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on 4 February 2006
Lord Kinross takes on the huge task of detailing the Ottoman Empires history from its birth in the 14th century, until its dissolution in 1923. Yet Kinross manages to keep the reader constantly attached to unfolding events which at its zenith, under Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, made the Ottoman Empire the most powerful civilisation in the world. He is equally adept at describing its downfall, spurred on by infighting, corruption and less capable Sultans. The book is an excellent prequel to his other huge work, Ataturk, the biographical account of the founder of the Republic of Turkey.
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on 30 December 1998
If all history books were written in the same style as this one, I might never have flunked history myself! A long, complicated series of events are presented in a fast moving, logical, most interesting & unfussy way. It's just a pleasure to read Lord Kinross' exquisite English. It's also a pleasure to share his deep knowledge & love of the subject. I found the first three-quarters of the book slightly more enjoyable, quite simply because it dealt with larger than life central characters operating successfully & disastrously, but always with complete authority. Sultans from the magnificent, to all manner of absolute crackpots, are described in all their glory, or lack of same. Do your self a favour & read this book. It's arguably the easiest & most entertaining way I have found to improve one's history!
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on 26 November 1997
For what it tries to achieve--a sweeping, compelling and entertaining recount of the entire history of the Ottoman empire--this book is flawless in its execution. Lord Kinross is a masterful writer well acquainted with his subject. He effortlessly weaves accounts of important and long-range social, economic and institutional changes into a story disguised as a pageant of colorful personalities. For me, the most eye-opening part of the story was the nineteenth-century: the decrepit Ottoman empire as a fierce source of entropy for the delicately balanced European great power systems. It was most enlightening to view European diplomatic struggles from the vantage point of Istanbul.
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This book is a grand survey at the undergraduate level. You get a chronological treatment of the empire's expansion and then its stagnation and decline. Unfortunately, it gets lost in the details of territorial conquests, that is, which odd little principalities are in play at what moment, how the fight went, and what the ramifications were for the Ottoman empire's territorial integrity. While it is essential to understand this for the history of Europe and Asia minor from 1200 to the present day, this makes for a pretty thick slog at times. Unfortunately, there are far too few ideas as to what were the causes for this evolution or what its accomplishments were in the cultural realm. That means there is very little depth or flavor and predominantly facts and more facts.

The story, of course, is remarkable: a small tribe begins to build an empire in Central Asia and expands into Byzantine territory and then into the heart of Europe itself, all while conquering large swaths of territory in N Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It expanded unchecked for 200 years, also as a sea power, then began a long period of decline as "the sick man of EUrope." It then completely fell apart in the 1st world war, when the empire was divided up by the European powers, creating many of the disputes in the middle east that last to the present.

In the beginning, the organization of the empire was innovative: with a sultan at its head as an "enlightened despot", it functioned largely as a military meritocracy, where capable leaders were given huge new areas to govern (and exploit) for a period of time, but did not become a hereditary aristocracy (i.e. it avoided the way that talent was limited from rising in Europe by chivalric privilege). In addition, a superlative elite of soldiers was created in the Janissaries, who were Christian children levied into slavery from East southern Europe and converted to Islam, less as fanatics than as a professional corps with a coherent world view. This too preceded European nationalist armies and was superior to the mercenary forces then under development. The basic technique of the great sultans was to launch an expendable group of amateur soldiers to exhaust their opponents, then pound them by their elite troops and cavalry at the right moment. This made the Ottomans appear to be an unstoppable force that struck fear into adversaries for hundreds of years.

Finally, the Turks were relatively tolerant of the people within the empire: for a tax, subjects could do what they wanted in security. Or, they could enter service to the state, with good career paths if they converted to Islam. Not surprisingly, many preferred this situation to the heavy hand of the Latin and Orthodox churches of Christendom. Astonishingly, this cultural harmony stood until the rise of nationalism in the 19C. I was very disappointed that the cultural achievements of this society received absolute minimal treatment in this book.

Then once Suleiman the Magnificant reached the apogee of his territorial acquisitions, the problems of empire came to the fore. The necessity became to manage and defend vast territories, which was a far more complex task than to enlarge an empire whose only real administration consisted of dividing the spoils among the right potentates and casual warriors. Unfortunately, Suleiman's heirs did not understand for a long time that a fundamental change was underway and made no moves to reform what was essentially a medieval empire that was extremely cruel by today's standards (it was accepted routine that, to avoid civil war, the chosen Sultan murdered all of his brothers). It was no longer so simple as to allow soldiers to sack conquered areas in place of pay and divide new territories between trusted pashas, but the need for a more modern state. This sapped the empire's dynamism and soon led to the first defeats of the Ottoman Turks, which made the empire more of a diplomatic power than a military one, a factor (however major) in the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe over the next 400 years. Even worse, the Sultan's children no longer were given territories to administer while young, which acquainted them with both the issues of governance and the concerns of commoners, but literally remained hostages within the palace, where the pleasures and intrigues of the harem shaped their life view. Courtiers ran the Court, along with mistresses, Vizier ministers, and the top Janissaries by force of arms. It became simple despotism at this point.

