The best books on the Middle East during the First World War

Who am I?

Studying unexplored topics has always fascinated me as a historian. Some overlooked aspects in history might shed a new light on many things that we consider obvious. I studied the Ottoman home front during the First World War from an unusual perspective by taking up the concept of moral crisis. Until very recently, talking about the First World War in the Middle East meant talking about only the European side of the story such as the famous “Lawrence of Arabia” and/or only political events that were attached to the Anglo-British rivalry. Instead, we need a “new” history of this watershed event that takes the local aspects into consideration. After all, the Great War was the most remarkable moment in the history of the Middle East which shaped its modern dynamics.

I wrote...

Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics, and Gender During WWI

By Cigdem Oguz,

Book cover of Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics, and Gender During WWI

What is my book about?

To what extent did a perceived morality crisis play a role in the dramatic events of the last years of the Ottoman Empire? Beginning in the late nineteenth century when some of the Ottoman elites began to question the moral climate as evidence for the losses facing the empire, this book shows that during the course of World War I many social, economic, and political problems were translated into a discourse of moral decline, ultimately making morality a contested space between rival ideologies, identities, and intellectual currents.

Examining the primary journals and printed sources that represented the various constituencies of the period, it fills important gaps in the scholarship of the Ottoman experience of World War I and the origins of Islamism and secularism in Turkey, and is essential reading for social and intellectual historians of the late Ottoman Empire.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of When the War Came Home: The Ottomans' Great War and the Devastation of an Empire

Why did I love this book?

The book is a well-written account on the Ottoman home front detailing the Ottoman experience of the Great War from a perspective of social history. It deals not only with the difficulties of the Ottoman conscription and the provisions, but also provides deep insight into the lives of women, Armenian deportees, and refugees. The book tells us that besides the political and military defeats it was the home front that mattered when it came to the legitimacy of the empire; after all the suffering that the population had to endure, people were alienated from the state and began to question the very idea of the empire itself.

By Yiğit Akın,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked When the War Came Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Ottoman Empire was unprepared for the massive conflict of World War I. Lacking the infrastructure and resources necessary to wage a modern war, the empire's statesmen reached beyond the battlefield to sustain their war effort. They placed unprecedented hardships onto the shoulders of the Ottoman people: mass conscription, a state-controlled economy, widespread food shortages, and ethnic cleansing. By war's end, few aspects of Ottoman daily life remained untouched.

When the War Came Home reveals the catastrophic impact of this global conflict on ordinary Ottomans. Drawing on a wide range of sources-from petitions, diaries, and newspapers to folk songs and…

Book cover of The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East

Why did I love this book?

During the war, Beirut and Mount Lebanon were heavily impacted by a famine because of several factors, including the Allied blockade of the Mediterranean, bad harvests, heat waves, shortage of workers, and a destructive locust invasion. As a result, even though the area did not witness any battles on its territory, hundreds of thousands of people died due to famine and disease. Fiction or real, the horrors reached to a degree that “mothers eating their children” stories carved in the collective memory of the war. Drawing on the reality of famine, the book deals with how war relief and welfare activities acted as forces that opened a new political space for civilian provisioning, eventually leading to the emergence of a new political space in the post-war period.

By Melanie S. Tanielian,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Charity of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With the exception of a few targeted aerial bombardments of the city's port, Beirut and Mount Lebanon did not see direct combat in World War I. Yet civilian casualties in this part of the Ottoman Empire reached shocking heights, possibly numbering half a million people. No war, in its usual understanding, took place there, but Lebanon was incontestably war-stricken. As a food crisis escalated into famine, it was the bloodless incursion of starvation and the silent assault of fatal disease that defined everyday life.

The Charity of War tells how the Ottoman home front grappled with total war and how…

Book cover of Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War

Why did I love this book?

Understanding the First World War is fundamental to understanding today’s Middle East. The book offers us an impressive account of the Greater Syria at war, the region that encompasses Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Southern Turkey. Viewing the war from a social history perspective, we read various experiences of the fishermen, peasants, deserters, migrants, entrepreneurs, profiteers, and foreign soldiers from the colonial army of Britain against the backdrop of a “changing Middle East.”

By Leila Tarazi Fawaz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Land of Aching Hearts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Great War transformed the Middle East, bringing to an end four hundred years of Ottoman rule in Arab lands while giving rise to the Middle East as we know it today. A century later, the experiences of ordinary men and women during those calamitous years have faded from memory. A Land of Aching Hearts traverses ethnic, class, and national borders to recover the personal stories of the civilians and soldiers who endured this cataclysmic event.

Among those who suffered were the people of Greater Syria-comprising modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine-as well as the people of Turkey, Iraq,…

Book cover of The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

Why did I love this book?

Until recently, most histories written on the First World War in the Middle East only considered the “European” perspective. However, as the book rightly emphasizes, it was the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war that turned a “European” conflict into a world war. At the end of four years, an old empire of over six centuries was dissolved into many states. The book not only details the political and military history of the Middle East at war, but also presents the human side of the story. The book discusses the wartime Middle East from the view of different actors including those of the British, Anzac, Ottoman, Arab, and Armenian. While presenting a comprehensive account of the events, Rogan also documents the experiences of soldiers.

By Eugene Rogan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Fall of the Ottomans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By 1914 the powers of Europe were sliding inexorably toward war, and they pulled the Middle East along with them into one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In The Fall of the Ottomans, award-winning historian Eugene Rogan brings the First World War and its immediate aftermath in the Middle East to vivid life, uncovering the often ignored story of the region's crucial role in the conflict. Unlike the static killing fields of the Western Front, the war in the Middle East was fast-moving and unpredictable, with the Turks inflicting decisive defeats on the Entente in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia,…

Book cover of War and State Formation in Syria: Cemal Pasha's Governorate During World War I, 1914-1917

Why did I love this book?

Based on a wide array of archival sources, the book discusses the Ottoman governance of Greater Syria during the First World War. During the war, the Ottoman government-appointed Cemal Pasa, one of the chief names of the ruling Committee of Union and Progress, as the commander of the Fourth Army and the military governor of Ottoman Arab provinces to lead a campaign against in the British-held Suez Canal. However, in addition to the military aim of this appointment, there was also a political and social one that can briefly be summarized as further centralization of the state through the “iron fist” of the governor. The book presents us the power struggle in the region between the Ottoman government, Arab leaders, Zionists, and the Central Powers (the allies of the Ottoman Empire during the war) who attempted to increase their influence in the region after the British and French were declared enemies.

By M. Talha Çiçek,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked War and State Formation in Syria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the First World War, Cemal Pasha attempted to establish direct control over Syrian and thereby reaffirm Ottoman authority there through various policies of control, including the abolishment of local intermediaries.

Elaborating on these Ottoman policies of control, this book assesses Cemal Pasha's policies towards different political groups in Syrian society, including; Arabists, Zionists, Christian clergymen and Armenian immigrants. The author then goes on to analyse Pasha's educational activities, the conscription of Syrians- both Muslim and Christian, and the reconstruction of the major Syrian cities, assessing how these policies contributed to his attempt to create ideal Ottoman citizens.

An important…

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