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Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire
Jul 1, 2001

Why and how civilizations rise and fall is a hard question to answer. To do so, one must understand the civilization and the time in which it began to rise. Jason Goodwin, an English journalist, uses memoirs of European visitors and standard histories to explore the 600-year existence of the Ottoman Empire. He writes: This is a book about a people who do not exist. The word ˜Ottoman does not describe a place. Nobody nowadays speaks their language.

The Ottoman Empire, at one time, stretched from the border of Iran to the gates of Vienna and included hundreds of ethnic groups and three dozen nations. United under a tolerant form of Islam, the Ottoman Turks forged a culture that was such a prodigy of pep, such a miracle of human ingenuity, that contemporaries felt it was helped into being by powers not quite human”diabolical or divine, depending on their point of view.

The Ottomans were the first state to maintain a standing army in Europe since Roman days. Chalcocondyle, a Byzantine chronicler, wrote:

I think there is no prince who has his armies and camps in better order, both in abundance of victuals and in beautiful order they use in encamping without any confusion or embarrassment.

Goodwin argues that the key to Ottoman success, besides an obvious skill at war, was cultural and institutional open-mindedness: The Ottoman umbrella made room for Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Venetian merchants, Albanian tribesmen, Arab bedouins, and others. The Ottomans did not demand religious or linguistic uniformity. Unlike later imperialists, they never asked themselves why others were not like them. Muslims followed Islamic law, and Christians and Jews were expected to have their own laws. Community leaders were allowed to run the community's affairs as long as they did not come into direct conflict with Islamic organization.

An Ottoman was not born, but made, passing through imperial schools, following the requisite course of studies says Goodwin. There was no inherited nobility, as in other contemporary European empires, for people rose on merit. Cities prospered by agriculture and trade. Social welfare projects were maintained by tax-exempt charitable foundations holding almost one-third of the land and great wealth. These foundations built bridges and mosques, took care of the sick and the poor, and lodged travelers for free.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, however, the Ottomans lost their military, economic, and social superiority. Decreased military power resulted in land losses and reduced tax revenues, and self-indulgent leaders could not adapt the intricate socio-economic structure to changing conditions. Although palace intrigue, factional rivalry, military disloyalty, and nationalist rebellions in Greece and Egypt combined to sap its strength, it survived into the twentieth century.

Goodwin narrates this fascinating story in an elegantly written, thoroughly entertaining work of popular history. As he quotes from Andrija Kacic-Mosic: These songs will not be for everyones taste May those who find them pleasing sing them; may those who do not, go off to sleep.