Macedonian Ramble: the Wars of the Ottoman Succession


Yeşilköy, a suburb of Istanbul, formerly known as San Stefano, where a peace treaty was signed ending the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. Unhappiness over the terms of the treaty led to the subsequent Treaty of Berlin in 1878, which in turn, it can be argued, led to World War I. The stretch of water is the Sea of Marmara, where ships wait at anchor to enter the Bosphorus Straits that cut through Istanbul to the Black Sea. Photo: Matthew Stevenson

This is the fifteenth and last part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

That night, back in my hotel room overlooking the Dardanelles and its grand procession of ships passing in the night, I had to confront my own reality, which was that I had no good options for getting from Çanakkale to Istanbul—and my flight home.

I looked at bus schedules, and they all seemed to indicate that it would be about a seven-hour trip, once you factored in all the rest stops that come with Turkish bus rides.

I next worked out the co-ordinates by which I would take a bus to the port of Yalova on the Sea of Marmara, and from there a high-speed ferry into Istanbul.

I liked the idea of returning to Istanbul on the water, which is how I first saw the skyline in summer 1976. But the winter schedule of the Yalova ferry would have meant leaving the hotel in a taxi at about three in the morning.

Wanting to spend the next few days in Istanbul (not in the back of a bus), I set about investigating flights from Çanakkale to the new Istanbul airport, which had just opened. That’s when, by good fortune, I found a $19 ticket on a flight that was leaving Çanakkale for the capital at 7:30 a.m. the next morning.

It would get me to Istanbul in less than an hour, give me a quick tour of the new airport, and get me into the city in time to be at the Ataturk Museum when it opened. (It had been closed on some earlier visits.)

I clicked on all the boxes, set my alarm for 5:45 a.m., and departed the hotel the next morning in the darkness. Even then there were ships plying the waters of the Dardanelles, with their navigational lights winking against the backdrop of the distant hills of Gallipoli.


The old Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was nestled against the seafront not far from the city. This new Istanbul Airport (Ataturk’s name isn’t on it) is on the northern side of the peninsula, and more than hour’s drive from the city.

As it turned out, it took me more time to get into city than it did to fly from Çanakkale, in part because the new airport is almost a city unto itself, with countless gates, sprawling arrival halls, enormous baggage carousels, and endless marble walkways.

If you have any doubts about Turkey’s imperial pretensions on the world stage, route yourself sometime through the new airport. Even the Ottomans would be impressed, and their center of power was called the Sublime Porte.

I carried my backpack through the arrival halls—it took about twenty minutes to walk from the plane to the parking lots in front of the terminal—and from a subterranean platform I hopped on an airport bus that was heading to the vicinity of my hotel.

I had booked myself, as I always do, into Sirkeci, which is the neighborhood where the terminus train station of the Orient Express was located. I am sure I stay there in the hope that one day trains will return to the platforms on the distant edge of Europe.

My hotel room was the size of a train compartment, but it had what I wanted, which was a view of the old terminal shed and, beyond, the Golden Horn and the harbor. I thought of a nap, as I had not slept much the night before, but napping isn’t in my nature. After writing some notes about the airport arrival, I set off to find the Ataturk Museum, which had been so elusive on several previous visits.


This time I knew exactly where to find the house, and when I rang the bell—as if I were calling on the great man—a museum director opened the door. I thought I might be the first there that morning, but instead I encountered a large group of school children racing among the display cabinets, which included some of Ataturk’s pistols, a few ceremonial hand grenades, and his dinner jacket.

At the heart of the museum is a wax figure of Ataturk, in his military uniform and poring over a map, defending the homeland. For wall art Ataturk had a picture of the Greeks invading Turkey—it features what looks like an Englishman beating a Turk with his cane, plus Greek soldiers wielding their bayonets—and several military maps, showing troop formations of the subsequent campaign, which lasted from 1919-1922.

Not much outside of Greece and Turkey is known about the fighting between the countries at the end of World War I. In many ways, Britain was the godfather of the war, which was a continuation of its attempts to dismantle the Ottoman Empire.

Not only had Churchill (and others), beginning in 1914-15, seized Turkey’s warships, rushed the Straits, and landed troops in Gallipoli, but then Britain fought the Turks on an extended front that brought the war (in defense of Serbian and Belgian neutrality?) to Mesopotamia, Palestine, Sinai, and Syria.

