The Ottoman Scramble for Africa
Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz
Mostafa Minawi



This project began as an investigation into the life and work of an itinerant Ottoman officer from Damascus, Sadik al-Mouayad Azmzade,1 who left behind a handful of travelogues and book manuscripts about topics as varied as photography, European literature, and Islamic history, and whose life spanned a number of turbulent periods in the history of the Ottoman Empire. Azmzade was a member of one of the most influential families in Syria that maintained its dominance well into the 1960s, having gained prominence in the late seventeenth century as the Istanbul’s representatives in Damascus. The Azmzades—or al-ʿAzms as they are better known today—grew in size, power, and wealth until their influence spilled over into other cities in the Levant.

A branch of the family by the name of al-Muʾayyad al-ʿAzm (al-Mouayad/el-Müeyyed Azmzade) appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. They survived the political crisis following the 1860 massacre of Christians in Damascus, which led to a large, albeit temporary, upheaval in the local power structure.2 As one of the ruling families in Damascus, the Azmzades were held particularly responsible for failing to prevent the massacre and were harshly punished. The six most prominent family members were sentenced to ten-year terms in the Famagusta (Mağusa) Fortress in Cyprus, where the two eldest died. Despite the expulsion of the patriarchs and the Azmzades’ apparent fall from grace, however, within a decade they had bounced back and reestablished their ties with Istanbul.

Managing to infiltrate the increasingly centralized administrative system as well as the ballooning bureaucracy and military under the rule of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909), the Azmzades soon spread their influence beyond the province of Syria, particularly in the provinces of Aleppo and Beirut and the imperial capital. The generations coming after the turbulent 1860s managed to continually adapt to the region’s quickly changing political and social structures, which was, in part, why they were able to hold on to some of the highest municipal and provincial positions in Syria, even after the 1908 constitutional revolution and continuing through the rule of the Hashemite king Faisal (1918–1920), the French Mandate (1920–1946), and the early years of Syrian independence.3

FIGURE 1. Sadik al-Mouayad Azmzade (Nadir Eserler Library, Istanbul University, 91052/8).

Sadik Pasha, along with several brothers and cousins, was a member of the Hamidian-era4 generation of Azmzades who further spread the family’s influence. His career took off in Istanbul under the autocratic rule of Sultan Abdülhamid II, who appointed him to a number of highly sensitive diplomatic posts from the Hijaz to Addis Ababa. He survived the 1908–1909 Young Turk purge of officials deemed too close to the deposed sultan, only to pass away in 1911 during a term as governor (kaymakam) of Jeddah.5

Azmzade typified a new generation of Ottoman elites who defied the singular ethnic, linguistic, and regional categories of national identitarian politics of the time. Fluent in both Arabic and Turkish and conversant in French and German, he wrote extensively in Ottoman-Turkish (Osmanlıca) and traveled throughout the empire, Europe, and Africa, living in Damascus, Beirut, Berlin, Istanbul, Sofia, and Jeddah. Establishing his household in the Teşvikiye neighborhood of Istanbul, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Ottoman military and eventually occupied the critical post of Ottoman special commissioner to Bulgaria from 1904 to 1907, which was a very delicate time in the life of the newly established principality. As a man who strongly identified with the ideals of Ottomanism under the rule of Abdülhamid II, this proud Ottoman officer witnessed and reflected on the rapid demise of the imperial world he embodied during the span of his lifetime.

Azmzade’s surviving children, brothers, and cousins would have to choose where they belonged when the empire expired. It was perhaps a blessing that he did not live long enough to see his family, the proud Azmzades, with historical roots in both western Anatolia and the Levant, scattered among the Republic of Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the Lebanese Republic and eventually forced to choose between an “Arab”- and a “Turk”-sounding family name. With the end of the empire came the crashing halt of the cosmopolitan life of Istanbul’s Ottoman elites, whose life stories now had to be reimagined along newly established national boundaries and whose “authentic” national identities had to be vigorously and repeatedly defended.

As fascinating as Azmzade and his family were, I decided that a biography would have to wait because of what I stumbled on after several months in the Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (Ottoman Archives). As I followed Azmzade’s career and travels across the world—a near impossible task given that no family names were used in official documents and that a multitude of Ottoman officials were named “Sadık”—I started to piece together the unknown story of late nineteenth-century Ottoman imperial expansionism in which Azmzade and his generation of imperial loyalists were deeply invested.

