Island and Empire
How Civil War in Crete Mobilized the Ottoman World
Uğur Zekeriya Peçe




Pıraǧ’da Yahudi mezarlıǧında sessiz soluksuz ölüm.

Ah gülüm, ah gülüm,

muhacirlik ölümden beter . . .

Death in Prague’s Jewish cemetery, silent and speechless.

Oh my love, oh my love,

worse than death is refugeehood . . .

—Nazım Hikmet, Jeseník, 20 December 19561

Under a scorching August sun in 1896, more than five thousand displaced Muslim peasants congregated outside the city of Iraklio (Candia), beside two corpses of their coreligionists. The bodies had been brought there from Larani, a village about twenty miles south. Reports conflicted as to how they had been killed. The Muslim sources claimed that the killings had occurred as the victims attempted to collect their belongings from the village now under Christian control. Rival accounts maintained that they were ambushed and shot dead by a grieving father, avenging his teenage son who had been murdered in trying to prevent the two from pillaging their farm. Before the city gates lay the two lifeless bodies to be presented to the European diplomats stationed in Iraklio as macabre evidence that death was roaming the land. It was in this heated moment that Hasan Pasha, the newly appointed governor of Iraklio, the most populous district in Ottoman Crete, encountered the refugee villagers, a frustrated multitude denouncing the authorities and crying for passage through the gates. Anxious to keep the tense atmosphere in the city under control, he denied them permission to enter and parade the dead bodies through the streets leading to the European consulates. “If you want to continue subjecting us to the slaughter,” a voice rose from the crowd as fingers pointed to the corpses, “look!” The insults from the angry group soon turned physical, with some protesters pulling Hasan Pasha down from his horse and attacking him with sticks. Thanks to several helping hands extended to the fallen pasha, he managed to move away and throw himself into a shop, finding there a side door exit into a garden. He then headed through a backstreet to the government konak. In this turmoil Hasan Pasha lost his fez. Lost too was the prestige that a high-ranking Ottoman administrator needed most at this time of upheaval in Crete. With the gate now under the control of the refugee demonstrators, the displaced, long made to wait in anxiety outside the city walls, poured into Iraklio.2

On this violent day and hundreds of others prior, most of Crete was in a state of uproar. Anchored off strategic locations along its 160-mile-long northern shore were the battleships of Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany, a collective force patrolling the Mediterranean with the avowed aim of pacifying the island and preventing the strife from spilling over into the Balkans. On the island’s high mountains far from the coast were Christian insurgents in an armed struggle against the Ottoman administration as they attempted to help in the annexation of Crete to Greece. And across the island’s fertile valleys, isolated villages, and coastal towns were scenes befitting a civil war: smoke rising from villages ablaze, churches and mosques demolished, Muslim and Christian cemeteries defiled, olive trees burned, vineyards destroyed, tens of thousands of civilians internally displaced, and an unknown number of islanders murdered.

The episode at the gates of Iraklio in August 1896 paints a picture of how displacement catalyzed collective action on an island. This relationship also motivates the central question that Island and Empire explores in a much broader context, from the late nineteenth century to World War I: How are displacement, intervention, and protest connected in the Ottoman world? The physical confrontation between the refugee villagers and Hasan Pasha sets the stage to recount a narrative of displacement and collective action, one that soon after beginning on an island became a larger story about an empire.

British author H. H. Munro, writing under the pen name Saki, quipped that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.”3 In the spirit of this aphorism, Island and Empire examines the violence that enveloped Crete during the 1890s and its long-term implications at local, imperial, and transnational levels. Drawing on research in local and national archives in seven countries, I narrate a connected history of mass displacement, international intervention, and popular mobilization, three phenomena that transformed the Middle East and the Balkans around the turn of the twentieth century.

My narrative begins with a discussion of an island-wide conflict, which I treat as a civil war, during the mid-1890s between Crete’s majority-Christian and minority-Muslim populations, both Greek-speaking communities. I then proceed to explore a long-lasting international imbroglio known in the diplomatic parlance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “the Crete/Cretan question.” This represented a component of the protracted Eastern question that marked the relations between the Ottoman state and European powers from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of World War I.4 The island’s governance was long stipulated as a European matter in article 23 of the Treaty of Berlin (July 1878), obliging the Sublime Porte to enact a reform program in Crete, which materialized with the signing of the Pact of Halepa near Hania (Canea/Hanya) in October 1878. The Pact launched a period of autonomy lasting more than a decade characterized by such anti-Hamidian features as a strong assembly, parliamentary elections, and political parties. As Sultan Abdülhamid suspended the Ottoman parliament in 1878, the province of Crete acquired its own.5 At the heart of the Crete question were the conflicting visions of rule between the islanders and Istanbul as well as clashing claims of sovereignty between Greece and the Ottoman Empire over a piece of land encompassing about 3,200 square miles with a population of more than 350,000. The tremendous geostrategic value of this island came from lying equidistant from Asia Minor, Europe, and North Africa as well as from boasting the Suda Bay, host to one of the deepest natural harbors in the entire Mediterranean. What elevated an interstate dispute to a complex transnational issue was the military occupation and later supervision of Crete for about a decade by a European coalition comprising Britain, France, Italy, and Russia.6 I argue that the displacement of around seventy thousand Muslims following the civil war and the international intervention inspired mass protests that went far beyond the scene in Iraklio with which this book began. Rather, the movement spanned the Ottoman provinces from 1908 onward, sending echoes farther afield among the Muslims living under European colonial empires in Asia and Africa as well.

