Friday, June 12, 2015

Lord Kinross’s The Ottoman Centuries

The Ottoman Empire endured for more than seven hundred years and at its peak embraced much of western Asia, the whole of North Africa and a very large chunk of eastern Europe. Lord Kinross’s 1977 history of the empire, The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, provides a magisterial survey of a fascinating subject that has many lessons in it for our modern world.

The Ottoman Turks established themselves in Anatolia at the end of the 13th century. By 1453 they had conquered the Byzantine Empire and captured Constantinople, thus finally bringing the story of the Roman Empire to a close. Unlike earlier Asiatic conquerors such as the Mongols the Ottomans were far from being a merely destructive force. In fact their intention was not so much to destroy the Byzantine Empire as to bring it to new heights of power and influence under new management. 

As the Ottomans swept over eastern Europe they were as often as not hailed by the Christian peasantry as liberators, and to a large extent the peasants were quite correct. Ottoman government was on the whole more efficient and more enlightened than the regimes it displaced. Eastern Europe and the Balkans had been torn by religious strife between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. The Ottoman sultans brought such strife to an end. On balance the Ottoman conquests were of great benefit to Orthodox Christianity.

The Ottoman Empire was a bold and surprisingly successful attempt to create a multi-ethnic multi-lingual multi-faith multi-cultural empire. It was not a partnership of equals. Moslems and Christians were not treated equally under the law. On the other hand Christians certainly enjoyed the protection of the law and the opportunities open to them were considerable. For the first few centuries of the Ottoman era it was the practice of the Sultans to recruit not just the bureaucracy and much of the army from the Christian populations, but to fill the highest offices of state with them. The empire was governed by men who were slaves of the Sultan but they were slaves who could aspire to actually running the empire. Being a slave of the Sultan’s Household was an opportunity rather than a disaster.

Of course it couldn’t last. The rise of European nationalism in the early 19th century doomed the Ottomans. What is remarkable is that it was still able to endure for another century. Empires that last for seven centuries can scarcely be dismissed as mere failures.

While multiculturalism has been a catastrophe for modern nation-states there have been at least moderately successful multicultural empires. It seems that any kind of multicultural society requires autocracy to make it work. It’s a policy that has to be enforced in a top-down manner and ironically only an autocracy can provide genuine protection for minorities. This certainly has worrying implications for those who believe that freedom and democracy are the magical solutions to the problems faced by minorities. 

Kinross approaches his subject in a generally even-handed way. He is able to find much to deplore in the Ottoman Empire but he finds even more to admire. He is also quite fair in stressing that the failures of the reforming sultans of the 19th century were largely due to the sheer impossibility of the task before them. The difficulty was to find a way to take the positive things that the West had to offer (such as technological advancement and education) whilst trying to avoid what the Sultans saw as the negatives (such as democracy), and to satisfy the demands of their Christian and other non-Turkish subjects while at the same time preserving the empire intact and maintaining its fundamentally Islamic character. It’s a balancing act that has proved very difficult for any Islamic state to bring off successfully. Kinross is even able to judge the notoriously reactionary Sultan Abdul Hamid II (who ruled from 1876 to 1909) quite fairly. Abdul Hamid was indeed a political reactionary but he was no fool and he saw quite clearly the need for rapid modernisation.

Kinross is able to make a complex history consistently entertaining and stimulating. Whatever one’s views on Islam it is difficult to read this book without feeling a good deal of admiration for men like Suleiman the Magnificent. A fascinating read. Highly recommended.

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