the ottoman empire -- 2/14/23

Today's selection -- from A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire by David Fromkin. The Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Istanbul, was an incoherent assemblage of disparate peoples and languages:
"The Ottoman (or Osmanli) Empire, founded by Turkish-speaking horsemen who had converted to Islam, … took its name from Osman, a borderland ghazi (warrior for the Moslem faith) born in the thirteenth century, who campaigned on the outskirts of the Eastern Roman ( or Byzantine) Empire in Anatolia.

"In the fifteenth century Osman's successors conquered and re­placed the Byzantine Empire. Riding on to new conquests, the Ottoman Turks expanded in all directions: north to the Crimea, east to Baghdad and Basra, south to the coasts of Arabia and the Gulf, west to Egypt and North Africa -- and into Europe. At its peak, in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire included most of the Middle East, North Africa, and what are now the Balkan countries of Europe -- Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, Rumania, and Bulgaria -- as well as much of Hungary. It stretched from the Persian Gulf to the river Danube; its armies stopped only at the gates of Vienna. Its population was estimated at between thirty and fifty million at a time when England's population was perhaps four million; and it ruled more than twenty nationalities.

"The Ottomans never entirely outgrew their origins as a marauding war band. They enriched themselves by capturing wealth and slaves; the slaves, conscripted into the Ottoman ranks, rose to replace the commanders who retired, and went on to capture wealth and slaves in their turn. Invading new territories was the only path they knew to economic growth. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the conquests turned into defeats and retreats, the dynamic of Ottoman existence was lost; the Turks had mastered the arts of war but not those of government.

The Ottoman Empire in 1683

"Ottoman leaders in the nineteenth century attempted programs of sweeping reform. Their goals were the centralization of government; the establishment of an executive branch under the Sultan's chief minister, the Grand Vizier; the rationalization of taxation and con­scription; the establishment of constitutional guarantees; the found­ing of secular public schools offering technical, vocational, and other training; and the like. A start -- but not much more -- was made along these lines. Most of the reforms took place only on paper; and as an anachronism in the modern world, the ramshackle Ottoman regime seemed doomed to disappear.

"The empire was incoherent. Its Ottoman rulers were not an ethnic group; though they spoke Turkish, many were descendants of once­ Christian slaves from Balkan Europe and elsewhere. The empire's subjects (a wide variety of peoples, speaking Turkish, Semitic, Kurdish, Slavic, Armenian, Greek, and other languages) had little in common with, and in many cases little love for, one another. Though European observers later were to generalize about, for example, 'Arabs,' in fact Egyptians and Arabians, Syrians and Iraqis were peoples of different history, ethnic background, and outlook. The multinational, multilingual empire was a mosaic of peoples who did not mix; in the towns, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and others each lived in their own separate quarters.

"Religion had some sort of unifying effect, for the empire was a theocracy -- a Moslem rather than a Turkish state -- and most of its subjects were Moslems. The Ottoman Sultan was regarded as caliph (temporal and spiritual successor to the Prophet, Mohammed) by the majority group within Islam, the Sunnis. But among others of the seventy-one sects of Islam, especially the numerous Shi'ites, there was doctrinal opposition to the Sultan's Sunni faith and to his claims to the caliphate. And for those who were not Moslem (perhaps 25 percent of the population at the beginning of the twentieth century), but Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Gregorian, Jewish, Protestant, Maronite, Samaritan, Nestorian Christian, Syrian United Orthodox, Monophysite, or any one of a number of others, religion was a divisive rather than a unifying political factor.

"The extent to which religion governed everyday life in the Middle East was something that European visitors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found remarkable; for religion had played no such role in Europe for centuries. Indeed, Europeans visited the Middle East largely to see the past. They came to see Biblical sites, or excavated wonders of the ancient world, or nomads who lived as they had in the time of Abraham." 



David Fromkin


A Peace to End All Peace


Holt Paperbacks


Copyright 1989 by David Fromkin


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