A History of the Ottoman Empire

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Douglas A. Howard
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     412 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There are still not a large number of textbooks that cover the Ottoman Empire in its entirety. For those charged with teaching Ottoman history to undergraduates, then, Douglas Howard’s A History of the Ottoman Empire is very welcome. Each textbook has its own particular approach and Howard’s is no different. But his choice is rather unconventional; the book begins and ends with Ottoman poetry and poetry is interspersed throughout. This is because, in Howard’s opinion, the Ottoman worldview is to be found most of all in poetry and “in this book the story of Ottoman history is told as the story of this worldview” (4). I imagine that Howard made his choice in part to get away from the usual view of the Ottomans as warriors and administrators, a view which gives short shrift to Ottoman culture, and as such his choice is appreciated. I am not sure it always works though; at times the book lurches quite suddenly from a chronological account (the chapters are organized by century) to the presentation of a poem, and I think undergraduates might not know what to make of this. In addition, to a certain extent the regular return to an Ottoman worldview impedes the sense of change over time that is essential to a historical narrative. I am not sure that, having finished the book, students would be able to clearly articulate how the 19th century, say, differed from the 15th century. Then again, historians always need to weigh the balance between continuity and rupture; this textbook comes down more heavily on the side of continuity. 

Having said that, Howard pays careful attention to Ottoman cultural and intellectual production and this is a real strength, particularly for an undergraduate textbook. For example, readers will learn what a chronogram is (he reproduces one celebrating Murat II’s campaigns) and how “chronograms made a graphic association between poetry and mathematics, art and science” (65). The textbook also pays unusual attention to the sources on which Ottoman history is written. Students will learn about biographical dictionaries, mecmuas (personal literary scrapbooks), chronicles, and, of course, poetry. In his extended discussion of Aşık Paşazade’s 15th-century chronicle, a famous source for Ottomanists, he goes one step further and explains the deep cultural meaning behind the words Deeds (menakıb) and Dates (tevarih) in the title. 

Although the sources used will become more familiar to students (newspapers for example) as we move into the 19th century, Howard still manages to convey a sense of cultural richness in the later period; it is not just Westernization. He documents the extensive production of translations going every which way across many languages in the 19th century. Students will learn about an Ottoman Greek Christian named Constantine Photiadis who was educated in a Muslim medrese (religious school) and then went on to become the director of the Galatasaray Lycée, the elite educational institution more commonly associated with French culture. Photiadis then collaborated on an Ottoman Turkish-Greek dictionary with an Albanian (262). 

A History of the Ottoman Empire is organized in eight chapters, each of which roughly corresponds to an Islamic century, although Western style dates frame each chapter. The coverage runs from the 14th century up until the Empire’s formal end in 1924. There are no major breaks from the conventional narrative; the innovation is more in how the Ottomans are presented. Howard is clearly very up to date on the literature on Ottoman literacy and he does a nice job of explaining the changes of the 17th and 18th centuries without lumping them under the label “decline.” He provides an intensely vivid description of the incredible suffering of the Empire’s population between the years 1911 to 1922 as one war followed on top of the previous one. Some things though are oddly missing; there is nothing about Islamization or confessionalization in the 16th century and the conquest of the Arab world is treated in a very perfunctory manner. Law is largely missing as is a discussion of the ulema (the Islamic scholars.) In a book that focuses so intensely on the dynasty, Howard could have explained dynastic change over time more clearly, given the excellent scholarship that has been written on that topic, stretching back to the 1990s. At the same time, it is true that all textbook authors have to make choices about coverage and emphasis. I am not sure that sole reliance on this textbook would be the best choice in an undergraduate class, particularly for those students who have no background in the topic, but chapters could certainly be used in a supplementary fashion for an unusual and important presentation of Ottoman history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Molly Greene is Professor of History and Hellenic Studies at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas A. Howard is Professor of History at Calvin College, Michigan, where he has taught since 1988. He is the author of The History of Turkey (2001), and has published articles on Ottoman military and literary history in journals such as Acta Orientalia, Archivum Ottomanicum, Fides et Historia, the Journal of Asian History, and the Journal of Turkish Studies. He is also a former editor of The Turkish Studies Association Bulletin.


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