Lords of the Horizons is not exactly a history. It is short on maps (there is only one, at the front of the book) and on chronology (although there is one, together with a list of Ottoman sultans and a brief glossary, toward the back of the book). One reads without having a genuine sense of what happened when and where in the Ottoman Empire, and Jason Goodwin’s narrative unfolds in something less than a straightforward manner. Still, the book is packed, even stuffed, with fascinating details related in a style so rich and evocative as to match the wildest excesses of the most self-indulgent sultan and the most intricately detailed Turkish carpet. Moreover, like such a carpet, which reveals its pattern only from a distance, the story contained between the covers of Goodwin’s book comes into focus only in retrospect.
Form in Lords of the Horizons is thus an accurate reflection of content. Goodwin makes the point early on that the Ottomans were ultimately undone by their inability to come to terms with chronology. Unable to tell time in the Western fashion and seemingly unconcerned with history itself, the Ottomans only began to disintegrate as a state toward the end of the nineteenth century when they sensed that time was passing them by. Suddenly, throughout their far-flung territories, Ottoman lords began to erect clock towers. The towers, built by an Armenian family that served as the royal architects, were often out of place, eyesores as incongruous as the Turkish aristocrats who went about in a motley costume consisting of a fez and Stamboline—a short, tight black frock coat adapted from Western dress in the 1820’s. These were the same gentlemen who reset their watches every day in an effort to keep pace with the sun. As a Western observer wrote in 1906, “The very fact that the Turks are satisfied with a method of recording time which cannot be sure unless all watches are changed every day, shows how they have missed one of the essentials of what we call civilisation. . . .”
Ottoman adaptability was also the quality that helped the Turks first capture, then rule for six centuries a vast empire that made them, if not lords of the horizons, at least the governors of the eastern Mediterranean, controlling an area that included thirty-six different nations and stretched from the Danube to the Nile, from Crimea to North Africa. As Goodwin writes,
This was an Islamic empire, though many of its subjects were not Muslim, and it made no effort to convert them. It controlled thoroughfares between East and West, but it was not very interested in trade. It was, by common consent, a Turkish empire, but most of its dignitaries and officers, and its shock troops, too, were Balkan Slavs. Its ceremonial was Byzantine, its dignity Persian, its wealth Egyptian, its letters Arabic.
Yet today, the author points out, the Ottoman people no longer exist, their language is dead, and their poetry is virtually incomprehensible. Lords of the Horizons does an excellent job of describing how the expansive, tolerant, polyglot world of the Ottomans disappeared from the face of the earth.
Nomadic Turkmen had quit the Eurasian steppe in the ninth century, moving on first to Persia, where they learned Islam and statecraft, and then to Anatolia, pushed westward by the rising power of the Mongols and drawn by the declining power of the Byzantines. The Ottomans were only one of many small Turkish states in Asia Minor, but when the dominance of the Seljuk Turks waned, the Ottomans, led by Osman I (also called Othman), leapt into the breach. Osman, whose state bordered on the Christian Orthodox city of Bursa on the Sea of Marmara, was the first to translate the supposed will of Allah into a plan of action, conquering Bursa in 1326. In 1349, the Ottomans crossed the Dardanelles into Europe and in 1361 experienced their next significant victory when they took Adrianople (now Edirne) in 1361 under the leadership of Osman’s grandson, Murad I. The Ottoman victory at Kosovo in 1389 placed much of the Balkans under their control, finally alerting Western Europe to the threat on their doorstop.
Murad I’s death at Kosovo in 1389 at the hands of a Serb assassin named Milosh Obravitch gave rise to a Serbian martyr and to the Ottoman mode of succession: When Murad’s two sons returned to their father’s camp, Bayezit immediately had his brother murdered, declaring himself the new sultan....
(The entire section is 1809 words.)