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Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire

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For six hundred years, the Ottoman Empire swelled and declined. Islamic, martial, civilized, and tolerant, it advanced in three centuries from the dusty foothills of Anatolia to rule on the Danube and the Nile; at its height, Indian rajahs and the kings of France beseeched the empire's aid. In its last three hundred years the empire seemed ready to collapse, a prodigy of survival and decay. In this striking evocation of the empire's power, Jason Goodwin explores how the Ottomans rose and how, against all odds, they lingered on. In doing so, he also offers a long look back to the origins of problems that plague present-day Kosovars and Serbs.

368 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Jason Goodwin

41 books383 followers
Jason Goodwin's latest book is YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL: Culinary Adventures in the Ottoman Kitchen.
He studied Byzantine history at Cambridge University - and returned to an old obsession to write The Gunpowder Gardens or, A Time For Tea: Travels in China and India in Search of Tea, which was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Award. When the Berlin Wall fell, he walked from Poland to Istanbul to encounter the new European neighbours. His account of the journey, On Foot to the Golden Horn, won the John Llewellyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Prize in 1993.

Fascinated by what he had learned of Istanbul's perpetual influence in the region, he wrote Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, a New York Times Notable Book. 'If you want to learn,' he says, 'write a book.' Lords of the Horizons was described by Time Out as 'perhaps the most readable history ever written on anything.'

Having always wanted to write fiction, he became popular as the author of the mystery series beginning with The Janissary Tree, which won the coveted Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2007. Translated into more than 40 languages, the series continues with The Snake Stone, The Bellini Card, An Evil Eye and The Baklava Club. They feature a Turkish detective, Yashim, who lives in 19th century Istanbul.

YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL is an illustrated collection of recipes, inspired by the cookery in his five published adventures.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
April 18, 2020
”This book is about a people who do not exist. The word ‘Ottoman’ does not describe a place. Nobody nowadays speaks the language.

For six hundred years the Ottoman Empire swelled and declined. It advanced from a dusty beylik in the foothills of Anatolia at the start of the fourteenth century to conquer the relics and successors of Byzantium, including the entire Balkan peninsula from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and the so-called Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia north of the Danube. It took Anatolia. The submission of the Crimean Tartars in the fifteenth century, along with the capture of Constantinopple in 1453, completing its control of the Black Sea. In 1517 it swept up the heartlands of Islam--Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, along with the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Controlling the thoroughfares which linked Europe to the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Danube to the Nile.”

I was browsing through Netflix, looking for something with a bit more meat on the bone than just mindless entertainment, and stumbled upon a series called The Rise of Empires: Ottoman. I poured myself another cup of coffee, unfortunately not a Turkish coffee in one of those elegant porcelain kahve finjanı, but a stout Ethiopian blend of black coffee that would, hopefully, make my body electric sing. I was settling into the show, hoping for a bit more insight into the Ottomans, given that I know very little about them, even though I’ve always had a minor obsession with Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was called in 1453. In fact, I have a splatter painting of the Istanbul skyline hanging in my guest bathroom.

I was just tucking into my egg and cheese sandwich on rye when this chap, this very English looking bloke, popped on the screen to talk about the fall of Constantinople. I pointed at the screen and said,...I know that guy, which came out more like I gnot dat gouy, as egg dribbled from my masticating/talking mouth and my Scottish Terrier promptly cleaned up those bits that made it to the floor. Well, I don’t know Jason Goodwin, but I have chatted with him from time to time online. He wrote this series about Yashim Togalu, a eunuch Ottoman investigator in 19th century Istanbul that really does drop the reader into Ottoman culture, and any footnotes I have in my brain about the Ottoman’s is from reading those books.

My next thought was, didn’t Jason write a nonfiction book about the Ottomans, and isn’t that book residing on my shelves? Indeed, it was!

The changing of power from one sultan to the next was fascinating as well as brutal. First order of business was to pay off the Janissary guards. These were the personal bodyguards of the sultan. It paid to be generous, just as Tom Brady is generous with his Christmas presents to his offensive line. They are all that is standing between Brady and a body cast or, in the case of the sultan, being sliced and diced by a rival. As the Ottoman’s conquered Christian territory, they began demanding tributes of young men, who were trained to join the Janissaries. They were not allowed to marry; like nuns who are married to God, the Janissaries were completely loyal to the sultan...well...as long as he didn’t piss them off. In 1826, the Janissaries were disbanded. More than disbanded, they were hunted down and killed. They became more dangerous to the sultan than the danger they were protecting him from.

When a sultan died, generally, his eldest son took his place or the next oldest male blood relative. The rest of the line was considered expendable. ”When Mehmet III took the throne in 1595 nineteen princely corpses had been carried from the Gate in obedience to the law of sultanic fratricide.” Bloody hell! One would think, that the younger sons, knowing how things worked, would keep a bag packed and a fleet footed camel standing by, ready to abscond to parts unknown at the first hint of a raspy cough from their father.

I was impressed with the order that the Ottomans brought to a siege. ”The real power of the empire was its capacity to fling itself forward, so that at the last siege of Vienna, for example, it erected a canvas city beside the Austrain capital, but bigger than Vienna, and much better ordered, with neat rows of tented streets, and an orchard and garden for the Grand Vizier.” This sounded like a paradise, especially when I think about the chaos and unsanitary conditions of a Christian siege army. More times than not, dysentery would kill more men than battle...not so with the Ottomans.

Goodwin liberally quoted two Victorian British travellers: Edward Lear, yes the nonsense lad, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who both were infinitely curious about the world and travelled extensively. I’ve ordered a bio of Lear by Jenny Uglow and intend to order one on Montagu as well. These are exactly the type of curious, talented, adventurous people I wish to know more about.

