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Monday, April 20, 2015

“The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire” by Lord Kinross (John Patrick Douglas Balfour, 3rd Baron Kinross)

638 pages, William Morrow and Company, ISBN-13: 978-0688030933

I acquired The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire from the publisher overstock section at Borders (ah, Borders; how I miss ye…) on a whim and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Unless you’re an absolute Turkophile, this one-volume history of the Ottoman Empire should suffice to fill in the blank space where knowledge of this fascinating and important culture should be. Rivaling (if not surpassing) the Roman Empire in secular magnificence, imperial domination, artistic accomplishment, political corruption, sexual deviancy, and bizarre characters, the Ottoman Empire is far less known to the average person inasmuch as it was basically an Eastern/Islamic culture. But at a time when Europe was a disunited shambles, the Ottoman Turks were an important factor in world history. It is, for the most part, well written, though Kinross’ phrasing is often quaint, and some of the passages require re-reading to figure out what the author is trying to say. I found his viewpoints to be objective: not tainted with the Anglocentric cultural bias that many British authors of his generation have been afflicted with.

The book focuses-on the political and military history of the Ottoman Empire and, thus, is centered on the lives of its rulers and their court. Kinross includes a fair amount of information on how the Empire’s society and economy were structured and functioned, but this is presented mostly as background information in support of the main narrative. The book filled in many gaps for me in terms of European history and described many historical episodes I was unaware of, as well as being a good analysis of the factors and personalities involved in the Empire’s rapid rise to prominence followed by its centuries-long decline. There are some discussions of the Empire’s interactions with the Tatars and Persians, but only a few brief mentions of the Empire’s history and exploits in Africa or the Middle East. I was fascinated with Kinross’ detailed discussions of the many interactions the Ottomans had with nearly every major and minor European state over the centuries; it was also interesting to see how the nature of these interactions changed as Europe evolved from a collection of Feudal Kingdoms into modern Nation-States, while the Turkish state stagnated and was eclipsed. His analyses of the military tactics and strategies and innovations employed by the Ottomans are very good, as is his examination of how their social, economic and political systems gave them a competitive advantage early in the Empire’s history, but became an impediment that contributed to the decline, and also impeded attempts to reverse that decline.

I was impressed with the open-mindedness of most of the Sultans in terms of not only tolerating, but promoting Christians and other religious minorities to the point where populations of Orthodox Christians often favored being conquered by the Ottomans in preference to being dominated by Christian rulers affiliated with Rome (who were often very intolerant of the Orthodox Christian tradition). But Kinross, as with so many scholars of Islamic rulers of the past, never bothers to mention that it was the condescending toleration of an all-power majority (the Muslims in general and the Turks in particular) towards a powerless minority (Christians, Jews, and others).

There are, no doubt, other, more scholarly books written on the Ottoman Empire, filled with more statistics and sociopolitical detail than The Ottoman Centuries, but for conciseness and readability I wager that there are few than can match it. The interested reader can use this book as a springboard for further study if something here catches his fancy, while for those seeking primarily an informative overview of the Ottomans from their rise to their fall, this book should do the trick.

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