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  • The Sultans by Jem Duducu

    The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History

    The Ottoman Empire is a topic that raises eyebrows. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history. Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. However, ignoring this empire is folly. What the Ottomans did and what happened after it was dismantled has affected the current politics in countries as diverse as Serbia, Iraq and Israel. My new book about the Ottomans attempts to put them into a historical perspective and also reveal the culture of the civilisation that is all too often overlooked in the quest for a purely military reading of their history or Western writers attempting to exaggerate the exotic rather than showing the similarities between the Sublime Porte and Western powers.

    Here then are just a few of the varied facts and stories about this empire that are so recent it's worth remembering that there are still a few alive today that were born subjects to the sultans.

    1) The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

    The imposing outer gate and wall of Topkapi Palace. The home of the Ottoman Sultans for centuries. (Author's collection, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire. (His name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’.) The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, when Osman ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

    It was with Osman’s successor that, on his day of coronation, the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the West and was a reminder to all of the thirty-six sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle; but as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

    Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today (on display in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul) is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, but it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

    Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the West, a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was so unimportant that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign. Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

    2) The Ottomans were unlucky

    The statue in Uzbekistan of Emir Timur, Tamperlane, the conqueror of the early Ottoman Empire. (Courtesy of Francisco Anzola under Creative Commons, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Only once did a sultan die during a battle (in battle) and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that, ‘… having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.’

    While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after twenty-seven years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

    Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However in 1402, he had to face a new threat, that of the legendary Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur). The two warlords met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

    Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century. Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything - and some elephants.

    Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

    Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.

    3) Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

    The Ottoman Harem, a small village where around 300 concubines and their children lived. It was a palace within the Sultans' palace of Topkapi. (Author's collection, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

    More than thirty of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; none of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European Caucasian girls, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Prince Philip.

    Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries (including the famous architect Mimar Sinan, who started his career as a Janissary) were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

    4) Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

    A contemporary western portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent, arguably the greatest of all Ottoman Sultans. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    In the West he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the East he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

    ‘Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah's deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men's necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.’

    I think we can agree that his business cards would have been awesome!

    Let's break things down: The first title is obvious and ‘Allah’s deputy’ implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God’). The ‘possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

    The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of ‘emperor’ and ‘Caesar’ still had importance. Claiming to be ‘Emperor of the East and West’ was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

    ‘King of Kings’ may sound a little Biblical, but that's only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the East, the Safavid Persians.

    The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to ‘Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world’, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

    Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; everything else he swept before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fit the bill perfectly.

    5) Perhaps the most disgusting name for a cake ever was the so-called Roman placenta cake

    I hasten to reassure the reader that placenta is not one of the ingredients in what is a delicious confection. The cake was originally a multi-layered pastry with cheese, covered in honey and bay leaves.

    The name is misleading as it is thought to come from the Greek ‘plakous’, meaning thin layer (the same root word for the term ‘placenta’). It is mentioned by a few Roman writers, including Cato, so it was obviously well known in his day and ... well, delicious enough to write about. These Roman references attest to the ancient origins of this allegedly ‘Turkish’ pastry.

    By now you have probably realised that we are talking about [a variation on] baklava. There are some differences from the original version because today it’s made with filo pastry, the cheese has been replaced with ground nuts and, while honey is still used, sugar-based syrup is far more common. While it is likely that baklava originated in the Byzantine imperial court, the recipe was also to be found in the 16th-century kitchens of Topkapi Palace. We know that baklava was first mentioned in English in 1650, so this exotic pastry has been known even in Western Europe for centuries.

    6) The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

    The Ottoman Empire was a forgotten alley in the multiple alliances created to stop Napoleon. In this British cartoon, the Ottomans are shown to be strong but barbaric. (Courtesy of the Rijks museum, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and marched to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by a little 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

    The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

    Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

    7) The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

    From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the East, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the Tsars of Russia and to the West, the Habsburgs.

