The Downfall of Oscar Wilde: An Animated Video Tells How Wilde Quickly Went from Celebrity Playwright to Prisoner

Oscar Wilde left a body of literature that continues to entertain generation after generation of readers, but for many of his fans his life leads to his work, not the other way around. Its latest retelling, Oscar Wilde: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, came out in the United States just this past week. “Universally heralded as a genius” when his play The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in London in 1895, he was just a few months later “bankrupt and about to be imprisoned. His reputation was in tatters and his life was ruined beyond repair.” This is how Alain de Botton tells it in “The Downfall of Oscar Wilde,” the animated School of Life video above.

Wilde was imprisoned, as even those who’ve never read a word he wrote know, for his homosexuality. This de Botton described as “the swift fall of a great man due to a small but fateful slip,” a result of the social and legal conditions that obtained in the time and place in which Wilde lived. Having fallen for “a beguiling young man named Lord Alfred Douglas,” known as “Bosie,” Wilde found himself on the receiving end of threats from Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. Their conflict eventually provoked the Marquess to publicize Wilde and Bosie’s relationship all throughout London, and since “homosexuality was illegal and deeply frowned upon in Victorian society, this was a dangerous accusation.”

Though Wilde fought a valiant and characteristically eloquent court battle, he was eventually convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of imprisonment and hard labor. “For someone of Wilde’s luxurious background,” says de Botton, “it was an impossible hardship.” This time inspired his essay De Profundis, and later his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but according to most accounts of his life, he never really recovered from it before succumbing to meningitis in 1900. He had plans, writes The New Yorker‘s Clare Bucknell, “for a new social comedy, a new Symbolist drama, a new libretto.” But as his lover Bosie put it, Wilde’s life of post-release continental exile was “too narrow and too limited to stir him to creation.”

The United Kingdom has since pardoned Wilde (and others, like computer scientist Alan Turing) for the crimes committed in their lifetimes that would not be considered crimes today. More than a century has passed since Wilde’s death, and “our society has become generous towards Wilde’s specific behavior,” says de Botton. “Many of us would, across the ages, want to comfort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touching hope, but one that would be best employed in extending understanding to all those less talented and less witty figures who are right now facing grave difficulties.” Wilde might have come to a bleak end, but the life he lived and the reactions it provoked still have much to teach us about our attitudes today.

Related Content:

Oscar Wilde Offers Practical Advice on the Writing Life in a Newly-Discovered Letter from 1890

Hear Oscar Wilde Recite a Section of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)

Patti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s 1897 Love Letter De Profundis: See the Full Three-Hour Performance

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads a Letter Alan Turing Wrote in “Distress” Before His Conviction For “Gross Indecency”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Little-Known Bombing of Pompeii During World War II

In 79 AD, 17-year-old Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Younger, gazed across the Bay of Naples from his vacation home in Misenum and watched Mount Vesuvius erupt. “Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night,” Pliny wrote in his eyewitness account — the only surviving such document — “but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room.” Unbeknownst to Pliny and his famous uncle, Pliny the Elder, admiral of the Roman navy and revered naturalist, hundreds of lives were also snuffed out by lava, clouds of smoke and ash, and temperatures in the hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit. The Elder Pliny launched ships to attempt an evacuation. In the morning, he was found dead, likely from asphyxiation, along with over two thousand residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

When the buried town was first unearthed, a new cycle of witness, death, and resurrection began. “Since its rediscovery in the mid-18th century,” writes National Geographic, “the site has hosted a tireless succession of treasure hunters and archeologists,” not to mention tourists — starting with aristocratic gentlemen on their Grand Tour of Europe. In 1787, Goethe climbed Vesuvius and gazed into its crater. “He recorded with disappointment that the freshest lava was already five days old, and that the volcano neither belched flame nor pelted him with stones,” writes Amelia Soth in an article about “Pompeii Mania” among the Romantics, a passion that culminated in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 potboiler, The Last Days of Pompeii, “hands-down the most popular novel of the age.”

Bulwer-Lytton’s book “had such a dramatic impact on how we think about Pompeii,” the Getty writes, that the museum named an exhibition after it that features — unlike so many other histories — Pompeii’s 20th century “apocalypse”: an Allied bombing raid in the autumn of 1943 that damaged nearly every part of the site, including “some of Pompeii’s most famous monuments, as well as its museum.” As Nigel Pollard shows in his book Bombing Pompeii, over 160 Allied bombs hit Pompeii in August and September. Few tourists who now flock to the site know how much of the ruins have been rebuilt since then. “Only recently have the literature and the scientific community paid due attention to these dramatic events, which constitute a fundamental watershed in the modern history of the site,” writes archeologist Silvia Bertesago.

