A New History of an Old Question: Ozan Ozavci on the Eastern Question

Ozan Ozavci in Jadaliyya

Allegorie door Stefano Torelli (1772). Tsaar Catharina III’s overwinning over het Ottomaanse Rijk tijdens de Russisch-Turkse Oorlog (1768-1774). Bron: via Wikipedia Commons
Allegory by Stefano Torelli (1772). Tsar Catherine III’s victory over the Ottoman Empire during (the first phase of the) the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774). It marked the beginning of the Eastern Question.

In the history writing about the ‘Eastern Question’, Ottoman agency has been largely neglected, Assistant Professor of Transimperial History Ozan Ozavci tells the Arab Studies Institute’s independent ezine Jadaliyya. In his book ‘Dangerous Gifts: Imperialism, Security, and Civil Wars in the Levant, 1798-1864’, Ozavci re-narrates this history.

The Eastern Question

In the 1770s, Russia established indirect control over Crimea. This would be the moment when the Eastern Question began, Ozan Ozavci says. The fact that Russia could have overrun the Ottoman Empire without excessive difficulty raised a question among the major European powers, such as Great Britain, France and Austria-Hungary: how were they to deal with this supposedly weak but gigantic empire without upsetting the much cherished European balance of power?

Enemies or allies?

The Eastern Question was primarily an Ottoman question, Ozavci explains. The imperial elites had to secure the Ottoman Empire’ territorial integrity and independence from the European powers. At the same time, they could only do so with the support of those same superpowers.

“For example, in 1801, they could drive the invading French armies out of Egypt with the support of the British. Sultan Selim III was reluctant to allow the British land in Egypt. But he had no choice. And then, after the war, the British did not comply with the treaty agreement and continued to keep its army in Egypt. The sultan then had to resort to the support of the French to make the British evacuate Alexandria in 1803.”


The history of the Eastern Question has been described many times, but according to Ozavci, something has always been overlooked: the agency of the Ottoman Empire. “Literature has tended to attribute too much agency to Western powers and sometimes too little to that of the locals”.

“I believe a post-revisionist literature that documents through an intelligible language the enormous degree of complexity the historical actors, both local and foreign, confronted is needed to explain the dynamics of the entangled history of the Middle East and the wider world. Dangerous Gifts is an attempt to do this.”

Read the book ‘Dangerous Gifts’ (Open Access)