The 600-Year-Long Road to Kosovo

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

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. …

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