A Pliny of his time (an Elder, given his decades of scientific accomplishment), Pompeii’s superintendent, archeologist Amedeo Maiuri, “accelerated the protection of buildings and moveable items” in advance of the bombing raids. But “who will save monuments, houses and paintings from the fury of the bombardments?” he wrote. Maiuri had warned of the coming destruction, and when false information identified the slopes of Vesuvius as a German hideout, the longest-running archeological excavation in the world became “a real target of war…. The first bombing of Pompeii took place on the night of August 24 1943…. Between August 30 and the end of September, several other raids followed by both day and night…. No part of the excavations was completely spared.”

Maiuri chronicled the destruction, writing:

It was thus that from 13 to 26 September Pompeii suffered its second and more serious ordeal, battered by one or more daily attacks: during the day flying low without fear of anti-aircraft retaliation; at night with all the smoke and brightness of flares […]. During those days no fewer than 150 bombs fell within the excavation area, scattered across the site and concentrated where military targets were thought to be.

Himself wounded in his left foot by a bomb, Maiuri helped draw up a list of 1378 destroyed items and over 100 damaged buildings. Hasty, emergency rebuilding in the years to follow would lead to the use of “experimental materials” like reinforced concrete, which “would later prove incompatible with the original materials” and itself require restoration and repair. The ruins of Pompeii were rebuilt and resurrected after they were nearly destroyed a second time by fire from the sky — this time entirely an act of humankind. But the necropolis would have its revenge. The following year, Vesuvius erupted, destroying nearly all of the 80 B-25 bombers and the Allied airfield at the foot of the mountain.

In the video above, you can learn more about the bombing of Pompeii. See photographs of the destruction at Pompeii Commitment and at the Getty Museum, which features photos of Pompeiian sites destroyed by bombing side-by-side with color images of the rebuilt sites today. These images are dramatic, enough to make us pay attention to the seams and joints if we have the chance to visit, or revisit, the famous archeological site in the future. And we might want to ask our guide if we can see not only the ruins of the natural disaster, but also the multiple undetonated bombs from the “apocalypse” of World War II.

Related Content

Watch the Destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius, Re-Created with Computer Animation (79 AD)

Pompeii Rebuilt: A Tour of the Ancient City Before It Was Entombed by Mount Vesuvius

A Drone’s Eye View of the Ruins of Pompeii

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Archaeologists Discover 1300-Year-Old Pair of Skis, the Best-Preserved Ancient Skis in Existence

Surfing is generally believed to have originated in Hawaii and will be forever associated with the Polynesian islands. Yet anthropologists have found evidence of something like surfing wherever humans have encountered a beach — on the coasts of West Africa, in the Caribbean, India, Syria, and Japan. Surfing historian Matt Warshaw sums up the problem with locating the origins of this human activity: “Riding waves simply for pleasure most likely developed in one form or another among any coastal people living near warm ocean water.” Could one make a similar point about skiing?

It seems that wherever humans have settled in places covered with snow for much of the year, they’ve improvised all kinds of ways to travel across it. Who did so with the first skis, and when? Ski-like objects dating from 6300-5000 BC have been found in northern Russia. A New York Times article recently described evidence of Stone Age skiers in China. “If skiing, as it seems possible,” Nils Larsen writes at the International Skiing History Association, “dates back 10,000 years or more, identifying a point of origin (or origins) will be difficult at best.” Such discussions tend to get “bogged down in politics and national pride,” Larsen writes. For example, “since the emergence of skiing in greater Europe in the late 1800s” — as a sport and purely recreational activity — “Norway has often been considered the birthplace of skiing. Norway has promoted this view and it is a point of national pride.”

Despite its earliest records of skiing dating millennia later than other regions, Norway has some claim. The word ski is, after all, Norwegian, derived from Old Norse skíð, meaning “cleft wood” or “stick.” And the best-preserved ancient skis ever found have been discovered in a Norwegian ice field. “Even the bindings are mostly intact,” notes Kottke. The first ski, believed to be 1300 years old, turned up in 2014, found by the Glacier Archeology Program (GAP) in the mountains of Innlandet County, Norway. The archaeologists decided to wait, let the ice melt, and see if the other ski would appear. It did, just recently, and in the video above, you can watch the researchers pull it from the ice.

