BOOK REVIEW / The ancient subtleties of Young Turks: 'The Ottomans' - Andrew Wheatcroft: Viking, 18.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
FROM the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the melancholy passage into exile of their last Sultan aboard HMS Malaya in 1922, the Ottomans ruled an empire that stretched, at its zenith, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Red Sea. The consequences of their rule are still with us.

Yet the Ottomans themselves elude discovery, their true nature obscured by the penny dreadfuls of the last century and the conscious efforts of modern Turkey to shake off their legacy. Andrew Wheatcroft sets out to illustrate culture and life along the Golden Horn, beginning on what Christians saw as 'the world's last day', when the Byzantine era ended in the ruins of Constantinople. From that time on the Unspeakable Turk became a symbol of fear throughout Western Europe. He was thought to mingle cruelty with refinement and autocracy with decadence, his lusts were hideous, his mentality impenetrable, his subtlety infinite.

But as the Ottoman hordes receded from their high-water mark before the gates of Vienna, as their invincibility decayed into sloth and debt, the West came first to patronise and then to dictate to the Sultans until the Ottomans were no longer wholly sovereign even in their own capital. The mystery, by the end, was how it all endured for so long.

Wheatcroft explains that at the heart of successful Ottoman resistance to modern influence was a paradox, a supple rigidity that enabled rulers to absorb endless reversals. Not until the 19th century did reformers urge change upon a ruling class long enfeebled in the seraglio. But reforms in the armed forces and the administration produced bloodshed and unhappiness.

As Wheatcroft says, the sacred laws of Islam were, by definition, incapable of improvement; and the Ottoman government, which was the political expression of those laws, was also immutable. It took the dramatic shocks of European expansion and commercial penetration of the empire to weaken the old order to the point of granting a constitution, itself but the prelude to a coup d'etat by the Young Turks in 1909.

There is a good amount of detail here about social life, the prerogatives of the mosque, the sanctuary of the harem and the sinister rule of the janissaries, those 'butterflies in the divine light', often devotees of exotic dervish beliefs. 'Only the ascetic Wahabis of the Arabian desert also spoke with such intransigent ferocity,' Wheatcroft records. 'To foreigners, their behaviour frequently seemed paradoxical, almost quixotic.' In the most renowned example of their obscurantist fervour, they refused to carry modern weapons, thus paving the way for their eventual dissolution.

Wheatcroft gives a fine portrait of 19th-century life in the twin cities of Stamboul and Pera, the first sunk in pious tranquillity, its rose gardens and minarets a reproach to the foreigners' life in Pera, replete with newspapers and Parisian dancers, a ride by slender caique across the Bosphorus.

This was, says Wheatcroft, a Janus-faced empire. It embraced east and west, but it committed itself to neither and succumbed to a simple idea, that true Turkish nationalism was rooted in the bleak Anatolian heartland and a professional officer class. The first Ottoman travellers to Europe in the age of Napoleon professed shock at the instability of life in societies subject to industrial change. Fundamentalism and xenophobia confronted modernity at every turn.

These conflicts continue to bedevil the modern Turkish state more than 50 years after Ataturk's death. In the light of recent events our verdict on the rambling, cosmopolitan realm of many peoples and religions that made up the domains of the sultan may be less harsh. But before our century dawned, this world, too, was doomed. Its authority rested upon the executioner's bowstring, passive Islamic faith and the intrigues of an inbred court: no match for the dynamic, destructive forces unleashed in 19th-century Europe. It was, in the verdict of this fine study, an empire strangled with a silken cord.