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Young Turks: The Istanbul football club Galatasaray's 1907-08 team 

If you've ever wondered how Turkish football fans have managed to outshine the English in the competitive field of hooliganism, you will find the seeds of the answer in Norman's Stone's account of the Young Turks' rise to power in the early 20th century. In 1900, a handful of Turks enviously watched some Brits kick a ball about by the Bosphorus. Sadly, the religious authorities disapproved of bare legs, so the Turks played the English in disguise. The descendants of Osman wore black socks and the English, white (an obvious, almost Disneyesque metaphor); the colours mingled and over time produced Besiktas, one of Turkey's most popular teams today and the inspiration for rival Galatasaray's most rousing displays of team spirit. 

One suspects that Stone has fascinating backstories like this for most phenomena of modern-day Turkey, but holds back out of modesty. The job in hand is quite enough — tracing the chequered, thousand-odd-year history of Turkey from its Mongol origins in the 11th century to the heated political arena of the present day. He does this very well, occasionally straying on to more obscure topics such as the similarity in improvements to Spanish and Turkish railway systems from the 1960s to 1980s. The fact that this account comes from a detailed comparison of the empires of Spain and Turkey in the 16th century is, more than anything, impressive and suggests a contemporary Herodotus at work. This applies even to his geographical (and thematic) area of interest — the building of empire in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Stone describes the present-day Greek and Iranian attitude to the Ottomans who invaded them long ago as, curiously reminiscent of the ancient Greek attitude towards the Persians: "Little Greeks and Iranians learn that their ancestors, elegantly clad in white, discussed poetry in the subjunctive [...] until, out of the blue, squat, hairy savages, offering rapine, arrived." Little Turks, meanwhile, "learn that effete civilisations, eunuchs, etc, were given some sort of vigour by the arrival of their ancestors." The Greek view of the Persians was, unfairly one feels, an unpleasant combination of both the barbarian cretin and the effeminate, perfumed dandy of the East. The Persians were too busy being successful to give much thought to the Greeks until they were right under their delicately flared nostrils.  

On to serious matters: the main controversy of the book is the sensitive subject of the Armenian massacre of 1915, which Stone treats almost as a semantic problem: "Was this ‘genocide' — a claim that is often made? As the historian Bernard Lewis says, it depends on what you mean by the word; and if it is accepted for the events of 1915, it could legitimately be extended to cover the fates of the millions of Muslims driven from the Balkans or the Caucasus as the Ottoman Empire receded." This may well be, but the fact that the word can be applied to Ottoman victims earlier in history does not preclude its application here.

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Bored on Friday Afternoon
March 4th, 2011
3:03 PM
Norman Stone and Bernard Lewis have boxed themselves into a corner on the Armenian genocide. They can stay there.

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