Photo: Andreas Christoffer Nilsson,

“Measuring about 74 inches long and 7 inches wide,” notes Livia Gershon at Smithsonian, “the second ski is slightly larger than its mate. Both feature raised footholds. Leather straps and twisted birch bark bindings found with the skis would have been attached through holes in the footholds. The new ski shows signs of heavy wear and eventual repairs.” The two skis are not identical, “but we should not expect them to be,” says archaeologist Lars Pilø. “The skis are handmade, not mass-produced. They have a long and individual history of wear and repair before an Iron Age skier used them together and they ended up in the ice.”

The new ski answered questions the researchers had about the first discovery, such as how the ancient skis might have maintained forward motion uphill. “A furrow on the underside along the length of the ski, as you find on other prehistoric skis (and on modern cross-country skis), would solve the question,” they write, and the second ski contained such a furrow. While they may never prove that Norway invented skiing, as glacier ice melts and new artifacts appear each year, the team will learn much more about ancient Norwegian skiers and their way of life. See their current discoveries and follow their future progress at the Secrets of the Ice website and on their YouTube channel.

Related Content: 

Archaeologists Find the Earliest Work of “Abstract Art,” Dating Back 73,000 Years

Watch an Archaeologist Play the “Lithophone,” a Prehistoric Instrument That Let Ancient Musicians Play Real Classic Rock

Medieval Tennis: A Short History and Demonstration

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Slot Machine Age: A 1964 British Newsreel Angsts Over Whether Automated Machines Will Displace People

When Americans hear the phrase “slot machine,” they think of pensioners compulsively pulling levers day and night in Las Vegas. But when the British hear it, a much less bleak vision comes to their minds: the automated dispensation of cigarettes, coffee, groceries, and even entire meals. Or at least such a vision came to the minds of Britons back in 1964, the year of the British Pathé newsreel above. With its brilliant colors and jazzy score, Slot Machine Age proudly displayed to the viewing public the range of coin-operated wonders already making their way into daily life, from pay phones and pinball machines to shoe-buffers and bottle-recycling stations.

“This invention, this brainchild of the boffins, has created a new disease,” declares the announcer: “slot machine fever.” Again, this has nothing to do with gambling, and everything to do with automation. Nearly 60 years ago, buying something from a machine was a novelty to most people in even the most highly industrialized countries on Earth.

Yet even then the automat, where diners pulled all their dishes from coin-operated windows, had in certain cities been an institution for decades. Alas, such establishments didn’t survive the explosion of fast food in the 1970s, whose business model made use of more, not less, human labor.

But in the 1960s, the age of the robot seemed well on its way — so much so that this phrase titles another, slightly later British Pathé production showcasing a “semi-computerized version of the dumbwaiter” being tried out in hotel rooms. From it the film’s honeymooning couple extract cocktails, peanuts, toothpaste, and “that last cigarette of the day.” It even offers reading material, a concept since tried again in France, Poland, San Francisco, and an eccentric bookstore in Toronto, but the glorious age of all-around convenience predicted in these newsreels has yet to materialize. We citizens of the 21st century are in many cases hardly pleased, but rather anxious about what we see as our growing dependence on automation. Still, with the coronavirus-induced vogue for contact-free payment and dining, perhaps it’s time to give the automat another chance.

Related Content:

Watch 85,000 Historic Newsreel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910-2008)

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Prediction That Automation Will Necessitate a Universal Basic Income

Buckminster Fuller Rails Against the “Nonsense of Earning a Living”: Why Work Useless Jobs When Technology & Automation Can Let Us Live More Meaningful Lives

Hunter S. Thompson Chillingly Predicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Coming Revenge of the Economically & Technologically “Obsolete” (1967)

Experts Predict When Artificial Intelligence Will Take Our Jobs: From Writing Essays, Books & Songs, to Performing Surgery and Driving Trucks

Watch the “Biblio-Mat” Book-Vending Machine Dispense Literary Delight

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Behold the Photographs of John Thomson, the First Western Photographer to Travel Widely Through China (1870s)

In the early 1860s, a few Westerners had seen China — but nearly all of them had seen it for themselves. The still-new medium of photography had yet to make images of everywhere available to viewers everywhere else, which meant an opportunity for traveling practitioners like John Thomson. “The son of a tobacco spinner and shopkeeper,” says, ” he was apprenticed to an Edinburgh optical and scientific instrument manufacturer where he learned the basics of photography.”

