sat 15/06/2024

The Ottomans: Europe's Muslim Emperors, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Ottomans: Europe's Muslim Emperors, BBC Two

The Ottomans: Europe's Muslim Emperors, BBC Two

A fascinating documentary series examining the history of the former Turkish empire

Rageh Omaar presents a compelling and enlightening series on the Ottomans© BBC /photo: Mike Jackson

School kids today could probably tell you a thing or two about mummies in ancient Egypt, Romans and how they built straight roads and aqueducts, and possibly, at a stretch, even a few things about the British Empire. But the Ottoman Empire? Name me a sultan.

Give me the year the Turks conquered Constantinople, or the year they took control of Islam’s third holiest site – Jerusalem?  The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors began by asking why the story of the world’s last Islamic empire, which ruled across three continents and was presided over by just one family over its 600-year existence, has vanished from the history of Western Europe.  

Could one reason be that the Turks themselves have done much to forget their Ottoman past? A Westernised secular republic since 1923, they spent the first half of the 20th century trying to redress their reputation as the “sick man of Europe”, and the other attempting to join the EU. For the past decade they’ve had a moderate Islamic government, and only now, suggests Rageh Omaar in this intelligent and utterly fascinating three-part series on the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, have Turks allowed themselves to look further back than the founding of the modern Turkish state. A popular television drama set during the golden age of the Ottomans is currently holding audiences riveted, perhaps allowing them to forget the current political tensions under Prime Minister Erdoğan and escape into a gloriously romanticised past. And perhaps they’re as seduced by the exoticism of the harems of Topkapi Palace as 19th-century Orientalists in the west once were.

Enslaved and made to convert to Islam they were taken to the sultan’s harem as concubines to produce his heirs

Omaar likened the Ottoman Empire at its height to that of Rome in its vast reach and power. And it was at least as splendid in its riches, revitalising the Byzantine centre of the crumbling Christian empire when it seized Constantinople in 1453. The conquest itself was an astonishing feat of ingenuity involving sheer might and manpower. It ended 1000 years of Christian rule in just 54 days – we learnt that Mehmet II had his men lift their boats out of the waters of the Bosphorus and carry them on planks to the walls of the city. (Pictured below: Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, 1480, attributed to Gentile Bellini; National Gallery, London.)

Attributed to Gentile Bellini, Potrait of Mehmet II, 1480; National GalleryTo help rebuild the city (the names Konstantinye and Islambol, the latter to denote the Islamisation of the city, were in fact used interchangeably in official documents throughout the Ottoman years), there was a system of favourable taxes and financial inducements. However, the new empire didn’t shy away from strong-arm tactics: groups of craftsmen from the provinces were forced by edict and threat to move to the city and apply their skills where they were needed most. And there was little concern for either religious or ethnic difference, for the success of the empire came first: Jews and Christians were not barred from setting up businesses, although Jews still had to pay higher taxes in order to do so. But compared to Christian Europe it certainly treated its Jewish minorities with more tolerance, and they could and did rise to positions of political influence within the Sultanate, although these latter achievements weren't greatly explored in the programme. The practice of devşirme, however, was. 

This was the practice whereby boys were taken from Christian families (though never two boys from the same family and never if there was just one boy), made to convert to Islam and prepared for a life in the service of the state. Though the practice was inevitably locally resented, it was also acknowledged that many families actually welcomed it, since the boys had every opportunity to rise to positions of great military or political power, even to that of grand vizier, the highest minister of state with absolute power of attorney. One academic even produced the astonishing fact that out of a total of 45 grand viziers of the 600-year existence of the empire, only three or four of them were ethnically Turkish.

What happened to many Christian girls was rather more predictable. Enslaved and made to convert to Islam (though one such slave did, unusually, end up marrying her master, Suleiman the Magnificent), they were taken to the sultan’s harem as concubines to produce his heirs. This was politically strategic, since the concubines were rootless and isolated and this minimised the risk of in-laws manoeuvring for power.

The programme was full of fascinating facts and was utterly compelling. We were reminded by one academic (there was an array of expert talking heads) that if you don’t understand the Ottomans then you can’t begin to understand the modern transformations of the Balkans and the Middle East; and without slowing the pace of the riveting main story these connections were made throughout. One small quibble was the use of blasts of bombastic music to ratchet up tension (why can’t documentary-makers show some acoustic restraint? It would be far more effective), but this is a series that will do much to educate and enlighten.

Fisun Guner on Twitter

Omaar likened the Ottoman Empire at its height to that of Rome in its vast reach and power


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"...though never two boys from the same family and never if there was just one boy". Well, that's alright then!

I have found this programme very confusing, I don't believe the host or the experts gave it an objective view. Success of Ottomans was based on their brutality to Christians, I strongly object to the statement that 'many families welcomed' kidnapping of their own children! This was no 'gap year', boys were taken at age 4,5, so they would forget where they come from and have no links to their natural families or places of origin. Kidnapped from virtually every single familly in occupied Christian lands - brushing it off as 'never two from the same family' is in insult to centuries of torment ordinary people suffered under their brutal rule. As for their legacy - apart from mosks that forced local population into conversion, they have never built or developed anything in their 'empire'. The desecration of holiest Christian sites (by converting them to mosks) is not a testament of their grateness. The routine punishment of impaling (which makes Roman crusifiction look like a walk in the park) was an art-form of human torture - leaving the victim alive for several days. That was Ottoman rule, not the soppy, twisted soap operas glamourizing one of the most brutal times in human history. If we're looking for golden period in Muslim statehood - it's the modern Turkey, which made a break from Ottoman herritage in 1920s and built a prosperous country, budding democracy & secular rule. I am astonished that presenter has declared modern Turkey result of the Ottoman herritage - where in effect, it's exactly the opposite.

In the end I struggled to decide whether this series was meant as history or propaganda. The most disturbing part for me was watching Rageh equivocate over the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottomans, to most people murdering a million people is genocide. Just as this gave an inconvenient view of the true nature of the Ottomans, Turkey's continuing denial it ever happened gives an awkward glimpse into the nature of the modern state. Rageh chose to deal with this by ignoring it. The history is flawed at best. He refers to "Christians" as if they were all the same. The reality is the day the Turks took Constantinople leadership of Orthodox Christianity passed to Russia which then had an ongoing emotional investment in the Balkans not shared by western Catholics and Protestants. In the series the Russians appear out of nowhere part way in. In reality they were fighting the Ottomans from the time of Ivan the Terrible (at war 1568-1570) onward. In a war from 1768-1774 Catherine the Great finally broke the Ottomans and they were only saved by the western powers, from then on they were the "Sick Man of Europe". This is 150 years before the final dissolution and puts the 600 years much quoted in the programmes into some sort of context. Perhaps telling is the question Rageh doesn't ask, would the Balkans be a better place today if the Ottoman Empire had been allowed to die rather than being put on life support by the western powers ?

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