CHRIST, dost thou live indeed? or are thy bones
Still straightened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?
And was thy Rising only dreamed by Her
Whose love of thee for all her sin atones?
For here the air is horrid with men’s groans,
The priests who call upon thy name are slain,
Dost thou not hear the bitter wail of pain
From those whose children lie upon the stones?
Come down, O Son of God! incestuous gloom
Curtains the land, and through the starless night
Over thy Cross the Crescent moon I see!
If thou in very truth didst burst the tomb
Come down, O Son of Man! and show thy might,
Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!
Wilde sent this sonnet to Gladstone in 1877, when the Bulgarian Atrocities of 1876 were very much in the news and the subject of questions in Parliament. In a nutshell, there had been a Bulgarian uprising against the Ottoman Empire, caused largely by an intensification of Bulgarian national feeling following the re-establishment of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. This uprising was suppressed with unrelenting brutality by the bashi-bazouk, mercenaries loosely attached to the Turkish army who were frequently called in during times of emergency. The British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, found himself in a difficult position, in the face of an international outcry from intellectuals worldwide (the episode has a very ‘modern’ feel to it, I’m sure you will agree). For strategic reasons Britain had nurtured the Ottoman Empire as an ally, but now it seemed difficult to justify support for a country capable of what we would now call genocide on a mass scale. Gladstone, the Leader of the Opposition, launched an earnest entreaty: “I entreat my countrymen”, he wrote, “upon whom far more than upon any other people in Europe it depends, to require and to insist that our government, which has been working in one direction, shall work in the other, and shall apply all its vigour to concur with the states of Europe in obtaining the extinction of the Turkish executive power in Bulgaria. Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves …” By confining his attention to the Turks, Gladstone neatly sidestepped another widely-discussed issue at the time, the fact that the bashi-bazouk were Muslims and had on record their belief that killing a healthy tally of Christians would guarantee them a place in Paradise. The following eyewitness account, by the daughter-in-law of the mayor of Batak, gives some impression of the methods of the bashi-bazouk: “My father in law went to meet the Bashi Bazouk when the village was surrounded by the men of Ahmet Aga, who said that he wanted all the arms laid down. Trendafil went to collect them from the villagers. When he surrendered the arms, they shot him with a gun and the bullet scratched his eye. Then I heard Ahmet Aga command with his own mouth for Trendafil to be impaled and burnt. The words he used were “Shishak aor” which is Turkish for “to put on a skewer” [as in shish kebab]. After that, they took all the money he had, undressed him, gouged his eyes, pulled out his teeth and impaled him slowly on a stake, until it came out of his mouth. Then they roasted him while he was still alive. He lived for half-an-hour during this terrible scene. At the time, I was near Ahmet Aga with other Bulgarian women. We were surrounded by Bashi-Bozouk, who had us surrounded, and forced us to watch what was happening to Trendafil. At the time this was happening, Ahmet Aga’s son took my child from my back and cut him to pieces, there in front of me. The burnt bones of Trendafil stood there for one month and only then they were buried”.