To bring into focus a global project of Ottoman imperial self-reinvention, I triangulated the rank and/or honorary title of a document’s author, his locations, and the document date, and devised a simple computer program to cross-reference the thousands of pieces of paper I had collected from a number of archives. Academic curiosity, which had started with an Ottoman officer’s life, was leading me to a Pandora’s box of late Ottoman competitive interimperial strategies that used diplomacy, local alliances, and international law to claim the empire’s “right” to colonies (müstemlekat) in Africa. Along the way, I was forced to question all of my assumptions about Hamidian-era Ottoman imperialism on the empire’s southern frontiers. When I started investigating the life of Azmzade more than a decade ago, I never imagined that this book would become a study of Ottoman participation in the so-called scramble for Africa and its impact on Istanbul’s practices of imperialism along the empire’s southern frontiers-cum-borderlands in Africa and Arabia.

Taking the reader from Istanbul to Berlin, the eastern Sahara, the Lake Chad basin, the Hijaz, and back to Istanbul over a period of two decades, this book sheds light on the Ottoman Empire’s experiment in a new kind of competitive imperialism and its transcontinental implications for Istanbul’s strategy along the empire’s vulnerable African and Arabian frontiers. Privileging Ottoman archival sources, it examines the empire’s participation in the Conference of Berlin (1884–1885) and its subsequent engagement in aggressive interimperial competition for territorial expansion as an attempt at self-reinvention of this once powerful global empire. The book stretches the parameters of agency in late nineteenth-century colonial expansion in Africa to include the Ottoman Empire, challenging the perception of the European powers as the sole agents of change on the global stage and the only states concerned with finding a solution to the so-called Eastern Question.6


1. Because we have examples of Sadik al-Mouayad Azmzade’s own signature in both Ottoman-Turkish and French documents in the Bulgarian Historical Archives, I have decided to follow his spelling and the form of signature he used in his official correspondence (see Bulgarian National Archives [hereafter BHA], F176K/op14/ae925). Therefore, it is not Sadiq or Sadık but Sadik; not al-Muʾayyad or el-Müeyyed but al-Mouayad; not al-ʿAzm but Azmzade. In catalogues in Turkish archives and libraries, the name is usually rendered “Sadık el-Müeyyed” or “Sadık el-Müeyyed Azmzade,” which is how it appears in the endnotes and the bibliography for ease in locating the records. The choice to transliterate Azmzade’s name in modern Turkish would have been a wise alternative because he operated in an imperial Turkish speaking environment and in an Osmanlıca writing environment, especially in the contexts of his life that this book deals with.

2. On the 1860 massacre and its implications, see Leila Tarazi Fawaz, An Occasion for War: Civil Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

3. Linda Schatkowski-Schilcher, Families in Politics: Damascene Factions and Estates of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1985), 140–144; Philip Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1–46.

4. Many of the technological projects undertaken during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1906), including the famous Ottoman naval cruiser and the covered bazaar in Damascus, were referred to as “Hamidian”—for example, Souq al-Hamidiyya (Hamidian Bazaar). The Hijaz Railway, initially called the Hamidiye Hicaz Demiryolu (Hamidian Hijaz Railway), was no exception. After Abdülhamid II was deposed, the railway was renamed the Hicaz Demiryolu (Hijaz Railway). Similarly, scholars of the Ottoman Empire refer both to the period of Abdülhamid II’s rule and to the set of reforms he enacted as “Hamidian.” I employ the same terminology.

5. Sadik al-Mouayad Azmzade—to whom I also refer as Sadik Pasha and Azmzade—is sometimes called Sadiq al-Muʾayyad al-ʿAzm by Arabists. This is a simplified transliteration of the Arabic āiq al-Muʾayyad al-ʿAm. Azmzade’s grandchildren include Sadiq al-ʿAzm, the Syrian philosopher who inherited his name, and, on the Turkish side of the family, his great-grandnephew İklil Azmzade. Both provided much personal information in interviews I conducted in Damascus and Istanbul in the fall of 2008 and the winter of 2009, some of which appear in this book. I have pieced together the details of Azmzade’s life from the Ottoman Archives. For more information on him and family, see Schatkowski-Schilcher, Families in Politics, 140–144; Nuri al-Jarrah, “Introduction,” in Sadiq al-Muʾayyad al-ʿAzm, Rihlat al-Habasha: Min al-Istana ila Addis Ababa, ed. Nuri al-Jarrah (Beirut: Al-Muʾasasa al-ʿArabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr and Dar al-Swaydi li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawziʿ, 2002).

6. For examples of the emerging literature that examines the Ottoman Empire’s negotiating power on the international stage, see John Willis, Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemen Past, 1857–1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 73–103; Aimee M. Genell, “Empire by Law: Ottoman Sovereignty and the British Occupation of Egypt” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2013).