The core of the Ottomans’ political culture could never be replicated. Based on military slaves, forcibly recruited from non-Muslim subjects, a harem full of nubile captives hoping to become sultanas, an emperor who had to murder his brothers to secure his throne, and a pliant clergy that reconciled these extra-legal practices with religion, the “Eternal State”, devlet-e ebetmüdat, ruled over immense territories and numberless peoples for 600 years.
It helps to be reminded from time to time that literature, all other objectives aside, is at bottom storytelling. And Turkish Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel Nights of Plague is storytelling so luxuriant that one cannot help but soak in it.
It’s the 16th century, and the Ottoman Empire has just defeated the Mamluk Sultanate, conquering Damascus and Cairo, important centers of Arab learning and culture. But how did these two groups—Arabs and “Rumis”, a term used to refer to those living in Anatolia—interact? How did Arabs deal with these powerful upstarts, and how did Rumis try to work with their learned, yet defeated, subjects?
In the spacious courtyard of Istanbul’s Suleymaniye Mosque, public storytellers regale and instruct their miniscule but attentive audiences with the deeds of the mosque’s founder, Suleyman the Magnificent, the 10th Ottoman Sultan, the conqueror of Belgrade, Budapest and Baghdad. Christopher de Bellaigue, who has paid his dues listening to his sources in Kurdistan (Rebel Land, 2011) and Iran (In the Rose Garden of Martyrs, 2004), shows in his new book how deeply he has drunk from the well of oriental storytelling.
Visitors from the Arab world flock to Istanbul today, enjoying the city’s cosmopolitan vibe alongside its comfortingly familiar culinary and architectural riches. Turkey’s accelerating pivot towards the Arab world has renewed old connections. Ottoman Sultan Selim the “Grim” conquered Syria and Egypt in 1517. For the next 400 years, Arabs frequented Istanbul as loyal Ottoman subjects. Helen Pfeifer’s Empire of Salons examines the first century of encounter between the Arabs and their rulers. It addresses the question of how the Ottomans managed to integrate the proud, ancient centers of Arabic civilization that were Damascus and Cairo.
The Ottoman Empire has been many things throughout its long history. One of the greatest and gravest threats to Christian Europe. A source of inspiration for Renaissance and Reformation thinkers. An exoticized realm of sultans, slaves and harems. An equal and key partner in the European system of international relations. And, near its end, “the sick man of Europe”.
The historian Rui Ramos, who teaches at Lisbon’s New University, said, “All history is revisionist. History is an academic domain where one must emphasize originality, offering unique and diverse interpretations.” This challenge underpins Marc David Baer’s new work, The Ottomans, which joins a long list of recently-published works on this subject.