Mehmed VI, the last sultan of the Ottoman empire, died suddenly on the night of 16 May 1926. His passing occurred as he entered his fourth year of exile, in the Italian resort town of San Remo. Mehmed departed life virtually penniless; his debts were so substantial that Italian authorities confiscated his coffin until local accounts were settled. The sultan’s surviving relatives eventually bore his body to Syria where he was interred on the grounds of an Ottoman mosque in central Damascus.


Accompanying Mehmed on his final voyage was his son-in-law Ömer Faruk, who reflected at length as they sailed across the Mediterranean. Their ship, he noted, was slowly passing many of the lands their family had reigned over for centuries. Not only was their empire now gone, the Ottoman name inspired little loyalty or affection. “Our unfortunate sovereigns were blind,” Ömer wrote to his wife. “They did not try to understand their people, nor the spirit of the people. What our rulers did, they did to themselves as well as to the people of their country!”

Mehmed’s final journey was barely noticed in the great capitals. But it marked a mournful postscript to one of world history’s mightiest and most durable empires. For centuries following its establishment in 1299, the Ottomans had controlled territory across the Balkans, north Africa and the Middle East. From their capital in what is now Istanbul, they presided over a truly massive imperium that, at its height in the 16th century, would stretch from Egypt in the south, modern-day Iraq in the east through north Africa to Algeria and on to modern-day Romania and Hungary in the north.

By the early 1500s, Mehmed’s predecessors ruled not only as emperors, but as caliphs of the world’s Muslims. For hundreds of years, clerics throughout the Islamic world offered prayers for the Ottoman caliph during each and every Friday sermon.

More like this

In the autumn of 1922, however, the final sultan/caliph, Mehmed VI, was unseated. Of the 140 parliamentarians who assembled to vote the Ottoman monarchy out of existence on 1 November that year, only two rejected the motion to declare the sultan’s empire dissolved and dead. After years of insurrection and nationalist dissent, few appeared to lament its departing. In its decision to eject Mehmed, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey condemned the Ottoman royal family for presiding over a “system of autocracy”, one rooted in “ignorance and debauchery”.

What had gone wrong? How had an empire that exerted so much power – and for so long – been brought to its knees? When chronicling the causes of its collapse, many historians have focused on the empire’s long decline, its metamorphosis into the “sick man of Europe”, a period of decay that culminated in the catastrophe of defeat in the First World War. The calamity of 1918, some have argued, was the event that delivered the final blow.

Yet there’s more to the story than that. It’s undeniable that the empire’s final decades set the conditions for its collapse, but they didn’t render its demise inevitable. It was what happened between 1918 and 1922 – interventions by Greek, British and French forces, and, above all, soaring tensions between the region’s Muslim and non-Muslim population – that truly condemned the empire to its fate.

Perpetual conflict

When Mehmed VI was born in 1861, there was little denying the difficulties confronting the Ottoman empire. Most of its citizens would have hardly known a decade of peace. In the late 1870s, the Ottomans were defeated in war by their great imperial rival, Russia. Worse still, in 1912 the states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece attacked the Ottoman empire, sparking the First Balkan War. Defeat in this conflict led to the loss of most of its remaining Balkan territory.

The damage inflicted by these crises was staggering. Modern studies suggest war and insurrection left up to 5 million refugees displaced in the Ottoman lands between the end of the 18th century and the First World War. For those who lived at a safer distance from the empire’s borders, high taxes, conscription, economic upheaval and crime exacted no less a terrible cost.

By the time Mehmed became sultan in the summer of 1918, the empire had abandoned all of north Africa. The years leading up to his accession had witnessed immense political turbulence and after decades of autocratic rule by his brother, Abdülhamid II, officers in the imperial army rose up in the summer of 1908 demanding the restoration of the constitution and its elected assembly. This Young Turk Revolution saw rule shift into the hands of a political party known as the Committee of Union and Progress (or CUP). The “Young Turks” of the CUP advanced the belief that Muslims alone embodied the true spirit at the heart of the Ottoman nation.

A flag of the Young Turks movement, c1908. Their rise to power that year triggered a period of rising hostility to the Ottoman empire’s non-Muslim peoples (Photo by INTERFOTO / TopFoto)
A flag of the Young Turks movement, c1908. Their rise to power that year triggered a period of rising hostility to the Ottoman empire’s non-Muslim peoples (Photo by INTERFOTO / TopFoto)

The new emphasis on the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims would play a critical role in the empire’s downfall. In the months leading up to the First World War, the CUP imposed dictatorial rule over the state and expelled hundreds of thousands from the native Greek population of Anatolia (the land peninsula that is today the Asian portion of Turkey) from their homes. Forcibly removing these “internal tumors”, as one Young Turk official put it, became a hallmark of the CUP’s rule, rendering deep divisions in Ottoman society.

