Rageh Omaar has returned to our screens in recent weeks, offering what is certainly an eye-opening series. Omaar, known best for his time as a leading BBC correspondent during the Second Gulf War, presents a three part series looking at an often forgotten empire which stretched across three continents and commanded immense power and wealth.
Omaar tackles the neglect of this period of history head-on, juxtaposing the dismissive myths of barbarism with the beauties of this civilization. Of course, civility is not measured by the architectural splendour of the Hagia Sophia, the Süleymaniye Mosque, or the Sultans’ palaces, but rather characterised by the sustained (relative) tolerance exercised while controlling all of the holiest sites of Abrahamic religions, and other innumerate enduring symbols of the Ottomans.
Such achievements were subordinated by the terrified states of Westphalian Europe, who scared their children with tales of ‘the Turk’. This is despite the fact that, at this time, the horrors of the Armenian genocide had not yet been committed, and thus the Ottomans did come close to sharing the standard modus operandi of most of Europe’s imperial powers. Omaar even suggests that the Ottomans’ continued presence at the gates of Vienna (the Habsburg’s capital at the height of the Ottoman empire) is an underlying reason amongst several, including the recent tabloid conflation of Islam and militant Islamism, which must be overcome in order for Turkey to eventually join the European Union.
Perhaps most interesting was not the rapacity of Mehmet II’s seizure of Byzantine Constantinople, or even the zenith of the Ottomans under his great-grandson Süleyman the Magnificent, but the response of this empire (covered in the final episode) to the exigencies of nationalism, modernisation, and globalisation.
Revolution and the First World War led to Ataturk’s wholesale homogenisation of the empire into a western-styled, secular model, including the abolition of both the Sultanate and Caliphate. Turkey was one of just many countries to choose democracy at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but remains among the few to have escaped the tyranny of dictatorship which endures in the region despite the Arab Spring almost three years ago. It is this, and membership of the G20, which feeds the growing geo-political strength of Turkey in such a volatile region. This was underlined by Barack Obama’s visit within the first three months of his first term in the White House, and arguably epitomises an economic form of what many term ‘neo-Ottomanism’.
I would definitely recommend looking on iPlayer to watch this series, but if it is no longer available, Magnificent Century, a historically-grounded equivalent to Game of Thrones might also be of interest, especially to any cultural historians who might be reading this.