The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs by Marc David Baer - review by Jason Goodwin

Jason Goodwin

From the Harem to the Bath House

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs


Basic Books 560pp £30

In 1532, the year that Machiavelli’s manual of statecraft, The Prince, was first published, a Venetian goldsmith was commissioned to make an enormous headpiece, something between a crown and a helmet, studded with emeralds, pearls, diamonds and rubies, and containing four crowns, one rising upon another, topped with a feathered aigrette. The finished piece was put on display at the Doge’s Palace before being sent to Ibrahim Pasha, the Ionian-born grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, who duly presented it to his employer, friend and putative lover, the sultan-emperor Suleyman.

Suleyman may never have worn it: crowns weren’t an Ottoman thing, and this one would have been very heavy. But its message was plain. The pope, with his claim to universality, had a tiara with three tiers and Charles V, Suleyman’s rival in central Europe, had recently been proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor. Suleyman believed that he, not Charles or the pope, had inherited the mantle of Rome when he assumed command of an empire that stretched from the Adriatic to the Red Sea. The Muslim monarch used the crown as a symbol of his inheritance, and showed it to the Habsburg ambassadors when – passing beneath classical triumphal arches – he led an Ottoman army to the walls of Vienna in 1532.

Vienna’s walls held. Marc David Baer’s intention in The Ottomans is to break down those that separate the Ottomans from so-called European history and to show that the ideas, economic strains, technological developments and challenges that buffeted western Europe over seven centuries swept with similar force through Ottoman central and eastern Europe and beyond. His contention is that Europe doesn’t cease to be Europe when it is ruled by Muslims instead of Christians, and that this gives a whole new dimension to European history.

As he points out, religious tolerance began not in Augsburg in 1555 but in the 13th century on the frontiers of Byzantine Anatolia, where a ragbag of Turkic warriors, Sufis and Byzantine commanders coalesced behind a victorious leader, Osman, whose dynasty ran unbroken through to the death of the last sultan in 1926. By the late 14th century, Ottoman society already comprised Greeks and Armenians, living according to their own laws. They were joined in 1492 by Jews from Spain. The Ottomans recruited among their Christian subjects: on conversion to Islam, poor boys from Balkan valleys could aspire to the highest offices of state or to be enrolled in the empire’s elite troop of janissary infantry.

Relying on Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream for his chronological framework, Baer, who teaches international history at the LSE, brings a fresh sensibility to the discussion. His are Ottomans for our times: multiethnic, meritocratic, multilingual, multireligious, tolerant, diverse, supportive of same-sex relationships, proto-democratic and no strangers to the espousal of women’s rights, even if the espousers often came to a sticky end. Baer gives us an empire that was edging towards constitutional monarchy, or at least the separation of the state apparatus from the person of the ruler – an empire governed by Renaissance princes like Mehmed the Conqueror, who spoke seven languages and read Homer, and Suleyman himself, who vied in courtly splendour with Henry VIII and Charles V.

Offering thoughtful contemporary parallels, Baer rightly emphasises the extent to which the whole of Europe was entwined. Tulipomania, military bands, coffee and Sweden’s famous meatballs all originated in Ottoman lands; Charles XII so loved the köfte he encountered in Moldova that he brought the recipe home to Sweden, replacing lamb with pork; one might go on to add stuffed cabbage.

Beardless youths, too, were a taste found among older men across Renaissance Europe. According to Baer, the steamy element of Ottoman life was to be found in bathhouses with the boys rather than in the harem. It’s a rare history book that quotes an ode to an anus or a 16th-century princely anthology that includes a battle between virile ‘pederasts’ and enfeebled ‘fornicators’. Women, Baer says, were not understood as opposite to men; rather they were seen as men with biological imperfections, mad about sex (hence the need for them to be securely segregated and covered) and intellectually inferior. Relations between men of mature age, however, were frowned upon. ‘What mattered,’ Baer writes of sexuality, ‘was age and stage of life, not gender.’

These enlightening forays into the side alleys of Ottoman history make this book very enjoyable. Unlike other generalists, Baer can read the notoriously difficult Turkish, written in Arabic script, used by the Ottomans to maintain their voluminous imperial archives. His chapter on the Jews who, like some Muslims, worshipped the sultan with near-messianic fervour, is splendid.

Of course, the delicious idea of locating the origins of toleration, secularism and modernity within Muslim-ruled Europe and turning accepted readings of European history on their head will raise a swarm of ‘yes, but…’ responses. You can’t make more chalk by renaming the cheese. In many ways, the Ottoman Empire was different: it looked different, smelled different, segregated women, veered away from political reform and did not, for all Baer’s pleading, play a major role in the European exploration of the wider world. The Ottomans could show medieval Europe a thing or two, but they failed to participate in the scientific or industrial revolutions; they left trade and invention in the hands of minorities who lacked political power.

The Ottoman Empire allowed Christians and Jews to maintain their faith less in the spirit of Locke and the Enlightenment than of pragmatism, granting these minorities a form of limited autonomy that made the empire easier to manage. Christians and Jews remained second-class citizens, subjected to forced conversion when their rulers demanded it and required to pay an additional poll tax, which sustained their Muslim overlords. Tolerance didn’t extend to pagans, atheists or, worse still, deviant Muslims like the Shia and the messianic charismatics who regularly appeared over the centuries to challenge governing orthodoxies.

Baer rejects the old notion that the shift in the imperial dynamic in the 17th century, when sultans became figureheads manipulated by the palace bureaucracy, marked the start of Ottoman decline. The dynasty, after all, had more than three centuries left to run. He prefers to see this period as one of change and crisis, during which traditional arrangements were buffeted by the shift to a cash economy, warlordism and the rise of new power holders in the palaces and on the streets of Istanbul.

Observers in the 19th century, both Ottoman and foreign, recognised that, in an age of nationalism and material progress, the empire would have to adapt further, but the cures applied to a state built upon a particular pattern of hierarchy and diversity proved as fatal as the disease. Politicians in Constantinople tried one thing after another – Islamism, Ottomanism, equality under the law – while the empire remained at the mercy of the European powers, propped up by the British, repeatedly mauled by the Russians. The end, adroitly and convincingly examined in this book, came with the Balkan Wars and the outbreak of the First World War, which triggered a series of disasters that allowed the Ottomans to give us one final, defining feature of modernity: genocide.

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