»  Claremont Review of Books

Winter 2006

  The Mad, the Grim, and the Sot

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Osman's Dream
by Caroline Finkel
Basic Books; 660 pp. $35.00

How much space does the Ottoman Empire occupy in the mind of an average well-educated Westerner of today? I called a representative specimen of such and asked him to free-associate on the phrase "Ottoman Empire." He: "Um, Manzikert … fall of Constantinople … Lepanto … gates of Vienna … sick man of Europe … Armenian massacres."

That's not bad, though the Turkish victors at the Battle of Manzikert (1071), who went on to sweep the Byzantine Greeks from Anatolia, were Seljuks, not Ottomans. The Seljuk power went into inevitable slow decline, the entire West-Eurasian pot was mightily stirred by the Mongol campaigns of the middle 13th century, and when, later in that century, things had settled down, Anatolia was home to numerous petty Turkish emirates. Inevitably one of these statelets threw up a leader of sufficient energy and imagination to dominate the others. This was Osman, the first name in every list of Ottoman Sultans, and the name from which, via some vagaries of transcription, the name of the empire itself derives.

One of the founding myths of the Ottomans recounts a dream the young Osman had while sleeping in the house of a Muslim holy man. The dream was of course heavy with symbolism, which the holy man, when consulted, interpreted as meaning that Osman and his descendants would rule a mighty empire. This story gives Caroline Finkel the title for her history of that empire, which is conventionally dated from 1299 to 1923, the latter date marking the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.

Ms. Finkel — an Ottomanist of some standing, with numerous papers, books, and articles to her credit — intended her book for a general audience. But Osman's Dream is unmistakably a scholar's book, long and dense, with a punctilious attention to authentic spellings of personal and place names. Ms. Finkel writes Manzikert as "Malazgirt," and is free with umlauts, cedillas, breves, and the very peculiar Turkish way of dotting some uppercase letters "I" while leaving some lowercase ones undotted. You either mind this kind of thing or you don't. I am only telling you that this is not a breezy popular account, like Jason Goodwin's 1998 Lords of the Horizons, which Ms. Finkel does not deign to notice in either her bibliography or index. This author is very serious about her subject. She goes so far as to tell us, in her preface, that: "The writer of Ottoman history cannot enjoy the luxury of supplying entertainment at the cost of explanation."

She makes good on that promise. As well as imposing all those diacritical marks on us and hiding the general reader's scant handful of familiar landmarks behind such forbidding corrections as "Malazgirt," Ms. Finkel even deprives us of those dimly remembered cognomens for the more egregious of the Sultans: Ibrahim the Mad, Selim the Grim ("known to posterity as 'Yavuz', 'the Stern'," Ms. Finkel allows, but this is not half as vivid as "the Grim"), his grandson Selim the Sot, and so on. There is, of course, a case for scholarly rigor in such matters. But history is, or can be, a branch of literature. I think Finkel the Stern might have made some slight concessions to the tradition of Gibbon and Carlyle without compromising her academic integrity.

To clarify by example, here is Ms. Finkel on the aftermath of Mahmud II's destruction of the Janissaries (i.e. elite infantrymen, originally recruited from the empire's Christian subjects) in June of 1826:

In addition to those killed in the attack on the Janissary barracks … many thousands more were hunted down in the succeeding days. Roads and ports were strictly controlled so that news of the "Auspicious Incident," as it was called, and of the new edict formally abolishing the janissary corps, could not get out before provincial governors had received their instructions on how to proceed.

Here is Jason Goodwin on the same topic, in a book only half as long.

There were still many janissaries hiding out in parts of the city. Some are supposed to have taken refuge in the stoke-holes of the Constantinople baths, where they survived on food smuggled to them by stubborn well-wishers.*  Some reached the Belgrade forest in a suburb of Constantinople, where long ago Mehmet the Conqueror had settled large numbers of Serbs during his repopulation of the capital. Loyal officers toured the city in disguise, pointing out janissaries for the executioner. The bodies of hundreds of soldiers were flung under the Janissary Tree on the Hippodrome. Part of the Belgrade forest was torched to smoke them out …

The asterisked footnote adds that: "They allegedly composed the threnodies which can still be heard, the songs of the Men of the Stoke-Hole, the Kulhan Beyler, lamenting the great old days of janissary power."

There is, again, a case for Ms. Finkel's approach, most especially for that subset of her target audience mentioned in her preface: "students embarking on a study of Ottoman history, who presently lack a single-volume narrative in English." She is, furthermore, skeptical and judicious, as a scholar should be. Goodwin retails without comment the ancient tale of how the Sultan Bayezid I, defeated by Tamerlane at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, "was placed in a cage, too small for standing upright, and dragged in the wake of Tamerlane's retinue." Then: "His wife Despina was made to serve naked at the victor's table." Ms. Finkel pooh-poohs all this as fanciful (as did Voltaire and Gibbon) and tells us that Bayezid died of natural causes, his body being then carefully mummified and placed in a mausoleum. In the end, you can't beat cold fact; but 500-odd pages of cold fact calls for some determined reading. A few stoke-hole anecdotes wouldn't have hurt.