    The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736; and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

    Similarly, as the Tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the Tsars. The most famous of these in the West is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

    The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names were half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

    Jem Duducu's new book The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History is available for purchase now.

  • Forgotten History by Jem Duducu

    If there is an area of history I excel at it has to be “the obscure”. I can find it a little frustrating at times that the same old stories get trotted out again and again. I regularly peruse bookshops and often think, “oh great ANOTHER book on the Tudors” and that’s not the only topic that gets trotted out almost monthly. Yet there are literally thousands of interesting tales of long forgotten warriors, crazy rulers or plans that went tragically (sometimes comically) wrong.

    With the books I‘ve written so far I have tried to slip in some of these obscure gems in at various points.  I would have been remise not to have discussed the crusades in my book Deus Vult a  Concise History of the Crusades but even then I managed to get in the fact that one positive spin off of this bloody chapter of history was the introduction of the wheelbarrow to Europe.

    However with my new book Forgotten History I have really been able to cut loose and share my love of forgotten history. Split between four (rough) eras, I am able to throw out obscure, and I hope fascinating, stories from the dawn of mankind right up to the 1980s. If these titles wet your appetite then you have a similar mind to mine and rest assured, I tell all in the book:-

    How long have ladies been using cosmetics?

    Cavemen were communists.

    The biggest loser in history was Ala ad-Din Muhammed II Shah of the Khwarazmian Empire.

    The Battle of Portland, the decisive victory that both sides won…

    The most dangerous substance ever?

    How Tsar Paul I is a bit like a cheap sandwich…

    How many times has the US Air Force dropped nuclear bombs on Spain?

    All of these are genuine moments in history and proves the point that makes me love history - “truth is stranger than fiction” (Mark Twain).

    I will leave you with one example from the book. You would think that industrial action was perhaps an invention of the industrial revolution? Well not in the case of these plucky Ancient Egyptian artisans:-

    Ancient Egyptian strike action

    Ptolemaic Temple at Deir el-Medina (II) Deir el-Medina: the results of the first recorded strike action. (Courtesy of the Institute of the Ancient World)

    Going on strike, you would presume, is closely linked to the history of industrialisation and the formation of trade unions. Wrong! While it was of course the industrialisation of economies that led to better organised work forces, the idea of putting down tools because of a dispute goes back a very long way indeed.

    The very first strike recorded in history started in 1152 BC, on 14 November. This was during the reign of Rameses III in ancient Egypt.

    It is a common misconception, largely created by Biblical stories that much of the work on ancient Egyptian monuments was carried out by slaves. While the Egyptians did indeed have slaves, they were by no means the main workforce. Craftsmen, builders and haulers were paid men who took pride in their work – this is evidenced by the quality of the structures, many of which have stood for more than 3,000 years.

    In November 1152 BC, trouble was brewing during the construction of a royal necropolis – a group of tombs/crypts – at Deir el-Medina. The workers felt they were being underpaid and that their wages were in arrears, so they organised a mass walkout, halting construction.

    The response was very interesting: you might assume that pharaohs would bring out the whips or cut the heads off the ring leaders of the strike, but after discussion the artisans’ wages were paid – in fact, their wages were actually increased – and the workers returned to finish the job.

    The necropolis still stands to this day.

    9781445656342

    Jem Duducu's new book Forgotten History is available for purchase now.

  • The Romans in 100 Facts by Jem Duducu

    In the classic comedy The Life of Brian in it the Monty Python team have the classic sketch ‘So what have the Romans ever done for us?’ In it innovations such as roads, aqueducts and schooling are raised (and then dismissed). It's the perfect summary of Rome's greatest achievement which is PR. I say this because in reality, the Romans did not invent anything on the list of ‘Roman’ achievements in the sketch.

    The single greatest thing the Romans ever did for us is make us believe they were a ‘civilising’ force for good. They had had an advantage in Western Europe as the Celtic civilisations had no real writing. The Romans then could preserve for history their side of the story, but the fact the Gauls, Picts etc couldn't write does not make them uncivilised barbarians who ‘needed’ Roman overlordship.

