If, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, you had asked any practitioner of realpolitik which great power represented the wave of the future, the answer would have been easy: the Ottomans. They were everything the Europeans were not. Instead of an endless tangle of feudalities and sub-feudalities, their empire was a unified war machine run by an all-powerful sultan, with a grand vizier in charge of day-to-day operations much like a modern prime minister. Instead of headstrong barons and earls perennially at war with one another, the Ottoman army was a centralized, disciplined body equipped with the latest cannons and musketry. Instead of a complicated array of tolls, manorial dues and forced-labor obligations, the Ottoman tax system was simple, efficient and considerably less oppressive from the viewpoint of the peasantry. Even in the area of religion, the Ottomans seemed to have forged ahead. Where European Christendom was burdened by an overweening church and interminable debates over whether Jesus was divine, human or both, the Ottomans offered a stripped-down monotheism that was tolerant and egalitarian. Jews and Christians who wished to partake of Ottoman-style Islam with its strong Sufi influences could do so. Those who did not were required to pay a modest poll tax but were otherwise left alone.

But this merely goes to show how shallow such “realism” can be. Despite its fragmented political structure–or, paradoxically, because of it–Western Europe was an increasingly dynamic society on just about every level, from philosophy to industrial production. Science was taking flight, Western shipping was ranging farther out onto the high seas and visitors in fifteenth-century Italy, to cite a more modest example, marveled at the widespread use of water mills to power everything from saws to blast furnaces. The Ottomans, by contrast, were increasingly frozen. Technology was at a standstill, and the empire’s financial woes had been mounting. Faced with the growing cost of rebuilding the newly conquered city of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II debased the coinage on no fewer than six occasions beginning in the 1440s. Taxes were rising as well, while the empire’s once formidable military advantage was starting to erode. The Ottomans were powerless to stop Portuguese ships from invading the Indian Ocean, virtually their own backyard, and thanks to a Habsburg-Venetian naval victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, they were also losing their grip on the eastern Mediterranean.

But the downhill slide did not really set in until a grand vizier named Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha disregarded orders and launched an ill-conceived siege of Vienna in 1683. If ever there was a case of imperial overreach, this was it. The siege went well enough at first when the Turks breached the city’s outer defenses. But then troops began pouring in from Bavaria, Saxony and Poland-Lithuania. Crossing the Danube, they joined forces with the Austrians and proceeded to cut the Ottomans to ribbons. Three years later, the Habsburgs took Buda, which the Ottomans had held for more than a century and a half, and a year after that the Venetians invaded Peloponnesus in Turkish-occupied Greece. The Austrians took Belgrade in 1688, which Turkish occupying forces preferred to loot rather than defend, and, under Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of the great military figures of the age, they handed the Ottomans another smashing defeat, near the Serbian town of Senta in 1697. The upshot was the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz, which not only stripped the Ottomans of many of their European possessions but confirmed their status as a second-rate player in military affairs.

An up-and-coming power suddenly found itself on the way out. This is the story that Caroline Finkel, a historian who divides her time between London and Istanbul, tells in Osman’s Dream, her massive new account of the empire’s dramatic rise and protracted fall. With holdings stretching from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf, the Ottomans not only straddled Europe and Asia but the modern and the premodern world as well. Originating in the age of the Crusades and the Mongol invasions, the empire was a classic example of a political formation that hung on too long. By the nineteenth century, when Czar Nicholas I famously described it as “the Sick Man of Europe,” it was “the most obvious evolutionary fossil” in existence, according to Eric Hobsbawm, from the point of view of Western liberalism. Yet it lingered on nonetheless. Much of the fault lay with the European powers: Concerned that one of them might unduly benefit from the empire’s demise, they cooperated in keeping this Eurasian dinosaur on life support far beyond its allotted time. A decrepit ruling class was allowed to teeter from catastrophe to catastrophe until a nationalist assembly in Ankara finally pulled the plug in 1924. The lesson, to the extent there was one in this debacle, is that complacency is never warranted in politics because assets can turn into liabilities in the blink of an eye. This is not to say the Ottomans did not have their moments of creativity–they would never have gotten as far as they did without it. But they held on to their old ways too long while their rivals grew more innovative.

