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Book Review


Benjamin Fortna, The Circassian: A Life of Esrey Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii + 323. Bibliography and Index. $34.95 (cloth).


     Ottoman studies has become a robust field, increasingly sharpening our understanding of how the Ottoman Empire operated while diversifying the voices involved in this history.  In his new book, Benjamin Fortna offers a meticulously researched biography of Esref Bey, whose exploits were entwined with the last days of the Ottoman state.  Relatively obscure, if not unknown to Western audiences, Esref was a controversial figure amongst earlier Turkish histories because of his clash with Mustafa Kemal. Esref was a brigand, soldier, and spy who supported the Ottoman state, albeit often on his terms. Through his analysis of Esref's life, Fortna provides a valuable new perspective to understand the diverse challenges at the end of the Ottoman Empire.

     The first two chapters introduce the reader to Esref and his background.  He was Circassian and a child of migrants; his family had fled the Russian Empire from the Caucuses, and his father found a position in the Ottoman court in the late nineteenth century.  As a young man, however, Esref quickly began to operate in a grey area of banditry, working outside the Ottoman state's control, yet he chose targets designed to impress Ottoman authorities with his abilities. This led Ottoman officials to offer him a position with the state as a police and then military officer and ended his fight against it. In this, Esref fit an existing Ottoman model of the outlaw being incorporated into the state apparatus. This glimpse into Esref's early life is essential to understanding the rest of his actions as he continues both to both support the Ottoman endeavor and to act against it.

     In Chapter Three Fortna provides an intriguing insight into the Ottoman-Italian War over Libya in 1911.  After Italy's invasion, Ottoman authorities were concerned with the further loss of imperial resources.  Yet without hope of winning the war, the Ottomans sent paramilitaries to wage a guerrilla war, Esref among them.  Here Fortna points out how the state framed the effort through Muslim nationalism in an attempt to win public support, and  this became a rallying cry for the Ottoman state. Indeed, Fortna reminds us that public opinion was not ignored but remained an important issue in crafting state policies during the end of the Ottoman period.  Instead of a minor conflict, Fortna argues that the war encouraged Balkan states, particularly Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece, to move aggressively against the Ottomans in 1912.  Even more crucially, Ottoman commanders came to believe that deploying guerrillas alongside local forces was an effective strategy to achieve military objectives, and this led to the creation of clandestine paramilitary units, most notably the Special Organization unit created by Enver Pasha, a collection of military officers dedicated to intelligence gathering, warfare, and propaganda that featured prominently in the First World War. 

     The fourth chapter examines the Balkan Wars, which came as a shock to the Ottomans. Esref returned to Istanbul and commanded a volunteer irregular unit during the war, often raiding behind enemy lines.  Indeed, Fortna traces how Esref was part of not only the increasingly violent campaigns, but also of an attempt to create an independent state in Western Thrace based on a communal Ottoman model.  Ultimately, Thrace was bargained away in the peace process, angering Esref.  While the war made Esref quite well known to Ottoman authorities, it created a gulf between his vision of a communal state that defended its subjects and those in power led by Enver who desired a powerful empire that could stand up against European states.  Indeed, beyond providing new details about the war itself, Fortna argues that the Balkan Wars reveal the growing importance of support of a radicalized leadership behind Enver, who was growing more concerned with protecting the Ottoman state and its power against Europe rather than the people themselves. 

     By the time Fortna examines the First World War in Chapters Five and Six he has established that many of the Ottoman strategies and political decisions had been developed during its previous conflicts.  Most significantly was the Ottoman state's increasing reliance on paramilitary groups to carry out military operations that the government could deny responsibility for, a precedent that influenced the orchestration of the Armenian genocide. Esref himself remained part of the Ottoman war effort, in particular the attempt to pressure non-Muslims, most prominently Greeks, to leave the areas around Izmir.  Building on his earlier experiences, Esref led small volunteer units against the British and their Arab allies during the war, which earned him praise from his Ottoman superiors. Esref's war activities, however, came to an end after a failed attempt in Yemen against Arab and British forces.  His troops were decimated, and Esref was captured.  Chapter Seven studies these years when Esref was a leader of other Ottoman prisoners of war until he was freed in 1920. 

     Esref's reputation in the Ottoman world, however, had changed.  No longer a trusted officer, Esref had become a political liability and was often characterized as a bully.  In Chapters Eight and Nine Fortna examines how Esref joins the Turkish independence movement, and in doing so, adds needed complexity to the period.  Instead of viewing the growing nationalist campaign largely through the movements of Mustafa Kemal, Esref provides an opportunity to show how some Ottomans rejected both the Ottoman peace treaty with the Allies and the growing authority of Kemal in Ankara. Esref's own desire for control and disagreements with Kemal led to a split.  Ultimately, Esref rejected an offer to serve in the new Turkish government and led a failed attempt to topple it. Esref fled to Greece where he remained in exile until the 1950s, after the defeats of Kemal's ruling party in national elections. 

     It is important to note that Fortna's work is not directly engaged with the historiography of world history.  Rather, its strengths lie in its ability to provide nuance to the complexities of the Ottoman world.  Still, the book can be used as a case-study to help illuminate issues in world history, in particular a more global understanding of the First World War and the challenges that multiethnic empires encountered in an age of nationalism.  The book provides a wealth of details, but it is accessible and might suit students in upper-level undergraduate courses ready to delve into these specific issues.  

     Through the details of Esref's life, Fortna has crafted an intriguing study. Esref saw himself as an Ottoman, in particular a Turkish-speaking Muslim dedicated to keeping the Ottoman state together.  Through his analysis of Esref's actions Fortna provides a strong overview of Ottoman actions in Libya and the Balkan Wars, a topic often overlooked. Fortna argues that it was during these conflicts that the Ottomans developed many of the techniques, strategies, and philosophies that would emerge during the First World War and the Turkish war for independence.  In doing so, he reveals an Ottoman world rent by competing political factions and violence.  Overall, Fortna's The Circassion is a valuable addition to Ottoman history.

Thomas Anderson is an Assistant Professor at Merrimack College.  He specializes in world history, with particular interests in the Indian Ocean world and Environmental history as well as the Ottoman Empire.  He can be reached at


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