Review of the Ottomans by Marc David Baer – when East meets West | History books


In May 1453, the Ottoman military forces of Sultan Mehmed II captured the former Byzantine capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul. It was a defining moment. What was considered one of the greatest cities of Christendom, and described by the Sultan as “the second Rome”, had fallen into the hands of the Muslim conquerors. The sultan even called himself “Caesar”.

After a long siege, Mehmed rode his white horse to Hagia Sophia, the 6th-century Greek Orthodox Church of Divine Wisdom, then the tallest building in the world. He ordered the addition of a single minaret, turning it into a mosque, but refrained from making Constantinople a purely Muslim city. Instead, he promoted the Sunni-dominated tolerance and diversity that the Ottomans had practiced for over a century in southeastern Europe – long before European Christian societies tolerated their religious minorities. The new Ottoman ruling class was mainly made up of converted Christians.

The central argument of Marc David Baer in this very readable book is that more than 600 years of the Ottoman Empire must be seen as an inseparable part of the history of Europe, and not as something detached from it, as with the false narratives that paint east and west, and Christianity and Islam, as antithetical.

Traditional European accounts of Ottoman rule tend to emphasize religion rather than secular issues, consistent with the importance attached to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. But, as the author argues, “their story is the unrecognized part of the story the West tells about itself.” At the height of its power, this world empire ruled almost a quarter of the land area of ​​Europe – modern Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary and Greece – and spanned much of the Middle East, including including the Muslim holy places of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. , in North Africa.

The story begins at the end of the 13th century with Osman, the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty – a Muslim Turkish nomad who migrated, with herds of horses, oxen, goats and sheep, to majority Anatolia. Christian, then mainly Armenian or Greek. Osman’s son Orhan organized the first military units from prisoners captured in areas under Christian rule. Conversion to Islam became a central feature of Ottoman life, as did the practice of fratricide – of sultans killing their brothers to ensure a harmonious succession – as well as the rebellions of “deviant dervishes”: radical Sufi Muslims.

Baer, ​​professor of international history at the London School of Economics, defines “the tripartite legacy of the Ottomans” as “Byzantine-Roman, Turkish-Mongolian and Muslim” – and a “Eurasian amalgam”. The Ottomans became Western Europe’s largest trading partner during the Renaissance era. King Henry VIII of England loved to dress in their trendy styles. Suleiman I (who reigned 1520-1566), the first sultan to call himself a “caliph,” fought the Persian Safavids in the east and the Habsburgs in the west.

This book is remarkably well structured. Chronological chapters focusing on successive rulers are followed by thematic chapters addressing cultural issues, messianic representations of the Sultan, the rise of the Ottomans as a maritime power, and attitudes towards women, Jews and eunuchs in dynastic politics.

The conquests of Selim I doubled the size of the empire, and by the end of the 16th century the Ottomans, Baer writes, “had reached the height of their world political might and prosperity.” The decline occurred following the failed siege of Vienna in 1683. The reasons for the defeat included the remoteness of the city from Istanbul, the loss of the superiority of Ottoman firepower and the expansion of rival empires in central Europe. By the second half of the 18th century, Russia had replaced the Safavids as the main enemy of the Ottomans. And it was Tsar Nicolas I who called the empire, on the eve of the Crimean War, “the sick man of Europe”.

This “sick man” label became particularly fashionable during the 33-year reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, which fueled European outrage, and was known as the “Red Sultan” because of his massacres in the world. ‘Armenians. He suspended parliament and triggered the rise of revolutionaries, called the Young Turks, who would erode Ottoman power. The outbreak of the First World War was followed in 1915 by the Armenian genocide.

A distinctly Ottoman version of Orientalism played a role in the administration of the declining empire, with Istanbul’s elite seeing themselves as a civilizing force over Arabs, Bedouins and Kurds – what a scholar humorously referred to as “the burden of the white man wearing a fez.” Eventually, Turkish nationalism replaced Ottoman Muslim nationalism under Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), who ushered in a new language: modern Turkish, devoid of Arabic and Persian words, and written in Latin rather than Arabic script. The Kurds were considered “savages” in the new Turkish republic.

Memory counts: in 1918, the French general who entered Istanbul after the Allied victory rode a white horse in a deliberately humiliating imitation of Mehmed II more than 450 years earlier. Baer’s beautiful book provides a panoramic and stimulating account of over half a millennium of Ottoman history and – needless to say now – European history.

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs is published by Basic (£ 30). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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