Tuesday, March 19, 2024

16. The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer

I have been wanting to fill the void of my understanding of how we got from the Byzantines to the Ottomans for a long time now and this interest flared up when I read Abbas' Modern History of Iran.  My European history is not great, but at least I have the broad lines.  The Ottomans and the background to today's Middle East was pretty much absent entirely.  I had been waiting for a recommendation so as to not waste any time with false starts, but ended up discovering this book at the indefatigable Moe's Books in Berkeley.  It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, a well-researched, academic yet readable, chronological history of the Ottoman empire from its beginning in the 13th century when Osman sort of settled in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) to its demise after World War I when it reduced itself to the single nation of Turkey.  Spoiler alert:  the ending is rough.

This was an incredibly informative and eye-opening read for me.  It definitely answered how the Byzantime empire fell and was taken over by the Ottoman empire.  But there was so many more historical puzzle pieces filled in for me here that I hadn't anticipated, as well as concepts and ideas that I didn't know I was missing.  The big one was that the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the forced movement of people's, especially Muslims coming back to the Ottomans and Christians leaving them, was a major factor in the structure of the Middle East as we know it today.  Another big piece that this book filled in (though only partially) was the situation in 19th century eastern Europe and especially the Balkans (that were all part of the Ottoman Empire) that led to World War One.  I went to a liberal arts school where we had two mandatory Humanities courses that were supposed to cover much of the 20th century, but even for a very progressive school, they basically omitted the Ottoman empire almost entirely.  It's crazy.

The concepts in history and culture that this book also further enlightened for me were manifold as well.  In particular, though I was knew about the Armenian genocide and had studied it briefly in a summer extension course, I did not realize how it can be argued as the progenitor of the Holocaust itself, as one of the first truly modern genocides, directed via policy and bureaucracy.  The Germans of World War 1 who were allied with Turkey at the time were aware of it, approved of it and in some cases participated in that so that there is a direct line that can be traced to it and Nazi policies in World War Two.

Another interesting concept is the mutability of sexuality and the social mores around it.  Man boy love was a real, common and accepted thing in the first two thirds of the Ottoman empire and evidently in the rest of Europe. Today, much of the literature around it is read as metaphorical, but Baer makes a pretty strong case that it was literally meant.  These weren't gay relationships as we know them today, but rather the socially accepted sexual relationships between bearded men and their "beloved" unshaven boys.  This was open and very common for centuries.  Once a boy became a man, then heterosexuality was supposed to kick in with sex in marriage for procreation.  I am overly simplifying it to point out that this was the cultural norm and not licentious behaviour, as the Ottoman Muslim elites had as strict a social code as their European counterparts.  It's important to read and understand these histories as it really makes one question ones own assumptions about what is "normal".

Baer's big argument is that Ottoman history should not be seen as an eastern other but rather as an integral and integrated part of European history.  He makes a compelling case.  The other big them up until the Young Turks take over and do really horrible things in the name of modernity, is that the Ottoman Empire was fundamentally Muslim in its nature and leadership but existed, survived and even thrived by allowing other nationalities, religions and cultures to live and at times even thrive within its border.  This wasn't just Jews and Christians, but also various sects and interperations of Islam as well.  Not that this was all peaceful and hunky dory as we talking about human beings here so there was plenty of oppression and massacres and injustice.  It was, though, a concept of civilization that was very different than the secular nationalism of the modern Turkish state.  I was very surprised to know that after the Jews were kicked out of Spain in the inquisition, that they fled to the Ottoman empire and it was seen by many Jews as their saviour and a place where they lived in an integrated way under Muslim leadership for centuries. Today's rhetoric is that the Middle East is an unsolvable complex mess where the Muslims and Jews have been fighting forever, but that was not actually the case (well the unsolvable mess part might be).  Knowing history makes one realize that change is indeed possible (for better or for worse) and can and will something that we in our current vision could not expect or even believe could happen.

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