My main query about how displacement and protest are intertwined generates several other questions on three levels of analysis. At the local level, I introduce the concept of civil war to analyze the conflict on the island and explain why terminology matters in how we describe collective violence. At the international level, I explore how the European intervention contributed to a civilian catastrophe and accordingly treat the dislocation of Crete’s Muslim community as an early example of “unmixing of populations,” which only intensified after the First World War. At the level of empire, I examine the popular mobilization around an island after 1908 and discuss how community organizers in the Ottoman world made sense of the Crete question.

I make three central contributions to the histories of violence, international intervention, and displacement. First, I examine the strife between Christians and Muslims in the 1890s as a civil war, in distinction from Greek and Turkish historiographies that have often seen it as a revolution or an uprising, respectively. I argue that these terms reproduce dominant state language about violence and reduce a complex upheaval to a primarily nationalist conflict. Defining civil war as strife between communities that are familiar with one another, I underscore the element of intimacy between the island’s Christians and Muslims. In so doing, I critique sectarian interpretations of conflict that pervade both contemporary accounts and historiography. By foregrounding the human consequences of the turmoil rather than the fighting between the state and insurgents, this terminology accentuates the analytical connection between violence and displacement.

My second contribution relates to the topic of international interventions launched in regions with mixed populations. The internal displacement of Crete’s Muslims that began with a civil war concluded only after the refugees’ demands for repatriation to their villages fell on deaf ears. I argue that the European perceptions of the strife in terms of an incompatibility between linguistically identical but religiously distinct communities underpinned the policies that fueled the Muslim flight from Crete. Such perspectives imagined the displacement as a strategy to prevent future clashes. Historians have widely studied the aftermath of World War I as the formative period for the crafting of policies that saw the elimination of ethnoreligious diversity, through population exchanges and transfers, as a panacea against conflict. Scrutinizing the depictions of Crete’s Christians and Muslims as sectarian communities harboring mutual hatreds, I offer an alternative periodization for the internationally sanctioned projects of ethnoreligious homogenization in the name of political stability. While this book, at its core, narrates a story of an empire through the prism of an island, it also intervenes in histories of imperialism with an examination of Europe’s insular entanglements.

My third contribution concerns displacement, the study of which is characterized by an emphasis on resettlement and humanitarianism. Underscoring the refugees’ resourcefulness rather than helplessness, I demonstrate how the Muslims, displaced from Crete and resettled in Asia Minor, Syria, and Libya, took the lead in an empire-wide grassroots action between 1908 and 1911. I argue that the islanders who had been removed from Crete became the movers of Ottoman mass politics. Composed of public rallies and economic boycotts of Greece, the popular mobilization was distinguished from earlier examples in protest-rich Ottoman history in three fundamental ways: longevity (continuous occurrence between late 1908 and 1911), scale (covering most towns and cities in every province), and novelty (use of mobilization strategies and protest practices that were unavailable during the preceding three decades of censorship and the ban on mass political assembly in the streets and other public spaces). If the Cretan refugees recast themselves after 1908 as protagonists in the mass mobilization, the routinization of protest through continuous public assemblies about Crete remade the empire. I explore how ordinary Ottomans, the islanders and others, made sense in their neighborhoods of a diplomatic question that involved multiple states.

Uprooting: A Fratricidal War

A New Testament passage in the Epistle of Paul to Titus refers to an ancient seer-cum-philosopher of Cretan origin, likely Epimenides, who profiled his own people with words far from flattering: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”7 One might read t his a s a biblical reproach whose essentialist characterization of an insular clan would be outdated by 1895. Around this time reports on targeted killings of civilians across Crete proliferated. As bloody incidents began to foster a climate of fear and panic, multiple observers deployed an indiscriminate language to characterize the islanders or large sections of them as hyperviolent. Aristotelis Korakas, the leader of a paramilitary force supported by Athens and the son of a famous chieftain who had fought against the Ottoman administration in the past, addressed a proclamation to the Christian inhabitants of the Candia (Iraklio) province. In this document from February 1897, Korakas set out to liberate them “from bloodthirsty Turkish Cretans.”8 Several days after his communiqué, a petition sent to the Ottoman government and representatives of European states by the Muslim inhabitants of Rethimno (Resmo) accused the Christians of aiming for “the total elimination of Muslims from the island.”9

Multiple influential figures presumed violence in Crete to be innate to its inhabitants. In early 1895, the Italian consul in Hania relayed to the embassy in Istanbul the news of various bloody crimes in western Crete, interpreting them as the rekindling of “the antagonism existing between the two opposing elements since time immemorial [tempo immemorabile].”10 In 1910, when the Muslim population stood around thirty thousand with a 70 percent decrease from its pre–civil war figure, the British consul A. C. Wratislaw reported a recent rash of murders of Muslims that had punctured a period of relative peace on the island, construing them as an indication of its inhabitants’ savage ways: “Crete is not a ladies’ school but a mountainous country whose inhabitants, outside the towns, are in a very elementary state of civilisation,” the British consul wrote. “Their manners are ungentle and their respect for private property is limited, nor can it be expected that the Christians should treat the Mussulmans any more tenderly than they treat one another.”11