Six hundred years is a good run. I have my doubts that my country, the USofA, will make it anywhere near that long. We will most likely devolve into corporate principalities, like city states, or be carved up by trillionaires into fiefdoms. We got off to a good start and so did the Ottomans. During the reigns of the first ten sultans, the Ottomans conquered the world. ”These ten reigned an average of twenty-seven years apiece; campaigned with the troops, won battles, and earned sobriquets like Grim, Magnificence, and Conqueror. In the century that followed, sultans averaged twelve years on the throne: out of the next ten sultans, five were deposed, and two assassinated.” Mental instability creeped into the gene pool, and the brilliant order that had always defined the decisions of the Ottoman Empire was replaced by madness.

The Rise of Empires Netflix series focused on Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, which is a critical moment in Ottoman history. His father, Mehmet I, had tried and failed to conquer it. The Christian nations were too busy squabbling amongst themselves or too broke to come to the aid of the city that many considered, for good reason, to be the center of the world. As it turned out, the Christian nations would have done well to stop the Ottomans there, to defend the walls of Constantinople, and turn back the crescent tide that would soon sweep over many of their own lands.

Goodwin will take you through the rise and fall of the Ottomans rather efficiently. He covers six hundred years in 326 pages, but you will not feel bereft of information. You will feel primed and excited to explore the world of the Ottomans further.

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Profile Image for Yelda Basar Moers.
182 reviews140 followers
November 15, 2017
I just finished this dark and stormy popular historical book about the Ottoman Empire and I have to say that within fifteen pages of reading it I was utterly confused! Confused because studying Ottoman history for more than a decade now, and having lived in Turkey (and born there!), I didn't find anything Ottoman Turkish about it! And then that confusion I mentioned turned to anger! And then I was enraged!!! The last time I felt this feeling of injustice was several years ago when I read Glenn Beck's awful book-- It IS About Islam-- basically slamming Islam as a faith with footless arguments!

I sincerely felt that author Jason Goodwin gave an unfair and dismal portrayal of the Ottoman Turks and their history (late 13th to early 19th century). It's sad that Goodwin left out much of its glory, and beauty, and its tolerance as a model of meritocracy, multiculturalism and egalitarianism. Some even say it was a model for the United States!

The Ottoman Turks ruled for 600 years over a vast territory which included half of Europe. They let the people they ruled practice their own religion in their own houses of worship. In Istanbul you could find a mosque, church and synagogue on the same block! The Ottomans were pious and spirituality was infused into every part of their life. They revered nature, flowers, and time spent outdoors among trees and birds. They gave special, caring attention to animals, dogs, cats and children (that's probably why we have so many stray cats in Turkey!!!). They were highly charitable. I'm not saying the Ottomans were angels, but they were most certainly not the people portrayed in this book!

Some examples of egregious depictions of the Ottomans and Istanbul...In the prologue he mentions the "grey, grey waters of the Bosphorus." Not true!!! I don't know what he is talking about! Has he ever visited Istanbul? The waters of the Bosphorus are so vividly blue that you would have to be colorblind not to notice this. But instead he tries to give a murky landscape to the main body way that flows through Istanbul. He writes of Topkapi Palace, the glorious palace that was home to the Sultans of the Empire for hundreds of years as a "petrified encampment of some defeated army." This is insulting to our past and the palace is no such thing-- I can attest to it myself having visited it numerous times. It is gorgeous and breathtaking. I wonder if he even visited it? He writes that the Ottomans were "ignorant of geography" and didn't use clocks! The Ottomans were working with the British, the French, even the Russians! How could this be possible if they didn't know geography or use clocks, or live in a modern way. Sultan Murad III was in correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I whom he had an alliance with, and Sultan Suleiman dealt constantly with the Venetians. The Ottomans were constantly interacting with the European world, yet Mr. Goodwin portrays then as anachronistic barbarians!

He describes the empire as "darker," "gloomy," and "helpless." He writes of the Ottoman dynastic family as "mad." He specifically writes that they were an "incredibly mad and morbid family." He doesn't at all mention the magnificent Westward and Enlightened reigns of Selim III, Mahmud II and the incredible women who ruled it, Kosem Sultan and Hurrem Sultan, one as regent, the other behind the scenes.

For me, this was not a true account of the empire but rather something created in Goodwin's own imagination. In the resources section I don't see the well known Turkish historians of the Ottoman Empire or many Turkish sources at all. This is his idea of this time and place, not the time and place itself! It's fascinating how even nonfiction historical books can become fiction in how they are penned!

I would suggest that Mr. Goodwin spend some time in Turkey and take a course in Turkish, for starters. And then consider rewriting his version of our history! And I'm totally shocked that Picador (the publisher) did not do their diligence and allowed this book to be published!

If you want a fictional account of the Ottoman Empire made up by the author's own imagination, then read this book. Otherwise I'd toss it! I've read over 100 books on the Ottoman Empire and lived in Turkey and can say this book has nothing to do with it!
Profile Image for WarpDrive.
272 reviews386 followers
February 18, 2018
I chose this book as I wanted an introductory overview on this peculiar and fascinating polity, with the objective to gain a better knowledge of one of the main players in Middle Eastern and Balkan history, a multi-ethnic and complex Empire so often unfairly neglected or stereotyped in history books.

