The Circassian

A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent

November 2016 9781849045780 256pp


Eşref Kuşçubaşı remains controversial in Turkey over fifty years after his death. Elsewhere the man sometimes called the ‘Turkish Lawrence of Arabia’ is far less known but his life offers fascinating insights into the traumatic, increasingly violent struggles that ended the Ottoman Empire and ushered in the modern Middle East. Drawing on Eşref’s private papers for the first time, these pages tell the story of the making of a headstrong ‘self-sacrificing’ officer committed to defending the empire’s shrinking borders. Eşref took on a string of special assignments for Enver Pasha, the rapidly rising star of the Ottoman military, first in Libya against the Italians, then in the Balkan Wars and World War I, before being captured by the forces of the Arab Revolt and turned over to the British and imprisoned on Malta. Released in 1920, he joined the national resistance movement in Anatolia but fell out with Mustafa Kemal’s leadership and switched sides, earning him banishment from the Turkish Republic at its founding and exile until the 1950s.

Never far from the action or controversy, Eşref’s dynamic story provides an important counterpoint to the standard narrative of the transition from empire to nation state.


‘Most intriguing . . . Fortna offers readers fascinating insights into Ottoman covert operations as well as the life of an Ottoman POW . . . This well-written biography shows an Ottoman operating on the fringe and the leadership’s frequent reliance on such individuals.’ — CHOICE

‘Extremely well told. We enjoy a vicarious excitement at the tales of derring-do … [the book’s] concentration on one man sheds light on the whole of that turbulent period in Turkish history.’  Asian Affairs

The Circassian is a major achievement, is accessibly written, and should offer plenty of value to scholars and students interested in World War I, nationalism, and methodological questions of handling biographical material and personal archives.’ — H-Net Reviews

‘Benjamin Fortna’s new biography [of Eşref Kuşçubaşı] is the most detailed and reliable account in either English or Turkish. … [A] work of first-rate scholarship on a fascinating, tempestuous life.’ — Hurriyet Daily News

‘A highly original and important study. Fortna has found a treasure trove of original documents and handwritten memoirs of one of the leading militants of the Young Turk era. He has been able to combine this  archive with important primary sources from the Ottoman and Turkish military archives as well as from the National Archives in the UK. The result is a unique insider’s view of the traumatic and violent final decade of the Ottoman Empire.’ — Erik-Jan Zürcher, Professor of Turkish Studies, University of Leiden

‘Ben Fortna provides us with an honest history, of Eşref’s personal trajectory as much as his entanglements with the many world-historical events of his day. In doing so he helps pave the way toward a more nuanced understanding of the woefully understudied transition from the Ottoman Empire to the modern state of Turkey.’ — Christine Philliou, Associate Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

‘Benjamin Fortna balances deftly the grand sweep of imperial collapse with the immediacy of biography. He explores the motivations and methods of Eşref, a “hard man” of the Young Turk era and notorious activist in the sensational events of the 1908-23 period, offering a rare alternative to the normal “clash-of-nations” depiction of the era. The result is a remarkably absorbing, insightful book.’ — Frederick Anscombe, Head of the Department of History, Birkbeck, University of London; author of State, Faith and Nation in Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Lands

‘Benjamin Fortna’s book is a major contribution to the history of the under-researched Special Organization (Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa). A biography of a leading CUP self-sacrificing volunteer, Eşref Kuşçubaşı, who occupied significant positions in the organization, The Circassian not only reproduces extremely important and hitherto unused documents and private papers but also draws a much larger picture of Ottoman intelligence and undercover operations during the final years of the empire.’ — M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Garrett Professor in Foreign Affairs, Princeton University

‘Eşref Bey has become a legendary figure, blurring the boundaries between historical reality and popular imagination. It is partly because of this legend and partly because Eşref fought directly opposite another legendary figure that he has been referred to as the Turkish Lawrence of Arabia”. This tag is problematic — Eşref was an Ottoman of Circassian background and, somewhat ironically in the circumstances, he considered T. E. Lawrence as having developed into a legendary figure who far surpassed his historical role—but it is one that has stuck.’ — from Professor Fortna’s Introduction


Benjamin C. Fortna is Professor and Director, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research focus is the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic.

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