Readable survey of one of the world’s great empires.
Founded by the Turkoman Emir Osman, who had dreamed that he was destined to do so, the Ottoman Empire lasted 600 years and came to incorporate much of western Asia, northeastern Africa and southeastern Europe. Yet, as British historian Finkel tells it in her U.S. debut, though the dominion may have been vast, it was also tenuous. The Ottomans conquered most of the Arabian peninsula, for instance, but for some reason could never take control of the rich province of Yemen, “singularly failing to subdue it” over the course of a century. They were more effective closer to home, forging an empire by gathering rural Anatolians of many ethnicities and religions and moving them into Istanbul. They similarly pacified the countryside, establishing tight control over the comings and goings of the citizenry. In its more tranquil moments, the Ottoman Empire was an oasis of learning, with much attention given to pleasures and vices. (Its rulers, Finkel writes, appreciated that tobacco and alcohol served “as a means of raising ready cash.”) When bellicose, it was something to fear, as the good citizens of Austro-Hungary and various Balkan principalities understood. The empire dwindled in the 18th and early-19th centuries, as Russia seized the Crimea, and Greece gained independence; it disintegrated rapidly in the early-20th century with the collapse of the Central Powers with which the last Ottomans had allied themselves. Finkel’s text is a satisfying blend of narrative history, anecdote and character study (featuring such players as “Fairskinned Bosnian” Suleyman Agha and Chief Black Eunuch Yusuf Agha). Her careful but brief discussion of the Armenian genocide, however, may not please readers with a stake in either side of the issue.
The more we know about the Ottomans, the more easily comprehensible the subsequent history of the region they ruled becomes. Finkel’s study makes a useful contribution.