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Thursday, December 17, 2015

“The Ottomans: Dissolving Images”, by Andrew Wheatcroft

352 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670844128

In his book The Ottomans: Dissolving Images, Andrew Wheatcroft, lecturer in the Department of English Studies at the University of Stirling, approached the topic from both European and Turkish perspectives, using accounts from Western travelers as well as historical Ottoman narratives in an attempt to provide a relatively balanced examination of the Osmanli (Ottoman) Dynasty in the 17th-through-20th-Centuries. Wheatcroft produced a text less concerned with the traditional history of the Ottomans as much as the ways in which the internal and external images of the sultanate changed over time. The text roughly follows a chronological approach, with chapters that revolve around particular themes related to stereotypes and myths – both internal and external – of the Osmanli. Accompanying the text are several sections of paintings and photographs – for which the author strove to avoid Orientalist caricatures (except when discussing Western misconceptions) – that provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. Notes accompany the sections with illustrations, offering additional insight into the visual representations of the Ottomans.

With all that said, I can’t help but feel that the author either lost his focus or he became bored with his subject. In the early chapters, Andrew Wheatcroft wrote of the stirrings of the fierce people of Anatolia (today’s Turkey), how they organized under their dedication to a militant strain of Islam, he adequately captured the drama of the time. When he described the blow-by-blow account of the fall of Constantinople, the crown jewel and last holdout of the Byzantine World, in the mid-15th Century, a general reader’s interest was whetted. The best was yet to come – or so the reader thought. But, alas, the best didn’t come. The book just…petered out. A good start but no follow through. It became clear though, that Mr. Wheatcroft wanted to leave his readers with the notion that the Ottomans – that is the Turkish Ottomans – were and are opposed to modernization and change. He went into great detail reporting that in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when successive sultans tried to change the ancient, clumsy and archaic war methods and dress of the janissary warriors, they met with rebellion. Change was not welcome, and was bitterly opposed, even to death. So purposefully does the author push this theme of abhorrence to change, that in the final chapters he barely mentioned the explosive changes made in the 20th Century by Kemal Atatürk.

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