Although their origins are obscure, the Ottomans appear to have begun as a Turkic tribe that, by the late thirteenth century, had gained a foothold in northwest Anatolia, cheek by jowl with the shrunken remnants of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire. The location proved fortuitous. It enabled them to take advantage of the empire’s accelerating decline and also to learn from its example. Where other Turkic peoples had stayed with the loose tribal arrangements they had inherited from Central Asia, the Ottomans, perhaps in emulation of the Byzantines, opted for a more centralized structure that proved more durable. Intervening in the empire’s growing civil wars, they crossed the Dardanelles, took over much of the Balkans before the Byzantines quite knew what was happening and thus encircled the exhausted city-state of Constantinople.

In 1389 the Ottomans crushed the Serbian army led by Prince Lazar at Kosovo Polje, the “Field of Blackbirds” that still looms large in Serbian national mythology. They suffered a near-fatal setback at the hands of the ferocious Tamerlane in 1402 but were able to recover over the next decade after a period of protracted infighting. The succession struggle led the ruling family to adopt an official policy of royal fratricide, which eventually became something of an Ottoman trademark. Upon ascending the throne, each new sultan was required to execute his brothers and half-brothers en masse to prevent any of them from making a rival claim. The policy may well have been an improvement over the old Mongolian practice of allowing the numerous harem offspring to fight it out to determine which one enjoyed God’s favor, but not by much. In the eyes of the world, it confirmed the Ottomans’ reputation for cruelty, a reputation the dynasty did everything to reinforce with its penchant for executing viziers whenever they incurred the sultan’s displeasure. As Finkel puts it:

The pages of Ottoman history are filled with accounts of expropriations and executions of high-ranking officials…summarily punished at the whim of the sultan and often at the instigation of rivals for power; victims were frequently led to believe they had attracted the lesser punishment of exile only to find the executioner in hot pursuit.

The Ottomans continued to advance, however, thanks in no small part to the deep disarray on the European side. The Papacy was divided into warring factions for much of the fourteenth century, and the longstanding rancor between Greek and Latin Christianity prevented the West from mounting more than a token defense of the beleaguered Byzantines. Indeed, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it appeared that Mehmed II might be gearing up for a similar assault on the other great Christian capital, Rome. As Finkel recounts: “Among the titles Sultan Mehmed claimed for himself was that of ‘Roman Caesar’, signifying his aspiration to succeed to the mantle of the Byzantine Empire at the height of its greatness under Constantine and Justinian…. After Constantinople, the capture of Rome represented the ultimate prize.” In 1480 Europe watched with growing alarm as an Ottoman force seized a fortress in the town of Otranto on the Italian heel. But the final assault never came, and the empire turned its attention in other directions–toward Syria, Egypt and North Africa, toward Iran and toward the Muslim Tartars on the other side of the Black Sea.

The Ottoman political structure evolved in tandem with its conquests. Sultan Orhan I, who succeeded his father, Osman I, around 1323, was a frontier warrior who, according to Finkel, “moved constantly between the hundred or so fortresses he commanded, in order to make sure they were in good repair.” But as the empire expanded and wealth poured in, his successors responded by retreating ever more deeply into the recesses of their harems in Topkapi Palace, seldom showing themselves to the public or even to their closest advisers. Rather than participating in meetings of his imperial council, Suleiman the Magnificent, whose reign from 1520 to 1566 marked the apogee of Ottoman power, preferred to observe them through a latticed window set high up in a nearby wall. On the rare occasions when he did appear before the public–when attending Friday prayers, for instance, or making a show of leading his army off to war–the event was carefully stage-managed to enhance the royal mystique.

Paralyzing as this sort of royal reclusiveness could be, it had the curious effect of binding the center more closely to the periphery. Figuring that outlying elements would have few local ties to divide their loyalties, the Ottomans created a professional army, the famous janissaries–from yeniceri, or “new force”–composed of conscripted Christian youths forcibly converted to Islam, who answered to the sultan alone. Of Mehmed II’s seven grand viziers, according to Osman’s Dream, two were Christian-born converts raised via the janissary youth-levy, two were Christian-born scions of the Byzantine or Byzanto-Serbian nobility, and a fifth was also Christian-born but of unknown ethnic origin. High-ranking Ottomans even relied on outsiders for their wives and concubines, whom they acquired either as war booty or as slaves.

