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Historical Observations: Anglo-Ottoman Society and Aghia Sophia

The Anglo-Ottoman Society was established by British Turcophiles and converts to Islam "to promote the maintenance and integrity of the Ottoman Empire as now constituted, and to emphasize the strategical and commercial importance of that integrity for the British Empire" in 1913. They supported and defended the Ottoman Empire in letters to the editor in the London Times and the Sunday Times newspapers and an official British document during the period 1914-18. Three examples will be cited for illustrative purposes. Firstly, the Greeks were accused of massacres and atrocities against Muslims in Macedonia (September 1914); secondly, a member of the Anglo-Ottoman society wrote advocating a speedy peace between Britain and Turkey take place (January 1916); and finally, the Anglo-Ottoman Society sent a letter to the Provisional Government of Russia thanking them for harboring no territorial designs and promoting democracy and freedom for all its citizens.

It should be noted that Czar Nicholas II abdicated his throne making way for Alexandre Kerensky's provisional government in February 1917. Constantinople had been promised to Russia by Britain and France as part of the secret wartime treaties to carve up the Ottoman Empire between them. The Anglo-Ottoman society would have been most displeased with the handover of Constantinople to Russia if that had happened at the end of the great war.

At the Paris peace conference, the British delegation received many memorials and resolutions from British organizations regarding the future of Aghia Sophia and Constantinople. The Anglo-Ottoman Society passed a resolution at its meeting held on March 12, 1919. Arthur Field, the honorary secretary of the Anglo-Ottoman Society, sent a letter to Prime Minister Lloyd George in London enclosing a copy of the resolution. It stated:

“this meeting emphatically protests and opposes the proposal that San Sophia shall be handed over to Greek ecclesiastics, after its use for nearly 500 years as the leading mosque at the centre of the Islamic world and it also protests against the suggestion that Constantinople and territory around, which is preponderantly Turkish, should pass into the hands of Greece.

“This meeting expresses its firm opinion that Turkey should not be partitioned or reduced to an insignificant position, but should be maintained as far as possible as an independent Muslim power. It calls for the application of the principle of self-determination to the Turkish nation, as to all nations. It draws the attention of His Majesty's Government to the pronounced and widespread feeling among Muslims that the Sultan should remain the Caliph of Islam. The meeting respectfully draws attention to the loyal sacrifices of Indian Muslims and begs the Government to yield to the significant and unanimous representations of our Indian Muslim fellow-subjects against the destruction of Turkey and against any action intended to favor a change in the Caliphate." 

There are three points in the resolution worth bringing to the reader's attention. In the first case, the resolution was couched in a moderate language supporting the Ottoman Empire; secondly, Britain has been mindful of the sympathies of its Indian Muslim subjects who saw the Turkish Sultan as their caliph (spiritual leader); and finally that Aghia Sophia should remain as a mosque and Greeks had no legal rights to it.

In conclusion, the Anglo-Ottoman Society did everything in its power to defend, support, and advance Turkish interests in Britain just before and after the great war. It also worked to advance friendship between the British and Turkish peoples.

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