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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 28 December 2021

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesar's and Caliphs

New books on the Ottomans are a bit like buses - you don't get one for a while and then several come at once! This is Marc David Baer's take on the Ottomans. This isn't a traditional narrative history. Instead, chronological chapters on rulers are followed by thematic ones addressing cultural issues, maritime power attitudes to women, Jews and eunuchs in dynastic politics. It is also a retelling of the story with a focus on the links between East and West - part of the history of Europe.

The Ottomans were not a Turkish empire. Like the Roman Empire, it was a multiethnic, multilingual, multiracial, multireligious empire that stretched across Europe, Africa, and Asia. In fact, the early Sultans viewed themselves as the successors of the Romans. The Ottomans called their Southeastern European provinces RĂ»meli (land of the Romans). Baer argues that the way we remember the past would look quite different if we instead referred to both the Byzantines and the Ottomans as Romans, which is how they viewed themselves. 

The Ottoman expansion has traditionally been regarded as a religious conflict between Islam and Christianity. However, while this was used as a strategy, there was only limited attempts at conversion (although the 200,000 youths into Janissaries might disagree!), and the Ottomans tolerated most religions. Ottoman religious tolerance was based on Islamic precedent already introduced to Europe in eighth-century Muslim Spain and nomadic, pre-Islamic steppe practice. While full toleration did not exist in medieval Christian Europe, it did exist in medieval Islamic Europe, including in Ottoman domains.

Those watching the Turkish TV series Ertugrul will be surprised to read that Ertugrul and his sons were not connected to the Seljuks. The links to the Mongols were just a strong as Turkic tribes fought on both sides. Good history, but perhaps not so gripping TV viewing!

Baer asks the big question, how did the Ottomans succeed, out of all those competing tribes and states? He argues by luck and by material, economic, and social factors. But above all, the policies of Murad I, who established Janissaries (introducing infantry tactics) and fratricide as a succession policy. Ottoman tolerance of diversity meant creating an empire that was built upon the maintenance of hierarchies and difference, thereby ensuring the dynasty's greatness and the subject peoples' subordination. They were particularly adept at forging alliances with Islamic and Christian states.

He also places the Ottomans as part of the Renaissance, arguing that the European Renaissance had its roots in Islamic Spain and the Arab world. The Renaissance raised Western Europe to the cultural level of Muslim-majority societies by incorporating the achievements of Eurasian, especially Islamic societies. It was a global, not simply a European phenomenon. 

This book has many other challenges to conventional wisdom about the Ottomans. Not all of which will be welcomed as part of the current Turkish government's rediscovery of them. In particular, the chapter on the Armenian genocide. Like the Nazis, record-keeping means we can estimate that out of a population of one and a half million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1914, 650,000 to 800,000 had been annihilated by 1916. Although I hadn't fully appreciated the ideological underpinning of the massacres, other than remembering Hitler's admiration for those who implemented the policy. Most of the Ottoman (CUP) ideologues also met an early death.

Chapters on the role of women, the Jews and the Kurds (who aided the Armenian genocide) all open up interesting links that I hadn't fully appreciated. The cultural ties are also intriguing. From Swedish meatballs to Turkish coffee (despite efforts to rename it), Ottoman systems, architecture, language, and much more can still be seen across Europe. While like the Ertugrul series, nostalgia sells, painful aspects of the Ottoman past remain and have proven more challenging to confront.

Finally, Baer returns to a critical theme. The Ottoman story is an inseparable part of Europe's story. As much as they were Asian, as much as they had a unique political organisation, the Ottomans were the inheritors of Rome.

This isn't always an easy read, but it is an important contribution to our understanding of the Ottomans.

I probably have Ottoman armies of every period in multiple scales. But let's have some Janissaries, as Baer argues their introduction made a critical difference.


  1. Excellent review and overview of what sounds like a most interesting read. It is pleasing to hear of more objective studies of the Ottoman Empire in English. A fascinating, long-lasting and impactful empire and culture. Their tolerance and assimilation is often overlooked in 'western' sources (portrayed as quite the opposite in many contemporary as well as modern, biased, revisionist ones). Empires are complex beasts, with human emotion and frailty at their heart, so contradictions abound. They can be very nasty entities...
    Interesting that he focusses on the Roman 'heritage'. From my lesser knowledge, I think of them as successors of both Roman and Mongol empires, showing clear traits of that heritage.
    Sounds like one for me to follow up, as I seek to increase my knowledge and understanding of 'things Ottoman'.
    Thanks, James

  2. He does recognise the importance of the Mongol links. Although that may not be as popular with the current Ottoman revivalists! I suppose the successor point is strongest because of the capture of Constantinople. There isn't a similar situation with the Mongols whose successors were arguably still going with the Golden Horde and others.