As profitable (or pleasurable) as such policies might be, their negative consequences grew more and more apparent as the years wore on. The janissaries turned increasingly into a racket–ill disciplined, poorly trained, their ranks padded with no-shows. As their effectiveness on the military field plummeted, their rebelliousness in the capital grew. As the harems expanded–by the 1680s, the sultan needed eighty coaches to transport his wives and concubines and their various attendants–so did the number of royal progeny, and palace politics grew increasingly deadly and complex. Princes raised in this fetid atmosphere were supremely unsuited for the hard-nosed business of running an empire. Slavery was especially crippling: At a time when the practice had long vanished from Western Europe, Tartar raiders ranged far and wide in order to satisfy a seemingly inexhaustible demand in Constantinople, reportedly seizing 18,000 in 1468 in Poland alone. Since slave labor is notoriously unproductive, one consequence was long-term technological stagnation, which is one reason why the empire, according to neocon historian Bernard Lewis, had proportionally fewer water- and windmills in the sixteenth century than England did in the eleventh. Constant slave raids caused Slavic resistance to stiffen so that the Turks eventually faced a serious rival to the north in the shape of the Russian czars.

With the path blocked to the west, moreover, expansion eastward and southward into Syria, Iraq and North Africa led to a prolonged fiscal crisis, as the Christian population declined relative to the empire as a whole and the poll tax on non-Muslim dhimmis failed to provide an adequate source of revenue. Anxious to preserve their privileges, those on top responded as those on top always do, i.e., by shifting the burden onto those below. At one point, peasants in outlying portions of Anatolia were reportedly so hungry they were reduced to eating grass–and that was in the early seventeenth century, when the empire was still in its prime. Much worse was to come.

Yet the Ottomans could not simply abandon policies that had provided the basis for their expansion. This is why the response among Ottoman intellectuals to the empire’s lengthening list of troubles was initially a conservative one: If things were going poorly, then the answer was to turn the clock back to the days when the empire was young and vigorous and things were going well. Only in the nineteenth century did it begin to dawn on high-level government functionaries that the answer was to move forward. The result beginning in the 1830s was a period of force-marched progress and reform. Legal codes were imported from the West, the dhimmi tax was abolished (although it persisted in other forms) and trade was liberalized. But reformers faced a dilemma: The more they relied on the sultanate to institute such reforms, the more they wound up feeding its tyrannical tendencies. Yet there was no other force capable of holding together, say, an Eastern Orthodox peasant in Serbia and a Jewish merchant in Constantinople, or a Muslim fellah in the Hijaz. While some Ottomans looked to Islam as a binding agent, stepped-up religious orthodoxy would alienate Christians in Armenia and the Balkans all the more. Indeed, thanks to the notorious “capitulations” system–which granted special privileges to foreign merchants and encouraged Christians and, to a lesser extent, Jews to throw in their lot with major trading powers like Britain and France–Muslims were already the most economically backward segment of the Ottoman population. Islamicization would only add to the economic malaise.

Eventually, World War I provided a solution of sorts. The Ottomans had grown close to Germany since the 1870s, mainly because it was the only Great Power without a direct interest in the Middle East. But in 1914 they allowed their ties with Berlin to draw them into a conflict for which they were completely unprepared. Communications had improved, writes Finkel, but transportation infrastructure was still so rudimentary that it took more than a month to travel from Istanbul to Syria and nearly two months to reach Mesopotamia. The whole ramshackle enterprise was almost begging to be attacked. Soon, hostile armies were invading the Dardanelles, the Caucasus region, eastern Anatolia and the Arab areas, with ghastly military consequences. Casualties zoomed and, by the end of the conflict, the empire had been reduced to little more than its Anatolian core.

Still, radical surgery of this sort was not without certain benefits. By shearing away virtually all of the Ottomans’ Arab and Christian possessions, the war paved the way for the rise of ethnic Turkish nationalism, a force that was not only different from Ottoman imperialism but in many ways its opposite. Ottoman writers had used words like “Turk,” “Kurd” and “Arab” as terms of disparagement, often with the adjectives “ignorant” or “dishonest” attached. But beginning in the late nineteenth century, no doubt in response to the growth of pan-Slavism and similar ideologies in Europe and Russia, a different view of Turkishness began to emerge. Rather than a term of opprobrium, it came to be seen as a badge of pride. Still, the break with past practice was less than complete. In contrast to the Ottomans, post-World War I nationalists defined Turkishness ethnically, but religious criteria lingered. Thus, Greek Anatolians were a legitimate ethnic minority but Sunni Kurds were not. Since they were Muslim, they had to be Turks. In solving one ethnic problem, the nationalists opened the door to another.

