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Osman's Dream: The History of the…

Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

by Carolyn Finkel

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    The Middle East by Bernard Lewis (gmicksmith)
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    Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary (gmicksmith)
    gmicksmith: Islamist perspective explaining how Islam understands itself as losing out on its true destiny as superior to the West.

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This is a single (though it is large, at 660 pages) volume history written for the general reader (p. xiv) who has no background in Ottoman history.

The exact end of the Empire is a bit murky and is dated to various times in the 1920s by historians. Finkel describes "The Ottoman Empire [which] ended in 1922, the year of the abolition of the sultanate; . . . 1923 when the Turkish Republic was declared; or . . . 1924, when the caliphate was abolished" (p. xiii). The author "extended . . . [her] account into the republican period, to 1927, the year when Ataturk made a great speech justifying his role in the overthrow of the empire and the establishment of the republic" (pp. xiii, 1).

Its origins are even more obscure though it is based on a dream, hence the title, of the first sultan, Osman (p. 2). The beginnings of the Empire are even more obscure than its end but initially the Ottomans are pressed to legitimize their rule through Islam or any other convenient tool that could be appropriated to bolster their rule.

An important question then is: "Was the Ottoman emirate motivated above all by commitment to `holy war' (jihad)"-- the struggle against non-Muslims that is standard Islamic practice (p. 5)? Or, is the Ottoman Empire more a battle of secular and strategic forces that coalesced in the geographical region? Finkel presents a balanced approach to that key question as she points out that jihad may have been a contributing, though not critical consideration. In any event, the Ottoman struggle for power is a conflict that existed over two centuries thus any single religious or secular generalization should be dismissed out of hand (p. 6). Finkel presents evidence that the Ottomans had no compunction against exploiting traditional Islamic practices or invocation of the Islamic faith whenever necessary to achieve their propagandistic or legitimizing ends (pp. 6-10).

"Islam was a component of the public identity of the chiefs of the Ottoman emirate from the start" (pp. 9-10). One of the Sultan's titles for example was gaza, "meaning `war for the faith,' or `war against infidels,' or 'holy war'" (Finkel elaborates: "gaza may be considered almost a synonym for jihad," p. 10). At the time however, the term did not "have a confrontational, anti-Christian connotation" (p. 10). Its confrontational, anti-Christian meaning is a later development. The establishment of the Ottoman Empire figuratively, and more importantly literally, included alliances and marriages with Byzantine Christians as a practical means to dominate the Christian West. The demise of Serbian Kosovo for instance is indicative of the battles of the late 20th century. The Serbs lament the loss of their Christian dominion as they suffered defeat at the hands of the Muslim conqueror. For both Christians and Muslims of the region then, the Balkans are variously seen as their territory, either legitimately theirs historically, or conquered in a battle of blood (Cf. Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace).

I have reviewed Dream in terms of its origins but the end of the Ottoman Empire is more complex and nuanced according to this reading. A key consideration is to what extent, if any, did the Reformation and the Enlightenment have on the crumbling "sick man of Europe," a term originated in 1853. The impact of modernity on the Ottoman Empire is profound. The key period is the Tanzimat, or Re-ordering (pp. 447ff) in which the Ottomans experienced a crisis of identity in reaction to greater contact with the West, particularly France. However, nothing along the lines of a religious Reformation occurred in Islam and the more radical elements of Islam rose to the fore in the nineteenth century. The Wahabist sect, originating in Saudi Arabia, cut off the Holy Sites from their brother Muslims in the Ottoman Empire as Ottoman influence waned. Previously, the Ottomans viewed themselves as protectors of the Holy Sites but as they declined the Saudis were anxious to seize control over the sites wresting them from the Ottomans. In addition, numerous Ottomans noted the advance of the West and sought an `enlightened despotism' along the lines of a Frederick II. The attempt did not work as the regime attempted to more completely Islamasize itself which proved to be its undoing.

Islam in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire failed to prevent and may have contributed to the rapid decline of the Ottomans in the last 75 years of its existence. Reforms were attempted but the religious authorities did not want to open up Islamic institutions to the non-Islamic and secularizing influences of the West. Thus, in many regards, financial and military reforms, along the lines of Western education and technology, may have bolstered the ruling class of the Ottomans. Untroubled by religious compulsions, and as a point of contrast, Japan readily embraced Western ideas and incorporated them at roughly the same time as the Ottoman decline except with the contrasting result of strengthening Japan's military and ruling class.
4 vote gmicksmith | Jul 8, 2010 |
A tough slog. Very well researched, but very difficult to wade through it all. I am glad I read it, but man, it was a chore.

Look elsewhere if you are wanting a quick easy history of the Ottomans, this is not it. ( )
  Bill_Masom | Mar 18, 2010 |
I have been reading this excellent book for the past month.
Informative, unbiased, well-researched and almost scholarly.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in the facts behind the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the events that shaped its prominence and the reasons of its collapsed. ( )
1 vote DXB | Mar 6, 2007 |
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The approach is firmly and unrepentantly narrative, taking in battles, court conspiracies and international treaties as a matter of course. This is a tradition that many of Caroline Finkel’s contemporaries dismiss almost automatically as hopelessly obsolete. But if accepted in its own terms, it can result, as here, in books that are beautifully executed and extremely useful.
added by timspalding | editConucopia, Ilber Ortayli (Feb 5, 2011)
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The Ottoman Empire ended one particular day, but its beginnings are shrouded in myth.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465023975, Paperback)

The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and most influential empires in world history. Its reach extended to three continents and it survived for more than six centuries, but its history is too often colored by the memory of its bloody final throes on the battlefields of World War I. In this magisterial work-the first definitive account written for the general reader-renowned scholar and journalist Caroline Finkel lucidly recounts the epic story of the Ottoman Empire from its origins in the thirteenth century through its destruction in the twentieth.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:37 -0400)

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What Finkel calls the old narrative of the Ottoman Empire is simple to relate: it rose, declined, and fell. An exotic parade of salacious sultans, grand viziers and duplicitous eunuchs inhabit the sultry harems and domed palaces of Istanbul--at least in our imaginations. Finkel, a long-time resident of Turkey and Ottoman scholar, relates a new narrative of empire that properly accounts for the richness and complexity of the Ottoman state over nearly seven centuries. By presiding over their multiethnic empire for so long, and ushering it from medievalism to modernity, the Ottomans should be ranked alongside the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs, she argues. That they are overlooked is the fault of Western historians who have peered at their subjects through the lens of their own prejudices.… (more)

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