BOOK REVIEW / The empire slips back: The decline and fall of the Ottoman empire by Alan Palmer, John Murray pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
'IN THIS region, fighting the Turk is regarded as a pastime, a superior form of field-sport,' observed a British traveller passing through Bosnia-Herzegovina - not last week, but in the 19th century, when Croat, Serb, Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Macedonian were still ruled from Constantinople by a Muslim imperial autocracy.

In 1683 the Turkish Empire in Europe reached to the gates of Vienna, and Venice itself was merely a hundred miles from its traditional enemy's front line. Athens, Belgrade, Budapest, Bucharest and Sarajevo were all Ottoman-administered cities. As well as much of its food and tax revenue, Rumelia, as the Turks called Turkey-in- Europe, provided the empire with its most formidable fighting force, the Janissaries, children of Christians forcibly enslaved and converted to Islam.

Alan Palmer takes the Turkish failure to capture Vienna as the beginning of the decline. But given the Ottomans' increasing inferiority to industrialising, modernising Europe, what is so remarkable is the slowness of that decline. A combined effort by Austria and Russia from 1700 onwards would have expelled the Turks into Asia Minor in a summer, but European imperial rivalries made sure such a coalition never formed. Possession of Constantinople and the Narrows was perceived as so big a prize that no one European power could bear to think of another achieving it: safer to leave it in the hands of the Turks. French, German and British foreign policy in the region was determined by this same principle.

Why could Ottoman Turkey not successfully reform to meet the European challenge? Palmer offers no simplistic answers, but he does suggest that failure to separate church and state left the Sultans as both imperial autocrats and Caliphs - a fatally divided role. How could a secularising ruler reform, while at the same time remain leader of the traditionalist Islamic faithful, opposed to all Frankish innovations? Attempts to modernise the army, navy and administration were repeatedly undone by the Janissaries or by the religious council, the ulema, which was backed by popular, conservative Islamic outrage.

Failure, military or political, led to blame and blame to death, as the Vizier Kara Mustafa found out. His failure to capture Vienna was punished by bowstring strangulation, a traditional method of execution for surplus brothers, potential rivals to a new Sultan. Everyone lived in fear, not least the reigning Sultan. A self-imposed prisoner of his pleasure gardens at Yildiz, Abdulhamid, who was finally deposed in 1909, had a cigarette-puffer as well as a food-taster to ensure he was not poisoned, and was reputed never to sleep in the same bed twice. Few Sultans did not die violently.

Such unpredictability made long-term investment, scientific research, even the funding of family dynasties based on landownership impossible. Fate, chance, luck ruled all; man was a mere pawn: thus the mental climate of Oriental pessimism which still has a deep hold in contemporary Sicily, Greece, the Balkans and the Levant.

Massacres and brutalities are not glossed over in Alan Palmer's book, but sound reasons are advanced to explain if not to justify why, for example, the Armenians were persistently maltreated. There is no explanation of the decline in Turkish sea power, nor any figures on the fluctuating ethnic balance in the empire, but overall this remains a scholarly, readable and balanced history.