But the Patient Died

The death of the Ottoman Empire was a case of suicide, not homicide.

Issue: Spring 2000

Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789-1923 (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1999), 397 pp., $29.95.

In its heyday, for two full centuries after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was a superpower, complete with ideology. An absolute ruler, the Ottoman sultan was also Caliph, and Muslims everywhere were supposed to acknowledge his spiritual as well as temporal supremacy. The Ottomans were then in the forefront of military technology. They conquered Muslims and Christians alike, enslaving some of the latter and, with a stroke of originality all their own, transforming them into an elite corps. Pioneers of bureaucracy, the Ottomans devised a centralized organization of their subjects according to religious community--a form of pluralism, however imperfect. Machiavelli thought that they were likely to overrun Europe. Writing in the 1530s when Ottoman expeditions were raiding Italian ports, the great historian Guicciardini feared the moment had finally come.

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