Of course, Europe did not stand still, as a revolution in thinking and technology was underway with the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment. At this point, the Ottoman Empire began to gradually shrink, which this book describes in seriously excessive detail, i.e. over hundreds of pages. The task of understanding this is made harder by the poor maps in the book, which are of marginal aid in following developments in the Balkans that are complexity itself.

While there were a few reforming Sultans from the late 18C, the weight of history that they had to overcome was too great. What were innovative institutions had long ago become implacable obstacles to reform, such as the Janissaries who periodically revolted with extreme violence and often via coups d'etat, but also the beginning of hereditary privilege and truly legendary corruption. Even the massacre of the entire Janissary force was not enough to lead to the creation of a constitutional monarchy, though several Sultans tried to do so and were ousted. Eventually, this led to the persecution of minorities in the Empire, including the first genocide of the 20C, the Armenians, as nationalism replaced the earlier cultural tolerance.

The book concludes with a long part of the last Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who was a capricious despot who hated people and yet completed the creation of an education system, providing the human infrastructure for the era of Attaturk. The story stops here, leaving the transition of TUrkey into a modern state based on laws and alternance of power holders. Throughout, the author makes the case, which I found convincing, that the Turks achieved a relative success in the creation of a stable and enlightened regime, when compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the Near East. It makes for an admirably balanced view and useful historical perspective.

To be sure, I learned a great deal from this book, but it was neither original nor a great narrative. Indeed, the bibliography is barely one page, and only a few primary sources appear in it. Contrast that to Tuchman's masterful Distant Mirror, which is popular but also a marvel of flavorful original research, and the pedestrian nature of this book is evident. I am glad I read it, but would not want to read it a second time.
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on 10 August 2008
This is a well written and researched history book - assertions that is it like fiction or reads like a soap opera (suggested by a couple of other reviewers) are simply wrong.

Kinross manages to squeeze about 500 years of history into ~600 pages and in my opinion succeeds in covering the most important content in sufficient depth for the general reader. I particularly enjoyed the coverage of Ottoman diplomacy conducted with European powers in the latter part of eighteenth century onwards.

On the negative side, I believe that there are too few pictures and certainly too few maps for a book of this length, and those that are included are not high quality. The paper itself is also low grade, which is a shame considering the content is otherwise really good.

I highly recommend getting a copy of this book, but it is perhaps worth exploring editions published by other companies - the Amazon marketplace appears to have several.
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on 12 March 1998
To the average American, the Ottoman Empire is perhaps the least known empire in history. Yet, for centuries, the Ottoman influence, military might, open-mindedness, religious tolerance, and meritocracy resembled the United States of the 20th century. Kinross's Ottoman Centuries brings to life the legacy of the Ottomans and the mighty Turkish Empire. Although it is difficult to summarize over six hundred years of history into one book, rest assured that even the best informed Turkish historians would enjoy this work. Americans however, should pay particular attention to the Ottomans' history. We can find so many of the same roots of decline in our own empire. There are so many parallels it is hard to swallow.
The only surprise to me was that Kinross placed such small emphasis on World War I. There was hardly any mention of the battles of Galipoli, which led to the defeat and withdrawl of the British armed forces. Of course, it is quite possible that this subject has been covered in greater detail in the sequel to this book; Ataturk. Good luck trying to find Kinross's Ataturk however, it has been out of print for over 20 years. I enjoyed the Ottoman Centuries so much that I had to find this sequel. Amazon.com was able to find me a used copy, and I Can't wait to read it.
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on 31 December 1996
This is a history of the Ottoman Empire (as might be
evident from its title). Many history books have the flaw
of being informative, however dull and boring. I am not a
professional historian, and usually I am not interested in
all the marginal remarks and references. Fortunately, this
is not one of those history books.
Although this is a serious history book, it saves the
lay reader from all the marginal remarks. This is a
beautiful history, and it actually reads like a thriller.
The author does not hide his personal evaluation and
opinion. For example, he does not hesitate to criticize
Sultans Selim II and Murad III and root the long and
inevitable decline of the Empire with their lack of skills
to govern the Empire.
Especially pay attention to the chapter on the fall of
Constantinople, and to the scattered descriptions of
sieges throughout the book.
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on 8 August 1999
Even though it is not a scientific book of history, Lord Kinross gives a superbous fresco of the Ottoman times and mentality. I have found the book well balanced, with the necessary emphasis to both positive and negative characters of Ottoman rulers and people. I really enjoyed to read it, and I recommend this book to every one interested to understand modern Turkey also through its past.
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on 12 December 1996
This book should be required reading for anyone planning a visit to Turkey. It is an incredible story of how great leaders carried a border tribe into world super-power status over three centuries and then weak leaders and internal strife allowed its decline into dissolution. It's almost a modern soap opera. Very well written. I carried it on our tour bus and our guide wouldn't let me take it home -- he wanted so much to read it himself, I gave him my copy as a going away present.
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on 26 March 1998
While I love to read, I never read history books because they are usually not written for non-historians. This book is different; it is well written and engaging. It reads more like a suspense novel. For those who have Turkish friends or who are close to Turks (my husband is one) or who are thinking of traveling there, this is a must read. It will help you to understand a lot about their culture and why Turkey is in the way it is now.
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