I must regretfully state that my objectives have been only partially fulfilled, and that this book has been a bit of a hit-and-miss reading experience.
I perfectly understand that the task of condensing centuries of history of this complex, multicultural empire within 300 pages of one single book is a quite fearsome challenge, but I must also say that the author's approach did not help either: in fact, rather the keeping the focus on the main social, political and cultural trends, the narrative gets too often dispersed into a myriad of factoids and curiosities narrated in what is supposedly a "lyrical style", elements that actually detract from the flow and linearity of the exposition, frequently turning what is supposed to be a history book into some sort of meandering curiosity cabinet. This is compounded by an overall lack of a chronological framework in the narration, which makes the reading of this book an occasionally highly frustrating exercise.

There is also a significant amount of mistakes and several questionable/unsupported interpretations, of which the following list is just a subset:
- chapter 2, page 12: the author claims that, in 1389, the Ottoman army obtained a big victory and shattered the Serbs at Kossovo, on the Blackbird Field.
Well, the reality is somewhat different: firstly, BOTH armies were virtually annihilated, even though the Ottomans significantly outnumbered the Serbians; moreover, the Sultan himself died during the fight (and I think this was the only battle in Ottoman history when the Sultan himself was killed), and finally it took another 70 years and another battle in 1448 (this one much more decisive then the one in 1389) before the Ottomans managed to completely subdue Serbia.
- in chapter 5 there is the claim that the face-veil was introduced by the Byzantines: this is completely unproven and not supported by evidence; actually, Byzantine art does not depict women with veiled faces, although it does depict women with veiled hair
- still in chapter 5, page 45: the author claims that the Venetians, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, “toyed with the idea of moving Venice there, lock, stock and barrel”. In all the books I have read about Venetian history, I never found any reference to such event. This actually runs completely contrary to the very special relationship between Venetians and their own beautiful and unique city, and it is contrary to what actually happened historically: as soon as Constantinople was open, the Venetians did not waste any time in sacking some of its most treasured monuments and objects, and in bringing them to Venice (as anybody visiting Venice itself can still clearly see by looking at the Four Tetrarchs, the Quadriga, or the porphiri marbles adorning St Mark's basilica).
- page 52: the author talks in pretty disparaging terms of the Topkapi Palace. Well, I understand that it may be a question of personal tastes, but I do not think that I am alone in finding this palace quite magnificent and utterly elegant and beautiful:

- later in the book (page 215), the author talks in similarly disparaging ways of the so called “Blue Mosque”. Well, I personally find it a beautiful and an almost otherworldly example of the finest religious architecture buildings ever designed:

- page 65: the siege of Baghdad during one of the wars of the Ottomans with Persia happened in 1623, not in 1683 as claimed by the author
- page 86: the author states that, during the battle of Mohacs, a Polish mercenary suggested that the Hungarian army adopt the same technique adopted by the Hussites at the battle of the White Mountains. This is simply not possible, as such battle was actually waged more than a century later (in 1620, as part of the Thirty Years War), while the battle at Mohacs happened in 1526.
- page 87: in 1529, during the first siege of Vienna, the author states that the Sultan “Suleyman abruptly announced his decision to withdraw on 14 October 1529”. Actually, the reality is quite different: the Sultan's decision was not so “abrupt” nor arbitrary, as the siege was slowly turning into a monumental disaster and the janissaries (the best troops of the Ottomans, possibly) had already come very close to outright mutiny.
- page 128 and page 163: while I agree with the author that the outcomes of the Battle of Lepanto have been wildly exaggerated by Christian sources, the author neglects to investigate the important psychological and political effects of such event. Moreover, while it is true that the Ottomans managed to quickly rebuild their fleet sank at Lepanto, it is also true (but not mentioned in the book) that the new fleet was of significantly lower quality than the original, so even purely from a military standpoint the effects of the battle were not completely negligible either.
- page 150: the author claims that Constantine founded Constantinople in AD 370. This actually happened in AD 330.
- the author refers to Sufism as a sect. I am not expert at all in Muslim religious aspects and doctrines, but my limited understanding on the matter is that Sufism, more than a sect, can be seen as an interpretation, an aspect or dimension of Islam that cuts across the Shia/Sunni divide.
- Page 315: the author, when referring to episodes like the Armenian Holocaust (when over 1.5 Armenians were exterminated with the encouragement and open complicity of the Ottoman authorities) makes what can be easily regarded as a significant understatement when he says: “the authorities made little effort to check the atrocities”. This episode is a real tragedy, and a big black spot in the history of an Empire that in most of its evolution throughout the centuries demonstrated a remarkable level of tolerance.

The inaccuracies mentioned above do not make this book something that should be avoided. On the contrary, there are some parts of the book that are highly informative, interesting and well-written.
I particularly liked the description of the peculiarly egalitarian, meritocratic (in all Europe the Ottoman Empire alone possessed no hereditary nobility), and religiously and culturally tolerant political system (providing some similarities to the approach followed by the Roman Empire towards the conquered peoples), all characteristics that the Ottoman Empire developed and demonstrated until the process of fossilization, increasingly reactionary conservatism and decadence started to set in, particularly in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Moreover, the Ottoman Empire implemented a relatively light taxation regime, and a generally friendly and light-handed approach to economic development and enterprise, which resulted in a generally healthy and growing economy in the 16th century, when the population of the empire doubled.

The complex relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its Christian neighbors is also described sufficiently well, in particular its intimate, contradictory relationship with the Republic of Venice, a relationship characterized by bouts of conflict, ongoing rivalry in the Mediterranean sea, interspersed with an ongoing commercial association.

The book has also a pretty good timeline, and a handy list of the Ottoman Sultans, together with a small but handy glossary of Turkish terms.

Overall, a reasonably good book, which I think can be fairly graded with a 3-star rating.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,836 reviews1,343 followers
October 5, 2014
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things . Machiavelli

Of course Niccolo also said that conquering the Ottomans would be most difficult, but afterwards rather easy to hold or occupy. It is good being glib. I violated my latest reading plan over the holiday weekend.