It was not only the Europeans who imagined the islanders as having fierce passions that often burst out in violence. Turhan Pasha, serving as governor of Crete during some of the bloodiest days of civil war, wrote to Sultan Abdülhamid in late 1897 that for centuries the Christians had resorted to “rebellious acts” (hareket-i serkeşane), revolting twenty-four times under the Venetians and seven times since 1821. The resort to sedition was in “the natural disposition” of this island’s inhabitants.12 For Mustafa Nuri (b. 1851, Iraklio), an Ottoman statesman who promoted the significance of his native land to the imperial public after 1908, ferocity characterized Crete’s physical and human landscape: “Those who are familiar with the fierceness of the Mediterranean along the shores of Crete . . . could form an idea about the nature and emotions of the people inhaling the air of its raging sea and inhabiting the mountains of that rebellious [serkeş] island.” The Cretans always lived in the extremes: “They either love, and love with passion, or they hate, and hate with passion.” Suggesting that such polarity also defined the relations between the island’s Christian and Muslim communities, the veteran statesman added that the Greek (Rum) population harbored for years a strong feeling of hatred toward the Ottomans (Osmanlı).13 Nikos Kazantzakis, who was also born in Iraklio, thirty-two years after Mustafa Nuri, envisioned his home-island with a similar sentiment. For this giant of modern Greek literature, Crete was not “a picturesque, smiling place. Its form is austere, furrowed by struggles and pain.” For him, the history of this island was shaped by a violent struggle between “men fighting for their freedom and oppressors raving to crush them. These Cretans have grown so familiar with death that they no longer fear it.”14

The portrayal of Crete as a land marked by bloodshed was widely reproduced in scholarly works. The literature on its history of conflict during the nineteenth century broadly falls into two camps. While Greek historiography has traditionally treated bouts of violence as a series of revolutions that the Christians waged against an oppressive state, Turkish historiography has recounted them as revolts instigated by the agents of an irredentist Greece.15 Both perspectives reproduce narratives that amplify the state’s voice. What state-centric accounts often conceal are the social dynamics and consequences of violence. Tobie Meyer-Fong critiques such viewpoints in her discussion of the cataclysm that ravaged China during the mid-nineteenth century, a conflict bearing an incongruous mix of labels such as the Taiping Rebellion, the Taiping Revolution, and the Taiping Civil War. She posits that “an examination of the human consequences of this war has the potential to transform our understanding of this period, forcing us to rethink the priority we attach to revolution, state, and nation.”16 Meyer-Fong’s point resonates with the case of Ottoman Crete as well. A binary of revolution or revolt flattens a complex conflict on the island into a neatly defined clash between insurgents and soldiers. A strife that claimed many lives, demolished countless homes, and destroyed more than one million olive trees warrants using a different descriptor to foreground the scope of ruin across the physical and human landscape of Crete.17 I investigate the violence in Crete during the 1890s as a civil war between groups of Christians and Muslims, two native communities sharing Greek as their mother tongue and holding in common various island customs.

In studying the island-wide turbulence, the idea of revolution and revolt has proven pervasive, but this is not because it offers a cogent reflection of the experiences of historical actors swept up in a conflict. Its prevalence instead typifies histories of interreligious/ethnic violence in which the state often serves as the primary agent, against which revolts and revolutions are leveled.18 The underutilization of the concept of civil war in Ottoman historiography is partly due to how official histories have remembered violence, a point David Armitage raises as he underlines the politicization of terminology, positing that “established governments will always view civil wars as rebellions or illegal uprisings against legitimate authority” whereas “the victors in a civil war will often commemorate their struggle as a revolution.”19 The terminology of revolt and revolution often underpins a story of morality, which partly explains why it tends to lend itself to relatively clearcut divisions.

Civil wars split societies into opposing camps. They harden existing divisions along ethnicity, religion, or ideology while simultaneously blurring the boundaries between civilians and belligerents. Part of the fighting in civil wars may occur between soldiers and insurgents, yet a clear distinction between peasants and combatants often fades into murkiness. Studying interethnic violence in Ottoman Macedonia at the turn of the twentieth century, İpek Yosmaoǧlu has identified ambiguity as a defining aspect of strife. Her work features “a protracted conflict, finally a civil war, fought as an insurgency, where the lines separating fighter from civilian, perpetrator from victim, traitor from hero, were not clearly drawn.”20 Evidence of such fuzziness in the case of Crete appears in some rare photographs from local and diplomatic archives. They present motley groups of villagers in armed resistance against imperial troops. Figures 1 and 2 portray groups of Christian villagers from two nearby locations to the west of Hania. The presence of several arms-bearing young teenagers and priests demonstrates the difficulty, if not erroneousness, of pigeonholing inhabitants into two neat categories, civilians versus combatants. On their part, local Muslims formed paramilitary bands as well with a similar goal: the preservation of the lives, properties, and political power of the community they saw themselves a part of. The term civil war, I suggest, is better suited to capture the complexity of this internecine fighting than revolt or revolution. A lack of clear distinctions between civilians and fighters is not an attribute exclusive to civil wars. That feature, however, accentuates the process-centered character of such strife. The terms revolt and revolution, on the other hand, often simplify collective violence. They are outcome oriented and, as such, reproduce precise and teleological narratives that are favored by nationalist constructions of history. While many of the island’s Christian peasants are criminal rebels in most Turkish accounts, they are revolutionaries in Greek national histories.

While the concept of civil war lends itself to a less state-centric and more inclusive narrative of violence, does it really agree with the way contemporaries perceived the conflict?21 The example of Crete shows that multiple figures from the island and beyond regarded the conflagration as civil strife.22 In June 1896, penning a letter from the Preveli Monastery at the foot of a mountain overlooking the azure waters of the Libyan Sea in southern Crete, the Greek-Orthodox bishop Evmenios reported the attacks on the Christians. He admonished the island’s Ottoman administration for driving the country to a “civil war” (emfyliōn . . . sparagmōn).23 It was not only Christian Cretans who made sense of the conflict in this way. In March 1897, corresponding with a British navy officer to convey their appreciation for his assistance, a group of Muslim notables condemned “the murderous assaults of civil war” (attaques meurtrières de la guerre civile).24

FIGURE 1. A group of partially armed peasants from the village of Platanias in western Crete, 1896. Source: Ioannis Mourellos Archive, Etairia Kritikon Istorikon Meleton/Historical Museum of Crete.

