“The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent” by Benjamin C Fortna

The Circassian sounds like the name of a film; there’s more than enough material here for one. Eşref Bey, or Eşref Kuşçubaşı or any of the other names by which he went, played many roles in his life: brigand, family man, military leader, spy, rebel. He crossed paths if not quite swords with TE Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—with whom he is sometimes compared. But in spite of Eşref’s fame—or notoriety—information on him seems hard to come by in English; he does not even seem (at this writing) to have a Wikipedia page.

The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent, Benjamin C Fortna (Hurst, November 2016)
The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent, Benjamin C Fortna (Hurst, November 2016)

The catalyst for this new biography was the “discovery” of a trunk of Eşref’s personal papers; since these were mostly in the Arabic-derived Ottoman script, they were largely illegible to the descendants in whose hands the trunk had remained since his death in the 1960s. While incomplete and spotty in places, they provided enough for historian Benjamin C Fortna to flesh out the life of a man who had very much been an enigma.

Eşref was the son of an emigrant from Caucasus, part of the exodus resulting from the Russian conquest of the region. Unlike most of the refugees, however, Eşref’s father had considerable career and social success, rising to be as the Sultan’s head falconer with a post in the Palace. Eşref was born in 1883 (there is some uncertainty about the date), that is, in the final generation of the Ottoman Empire and the same generation as Mustafa Kemal—Attaturk—with whom Eşref finally fell out, leading to a lengthy exile in Greece and Egypt.

Eşref had, to put it mildly, a checkered career.

Eşref had, to put it mildly, a checkered career. He was kicked out of one military school in Istanbul in his teens and sent to another in Edirne. Although he found his way back, his father seems to have fallen out with the Sultan and the family was sent into internal exile in Arabia in 1900. Eşref ended up in prison in Medina; he broke out and took to banditry.

He fought in the brief Ottoman defense of Libya against the Italians and then in Balkans where he was instrumental in setting up a short-lived mini-state in Western Thrace. Ostensibly established to support the Muslims left behind after Ottoman defeats and retreats, the exercise was rejected by the Ottoman Government who feared (with some justification) that this rogue republic was a serious impediment in its attempts to come to terms with the European powers.

During the First World War, Eşref was active in Arabia, and was transporting money and arms to Yemen across an Arabia in revolt when he was defeated at the “Battle of Khaybar”—one of the most detailed and evocative sections of the book—and captured by Amir Abdullah, thus securing himself a place in TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Eşref spent the next few years in a POW camp in Malta.

Mustafa Kemal and his circle apparently thought (again with some justification) that Eşref was something of a loose cannon; he was progressively relieved of responsibility and ultimately crossed Greek lines in 1921: whether this was a change of loyalty or merely a move to family properties that just happened to be on the other side of the then line is unclear. A long period in exile ensued.


Fortna does his best to write a compelling narrative despite some not inconsiderable gaps in the material. Where he succeeds, such as in the descriptions of battles and Eşref’s time in Malta, he draws a picture of a man as least as complicated as Lawrence: brave, prickly, insubordinate and driven. Eşref’s long-suffering wife Pervin provides counterpoint through writing of hers that also survived.

The unsavory aspects of Eşref’s career include not just the periods of brigandage but, more seriously, his participation in shadowy organizations and possible involvement in the atrocities against the Armenians. Fortna is unable to say definitely whether Eşref’s distancing of himself from these is valid or not. Eşref regardless seems to have placed himself on the wrong side of history as often as not.

The book by necessity is also populated by many others personages, only a few of whom—Mustafa Kemal and Enver Paşa—will be in any way familiar to those who don’t follow the period; the ins and outs of these relationships can on occasion be hard to follow.

Between these glimpses of an interesting but obviously flawed man is a picture of the late Ottoman world in disarray: where a brigand one day would set up a rogue state the next only to cycle back into the formal army. It was also, at least some of the time, a multi-ethnic world where Arabs served as Ottoman officers, and where Greece would apparently align itself with a Muslim pseudo-state in Thrace to thwart Bulgarian expansion.

It is hard not to read of Eşref’s complicated relationship with both the Ottoman government and the Kemalist regime that followed it without wondering about current developments in Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s apparent rethinking of Turkey’s relationship with the various stages of its past.