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standard diplomatic history with little analysis and even less on culture
on 8 May 2011
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.