An acquired taste

This is my review of Lords of the Horizons : A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin.

Apart from the obvious fact of being Islamic, the former Ottoman Empire is fascinating in its method of operating on very different lines from the rest of Europe. Instead of a power structure based on feudalism and inheritance, it developed the “boy tribute” system which took “the finest Christian youths” into the Sultan’s service, up to the level of the Grand Vizier. The problem of jockeying for the one position which did involve succession was solved by legal fratricide: the Sultan’s heir, the only person allowed to inherit, was permitted to order the murder of any scheming brothers who might seek to supplant him. The Ottomans did not seek to impose their culture on conquered groups, but simply to gain loyalty and tax revenues: the Chians were only forced to convert their churches to mosques after they had consistently failed to pay their dues. The detailed and pragmatic organisation which enabled the Turks’ remarkable success eventually made for a sclerotic Empire, “the Sick Man of Europe”, which collapsed after the First World War, leaving little lasting trace of the “centuries of peace and discretion” it had created.

Jason Goodwin is clearly very knowledgeable and passionate about the Ottomans, and his quirky style may help to convey a sense of their exoticism to Western eyes. “Western camps were babels of disorder, drunkenness and debauchery. The Ottoman camp was a tea party disturbed by nothing louder than the sound of mallet on tent peg, the camels’ cough, the bubbling of cauldrons filled with rice”. Some readers will love this style, but I was continually irked by the endless passages of hyperbole, the questionable assertions – “if Tartars made the best slavers, then Circassians unquestionably made the best slaves” – the rambling Old Testament-style lists of places and tribes, the continual, often abrupt switching around in time and topic, with a lack of clarity as to dates and the location of places. Instead of likening Constantinople to the head of a dog when explaining its land and sea defences in the siege of 1453, why not just supply a map – unpoetic, perhaps, but effective? Sometimes the book reads like notes on different subjects rapidly slotted together without much editing.

“Across the higher ranges of the Balkans lay a tangle of Vlachs (shepherds) – the limping Vlachs, Black Vlachs, Albano-Vlachs, Arumanians, the Sarakatsans who roamed deep into Anatolia; some who protested they were not Vlachs at all, and others who pretended to be Vlachs, and some who gave wickedness a country, Klephtouria, and some …….who were thought dirtier than anyone in the world, and one (according to Eliot in the late nineteenth century) who built himself a summer residence in the hills and proved so houseproud that he repaired a broken window with a new piece of glass instead of a sheet of brown paper, “a proceeding, I believe, unique in the Levant”. And this is just an extract from yet another lengthy piece of verbiage which left me wondering why on earth I was bothering to read it.

The author seems to have made a conscious attempt to break away from a conventional academic history and create a kind of verbal collage to provide a sense of the character of the Ottoman Empire, but for me it is too fragmented and incoherent.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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