Lords of the Horizons
Lords of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin
Suddenly there arose a mighty wind, and turned the points of the sword-leaves towards the various cities of the world, but especially towards Constantinople. That city, placed at the junction of two seas and two continents, seemed like a diamond set between two sapphires and two emeralds, to form the most precious stone in a ring of universal empire.
Jason Goodwin’s book is a summary of the entire timeline of the Ottoman Empire. It’s one of the few books (in English) covering this period, the other notable one being Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream. Whereas Finkel’s work is more strait-laced history, Goodwin has gone for something much more alluring. His writing is like a mirage. You are taken on a tour through the streets of Konstantiniyye (Istanbul/Constantinople) and across the plains and mountains of the empire, through all its sieges, coffee-houses and harems, to see its scribbles, edicts, and portraitures. It’s almost like a travel book. This makes the book accessible, though not overly substantive; Goodwin rarely cites the materials from which he is drawing his information, and most of the claims in this book go unsourced. Nonetheless, what you are presented with is a whirlwind picture of the empire, from rise to fall.
The early Ottoman Empire owed its success and expansion to its war-like nature, stemming from its nomadic origins and the Gazi ethos, a kind of Islamic holy war tradition. Sultans were expected to lead their soldiers into battle, which inspired an almost religious confidence in their right to rule. His followers were constantly churning for battle, lusting after both its glory and its spoils. Some of them were not even organised by the Sultan and his commanders, being irregular bandits and raiders - akinci - that raided as far afield as France and Germany of their own accord.
Another factor in its early success was the devşirme, or “boy tribute” system, introduced by Murad II in 1432, according to which young Christian boys of good stock were selected to become personal slaves of the Sultan and whisked away to the capital, where they were converted to Islam and immersed in an atmosphere of total martial discipline. From their ranks were drawn the janissaries, Europe’s first standing army, who were paid a tithe for their professional services. The janissaries, with their zealous devotion to Sultan and war, far outmatched the rag-tag armies being fielded by their enemies. And by raising slave armies from conquered territories, the empire’s expansion fuelled itself: “The boy tribute fulfilled the logic of an empire geared for war: just as war booty financed the next assault, so the borderlands could be made to furnish the men who, being raised to perfection in the capital, were turned out to rule the empire and to expand the frontiers of the state.” (59).
Successions were a matter of cunning and power, and extremely bloody affairs. The prince who could outmaneuver his rivals - perhaps with some help from the vizier (prime minister) or the qadi (Islamic judges) or janissaries or other supporters at the capital - would become Sultan. On taking control of the Empire, he put every other claimant to the death, which generally meant every male family member. Successions were thus concluded with routine purges and bouts of violence against the Sultan’s potential enemies. This meant reigns were long and stable, and the successor generally a capable statesman and fighter.
Ottoman ascendancy peaked with Suleiman the Magnificent, who dominated the Mediterranean and Red seas, conquered much of the Middle East, sacked the Kingdom of Hungary, and died outside the walls of Vienna. A succession of drunkards and incompetents followed him. One reason for this is a change in the fratricidal succession customs during the reign of Ahmet I; instead of being executed, the princes-in-waiting were locked inside the inner sanctum of the harem, known as the Cage. There they carried on muted lives, plied with sensual pleasures in the form of (infertile) concubines, or tortured in dark, tiny rooms. Few learned any skills practical to governing. Many could not even talk properly, because they did not get a serious education and often spoke only in Seraglio (Ottoman sign language), a practice that began at court because it was thought more befitting a Sultan’s majesty. When these nervous, traumatised princes went mad or were overthrown, the janissaries would haul up the next one from the Cage, and the cycle would repeat.
Without effective rulers or the loot brought by fresh conquests, the empire struggled to keep itself churning. Powerful actors and factions at the Sultan’s court meddled in his rule and undermined his authority and, as a whole, the empire’s “sheer breadth and complexity” started to outgrow the “medieval systems that had been devised to regulate it.” (192).
If the unsuccessful 1529 siege of Vienna checked Ottoman expansion, then the war of the Holy League, determined by another, more fateful siege of Vienna in 1683, caused them to buckle under their own weight. At that siege, a desperate coalition of Christian soldiers held the line until Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, routed the Turks from behind with a ferocious cavalry charge. They fled all the way back to Belgrade and Sultan Mehmed IV was forced to recognise Austrian and Polish sovereignty over the Balkans, ending long-term Ottoman ambitions; at last, the empire was forced to admit that it was just one among many, falling into the general concert of states in Europe. The Ottoman commander and grand vizier Kara Mustafa calmly accepted his death as the price for this crushing defeat. “Am I to die?” he asked the sultan’s messenger. “So be it.” Not long after, Mehmed was chucked out by the janissaries.
The janissaries were growing steadily more corrupt and decadent. No longer drawn from child slaves, they had become a hereditary class in their own right, and routinely abused their powers to secure privileges for themselves. They earned a regular stipend and did not pay tax, which drained the royal coffers. They extorted businesses, setting fire to those which did not pay the protection money, and then charging them for the service of putting it out. And they had long ceased to be an effective fighting force. If a Sultan tried to pull in their behaviour or modernise their tactics, he would simply be overthrown.
