Lord of the Horizons
A History of the Ottoman Empire
By Jason Goodwin
Picador Copyright © 1998 Jason Goodwin
All rights reserved.
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The great Eurasian steppe is a region of scrub and feathery grasses which stretches from the borders of China to the shore of the Black Sea. To the north, it gives way to conifer forests and permafrost; south, it is belted generally by deserts. Steppe grass is too tough, and the weather too variable for cultivation. There is little running water to speak of, and in the last fifty years, since the Soviets brought in machinery to plough the steppe, the rivers have begun running dry, so that the Caspian Sea – landlocked, enormous, a watery reflection of the dry steppe itself – has started to recede.
Steppe dwellers range the grasslands with their flocks, living in tents, and riding the short, hardy Turkish pony of the steppe – here, sometime in the third millennium BC, the horse was tamed for the first time. These people are broadly known as 'Turkmen', divided into tribes, or clans. Over the centuries, thanks to the strength and craft of neighbouring states, the area of their distribution has contracted; their sway was at its height in the eleventh century.
In times of famine, when peasants die more or less where they stand, nomads look for a way out, and climate probably explains the tendency of the steppe to produce now and then a torrent of warriors which would pour out of the steppe and into the settled lands beyond.
Shocks passed like waves across this great dry ocean; often the people who descended on the ploughman were not themselves the victims of famine, but rather people displaced by some distant explosion way down the line. This is how the Turks were shunted west in the eighth century, first against the settled empires of Iran and Iraq through the gap in the mountains known as Transoxania, and then beyond, sometimes slipping over the borders one by one, sometimes advancing en masse; acting as soldiers for the states and sometimes, too, usurping power.
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Between age-old fortresses with wells and markets, domes and minarets, and lemon groves where learned men rehearse theological points worn smooth like pebbles in the handling, the turkmen come riding upon embroidered saddles, with stirrups like metal galoshes. Their wiry ponies, short-legged and high-backed, are so intelligent and beloved that sometimes it is hard to say whether the migration is of men riding horses, or of horses carrying men. 'The people of the Sublime State', an Ottoman dignitary was to inform the Russians in 1775, 'have been on familiar terms with horse and saddle for a very long time.' The Turks used a horsetail, raised on a standard, as the symbol of authority. The Turks could make a horse cry, or teach it to pick up a sword from the ground with its teeth and pass it to its rider. A Turkish horse had his tail dyed red, his wounds healed with chestnut bark, and enjoyed the same right as a man to a decent burial. Horses earned fame in their own right, like Karavulik, the Black Wolf, who galloped young Prince Selim to safety after his abortive rebellion in 1505. Their riders could hurl the gerit from a galloping horse so that it gained an incredible momentum and pierced sheet iron. They could fire arrows backwards from the saddle at a moving target, at a rate of three a second, and their archery was so accurate that as late as the nineteenth century, when the Turkish Sultan wore a frock coat and spoke passable French, it is said he placed an arrow at 800 yards between the legs of a doubting American ambassador.
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'Islam,' said the essayist Essad Bey, 'is the desert.' Unlike the two other great monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Christianity, Islam has no priesthood. The nomad can vanish for weeks on end but the all-powerful, all-seeing God goes with him: five times a day he must clear his mind and wash his hands and call on God. Islam is a powerful weapon in the struggle against uncertainty and change, for people who are not quite sure where they will be, or who they will be with, from one moment to the next, and its rules are firm. There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet. The five daily prayers must be said. Pork and wine are forbidden. Alms must be given. The believer must tirelessly combat unbelief, but peaceably, unless provoked. The Koran is not a scripture but the law, dropped, as it were, flaming from the mind of God; and if it is safe from the mumbo-jumbo of priests it is consequently beset by the cold and legalistic wrangles of Islamic jurists, the ulema, who debate the meaning of the rules.
Islam was forged on a frontier. There have always been Muslim peasants, creatures of habit with nowhere else to go, who must do as they are told: the Ottomans recognised them, like the Christian peasants of the Balkans, as a special charge, defenceless tillers of the soil who composed the reaya, or flock, that horsemen were born to manage. Islam's genius has been reserved for townsmen and nomads, those quicker and less predictable communities which at bottom despise the peasant life. Islam was spread by caravan through the cities of the Middle East, and by the sword, as well, wielded by those Muslim conquerors who called themselves gazi, warriors of the faith, and who rode out of Arabia in the seventh century, contemptuous of distance, swooping down the north African shore, sweeping up to the barrier of the steppe, making Islam, the Abode of Peace, from the Pillars of Hercules to the deserts of Iran, and turning the Mediterranean into an Islamic lake.
