Would you compare this empire to that of either Britain or of Rome? Only if you were God.
At its peak, the Ottoman Empire reached from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to where the Volga met the Caspian Sea, and from Aden to Budapest. It contained all sorts – ultra-Islamic sheikhs to ultra-Protestant princes of Transylvania, and it included Orthodox Greek patricians in Istanbul, Algerian pirates, and plenty of Jews, including those evicted from Europe. The titles of its Sultan included ‘Marcher Lord of the Horizon’, ‘Rock that Bestrides the Continents’ and ‘Feather on the Breath of God.’ The Sultan was also Caliph, the head of Islam.
But this Islam was different to that of the desert. It was more adaptable and worldly. For a while, after 1453, when Constantinople fell, it posed a real threat to Europe – to Spain in particular. But it lost the crucial naval battle of Lepanto, and it failed before the gates of Vienna. Then the scientific and industrial dominance of Europe, the rise of Russia, and the growth in nationalism led to its decline and fall.
The political genius of Kemal Atatürk, and a fruitless 1915 European invasion, led to the formation of the nation of Turkey, by far the most stable nation in the area. Other parts of the Empire, especially the European, have not done so well. And it is not easy to identify one Muslim nation that is as well governed as Turkey.
Patrick (Lord) Kinross may not have been in the first rank of academic historians, but he had a large output and an ability to paint a large canvass in rich and telling colour. This subject is very large, and a difficult one for people of the West to come to grips with, but the book The Ottoman Empire is a very readable account – and there is not one footnote in sight.
You only have to look at the history of the Balkans to show how fraught any history of this empire may be. Or just consider this passage on the Armenian massacres.
Leakage of the news of these first Armenian massacres, which the Porte [the capital was modestly described as the Sublime Porte] had hoped to brush aside as a trifling incident, aroused strong liberal protests throughout Europe, prompting demands by the three powers – Britain, France and Russia – for a commission of inquiry. This was duly appointed by the Sultan, in 1895, ‘to inquire into the criminal conduct of Asian brigands’ – thus hoping to pre-empt further investigation and prove the Porte’s version of events. Following this mockery of justice, the powers, reinforced by mass meetings in London and Paris, put forward a scheme for Armenian reform, which the Sultan made a show of accepting in a watered-down version, with a profusion of unfulfilled paper promises.
Here then was a fitting prelude to the minuet of Jared Kushner and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a meeting of consciences in tune.
Kinross does not duck the nasty bits. When Mehmed III succeeded to the throne, he had nineteen of his brothers strangled by mutes – a record fratricidal sacrifice for the Ottomans. Then he gave them a state funeral. Six pregnant slaves, the favourites of the harem, were sown up in sacks and cast into the Bosporus, lest they give birth to claimants to the throne. Then he put his chosen son to death. His mother later went the same way. ‘The adolescent Ahmed, who succeeded him, refrained from fratricide if only because his surviving brother, Mustafa, was a lunatic – and Muslims had a sacred respect for the mad.’ (And if you think the Romans were above this, you are dead wrong.)
Kinross begins his Epilogue this way:
The Turks were among the great imperial powers of history. Theirs was the last in time and the greatest in extent of four Middle Eastern empires, following those of the Persians, the Romans and the Arabs, to achieve a long period of unity over this wide focal area where seas meet and continents converge. As a new life-force from the East their contribution to history was twofold. First, through their early successor sultanates they revived and reunited Islam in its Asiatic lands; then through the imperial dynasty they regenerated the lands of eastern Christendom.
The Kinross book was first published in 1977. The phrase ‘great imperial powers’ may not have died on our lips in quite the same way back then. In his first published work, Edward Gibbon said: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misère des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’ Gibbon admired the Republic far more than the Empire, and he wrote to his father: ‘I am convinced there never existed such a nation, and I hope for the happiness of mankind that there never, never will again.’
But if the Turks made a mess of those in their charge, it was as nothing compared to what the Byzantine Greeks did before them and what the rest of Europe would do to the Middle East after them. Too much of it has just been a playground for those who should know better.