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Friday, October 12, 2012

“Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire”, by Caroline Finkel

704 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465023967

Though more people today associate the word "ottoman" with fancy cushioned footstools than with a mighty regime, the Ottoman Empire dominated much of southeastern Europe and the Middle East from the fifteenth century to the end of the First World War. In many respects it was the last of the great Muslim empires which challenged Christian Europe, while its’ lengthy decline concerned generations of Western statesman and its successor states still demand the world's attention. In Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire, Caroline Finkel offers us a single-volume history of the Ottoman Empire, ranging from its obscure origins to its demise in the 1920s. Though similar overviews have been written before, her goal is to dispel the traditional “rise and fall” approach and to free the empire from its’ stereotyping as, in her words, “a theatre of the absurd”. Tapping into the enormous wealth of recent scholarly work on the Ottomans, she offers a far more complex and nuanced portrayal of the empire than in most popular accounts – pointing out, for example, that the ranks of the soldiers of the early empire included as many Christians as it did Muslims, and that it was not until well into the empire's decline in the 18th Century that the Ottoman sultans began to embrace the previously disused title of Caliph.

Yet the book suffers from a relatively narrow focus. Most of the text is dominated by a narrative of high politics, one concentrating on the machinations and maneuvering of the sultans; other elements, such as the complex social and economic structures of the empire, are addressed only in passing. Moreover, Finkel rarely explains the empire in any depth. Key institutions such as the janissaries are mentioned and their political role is covered, but the reasons for their existence and maintenance are rarely analyzed in detail. The result is that while readers are informed of the who, what, and when of Ottoman history, the how and the why often are left unaddressed. Furthermore, while this book provides a rather quick paced narrative for a large span of history, its divergence from established historical fact regarding the Armenian Genocide is so blatant as to border on propaganda. While the author spends a short amount of time on the issue, admitting that “some” atrocity took place (!), her views completely run counter to a vast amount if well-established research.

Nonetheless, Finkel has provided an accessible overview of the Ottoman Empire, one largely free from the Eurocentric stereotyping all too typical of many earlier histories of the subject. While the text is often dense with details, the narrative itself is straightforward and a useful set of maps are provided to help readers master the intricacies of the human geography of the period. This book is likely to serve as the standard work on the empire for many years to come, though one that should be supplemented by more explanatory texts.

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