Despite this, Ottoman citizens went to war in 1914 enthusiastically. Seeing an opportunity to align themselves with Europe’s most powerful army, Ottoman leaders sided with Germany and the Central Powers. The fighting, however, proved brutal and disappointing from the start. Ottoman armies went on the offensive against Russia and Britain in the winter of 1915, only to be driven back with heavy losses.

These early defeats on the battlefield stoked the paranoia of senior leaders who suspected that the empire’s non-Muslims could no longer be trusted as loyal citizens. Central to their suspicions were Armenians, the bulk of whom lived in regions bordering the empire’s historic adversary, Russia. Beginning in the spring of 1915, government officials banished hundreds of thousands of Armenians from their native villages and towns, sending the majority of them south into the deserts of northern Syria and Mesopotamia.

Ottoman citizens went to war in 1914 enthusiastically. The fighting, however, proved brutal and disappointing from the start

An untold number, primarily men, were executed amid their removal, while many more, particularly women and children, died from hunger and exposure. “Military considerations alone,” as one Ottoman minister put it, did not prompt the deliberate mass killing of Armenians. The war instead provided the Young Turk government an opportunity “to thoroughly sweep up internal enemies, the native Christians, without being disturbed by foreign diplomatic intervention”.

But that war would end in defeat. Following the surrender of Bulgaria (which had fought on the side of the Central Powers), and the loss of much of what is today Syria, leaders in Constantinople agreed to an armistice with the Allies on 31 October 1918. By now, both soldiers and civilians of the empire had experienced immense levels of suffering. Deaths at the front, coupled with the mass expulsion of Armenians and others, emptied vast swathes of the Ottoman countryside.

A German propaganda marks the defence pact between Kaiser Wilhelm II, Mehmed V and Franz Joseph I, which brings the Ottoman empire into the First World War (Photo by Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo)
A German propaganda marks the defence pact between Kaiser Wilhelm II, Mehmed V and Franz Joseph I, which brings the Ottoman empire into the First World War (Photo by Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo)

Fractured Ottoman society

In laying out his conditions for peace, US president Woodrow Wilson promised the “Turkish portion” of the Ottoman empire its “assured sovereignty” while “other nationalities” would be granted “undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”. Wilson’s peace plan heartened Arab nationalists and Armenian survivors. For others in the empire, confusion and fear reigned.

These tensions erupted when Greek troops seized the port city of Smyrna (or Izmir), on the west coast of Anatolia in May 1919. The Greek offensive came hard upon indications that Athens, along with Britain, France and Italy, planned to carve up the sultan’s lands once peace talks in Versailles had concluded.

The arrival of Allied troops to the capital, Constantinople, in November 1918, coupled with the fall of Smyrna in May 1919, fractured Ottoman society along sectarian lines. Opinions among non-Muslims varied between caution and outright support for the Allies. Many Muslims, however, denounced Greece’s attack while thousands rallied to army units aiming to end any hope of an Allied occupation. Leading this armed struggle was a figure who would go on to dominate Turkish politics until his death two decades later.

That man was Mustafa Kemal. He ended the First World War as a senior commander in the imperial army, and in opposing the Allies (now dominated by Greek, British and French forces) once again, he declared that his principal goal was restoring the sovereignty of the empire. However, his National Forces, as he called them, limited their aims to the liberation of only those Ottoman territories where a “Turkish and Muslim” majority prevailed

For Kemal and other Nationalist leaders, re-establishing imperial rule over Arab territories like Syria proved neither practical nor preferable. Recent events, Kemal believed, proved that Turkish-speaking Muslims alone composed the historic and political core of the Ottoman nation. Relinquishing the Levant and Mesopotamia appeared to assure the survival of a coherent and viable state grounded in Anatolia.

As he waged his war against the Allied powers, Kemal declared that it was his intention to save the sultanate. However, this aim was undermined by Mehmed VI’s positioning towards the enemy. While Kemal strained every sinew to eject French and British troops from Anatolia, the sultan feared the National Forces would bring about the return of the violence and ruination associated with the CUP. The National Force’s early successes did little to dissuade Mehmed from negotiating directly with the Allies.

In August 1920, the sultan consented to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, which allowed the Allies significant territorial concessions in Anatolia. Mehmed’s surrender, coupled with his efforts to suppress the National Forces, was received as an act of treason by large numbers of loyal citizens – and set in train a series of events that would bring his reign to an end. Soon after the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres, a new parliament calling itself the Grand National Assembly passed a revised constitution. In addition to declaring Turkey the country’s new name, the constitution stripped the sultan of all his sovereign powers.

Politics prevented Kemal and the National Assembly from challenging Mehmed outright. But his stay of execution would be but a brief one.

