555) Memoirs of Venezuelan soldier Nogales Bey in the service of the Ottoman Empire

From my notebook : Thanks to the Venezuelan Ambassador to Turkey Kaldone G. Nweiheid, we have the memoirs of Rafael de Nogales Mendez published in Ankara... by his embassy. It is a most impressive book that links the history of the Ottoman Empire with the now Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The 180-page hardcover book, with 1,500 copies published, is written in both English and Turkish.

The book is divided into three sections plus a preface written by Nweiheid in October 2005. The first section deals with Nogales' youth, his early travels from Alaska to the Far East, a soldier as a rebel at home and an adventurer around the world in the early 20th century including the Pacific Ocean lands as a revolutionary between ideology and action. The second part consists of his adventures in Turkey and his participation in the siege of Van, the burning of Ba�kale, his travels in the Fertile Crescent, the Southern Front, Gaza and the Sinai. The third section depicts his return to Venezuela as a writer and lecturer who wrote the book "Four Years Beneath the Crescent" published by Schribners in 1926.

He was not the first Venezuelan to set foot in the Ottoman Empire. It was Francisco de Miranda who came to Istanbul via Izmir in the summer of 1786 and wrote a full account of his visit, also published in Turkish by Nweiheid's embassy in 2004.

Nogales came to Istanbul in the winter of 1915 and applied to serve as an officer in the Ottoman Army which was approved by Enver Pasha. He was eager to see action, which he witnessed from Van to Gaza. He returned to South America in April 1919 and wrote several books. He was an extraordinary Venezuelan as a source on the history of the Ottoman Empire in its latter days. He was a wandering soldier but not a mercenary.

Nogales was born in Venezuela in 1877 and died in Panama in 1937. He spent almost 50 of his 60 years outside the country of his birth as a professional soldier, guerilla fighter and adventurer, a journalist and a politician. In 1927 he traveled around Nicaragua from coast to coast condemning American occupation.

Two Turkish writers, Kaymakam Hakki in 1931 and Mehmet Necati Kutlu in 1998, chronicled the adventures of Nogales.

On the siege of Van in 1915, what he wrote on the Armenian episode turned both friend and a foe against him as he tried to be fair to both sides and somehow failed.

It is interesting to note that his initial intention, which was refused, was to join the Belgian Army. While in Europe he was suspected by the Allies of being a German spy. He wanted to serve in the French Army and in the Kingdom of Montenegro, which, like the Belgians, refused his services. It was the Germans who suggested Nogales should serve in the Ottoman Army, which would not require him to relinquish his Venezuelan nationality. In Sofia he called on Ottoman Ambassador Fethi Bey when Mustafa Kemal was military attaché at the delegation, asking for a post in the Ottoman Army. Nogales expresses his deep respect for Islam and its civilization. In Istanbul he meets with Enver Pasha, talking to him in German. He met with German Gen. Liman von Sanders and others, who assigned him the rank of captain to the Eastern Front.

On his roadmap in Anatolia, from Kadikoyy to Erzurum, while proceeding to Van by train through picturesque Bithynia (Bilecik) through the white domes of Dorulayu (Eskisehir) of the Phrygian sky, from Kutahya to Afyonkarahisar of opium and a dusty plain. His train proceeds to Iconium (Konya) of white skins and rosy cheeks with Mongolian features. The train drops him off at the caravanserai of Uluk��lar. Then the railway went on east to Adana. He sat on the floor in the train, uncomfortably cross-legged. He sleeps one night in Nigde, which "looks like an oasis to him in the midst of those frightful solitudes, traversing the barren steppes of Anatolia." He heads northwards to Caeserea (Kayseri), crossing the Halis River (Kizilirmak). He notes that "80 percent of the peninsula's population was Muslim and the remainder made up of Orthodox Greeks, Syrian Chaldeans or Armenians, while there were certain sects of Islam with non-Sunni affiliation." He reaches ancient Cabiza, or Diosopolis, or the Sebasta of the Romans (Sivas), and descends to Aziris (Erzincan). He describes Erzincan as the "capital of Turkish Siberia" having visited Russia earlier on his travels. He also said it was a "chaos of frozen immensities" reminding him of his Alaska days. Erzurum, for him, was "a white wilderness echoing the whistles of blizzards like waves of ice from the peaks of the Caucasus." He describes the penetrating Russian troops on the outskirts of Van. He asks his commanders to send him to see the action he longs for and reaches Lake Van to take charge of the siege of the city "with bodies of dead Turks, Armenians and Kurds."

"As the die was cast, the Armenian revolt had begun with most regrettable events." Nogales took up his command and started to shell the Armenian positions. "Fighting was often man to man in the streets of Van, with heavy human losses." "The Turks were alarmed by the heavy advance of Russian columns in needed support for Armenian allies." Nogales lost no opportunity to praise the "courage and loyalty of his Turkish comrades."

Nogales was respectful of Turkish values. Nogales says in his book that he "acted and fought like a Turk for Turkey, but quite often felt and wrote as if his personal sympathies as a Christian and a Westerner lay with the very cause of the Armenians he so decidedly and loyally fought against." This is the judgment of Mehmet Necati Kutlu of Ankara University as published in his thesis on Nogales Mendez in 1997. Either he suddenly felt a pang of dormant conscience when he found himself killing fellow Christians in battle or he might have been scared of his publisher in Berlin, where later Talat Pasha was assassinated and doors were slammed in his face. So he ended up rejected by both sides because of his Van account. The Armenians spread the legend that he was the "hangman of Armenia" while a Turkish book by Kaymakam Hakk� in 1931 restricted to the Armenian part of the story, portrays him as an "unworthy stranger who bit the hand that lent him a sword."

The English half of the book was edited by Bernard Kennedy and the Turkish half by Professor Hikmet Özdemir of the Turkish History Foundation. It is a remarkable contribution to the recent history of Turkey through the eyes of Rafael de Nogales, the intellectual writer, thanks to the interest of historian Ambassador Nweiheid.

March 26, 2006


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