    The further east you go, the more obvious it is that the Romans were the young upstart civilisation. For example in terms of time we are all closer to Julius Caesar and Cleopatra then they are to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Romans could bring nothing to the table in terms of history or culture in Egypt. Similarly the Romans owed a huge debt to the Hellenic Greek culture, but that didn't stop them conquering that area either.

    The simple fact is that the arrival of the legions in a new area did not herald a peaceful takeover, but war and enslavement. Civilisations were crushed, ruling families killed; this was in no way a meeting of minds and a merging of two equal partners. Going back to The Life of Brian and indeed the real time of Jesus, the Romans had actually only recently arrived on the scene and we're still coming to grips with ruling such an ancient culture. That's one of the reasons the Romans were resented so much in Judea - and the rest as they say is history.

    With my new book "The Romans in 100 Facts" I do my best to summarise over a thousand years of Roman history in short stories about certain key people, places and battles to open up this complex and hugely important world for the casual reader. I point out their achievements but I also show the flaws and brutality of this civilisation. This is the civilisation after all that watched men fight to the death for fun and yet perfected stoic philosophy. They had a massive slave trade but also built public baths and toilets for its poor citizens. The Romans then are a fascinating series of contradictions.

    9781445649702

    Jem Duducu's The Romans in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

  • The Napoleonic Wars in 100 Facts by Jem Duducu

    Napoleonic WarsWith the Battle of Waterloo being in the news at the moment, there is renewed interest by the media in these wars that lasted about a quarter of a century. Media coverage of on the likes of Napoleon and the battles is remarkably apt because during the actual era the media giants of the time (the newspapers) were waging their own propaganda war. The Napoleonic Wars however were not the first to use the medium of print for propaganda purposes – The Times, for example, started in 1785 as The Daily Universal Register, was not above bias. But this particular era of conflict excelled at printing scurrilous opinions and defamatory cartoons. The leaders of the age knew the power of the press. As Napoleon once said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

    However, it wasn’t just opinion pieces that influenced; imagery was often more powerful and lingered longer. Napoleon understood this, and became known for self-aggrandisement. The famous painting of him crossing the Alps (painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805), for example, shows a strongly idealised view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps.

    Napoleon also made sure his coronation as emperor was immortalised in oil paintings, and both he and his wife, Josephine, commissioned regal portraits of themselves in their splendid imperial robes. While Napoleon didn’t plan his own tomb, it continued the themes of power and supremacy – this time with Napoleon as an Adonis; a god among men. Brilliant general he assuredly was, but physically Napoleon was a little on the pudgy side, and had a crooked nose.

    Napoleon had the twin advantages of being both a general and an absolute ruler; he was able to dictate and control the French press. Britain did not provide its monarchs and leaders with the same benefits; it had a freer press, and parliamentary democracy meant magazines could draw witheringly satirical cartoons of friend and foe alike.

    For example, Napoleon’s nickname, ‘Boney’, was a British invention designed to conjure antipathy. At the time, it was thought that having some meat on your bones was a good thing; therefore, horrible old ‘Boney’ was a wraith to be feared or mocked. ‘Boney’ stood in stark contrast to the famous John Bull cartoon popularised first by British print makers. Bull was the national personification of England; a plump, down-to-earth patriot and beer lover.

    Napoleon is often portrayed as compensating for his lack of stature with comically large hats and boots. But to set the record straight, Napoleon wasn’t short. This misunderstanding arose because French measurements were different to British ones, and we now know that Napoleon was a little taller than the average man of his time (although he would probably have looked diminutive standing next to someone like the Duke of Wellington).

    The idea that Napoleon was short still exists to this day, all thanks to British propaganda from 200 years ago.

    Napoleonic Wars - 9781445646633

    To learn about more of the interesting facts from the Napoleonic Wars check out Jem Duducu’s book The Napoleonic Wars in 100 Facts available for purchase now.

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