Through the Sykes-Picot agreement, Britain and France partitioned much of the Ottoman Empire before the war was even over, and in Paris in 1919, the Allies went further and subdivided what is now Turkey proper into large zones of occupation.

If all that wasn’t enough, Britain unleashed the Greeks to retake larges swathes of western Turkey that once had been part of Greater Greece. Sean McMeekin writes in his history of the Ottoman Empire:

But [British Prime Minister] Lloyd George, unlike his allies and even most of his own advisers, was fully committed to Sèvres—to the policy of forcibly dismembering Turkey. As soon as he learned that British forces would not suffice for the purpose, the prime minister summoned [Greek Prime Minister] Venizelos to London on June 14, 1920, to ask if Greek troops could do the job for him.

The Greeks were only too happy to comply.


The Greek-Turkish war, almost more than the Gallipoli campaign, made Ataturk the “father of the Turks”. The Greek invasion faltered because the Greek generals pushed hundreds of miles into Anatolia—as if perhaps Alexander the Great were still at the head of its armies.

The Turks kept falling back into the interior of the country, and the Greeks kept extending their supply lines that, unfortunately for them, were short of supplies. The Turks held at a number of points between Afyon and Anakara, and shortly thereafter the Greek invasion broke and was literally pushed back into the sea. McMeekin writes:

Although little is known today outside Greece and Turkey, the Battle of Sakarya, waged between August 23 and September 12, 1921, was of historic significance. In a sense it was the last real battle of the First World War….

Nevertheless, Sakarya was a clear Turkish victory delineating the high-water mark of the Greek invasion of Turkey, and of the idea of greater Greece more generally. The Kemalist government in Ankara, having proved itself in battle, was here to stay.

Symbolically and military, the war ended with the Greek population and army of Asia Minor cornered on the docks of Smyrna (now Izmir), while behind them the Turks burned the city to the ground. Greeks point to the blaze as a massacre while the Turks saw it as just retribution for the Greek invasion of their country. McMeekin writes:

Whoever actually started the great fire of Smyrna, it seems clear that many Turks saw it as poetic justice for the dozens of cities and towns the Greeks had put to the flames farther inland. For the fact remains that, even if many Turks lost property and a few mosques in the old city were burned, it was the Christians of Smyrna, Ottoman and European alike, who lost everything. What perished alongside the old city of Smyrna in September 1922 was the very idea that Greeks and Turks, Christians and Muslims, could live together peacefully in Asia Minor—or in mainland Greece, for that matter.

After I went to Gallipoli in 2000, I drove down the Turkish coast and had a look around Izmir, wondering what, if anything, might remain of the Greek city. I found almost nothing. Izmir is a modern Turkish city by the sea, with Ataturk on a bronze horseback in one of the main squares by the water.

At the time I was reading Michael J. Llewellyn Smith’s Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922, which is an account of the war and its consequences. He writes:

With horrific appropriateness, the fire expressed in symbolic terms the rooting out and destruction of Greek and Armenia Smyrna. Hellenic Smyrna was dead. Christian Smyrna, too, one of the great ancient Christian foundations of Asia Minor, was dead. The phoenix to rise from these ashes was a Turkish Izmir purged of two thousand and more years of history.

Ataturk’s modern state can be said to have risen from the same ashes.


I didn’t stay all that long at Ataturk’s house. The waves of school kids kept coming. I set out on the metro for Yeşilköy, a seaside town in the suburbs that achieved fame, at least in East European history, as the site of the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878 at the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish war.

San Stefano is where the Russian forces halted their advance to the straits. In The Ottoman Endgame, McMeekin writes:

By January 24, 1878, advance units had reached San Stefano (Yeşilköy, site of today’s Istanbul Atatürk Airport), on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, just six miles from the city gates. After centuries of trying, the Russians had at last reached Constantinople. Would they claim their prize?

Had the Russians seized Constantinople and the Bosphorus directly, it would have caused a stir with the other great powers. Instead, the Russians turned their attentions to a peace treaty, which was little more than unconditional surrender imposed on the Turks, as McMeekin describes:

Still, it was the Russians who drew up terms for a diktat peace at San Stefano, ratified by the sultan under duress on March 3, 1878, creating a “Big Bulgaria,” under Russian occupation, an enlarged Serbia and Montenegro, a war indemnity of 1.4 billion rubles (although only 40 million Turkish pounds, or about 400 million rubles, was to be paid in cash), huge Russian gains in Anatolia, and the right of passage for Russian warships through the Ottoman Straits. But, as Abdul Hamid knew, with the British fleet at Prinkipo, and the other powers anxious about Russian gains, the treaty could not endure.