FIGURE 2. The Ottoman Turkish caption introduces this group as “the seditious committee” (cemiyet-i fesadiye) in the village of Kambos in western Crete, 1896. Source: Istanbul University Rare Documents Library, Yıldız Albums.

Civil war pits neighbor against neighbor, driving a wedge between communities deeply familiar with one another. The fratricidal nature of its violence is embedded in the title of one of the greatest fictional works about the Greek civil war of the 1940s, The Fratricides (1955), a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, born during the waning years of Ottoman rule on the island.25 In the 1890s, the Paris-based newspaper Meşveret (Consultation) had viewed the intercommunal violence in Crete through a prism similar to Kazantzakis’s. In July 1896, the leading Young Turk publication in exile summarized several letters received from Crete that related acts of brutality against civilians. Those heart-rending missives made Meşveret “shudder at hearing about the bloody deeds among the brothers of the country [vatan kardeşleri] living together for centuries.”26 Two years later, in 1898, Dionysios, the bishop of Rethimno, would write a letter to Muslim notables in each of Crete’s three principal cities. Addressing the receiver of his missive as “compatriot friend,” he described the bloodshed as a civil war, adding to the example of the bishop Evmenios referenced earlier. Underscoring the common island identity between Christians and Muslims, Dionysios exclaimed: “We both live in the same land, we breathe the same air, we have the same origin, the same customs, we are speaking the same language, we have the same natural vices and virtues.”27

Dionysios’s stress on the intimate familiarity between the two communities at bloody loggerheads for the past two years illustrates the pertinence of David Armitage’s observation that “civil wars spring from deep and deadly divisions but they expose identities and commonalities. To call a war ‘civil’ is to acknowledge the familiarity of the enemies as members of the same community: not foreigners but fellow citizens.”28 In differentiating civil war from other types of mass violence, political scientist Stathis Kalyvas has already underlined the centrality of intimacy: “More than anything else, intimacy is the attribute that sets interstate war apart from civil war. . . . Violence in civil war is frequently exercised among people who share membership in a legally recognized or ‘imagined’ community.”29 The size and topographic variety of Crete made up an island world in which peasants living in the westernmost region of Kissamos maintained little contact with those in the region of Sitia, about two hundred miles east. By the same token, the physical and sociocultural landscape of highlanders in southwestern Crete was incomparable to that of the lowlanders to the north.30 Nevertheless, inhabiting an island with outer boundaries clearly fixed by the sea, I argue, made an imagined community much likelier to imagine.

The dearth of civil war terminology in the examination of violence in Crete is in part related to what Ussama Makdisi calls “the impossibility of ‘civil war’ in the Modern Middle East,” presupposing the alleged “existence of inherently primordial sectarian worldviews that persist no matter how much change and transformation occurs in the Middle East.”31 If it is reductive to frame late Ottoman history as a tale of peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnoreligious groups, it is equally misleading to recount a definitive story of fanaticism and hatred between them. Here it is worthwhile to recall Christine Philliou’s point about the fallacy of binaries that “limits us to two diametrically opposed visions,” situating the empire’s history in juxtaposition against an idealized western European norm and constructing a past demonized as oppressive or glorified as tolerant.32 Manifold episodes of intercommunal violence in Ottoman history do not suggest the commanding power of wholesale religious hatred in society. This plain remark could seem to be just stating the obvious, if not for the persistence of scholarship that deploys an indiscriminate vocabulary of mass hatred to study conflict.33

Probing the strife in Crete during the 1890s in terms of a civil war yields insights beyond an island, helping us unsettle the histories of violence that “hinge on tropes such as sectarianism, Muslim-Christian conflict, or the clash of nationalisms.”34 It calls for an explanation of collective violence rather than treating it as a historical constant. Of relevance here is the case of the Yugoslav countryside during the early 1940s, in which the tension that embroiled groups intimately familiar with one another, communities speaking mutually intelligible languages, centered on religious difference. Max Bergholz’s research on a rural community in Bosnia-Herzegovina “confronts us with the notion that it is actually the violence that largely generates these concepts [‘nationalism,’ ‘ethnic groups,’ ‘ethnic conflict’], enhances their salience, and makes them matter in certain moments.”35 Like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Crete had a long history as an Ottoman borderland, but in the form of an island, with a legacy of conversion to Islam and traditions shared by religiously diverse populations.36 Similarly in Crete, the violence of civil war ruptured a society that has often known how to manage potentially inflammatory differences.

As I discuss with more detail in chapter 1, ethnically motivated murders, the spread of panic-inducing rumors, raids on villages by paramilitary groups, retaliatory attacks, and dissemination of atrocity narratives polarized Cretans along the lines of “us versus them,” fault lines drawn mostly by religion. Civil war led to the breakdown of a social order sustained by shared traditions and kept intact by a perceived interest in its preservation. As Barbara Walter notes, “Most people don’t realize they are on the path to civil war until the violence is a feature of everyday life.”37 In this sense the phenomenon points to an aberration from the ordinary, the explanation of which is possible only through the scrutiny of events and processes that illuminate a society’s descent into violence. By utilizing the terminology of civil war I seek to eschew the trope of inherently violent communities while keeping clear of painting a rosy picture of coexistence. The term offers a corrective to such ahistorical binaries as Oriental despotism or Ottoman tolerance. As Mahmood Mamdani posits in his work on the Rwandan genocide, “Violence cannot be allowed to speak for itself, for violence is not its own meaning. To be made thinkable, it needs to be historicized.”38 The concept of civil war tosses an anchor into history.

