Was the Ottoman Empire really history’s longest-lasting empire?

19th-century painting of Osman I, the first Ottoman emperor. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

19th-century painting of Osman I, the first Ottoman emperor. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

It was one of the most resilient empires in world history, but how did it start? And why did it end?

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of History Revealed

Was the Ottoman Empire really history’s longest-lasting empire?

That’s a debate that is hard to fit into a nutshell. But, the ever-changing world power – an Islamic network of countries comprising much of the Mediterranean coast (besides Italy) – began in 1299 and did not conclude until 1922.

This means that it certainly outstripped the British Empire in terms of longevity, if not reach.

Depending on the start and end dates, though, the Roman Empire could be said to have lasted longer, beginning in the first century BC until the fifth century AD.

How did the Ottoman Empire get started?

The name comes from an anglicisation of ‘Osman’, after Osman I, the founder of the dynasty, who would go on to rule the Empire. The area known as Anatolia, or Asia Minor, the westernmost fringe of Asia, was split into numerous Turkish states following the end of the medieval Sultanate of Rum. At the same time, the Byzantine Empire (the name given to the Eastern arm of the Roman Empire) was falling. Osman and his followers were there to pick up the spoils.

At first, the Ottoman powerbase was only one of many in the region. Osman’s son Orhan, however, was much more interested in conquest, so extended his land to the Balkans. He went on to block trade routes and reduce Byzantine control in the north west, all of which allowed for further expansion.

Ultimately, the greatest treasure to be captured in the whole hemisphere was the city of Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire for 1,000 years.

Was it a straightforward march to greatness?

Between the Byzantines fighting back, Mongol interventions, internal strife and regular Crusades from the west, it was not. Sultan Bayezid, Osman’s great-grandson, was imprisoned by the Turco-Mongol leader Timur, triggering years of civil war that only ended when his son, Mehmed I, emerged as the victor.

It was, in turn, his grandson Mehmed the Conqueror who earned his name as the man who took Constantinople. Around this time, the city became known as ‘Istanbul’, which to the Greeks meant ‘in the city’, but was claimed by the conquerors to mean ‘full of Islam’.

Mehmed’s forces had taken control of all areas surrounding the city, including the strategic hotspot of the Bosporus Straits, and all it took to complete the campaign was a 57-day siege, starting in April 1453. When the Sultan set foot in his new capital, he proclaimed: “The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars.” He even claimed the title of Caesar.

The majesty of Istanbul’s ‘Blue Mosque’ (Tetra Images/Getty Images)

The majesty of Istanbul’s ‘Blue Mosque’ (Tetra Images/Getty Images)

Was it a harsh regime, under Shariah Law?

There’s actually very little to suggest that the Ottomans were any more brutal in their ruling than any other European power of the time.

The Christian Orthodox Church was maintained, and the succeeding sultans were just as likely to ally themselves with the rulers of France, for example, as any other empire-building nation if it were mutually beneficial.

By the middle of the 16th century, in the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire boasted a population of more than 15 million people across three continents, as well as being one of the strongest military and naval forces on the planet.

So what went wrong?

Managing to maintain the Empire over four centuries could hardly be called ‘going wrong’. Yet it’s true that by the 19th century, the dwindling Empire was known as “the sick man of Europe” – a term coined by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia during the Crimean War.

Russia emerged as one of the key antagonists of the Ottoman Empire, and the Crimean War was in part caused by the Empire’s decline, as growing European powers faced off to take over their territories.

Despite the dissolution of the Empire, it was to emerge as the victor of one more major military campaign – Gallipoli, in which the Allied forces failed to take over the Turkish peninsula.

However, Turkish forces became so strained that their signing of the Armistice of Mudros in 1918 effectively handed Istanbul over to the English and French, who began carving up what remained of the Ottoman Empire – ushering in a whole new era of tribalism and strife.

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Exhibition – Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity

This decorative panel from a tunic was woven in around the year 500 AD, in Egypt when it was part of the flourishing Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. The panel is in the wondrous little show called “Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity” at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a fairly recent addition to New York’s cultural and intellectual scene thanks to funding from Shelby White and her Leon Levy Foundation.