Their impetus eventually petered out. The gazi spirit began to flag. The Gates of Interpretation closed in the ninth century. Islam settled down, losing some of its old dash, but gaining in charm, as it blossomed into the Muslim civilisations of Iran, Egypt, Spain, where the scholar and juror advanced over the soldier, to the murmur of plashing water, and the rustle of old texts. The fierce conviction and simplicity of the early Muslims gave way to subtle dialogues between the followers of divine revelation and the exponents of Aristotelian exegesis. In the twelfth century the Christian crusades disturbed the Abode of Peace, so that Palestine and even Jerusalem were lost for a time; Norman – Viking – warriors loosened the Islamic hold on the Mediterranean world; the splendours of Moorish Spain were already succumbing to the Christian advance; but the classical unity of Islam under one caliph had anyway been shattered by the Shi'ite controversy. Shi'as believe that the descendants of Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, are the senior line; Sunnis that the grace descends through Fatima, his daughter. Under the pressure of this dispute, the Abode of Peace was riven by internecine wars, fought not by those who controlled the arguments but by armies of slaves recruited from the Turkic nomads of the steppe.
Islam's genius for movement, all the same, remained lively and ceremonious. By the caravans threading their way across the Islamic world, carrying sacks of spices and bags of gold, bales of silk and bundles of furs, most of the luxuries of the known world were handled by Muslim merchants. There was the extraordinary event known as the Haj, the Pilgrimage, enjoined on every believer, which the Ottomans were destined to control, that huge annual movement of men and women to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina across the waterless deserts of Arabia. Islam honoured travellers, too, and when Ibn Battuta, an elderly Moroccan scholar, completed the Haj in 1329, he pressed on to Jerusalem and then, passed by the guilds across Anatolia, saw for himself the gallery of 'Turkish kings' who upheld his faith in this rough borderland.
Among the Turks, it seemed, Islam had recovered some of its original swing. Battuta called Orhan, son of Osman, the greatest king of the lot – prophetically, for in the 1330s Orhan's estate was not so very large. Orhan captured cities with his troops, and provided them with mosques and schools as an Islamic ruler should, but he summered in his tents and was perpetually on the move, just as the old Moroccan remembered him, making a circuit of one hundred fine castles, with an energy that seemed lusty and barbaric, and mesmerising to a visitor from the languid heartlands of the faith.
When they quit the steppe in the ninth century, the turkmen had taken service with the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, who taught them Islam. From the Persians they learnt statecraft, and some founded Middle Eastern empires of their own. But the horsemen, herding sheep, moved on; tinged with Islam in many colours, and contemptuous of statecraft and settlement and taxation. The imperial powers of the Middle East ushered them on enthusiastically; for nomads are dangerous to villagers who pay tax.
They were drawn into the rhino's head of Anatolia by the backwash of declining Byzantine power: after the battle of Manzikert in 1071 the eastern borders of Byzantium were soft as yoghurt, which the nomads liked to eat. They were pushed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, who left devastation in their wake. Pushed or pulled, they always moved west.
By the end of the thirteenth century the Turks had reached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Behind them lay a gridlock of emirates, or principalities, which had grown up in the holy war against Byzantium and then, as the frontier swept on, lost touch with their enemies and the nomadic style, and settled instead to tax and cultivation. These little states hustled new arrivals on towards the west quite as eagerly as had the big empires of the interior; so the frontier was continually replenished by new blood. The more venturesome began to build themselves ships, bristling with hemp ropes and cutlasses, to explore the Aegean and wage holy war – on a tiny scale, but of the richest sort – as they plundered the vessels of Christian traders, and raided the coasts of Greece and Thrace.
Osman of Bithynia led the next advance, at the beginning of the fourteenth century. His state was minuscule, and his title of bey, or lord, the lowest, but he stood at the crumbling ledge of Byzantine power – on the very sword-point of Islam, close to the Christian Orthodox city of Bursa, overlooking the Sea of Marmara. At the first sign of success footloose warriors came to join him: hard-bitten pastoralists, shepherds-in-arms, adventurers, Sufis, misfits, landless peasants, runaways; men clambering across the rubble of Byzantine rule, families escaping the cruelty of the Mongols, and warriors impatient with the passivity of the emirs. Even Greek border guards, neglected by the Byzantine authorities, came over to the winning side. They lent Osman a force out of all proportion to the size of his estates, drawing his family destiny on to rule over two seas, two continents and the Holy Cities.
