The Ottoman Iraq (1532-1918)
When the Ottoman Empire was dismembered following World War I and the boundaries of the 20th-century state of Iraq were drawn, they bore little resemblance to those of the provinces of Ottoman Iraq. Nor had the name Iraq been attached to any of those provinces. Ottoman Iraq was roughly approximate to the Arabian Iraq of the preceding era, but without clearly defined borders. The Zagros Mountains, which separated Arabian Iraq from Persian Iraq, now lay on the Ottoman-Iranian frontier, but that frontier shifted with the fortunes of war. On the west and south, Iraq faded out somewhere in the sands of the Syrian and Arabian deserts.
The incorporation of Arabian Iraq into the Ottoman Empire not only separated it from Persian Iraq but also reoriented it toward the Ottoman lands in Syria and Anatolia, with especially close ties binding the province (eyalet) of Diyar Bakr to the Iraqi provinces. For administrative purposes, Ottoman Iraq was divided into the three central eyalets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, with the northern eyalet of Sharihzor, east of the Tigris, and the southern eyalet of Al-Hasa, on the western coast of the Persian Gulf. These provinces only roughly reflected the geographic, linguistic, and religious divisions of Ottoman Iraq.
Most of the inhabitants of Mosul and Shahrizor in the north and northeast were Kurds and other non-Arabs. Pastures and cultivated fields benefited from the plentiful rainfall and melting winter snows of this largely mountainous region. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing through the central and southern plains created an irregular belt of irrigated farmlands bounded by desert and merging into the marshlands around the head of the Persian Gulf.
The people of the plains, marshes, and deserts were overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking. Few Turkish speakers were to be found outside of Baghdad, Kirkuk, and some other towns. Centuries of political upheavals, invasions, wars, and general insecurity had taken their toll on Iraq's population, especially in the urban centres. Destruction and neglect of the irrigation system had restricted settled agriculture to a few areas, the most extensive of which were between the rivers north of Baghdad and around Basra in the south. As much as half of the Arab and Kurdish population in the countryside was nomadic or seminomadic. Outside the towns, social organization and personal allegiances were primarily tribal, with many of the settled cultivators having retained their tribal ties. Baghdad, situated near the geographic centre, reflected within itself the division between the predominantly Shi'ite south and the largely Sunnite north. Unlike Anatolia and Syria, Iraq's non-Muslim communities were modest in size, but there was an active Jewish commercial and financial element in Baghdad, and Assyrian Christians were prominent in Mosul.
Absorbed piecemeal by the Ottoman sultans Selim I and Süleyman I in the 16th century, this region on the empire's eastern periphery was the battleground in recurrent struggles between the Sunnite Ottomans and the Shi'ite rulers of Iran and was subject to frequent Arab and Kurdish tribal disturbances. It was never as thoroughly integrated into the empire or as directly administered by the Ottomans as was the western half of the Fertile Crescent. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the destruction, chaos, and fragmentation that had beset the region in the preceding centuries, the expansion of the vast Ottoman political and economic sphere to include Iraq brought with it certain advantages.
Under the watchful eye of Süleyman I's government, local administration was reorganized; trade increased; the economic and living conditions of most of the inhabitants improved; and the towns, especially Baghdad, experienced some growth and new building. The Ottomans at first attempted to rule the Iraqi provinces directly, but in the 17th and 18th centuries a weakened government in Istanbul was obliged to concede extensive autonomy to the governors, and some areas were beyond the reach of Ottoman authority for extended periods. This trend was reversed in the 19th century when administrative centralization and reorganization, undertaken by the Ottoman government as part of a comprehensive reform and modernization program, were extended to Iraq. The reassertion of direct rule by the sultan's government did not, however, halt the increasing penetration of Iraq by British and other European interests.
Return to the History page