the Young Turks drove the Ottoman Empire into World War I (1914-18), on the Central Powers side, hoping that this would be the county’s ultimate reprise. Ironically, the Ottoman-German alliance included Bulgaria, while Greece remained neutral, making the return of the lost Ottoman European territories far less likely. Yet, as already discussed, at the height of the conflict, the Ottoman government used the trauma of the loss of Rumelia to its PR advantage. Yet, as we all know, the war resulted in the fall and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, while millions of people from minority groups on both sides were killed or exiled, so making the tragedy of racial and religious animosity complete.
However, out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish people were to rise again, upon the creation of the Republic of Turkey, although that country was to be a mainly Anatolian land, retaining only a slice of Europe.
References: Cf. Mehmet KAAN ÇALEN, ‘II. Meşrutiyet Dönemi Ders Kitaplarında Balkan Savaşları ve Rumeli’de Kaybedilen Topraklar’, in Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart Üniversitesi, Uluslararasi Balkan Tarihi ve Kültürü Sempozyumu 6-8 Ekim 2016, Çanakkale, Bildiriler, Cilt II (Çanakkale, 2017), pp. 229 – 249.