The destruction of the janissaries in 1828 was only possible because they were so widely hated. Leading up to the Auspicious Event, Sultan Mahmud II had been developing an army of modern gunners drilled in new European methods of combat. The janissaries saw this as a threat to their power and rose up. This time a combination of Sipahi (elite royal household cavalry) and disgruntled civilians (Mahmud handed out guns to the students of Konstantiniyye) fought the janissaries back to their headquarters, which was shelled into dust. The janissaries were done.
Too little, too late. The empire was already dead on its feet from centuries of stagnation. They struggled to raise enough money to support the new kind of expensive professional army that the rest of Europe was fielding. Paradoxically, the empire had many lucrative trade routes (at one point the republic of Ragusa had the largest merchant fleet in the world). But this wealth accrued privately - mostly to enterprising Jews, Armenians, and Greeks - and the Sultan was never able to cash in on it. Taxation was inefficient, too. The administrative structure of the empire was very devolved, with local pashas raising money on their own initiatives, often through cruel methods, which drove the people to form their own rugged associations operating outside of the law. Timariots (soldiers paid a stipend) often turned to banditry. Local strongmen filled the power vacuum. Attempts at political reform had mixed success; “Outside Istanbul, they were often ignored, or misunderstood, or just inapplicable.” (305).
Perhaps the only thing stopping an earlier collapse was the inability of Europe to decide on what to do with the empire’s corpse. Russia, having arrogated itself to the saviour of Slavs everywhere, made everyone nervous with their meddling in the Balkans. They wanted a reconstituted Byzantine Empire, ruled out of Constantinople, under the auspices of a Russian-influenced patriarch. France, on the other hand, pushed for their own naval access through the Dardanelles. An agreement could never be reached, though foreign elements continued to meddle in Ottoman politics. Most of the infrastructure projects - with the notable exception of the railway line to Mecca and Medina - were funded and owned entirely by European industrialists, especially Germans. When the empire went bankrupt in 1875, its foreign creditors agreed to restructure the debt in exchange for an unprecedented level of political and economic influence. They had their hands on all the levers. The Sultan had ceased to be an effective political actor.
This decline thesis really begins to speed up towards the end of the book. Goodwin passes over the Crimean War and World War I with almost no mention of what role the Ottomans played in them. The Treaty of Sevres - in which the empire was prised apart by colonial powers - is only mentioned obliquely. The impression you leave with is of an empire coasting along on impetus, collapsing of its own sheer dysfunction. This way of looking at it just seems too easy. How was such a walking dead empire able to fight a World War at the same as numerous insurrections and rebellions? How could it possibly have delivered the humiliating defeat it did to the numerically and martially superior British troops at Kut? Despite claiming that Ottoman ascendancy was checked at the peace of Karlowitz in 1699, Goodwin goes on to admit that the Ottomans reconquered several territories and bounced back, but except for a brief mention of Karánsebes (where the Austrian army routed itself through friendly fire) - an event more curious than it is significant - these vicissitudes are not really explored, and are depicted as European failures more than Ottoman successes.
How much do we lose by viewing Ottoman history primarily through the trajectory of its decline? It belies the true complexity of history. The thesis of Ottoman decline seems to emanate from its defeat in World War I and the need to rationalise the new (western) order of nationstates and mandates that emerged in its wake. It’s classic Eurocentrism. Ottoman journeys in Africa and the Middle East are neglected in favour of medieval brawls with Austria, Venice, and the Byzantines. The light-hearted sketches of Ottoman life are the most charming parts of the book, but even they are mostly just drawing upon the accounts of westerners living in an empire they don’t fundamentally “get”. Viewing the empire through their accounts has the effect of exoticising it, which is always an obstacle to our understanding, and part of what makes this book feel so much like travel writing.
Goodwin has definitely chosen presentation and style over substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a general history book, but the book has presentation issues as well. The sketch-of-life chapters often feel out of place, sprinkled in between the more straightforward who-did-what-when chapters. And the chronology of this book is a mess: sometimes Goodwin will jump back and forth in time by more than a century within the same chapter. The actions of important figures are mentioned before it’s explained who they are.
Is this a book worth reading? If you’re looking for a light, Ottoman-flavoured read, or you don’t know anything about Ottoman or Turkish history, it might not be a bad choice. Goodwin does give you a sketch of what the empire was like, which is to his credit, for dry academics always struggle with this. It’s also not a punishing read - there’s no need to pore over every detail - and you will come away with some outline of the empire’s timeline. But if you’re after a more substantive general history, then - ignoring Turkish writers (as they are hard to find in New Zealand) - you’re perhaps better served by Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream.
The founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I, was said to have had a dream in which he was shaded by an enormous tree that covered the entire world. This version of the dream is from Turkey by Edward Shepherd Creasy, p. 14.