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Along with every other historian of the past thirty years or so (see, for example, Valerie Hansen's history of China) Ms. Finkel is concerned to disabuse us of those wrong-headed, crypto-racist old notions of "oriental despotism." These great bureaucratic peasant empires of the pre-industrial age were, according to that old conception, static and uncreative, vegetating under semi-divine monarchs possessed of total power, indifferent to commerce, science, and exploration, while the bustling, dynamic West raced ahead to create the modern world, leaving them in the dust. Ms. Finkel declares that her aim in writing Osman's Dream "has been to counter the over-simplified notion that the Ottoman Empire rose, declined, and fell — and that is all we need to know about it."

I'll confess to having been seduced by the "oriental despotism" model myself. I was given Alexander Kinglake's Eothen to read as a school task, and still recall the way this Englishman recorded his entry into Ottoman Belgrade in 1834: "The foot falls noiseless upon the crumbling soil of an Eastern city, and silence follows you still …" A parade of more or less comic pashas, dragomans, and camel drivers follows. Later I read Montesquieu's Persian Letters, Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism, and Wesson's The Imperial Order, and the image was fixed. Nothing changed in these places; one century was much like the next; the human spirit was stifled, left to find such consolations as it could in religions that stressed the Annihilation of Self; property was held at the despot's whim; Utopia was in the past, not the future; the God-King was serene in his palace, with his harem and his eunuchs, and the subject's only duty was to tremble and obey. "Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay," as Tennyson expressed it in "Locksley Hall." How good a job of dispelling this image does Finkel do?

A very creditable one, I think. Osman's Dream leaves the reader with a real knowledge of the ebb and flow — and re-ebb and re-flow — of Ottoman history. I had not realized, for example, how long and strenuously the empire struggled to reform itself. As was the case in China, there was always a reactionary faction at court ready to obstruct or reverse the reforms. In the early days, these often succeeded, but from the end of the disastrous wars against the Holy Alliance (1683-1699) onwards, the reactionary influence waned, and there was always some effort at Westernization either charging ahead or biding its time. Again as in late-imperial China, the prevailing idea was to take what was useful from the West while rejecting what was thought undesirable:

During the eighteenth century the empire was no longer able to choose whether to accept or reject foreign influence, but used the means at its disposal to resist what were deemed its harmful effects.

And, even more evocative of the late-Imperial Chinese reforms:

The reports [on the state of the empire, commissioned by Selim II in 1789-92] illustrate a conscious acceptance in ruling circles of the need to borrow from the infidel the things which made him strong, combined with a recognition that this must be done within the familiar idiom of Ottoman Islam.

Yet as in China, the reforms were never quite enough. The Ottoman armed forces, once the terror of their neighbors, proved especially resistant to effective improvement. The empire's eighteenth-century military reforms — inspired, like everyone else's, by those of Frederick the Great — were given a sense of urgency after the Russian navy, under British officers, destroyed the Ottoman fleet at Chesmé in 1770. Yet the Ottoman fleet was sunk again at Navarino in 1827, and again at Sinope in 1853. (Adding Lepanto to this melancholy list, one sees that, at pretty much any point in the empire's history, an Ottoman subject was wise to avoid naval service.)

Reform really took off with the promulgation of the Gülhane Edict in 1839. Urged forward by Grand Vizier Reshid Pasha, one of history's great masters of statecraft, commercial life improved to the point, at the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, that "the rights won by foreign merchants to trade freely within the empire, and the ending of monopolies, made for a regime that was one of the most liberal in the world." Alas, reforms in the spheres of commerce, the military, and social life, only made more plain the central issue of irredeemable political backwardness. Real progress here only really began with the rise of the Young Turks — Ms. Finkel prefers the more formal "Committee of Union and Progress" (CUP) — in 1894. By that time it was too late to save the empire, and almost too late even to save the hope of a republic established on the core Turkish territory of Anatolia. Ms. Finkel's closing pages make clear how modern Turkey emerged from the chaos of imperial collapse only by the skin of its teeth and the courage of young nationalist army officers like Mustafa Kemal, and with no help at all from the European powers. As the author says:

The shadow of Sèvres [i.e. of the humiliating Sèvres treaty of 1920, which left much of Anatolia's fate in the hands of Greece and the League of Nations] hangs over Turkey to this day in the lingering fear that foreign enemies and their collaborators inside Turkey may again seek to divide the state which was defended with such tenacity and at such cost. Attitudes in some quarters of Turkish society to the possibility of entry to the European Union are also colored by the specter of Sèvres, and European intentions are closely scrutinized for signs of duplicity.

