Saturday, April 1, 2017

Osman's Dream

Osman's DreamOsman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire by Caroline Finkel, 554 pages

Osman was an obscure fourteenth century Turkish emir who ruled a small territory in northwestern Anatolia wedged between the Byzantines and the other Turkish principalities.  From their palace in Constantinople, Osman's descendants would rule over an empire stretching from Algeria to the Persian Gulf and from Hungary to Yemen, laying claim to the title of caliph, the head of all the Muslim ummah.  For centuries the Ottoman sultans shaped the history of the world, and their story, from the rise of Osman to the fall of Abdulmecid II, is the subject of Caroline Finkel's ambitious history.

Westerners have long regarded the Turks as exotic barbarians on the doorstep of Europe, and this perspective has been reflected in the historiography - a problem Finkel explicitly aims to correct, although it is true that she seems to consistently err in the opposite direction.  Oddly, considering that goal, this is very much a political and military history.  The opening chapters present a bewildering bombardment of names and places, but narrative threads quickly emerge to bring coherence.  Some might not appreciate how little the Ottomans were concerned with the West in the early centuries of their empire.  Others might be surprised at how closely early modern Ottoman history paralleled that of European nations: the strong national leader in the sixteenth century, the interminable struggles with national debt and the problems of increasing urbanization in the seventeenth, the religious and cultural retrenchment in the eighteenth, the mad scramble to modernize in the nineteenth, darkness and horror in the twentieth.  Certainly, Finkel's book will be appreciated by anyone looking for light in what is traditionally a shadowy corner of modern history.

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