Partition: Boundaries in Mind and Land

Amid the violence of civil war ravaging Crete, the Sublime Porte grew alarmed to find a way to safeguard its most strategic insular possession, an island with “a first-class harbour at Suda Bay.”39 In pursuit of this goal, the state entered two contests: a successful military one against Greece in April 1897 and a frustrating diplomatic one with the great powers of Europe. The war with Greece was fought in Thessaly, about two hundred miles north of Athens, although its antecedents date to a Greek military intervention, when in the winter of 1897 a detachment of around 1,500 strong under the command of Colonel Timoleon Vassos landed on western Crete.40 The protracted, and ultimately futile, political battle that the Ottomans waged with the European coalition has mostly been studied from the viewpoint of diplomatic history. Scholars have examined how a Euro-Ottoman partnership in Crete that began with the Sublime Porte’s requesting Europe’s assistance in the summer of 1896 ended in the fall of 1898 when the international coalition forced all Ottoman troops to evacuate the island.41

The cooperation between the European coalition and the empire culminated in early 1897, when Colonel Vassos’s forces closing in on Hania were halted by the combined forces of Ottoman artillery and European battleships. The Western press widely condemned this common front against Greece. The New York Times, for instance, evoked a famous naval battle from 1827 when the armada of Britain, France, and Russia had destroyed Ottoman and Egyptian fleets, a victory that opened the path to Greek independence. The American paper fumed that if the Western powers restrained Greece, “the glory of Navarino will be effaced. . . . When the Greeks courageously intervene to lift the yoke from their kinsmen in Crete, a cordon of warships sent by the great civilized Christian powers shuts out their succoring squadron.”42 In less than two years, however, Abdülhamid II, under immense pressure from the coalition, would acquiesce to his soldiers’ departure from Crete. Although Crete remained an Ottoman territory on paper, the forced withdrawal of troops was a serious blow. It was this humiliation that led the Young Turks in exile and later the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the commanding political organization following the revolution of July 1908, to denounce the Hamidian regime.

FIGURE 3. Ottoman authorities and European officers at the parade of international troops in Hania, 1898. Source: Family, Court and State Archives of the Austrian State Archives, PA XII, Liasse XXVIII, 291.

FIGURE 4. A scene from the departure of Ottoman soldiers and civil servants from Suda Bay, Crete, 1898. Source: Historical Archives of Crete, Paul Blanc Photographic Collection, 3/101.

I explore the international military intervention in Crete in terms of its impact on displacement. The uprooting of Crete’s Muslims started as an internal displacement, during which a mass exodus from the countryside overpopulated the island’s coastal cities. The process was completed, with no prospect of return to the home-island, when the tens of thousands of people left Crete for Asia Minor, Syria, and Libya. A census carried out in June 1900 counted the number of Muslims in Crete at 33,496, representing a 54 percent decrease from the previous one in 1881. An overlooked example of mass migration during the empire’s long nineteenth-century history of displacements, the Muslim flight from Crete also tore up the bi-religious fabric of the island’s populous countryside. At the end of the nineteenth century 58 percent of the Muslims lived in the countryside, as a minority among a larger Christian population. In the aftermath of the civil war and the European intervention, this ratio dropped to 21 percent.43

In late 1897, the Assembly of Cretans, the political wing of the armed movement for enosis (union) with Athens, which had by this point become a regular interlocutor with the European admirals overseeing the island’s affairs, submitted a petition to the foreign ministers of the coalition powers.44 In his report to the British foreign secretary, the general consul Alfred Biliotti picked up on the main demand of the petitioners, the complete withdrawal of Ottoman troops from the island. Emphasizing that both Christians and Muslims “are perhaps more attached to their native soil than any other race,” Biliotti nevertheless noted how difficult it would be for the dislocated Muslims to return to the villages ravaged by the civil war.45 Only the creation of a capable gendarmerie, he continued, would induce them to rebuild their lives, as it was “beyond a doubt that no native Mussulman will make up his mind to return to the country before he is quite certain that he can do so with perfect security.” It appeared that the only measure for their repatriation rested on European troops to escort them and be garrisoned in the countryside until the formation of a gendarmerie, which would take a year in the most optimistic scenario. Biliotti’s final sentence in his dispatch to London read like a rhetorical question: “But is such an inland occupation contemplated, or likely to be consented to by the Powers?”46

Earlier that year, Biliotti had arrived in southwestern Crete on board a British warship to secure the release of more than a thousand Muslim villagers and scores of Ottoman soldiers. Trapped in Kandanos, a village under the blockade of the Cretan chiefs aided by volunteers and artillery from Greece, they were rescued thanks to Biliotti’s intercession with the besiegers. This incident represents one of the examples whereby the goals of local actors (appropriation of Muslim property) and those of international ones (pacification of Crete) aligned. Both objectives hinged on the emigration of rural Muslims. During the negotiations Biliotti promised that he would “facilitate by all the means in my power the emigration of such of the Mussulmans of Selinos who, like those of Sitia (they asked to go to Rhodes), might be inclined to go and settle elsewhere.” What he envisioned for them was more than a relocation from the island’s villages to towns because “the emigration of the country Mussulmans is the best solution of the Cretan problem, and . . . their agglomeration in or round the towns in Crete would throw the emigrants into utter destitution.”47 Ten years later, with a much-diminished population in Crete, the British Foreign Office even suggested that in case of threats to their well-being the Muslim minority should be urged “to colonize a particular region of the island, where they could more easily be afforded security of life and property.”48 From the time of European military occupation in 1897 to the end of the European-sanctioned autonomous regime of Crete in 1913, on multiple occasions numerous international figures spoke of displacement as though it were the solution rather than a problem.

