↵It is not quite by chance that, browsing through the Islamic room at the Gladstone’s Library, I picked up a book devoted to the history of the Ottoman Empire. The series of documentaries the BBC recently devoted to Byzantium had re-triggered my interest on the subject. But pictures, despite or perhaps because of their glamour, can only go so far in telling us the whole story. In contrast, Lords of the Horizons by the historian and travel writer Jason Goodwin offers a more complex picture. Alive with details, it charts the prodigious rise of the Empire and its, no less prodigious, decline and demise.
Our knowledge of the Ottoman Empire is often twinned with that of the Orientalist, with its Sultans and harems, slaves and horsemen warriors, conquests and intrigues, in short, a fascinating but decadent world of sensuality and violence. But this world has more to do with the decline than the rise of the Empire, which offers quite a different picture, no less fascinating but certainly more worthy of appreciation. Yet there may be good reasons for our distorted view of the Ottomans and the clichés we hold about them.
This book, the author says, is about a people who do not exist. The word ‘Ottoman’ does not describe a place. Nobody nowadays speaks their language. The paradoxes and contradictions at the core of the Ottoman Empire are endless. Officially Islamic, many of its subjects were non Muslims. A Turkish power, its dignitaries and officers as well as its shock troops were Balkan Slavs. It controlled the thoroughfares between East and West, but it was not very interested in trade.
The other reasons for the difficulty we face in trying to grasp the complexities of the Ottoman Empire are its size as well as its duration – over six hundred years. The Ottoman Empire stretched from the Danube to the Nile. It ruled over the entire Balkan peninsula; from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and the so-called Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. It took Anatolia, submitted the Crimean Tartars and finally captured Constantinople in 1453. In 1517 it swept through Syria, Arabia and Egypt.
It seemed that the Ottoman Empire contained the whole world with its variety of people, ways and habits, landscapes, climates and even haircuts. The Greeks preserved a ring of hair on the centre of their heads and shave the rest. The Croatian has one side of his head shaved, and the other grows as it will. The Hungarian shaves his whole head, except the foretop. The Pole has his hair cut short. The Turk shaves his whole head, save a lock. The Franks wear their hair long amongst friends, and in public tuck it up under their caps. One could find the same diversity when it came to clothing: Greeks wore black trousers and slippers; the Armenians violet slippers and purple trousers; the Jews sky-blue trousers and slippers and certain very privileged non-believers were allowed to wear yellow slippers and red trousers, like a Turk. This kaleidoscopic sight was not only picturesque, though; as the author stresses, it was a sign of order. Dustmen had red leather smocks; those who had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca were entitled to a green turban. Important personages sported tall turbans; holy men wore wider and flatter turbans and black gowns. The Ottoman crowd must have been a colourful scene.
Unfortunately, the Empire was unable to evolve and to modernize and this would lead to its demise. With time, power degenerated into illusion. That prodigious performance known as the Ottoman Empire, became a sham, a world of fantasy, which, as its end approached, decayed in ancient pomp. And this is when the Orientalist view prevailed, with harem politics taking over, and murder by poison or strangulation becoming the rule.
As we turn the last pages of The Lords of the Horizons>, we are left with the sad story of a world slipping inexorably behind when, as the author remarks, savagery marked the dying decades of the Ottoman Empire. To conclude, this is history alive and complex, which leaves us aware of the ephemeral character of human enterprise whatever its highs and its lows. Definitely worth reading.