History is selective. Or, rather, it’s selected by those in power for their own uses. Nowhere do we see this more than in nationalist re-imaginings of an imperial past, whether it be British, Roman, or, in the case of modern Turkey, Ottoman. “Much has been written,” notes Time magazine’s Alan Mikhail, “about [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s attempts to ‘resurrect’ the Ottoman Empire or to style himself a sultan.” Erdogan’s turn to hardline Islam has been inspired by one particular sultan, Selim I, under whose rule, “the Ottoman Empire grew from a strong regional power to a gargantuan global empire.” Mikhail compares Selim to another historical figure famed for single-minded intolerance: Andrew Jackson, a hero of the former United States president.
Erdogan’s characterization of the Ottoman Empire sometimes seems to have more in common with early European ideas about the empire than its ideas about itself. European writers in the 16th and 17th century linked the Ottomans with Islamist repression, an Orientalist take on Turkish power as a dangerous yet seductive new enemy. “The glorious Empire of the Turkes, the present terrour of the world,” wrote Richard Knolles in his 1603 Generall Historie of the Turkes, “hath amongst other things nothing in it more wonderful or strange, than the poore beginning of itselfe….” These same sentiments were echoed in 1631 by English writer John Speed, who described the “sudden advancement” of the Empire as “a terrour to the whole world.” Likewise, Andrew Moore in 1659 wrote of “this barbarous Nation, the worlds present terrour,” a nation with a “small & obscure beginning.”
All empires have small beginnings. In the case of the Ottomans, the story begins with Osman I, a tribal leader of obscure origins who founded the Empire in Anatolia some 300 years before the authors above put pen to paper. (The word “Ottoman” derives from his name.) A series of conquests followed, the most dramatic occurring in 1453 when Mehmed the Conquerer entered Constantinople, effectively ending the Byzantine Empire, an event you can see highlighted in the video above, an “entire history of the Ottoman Empire” — all 600 years of it — from 1299 to 1922. Such an extended period of conquest and influence led, of course, to a variety of views about the nature of the Ottomans, not least among the Ottomans themselves, who saw themselves not as Muslim invaders of Europe but as the rightful heirs of Rome. Indeed, educated Ottomans referred to themselves not as “Turks,” a word for the peasantry, but as Rūmī, “Roman.”
In many ways, the Ottomans — bloody conquests, slavery, genocides and all — took after the Romans. “Obviously they saw value in spreading religion,” says David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio. But they did not share the narrative of a “clash of civilizations” favored by European writers of the time, and certain revisionists today. “The Ottoman Empire saw itself as very much, even more so a European empire than a Middle Eastern empire. And they took a very tolerant view toward non-Muslims since for most of the Ottoman Empire — especially when it was at its largest — most of its population was non-Muslim. It was in fact Christian.” The observation brings to mind the central claim of Turkish scholar Namık Kemal’s influential essay “Europe Knows Nothing about the Orient,” in which he writes that European scholars have failed to understand the “true character such as ours, which is so close to them that … it might as well be touching their eyelashes.”