Rageh Omaar’s new documentary is a much needed look into Ottoman history
Since their demise in 1923, the Ottomans have remained a sore subject in both Europe and the Middle East. Their conquests in Europe, being the first and last Muslim empire to make serious headway in the continent, have meant resentment in the west. Centuries of rule in the Middle East has meant resentment from their Arab neighbours, and the trauma of their collapse has led to their legacy being actively ignored by the Turkish themselves. However, after years of being demonised, overshadowed or simply forgotten, the last two decades have seen a resurgence of interest in the Ottoman Empire. Whilst there were many scholars who never stopped studying them, interest of Osman’s dynasty in the more general, popular arena is now seeing resurgence. It was only a matter of time, therefore, until a documentary series on Ottoman history was commissioned. Sunday 6 October saw the first episode of The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors, air on BBC2 at 9pm, presented by journalist Rageh Omaar.
The premiere installment covers the emergence of the dynasty, the conquest of Istanbul, and the defeat of the Safavids amongst other key events. As well as this, Omaar and a host of experts explore the customs and practices of the Ottoman state. The show is admirable in its attempts to familiarise viewers with an empire whose history is so crucial to the history of Europe as well as that of the Middle East. From the start of the programme the significance of the Ottomans in Europe is emphasised, not just as ‘the sick man’ but as an influential superpower. At a time when the Muslim element in the west is becoming more and more alienated and tensions between the traditionally Christian and Islamic worlds are particularly aggravated, this reminder of a powerful and influential Muslim presence within the European continent as early as the fifteenth century is especially appropriate.
The programme must be applauded on its efforts to deconstruct the false notions of the Ottomans as ‘the marauding barbarians at the gate’, which has for too long been the predominant narrative in Eurocentric historiography, in order to show a more objective perspective of an empire which was established, organised and the most religiously-tolerant power of its time. However, Omaar does not attempt to gloss over the more sinister aspects of the state; practises like the routine assassinations of family members that may have been rivals to the sultanate and the levy of Christian boys for the Ottoman court and military are analysed. Some comments made since the airing accuse the programme of attempting to justify these practices, however it is only giving the actions of the empire the due consideration and analysis that every historical study should receive. If we attempt to understand the motives and agenda of the Roman Empire, for example, why then should we not do the same for the Ottomans? Or have we become too comfortable with the image of the ‘Turk’ as the savage who acts solely under the influence of his base instincts?
One of the issues that some critics have taken with the show is that it is too superficial; as Sarah Crompton put it, “more like a holiday travelogue than a historical study, relying on staple images – Rageh walking down modern streets; Rageh swaying on boats; Rageh gazing at sunsets – rather than insight”. In my humble opinion, an in-depth study of aspects of the long and complicated history of the Ottoman Empire is not what is needed at this stage in time. Most British viewers are not familiar enough with the Ottomans to warrant the kind of programming that has been, for years, covering Ancient Greece and Rome. As an introduction to this neglected, yet vital component of Asian and European history, The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors is very successful. Omaar covers a wide range of topics in as much depth as is possible for its one-hour running time, with analysis from a variety of experts and academics included. Most importantly, the show serves to encourage an interest in the Ottomans and this is the kick-start that is needed for a more studied and objective perspective of the Ottoman legacy in Europe.
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