Alessandro Barbero: Istanbul's sofa

Alessandro Barbero
Ed. Sellerio, Palermo 2015
pages 209, euro 13,00

The author, an ordinary professor at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Vercelli, as well as a scholar of medieval history and military history, traces, in this essay, through an enthralling narration, the story of the Ottoman Empire from its birth to its dissolution : an empire - born in the fourteenth century from a Turkish dynasty, that of the Ottomans (in Turkish Osmanli) a people of the steppes of Central Asia - called by us Turkish empire and that, although founded by the Turkish dynasty, has a history that "Can not be reduced to the history of the Turks, who was also the dominant people."

The need to counteract their aggression towards the Christians of the East is one of the reasons for the crusade. The enemies of the crusaders, known as Saracens, "They are essentially Turks, who have now imposed themselves throughout the Islamic world as the ruling elite and warrior."

With the battle of Kossovo polie of the 28 June 1389, in which the Serbs are routed, "The Ottoman empire begins to assume what will then be its most conspicuous characteristic, that is, it starts to become an empire that brings together Turks and Slavs, Albanians and Greeks, Muslims and Christians. The sultan is Muslim and is Turkish, but most of his subjects, and often many of the most faithful, are not. "

With the siege of Constantinople in the 1453, Muhammad II changes the history of the world. At the age of 21 he, "At the head of a large army, he crosses the Bosphorus. He built a fleet specifically for this: the Turks were not a seafaring people so far, but Muhammad decides to besiege Constantinople by land and sea. " A legendary siege that, for some, represents the end of the Middle Ages. Muhammad, however, "He conquered an empty shell, full of palaces, churches, towers, but almost uninhabited even before the siege, and his main task will not be so much to conquer it, but to restore life to the metropolis." He decides to establish his capital there and make sure that Muslims and Christians, Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, that is to say the populations that inhabit the Ottoman Empire, are represented there.

With the conquest of Constantinople - the ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire - the empire will dominate "The Mediterranean, the Near East, Anatolia, the Balkans, that is exactly the same countries on which the Roman emperors of the East had ruled." Later the Ottoman Empire spreads in the Balkans and then landed in Italy, in Otranto, in the 1480. Westerners have in the Renaissance "An almost schizophrenic relationship with the Ottoman empire, on the one hand feared as the most frightful threat and on the other hand respected, admired and even someone desired as an alternative model to what existed in the West." But also for the Ottomans the same will be true, due on the one hand by the desire to learn mostly Western technology, on the other hand by repulsion for the West itself. Anyway "The perspective with which the Ottomans look to the rest of the world is the prospect of the conqueror, [...] but to prevail definitively we must seize the seas. Now, the Turks are not a seafaring people: they are a people of shepherds of the steppes who have created all their culture far from the sea with which they have a difficult relationship. " Despite this they will make enormous efforts to build a fleet, making extraordinary progress in the technique of building the galleys and in the art of navigation, so much so that for many years they will be strong at sea.

With Solimano, who will reign from 1520 to 1566, "The Ottoman empire not only reaches the summits of its cultural and artistic greatness, but also reaches its maximum expansion and becomes the second great superpower of Europe and the Mediterranean, alongside the empire of Charles V and Philip II." Under him the Turks, in 1529, attempted, without success, the conquest of Vienna; instead they conquer the kingdom of Hungary which, at the time, also included Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, part of Serbia and Romania. With his fleet Suleiman defeats the Knights of St. John (who will become famous as the Knights of Malta), an order of Crusader warriors, stationed in Rhodes, who with their ships intercept Turkish ships and the ships of pilgrims going to the mecca. The Barbary pirates, stationed in Algiers, "who from there make the war in a rush against the Christian shipping, just like the Knights of Rhodes and Malta do against the Muslim shipping, recognize for the first time the sovereignty of the sultan", agreeing to become officials, soldiers, privateers in his service"The Mediterranean has never been so close to becoming an Islamic lake."

In any case, the Ottoman Empire was characterized by a concrete religious freedom, even though for centuries it had been the Islamic threat for Christian Europe. "He was entirely governed, and his armies and fleets were always commanded, by men who were all born Christian." This is because the ruling class (aga or commander of the janissaries, kapudan pasha or fleet commander, visir or members of the government - who constituted the couch, that is, the government - and the same grand vizier, that is the prime minister of the whole empire) was chosen among the best that the janissary officers recruited with the system of the Collection that consisted in identifying, among the children of Christian families - because the Islamic law forbade enslaving the Muslims - the most promising with an age between ten and eighteen years, to be put, definitively snatching them from their families, in the service of the sultan and taking them to Constantinople, where they would convert to Islam. Of all these only "The grand vizier had a right of access to the sultan, with whom he held a daily hearing to keep him informed on affairs of state."

Even the Muslim infantry, the dreaded body of the Janissaries, fed in principle by the slaves, is composed subsequently by initially Christian boys, coming from the Collection"A particular form of contact between the Ottoman world and the Western European world were the renegades, that is, those Christians who fell into the hands of the Turks, and who, to escape a destiny of slavery, converted to Islam. [...] part were people caught in the sea, fishermen, sailors, travelers. " The renegades have great career opportunities in the Ottoman society. "Many command posts in the fleet are given to renegades; but the field in which they have more space and indeed dominate is the race war. "

After the battle of Lepanto, the 7 October 1571 took place, where the Christian fleet, commanded by Don Giovanni D'Austria and composed of two hundred Spanish and Venetian galleys, destroyed the Ottoman fleet, has, in the Ottoman Empire, a period of stagnation , until the failed siege of Vienna 1683 which puts an end to the dreams of expansion of the empire in Europe and marks the beginning of its decline that will continue inexorably in the eighteenth century, where there were numerous defeats against the Austrian and Russian empire . The revolt of Greece and the Crimean War in the nineteenth century lead to the failure of the attempt to keep a multiethnic empire alive, exalting the ethnic element, so much so that "At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire, which formally continues to exist and govern immense territories, is actually in internal decomposition," with the different ethnic groups armed against each other. Outside the Balkan wars of the 1912-13 will lead to the emergence of new Balkan states independent of the Ottoman Empire.

The first world war, where the empire will take to the field alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary, and which will end with the collapse of the empire itself, will also see the extermination of Armenians by the government. In the 1922 the last Ottoman sultan embarks on an English battleship and goes into exile [...] The Republic is proclaimed in Turkey. It's time for Mustafa Kemal, "One of the commanders who were covered with glory in the world war, the man who defeated the British and the French in Gallipoli", that with the name of Atatürk, father of the Turks, takes power.

Gianlorenzo Capano