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Were the Ottoman Turks as European as they thought themselves?

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs Marc David Baer

Basic Books, pp.560, 30

This is the best of times to be writing history, since so much of what has been taken for granted, especially in the West, is being revised. Assumptions about the past that we accepted as fact, and events we once looked upon with pride, are now being questioned. A dark cloud hovers over the Benin Bronzes, Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and looks likely to burst. The same applies to figures who were considered heroes and placed on pedestals. If the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square had not been covered recently, it might have followed the fate of Edward Colston’s.

Into this febrile atmosphere steps Marc David Baer, professor of international history at the LSE and prize-winning author of many books, but none as far-reaching and revisionary as his latest on the Ottomans, a dynasty much obscured by rumour and cliché.

The Ottomans? Well, there’s cruelty and curved swords, big hats and baggy trousers, eunuchs and odalisques, harems and hookahs, dervishes, decadence and sticky, sugar-frosted delights. Oh, and the lingering image of the Sick Man of Europe. While all these can be found in the pages of Ottoman history they in no way encapsulate the essence of the Ottomans. Baer offers a fuller, fresher view of the dynasty that ruled an empire for 500 years and helped shape the West as much as the Hapsburgs or Romanovs.

Its beginnings were humble. Osman, the original Ottoman after whom the dynasty (Osmanli) was named, came from a band of raiders who had been pushed west off the Asian steppes by the aggressive expansion of the Mongols. Like many other Turkic people, the tribe was nomadic, moving horses, sheep and goats across mountains and deserts in search of seasonal pastures.

Osman led his followers to Anatolia, the Asian part of what is now Turkey. They were Muslims in a land that was predominantly Armenian and Greek Christian; but they knew that part of the success of the Mongol empire was due to policies of toleration — which might explain why multiculturalism would become fundamental to the Ottomans. Another keystone was Sufi mysticism, and the whirling dervishes who hoped to spin their way closer to God.

Janissaries — the corps of foot soldiers created from Christian prisoners of war by Osman’s grandson Murad I — also played a crucial role. They soon became the empire’s principal military unit, ending an age-old reliance on mounted archers and marking the transition from nomadic to settled, and from local chief to sultan of a nation. Murad introduced another practice to the Ottoman court: he executed all the male members of his family who could have laid claim to his throne, a policy that was accepted in the name of security. But one thing he did not do from his base in Edirne was to capture Constantinople. That moment came 64 years after his death.

Baer’s account of the rise, growth, stagnation and fall of the house of Osman over more than 600 years — between the arrival of its founder in Anatolia in the late 1200s and the abdication of the last sultan and caliph, Abdulmecid II, in 1924 — is a major achievement He is a writer in full command of his subject and of a wide range of Turkish and western sources.

His interpretations of these are intriguing. The fall of Constantinople has long been seen as the moment when Europe lost its bridge to Asia. That view places Ottoman Turkey outside Europe, and the Turks as barbarians at the gate. But Baer argues compellingly that Istanbul, as the city became known, has always been European; that Turks are European, and that by relegating them to Asia is to misrepresent European history. The fact that Turkey tried long and hard to join the EU, and ultimately failed, suggests that not all will agree — or at least not until they have read Baer’s book.

When Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, the city changed — most obviously when many of its churches were converted to mosques. But much also remained the same, in part because Mehmed and his successors saw themselves as the heirs to Byzantium, as ‘New Romans’, whose interests lay west as well as east. In that, Baer contends, they were as much catalysts of the Renaissance as any Italian prince.

But prejudice was building against them. As a result of the influence of Greek refugees from Constantinople, who worked as translators and teachers of ancient Greek, ‘a new philhellenism was linked to anti-Ottomanism’. In this duality, Christian was pitted against Muslim, west against east, Europe against Asia. These prejudices were still potent more than three centuries later when Lord Byron died fighting for Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey, and even more so in the last century, after the massacre of Armenians in Turkey during the first world war. Baer pulls no punches here, calling it genocide.

Inevitably, compromises have to be made in telling this vast story in one volume and much detail must be suppressed. But at times I longed for the quirkiness of a writer such as Jason Goodwin, whose Lords of the Horizon (1999) is driven by a flow of entertaining anecdote. Baer does not allow himself this licence, but focuses on reinterpreting history and pushing back against centuries of prejudice. He brings women into the picture more than any other author I have read on the period; and he is sensitive to the shifts between religious tolerance and persecution, giving a gruesome account of the stoning in 1680 of a Muslim woman accused of adultery with a Jew — a death witnessed by thousands who crowded into the capital’s hippodrome for the occasion.

Perhaps most revelatory is Baer’s insistence on how the Ottomans, as a European power, changed the narrative of the first world war. The conflict with the Ottomans in the Middle East has traditionally been viewed as a sideshow (and in Arabia, as T.E. Lawrence put it, as ‘a sideshow of a sideshow’); but Baer demonstrates its importance in the greater scheme of the war.

In the same way, he emphasises just how significant a role Ottoman Turkey played generally in the story of Europe over the centuries. It is a new view: the Ottomans for our time.

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