The Ottomans are one of the greatest and most powerful civilizations of the modern period. Their moment of glory in the sixteenth century represents one of the heights of human creativity, optimism, and artistry. The empire they built was the largest and most influential of the Muslim empires of the modern period, and their culture and military expansion crossed over into Europe. Not since the expansion of Islam into Spain in the eighth century had Islam seemed poised to establish a European presence as it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Like that earlier expansion, the Ottomans established an empire over European territory and established Islamic traditions and culture that last to the current day (the Muslims in Bosnia are the last descendants of the Ottoman presence in Europe).
The Ottoman empire lasted until the twentieth century. While historians like to talk about empires in terms of growth and decline, the Ottomans were a force to be reckoned with, militarily and culturally, right up until the break-up of the empire in the first decades of this century. The real end to the Ottoman culture came with the secularization of Turkey after World War II along European models of government. The transition to a secular state was not an easy one and its repercussions are still being felt in Turkish society today; nevertheless, secularization represents the real break with the Ottoman tradition and heritage.
We will start with the greatest figure of Ottoman history, the Sultan Suleyman, who built from the conquests of his father a great city, military machine, empire, and culture. No culture seems to invite such a total association of the entire history and greatness of the culture in a single individual as Ottoman culture does. This is not just a European prejudice; Muslims themselves can hardly resist the temptation of summing up the whole of Ottoman culture and history in this brilliant and dignified human being. For very few figures in history encompassed so much of their culture, and very few near-mythical figures have left so much of their humanity to posterity. For Islam produces an odd relationship between individuals and history. The inherent dignity and perfectibility of humanity in Islam tends to produce mythical figures like Suleyman who seem to master every human art; but the spiritual egalitarianism of the religion also leads to a surprising humanisation of these mythical figures. Sit back and prepare yourself for a tour of one of the great flowerings of human genius, dignity, and cultural creativity.
©1996, Richard Hooker
For information contact: Richard Hines