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.
At some point the dynamic tensions that kept the state functioning lost their cohesion, until the empire gradually faded and disappeared. But the centuries of immeasurable power and wealth left a huge cultural legacy across the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East. This legacy is the subject of Diana Darke’s The Ottomans.
Unlike the unique features of the political system, Ottoman culture had no such hard contours. The dense weaves, brilliant colors and arabesque designs of Ushak carpets suggest how multi-faceted Ottoman cultural origins are, and how problematic it is to classify the inputs to and outputs from this culture. As a result, Darke’s book is very much a reflection on strands and connections, some of which are very unexpected. Readers will be surprised by Ottoman contributions to map-making and vaccination, reflecting the porousness of their cultural frontiers. The Ottomans covers a wide range of cultural themes, with chapters on commerce, music, food and architecture, among others.
Darke is most convincing on Ottoman architecture, the subject of her previous book (Stealing from the Saracens). She traces its origins from the efforts of the earlier Seljuk dynasts to endow formerly Byzantine cities with evidence for the triumph of Islam. Light, geometry, virtuoso stonework and an inclusive social mission resulted in ever more impressive monuments, culminating in the külliyet (architectural complexes) of Istanbul, that included mosques, baths, schools, markets and hospitals.
Switching from hard to soft, Darke surveys the delights of the Ottoman table. Here it is much more difficult to determine who influenced whom, as any mention of “Turkish Coffee” in Lebanon, Egypt or Greece will immediately remind you. Istanbul, the imperial capital, was the largest city in Europe (it still is). Non-Muslim minorities made up more than half of its population. Even within the Muslim community Istanbulis hailed from Ukraine, Albania, Syria and Iraq. Regional delicacies flowed into the capital and food fashions flowed back out. One would be brave to argue the origin of moussaka, though the Arabic name suggests the Levant.
As in other recent books about the Ottomans (eg, Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans, Khans, Caesars, Caliphs), Darke repeats the argument against Ottoman brutality and violence. Few of the target readers of this book need to be disabused of this. Darke is right to remind us, though, that Balkan states routinely neglect and physically erase Ottoman tangible heritage. The black legend of the terrible Turk lives on among Balkan and to some extent, Arab nationalists. They should, but sadly won’t, engage with this book.
Attempting to create a general theory of Ottoman connectivity, Darke emphasizes the pragmatism and innovation of the Ottoman state. After all they were building something that never existed before: an explicitly multicultural empire that systematically recruited its elite from outside. Sultans, whose slave-mothers were often Christians, spoke Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and sometimes Greek or Italian. There is no example of another empire whose leadership maintained such a cosmopolitan perspective of the world. Darke’s exploration of the Ottoman psyche, as she refers to it, brings this perspective to light. Besides Darke’s plaidoyer for her cultivated subjects, the book’s lavish illustrations bring back the wonder and delight of the Ottomans with expressive and novel images.