Book Review: The Ottoman Empire: A Short History

The Ottoman Empire: A Short History, by Suraiya Faroqhi, translated by Shelley Frisch

This book was certainly shorter than I expected it to be, and not nearly as good as I hoped it would be. In many ways, people write books not based on what is but based on what they are, and that is certainly true of this book. In reading about a past empire which had a good run but which was ultimately unable to cope with the modern world and the rise of nationalism among its Christian and other minority populations or the rising economic and cultural and military power of the West (as well as Russia), there are many ways that the book could be taken, but although she certainly tries to write about it, the author is frequently unable to get out of her own way in trying to craft a feminist history of the Ottoman Empire, which hardly anyone asked for or wants in their books about the past. When the author is able to get out of her own way and explore what we can know about life in the Ottoman Empire, there is some genuinely convincing and interesting social history to be found here, but not as much as one would hope.

This book is between 150 and 200 pages and is divided chronologically into five chapters. The book begins with acknowledgments and a brief guide to the pronunciation of Turkish letters. After that there is an introduction that is surprisingly long given the short length of the book as a whole. After that comes a discussion of the rise and expansion of the Ottoman Empire between 1299 and the death of Mehmet II in 1481 that takes less than 20 pages to cover two dramatic centuries of history. This is followed by a discussion of the period between 1481 and 1600 where the Ottoman Empire was at its peak that covers less than 30 pages (2). This is followed by another short chapter that takes 26 pages to cover the hard-earned successes and setbacks of the period between 1600 and the loss of Crimea in 1774 (3). After that comes a look at the Ottoman’s longest century, the period from the treaty that separated Crimea from the rest of the Ottoman Empire and signaled the Rise of Russia to the beginning of World War I, which takes 28 pages for the author to cover, much of which are devoted to censorship and the politics of the age. Given the short chapters that preceded it, the last chapter of the book takes 22 pages to cover World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire that succeeded it a few years later (5). The author then tries to avoid a conclusion by writing about post-Ottoman continuities and new beginnings, after which the book ends with a chronology, list of Ottoman sultans, notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

There are certainly areas that the author does not do as well as others, and among those major failings is military history. It seems impossible to do justice to the Ottoman Empire without spending a great deal of attention on military history, but the author is very hesitant to talk about it more than necessary. Battles and their repercussions are discussed, but the author would far more rather talk about the demographic changes that resulted from the contraction of the borders of the Ottoman Empire and a timid wading into the responsibility and the extent of the Armenian genocide (which she is too timid to call by name), where she tries to cast blame on both the Armenians for being fifth columnists and also tries to blame Kurdish militias for doing the Ottoman’s dirty work. The author also clearly likes talking about harem politics and the relationship between trade and Ottoman statecraft than she does about political and military history. Again, there are many ways that an Ottoman history can go, and there are at least some occasions where this book chooses interesting angles, but the author’s perspective frequently jars the reader from an enjoyable appreciation of the past to the sordid cultural politics of the evil present day.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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