Ottomans did not, on the whole, engage in trade; they worked in administration; their minorities, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, seperated from them by a gulf of culture and sympathy, traditionally looked after the money side.

Jason Goodwin has provided us with a sprawling popular history, one surveying an empire which stretched across three continents for around 600 hundred years and conducted its affairs in a likely two dozen languages. The matter is presented in a predictably uneven manner. The text is both compelling and insightful as the reader gauges the expansion and retraction of the House of Osman. The Ottoman core principles contributed almost solely to conquest. The reality of an increasing population and the ravages of time forced and exacerbated its fatal contradictions. Is it me, did anyone else know the origins of the croissant extend from the Siege of Vienna? I did not and remain unsure what I think about all that. I'm a bagel fellow by trade.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,029 reviews666 followers
January 24, 2013
Perhaps one of the reasons we are having so many problems relating to the Middle East and the Muslim world is that we choose to avert our gaze from it. Practically no one of my acquaintance knows anything about the Ottoman Empire, which lasted some 600 years. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin is an excellent place to start. It ranks with the classic The Ottoman Centuries by Lord Kinross, which takes a more traditional chronologically structured approach to the subject, while Goodwin, while appearing to be more impressionistic, actually covers the ground just as well.

As he states in his introduction,
This book is about a people who do not exist. The word 'Ottoman' does not describe a place. Nobody nowadays speaks their language. Only a few professors can begin to understand their poetry -- 'We have no classics,' snapped a Turkish poet in 1964 at a poetry symposium in Sofia, when asked to acquaint the group with examples of classical Ottoman verse.
Who, then, were the Ottomans? Originally, they were a roving military clique under the command of a sultan. They differed from the Arabs in their great seventh century conquests by not caring all that much about converting infidels to Islam. In fact, during the early centuries of the Empire, they were far more liberal in their treatment of Orthodox Christians, Jews, and others than almost any other peoples.

And they had a formidable army, one that threatened twice to invade Central Europe by besieging Vienna, only to fail twice. Their infantry, incidentally, did not consist of Muslims, but of Janissaries "recruited" from among their Christian client states. Only the spahis, their cavalry, was substantially Turkish and Muslim.

Goodwin regales us with hundreds of anecdotes which are endlessly fascinating and make his one of the most fascinating histories of the last few decades. Did you know, for example, that the Empire did not have a printing press until the 18th century (both Kinross and Goodwin point this out in their histories)? Did you know that the streets of Constantinople and other Ottoman cities were crowded with stray dogs, and that the French offered to buy them to manufacture gloves?

When Osama bin Laden was setting up Al-Qaida, he referred to the Caliphate of Islam as having been vacant for some 70 years, and suggested by implication that he wanted to try out for the job. What the late terrorist forgot to mention was that the Sultan/Caliphs (until almost the very end, they were the same) did not take their role as titular head of Islam terribly seriously.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
1,214 reviews107 followers
May 18, 2013
There's a lot of interesting detail here. Unfortunately, it's incredibly confusing. The author seems to believe that his readers are already intimately familiar with many of the people, battles, titles, etc of the Ottomans (in which case, why read a survey history book on the topic?). Since many of the sultans have the same name, this becomes extra confusing. Worse, there's only a vague nod towards linearity. Often, the century being discussed will jump from something in the 1500s in one paragraph to something in the 1400s in the next to a supporting quote from someone who you realize halfway through the book lived in the 1700s. Some chapters are about history, which are slightly more linear. Others are about culture, which bounce around insanely. It makes keeping cause and effect and the evolution of the culture impossible to keep clear in your head.

The author fancies that he has a lyrical style. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, it's just kind of annoying.

This did, in fact, have the content I was looking for. (I'd started with Lord Kinross' book, and given up because it was so dry a recitation of dates and names that I couldn't keep that straight, either. Sultan A went to place B and fought battle C. Then Sultan D went to place E and fought battle F.) There was a nice mix of major events, entertaining trivia, and cultural analysis. But it was so muddled up temporally that I think I may be a little more confused than I was to begin with.
Profile Image for Angela.
46 reviews9 followers
December 7, 2014
This book is sort of like a curiosity cabinet of travelogue and ethno-history, which is both its strength and weakness. You'll learn about obsessive clock-collecting, tulip madness, Istanbul's stray dogs, the sultan's silver slippers, madness and drownings and strangulation. Old-fashioned generalizations of ethnic character border on political incorrectness in a fun-but-wrong 19th century way. It's a theatrical, moody, stage-setting book. It's a zeitgeist book, more a diorama than a dissertation.

A potpourri of anecdotes and facts are sprinkled about in something loosely inspired by chronological order. There's a decent glossary and basic map, but casual references to archaic words, obscure places, and historical & literary figures frequently sent me to Wikipedia. If you're looking for in-depth historical analysis, you're in the wrong place. This is more like a crazy uncle's attic, with a drawing here, a letter there, and little snatches of poetry.
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,610 reviews419 followers
February 7, 2017
-Tan especial como “especialito”.-

Género. Historia.

Lo que nos cuenta. Aproximación al Imperio Otomano, su historia, sus estructuras sociales y políticas, su auge, cénit y lento declive, a través de sus líderes y de los rumbos que marcaron sus ciudadanos para definir las peculiaridades tan llamativas de la idiosincrasia del imperio que permitieron tanto su grandeza como su caída.