In 1862 Thomson sailed from Leith “with a camera and a portable dark room. He set up in Singapore before exploring the ancient civilizations of China, Thailand — then known as Siam — and Cambodia.” It is for his extensive photography of China in the late 1860s and early 1870s that he’s best known today.

First lavishly published in a series of books titled Illustrations of China and Its People (now available to read free online at the Yale University Library: volume one, volume two, volume three, volume four), they now constitute some of the earliest and richest direct visual records of Chinese landscapes, cityscapes, and society as they were in the late 19th century.

“The first Western photographer to travel widely through the length and breadth of China,” Thomson brought his camera on journeys “far more extensive than those undertaken by most Westerners of his generation,” extending “beyond the relative comfort and safety of the coastal treaty ports.” Those words come from scholar of the 19th-century Allen Hockley, whose five-part visual essay “John Thomson’s China” at MIT Visualizing Cultures provides a detailed overview and historical contextualization of Thomson’s work in Asia.

Thomson’s photographs, writes Hockley, “fall into two broad categories: scenic views and types. Views encompassed both natural landscapes and built environments. They could be panoramic, taking in large swaths of scenery, or they might highlight specific natural phenomena or individual structures.”

Types “focused on the manners and customs of Chinese people and tended to highlight the defining features of gender, age, class, ethnicity, and occupation.” A century and a half later, both Thomson’s views and types have given scholars in a variety of disciplines much to discuss.

“It is clear from his commentary to Illustrations of China that, however sympathetic he was towards Chinese people, he could often be superior and high-handed,” writes Andrew Hiller at Visualizing China. “If Thomson never sought to question the validity of Britain’s presence, his attitude towards China was ambivalent. Whilst critical of what he saw as the corruption and obfuscation of Qing officials, he nevertheless could see the country’s potential.”

Thomson also helped others to see that potential — or at least those who could afford to buy his books, whose prices matched the quality of their production. But today, thanks to online archives like Historical Photographs of China and Wellcome Collection, they’re free for everyone to behold. China itself has become much more accessible since Thomson’s day, of course, but it’s famously a much different place than it was 25 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. The land through which he traveled — and of which he took so many of the very earliest photographs — is now infinitely less accessible to us than it ever was to his fellow Westerners of the 19th century.

Hear a lecture on Thomson’s photography in China from the University of London here.

via Flashbak

Related Content:

Colorful Wood Block Prints from the Chinese Revolution of 1911: A Gallery of Artistic Propaganda Posters

The World’s Oldest Multicolor Book, a 1633 Chinese Calligraphy & Painting Manual, Now Digitized and Put Online

Hand-Colored Photographs from 19th Century Japan: 110 Images Capture the Waning Days of Traditional Japanese Society

How Vividly Colorized Photos Helped Introduce Japan to the World in the 19th Century

1850s Japan Comes to Life in 3D, Color Photos: See the Stereoscopic Photography of T. Enami

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Witness Maya Angelou & James Baldwin’s Close Friendship in a TV Interview from 1975

In the mid-50s, Maya Angelou accepted a role as a chorus member in an international touring production of the opera, Porgy and Bess:

I wanted to travel, to try to speak other languages, to see the cities I had read about all my life, but most important, I wanted to be with a large, friendly group of Black people who sang so gloriously and lived with such passion.

On a stopover in Paris, she met James Baldwin, who she remembered as “small and hot (with) the movements of a dancer.”

The two shared a love of poetry and the arts, a deep curiosity about life, and a passionate commitment to Black rights and culture. They forged a connection that would last the rest of their lives.

In 1968, when Angelou despaired over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin did what he could to lift her spirits, including escorting her to a dinner party where she captivated the other guests with her anecdotal storytelling, paving a path to her celebrated first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The book wouldn’t have been written, however, without some discreet behind-the-scenes meddling by Baldwin.

Angelou considered herself a poet and a playwright, and resisted repeated attempts by fellow dinner party guest, Random House editor Robert Loomis, to secure her autobiography.

As Angelou later discovered, Baldwin counseled Loomis that a different strategy would produce the desired result. His dear friend might not conceive of herself as a memoirist, but would almost assuredly respond to reverse psychology, for instance, a statement that no autobiography could compete as literature.

As Angelou recalled:

I said, ‘Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.’ The truth is that (Loomis) had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.’

“This testimony from a Black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women,” Baldwin enthused upon its publication.

They became siblings of affinity. Witness their easy rapport on the 1975 episode of Assignment America, above.

Every episode centered on someone who had made an important contribution to the ideas and issues of America, and Angelou, who alternated hosting duties with psycho-historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, columnist George Will, and oral historian Studs Terkel, landed an extremely worthy subject in Baldwin.