Laura Robson observes that “the idea that physical separation could serve as a solution to the problems of building a new world of nation-states arrived swiftly and dramatically on the global stage after the First World War.”49 Singling out the aftermath of World War I as the formative period for grand-scale projects of dislocation by Britain, France, and the League of Nations, first in the Middle East and later in South Asia, Robson also mentions several nineteenth-century harbingers of the notion of ethnic concentration through separation, which included the French settler colonialism in Algeria and early Zionist projects of transferring European Jews.50 The treatment of displacement as a method of conflict resolution in multireligious Crete resonates with how partition during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, “touted as a ‘solution’ to ethnic conflict, has invariably been associated with mass violence,” as Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson argue in a synoptic and transnational account of partitions.51 Figures 5 and 6 illustrate the division of Crete and its capital Hania into sectors between four members of the European coalition. Amounting to an administrative separation, and therefore not suggesting a partition based on ethnoreligious difference, the creation of zones, a policy that remained enforced for more than a decade, nevertheless represents an early example of colonialist license to draw lines on the Ottoman map. Crete in the aftermath of a collective European intervention offers a case that uniquely combines the method of split governance and the policy of promoting Muslim emigration.

The internationally sanctioned compulsory exchange of populations (mübadele) in 1923–24 between Greece and Turkey, involving the uprooting of close to two million people, had its antecedents in European responses to the Cretan refugee question. As Davide Rodogno has observed, the Cretan case of demographic engineering seems to suggest a quintessentially European approach to conflict resolution in multireligious societies.52 I argue that this is also an Ottoman story. Indeed, one of the elements making the example of Crete stand out is that the idea of “the unmixing of populations” appealed not only to the agents of European imperialism but to some high-ranking Ottoman imperialists as well. There is much evidence indicating that the European coalition saw the mass transfer of people as a remedy against collective violence. What is less obvious is the Ottoman side of such a worldview. For instance, in August 1897, the interim governor of Crete Müşavir İsmail considered separating Christian and Muslim villages to execute an “exchange” (istibdal, a word related to mübadele) of their properties.53 Like the two population transfer agreements that the Ottoman state reached with Bulgaria and Greece following the Balkan Wars (1912–13), the governor’s exchange plan in Crete did not materialize.54 Still, the case of Crete under European occupation and civil strife provides an earlier example that helps historicize schemes, European and Ottoman, to dislodge people in the name of peace.

FIGURE 5. Map of the administrative divisions of the four occupying powers of Europe. Canea (Hania), Crete’s capital, and its environs represent the international zone under the collective governance of the European coalition. The original map is dated February 1897 and the boxes next to each geographic section in the revised map provide information about the size of garrisons in February 1899. Source: British National Archives, FO 925/3408.

FIGURE 6. The division of Hania into four zones plus the section designated “International,” a bastion where the flags of the coalition powers hoisted, 1909. Source: British National Archives, ADM 116/1078.


1. Translation mine. For an alternative translation, see Nazım Hikmet, Selected Poetry, trans. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk (New York: Persea Books, 1986), 125.

2. This paragraph draws on observations from the following archives: Haus-, Hof-und Staatsarchiv (Family, Court and State Archives of the Austrian State Archives, hereafter HHStA), PA XII, Liasse XXVIII, 279, Vice-Consul Berinda to Julius von Pinter, Iraklio, 6 August 1896; Devlet Arşivleri Başkanlığı Osmanlı Arşivi (Ottoman State Archives, hereafter BOA), Y.A.RES. 81/7, Foreign Minister to Sublime Porte, 6 August 1896 (25 Temmuz 1312); British National Archives (hereafter BNA), FO 421/155, Alfred Biliotti to Marquess of Salisbury, Iraklio, 7 August 1896; Archivio Storico Diplomatico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri (Italian Diplomatic Archives, hereafter ASDMAE), 144, Augusto Medana to Alberto Pansa, Hania, 8 August 1896.

3. H. H. Munro (Saki), “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” in The Short Stories of Saki (1911; repr., New York: Viking Press, 1930), 150.

4. Akin to various diplomatic questions throughout what Holly Case aptly describes as “the extremely long nineteenth century (1770–1970),” the Crete question too was “linked to the possibility of a broader European conflict in the minds of many querists.” The Age of Questions: Or, A First Attempt at an Aggregate History of the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions over the Nineteenth Century, and Beyond (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), xiv, 104.

5. Célestin Albin, L’ile de Crète: Histoire et souvenirs (Paris: Sanard et Dérangeon, 1898), 147–62; Mustafa Yavuz, Demokratik İhtilaller Çağında Girit (Istanbul: Belge Yayınları, 2017), 205–47.

6. At an initial stage, Austria-Hungary and Germany also took part in the military intervention. Both withdrew from Crete in early 1898, fixing the number of states in the European coalition at four. In March 1898, Frank Lascelles, British ambassador to Germany, reported that Emperor Wilhelm II had told him on multiple occasions that Germany had no interests in the Mediterranean. BNA, ADM121/53, F. Lascelles to the Marquess of Salisbury, 16 March 1898.