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Profile Image for Jessica.
2,207 reviews47 followers
May 18, 2008
Never caught fire for me - the meandering style made it too difficult to see the connections between people and places that make history interesting to me. I really wanted to like this one more, as I enjoy Goodwin's fiction tremendously.
Profile Image for GoldGato.
1,129 reviews40 followers
November 14, 2013
From its beginnings as a nondescript tribe dwelling in the foothills of Anatolia to the dazzling victory over the Byzantines at Constantinople, the Empire of Osman (Ottoman) was the powerhouse of its day. It was an empire that adapted to the countries it overran, so that a day in the marketplace at Istanbul would find Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Jews, Serbs, Moors and others mingling together, regardless of race or language.

"There is a great difference between our loss and yours. You have shaved our chin; but our beard is growing again. We have lopped off your arm, and you can never replace it."

The Ottomans suffered their first major loss against the Christian West at the Battle of Lepanto but managed to rebuild its navy and to continue its hold over the Balkans. The history of how the Ottomans took over the exotic identity of the Byzantines and made it their own is fascinating. The Empire was run as a corporation, focused on goals and metrics and organizational structure. Janissaries, harems, sibling rivalries make for enthralling history.

This volume is laid out as a three-act structure, with the beginning followed by the rise followed by the decline of the Empire. But as Goodwin showed in his other Istanbul-inspired book On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul, the delight in turning the pages here leads to finding little gems of history. For example, the croissant was created to commemorate the city bakers of Vienna who heard the Turks tunneling beneath the streets, thus sounding the alarm. Thus was born the bun shaped as a crescent (the symbol of the Ottomans). And then there's the footnote about the creation of the first cigarette, rolled by Ottoman gunners who had to replace their broken clay pipe.

The Ottoman vizier had the forts painted very white, to give his enemies the impression that they were all newly fitted up.

The last chapter of the book is an epilogue of sorts. For as long as the Turks had ruled over Istanbul, the mongrel dogs of the city were kings of the streets. Each dog belonged to a gang which in turn was part of a strictly-defined territory that other canine packs could not cross. The Ottomans accepted these mangy wolves as part of the divine plan, so human and dog tolerated each other. But when the end of World War I came, and the defeat of the Ottomans, the Sultan no longer had the power to prevent progress from seeping in, and the dogs were moved to an island. They could not return to their old kingdom, just as the Ottomans found theirs at an end.

Book Season = Spring (painted forts)
Profile Image for Davit Khachatryan.
6 reviews4 followers
April 26, 2021
"Perhaps the most readable history ever written on anything" observes Time Out, while Daily Telegraph praises the book as "Brilliant and beautifully written". To both I agree. But any history of the Ottoman Empire, that omits acknowledging Sultan II Abdul Hamid's massacres of his Armenian subjects that claimed about 300000 lives in 1890s, and the Armenian Genocide during and after the WWI, is nothing but a miserably 'filtered' fairytale mesmerizing indeed it might be, or put simply - a pile of rubbish of a history.
1,528 reviews23 followers
February 12, 2023
This is a perfectly adaquete and well written history from a many who clearly loves and has a great fondness for many aspects of the Ottoman empire - see his popular detective/fiction novels such as the Janissary Tree - but I can't help thinking that the skills that make a fine novelist are not the same as those needed by a fine historian, evena writer if popular history.

I am not going to dispute his facts or question he research, although at least one Goodreads Reviewer is greatly excised by what Godwin says but even more for daring to say it and not being a professional historian, it is obviously superficial and he doesn't read Turkish or Ottoman but his book is very readable. I just think there are other very readable histories in English, such as Caroline Finkel's Osman's Dream, which I would recommend before Godwin's.

Basically this is a jolly readable popular history of the Ottoman dynasty and empire. As a companion piece to his novels it is fine but if you are really interested in history of this dynasty and empire you need to look elsewhere.
Profile Image for Harooon.
73 reviews8 followers
May 13, 2021
Jason Goodwin’s book is a summary of the entire timeline of the Ottoman Empire. It’s one of the few books (in English) covering this period, the other notable one being Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream. Whereas Finkel’s work is more strait-laced history, Goodwin has gone for something much more alluring. His writing is like a mirage. You are taken on a tour through the streets of Konstantiniyye (Istanbul/Constantinople) and across the plains and mountains of the empire, through all its sieges, coffee-houses and harems, to see its scribbles, edicts, and portraitures. It’s almost like a travel book. This makes the book accessible, though not overly substantive; Goodwin rarely cites the materials from which he is drawing his information, and most of the claims in this book go unsourced. Nonetheless, what you are presented with is a whirlwind picture of the empire, from rise to fall.

The early Ottoman Empire owed its success and expansion to its war-like nature, stemming from its nomadic origins and the Gazi ethos, a kind of Islamic holy war tradition. Sultans were expected to lead their soldiers into battle, which inspired an almost religious confidence in their right to rule. His followers were constantly churning for battle, lusting after both its glory and its spoils. Some of them were not even organised by the Sultan and his commanders, being irregular bandits and raiders - akinci - that raided as far afield as France and Germany of their own accord.

Another factor in its early success was the devşirme, or “boy tribute” system, introduced by Murad II in 1432, according to which young Christian boys of good stock were selected to become personal slaves of the Sultan and whisked away to the capital, where they were converted to Islam and immersed in an atmosphere of total martial discipline. From their ranks were drawn the janissaries, Europe’s first standing army, who were paid a tithe for their professional services. The janissaries, with their zealous devotion to Sultan and war, far outmatched the rag-tag armies being fielded by their enemies. And by raising slave armies from conquered territories, the empire’s expansion fuelled itself: “The boy tribute fulfilled the logic of an empire geared for war: just as war booty financed the next assault, so the borderlands could be made to furnish the men who, being raised to perfection in the capital, were turned out to rule the empire and to expand the frontiers of the state.” (59).

