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Battles do count

Osman’s Dream
by Caroline Finkel
John Murray, paperback

Osman’s Dream is at heart a romantic book in the grand old tradition of historical narrative. It traces the story of the Ottoman dynasty from its small-scale start in northwestern Anatolia in the fourteenth century straight through the great period until 1700, then on, through the era of decline, ending with the First World War and the end of the dynasty. The approach is firmly and unrepentantly narrative, taking in battles, court conspiracies and international treaties as a matter of course. This is a tradition that many of Caroline Finkel’s contemporaries dismiss almost automatically as hopelessly obsolete. But if accepted in its own terms, it can result, as here, in books that are beautifully executed and extremely useful.

The great European historians Hammer von Purgstall and JW Zinkeisen, and our own equivalents, IH Uzunçarsılı, Ahmet Rasim or Server Iskit, set the pattern, but modern Turkish historians have mainly abandoned an interest in political or military chronicle, finding such tales dull and meaningless. What they really mean is that such chronicles are exceedingly difficult to bring off: how do you combine description and analysis? The fashion has been, latterly, for fuzzily conceived “social histories” drawing upon a great multitude of sources that nevertheless have yet to be given proper evaluation.

Caroline Finkel knows, of course, about depth, about cultures, about difficult sources (not only can she read the Ottoman ones, she can even make a stab at Hungarian), but concern for the profundities does not prevent her from moving her craft rapidly and skilfully across the surface. So, from obscure beginnings on the frontiers of the Byzantine empire, the Ottomans became the successors of Rome (and Istanbul was called by them “Konstantiniye” to the end).

When we speak of a society’s history we are speaking of its fate, and people who were alive at any historical time were well and truly aware that dramas were under way that would affect them directly - forget the longue durée allegedly making this or that outcome inevitable. Battles and treaties mattered: they could have an impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Prof Dr İlber Ortaylı is director of the Topkapı Palace Museum

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 34
  • And Where Shall We Begin?

    Maureen Freely looks back on the life of the architectural historian Godfrey Goodwin, who died aged 84.

  • Championed by the cavalry

    Correct trimming of the stem is the vital first step. Instead of chopping off the hard stem caps, one should trim it into a cone shape, so that the pod then looks like a sharpened pencil and the juices remain trapped inside.
    More cookery features

  • Power Dressing

    For boldness, colour and virtuosity nothing can compare with the golden age of the Ottoman kaftan. After months of conservation work to ensure that they could travel safely, the Topkapı lent the Sackler dozens of its mesmerising royal kaftans.

  • In the spirit’s wake

    At last there need be nothing between you and the Bosphorus. Patricia Daunt tells the story of how two architects created Sumahan on the Water, breathing new life into an old Ottoman spirit factory. Photographs by Jürgen Frank

  • Land of a Thousand Mansions

    A 40-page celebration of the architectural heritage of the Eastern Black Sea Mountains

  • Painting his way into history

    The dashing Abdülmecit Efendi was the last member of the Ottoman dynasty to hold court on the Bosphorus. This enlightened, sophisticated man with a passion for painting, son of a Sultan and cousin of the last Sultan, spent two brief years as Caliph. But in 1924, the caliphate was abolished and Abdülmecid left the city his family had captured five hundred years earlier for exile in France. His paintings, abandoned in the very studio of his house on Çamlıca Hill where he had created them, are a remarkable pictorial legacy of the last days of empire. By Philip Mansel. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

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Issue 34, 2005 Ottoman Kaftans
£50.00 / $63.51 / 2,101.30 TL
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