Sunday 20 February 2011

Lords of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin

Work and wedding planning gobbled up all of my time last week, so I wasn't around much and there wasn't much time for reading.  What time I did have I devoted to Lords of the Horizon, a wonderful history of the Ottoman Empire.  I should say here that I'm fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and have been for a few years, but I hadn't managed to find a readable history about them.  I'm fascinated by the Ottomans after reading The Historian, because Islam has always interested me and because in an Orientalist kind of way I love the old tales of sultans and grand viziers (Edward Said would not be pleased with me!).

Synopsis: This history covers everything from the beginning of the empire to its fall.  There are chapters on especially famous events (like the siege of Vienna) and Sultans (like Suleyman the Magnificient).  The book is roughly in chronological order but battle chapters are interspersed with thematic chapters about the cities, Ottoman life and janissaries.

Score: 4 out of 5

What I really loved about this book is that Goodwin had really made an effort to make it beautiful to read.  It read more like a poetic fiction book than a history and in my experience of many stuffy history books, that is very rare.  Goodwin also had a gift for selecting the most interesting events and personalities, and then making them come to life with description.  My favourite chapter was the one about Sultan Bayezit (the Thunderbolt) who named his children after major religions, enjoyed being hated, was the son of a Byzantine princess, wrote to the Pope asking if the manger at St. Peters could be used to feed his horse and loved rum so much he asked the Caliph in Cairo to annoint him as the Sultan of Rum.  The whole book was stuffed with characters like these and the language made me feel as if I really was in Istanbul.

As I read it, I found myself wishing that I had learned about more of this kind of history at school.  Being British, we did a lot of British and Western European history, and then a little bit about the Russian Revolution but I knew nothing about Eastern Europe/Turkey.  And it's honestly fascinating and I want to read more about it.  It wasn't only the Ottomans themselves that were interesting in this book - I also enjoyed reading about the Wallachians, Hungarians and Asian people.

This book is a great argument for those that keep on arguing that Muslims are uncivilised, or trapped in the 'dark ages'.  The Ottoman Empire was the most advanced of its time, and the most tolerant.  When the Jews were expelled from Spain and most of Western Europe couldn't wait to get rid of them, the Sultans welcomed them with open arms.  People in territories captured by the Ottomans were free to continue to practise their religion in whatever way they wished.  There were even many Europeans along the Ottoman borders who defected and became Turk as life was perceived to be better there.  The Ottomans didn't care about nationality, birth, status or rank - anyone could become an Ottoman and rise to whatever they were capable of.

Overall, a fantastic book and one I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in history.  The only slight criticism I could make is that the pace slowed a bit towards the end, but then the fall of the Empire was long and drawn out.


  1. Like you I don't have a strong background in Eastern European/Russian history. My studies centered around the west as well. This sounds like something I should read!

  2. Jason Goodwin is a very good writer - did you know that he also writes historical fiction, detective stories, set in this era and region? The Janissary Tree is one of these novels.

  3. Me too, I don't really have a strong knowledge on the Eastern European history. I learned a brief chapter on the Ottoman Empire in high school (but that was ages ago!) and read about it in The Historian.

    Being a Muslim myself, it has always been a dream of mine to visit Istanbul. Thanks for the review, Sam. You really inspire me with your reviews =)

  4. @Breanna - I really think everyone should do something on general world history at school. I also have trouble fitting together the history I do know, what events were happening at the same time. If you do want Eastern European/Asian, I would recommend this one.

    @Deborah - I didn't know about his fiction books, I am going to hunt them out because I loved his writing.