Successions were a matter of cunning and power, and extremely bloody affairs. The prince who could outmaneuver his rivals - perhaps with some help from the vizier (prime minister) or the qadi (Islamic judges) or janissaries or other supporters at the capital - would become Sultan. On taking control of the Empire, he put every other claimant to the death, which generally meant every male family member. Successions were thus concluded with routine purges and bouts of violence against the Sultan’s potential enemies. This meant reigns were long and stable, and the successor generally a capable statesman and fighter.

Ottoman ascendancy peaked with Suleiman the Magnificent, who dominated the Mediterranean and Red seas, conquered much of the Middle East, sacked the Kingdom of Hungary, and died outside the walls of Vienna. A succession of drunkards and incompetents followed him. One reason for this is a change in the fratricidal succession customs during the reign of Ahmet I; instead of being executed, the princes-in-waiting were locked inside the inner sanctum of the harem, known as the Cage. There they carried on muted lives, plied with sensual pleasures in the form of (infertile) concubines, or tortured in dark, tiny rooms. Few learned any skills practical to governing. Many could not even talk properly, because they did not get a serious education and often spoke only in Seraglio (Ottoman sign language), a practice that began at court because it was thought more befitting a Sultan’s majesty. When these nervous, traumatised princes went mad or were overthrown, the janissaries would haul up the next one from the Cage, and the cycle would repeat.

Without effective rulers or the loot brought by fresh conquests, the empire struggled to keep itself churning. Powerful actors and factions at the Sultan’s court meddled in his rule and undermined his authority and, as a whole, the empire’s “sheer breadth and complexity” started to outgrow the “medieval systems that had been devised to regulate it.” (192).

If the unsuccessful 1529 siege of Vienna checked Ottoman expansion, then the war of the Holy League, determined by another fateful siege of Vienna in 1683, caused them to buckle under their own weight. At that siege, a desperate coalition of Christian soldiers held the line until Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, routed the Turks from behind with a ferocious cavalry charge. They fled all the way back to Belgrade and Sultan Mehmed IV was forced to recognise Austrian and Polish sovereignty over the Balkans, ending long-term Ottoman ambitions; at last, the empire was forced to admit that it was one one power among many, falling into the general concert of states in Europe. The Ottoman commander and grand vizier Kara Mustafa calmly accepted his death as the price for this crushing defeat. “Am I to die?” he asked the sultan’s messenger. “So be it.” Not long after, Mehmed was chucked out by the janissaries.

The janissaries were growing steadily more corrupt and decadent. No longer drawn from child slaves, they had become a hereditary class in their own right, and routinely abused their powers to secure privileges for themselves. They earned a regular stipend and did not pay tax, which drained the royal coffers. They extorted businesses, setting fire to those which did not pay the protection money, and then charging them for the service of putting it out. And they had long ceased to be an effective fighting force. If a Sultan tried to pull in their behaviour or modernise their tactics, he would simply be overthrown.

The destruction of the janissaries in 1828 was only possible because they were so widely hated. Leading up to the Auspicious Event, Sultan Mahmud II had been developing an army of modern gunners drilled in new European methods of combat. The janissaries saw this as a threat to their power and rose up. This time a combination of Sipahi (elite royal household cavalry) and disgruntled civilians (Mahmud handed out guns to the students of Konstantiniyye) fought the janissaries back to their headquarters, which was shelled into dust. The janissaries were done.

Too little, too late. The empire was already dead on its feet from centuries of stagnation. They struggled to raise enough money to support the new kind of expensive professional army that the rest of Europe was fielding. Paradoxically, the empire had many lucrative trade routes (at one point the republic of Ragusa had the largest merchant fleet in the world). But this wealth accrued privately - mostly to enterprising Jews, Armenians, and Greeks - and the Sultan was never able to cash in on it. Taxation was inefficient, too. The administrative structure of the empire was very devolved, with local pashas raising money on their own initiatives, often through cruel methods, which drove the people to form their own rugged associations operating outside of the law. Timariots (soldiers paid a stipend) often turned to banditry. Local strongmen filled the power vacuum. Attempts at political reform had mixed success; “Outside Istanbul, they were often ignored, or misunderstood, or just inapplicable.” (305).

Perhaps the only thing stopping an earlier collapse was the inability of Europe to decide on what to do with the empire’s corpse. Russia, having arrogated itself to the saviour of Slavs everywhere, made everyone nervous with their meddling in the Balkans. They wanted a reconstituted Byzantine Empire, ruled out of Constantinople, under the auspices of a Russian-influenced patriarch. France, on the other hand, pushed for their own naval access through the Dardanelles. An agreement could never be reached, though foreign elements continued to meddle in Ottoman politics. Most of the infrastructure projects - with the notable exception of the railway line to Mecca and Medina - were funded and owned entirely by European industrialists, especially Germans. When the empire went bankrupt in 1875, its foreign creditors agreed to restructure the debt in exchange for an unprecedented level of political and economic influence. They had their hands on all the levers. The Sultan had ceased to be an effective political actor.

This decline thesis really begins to speed up towards the end of the book. Goodwin passes over the Crimean War and World War I with almost no mention of what role the Ottomans played in them. The Treaty of Sevres - in which the empire was prised apart by colonial powers - is only mentioned obliquely. The impression you leave with is of an empire coasting along on impetus, collapsing of its own sheer dysfunction. This way of looking at it just seems too easy. How was such a walking dead empire able to fight a World War at the same as numerous insurrections and rebellions? How could it possibly have delivered the humiliating defeat it did to the numerically and martially superior British troops at Kut? Despite claiming that Ottoman ascendancy was checked at the peace of Karlowitz in 1699, Goodwin goes on to admit that the Ottomans reconquered several territories and bounced back, but except for a brief mention of Karánsebes (where the Austrian army routed itself through friendly fire) - an event more curious than it is significant - these vicissitudes are not really explored, and are depicted as European failures more than Ottoman successes.

