The best books about the Ottoman Empire

Caroline Finkel Author Of Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire
By Caroline Finkel

Who am I?

I am a Scottish Ottoman historian who has lived half my life in Istanbul. Realising that the archive-based research of my PhD and after was read by too few, I wrote Osman's Dream, which has been translated into several languages and is read generally, as well as by students. I am fascinated by the 'where' of history, and follow historical routes the slow way, by foot or on horseback, to reach the sites where events occurred. That's the thing about living where the history you study happened: its traces and artefacts are all around, every day. I hope I have brought a sense of Ottoman place to Osman's Dream.

I wrote...

Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

By Caroline Finkel,

Book cover of Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

What is my book about?

I wrote Osman's Dream to counter the widely-held notion that Ottoman history—the history of a dynasty and empire that held sway over far-flung territories on three continents for over six centuries—was nothing more than a succession of salacious sultans, evil pashas, hapless harem women, and obscurantist clerics. The nineteenth-century trope 'Sick Man of Europe' has a long shelf-life, but I wanted to probe more deeply, to get beyond such distorted perceptions with the aim of bringing to a general readership better understanding of a complex civilisation whose history is intimately bound up with our own.

The narrative unfolds chronologically, to reveal the multifarious connections between past and present, and why Ottoman history matters today.

The books I picked & why

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An Ottoman Traveller

By Robert Dankoff (translator), Sooyong Kim (translator), Evliya Çelebi

Book cover of An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi

Why this book?

Evliya Çelebi's Book of Travels has remained a well-kept secret—until now. Evliya was a seventeenth-century Ottoman courtier who wandered the empire and beyond for over 40 years and recorded his adventures in what is considered to be the longest travel account in world literature. This well-chosen selection of excerpts from his entertaining and informative masterpiece brings glimpses of the many climes and cultures he explored to an English-speaking readership, while luring us irresistibly into his idiosyncratic world.

Strolling Through Istanbul

By John Freely, Hilary Sumner-Boyd,

Book cover of Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City

Why this book?

This very personal guide to the former Byzantine and Ottoman capital by two ex-pat college professors was the cicerone that fuelled my generation's love affair with the city. Through its pages, we learned how to explore Istanbul's topography of sea and hills, and how to get lost in its back streets while remaining alert for something remarkable we would otherwise have passed by. Entertaining as much in the bath as out on the street, Strolling is still the most companionable and informative of guides, even though the city it describes has grown exponentially since the book's first publication in 1972.

Bountiful Empire

By Priscilla Mary Isin,

Book cover of Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman Cuisine

Why this book?

This lavishly-illustrated volume takes a broad look at Ottoman culinary culture, holding up a mirror to the empire as reflected in the food and foodways of its people, from sultans to commoners. It offers a sweeping panorama of the evolution of culinary traditions that drew on the practices of the many societies inhabiting the Ottoman lands. The author lives in and travels widely in Turkey, encountering dishes that have ancient roots and finding food-related customs that survive until the present day. This is no book of recipes, but a compendium of richer food for thought.

The Ottomans 1700-1923

By Virginia Aksan,

Book cover of The Ottomans 1700-1923: An Empire Besieged

Why this book?

Hot off the press, and building on the success of Aksan's earlier volume on the later Ottoman empire, this book charts the transformation of this once-formidable state into a colonial client of Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. It traces the lives of friends and foes of the Ottomans who witnessed the rise and fall of a constitutional experiment in an era of shrinking borders, global consciousness, ethno-religious nationalism, and revolutionary fervour. The narrative's primary focus is on those who negotiated with, fought for, defended, and finally challenged the sultan and the system in its final days just prior to WWI, resulting in a legacy of international relations and communal violence that continues into the present.   

The Ottoman World

By Hakan T. Karateke (editor), Helga Anetshofer (editor),

Book cover of The Ottoman World: A Cultural History Reader, 1450-1700

Why this book?

The workings of the state and the actions of state functionaries have long supplied the essential narrative informing our understanding of Ottoman history. This new volume by University of Chicago partner scholars is the first to give a platform to a wide spectrum of voices hailing from across the sultan's multilingual realm. Women and men, Muslims, Jews and Christians, prisoners and prostitutes, mystics and scholars, and a host of others, reach across the centuries to beguile us with their dreams and legends, anecdotes and jokes, biographies, and hagiographies. Although billed also as a textbook, as is customary these days in order to reach the widest readership, this book is for anyone who seeks affinity with the people of the early modern Ottoman world.

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