Lords of the Horizons

by Jason Goodwin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1809

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...

(This entire section contains 1809 words.)

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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. Thereafter, fratricide paved the way to the sultanate.

Bayezit—perhaps because of the speed with which he seized power—became known as Thunderbolt. It was Bayezit who, in 1396, led the initial Ottoman siege on Constantinople, which was first interrupted by a need to combat the last of the European crusades on the empire’s western frontier and later by the Tartar assault on the Ottoman’s central Anatolian lands in 1402. The victorious Tartars were led by the legendary Tamerlane, who captured Bayezit and many of his lands. For the next ten years, the Ottomans remained leaderless, but by 1430 the empire had been restored. In 1448, the second battle of Kosovo consolidated Ottoman control of the Balkans, and in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror (properly, Sultan Muhammad II) captured the crown jewel of the empire when he took Constantinople from the Greeks after a lengthy siege.

Mehmet succeeded in part because of the bankruptcy of the old Byzantine order, but he owed his triumph primarily to the Ottomans’ military organization. At the time—and for centuries thereafter—the Ottomans maintained the only standing army in Europe. What is more astonishing is that their most steadfast and effective infantry, the janissaries, consisted not of Turks but of Christian conscripts who were taken from occupied borderlands. Early on, the Ottomans devised a boy tribute system that culled the finest youths from Greek and Balkan villages. After being taken to Constantinople (now called Istanbul), the boys entered a kind of boot camp in Anatolia, where they performed farm work, were taught Turkish, and formally converted to Islam. Thereafter, the young men became the sultan’s slaves, not only joining the janissary corps but also assuming positions of enormous power, such as that of Grand Vizier, the sultan’s top minister. It was a stroke of genius: Cut off from their faith, their families, their homelands, the boys were granted power, position, and sometimes great wealth in their new environment. Their loyalty to the sultan was assured.

The Ottomans thus managed to bind together the disparate peoples of their enormous empire through a mixture of ruthless militarism and social tolerance. Unlike Western Europeans, they remained for the most part indifferent to their subjects’ religious beliefs; indeed, after Mehmet the Conqueror took control of Constantinople, he extended his protection to the Greek Orthodox Church, headquartered there. During the great period of Ottoman expansion that followed, the empire encompassed ever more discrete ethnic and religious groups. During the reigns of Selim I (1511- 1521) and Suleyman I, the Magnificent (1521-1566), the Ottomans defeated the Mamelukes of Egypt and Syria, the Hungarians, and the principalities of Transylvania, Walachia, and Moldavia, and they took control of Algeria, as well as most of the Venetian possessions in Greece.

For their first two centuries, the Ottomans were a war machine, living off the plunder of their conquests. However, they also made good use of their vast riches, providing a steadying hand and a civilizing influence to their new subjects, bringing them into the fold of the “Abode of Peace” that was the empire. Suleyman I oversaw a complete overhaul of the juridical system, even prescribing uniforms for different trades, ethnic groups, and religious factions. During his rule, the empire hummed smoothly along, and Turkish art reached perhaps is finest flowering.

Suleyman’s magnificence, however, also manifested itself in less edifying ways. Bent on preserving his majesty, he deigned to speak to almost no one directly, ordering that ixarette, the sign language used by the deaf and dumb, be employed in his court. Moody and proud, he had two of his sons murdered when rumors of insurrection circulated; ultimately, he left his empire to his son Selim II, also known as Selim the Sot, who in 1571 lost the Battle of Lepanto to the Holy League in the Gulf of Patros. It was the first of a long series of body blows the Europeans would deal the Ottomans.

As the empire was slowly whittled away from without, it simultaneously decayed from within. Beginning in 1603, the law of fratricide governing succession was replaced with a form of house arrest whereby princes-in-waiting were confined to a small area of the harem known as the Cage, where they could languish for decades. Not surprisingly, some went mad. Taking advantage of such depravity, in 1622, the powerful janissary corps went so far as to depose Osman II.

Between 1623 and 1640, Murad IV restored order through a series of military conquests. His victories, however, were not enough to sustain the great creaking edifice that would be immortalized two centuries later as the “Sick Man of Europe.” Tsar Alexander coined the phrase, and it was in fact the Ottoman Empire’s wars with Russia that proved its ultimate undoing. The Ottomans emerged from the Crimean War economically exhausted, and the sultanate’s unquenchable thirst for luxury—together with the costs of an abortive attempt to reform Ottoman government—ultimately led to a declaration of bankruptcy in 1875. Amazingly, the empire struggled on for nearly another half century, succumbing only after its defeat, along with its allies the Central Powers, in World War I.

World War I also saw the rise of Turkey’s great nationalist hero, Mustafa Kemal, who saved the country from being totally carved up by the Allied Powers. In 1922, Kemal proclaimed the abolition of the sultanate, and the next year he was elected president of the newly declared Turkish republic, now confined to Anatolia and the Thracian peninsula.

The story of the Ottomans as presented in Lords of the Horizons is considerably more complex than this summary suggests. Rather than dwelling on dates and great men—or even anecdote—Goodwin attempts to capture the very rhythms of the empire. The book nonetheless does follow a loose structure—interspersing chapters that advance Ottoman history with others that are thematically organized (“The Palace,” “Cities,” “Order”)—that permits the author to range rather freely over time and space. By drawing on accounts of the empire by Western observers from the latter part of the twentieth century, Goodwin is able to add to the immediacy and even the exoticism of his story. While some readers seem to have found Lords of the Horizons exhausting and confusing, few can question its energy and evocativeness.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (February 15, 1999): 1035.

Library Journal 124 (March 1, 1999): 96.

National Review 51 (June 28, 1999): 53.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 2, 1999): 7.

Publishers Weekly 246 (February 15, 1999): 91.

The Washington Times, April 4, 1999, p. B6.