The culmination of this process was the Turkish republic, a secular state with a tradition of military authoritarianism, lingering disputes over mosque-state relations and more than its share of ethnic conflict. The new regime, led by a former military officer named Mustafa Kemal–subsequently dubbed Atatürk, which translates roughly as “father of his people”–moved aggressively to sever its ties with the Muslim imperial past. The sultan was sent packing, the caliphate was abolished, the fez was outlawed, and Sufi lodges and the graves of Sufi saints were closed off. The old Muslim lunar calendar was abandoned, as was the Muslim practice of numbering hours from sunset. The legal code was Westernized, the status of women revolutionized, Arabic script abolished and the language reformed so as to purge it of Persian and Arab influences, a process that further distanced Turkey from its imperial past. It was as if Italy had expelled the pope, nationalized the Vatican and banned the clerical collar. By forestalling change for centuries on end, the Ottomans merely insured that it would be all the more violent when it finally arrived.

Caroline Finkel, who provides a minute account of what each grand vizier did at nearly every passing moment, is plainly one of those historians who believe that God is in the details. The results are not for the faint of heart, and many readers, confronted with a long parade of wars, assassinations and palace coups, will no doubt find the multisyllabic Turkish names swimming before their eyes. She has little sense of drama or how to paint a scene, which makes for a certain narrative flatness. She also pays little attention to underlying social or economic forces. We learn little about urban life, peasant conditions, the technological standstill that contributed to the empire’s decline or, for that matter, the special circumstances that enabled it to grow in the first place. For matters such as these, readers will find Stanford Shaw’s two-volume History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, published by Cambridge three decades ago, to be both more readable and more informative.

Still, Finkel is judicious, evenhanded and objective, qualities not exactly in abundance among historians of the Balkans and Middle East, and Osman’s Dream is an impressive and important work. It is also very timely. Readers who delve into it will likely do so with one overriding question in mind: Is it any coincidence that the old Ottoman territory now spans some of the most troubled places on earth? To what degree can the Ottomans be held responsible for the arc of violence extending in recent years from the Danube to the Euphrates?

The answer: To a great degree they can. The empire left behind a trail of impoverishment and underdevelopment at least as bad as that of the Spanish and Russian empires, and maybe even worse. The famous millet system, in which Jews, Armenians, Greeks and other ethno-religious minorities were granted a high degree of autonomy, is an example of how even the more positive aspects of Ottoman rule eventually turned into their opposite. Based ultimately on Islamic law, which grants protection to “People of the Book” as long as they do not challenge Muslim rule as a whole, it served as a model of tolerant pluralism at a time when Europeans were torching synagogues and threatening the few Muslim communities left in their midst with conversion, expulsion or death. Given a record like this, it is hard not to admire the Ottoman sultan who, welcoming Jews that Ferdinand had just kicked out of Spain, reportedly observed: “Can you call such a king wise and intelligent? He is impoverishing his country and enriching my kingdom.” But, attractive as such attitudes might be, pluralism was an instrument of control that the sultans used to hold their empire together by, among other things, insuring that political power in each community remained in the hands of the most docile and conservative elements. Once the empire embarked on its long swan dive, communal lines hardened and tensions rose. Jews fared the best, since their lack of ties to any outside power (with the partial exception of Britain) made them seem less politically troublesome. But the Armenians, viewed as virtually a Russian fifth column, suffered enormously when the Ottomans went to war against the czar in 1914. Greeks, Maronites, Druse and Shiites also suffered either because their foreign ties made them suspect or (in the case of the Shiites) they were viewed as heretical. The upshot was the worst of all possible worlds, a patchwork quilt of separate-and-unequal communities united by a common attachment to frozen religious practices and a common disdain for the equally frozen religious community across the way. By the end, the empire was little more than a giant machine for the manufacture of ethno-religious enmity, as the world has since learned to its dismay.

Nowhere are the after-shocks of the Ottoman breakup more evident than in Lebanon and Israel. After being detached from Greater Syria by the French and British, Lebanon took the old Ottoman system to baroque extremes, divvying up political power among some eighteen religious communities. Israel is a millet that has armed itself with all the weaponry of a modern nation-state. One is a collection of confessions jockeying for power, while the other is a modern Sparta that confuses ethnic solidarity with political democracy. A lot of people have contributed to the current debacle–British, French and American imperialists; Zionists; and Islamic jihadists, to name just a few. But as Osman’s Dream makes clear, the Ottomans laid the foundation over the course of some six centuries. It is not an achievement to be proud of.