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Can the BBC handle the awkward truth about the Ottoman Empire?

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was right to make a sharp break with Turkey’s imperial past

By on Wednesday, 9 October 2013

People walk through the Sultan Ahmed Square in Istanbul (PA)

People walk through the Sultan Ahmed Square in Istanbul (PA)

The fascinating history of the Ottoman Empire is the subject of a new BBC series fronted by Rageh Omaar. The title of the series tries to sneak in a rather contentious point as a given – Europe’s Muslim Emperors. Some mistake, surely? While large swathes of Europe did fall under Ottoman rule, for centuries this rule was deeply resented, and the powers of Europe, or at least most of them, did their best to expel the invader. Even if the Ottoman Turks may have ruled parts of Europe, their civilisation was not European, but Asiatic. As someone once said: “Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe.” It would make sense to describe the Turkish Sultans not as European, but anti-European.

To be fair, the programme did not gloss over the reasons for Turkish difference. The Ottoman Empire (let us not forget the origins of Turkic peoples in central Asia) had more in common with the Chinese Empire than the Roman. The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul bore more than a passing resemblance to the Forbidden City: both were the preserves of eunuchs and concubines. But the Turkish system was far more ruthless than the Chinese. The concubines were all slaves, and because it was forbidden to enslave one’s fellow Muslims, they were Christians who were enslaved and then forcibly converted to Islam.

As for the civil servants and soldiers of the Empire, they were Christian boys, taken from their homes and converted to Islam by being forcibly circumcised. True, some of these orphans had glittering careers, but this should not disguise the cruelty of the system. This levy, known as the devsirme, carried on until the beginning of the 18th century. This way of recruiting members of the privileged caste, rather than relying on noble families, or feudal loyalties, as in Europe, must have been one of the reasons why the Ottomans were so successful in the short term. There were no better fighters than these traumatised boys, when they grew up. But in the long run one suspects that this practice must have been one of the reasons why the Empire declined so markedly from the late seventeenth century onwards. Cruelty is never a good policy.

The same may well have been true of the dynasty. As a male line the Ottomans endured for centuries, thanks to polygamy, but this came at a high price. The concubines were chosen for their beauty alone, and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the harem was hardly healthy. The death rate among the children these women bore the Sultan was high, perhaps due to poor sanitation, and each reign ended with a massacre of all the new Sultan’s brothers, as possible rivals were eliminated. Mehmed III had nineteen of his half-brothers killed on his accession in 1595. Many of the later Sultans were idle, or half-witted, or both, and quite dominated by their mothers. The later Sultans hardly ever left Istanbul, or indeed the walls of their places. One only has to read the later history of the Ottoman court to realise that polygamy is a very bad thing indeed.

The Ottomans also perfected a divide and rule approach to their subject peoples; they were allowed a certain degree of freedom in return for tribute, and the head of each confessional community would be held accountable for misbehaviour. Hence the hanging of the Orthodox Patriarch Gregory V from his own gateway on Easter Sunday 1821, because he was blamed for the Greek revolt of that year. This sort of multi-culturalism has won a few politically correct admirers in our own times, but it has to be remembered that there was a steady stream of converts to Islam throughout the Balkans, as people wished to evade the tax on non-Muslims, as well as having their sons taken away from them. And it should not be forgotten that the subject peoples turned against their Turkish overlords in the end; and that the Turks themselves resorted to ethnic cleansing in Anatolia in 1915, massacring one million Armenians. As a multicultural experiment, the Ottoman Empire ended very badly indeed.

It should not be surprising therefore that even today, as the programme made clear, people in the Balkans and Greece regard the Ottoman era as anything but a golden age. Ottoman domination imposed three hundred years of stagnation and decline on parts of the Balkans, and some countries are still perhaps paying a high price for Ottoman rule. This is not to say that Istanbul is not one of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating cities, or that the Turks of today are not charming people. But Mustafa Kemal, who founded modern Turkey, was right, surely, to break with the past, and to reject the Empire and the Ottoman identity so comprehensively. It will be interesting to see how Rageh Omaar deals with that.