How much do we lose by viewing Ottoman history primarily through the trajectory of its decline? It belies the true complexity of history. The thesis of Ottoman decline seems to emanate from its defeat in World War I and the need to rationalise the new (western) order of nationstates and mandates that emerged in its wake. It’s classic Eurocentrism. Ottoman journeys in Africa and the Middle East are neglected in favour of medieval brawls with Austria, Venice, and the Byzantines. The light-hearted sketches of Ottoman life are the most charming parts of the book, but even they are mostly just drawing upon the accounts of westerners living in an empire they don’t fundamentally “get”. Viewing the empire through their accounts has the effect of exoticising it, which is always an obstacle to our understanding, and part of what makes this book feel so much like travel writing.

Goodwin has definitely chosen presentation and style over substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a general history book, but the book has presentation issues as well. The sketch-of-life chapters often feel out of place, sprinkled in between the more straightforward who-did-what-when chapters. And the chronology of this book is a mess: sometimes Goodwin will jump back and forth in time by more than a century within the same chapter. The actions of important figures are mentioned before it’s explained who they are.

Is this a book worth reading? If you’re looking for a light, Ottoman-flavoured read, or you don’t know anything about Ottoman or Turkish history, it might not be a bad choice. Goodwin does give you a sketch of what the empire was like, which is to his credit, for dry academics always struggle with this. It’s also not a punishing read - there’s no need to pore over every detail - and you will come away with some outline of the empire’s timeline. But if you’re after a more substantive general history, then - ignoring Turkish writers (as they are hard to find in New Zealand) - you’re perhaps better served by Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream.

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Profile Image for Andrew.
Author 3 books9 followers
May 18, 2009
Goodwin seems enthralled with his own style, at the expense of readership. The style at times captures the cosmopolitanism of the Ottoman Empire, but I would recommend that readers work through more straightforward histories first before this one.
Profile Image for Lauren Albert.
1,798 reviews160 followers
October 11, 2009
One of the best written histories I 've read. Very writerly. I sometimes got lost in the names but that's not the fault of the book. It probably would have helped if I knew more about the subject though I wouldn't discourage someone from reading it because they didn't. 9/09
Profile Image for Ghost of the Library.
338 reviews64 followers
July 27, 2020
Absolutely fascinating read even if it did take me a while to finish.
I would say this is a great introduction to European/Middle Eastern History and it only shows yet again how far by back go the roots of many modern day conflicts in this part of the world.

Proper review to follow
Profile Image for Brooke.
33 reviews
July 7, 2022
Wow! This was a stunning portrait of the Ottoman Empire, and a beautifully crafted narrative. I found this in a lending library and picked it up solely for some background on Turkey before I traveled there but was happily surprised by Goodwin’s lyrical and poetic writing style. Despite being nonfiction, Lords of the Horizons contains some of the most beautiful turns of phrase I’ve read in a while and captures much of the significance and diversity of Turkey historically and today. Overall I loved it though I will say I’m neither Turkish nor know that much about Turkey so while I found it super informative I can’t say whether it’s definitive (500 years of history doesn’t really fit into 300 pages.)
Profile Image for Rindis.
406 reviews48 followers
February 12, 2022
I'm a little surprised at my copy of Goodwin's book. While it is twenty years old now, by this point publishers were generally aware of the problems of using paper that was too acidic, and using largely acid-free paper. This book's pages are distinctly discolored, with that slightly brittle feel. It makes the book feel a older than it is, because most books contemporary with it don't have that trouble.

Goodwin's writing however is quite good, if a bit scatterbrained. This is very much readable popular history, and pours forth a lot of interesting facts and tidbits that are thematically linked as much as chronologically so. Within the space of a few pages, he'll bounce back and forth between centuries to illustrate a point. (I'll leave you to decide if that's really an appropriate technique.)

There's color and commentary, and wars, and sultans, and viziers, colorful quotes from travelers. This is all well done, but neither does it rise above this. Near to six centuries is a lot of time, so there's lots of tidbits to share, but while the hopping around allows you to see things change, there's no defined sense of time passing. There's much in here that, even with knowledge of the subject, you won't already know (there's a number of illustrations that help with that), but not a lot of structure to organize it in and hook into other bits.

In all, this is a good place to start learning about the Ottoman Empire. But it would be a horrible place to stop. I also recommend Lord Kinross' The Ottoman Centuries as a good second stop, which isn't nearly as energetically written, but much more traditionally structured, and is allowed to take about twice the length on a very broad subject.
Profile Image for Aaron.
309 reviews43 followers
February 1, 2021
What a gem. I've read a lot of books in the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press, and I've always wanted on the Ottoman Empire, but I couldn't find one so I purchased this instead. Great find.

What's the book about? Well, the Ottoman Empire. That means it covers the Turkish people arriving in modern day Turkey from the steppe. It means wars, sieges, and famous battles. It means the history of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and it means the history of Islam. So that must be a book of people, places, and things, of names and dates, of customs and cultures, of a series of events leading from the past to the present. Well, yes, it has all of that. But if you're expecting a "name and date" kind of book, this isn't it.

It's hard to describe Goodwin's approach. Maybe there's a name for this style or genre and I'm just not familiar, but this is unlike most history books I've read. It feels like he's coming at the topic obliquely, more like a kind of casual story telling based more on feelings that facts. That's not to say it's not factual. It's actually loaded with interesting tidbits scattered throughout the big stories like potpourri, including so many names and dates. But it has none of the feeling of a typical history textbook, more like a lush travel guide mixed with old yarns told by your grandfather. After reading the book, I read some reviews and this style of his seems to be main point of contention.

