The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

What did the Ottomans ever do for us? Best known for harems, sieges of Vienna and Armenian genocide, their history has largely come to us through a European lens. A lens that has often reduced the Ottoman Empire to a series of clichés and myths that fail to acknowledge the intricacies and the achievements.

For an Empire it truly was.  It was a contemporary of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian and British empires. Not as global as some, but its contiguous lands in Europe and western Asia were larger than those in Europe and, more importantly, it lasted longer than any of them.  As Marc Baer points out, they saw themselves not as some remote outpost in Asia, but as the “rightful inheritors” [p6] of the Roman empire.

A nomadic Turkic people from central Asia, Ottoman migration was part of many waves from east to west following in the footsteps of the Mongols. In the late 13th century, they reached north-west Anatolia, where they battled Christians and other Turks for a foothold.  It was a fortuitous time because the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire had lost these territories to Seljuk Turks early in that century and the Mongols stayed further east, leaving the  lands to “more than a dozen Turkic Muslim principalities” of which only the Ottomans rose to fame.

Following modest early conquests in western Anatolia, the empire grew exponentially. Within 200 years, it had obliterated the Byzantines and occupied the Balkans – extending from modern Croatia to the Iraq border. A further 200 years saw territories as large as the Roman empire and covering many of the same lands. From the Persian and Arabian gulfs, across north Africa and into central Europe, the empire encircled most of the Mediterranean and Black seas.

The book is structured chronologically, from the 13th century migrations to the disintegration at the end of the first World War, leading to the formation of Turkey in 1923. The chronology is interspersed with several thematic chapters– covering topics as diverse as the Age of Discovery, women, eunuchs and Jews.

Baer claims that both the Ottomans and the Byzantines have been treated poorly by history and “to this day stand outside the standard Western narratives about the formation of Europe” [p6].

They have been depicted as the spoilers of Europe – taking over territory and controlling trade routes.  But they were not mere outsiders – their culture was an integral part of European culture and the European cities that were part of their empire were part of an Ottoman world – with influences that still exist. “This is a book that asks the reader to look at Europe – both as an idea and as a geography – as a whole, to conceptualise a Europe that is not merely Christian. ….How then might we define Europe, and who might we include as rightfully belonging to it?” [p5 and 6].

This book sets the record straight on countless misconceptions – both deliberate and inadvertent. For example: “Tolerance, modernity and secularism emerged for the first time, we are told, in Western Europe” [p9] at the beginning of the enlightenment around 1650. “But the historical record demonstrates that the principles and practices of toleration had already been established at the onset of Ottoman rule in Southeastern Europe in the fourteenth century “[p9].

Some of the detail is extraordinary to a reader used to a particular view of the Ottomans and Islam in general. “Islam could be interpreted and practised in ways that are unrecognisable to Muslims today” [p25]. For example, deviant dervish groups shunned many Islamic practices and in public, were barefoot and often naked, hairless and with “metal earrings, neck collars, bracelets, anklets and genital piercings” [p25]. They might be dismissed as weird outsiders, yet in Ottoman society they were tolerated and, at some points, their leaders had a profound influence on destabilising the ruling dynasty.

The Ottoman empire was historically characterised as a cultural backwater that ignored the Renaissance. Modern views suggest that the Renaissance “raised Western Europe to the cultural level of Muslim-majority societies” [p100]. The Ottomans had never been cut off from this knowledge and “had never needed to rediscover the wisdom of the ancients and catch up as the Europeans had” [p100].

The book contains a fascinating account of the importance of domestic historical narratives: “Sovereigns were judged both by the success of their military campaigns and by the greatness of the works composed in their honour – their cultural capital. Patronising literature made a ruler appear worthy of the sultanate” [p123]. The earliest and most notable was Bayezid II in the late fifteenth century, who ordered the creation of a new narrative and a new genealogy – establishing a credible, but fictitious descent from a Turkic tribe. Apparently, descent from Genghis Khan would have been preferred, but easily rejected as a fabrication.

A highlight of this book is the way it dives into the complex social cultures and hierarchies – both of which evolved through the life of the empire, rendering many generalisations invalid. Like many empires, much of Ottoman history is viewed narrowly through their conflicts. Baer is well aware that they have been well documented and he gracefully slides across them. That is not to diminish their importance, but the consequences are framed in cultural and political terms, rather than military.

The religious reformation may never have succeeded, but for the perennial Ottoman threats to the Catholic Hapsburgs. They formed an alliance with the French against the Hapsburgs that lasted nearly three centuries. They embraced the Jewish diaspora from Portugal and Spain in the late fifteenth century and not only did Jews continue to practice their religion, but they came to see sultans as “God-sent messiahs” [p159]. In turn, the meritocracy promoted many Jews (and Christians) to influential and powerful positions, presumably to the benefit of their adopted empire.

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs is very different from Edward Gibbon’s six volume classic charting the Roman empire’s decline and fall, but it is just as ambitious in its detail and depth of analysis. The two dominions spanned two millennia, and the Ottoman claim to be the new Roman empire is carefully examined by Marc Baer.  For those interested in a detailed understanding of a complex and worldly realm, this book is exemplary.

“Marc David Baer is professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of five books, including Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe, which won the Albert Hourani Prize”.

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs

(October 2021)

by Marc David Baer

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9781473695719

$34.99; 468pp

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