7. Titus 1:12–13, Greek-English New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979).

8. Aristotelis Korakas Collection, Istoriko Arheio tou Panepistimiou Kritis (Historical Archives of University of Crete, hereafter IAPAK), Aristotelis Korakas to Christian inhabitants of the Candia province, 15 February 1897 (3 February 1897).

9. BOA, Y. PRK. A. 11/35, Muslim Community of Rethimno to Sublime Porte, Ottoman Foreign Ministry, Embassies of Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Germany, and Austria, 19 February 1897.

10. ASDMAE 145, Italian Consulate to Tommaso Catalini, Hania, 31 January 1895.

11. BNA, FO 195/2345, A. C. Wratislaw to Edward Grey, Hania, 21 April 1910.

12. BOA, İ.MTZ.GR 32/1248, Turhan Pasha to Sultan, 1 November 1897 (20 Teşrinievvel 1313).

13. Mustafa Nuri, “Girit Müslümanlarının Suzişli Bir Feryadı,” Tanin, 9 November 1908 (27 Teşrinievvel 1324).

14. Nikos Kazantzakis in a radio interview with Pierre Sipriot, Paris, 6 May 1955,​.php.

15. Leonidas Kallivretakis, “A Century of Revolutions: The Cretan Question between European and Near Eastern Politics,” in Paschalis M. Kitromilides, ed., Eleftherios Venizelos: The Trials of Statesmanship (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 11–35; John S. Koliopoulos and Thanos M. Veremis, Modern Greece: A History since 1921 (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 46–47; Pınar Şenışık, The Transformation of Ottoman Crete: Revolts, Politics and Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011).

16. Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 10.

17. Antonios N. Giannaris, Peri tēs Katastaseōs tēs en Krētē Geōrgias kai Emporias: Syntomos kai Praktikē Meletē (Hania, 1906), 12–13.

18. Titled “Turkish Civil War, 1919–22,” a recent essay offers a reappraisal of the Turkish War of Independence. See Mesut Uyar, “Türk İç Savaşı, 1919–22,” Toplumsal Tarih, no. 347 (November 2022): 12–15. Uyar emphasizes the reluctance of Turkish historians to employ the concept of civil war in understanding the rival struggles between various factions in post–World War I Anatolia. For one exception that he cites, see Sina Akşin, İstanbul Hükümetleri ve Milli Mücadele III: İç Savaş ve Sevr’de Ölüm (İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Yayınları, 2010). In his study focusing on the South Marmara region during this time period, Ryan Gingeras argues that “the War of Independence was in fact a civil war without a clear, binary set of protagonists and antagonists.” Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912–1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 169. For a recent study utilizing the terminology of civil war to examine European interventions in the Levant during the earlier phase of the Eastern Question, see Ozan Ozavci, Dangerous Gifts: Imperialism, Security, and Civil Wars in the Levant, 1798–1864 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

19. David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (New York: Vintage, 2017), 13–14.

20. İpek K. Yosmaoğlu, Blood Ties: Religion, Violence, and the Politics of Nationhood in Ottoman Macedonia, 1878–1908 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 16–17.

21. It remains uncertain whether the language of conflict used by Macedonia’s inhabitants included the term civil war.

22. The terminology of civil war to describe intercommunal violence in Crete has an old history. During his travels in Crete in the 1830s a British army officer described the village of Dafnes near Iraklio as a place that offered “a most heart-rending example of the sad effects of civil war!” C. Rochfort Scott, Rambles in Egypt and Candia, vol. 2 (London: Henry Colburn, 1837), 266.

23. Centre des archives diplomatiques (French Foreign Ministry Archives in Nantes, hereafter CADN), 328 PO/1/152, Evmenios to Ottoman Administration of Crete, Moni Preveli, 9 June 1896 (28 May 1896). The question of civil war has generated a vast scholarship in Greece, a country with a painful period of civil strife in the twentieth century. Greek historians have mostly used the term emfylios polemos or just emfylios to describe the civil war in Greece between 1946 and 1949. Although less common, the phrase emfylios sparagmos has also been employed. Giorgos Margaritis, Istoria tou Ellēnikou Emfyliou Polemou, 1946–1949 (Athens: Vivliorama, 2001).

24. BNA, ADM 121/53, Muslim Representatives in Hania to Captain Custance, enclosed in Evan MacGregor (Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty) to Foreign Office, 22 March 1897.

25. Nikos Kazantzakis, The Fratricides (1955; repr., New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964). The original Greek title of Kazantzakis’s novel is Oi Aderfofades, with a literal meaning “Brother-Eaters.”

26. “Girit Havadisi,” Meşveret, 23 July 1896 (12 Safer 1314).

27. Arheio G. I. Hatzigrigoraki (G. I. Hatzigrigorakis Archives—Archives of the Russian Vice-Consulate), Bishop of Rethimno to Muslim Notables, Arkadi Monastery, 21 May 1898 (9 May 1898). The English translation of the letter that the British consul Alfred Biliotti shared with the Marquess of Salisbury rendered the Greek phrase emfylios sparagmos as “civil war.” BNA, ADM 121/53, Alfred Biliotti to Marquess of Salisbury, Hania, 2 June 1898.

28. Armitage, Civil Wars, 12.

29. Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 333.

