The last talk of the SFU History Department’s Heroes and Villains series featured historian Thomas Kuehn‘s reflections on Ahmed Feyzi Pasha. This high-ranking Ottoman bureaucrat and military officer was highly influential in terms of shaping Ottoman policy in strategically important borderlands of the empire in Arabia and present-day Iraq between the mid 1880s and his retirement in 1908. Arguably, he was one of the great imperial pro-consuls of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But unlike his contemporaries Sir Evelyn Baring (Great Britain), General Joseph Gallieni (France), and Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman (Russia), Ahmed Feyzi has received little, if any, scholarly attention.
Kuehn’s lecture here sheds light on Ahmed Feyzi’s highly contradictory record as an administrator and military man by focusing on his three terms as governor-general of Ottoman Yemen, by far the most notorious trouble spot of the late Ottoman Empire, where he served longer than any other high-level Ottoman official: On one hand, his skills as a diplomat and negotiator and his talent as a military commander kept local opposition to Ottoman rule at bay for years and were instrumental in crushing two large-scale uprisings that brought Ottoman rule in Yemen to the brink of collapse. While these actions earned Ahmed Feyzi the admiration of both the Ottoman central government and foreign observers, he was widely known to run a money extortion network of relatives, Ottoman officials, and local elites that systematically overtaxed local residents on a massive scale and seriously undermined the legitimacy of Ottoman rule in southwest Arabia. His success in leading counter-insurgency operations in Yemen and his superior knowledge of local affairs allowed Ahmed Feyzi to make himself indispensable to his superiors in Istanbul and to shield his cronies from prosecution until his patron Sultan Abdulhamid II himself lost power in 1908.
Ahmed Feyzi’s career is full of dramatic episodes: for example, his power struggle with a chief investigator sent from Istanbul in 1892 or his five-day camel ride across the Arabian Desert in 1905 when he was rushed from southern Iraq to Yemen in order to assume command of Ottoman military forces at the most dire moment of the 1904-06 uprising. Looking at Ahmed Feyzi, the Ottoman “empire builder and hero,” and Ahmed Feyzi, the “frontier villain,” allows us to bring to life a little known but nevertheless crucial chapter of Middle East history in the age of high imperialism. Ahmed Feyzi in many ways embodies the dilemmas of the late Ottoman Empire that still possessed the capabilities to expand but at the same time undermined the possibilities for its continued existence.