Their friendship made good on the promise of her hopes for that European tour of Porgy and Bess.

Their candid discussion covers a lot of overlapping ground: love, death, race, aging, sexual identity, success, writing, and the closeness of Baldwin’s family — whom Angelou adored.

Those of us in the generations who came after, who became acquainted with Angelou, the commanding, supremely dignified elder stateswoman, commanding more authority and respect than any official Poet Laureate, may be surprised to see her MO as interviewer, giggling and teasing, functioning as the chorus in a room where code switching is most definitely not a thing:

Baldwin: I think…the only way to live is knowing you’re going to die. If you’re afraid to die, you’ll never be able to live. 

Angelou: Hey, hey!

Baldwin: You know. 

Angelou: Hey, hey.

Baldwin: And nobody knows anything about that. 

Angelou: Yes, yes, yes.

She poses great questions, and listens without interrupting to her friend’s thoughtfully composed answers, for instance, his description of his family’s response to his decision to base himself in France, far from their Harlem home:

Sweetheart, you have to understand, um, you have to understand what happens to my mother’s telephone when I’m in town. People will call up and say what they will do to me. It doesn’t make me shut up. You, you also gotta remember that I’ve been writing, after all, between assassinations. If you were my mother or my brother, you would think, who’s next?

There’s a lot of food for thought in that reply. The familiar connection between interviewer and subject, both towering figures of American literature, brings a truly rare dimension, as when Angelou shares how Baldwin’s older brothers would reserve a part of the proceeds from selling coal in the winter and ice in the summer to send to Baldwin:

In France! I mean to think of a Black American family in Harlem, who had no pretensions to great literature… and to have the oldest boy leave home and go to Paris, France, and then for them to save up enough pennies and nickels and dimes to send a check of $150 to him, in Paris, France!

Baldwin: That’s what people, that’s what people don’t really know about us. 

Angelou: One of the things I think, I mean I believe that we are America. It is true. 

Baldwin: You believe it? 

Angelou: Well. 

Baldwin: I know it. 

Related Content: 

Maya Angelou Reads “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of the Morning”

Watch a Never-Aired TV Profile of James Baldwin (1979)

James Baldwin Talks About Racism in America & Civil Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Walking Tour Around the Pyramids of Giza: 2 Hours in Hi Def

One of the first things tourists learn about the great Pyramids of Giza is how they are not far away in some remote location. Turns out they’re just photographed that way with the Western Desert as backdrop. Turn around and you’ll see not just the bustling city of Cairo, but a freakin’ golf course. The next thing tourists learn is that there’s a lot of walking if you want to take in both pyramids and the Sphinx. Hope you packed some good shoes!

Or you could sit back and watch this one-hour-and-50-minute walking tour, shot in 4K, on a chilly January morning in 2019. There’s not many tourists around for most of it, better to instill a sense of wonder and otherness as you encounter these 4,500 year old structures.

With its relaxing bobbing-head camera and its immersive field recording soundtrack—headphones are recommended—the video tours the entire ancient area, starting with the Mortuary Temple of Khafre, then moving to the two main pyramids, the cemetery, the smaller pyramid of Menkaure, and ending on the Sphinx. There’s even room for a horse ride, although as it’s sped up, it turns out to be rather comical. It’s also a delight to hear the occasional camel make themselves known.

Open Culture has written about the Pyramids of Giza several times. We’ve linked to the massive Digital Giza Project; shown a 3-D reconstruction of what the pyramids looked like when they were originally built (they were gleaming white, for one thing); followed a 3-D tour *inside* the pyramid that is quite spine-tingling; and highlighted an introductory course of Giza and Egyptology. The only remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World continues to inspire a new generation of archaeologists, and this walking tour is as close as your browser can get to being there. ProWalk Tours’ YouTube site also offers many other pleasant walks, from the ancient to the modern. They’re worth checking out.

Related Content:

A 4,000-Year-Old Student ‘Writing Board’ from Ancient Egypt (with Teacher’s Corrections in Red)

Wonders of Ancient Egypt: A Free Online Course from the University of Pennsylvania

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Original Colors Still In It

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

An Animated History of the Ottoman Empire (1299 – 1922)

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.”

Related Content:

Free: Download Thousands of Ottoman-Era Photographs That Have Been Digitized and Put Online

The Rise and Fall of Western Empires Visualized Through the Artful Metaphor of Cell Division

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Animated Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.