The 600-Year-Long Road to Kosovo
Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
On the evening of the day that NATO forces began bombing Serbian forces in Yugoslavia, Peter Jennings included in his ABC television news report a mention of the famous Battle of Kosovo, Jun. 15, 1389, when Ottoman forces crushed the defending Serbs. Jason Goodwin tells the tale too in his "Lords of the Horizons," not forgetting how afterwards the Serb Milosh Obravitch stabbed Sultan Murad I to death in his tent.
Ottoman power was in the ascendant then, having moved through the tired-out Byzantine empire whose eastern borders were, in Mr. Goodwin's phrase, "as soft as yogurt." Next, the Turkomen had crossed the Dardanelles into Europe, moving very fast, and swept up through the Balkans. Three hundred years and more than 200 of Mr. Goodwin's pages later, when the failed seige of Vienna in 1683 triggered the rapid decline of Ottoman fortunes in Europe, Mr. Goodwin, whose book came out in England last year, has this to say. The first sentence is informative, but the second is galvanizing:
"Kossovo [sic] was so often a theatre of war that even now it rumbles with discontent, and the Albanians who moved or returned there after the great exodus of Serbs to Austria in the seventeenth century retain a prickly and dangerous hostility to the Serbs who govern them now. Men in the Serbian army that passed through in 1911 stooped to unlace their boots, and crossed it barefoot so not to disturb the souls of their fallen forebears."
The Ottoman empire, despite its methods that we would reckon extreme - slave armies, boy tribute from subject peoples, the fratricidal law of the sultanate until abolished by Ahmet I at the start of the 17th century - was in many ways surprisingly resilient and tolerating. It was not unknown during its 600-year history for Orthodox Christians within the empire to cooperate with Islamic Turks against the Catholic west. In places the two religions lived cheek-by-jowl, so that in the 18th century some Albanians found it impossible decide which was best and went to the mosque on Fridays and church on Sundays.
Such overlaps and intermingling notwithstanding, the Serbs, reckoned by some the most vicious among the 36 or so nations under Ottoman rule at the height of Turkish power, and the Albanians, so fierce and colorful that their history speaks for itself, have always had between the two of them the makings of a grudge match for the ages - and now here we are. So much, then, for the chances of Americans, like older European powers before them - both representatives of the "Catholic west" more or less - trying to play the role of referee in Kosovo.
But weighing current odds is not the excuse for this column, rather Mr. Goodwin's book, which has turned up at just the right time to provide helpful background for anyone hospitable to a readable briefing on the background to the present war, and much more. In Britain, Mr. Goodwin is an award-winning travel writer, whose earlier "The Gunpowder Gardens" and "On Foot to the Golden Horn" testify to an interest in the Orient.
His history of the Ottomans comes with a helpful map of the empire, stretching from the Danube to the Euphrates, at various times between 1300 to 1683. There also are chronologies of sultans and key events, a glossary of terms, bibliography and index - all of which the reader finds himself turning to. Traversing these pages is to be taken on a guided tour of the other half of 1,000 years of European and Middle Eastern history. For the newcomer to the Ottomans, it is like being shown the dark side of the moon.
This is not a book heavily reliant on personalities or anecdotal material; rather, the writer employs his wealth of factual information and a pleasant and even-toned writing style. The book's main strength may be its skillful organization, alternating aspects of Ottoman life ("Order," "Cities," "The Sea") with the empire's chronology. By this means, Mr. Goodwin is able to move fairly freely forward and backward in historical time while not losing sight of the Ottomans' parabolic or, if you will, crescent arc across the centuries.
An opening chapter tells something of the empire's origins, how Turkomen were shunted west from the Eurasian steppe in the 8th century, and of the value in their "desert" years of the consolations of Islam learned from the caliphs of Baghdad and, later, of lessons in statecraft picked up from the Persians. One reads about the sultan Bayezit, called "thunderbolt," who layed seige to Constantinople in 1396 but then fell foul of the invading Tamerlane and was put in a cage, while his wife Despina was obliged to serve naked at the Tartar chieftain's table. The catastrophe triggered an interregnum during which the young empire could have collapsed, but it didn't and was back in full swing by 1430.
Contrasting and less chronologically grounded chapters discuss matters such as administration and court life after Mehmet II established Constantinople as the stationary capital of the previous empire on the march. The palace Mehmet built, where absolute silence reigned, consisted of a series of enclosures rather than architectural finality as understood in the West. Visiting Venetians discerned "Palladian harmony . . . in the architecture of power itself."
Later in the years of decline, there would be 20 servants on the premises for every one doing any useful work - like "The Palace of Dreams" satirized in the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare's novel some years ago. The ponderousness of the later empire was, in its way, no less impressive than the lightness and speed of the centuries of westward movement and conquest.
The Ottomans lived for war in a black-and-white world divided into the Abode of Peace (inside their boundaries) and that of War (outside). They established the first standing army in Europe since that of the Roman empire, and their janissaries had marching bands well before European armies. The janissaries so dreamed of food that they took their titles of rank from kitchen implements, and one visiting Englishman commented disparagingly on the little trowels they carried on their belts. He was quickly reminded that they could wage more war with those tools alone than many a conventionally equipped force.
Mr. Goodwin tells of a world without clocks in which time, when thought about at all, was circular, and of a people who never looked back or calculated risk and for whom happiness was the unfurling of the present moment. Again, the empire in its fading years, when the Ottomans were trying desperately to modernize without losing their identity altogether, featured men wearing wristwatches but changing them every morning in an effort to keep up with the movements of sun and moon.
In his final chapters, Mr. Goodwin chronicles the Ottomans' sad decline into military impotence, de facto protection by the competing British, French, Germans and Russians, and bankruptcy following the raising of loans on the European markets. The sultan, conspicuously, was not invited to the 1878 Berlin conference where Benjamin Disraeli, Bismarck and the Russian representative pared away half of the empire's land and a fifth of its population.
Mr. Goodwin's take on the Ottomans is an affectionate one, combining firsthand observations with those of other obsververs down the centuries, from Martin Luther, who doubted the Turks could be stopped, to the early Victorian traveler Alexander Kinglake, whose "Eothen" English schoolboys in my time were set to study.
Reading this book now leaves a haunting impression, like looking at a photographic negative of one's own world. The Ottomans addressed the usual problems and needs of public and private life, but did so in their own way. Consider David Urquhart, traveling in Albania in the 1830s and finding "that the flexibility of Ottoman rule contrasted favorably with conditions in the West, where the relentless cruelty and ugliness of industrialization had the full backing of the law."
Urquhart saw checks and balances in the Ottomans' informal structures, in their rough methods for getting rid of evil chieftains while usually making negotiation the order of the day. Such are the traditions of the land into which NATO - meaning America first and foremost - now has marched, without taking off its boots.
LORDS OF THE HORIZONS: A HISTORY OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
By Jason Goodwin
Henry Holt, $32.50, 352 pages, illus.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The 600-Year-Long Road to Kosovo. Contributors: Walters, Colin - Author. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: April 4, 1999. Page number: 6. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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