He was right. Bismarck, Disraeli, and other leaders took exception to the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, and called for a conference in Berlin a few months later, where order was restored to the Balkan world. Bulgaria had to give up Macedonia, the Ottomans were propped up, and Russian ambitions for warm water were tempered. (McMeekin writes: “In some ways the Treaty of Berlin infuriated the Russians, deprived of what they viewed as the spoils of a hard-earned victory, more than the Turks, who could not have expected very much.”)

The argument could be made that it was the Treaty of Berlin, more than the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, that gave us World War I.


Almost as much as any place I saw in my wanderings from Durrës to Istanbul, I loved Yeşilköy, which has old wooden houses (as you might find on Cape Cod), a delightful waterfront, lots of seafood restaurants, and, the bonus for me, a population of well-fed stray cats who followed me on my walks. (I would have taken home one particularly friendly orange tiger and named him Ataturk, but feared a reprisal from the great powers, notably my wife.)

My hope in Yeşilköy was to find the actual building where the Treaty of San Stefano was signed, but all I had from the internet was a picture of a seaside mansion, and when I found the street on which it was located, many houses had a similar design.

For a while I thought that I might spot a plaque in front of the house, but when none was forthcoming I went into a real estate office located in one of the mansions, and asked the staff if they could help me in finding the treaty headquarters.

The office was on the ground floor, and the sales desks were spread out in what was once a sumptuous drawing room, worthy of diplomatic dancing. The staff thought for a minute that maybe I was there to buy an apartment or a summer house, and in no time a secretary had brought me coffee and I was seated at a desk overlooking the water, awaiting the manager. She arrived, gave me her card, and asked an assistant to hunt around on the internet, in Turkish, for nearby signs of the Treaty of San Stefano. Not long into my office visit, I was told the correct mansion was a few doors down the street, and I was cheerfully sent on my way, together with a few sales brochures and a link to available mortgages.


The Treaty of San Stefano was signed in what is now a private house. Clearly the owner is someone of means, as there was a large fence around the mansion and two guards at the front gate. I explained my mission in Yeşilköy and showed them the printouts from the realty office. The guards agreed that, yes, this was the actual house where the treaty was signed (which plunged Macedonia into about 150 years of misery and uncertainty). I wasn’t able to go inside, sadly, but the guards allowed me to take pictures of the historic house.

The 1878 Treaty of Berlin (the successor to San Stefano) threw Russia out of the Balkans, left the Ottoman Empire intact, awarded Bosnia and Novi Pazar to Austria, and left Britain with the illusion that it remained the power behind the thrones that governed the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus Straits.

Had the Treaty of San Stefano been left in place, Bulgaria would be the dominant power today in Macedonia, if not the Balkans; Turkey would be the government running Albania; and, one could argue, Austria-Hungary would still be in control of vast imperial domains across central Europe, with access to the sea in Thessaloniki.

Instead, World War I liquidated the 1878 settlement of Berlin, and with it went nearly every empire in Europe, including those of the Ottomans, Russians, Austrians, and Germans. And the British Empire never really recovered from the fighting.

I thanked the house guards for letting me take pictures, and headed back on foot toward Istanbul along the broad esplanade, really a seaside park with grass and benches, that connects Yeşilköy and other suburban towns to the sea and the imperial city.

I stopped occasionally to make friends with some of the attentive stray cats and ate lunch in a waterside restaurant, which would have been nicer in summer than on a December afternoon. Still, I did have winter sun, and the stiff breeze was blowing at my back, and there was something magic about being able to walk along the shore and to see ships and the spires of Istanbul on the horizon.

In many ways the walk reminded of my first glimpse of the Golden Horn, in summer 1976, when the S.S. Adjaria docked later on the same day that we had passed through the Dardanelles and run along the Gallipoli shore. Then Istanbul had few high-rise buildings, but many minarets and mosques on the horizon, all of them dappled in the summer sunshine. At the time, when we docked in Istanbul, I thought I was at the end of my journey. Little did I know that I was just at the beginning.

This is the last of the series. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.