Ottoman camel corps at Beersheba in 1915 (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Ottoman camel corps at Beersheba in 1915 (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

UA Professor Writes Book About Ottoman Special Agent Esref Bey

Through his biography of Eşref, Benjamin Fortna sheds light on the Middle East during a period that witnessed the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic.
March 13, 2017
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Benjamin Fortna is one of many faculty members at the University of Arizona with expertise in Turkish studies, which led to the creation of the Arizona Center for Turkish Studies. The research center brings together a large and growing interdisciplinary group of faculty and students from across the UA campus to study all aspects of Turkish society, including history, politics, economy, literature and music. According to the center's director, anthropologist Brian Silverstein, one-fifth of all students studying Turkish in the United States last year were doing so at the UA.

Benjamin Fortna is a historian of the Modern Middle East with a focus on the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic. Fortna is director of the UA School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. (Photo: Christina Lane)
Benjamin Fortna is a historian of the Modern Middle East with a focus on the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic. Fortna is director of the UA School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. (Photo: Christina Lane)
UA researcher Benjamin Fortna says of Eşref: "One could say that he has become a legendary figure, blurring the boundaries between historical reality and popular imagination."
UA researcher Benjamin Fortna says of Eşref: "One could say that he has become a legendary figure, blurring the boundaries between historical reality and popular imagination."
Benjamin Fortna made three trips to explore the trunk of Eşref's papers, a treasure trove of previously unexamined documents.
Benjamin Fortna made three trips to explore the trunk of Eşref's papers, a treasure trove of previously unexamined documents.

Several years ago, Benjamin Fortna, director of the University of Arizona School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, was updating an old friend from Turkey about his research on the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic.

"You must know about my grandfather, Eşref Bey?" the friend inquired. Fortna certainly did. Eşref was an Ottoman special operations officer active between 1908 and 1920 and is sometimes called the "Turkish Lawrence of Arabia." Even though his name was well-known, the details of his life were muddy.

"Would you be interested in seeing some papers we have in our house about him?" the friend asked.

"Yes" was the quick answer. The connection led Fortna to a large trunk of papers in the family's summer house on the western coast of Turkey.

"It is perhaps every historian's dream to explore an unknown cache of sources with the potential to change the way we look at the past," Fortna said.

Five years later, Fortna's book on Eşref's life was published by Hurst & Company in November and Oxford University Press in December 2016. Titled "The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent," the book explores the final years of the Ottoman Empire through Eşref’s life story.

Fortna had his concerns about tackling the project. Eşref remains controversial in Turkey more than 50 years after his death. Fortna said that Eşref is often referred to as a "traitor to the nation," because although he initially fought with the national forces coalescing around Atatürk, he switched sides and sided with the royalists.

Until recent political events, Atatürk was like "George Washington, Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson all rolled up into one. ... Everywhere you go, there are portraits of him. Going against him puts you against the official view of history," Fortna said.

But ultimately, the allure of delving into the life of a figure who was on the front lines of a major political transition was too tempting to resist.

"There have been things written about Eşref here and there, but not gathered together," Fortna said. "I was trying to take a non-ideological approach: Who is this person, what is his role in history?"

Tales From the Trunk

Fortna made three trips to the trunk, which contained papers that had remained undisturbed since the 1960s. Eşref's family couldn't read the documents in the trunk because Atatürk changed the Turkish alphabet in 1928 from the old Arabic script to the Latin script.

The trunk was filled with a variety of documents, including photographs, diary entries, correspondences, newspaper clippings about Eşref, a health certificate filled out by a German doctor in World War I, illustrations that Eşref made in watercolor, telegrams from World War I and hand-drawn maps.

The trunk also contained fragments of Eşref's memoir, which he wrote while he was in prison and in exile. The final copy had disappeared and was thought to have burned in a fire that destroyed the library of Bey's literary executor.

Fortna said one of the more interesting items in the trunk was a memoir written by Eşref's second wife, Pervin (his first wife died in childbirth). Pervin had two children with Eşref and also adopted his son.

"Most of Pervin's married life was spent away from Eşref because he was either on a mission or in exile. It was kind of a sad memoir," Fortna said. "It is interesting because you get very few accounts from a female perspective of this very male world of special operations and wartime activity."

Even though the documents in the trunk were remarkable, they still left "huge gaps in some areas, especially the more controversial parts of Eşref’s life," Fortna said. On the hunt to fill those holes, Fortna traveled to historical and military archives in Turkey and Britain.

Illuminating History

Fortna's investigation revealed the story of a headstrong officer committed to defending the Ottoman Empire's shrinking borders.

Eşref was brought up in privilege and sent to the best military school in Istanbul. However, he was continually getting into trouble. He tried to impress upon the leaders in Istanbul how useful he could be by giving them displays of his disruptive prowess. He ambushed caravans. He kidnapped the son of the commandant of the military base in broad daylight to show that he could.

Eventually, Eşref took on a string of special assignments for Enver Paşa, the rising star of the Ottoman military and head of the Young Turks, first in Libya against the Italians, then in the Balkan Wars and World War I. These assignments ranged from breaking into homes looking for secret documents to political assassinations.

"His work was off the books," Fortna said. "He was a hit man, a fixer and a field officer."

Eşref eventually was captured by the Arab Revolt and handed over to the British. He was in prison in Malta from 1917-1920 and was released ("in error," according to British documents) when he escaped by jumping off the ship taking him to Istanbul.

Eşref joined the national resistance movement but fell out with Mustafa Kemal's leadership and switched sides, earning him banishment from the Turkish Republic at its founding and exile until the 1950s.

Through his biography of Eşref, Fortna tries to shed light on the Middle East during a period that witnessed the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic.

"It was a decade of almost constant warfare that brought the unedifying end to over 600 years of Ottoman rule, dramatically altering the map of the region and affecting the lives of millions, often in devastating ways," Fortna wrote.

The book delves into issues related to the collapse of a multiethnic empire.

"The expectation was that it was perfectly natural to make the transition from multiethnic empire to nation-states," Fortna said. But for people such as Eşref, it wasn’t that simple. Eşref was an Ottoman of Circassian background. Eşref's forebears had been refuges from the Caucasus, a product of Russia's southward push during the second half of the 19th century. During the fight for independence, the Circassians were split; some sided with the traditional government, some with the nationalists.

As Fortna writes: "For some Muslims, the move from a broadly inclusive Ottoman sense of belonging to a more rigidly policed Turkish identity proved uncomfortable."