This is the best of times to be writing history, since so much of what has been taken for granted, especially in the West, is being revised. Assumptions about the past that we accepted as fact, and events we once looked upon with pride, are now being questioned. A dark cloud hovers over the Benin Bronzes, Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and looks likely to burst. The same applies to figures who were considered heroes and placed on pedestals. If the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square had not been covered recently, it might have followed the fate of Edward Colston’s.
Into this febrile atmosphere steps Marc David Baer, professor of international history at the LSE and prize-winning author of many books, but none as far-reaching and revisionary as his latest on the Ottomans, a dynasty much obscured by rumour and cliché.
The Ottomans? Well, there’s cruelty and curved swords, big hats and baggy trousers, eunuchs and odalisques, harems and hookahs, dervishes, decadence and sticky, sugar-frosted delights. Oh, and the lingering image of the Sick Man of Europe. While all these can be found in the pages of Ottoman history they in no way encapsulate the essence of the Ottomans. Baer offers a fuller, fresher view of the dynasty that ruled an empire for 500 years and helped shape the West as much as the Hapsburgs or Romanovs.
Its beginnings were humble. Osman, the original Ottoman after whom the dynasty (Osmanli) was named, came from a band of raiders who had been pushed west off the Asian steppes by the aggressive expansion of the Mongols. Like many other Turkic people, the tribe was nomadic, moving horses, sheep and goats across mountains and deserts in search of seasonal pastures.