Osman's Dream

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire, Caroline Finkel presents a chronological narrative for the general reader of the history of the Ottoman Empire in its entirety. Drawing on original archival and manuscript material from Turkish sources in addition to a vast range of recent scholarship in a number of languages, Finkel distinguishes her work from other Western Ottoman scholars by presenting the story from the perspective of the Ottomans themselves, enlivening this factually dense work with quotations from chronicles, memoirs, and letters.

The Turks entered the Middle East in the late eleventh century, taking over many of the Arab states, defeating the Byzantine Empire, and thus provoking the First Crusade. They then settled in Anatolia, the heart of modern Turkey. Divided as they were into many small sultanates, the Turks were not considered a significant military power; surely, both Arabs and crusaders thought, they would eventually succumb to a more organized stateas almost happened when the Mongols invaded the region in the mid-thirteenth century.

Finkel explains that it was at this moment that Osman, the ruler of the tiny emirate closest to Byzantium, had his famous dream: A moon rose from the breast of the holy man who was then his host and sank in his own; then a tree sprouted from his navel, a tree that covered the world and gave shade to mountains whence flowed waters to people everywhere. When Osman recounted the dream to his host, the holy man exclaimed that Osman would become a great ruler; wisely, the holy man gave Osman a daughter, whose offspring ruled the Ottoman Empire for many generations.

The early period was not blessed with good historians, so modern scholars have little more than names of rulers, archeological evidence, and the occasional mention in foreign chronicles. Finkel bemoans the fact that many questions remain unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. The role of jihad, for example. Holy war against infidels was an obligation, but it mattered little that wars against fellow Muslims were discouraged. Geography may have been more important than religion in the success of the Ottoman state. Because Osman’s lands abutted the Byzantine state, his descendants stood to benefit most from the decline of that once-powerful Orthodox Christian state; they were, in practice, marcher lords who prospered more than competing Turkish sultans expected. The Ottomans even portrayed themselves as heirs of the Byzantine Empire rather than as leaders of Islam, but they carefully called themselves “champions of the faith” or some similar title.

Turks were devout Muslims, but they had their own ideas about what that meant. Alcohol, for example, was consumed freely; and considerable freedom was given to adherents of the various Christian denominations in their lands (Armenian, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and later Calvinist) as well as Jews. Still, Finkel notes, nobody should exaggerate this tolerationJews and Christians were kept unequal and separate; as long as minorities were content to live as second-class citizens and pay heavy taxes, they were left alone, with considerable self-government. Ottoman government was not highly centralized, though the sultan and his viziers were careful to appoint trustworthy and capable men as provincial governors and tax collectors.

The Ottoman military machine was similarly diverse, based largely on cavalrymen who held their lands in return for service when summoned. The exception was the janissary corps, a large infantry unit originally made up of young boys conscripted from the Christian population of the Balkans, then trained to be fanatical soldiers and capable administrators. Later these men were given lands and permission to marry, so that they became a kind of hereditary slave nobility. The janissaries were the terror of every enemy they met, and later the terror of sultans and grand viziers. They could be counted on to fight fiercely and to resist any kind of reform.

The Ottomans expanded into the Balkans before closing in on the great fortress city of Constantinople. Their spectacular defeat of Serbia in 1389 had repercussions lasting until modern times and caused Hungarians, Poles, and other crusaders to make efforts to drive the Ottomans back into Asia. Only bad timing prevented this from happening. If the great Christian army that Bayezid defeated at Nicopolis in 1396 had come after 1402, after the destruction of his army by Tamerlane and his being ignominiously carted away in a cage, the Balkans would likely have become independent again and Byzantium saved....

(The entire section is 1884 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 13 (March 1, 2006): 57.

The Economist 378 (February 25, 2006): 88.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 2 (January 15, 2006): 70.

Library Journal 131, no. 3 (February 15, 2006): 131.

The Nation 283, no. 9 (September 25, 2006): 33-36.

National Review 58, no. 9 (May 22, 2006): 54-55.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 50 (December 19, 2005): 51.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 27, 2006, p. 9.