If you're expecting a strict chronological ordering of major events, persons, and figures told in a manner in the detached style of Gibbon or informed by the considerations of the Annales school, you will likely be disappointed. But come dreading a dry recounting of days past and you might be pleasantly surprised. The book opens with a fitting quote, "These songs will not be to everyone's taste... May those who find them pleasing sing them; may those who do not go off to sleep," - Andrija Kacic-Miosic, The Pleasant Conversations of Slavic People, Venice, 1756.
15 reviews
July 4, 2011
Jason Goodwin, previously a travel writer and later a novelist, turned in a very successful history. Don't expect footnotes, historiography, or debates about what really happened. This isn't the history you read in college. It belongs to that nearly lost genre, literary history. Its purpose is to impress on the reader with the splendor, magnificence, and difference of bygone societies and personalities. This Goodwin does spectacularly.

I was lucky enough to read this book in Istanbul. These strange men, the Ottomans, were not what I had thought. Utterly cosmopolitan, they made Greeks and Albanians into Grand Viziers. Ruthless, they killed their brothers to assure no battles over succession. Practical, they not only let Christians practice, they ensured the Patriarch of Constantinople persecuted politically dangerous heresies. "Better the Sultan's turban than the bishop's mitre," was the saying on the Greek islands.

Goodwin writes an elegy to the time when the Ottomans did not try to emulate Europe, they simply surpassed it. As the West advanced, the Ottomans tried to follow suit. Their copycatting wrought all the problems of European monarchy-- popular resentment, succession intrigue, and multiple political loyalties. But it never brought the wealth or technology the sultans wanted.

When the Ottoman Empire fell, it was hailed as a cause for liberty. But thinking on the brutal nationalist suppression that followed, one wonders just how it became a truism that secular democracies respect minority rights and Islamic regimes run roughshod over them.
Profile Image for Pete daPixie.
1,505 reviews3 followers
June 25, 2013
Almost seven hundred years of history here, and most of it completely new to me. 'Lords of the Horizons', published in 1998, chronicles the astonishing rise and fall of the Ottoman empire, from the late thirteenth century to the end of World War One.
From the birth of Osman Bey in 1281, which set a spark around the Sea of Marmara to engulf Byzantium in a Muslim fire that roared across the Dardanelles to the Adriatic, and in less than a century was consuming the Balkans. After Constantinople fell in 1453, Greece and the Crimea quickly followed and by the end of the sixteenth century the Ottomans had landed in southern Italy, consumed Syria, Cyprus and Egypt, laid siege to Vienna and made war with Persia. Perhaps the decline began with the Ottoman fleet's defeat at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. It does explain why the maritime explorations of Portugal, Spain, England and the Dutch headed west and kept away from the eastern Mediterranean.
The writing of Jason Goodwin earns one extra star. He provides a flourish and style that is quite rare in a historical work.
Profile Image for David.
311 reviews110 followers
October 31, 2009
The best short overview of the Ottomans I have read. Very lively and full of fascinating bits of information, it makes the rise and decline of the empire seem like an exciting romp, and is not without humour. The army had a regiment of madmen, for example, who were used as cannon fodder in the front line, ‘because they didn’t mind’. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent fell in love with a blonde slave girl from the Caucasus called Roxana, and slept only with her until the day she died. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Nazmul Hasan.
54 reviews13 followers
December 13, 2016
I'm so sorry for Mr. Goodwin. I'm sure the man honestly loves the ottomans. But apparently he doesn't love accurate research. There are several GLARING errors in this book. In addition, Goodwin mentions outlandish stories without even providing citations. It's amazing what lengths the author will go to shock or grab his readers attention. Apparently, coming up with a non-existent Quranic verse is one of these tactics (on pg. 55)
If you want to be entertained, do read this, but at the risk of also encountering dubious information.
Profile Image for Tanya.
2,602 reviews20 followers
August 29, 2012
I read this book as an introduction to the Ottoman Empire, and as such I found it disappointing. Goodwin's approach is journalistic rather than historical, and jumps from theme to theme without giving any sort of chronological framework in which to mentally organize the information. Because I felt somewhat muddled as I was reading, I know I won't retain as much, although what was presented was quite interesting.
Profile Image for Ben.
1,005 reviews22 followers
February 3, 2016
There's something antiquated and romantic about the sprawling Ottoman Empire and its glacial decline through the centuries. It's what made Jason Goodwin's mystery novel "The Janissary Tree" so compelling. I wish I'd read this book first, though, as it provides much appreciated historical context to events, particularly the rise and fall of the janissary soldiers, which mirrored that of the samurai in Japan but ended much more violently.
Profile Image for Sandra.
28 reviews2 followers
March 28, 2017
I really wanted to like this book, and, more importantly, to learn from it. The author, however, assumes that the reader has an intimate knowledge of the subject matter before coming to this... introductory book to the subject matter.

Worse, the writing oscillates between dull fact rambles and bordeline-racist stereotypical descriptions of a mystical 'other'. I am 100% sure there are better books on the Ottoman out there, and recommend finding those instead.
386 reviews2 followers
January 10, 2013
I want to understand this history. But, this book is just too detailed, too complicated. All of the names, battles, relationships, etc. are too foreign for me to take in all in one sitting. I need to find books about the various pieces, in shorter segments so that I can take it in. Actually, I need to buy this book so that I can read a chapter every now and then!
4 reviews
July 26, 2020
Author focuses too much on showcasing his mastery over English language rather than conveying the historical facts in an easy to understand manner
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