This date in history: January 16

I don’t have a long tale to share today, but January 16 is the anniversary of a few important days in Middle East-related history that should be commemorated.

  • On this date in 929, Abd al-Rahman III declared that his Emirate of Cordoba was no more, and in its place he created the Caliphate of Cordoba. This move restored the Umayyad dynasty to the (well, “a”) caliphate, at least on paper, and (more importantly) theoretically raised Abd al-Rahman’s position to an equal level with the Abbasid caliph, Al-Muqtadir, and the Fatimid caliph, Al-Mahdi. At the time, the Umayyads believed that they were at risk of being invaded from North Africa by the Fatimids, and Abd al-Rahman thought it would be politically and militarily important to meet the Fatimid caliph in battle as an equal, so he assumed the title. Prior to 909, of course, it was thought that there could only be one caliph at any given time, but once the Fatimids declared that theirs was a caliphate and their ruler was a caliph, despite the fact that there already was an Abbasid caliphate and caliph, that kind of opened up the gates for any old yahoo to start calling himself the caliph.
  • In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser pledged to “liberate” Palestine. Whatever your definition of “liberate” might be in this context, he, ah, didn’t, so there’s really not much more to say here. As an aside, Nasser was merely Prime Minister of Egypt at this point; the 1952 military coup that he’d helped orchestrate left Muhammad Naguib as President initially, but Nasser got tired of sharing power/playing second fiddle, and he had Naguib removed and placed under house arrest in 1954. This left Nasser in uncontested control of Egypt, but he did not formally assume the Presidency until 1956, after the adoption of a new constitution.
  • In 1979, America’s dear friend and secret torture prison proprietor Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi finally had his brutal, corrupt reign ended as he fled Tehran for Egypt. The Shah had reached a deal with the National Front (the party that had been formed in the 1950s by Mohammad Mosaddegh and had revived itself in the 70s, and that represented the secular opposition to the Shah’s regime) that he would be replaced with a secular transitional government led by National Front leader Shahpour Bakhtiar. Unfortunately for Bakhtiar, the deal made it look to the Iranian public like Bakhtiar was actually the Shah’s man (which he really wasn’t), and thus squashed his popular legitimacy. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1 (he’d been in exile for 15 years) and declared that he was forming his own provisional government under politician Mehdi Bazargan, Bakhtiar didn’t stand a chance. He had to leave the country on February 11.

Edward Gibbon died on this date in 1794, and while that’s not particularly related to the Middle East it is notable for anybody who enjoys history. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire doesn’t hold up especially well as an accurate accounting of the, well, decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but it’s still a monumental achievement and of critical importance in the development of modern historiography.

Also, it’s the anniversary of the 1878 Battle of Plovdiv (in modern Bulgaria), one of the final battles of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. The Ottomans had set up at Philippopolis (as Plovdiv was then known) to stop a Russian advance toward Constantinople (Istanbul, if you prefer). The battle took place from January 14-16, and ended when a Russian officer, Aleksandr Petrovich Burago, led a squadron of crack troops into the city. Burago and his troops, despite being heavily outnumbered, were able to break the Ottoman defenses, at which point the rest of the Russian army (which in total outnumbered the Ottomans) took the city. The Ottomans and Russians (who were being pressured to stop fighting by Britain) reached a truce on January 31 and the war was finally ended by the Treaty of San Stefano in March.

The treaty forced the Ottomans to recognize Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania as independent nations and to grant autonomy to its Bulgarian population, which obviously had major political ramifications. It also hung the Armenians out to dry; they’d greeted a Russian army invading through the Caucasus as liberators, to borrow Dick Cheney’s phrase, but the treaty, negotiated with substantial input from the British (who were keeping a close eye on Russian expansionism), required that Russian army abandon its gains in that region. The Armenians had thus stuck their necks out welcoming the Russian invaders only to wind up still under Ottoman control, and the eventual result was horrific. Also getting screwed were the Albanians, who remained under Ottoman rule and lost traditional Albanian territory to the newly independent states of Serbia and Montenegro. They realized that they needed to jump on this whole nationalism thing quick if they wanted to keep the territory they had left.

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