The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World’s spring exhibition, Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity, offers intimate glimpses into the lives of those who commissioned and used textiles and more sweeping views across Late Antique society (roughly third to seventh century AD). The exhibition brings together over fifty textiles of diverse materials, techniques, and motifs to explore how clothing and cloth furnishings expressed ideals of self, society, and culture. By their valuable materials and virtuoso execution, the textiles displayed their owners’ wealth and discernment. To modern viewers, the materials and techniques also attest to developments around the Mediterranean world and farther east along the routes of the silk trade. The Late Antique owners, in choosing from a vast repertory of motifs, represented (hopefully more than actually) the prosperity and well-being of their households. The owners represented themselves through the distinctively gendered imagery of manly and womanly virtues in mythological and Christian subjects so that in these textiles, we see distinctly personal manifestations of the religious transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire.

Further details of the exhibition, which unfortunately only runs until 22 May, can be found here.

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Complete set of A Short History of Byzantium audio for sale

DSC06907There is a very rare opportunity to purchase the complete and unabridged audiobook of John Julius Norwich’s “A Short History of Byzantium”, brilliantly narrated by John McDonough. The audiobook consists of 16 cassettes in very good condition offering 23.5 running hours; I have listened to them and they are all in excellent order. This was a library copy, but clearly barely issued or played. If you love Byzantine history you will enjoy this.

The best way to preserve the audio is to convert to a MP3 format on your PC or Mac and retain it in your iTunes or similar to listen from iTunes etc. You can purchase converters for very modest cost on Amazon.

I have searched around and not found this audio format anywhere else. This is very rare.

If you are interested in purchasing this please email me tsawford[at]btinternet.com with your offer. It will be possible to post this to international locations with cost to be confirmed. Payment must be by PayPal only.

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Sicily culture and conquest – exhibition at the British Museum


Sicily fills the mind with vivid images: Al Pacino on a dusty hillside, shotgun over his shoulder, in “The Godfather”, or Burt Lancaster, “The Leopard” himself, pronouncing “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.” But things have never stayed the same in Sicily, as a new exhibition at the British Museum shows. “Sicily: Culture and Conquest”, one of the legacies of Neil MacGregor, the former director, looks beyond Sicily’s recent tribulations to the many reinventions of an island that has been part of every important civilisation of the Mediterranean.

The journey begins with the vibrant pre-Greek cultures, notably the Phoenicians, who also founded Carthage. Their craftsmanship is evident in a delicate beaten-gold bowl (600BC) decorated with six slender bullocks, identical down to their minuscule ribs. Onwards through Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans to the polymathic Hohenstaufen King Frederick II, known as stupor mundi, the wonder of the world, during whose reign (1198-1250) sonnets were first written.

This exhibition focuses almost exclusively on the two periods of the richest material culture, the Greek (700-250BC) and the brief but astoundingly productive Norman (1061-1189AD). The legacies of both are largely architectural, posing a challenge to any curator, but this exhibition does a superb job of evoking Sicilian buildings and the landscape itself. Visitors enter a deep-blue space, with ceiling-high photographs of Etna smoking and the perfect Greek temples at Agrigento and Segesta. Given a context, fragments of statues regain some of their former grandeur.

But it is the Norman period that is the glory of Sicily, and of this show. Roger II (1112-54) ruled a court where Norman, Byzantine and Arab cultures found a unique hybrid expression in art and architecture. Greek marble gives way to the intricately decorated interiors of Arab-Norman palaces, where Byzantine mosaics (pictured) are juxtaposed with carved wooden ceilings. In 2015 nine Arab-Norman buildings in Palermo were designated Sicily’s seventh UNESCO world-heritage site.