This is not the only aspect of modern Turkey that the author's narrative helps to illuminate. The stony unwillingness to countenance Kurdish requests for autonomy, for instance, is rooted in the Ottoman tradition of considering only non-Muslims to be authentic minorities. The Kurds, being Muslim, are really just Turks. What's the issue? Similarly, attitudes to Iran and Shi'ite Islam are colored by the 16th-century engagement with the Safavid dynasty and the murderous Kizilbash sect of Shi'ite rebels. The still-unsettled place of military power in the modern Turkish republic also has deep roots in Ottoman practice, the destruction of the janissary corps being a key part of that story.

And the author's deliberately Turco-centric approach to Ottoman history sheds light on Europe's attitude to the Ottomans. What we read about in our own school history books as "the Eastern Question," the "sick man of Europe," and so on, looks quite different from the other side. Ms. Finkel, who actually uses the phrase "the Western Question" in this context, is very good on the way that European powers set themselves up as champions of the empire's religious minorities — with, of course, intentions that were by no means entirely altruistic. The French championed Catholics; the Russians, Orthodox believers; the English, in lieu of Anglicans (of which the Ottoman Empire seems to have been quite bereft) championed the Jews. All this in turn fed back on to the attitude of the empire itself towards its religious minorities, an attitude that also was not disinterested, since the poll tax on non-Muslims was an important source of state revenue.

On the very touchy question of the Armenian massacres in 1915, where pretty much anything you say will bring a flood of abuse from some quarter or other, Ms. Finkel is as fair as it is possible to be. This will not spare her abuse — probably from all quarters — but it should leave the impartial reader thinking that she has done her best, and has no axe to grind. After laying out such facts as we have, she concludes that:

Circumstantial evidence does not constitute proof [of an official Ottoman policy of genocide] and judgment must await the completion of research: the "narrative gap in Ottoman Armenian history" [quoting historian Jeremy Salt], whereby the story of the intercommunal violence that took place in Anatolia and Syria during the First World War is told predominantly from one side — the Armenian — certainly demands redress. What is clear, however, is that the issue of the "Armenian genocide" not only continues to bedevil Turkish foreign relations round the world but consigns Armenia, which borders Turkey and is officially at war with another of its neighbors, Turkey's ally Azerbaijan, to a wretched existence.

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Osman's Dream is, to put it in a nutshell, a valuable and instructive book, but not a lovable one. The stiff scholarly formality of Ms. Finkel's approach becomes wearying after a few hundred pages, and sometimes irritating. One misses, too, any attempt to give us personalities. Even Suleyman the Magnificent, a very fascinating man, is little more than a name in Ms. Finkel's text. This distancing rather works against the author's intention to present an alternative to the "oriental despotism" frame of reference. It is easier to belief that this was a society moved by dynamics similar to our own, if there are some human beings on display with motives and weaknesses resembling ours. Mahmud II, for example, nemesis of the janissaries — he ascended the throne in 1808 at age 23 and ruled for 31 years — is a person one would like to know much more about. What do we learn? He adopted trousers, hired Donizetti's brother to be master of the sultan's music, tangled with the wayward Mehmet Ali, viceroy of Egypt (which, by the way, Ms. Finkel deftly explains, held very much the same "jewel in the crown" position in the Ottoman empire that India held in the British one), smashed the janissaries, and so on. But what was he like? I still have no clue.

Not that Osman's Dream is completely without human interest. There is a quite touching letter from Roxelana, Suleyman the Magnificent's wife and dearest love, written to him when he was away campaigning in 1525: "My Sultan, there is no limit to the burning anguish of separation …" (Though Ms. Finkel manages to leave the distinct impression that, these soft endearments notwithstanding, Roxelana was not a person you'd want to turn your back on in a court intrigue.) I smiled to read of the trouble that Mehmed IV had, in the lead-up to the second Vienna fiasco in 1683, getting his favorite concubine "and eighty coachloads of ladies of the harem safely across the bridge over a river near Plovdiv." And the account by a visiting English chaplain of the mass circumcision at that same Sultan's court in 1675 I found quite … gripping.

Still I wonder how many of the general readers Ms. Finkel seeks will read far enough to savor those morsels. I return to the comparison with Jason Goodwin's 1998 Lords of the Horizons. It is of course easy to scoff at Mr. Goodwin's colored — occasionally purple-colored — prose, his glossing over the inner dynamics of the empire, and his uncritical retailing of dubious fables. His book is full of things that are hard to forget, though. He even, when he has a mind to, gives brief but lucid refutations of the "oriental despotism" model, noting, for example, that: "Louis XIV … was never held to account for French disasters on the battlefield, but the supposed tyrants of the Ottoman Empire seemed incapable of surviving military reverses once fresh princes were stockpiled in the kafes." (Kafes were the special apartments where princes — potential rivals for the throne — were confined.) That tells us a great deal about the difference between an absolute monarch of the European type, and an "oriental despot."

Judging from the level of detail Ms. Finkel attains throughout, and from her book's very impressive bibliography of works in several languages, it would take a braver non-Ottomanist than I am to gainsay the author on any point of scholarship. I am glad to have Osman's Dream on my shelf as a work of reference which I feel sure I can depend on not to lead me astray, but I cannot say I think it is altogether successful as a work of narrative history.