Osman himself, by the rough democracy of the borderlands, was only first among equals. His origins are obscure. His right to the lands he held is shrouded in myth, and he did not report to the nominal Mongol suzerain of Turkic Anatolia. The scant records of the age mention brothers and uncles and sons and cousins, sharing, in the Turkish way, something of Osman's own shadowy authority. Osman summered in his tents, befriended Greeks, and attended mixed marriages. He stood to martial music, as did his sons and their great- grandsons, out of respect – so they said – for the vanished Shepherd Kings, the Seljuks, whose crumbling empire the Mongols had swept away, and whose last delinquent avatar died in Osman's lifetime without anyone troubling to record the date. He fed his followers for nothing, and to each of them he is said to have presented a cup after the manner of the chivalric futuwwa brotherhoods whose rules laced Anatolia together at the time. He promised booty and good grazing and joined his force to struggles not especially his own; by night he produced extravagant dreams which reinforced his claim to leadership. With a Greek border warrior as his best man – Michael of the Pointed Beard, who had once rescued him from an attempted murder – he married the daughter of a local seer, Sheikh Edebali.
It was a love-match, by all accounts; but it also wedded Osman to the spiritual energies which lit up the fourteenth-century borderlands. Picking their way across the Islamic civilisations of the Middle East, the Turks had mingled the old steppe traditions of animism and shamanism with Islam of a stripped-down, low-slung, racing sort.
Remote from the great metropolitan centres of Islamic orthodoxy, and encountering much that was strange and heretical, faith on the frontier had an idiosyncratic, rebellious air. As rough country people whose women went unveiled, they preferred holy men who knew how to keep up to the supple intellectuals of the old cities. Tramps and wanderers they liked, fierce talk and wild habits; madmen with their plausible but unexpected utterances, whose ravings were the scorching words of God, direct and necessarily hard to understand.
Osman's role was to cast the gnostic utterances of the baba or holy man into a plan of action, leading his people to better grazing lands, or plunder; otherwise he was no more than one warrior amongst the rest who respected his judgement.
Charismatic sects, chivalric orders, brotherhoods and guilds imposed codes of behaviour which maintained a kind of order in areas where authority such as Osman's was weak. These never quite died away, however orthodox and authoritarian the empire outwardly became. Some turned official, like the Bektashi order of dervishes who later built up a following in the janissary regiments, who drank wine and whose women were unveiled, and eased for many Christians the process of conversion. Others, like the Melami, were to be bitterly proscribed, preaching contempt for the illusions of the world. Their theme overall was the mystery of life, and the divinity of change: a popular theme for the borders. 'Everything is in process of creation and destruction,' wrote the great frontier mystic Bedreddin. 'There is no here or hereafter; everything is a single moment.' He himself abandoned a prosperous career on the ladder of orthodox Islam to plunge into the esoteric tumult of the borderland, where he became a great guru, championing the wild freedom of frontier society and convincing many people, Christians among them, that he was the Mahdi, the Coming of the End of the World; so that the Ottomans, who had grown imperial, hanged him from a tree in Serres in 1416.
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Contemptuous of authority, certain of victory, with their tents and their sheep and their families in camp, the turks' good fortune can seem like a blind conspiracy of nature, egged on by history. The very old Turkish historians explained their success as the work of greatness running in the blood, and could prove that Osman was related to Noah through fifty-two generations. It might bear out the old saying that nomads move dreamlike towards the setting sun. Mehmet II thought that the selflessness of men who 'treated their bodies as though they belonged to someone else, as far as pain and danger was concerned' had brought his forebears their perpetual victory; and he shared this belief with his own troops on the eve of the great assault on Constantinople. Gibbon ascribed Ottoman success to the effeminacy of the Greeks. An Englishman during the First World War said that most of the early Ottomans were Greeks, and that the Ottoman conquest had therefore the quality of a risorgimento, or at least a reformation. A Turk, lecturing in Paris in the 1920s, dismissed the canard and called them Turks, and ultra-Turkish tribal Turks, to boot. A German in the 1930s developed the gazi theme, of warriors of the faith imbued with a mystic vision of their enterprise, citing in evidence a very ancient poem and better still a dated inscription on the mosque at Bursa: 'Orhan, son of Osman, gazi, sultan of the gazi, Lord of the Horizons, Burgrave of the Whole World.' The archaeologists announced that the inscription was a pious fraud, and dated it later than the German had supposed, but perhaps what we see in the swirl and swoop of the mounted men is the love of faith, and the pride of truth. Islam collapsed the huge distances which the steppe had pointed up, proclaiming a single God and a single law. As the gazi won their way across Europe their leader had only to bestride his horse to be Lord of the Horizons already; for there was no future not telescoped into the moment at hand, and the ultimate victory of Islam was a reality which waited only for the world to catch up. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Lord of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin. Copyright © 1998 Jason Goodwin. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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