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.