Sultan Mehmed VI leaves the Dolmabahçe Palace, in Constantinople (Istanbul), by the back door in 1922. A few days later, as the Ottoman empire ended, a British warship would take him into exile (Photo by FLHCAA1 / Alamy Stock Photo)
Sultan Mehmed VI leaves the Dolmabahçe Palace, in Constantinople (Istanbul), by the back door in 1922. A few days later, as the Ottoman empire ended, a British warship would take him into exile (Photo by FLHCAA1 / Alamy Stock Photo)

Violent reprisals

The Nationalist war against the Allies reached a climax in the autumn of 1922 with a bloody, chaotic victory for Kemal’s forces. During their retreat from Anatolia, Greek troops left much of the countryside in ruin. Nationalist troops retaliated in kind, leading to the near-total destruction of Smyrna. The demographic consequences of the fighting proved far more irreversible. From 1919–22, most Armenians who had managed to return home were forced to leave Asia Minor for good. Fear of violent reprisals forced equally large numbers of Anatolian Greeks to flee Nationalist troops before the fighting ended.

For Kemal and other Nationalists, the mass flight of Anatolian Christians was a necessary evil. In the hopes of solidifying a fully “Turkish and Muslim” majority within its territory, Nationalist negotiators agreed to a post-war “exchange of population” with Greece, resulting in the expulsion of 1.2 million Greek Christians from Anatolia.

In receiving 400,000 Muslims from Greece in return, Kemal’s government made it clear that all citizens were to accept the predominance of a Turkish-speaking Muslim majority. Even officials who had long served the empire were potentially forbidden from retaining their citizenship if they maintained that they were of Albanian or Arab extraction. Those officials who felt such connections with their ethnic kind, one parliamentarian avowed, could leave for Albania or the new state of Syria. “From now on, our country and our army must survive [as] Turkish.”

Timeline: the Ottoman empire’s final throes

July 1908

Following decades of autocratic rule by Sultan Abdülhamid II, the Young Turk Revolution erupts. It leads to the restoration of the Ottoman constitution and the reopening of the imperial parliament.

October 1912 – May 1913

The states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece attack the Ottoman empire, leading to the First Balkan War. The conflict results in the loss of most of the empire’s remaining Balkan territory.

August 1914

The Ottoman empire agrees to a defence pact with Germany, resulting in its entrance into the First World War.

February 1915 – January 1916

The Gallipoli campaign. After months of bloody trench warfare, Ottoman troops force Allied soldiers to withdraw from the Aegean coast.

April 1915

The deportation and massacres of Ottoman Armenians begins.

December 1917

British troops seize Jerusalem from Ottoman forces.

July 1918

Mehmed VI becomes sultan. Four months later, the Ottomans agree to an armistice with Allied forces.

May 1919

Greek troops occupy the city of Smyrna (Izmir), leading to renewed fighting in Anatolia.

April 1920

A new parliament, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, is convened under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk).

August 1920

Mehmed VI agrees to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, ratifying the Allied occupation of much of the Ottoman empire. The Grand National Assembly denounces the sultan’s decision as treason.

September 1922

Kemal’s National Forces succeed in driving Greek forces from Anatolia, ending three years of bitter fighting.

November 1922

The Grand National Assembly abolishes the sultanate and declares the Ottoman empire dissolved. Mehmed flees into exile.

Reputation in ruins

The social decomposition of the Ottoman empire reflected the culmination of elite and popular dissatisfaction with the monarchy. Many commentators came to assert that the sultan had always defied the “national will” in submitting to the demands of foreign powers over nationalist rebels. Mehmed VI’s capitulation at Sèvres appeared to demonstrate that a sultan’s loyalty would never be to the nation, but to a monarchy and an empire that was now more than 600 years old.

Greek refugees flee the city of Smyrna (Izmir), western Anatolia (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Greek refugees flee the city of Smyrna (Izmir), western Anatolia (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Rule under the Ottoman royal family, one Nationalist ideologue declared, was akin to “the oppression of the pharaohs who built the pyramids”. This was the context in which, on 1 November 1922, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey voted overwhelmingly to dissolve the empire. Soon, the Republic of Turkey would be established, with Mustafa Kemal at its head.

The condemnation of the Ottoman sultanate continued to echo among former imperial citizens. After driving Mehmed from power, Kemal cleansed his new republic of many of the lingering institutions derived from the empire. In doing away with the office of the caliph and imposing a new regime of laws and “national” customs, he declared the empire to be the antithesis of the progressive ideals of the Republic of Turkey.

Post-war nationalists in Iraq and Syria came to decry Ottoman rule as a dark era of misrule and backwardness that had negated Arab rights. As the state responsible for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Christians during the early 20th century, the Ottoman empire is often reviled by Armenians and Greeks living in the wider world today.

This collective repudiation of the empire after 1922 holds significant consequences for the descendants of the empire’s last citizens. In textbooks throughout the Middle East, Ottoman history often received scant attention. Although subsequent governments came to rehabilitate aspects of imperial history, Turks remain divided as to how to best remember their collective Ottoman past. What remains unquestioned is the profound effect the empire’s dissolution would have upon the geography, politics and culture of the old Ottoman world.

Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the department of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, California, and an expert on Turkish, Balkan and Middle Eastern history. He is the author of The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire (Allen Lane, 2022)


This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine