Tue. Dec 7th, 2021


On my last visit to Istanbul, while driving along the Golden Horn in bright autumn light, I came across a half-abandoned Ottoman tomb complex. A shady garden leads to the courtyard of a mosque, behind which stood an octagonal tomb tower. This, I read, was the mausoleum of a long-forgotten Ottoman admiral named Kilic Ali Pasha. The Pasha distinguished itself in the battle against the mass fleets of Christianity’s Holy League at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. For his bravery in this disastrous battle – where 200 of 230 Ottoman ships sank and about 50,000 of their sailors their lost lives, he was made the Captain Pasha, or High Admiral. In 1573 he seized Christian Cyprus from the Venetians.

Here, it turns out, was a figure that could be taken to personify the clash of civilizations – “The Terrible Turk” incarnated – until, that is, I discovered that Kilic Ali was actually a Calabrian named Occhiali who chose to convert to Islam. Entering Ottoman service. Any assumption of some inevitable battle between the powers of Asia and Europe was further challenged when I read that the complex was built by another Christian convert, the great Sinan, formerly an Armenian named Joseph, and that the mosque was modeled is on the large Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia. During the same period, the most powerful Ottoman vizier was the eunuch Hasan Aga, formerly Samson Rowlie of Great Yarmouth, while the Ottoman general known as “Ingliz Mustapha” was in fact a Scot, a Campbell no less, who embraced Islam and joined has. the Janitsarisse.

Kilic Ali Pasha’s Istanbul tomb was located in the perfect position for a man who led such a cross-cultural life, balanced between two continents. Yet, despite all its exoticism, Istanbul, the New Rome of Emperor Constantine, has always been a European city. And while the Ottomans’ Turkish roots lay in Anatolia, and before that Central Asia, they nevertheless played a central role in European history: indeed, at their peak, control of one bank of the Danube, and set up camp in the suburbs of Vienna, the Ottoman’s global empire ruled almost a quarter of Europe, including all of modern Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece. They were also Western Europe’s largest trading partner. These are the central facts underlying Marc David Baer’s magnificent new book, The Ottomans.

“Like its language, the Ottoman Empire was not merely Turkish,” writes Baer, ​​a professor of international history at the London School of Economics. “It also did not only consist of Muslims. . . Like the Roman Empire, it was a multi-ethnic, multilingual, multiracial, multi-religious empire. . . It was a European Empire that remains an integral part of European culture and history. ”

The Ottomans believed that their march to Europe meant that they were the heirs of Byzantium and therefore had to be considered the new Romans. This was something that people around the world were once happy to admit: “Arabs, Persians, Indians and Turks referred to the Ottoman rulers as Caesars and their rule as the Roman Empire,” Baer writes. “Beginning with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, some Western European writers also have. . . Why did we forget what Europeans thought five hundred years ago? The Ottomans did not develop in parallel with Europe; their story is the unrecognized part of the story that the West is telling about itself. ”

Like a fast-paced Ottoman caique cutting through the fresh waters of Asia, Baer’s tight prose entangles stereotypes and makes us think twice about years of assumptions. For an empire that was once so threatened by the outside world, the Ottomans today remain one of the least explored areas of global history: “the forgotten giant” as one Ottoman historian called it. Today, if they are remembered at all, the Ottomans are usually dismissed in the west as aggressive but ultimately decadent and intellectually curious warriors who controlled an ancient antiquity and who were eventually defeated by the intellectual firepower of European science, and then eventually surrounded. is. by its growing transcontinental naval power. By reaping the fruits of a remarkable wave of recent science, including his own long work in the Topkapi Palace archives, Baer shows convincingly how comprehensively wrong all these different assumptions are.

Baer opens his book with a wonderful description of work in the archives when he takes a look at one of the great treasures of the collection, the map of the Ottoman Admiral, Piri Reis, a predecessor of Kilic Ali Pasha: ” On his own initiative., Piri Reis of Gallipoli, a former corsair … drew one of the earliest surviving maps of the New World coastline, “he writes.” He based it on Columbus’ original, which was lost. “and even an interviewer from Columbus’ travels. To produce for the sultan one of the most complete and accurate maps of the world, Piri Reis consulted ancient Ptolemaic, medieval Arabic and contemporary Portuguese and Spanish maps.” The Ottomans intended to compete with the Portuguese from Iberia to Indonesia, and were intent on keeping pace with European discoveries.Other Ottoman admirals wrote books on astronomy and nautical science and compiled atlases and geographical treatises, although none of Piri Reis’s big Book of the Sea (1526).

The map of the New World drawn by Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis, in 1513

A fragment of the map of the New World compiled by Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis in 1513

Baer points out that the Ottomans were important players in what we tend to regard as the exclusively European Era of Discovery, that period of exploration that laid the foundation for three centuries of Western colonialism. He shows how, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the early 16th century, the Ottomans became a major naval power in the Indian Ocean, where they fought their Portuguese enemies, and in the meantime before the establishment of Mughal power, even briefly took over. the Indian ports of Surat and Diu. Indeed, with “ships agile like sea snakes”, they projected their power even further, with the aim of controlling shipping to Southeast Asia. No wonder the Sultans referred to themselves as “Lord of the Two Seas and Two Continents” and “Masters of the Seven Climates”.

The author competently demonstrates how for 200 years, from the middle of the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire was in fact the most powerful power in Eurasia. From behind the Sublime Gates, the Sultan and his Viziers ruled a patchwork quilt of people, languages, and religions across many zones: decisions taken in Constantinople affected millions around the world. From his palace on the Bosphorus, the 16th-century Grand Vizier, Mehmed Sokollu Pasha, a Serbian convert from Christianity and son-in-law of Selim II, simultaneously planned canals between the Don and the Volga, and the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. ; one day he could send artillery experts to the Sultanate of Aceh, Sumatra, to cut off the Straits of Malacca and send agents to incite rebellion against the Portuguese across the Indian Ocean; next, choose a new king of Poland to stop the Russians; the third, sends “musketeers to fight as guerrillas on the side of Morisco rebels in Andalusia.” He ordered photos of Venice and commissioned an elbow bridge across the Drina River. His inner circle included “Jewish courtiers, Venetian ambassadors and members of the Ottoman Greek elite.”

Ottoman traders were equally innovative, cultivating tobacco and tomatoes, seizing the rich vein of trade in spices and seizing it, building watches, clocks and glasses, and turning coffee into a global fad.

Nor was it – at least initially – an intolerant empire. Although tensions have always existed between Muslim rulers and the religious communities living under their fickle thumbs-up – by modern standards, Christians and Jews, the dhimmi, were treated as second-class citizens – there was at least a kind of pluralistic equilibrium – which Spanish historians called coexist or “living together” – which had no parallel in Christianity. When the Catholic kings expelled the Jews from Granada, they were granted asylum within the Ottoman Empire. Salonica soon had a Jewish majority.

It was only then, as Baer puts it, “the Ottomans turned away from incorporating diversity that. . . tolerance was replaced by ethnic cleansing and genocide, ”and the empire immediately collapsed as a tidal wave of nationalist uprisings spread from Bulgaria and Greece, replacing multi-ethnic diversity with a series of mono-ethnic religious nationalisms. The last Sultans sealed their fate by approving the anti-Armenian pogroms that culminated in the horrific massacres of 1915-16. Then, in the darkest moment in Turkish history, perhaps 1.5 million Armenians were starved, beaten or killed in a genocide that allegedly inspired Hitler. In the aftermath, the Anatolian Greeks migrated to Greece, the Jews to Palestine, and those Armenians who survived, to a severed, soon-to-be-Soviet Armenia and the USA.

To the twin powers of President Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanism, and the Netflix Ottoman mega-drama Ertugrul reminded them that even the Turks had come to ignore an imperial past that they had been taught by Ataturk to think of as the decadent “sick man of Europe”. Few Western historians have had the knowledge of Ottoman Turks to prove them wrong. Marc David Baer’s important and highly readable book – a model of well-written, accessible science – goes a long way in correcting this.

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer, Basic books $ 35 / £ 30, 544 pages

William Dalrymple’s Company Quartet is published by Bloomsbury

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