The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs

by Marc David Baer

Hardcover, 2021



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Basic Books (2021), 560 pages


"Ever since an Ottoman army led by Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, it has been common to see the Ottoman Empire as the Islamic, Asian antithesis of the Christian, European West. But in reality the Ottoman dynasty ruled a multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious empire that stretched across parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Ottomans: Sultans, Khans, and Caesars offers a bold new history of this empire that straddled East and West for nearly five hundred years and negotiated the challenges of religious difference in ways that had a profound influence on the emergence of our modern world. As historian Marc David Baer shows, the Ottomans enjoyed a tripartite inheritance as they rose from a frontier principality to a world empire. The dynasty's origins can be traced to the tribes of Turks and Tatars pushed westward into Anatolia by Mongol expansion in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But it was equally indebted to the Islamic scholars and Sufi sheikhs who proselytized Islam across this region and legitimated Ottoman rule. And from the Byzantine empire they supplanted, the Ottomans borrowed bureaucracy, culture, and claims to universal rule as the successors of Rome. Ottoman rulers did not only call themselves khans and sultans, but also caliphs, emperors, and caesars. The Ottomans managed their diverse empire by striking a delicate balance: amid a profoundly hierarchal society, they pioneered the principles and practices of toleration of religious minorities, even as they also freely used religious conversion to integrate conquered peoples into the imperial project. Indeed, the Ottomans were the only world empire to rely on converts to make up its ruling dynasty and to populate its military and administrative leadership. By receiving them as converts to Islam, they brought everyone from Byzantine and Serbian royalty to enslaved captives to common herdsmen into the elite fold as princesses, statesmen, and battlefield commanders. It was only in the final decades of the nineteenth century that the Ottomans began to turn away from this approach, trying to save the empire by making it into an exclusively Ottoman Muslim polity, and then into a Turkish one. The tragic consequence was ethnic cleansing and genocide, and the dynasty's demise in the wake of the First World War. For better and for worse, the Ottoman Empire was as magnificent and as horrible as any of its European contemporaries. The Ottomans reveals its history in full, showing how again and again it remade the world from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the dawn of a brutal century world war"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member deusvitae
A thorough history of the Ottoman Empire from its origin in Anatolia in the 13th century until its collapse in the early 20th century.

The author correctly recognizes how the Ottoman Empire is generally only tangentially studied and appreciated: it is known for finally capturing Constantinople and
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eliminating the Byzantine Empire; it was romanticized as the land of sultans and his harem; it represented a continual threat to central Europe; they were part of the Central Powers. Yet the Ottomans are seen as wholly Other, Eastern; not part of the European world.

The author thus tells the history of the Ottomans to try to refute that view. He speaks of their alliances with the Byzantines at times, the multinational, multiethnic, and multireligious nature of the Empire, its frequent tolerance, and how it saw itself as the next iteration of the Roman Empire, its leaders as Caesars, and the people of southeastern Europe as Rumis, or Romans.

The lives of the various leaders are told as well as their successes and failures; much is said about the nature of the harem and the institutional bureaucracy. Much is made of the sexuality of the age and how it privileged the love of young boys over that of women, but also how that view was attempted to be fully reformed in the 19th century. The author tries to suggest that the Ottomans were about discovery also, but the evidence for such a view is spotty. He is on much firmer ground regarding how Ottoman influence was profoundly felt throughout Europe, and how European influence profoundly influenced the Ottoman Empire.

It is somewhat anachronistic to glorify the empire as a multicultural haven; yes, many groups found greater tolerance under the Ottomans than they did under other regimes, but even as this story goes, it becomes clear that in times of crisis it reasserted itself as a fundamentally Muslim enterprise. Its undoing is well described by the nationalism that fueled the 19th and early 20th centuries: both the nationalism of the peoples who separated from the empire, and the Turkish nationalism that overtook the empire's leadership.

A good corrective to neglect of the Ottoman Empire, even if its arguments are often a bit overstated.

**--galley received as part of early review program
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LibraryThing member annbury
This chock-a-block history of the Ottoman Empire from its origins in the 14th century to its demise in the 20th covers a multitude of topics, but still maintains a coherent momentum. I have been reading histories of Turkey and visiting the country for 50 years, and there was still a lot in this
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book that I did not know. The author does not shy away from horrific episodes in Ottoman history, nor does he avoid awkward topics. He also argues that Ottoman history should be considered as part of European history -- one element in the book that I did not find entirely convincing. Still, a great read.
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Wolfson History Prize (Shortlist — 2022)


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560 p.; 9.29 inches


1473695708 / 9781473695702
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