Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs (Marc David Baer)

The Ottoman Empire controlled a vast swath of the Middle East, Southeast Europe, and parts of North Africa before reconstituting itself as the modern nation of Turkey in the early 20th Century. At its apex in the 17th Century, the Ottomans marched on the gates of Vienna and controlled millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a large, diverse territory. While many European accounts of the Ottomans look upon the empire as backwards, the truth was more complex. Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs offers a very authentic look at a multicultural empire that brought innovation, technology, and diversity throughout its centuries in existence.

The Ottomans traces the empire from Turkish and Mongol origins, to its conquest of the remnant of the Byzantine Empire, to its heights in the 17th Century as a global trading and military power. It also shows the Ottomans in reform, decline, constant struggles with itself and, eventually, with ethnicities within its realm. While for much of its history the Ottomans were tolerant of other faiths, they converted millions to Islam in Southern Europe and in parts of Asia. As the empire aged and eventually waned in influence, its tolerance gradually gave way to a militaristic, ethno-nationalist state that eventually committed ethnic cleansing and genocide of Armenians.

Baer’s account is informative and well-researched. We learn about how the Ottoman government functioned and how its thinking often overlapped with European thought. At its best, the Ottomans were a modern empire for the times that had economic might and controlled much of the commerce between Europe and East Asia. At its worst, the Ottoman Empire fought itself and its own people. Baer’s book helps challenge conventional thinking of “East” and “West”, while showing us a vivid account of an empire that fell apart through losing sight of what made it successful for centuries.