On display is a coin that is the earliest example in Europe of recording a year in Arabic numerals. Stamped with the figure of Christ Pantocrator, it is dedicated in Arabic to Roger and dated 533 by the Islamic calendar (1138). There is also the oldest surviving paper document in Europe, an injunction in Arabic and Greek from a Norman Catholic queen to Muslim guards-men, to protect a Greek-rite monastery.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Roger’s court is an atlas of the world created by an Arab scholar-geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi. No originals survive, but two of the oldest copies are on show. Sadly, the maps, the greatest empirical project of the age, are poorly displayed. The two pages shown do not convey the significance of the complete work. A quick search online yields a montage of the 70 double-page spreads of the original as a single, astonishingly accurate view of the globe. There was wall-space enough for views of Etna—so why not for this?

The gaps in the narrative reflect the island’s history. Roman Sicily was too pre-occupied with producing grain for the empire (or rebelling against it) to make many beautiful things. The one big Roman exhibit—a thrillingly spiky battering-ram from the decisive naval defeat of Carthage in 241BC—is followed by nothing much until some Byzantine jewellery of 500-700AD. This 1,000-year gap is oddly unexplained, as if the curators, who have chosen their exhibits well, were afraid of overwhelming visitors with information.

The past 600 years that have shaped modern Sicily are also glossed over, so this is not an exhibition of evolution but of transience, of even the greatest cultures and conquerors. Everything changes. But there is continuity too. Ultimately the show demonstrates the creative potential of encounters between cultures. And it keeps one eye on current affairs. Running alongside are events about Sicilian music, cinema and food, as well as a debate on European migration through history. As the Mediterranean struggles to decide how to share its future, understanding its shared history is more important than ever.

Sicily: culture and conquest continues at the British Museum until 14 August 2016.

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New Book: Greek Fire and its contribution to Byzantine might

greek fire

We have all heard of Greek Fire. We know of the contribution that it made to certain naval victories for the Byzantines, wreaking terrible destruction on those on the receiving end. Little however is known about the weapon. How was it made? When and where was it best deployed?

In his new book, Konstantinos Karatolios explore these ideas and brings together all the ideas and research in one short and fascinating book: Greek Fire: and its contribution to Byzantine might: Volume 1 (History)

The wonder of the thousand-year Byzantine Empire could not have been achieved without its armed forces, allowing it to maintain its power in the face of constant challenges from external enemies that differed significantly in their nature. In this context, what had been inherited from the Romans was just as important as the adoption of new weapons and tactics in battle.

“Greek fire”, if not the most important of these weapons, was certainly the one that achieved the greatest fame. It was used throughout the course of the Byzantine Empire and granted resounding victories to its navy. This terrifying weapon was legendary, yet almost all we know about it and its use is clouded by the vagueness of contemporary accounts.

In this work Konstantinos Karatolios attempts to answer a number of questions concerning Greek Fire: What was the formula? How effective was it? Who was its true inventor? How was it used in battles on land and at sea? This book aims not only  to provide an overview of the current state of research that can be easily read by non-specialists, but also to make is own  contribution to the study of the subject, respecting academic research methods.

Buy Greek Fire: and its contribution to Byzantine might: Volume 1 (History)

Konstantinos Karatolios was born in Athens, Greece, in 1982. He holds a postgraduate degree in Byzantine Studies at the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Crete (with a scholarship from the State Scholarships Foundation of Greece). He is also a graduate of the Department of Primary Education at the University of Crete and the Department of Social Anthropology and History at the University of the Aegean. Ηe is the author of three books so far. His latest “Byzantine Imperial Ideology. Mirrors of Princes of the Middle Byzantine Period” was just published in Greek. His book “Greek Fire and its Contribution to the Byzantine Might” is the first to be translated in English. He is also a regular contributor to Greek and international History magazines and websites.

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Monks’ Secret: Asbestos Lurking Beneath Byzantine Wall Paintings

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. Here, UCLA archaeologist Ioanna Kakoulli examines a painting in the monastery under UV light. Credit: Ioanna Kakoulli, UCLA

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. Here, UCLA archaeologist Ioanna Kakoulli examines a painting in the monastery under UV light.
Credit: Ioanna Kakoulli, UCLA

Hundreds of years before asbestos became ubiquitous in the construction industry, Byzantine monks used the fibrous material in plaster coatings underlying their wall paintings during the late 1100s, new research shows.

By Joseph Castro

First published in Live Science, April 2014.

