by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Caliph of all

By Roderick Conway Morris
27 January 2006



Although Turkish-led, the Ottoman Empire was from the outset a joint Muslim-Christian enterprise. There may well have been as many Christian as Muslim fighters, if not more, gathered around the flag of the late thirteenth-, early fourteenth-century Osman, one of a number of warlords intent on carving out their own fiefdoms in the marchlands of the shrinking Byzantine Empire.

Having secured a small principality in north-western Anatolia near Constantinople, and defeated a Byzantine force sent to dislodge them in 1301, the Ottomans, as they came to be called after their first commander, crossed the Dardanelles in the early 1350s to plant their banner in Europe. They rapidly expanded into the Balkans, bringing large new populations of Christians of multiple ethnicities within their control. Nor was this achieved by conquest alone. Many Orthodox Christians, and later Hungarian Protestants, threatened with forced conversion or extermination by the Catholic West, found Ottoman rule preferable. 'Rather the Turkish turban than the Roman mitre', in the words of the slogan current at the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It was not until Selim I's annexation of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Islamic Holy Places in 1517 that Muslims came to represent the majority in the 'Guarded Domains'.

More than once, most dramatically after Bayezid was disastrously defeated by Tamerlane in 1402, Ottoman sultans almost entirely lost control of the Empire in Asia, while their grip on its European territories became firmer. Indeed, for much of its history, the Empire's Muslims were more turbulent and posed a greater threat to the dynasty's survival than its Christian subjects. Ottoman sultans almost invariably produced heirs by non-Turkish and (by birth) non-Muslim mothers. During the height of the Empire's success, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was governed and guided by a meritocratic military and administrative elite dominated by Christians recruited in their youth and converted to Islam. Of 217 Grand Viziers from the beginning to the end, over two-thirds of them were Christian-born.

The Ottomans never attempted the wholesale conversion of their Christian subjects. The reason for this was partly fiscal. Broadly speaking, citizens either paid taxes or were obliged to do military service. Non-Muslims were liable to a poll tax, but were exempt from conscription. Thus it was native-born Turks and converts who provided the military manpower for an Empire that was, in theory at least, permanently at war with the infidels beyond its borders and with 'heretics', notably the Shia dynasty of the Turkish Shah Ismail of Iran and his successors.

While officially Sunni, the Ottomans had, from the earliest days, close associations with various dervish orders (still significant in Turkey today). As Caroline Finkel notes near the beginning of Osman's Dream, 'coexistence and compromise between different manifestations of religious belief and practice is one of the abiding themes of Ottoman history'. Within the realms of the Empire, even apostasy was tolerated, if deemed not to have occurred under duress, whereas both home-grown religious extremists and those seen to be fifth columnists for neighbouring heterodox regimes, seeking to upset the balance, were dealt with harshly. The Wahhabis of Arabia were anathema to the Ottoman establishment. With the help of Mehmed Ali, the Albanian-born semi-autonomous governor of Egypt, Mecca and Medina were liberated in the early nineteenth century after their seizure by insurgents, whose base (now part of Riyadh) was levelled. The Saudi Emir was brought to Istanbul and beheaded.

Osman's Dream takes its title from a putative vision of the eponymous creator of the dynasty, which revealed to him that he and his ilk were destined for great things. Finkel is excellent in elucidating such founding myths and investigating the development of the Ottoman mentality, as she is in many other areas. A specialist Ottoman historian, with a particular knowledge of the Empire's military life - always of central importance in Turkey's history -Finkel has managed to produce a scholarly, lucid, judicious and enjoyable account of over 600 years of history in a single volume, which will surely be the standard work of its kind for many years to come.

Finkel draws on original archival and manuscript material as well as a vast range of recent scholarship in a number of languages. But she avoids unnecessary technical terminology unfamiliar to the general reader, while providing an extensive bibliography and notes for further reading. Her chronological narrative, inevitably factually dense at times, is enlivened by quotations from chronicles, memoirs and letters. Picturesque nicknames, important handles in a society with a plethora of individuals sharing the same appellation, are included and translated. So we encounter, along the way, Ali Pashas known variously as Surmeli ('He of the kohl-lined eyes'), Elmas ('Diamond'), Bulutkapan ('Cloudsnatcher'); Kuyucu ('Welldigger') Murad Pasha; Bosnak ('Bosnian') Husrev Pasha; Cezzar ('Butcher') Ahmed Pasha; and Dagdevirenoglu ('Son of the Overturner of Mountains') Mehmed Pasha, and so on.

Usefully signposted throughout are 'firsts', which often signal significant shifts in political and social attitudes. We learn, for example, of the first use by the Ottomans of the title 'Sultan' (applied to Osman's son Orhan); the first formal marriage of a Sultan to a member of his harem (between Suleyman -the Magnificent as he is known in the West, but since the eighteenth century 'Kanuni', the Lawgiver, to the Turks and Hurrem -Roxelana to the Europeans); the first Sultan to die in Istanbul (Selim II, as late as 1574); the first coins marked 'Struck in Istanbul' as opposed to 'Constantinople' (late eighteenth century); and the first -and last -Sultan to go on a foreign tour (Abdulazziz, in 1867).

There is much here that is instructive for our understanding of not only Ottoman and European history but also contemporary Turkey and the Islamic world in general. Finkel's tracing over the centuries of the unfolding perception of the Caliphate is just one instance of this. When Uzun Hasan, a Turkish rival in eastern Anatolia and Iran, tried to inflate his own status by informing Mehmed II that by taking Shiraz he had come into possession of 'the Home of the Caliphate', the Conqueror of Constantinople seems to have been singularly unimpressed. The subsequent Ottoman acquisition of the Holy Places put them more firmly in line for the title. Given that the Caliphs were traditionally supposed to descend from the tribe of the Prophet, a fake genealogy had to be concocted to back up the claim. But subsequent Sultans showed little or no interest in styling themselves in this fashion.

It was not until the 1770s, with the loss of the Crimea, that the notion received new currency, in the wording of a treaty that recognized the Sultan as the 'Caliph of all Muslims' - as Caroline Finkel points out, 'a title rarely used by Ottoman Sultans but one which, formalized in terms which fitted Western rather than Islamic conceptions of religious authority, expressed the Sultan's claim to pre-eminence among Muslim princes . . .'. And it was only in the reign of Abdulhamid II, during the late nineteenth century, that the 'Shadow of God on Earth' came to consider 'his position as Caliph superior to that of Sultan and accord it more importance'. By this time, the preference was in many ways an index of desperation, rather as the Pope, during the same period, finding himself deprived of temporal power, promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility.

OSMAN'S DREAM. The story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923.

By Caroline Finkel.

660pp. John Murray. £30.

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023