Monday 7 October 2013

Europe's Muslim Emperors

He's grim. And his name's Selim.

Rageh Omaar's glossy new three-part history, The Ottomans: Europe's Muslim Emperors, began on BBC Two last night. 

Eschewing the suit and the single-person narrative of Simon Schama, Rageh and his collection of expert 'talking heads' told us the story of the rise of the Ottoman dynasty from its nomadic beginnings in deepest Anatolia through to the establishment of a state and its swift transformation into an empire, onto the westward march of the Ottoman armies into the Balkans, running through to the conquest of Constantinople under Mehmet II, and the empire's expansion under Selim the Grim (a few decades later) when the Ottoman Empire took on and beat the Cairo-based Mamluk Empire. 

For those who have heard, say, Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time and have heard (or read) detailed accounts of, for example, the fall of Constantinople or the fall of the Mamluk Empire, Rageh's take may have felt sketchy. Detail was, indeed, largely eschewed for the broad sweep.

A specific instance of that was the presentation of Selim's troubles with the rebellious Shia Alevis on his eastern border with Safavid Iran. Rageh merely told us that Selim crushed them. He didn't tell us what many history books tell us - Selim ordered the slaughter of 40,000 of them. He wasn't called 'the Grim' for nothing.

Still, a broad sweep approach can be inspiring and, with all-purpose Philip Glass-style music in the background, this first episode did hold my interest - after a slow start. 

The programme evidently aimed to fill its viewers with admiration for the dramatic achievements of the ascendant Ottomans and, as might have been expected, gave them a largely positive spin. Pretty much every potential criticism was excused by either Rageh or one of his experts. 

If I may paraphrase a wee bit:

- 'Some people say the Ottomans were cruel plunderers in the Balkans but, no, they built a lovely bathhouse in Greece so it stands to reason they can't have been all that bad.'

- 'The Ottomans may have forced Christian families to give up one of their sons forever to the Ottoman army, but the Ottomans always allowed them to keep a spare son - which was nice of them'.

- 'Yes, the Ottomans may have forcibly enslaved young Christian girls to serve as sex slaves in the sultan's harem but, hey, one of those slaves became empress, and anyhow they mostly did needlework'.

- 'OK, the Ottomans may have engaged in relentless acts of fratricide but the French and the English had power struggles too, so that's all right then'.

- 'And, yes, the Ottomans weren't as tolerant towards Christians and Jews as they should have been, but that was then and this is now, and others were even worse, and they did allow Jews to wear yellow turbans'.

Despite the whitewashing, I will certainly keep watching. There are two more episodes to come. 


  1. BBC and Omaar – partners in ahistorical propaganda!
    Episode one contained various omissions, mistakes, and revisionist history – the portrayal of secular emperors whose empire ultimately collapsed due to ill-health.

    Episode two steps up a gear, adding a cacophony of selectivist research to give these ideas credibility. Indeed, Goebbels would have been proud.

  2. Interesting review...


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