Asbestos is a type of natural, rock-forming mineral known for its ability to separate into long, flexible fibers. It has long been thought that asbestos fibers, which are corrosion- and combustion-resistant, were first integrated into such things as plaster, finish coatings and floors after the Industrial Revolution.

But while investigating the 12th-century paintings in the Byzantine monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus, UCLA researchers discovered the magnesium silicate mineral, chrysotile (white asbestos), in the finish coating of the plaster underneath a portion of a wall painting. The chrysotile provided a smooth layer with a mirrorlike surface for the painting.

“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.”

Though all six asbestos minerals are now known to be carcinogenic, people have taken advantage of the fibrous materials’ unique properties for millennia. About 4,500 years ago, artisans mixed asbestos minerals with clay to produce stronger pottery. And 2,000 years ago, asbestos fibers were woven into textiles to make fireproof napkins (that were “washed” by tossing them into fire), or to make a special fabric that could separate human ashes from funeral pyre material during cremations, Kakoulli said. “It was considered to have magical powers,” she told Live Science.

In the late 19th century, people used asbestos in industrial products — including cements, wall plasters, joint (drywall) compounds, fire-retardant coatings and roofing, among other things — to increase their durability, insulation and weathering protection.

Given this history, Kakoulli and her colleagues weren’t expecting to find asbestos on the walls of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. They initially set out to see if there was any change in the materials used to create the monastery’s numerous wall paintings over time.

“We wanted to see how the technological part of making these paintings follows or reveals anything of what we see in their iconography and style,” Kakoulli said.

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. They also collected micro-samples of the paintings and further analyzed their molecular and elemental makeup with powerful scanning electron microscopes and other methods.

One of the paintings they inspected depicted the “Enthroned Christ” holding a book with a red frame. When they analyzed the red frame, they found an asbestos-rich layer that was applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers. “So far, we’ve only found it in relation to those red pigments,” Kakoulli said.

They found an asbestos-rich layer in the painting “Enthroned Christ,” which would’ve been applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers.They found an asbestos-rich layer in the painting “Enthroned Christ,” which would’ve been applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers.

Interestingly, the main deposits of asbestos in Cyprus come from a high-elevation area approximately 38 miles (60 km) from the monastery, which is near the coast. This location suggests the monks may have been involved in a kind of interregional trade for the asbestos.

The discovery raises many questions, such as why the asbestos was used in this context (and only for the red frame in the painting). It’s also curious why the fibrous material apparently wasn’t used again in coatings until the 19th century.

The scientists are now searching for answers. They plan to return to Cyprus to characterize more of the paintings at Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. Kakoulli also hopes to revisit other wall paintings she’s previously studied in Cyprus, to see if they also contained asbestos.

“I have a feeling that it’s something that can be easily missed,” Kakoulli said. “This was quite an accidental discovery.”

See more images here.

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Early Music America Reviews Good Friday in Jerusalem

Good Friday In Jerusalem: Medieval Byzantine Chant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Donald Rosenberg reviews Capella Romana’s Good Friday In Jerusalem recording in Early Music America Magazine.

Here Cappella Romana travels back to the roots of Byzantine chant to recreate a Good Friday service through the music of the 8th and 9th centuries. The recording shot to the top of Amazon and Billboard charts when released, and it takes only a few seconds to understand why listeners have been mesmerized. From the moment the ensemble’s cavernous basses intone drones that anchor extended, contemplative chants, you won’t be able to tear yourself away from your speakers or earbuds. … The disc, the ensemble’s 20th, was recorded in Stanford University’s Memorial Church, a space of subtle resonance that allows the music to float on a halo of sound without ever becoming hazy. The singers of Cappella Romana…sustain the long phrases with remarkable finesse and breath control, including those intrepid basses, who appear to possess endless reserves of air. Along with tonal beauty, the ensemble brings utmost clarity to texts that inspired music of ecstatic and penetrating splendor. The soloists, the Greek-born Stelios Kontakiotis and Portland native John Michael Boyer, are eloquent champions of chant.” —Donald Rosenberg, Early Music America

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