30. Earlier European travelers to Crete mentioned such stark regional variations, sometimes in derogatory contrasts. “The name of the Sfakiot is . . . a by-word amongst the lowland Cretans, for talents perverted, and for unscrupulous intrigue, theft, and cruelty. . . . In stature, in activity, and hardihood, he is the counterpart of our Scotch Highlander, and in past days might have resembled him in other respects; but now, in respect to character and principles, he is the very reverse.” T. A. B. Spratt, Travels and Researches in Crete, vol. 1 (London: John van Voorst, 1865), 53–54.

31. Ussama Makdisi, “Diminished Sovereignty and the Impossibility of ‘Civil War’ in the Modern Middle East,” American Historical Review 120, no. 5 (2015): 1739–40.

32. Christine M. Philliou, Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), xvii.

33. According to Akçam’s coverage of the nineteenth century, one of the salient features of the period seems to be “the hatred that the Muslim population felt toward the Christians,” which was progressively exacerbated by the involvement of European powers in Ottoman affairs. Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 35. For a glaring application of the “clash of civilizations” thesis into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which undifferentiated populations turn into religiously motivated fanatical killers, see Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

34. Bedross der Matossian, The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022), 5.

35. Max Bergholz, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 321.

36. For conversion from Christianity into Islam in Crete, see Nuri Adıyeke, “Multi-dimensional Complications of Conversion to Islam in Ottoman Crete,” in Antonis Anastasopoulos, ed., The Eastern Mediterranean under Ottoman Rule: Crete, 1645–1840 (Rethymno: Crete University Press, 2009), 203–9; Molly Greene, A Shared World: Christians and Muslims in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000),103–9.

37. Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (New York: Crown, 2022), 205.

38. Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 141.

39. Admiral Sir Reginald H. Bacon, A Naval Scrap-Book (First Part, 1877–1900) (London: Hutchinson, 1925), 47.

40. Theodore George Tatsios, The Megali Idea and the Greek-Turkish War of 1897: The Impact of the Cretan Problem on Greek Irredentism, 1866–1897 (Boulder, NY: East European Monographs, 1984), 93.

41. Ayşe Nükhet Adıyeke and Nuri Adıyeke, Osmanlı Dönemi Kısa Girit Tarihi (İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2021); Robert Holland and Diana Markides, The British and the Hellenes: Struggles for Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1850–1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Davide Rodogno, Against Massacre: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire, 1815–1914 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); Tatsios, Megali Idea.

42. “Greece and Crete,” New York Times, 16 February 1897.

43. “Apografē tou Plēthysmou en Etei 1900,” Episimos Efimeris tis Kritikis Politeias (Official Gazette of the Cretan State, hereafter EEKP), vol. 2 (annex), 24 March 1904 (11 March 1904).

44. I. K. Sfakianakis, President of the Assembly of Cretans, to Foreign Ministers of the Four Great Powers of Europe, Akrotiri, 27 December 1897 (15 December 1897), in Krētika: Ētoi Syllogē tōn Diplōmatikōn Eggrafōn tēs Epanastatikēs Syneleuseōs, tēs Syneleuseōs tōn Krētōn, tou Ektelestikou, tōn Nauarhōn k.l.p. & tōn Egkykliōn tēs Syneleuseōs kai tou Ektelestikou meta Sēmeiōseōn Istorikōn—26 Iouniou 1897–9 Dekemvriou 1898 (Hania: Proodos, E. D. Frantzeskaki, 1901), 41–44.

45. BNA, ADM 121/53, Alfred Biliotti to the Marquess of Salisbury, Hania, 30 December 1897. Paul Blanc, the French consul general, who was related to the British consul through Biliotti’s wife, also emphasized the profound sense of attachment to land evinced by both Christian and Muslim islanders. According to Blanc, such sentiment was caused by insularity, that is, inhabiting a land with natural boundaries surrounded by the sea. Centre des archives diplomatiques (French Foreign Ministry Archives in La Courneuve, hereafter CADC) 153 CPCOM/74, Paul Blanc to Théophile Delcassé, Hania, 23 March 1899.

46. BNA, ADM 121/53, Alfred Biliotti to the Marquess of Salisbury, Hania, 30 December 1897. Biliotti was a fascinating character hailing from an Italian-speaking Levantine family from Rhodes. English was Biliotti’s fourth language after French and Greek. Turkish was his fifth. See David Barchard, “The Fearless and Self-Reliant Servant: The Life and Career of Sir Alfred Biliotti (1833–1915), an Italian Levantine in British Service,” Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici 48 (2006): 5–53.

47. BNA, ADM 121/53, Alfred Biliotti to the Marquess of Salisbury, Hania, 11 March 1897.

48. BNA, FO 421/229, Foreign Office to Acting Consul General Graham, Foreign Office, 10 October 1906.

49. Laura Robson, States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 7.

50. Ibid., 7–18.

51. Arie M. Dubnov and Laura Robson, Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 25.

52. Rodogno, Against Massacre, 219.

53. BOA, İ. MTZ. GR. 31/1234, Interim Governor of Crete Müşavir İsmail to Yıldız Başkitabet Dairesi, Hania, 26 August 1897 (14 August 1313).

54. The Ottoman governor envisioned the exchange as a project to be ideally implemented in cooperation with the European coalition. For bilateral exchange projects after the Balkan Wars, see Stephen P. Ladas, The Exchange of Minorities: Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey (New York: Macmillan, 1932); Yannis G. Mourelos, “The 1914 Persecutions and the First Attempt at an Exchange of Minorities between Greece and Turkey,” Balkan Studies 26 (1985): 384–413; Umut Özsu, Formalizing Displacement: International Law and Population Transfers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 1-5.