Camel greeting

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

He Who Pays the Piper Eats the Turkey

Great news! I've found a new journalist to dislike! Now I don't have anything personal with journalists, you must understand. It's just that, as a group their job requires them to sensationalise situations, look for the negatives in an issue, employ emotive language when short of facts, and toe the party line of whichever media magnate is paying their salary. In that last respect, they are much like economists.

Journalistic wit - example of
I came across an article about Turkey the other day. That's Turkey with a capital 'T' - though it wasn't immediately obvious from the headline, 'Overdone Turkey', and the accompanying photograph, a close-up shot of a mouth-watering, golden roasted, juicy fowl straight from the oven. Well, we all enjoy a little joke, of course, but you might have expected something slightly more creative, or at least less trite, from a professional writer with a PhD in Political Science and several books to his name, as this gentleman, Steven A Cook seemingly is. Anyone who has googled the name of this blog site will be aware that the simple brain of the world's most popular search engine is incapable of distinguishing between the bird that adorns American tables on the fourth Thursday of November, and the nation of 75 million people on the eastern fringe of Europe that has been a loyal ally and key figure in United States strategic planning in the region since at least the beginning of the Cold War. That's an unfortunate semantic fact of life for Turks, in whose own language the two words have no similarity whatsoever. They don't get your joke, Steve - they just think you have a puerile, sub-adolescent sense of humour.

OK, admittedly, that article was published in November last year, and I don't want to be too hard on the guy. Situations can change pretty rapidly in world affairs. Still, you'd think that a trained academic setting himself up as some kind of guru on US foreign policy would have a tad more objectivity, and an ability to make more accurate predictions than are evident in this piece. To save you the trouble of laughing your way through an article with more opinionated fluff than substance, here's a brief summary:

The Turkish Prime Minister and his insignificant little country had been getting ideas above their station. They were starting to think of themselves as some kind of regional power with the clout to solve the problems of the Middle East - and some Americans (less intelligent and perceptive than Dr Steven A Cook) had been starting to believe the hype. The truth, we are told, is that the Turkish government had blown its relations with Israel in order to curry favour with neighbouring Muslim states and its own Islamist electorate, with the result that it was now relegated to the sidelines of Middle East diplomacy, its place taken by the new Egypt of Mohammed Morsi.

Wow! Steve, I hope you are enjoying eating those words. Afiyet olsun, as the Turks say, before a meal. May the dish prove beneficial to your health and well-being. Without the advantages conferred by a doctorate in pol. studs, I can nevertheless assure US readers that Turkey has no aspirations to return to the glory days of imperial Ottoman power. They may perhaps, with some justification, see themselves as a moderately successful secular democratic republic with a healthily diverse economy, serving as an example to neighbouring Muslim nations in the Middle East and Central Asia. On the whole, however, they adhere to the doctrine of their founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, one of whose goals, often quoted, was 'Peace at home, peace in the world'. He is also reputed to have said that the only justifiable war was one fought to defend your own home turf.

Certainly, Turkish-Israeli relations were somewhat strained there for a time, for reasons Dr Steve itemises, and certainly not all of Turkey's making. However, recently, there has been a reconciliation of sorts, instituted, we believe, by the mediation of US President Obama. 'Why would he bother?' you may ask. Undoubtedly because he and his advisors have a better grasp of regional affairs than Dr Steve. The simple fact is that Turkey and Israel are two of the saner, more balanced, moderate, democratic states in that part of the world - and if push comes to shove, I'm not so sure about Israel. I am, however, pretty sure about Egypt. If Steve still believes that Egypt is stable and secular enough to perform the role of credible mediator between Israel and Palestine when it can't govern itself without the army and martial law . . . well, I suspect he may now be having second thoughts.

The thing is, though, Steven A Cook is not alone. Time magazine on May 16, published an article by one Ishaan Tharoor mocking Turkish PM Erdoğan over his recent visit to the USA, where he met and had dinner and discussions with President Obama - an honour, I suspect, not granted to every visiting head of a tin-pot state. I've never been a big believer in conspiracy theories, but it does seem to me that a good deal of ink is being expended in influential media in the West aimed at belittling and discrediting Turkey, and I can't help wondering why. So I did a little digging, and came up with some interesting stuff.

The article referred to above, by Steven A Cook, appeared in a publication called Foreign Policy Magazine. FPM was founded by a certain Samuel P Huntington, author of the 1993 book ‘Clash of Civilisations’ which, rightly or wrongly, seemed to inspire much of the focus on the Muslim world as a substitute for the Soviet evil Empire in the post-Cold War age. Samuel P's business partner was Warren Demian Manshel, an investment banker, director and Chief Administrative Officer of the CIA-backed Council for Cultural Freedom. Foreign Policy Mag's editor-in-chief for fourteen years until 2010 was a guy called Moises Naim, who (despite the name), prior to taking up the reins at FPM, was Minister of Trade and Industry of Venezuela, and Executive Director of the World Bank. Naim served in the government of Carlos Andres Perez who was forced out of office and subsequently convicted of large-scale embezzlement of government money, which he is said to have stashed in secret bank accounts in the USA, held jointly with his 'mistress'. Perez fled to the US where he lived in exile in Florida until his death in 2010. You might think the new Venezuelan government would have wanted to bring him back for trial, as the US does with Julian Assange and Kim Dotcom. What stopped them, I wonder? Incidentally, the CIA is suspected of involvement in an unsuccessful 2002 coup to overturn that new democratically elected Venezuelan government headed by Hugo Chavez.

Moises Naim, the while, was editing Foreign Policy Magazine, which, incidentally is owned by the Washington Post, whose principal shareholders are apparently, the family of Eugene Isaac Meyer and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Eugene Isaac Meyer (despite the name, no Venezuelan connection, as far as I can discover) was Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank in the early days of the Great Depression, going on to become first president of the World Bank Group. Berkshire Hathaway is a ginormous multinational corporate behemoth that, according to Wikipedia, ‘wholly owns GEICO, BNSF, Lubrizol, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, Helzberg Diamonds and NetJets, owns half of Heinz, owns an undisclosed percentage of Mars, Incorporated and has significant minority holdings in American Express, The Coca-Cola Company, Wells Fargo, and IBM’  - controlled by chairman, president and CEO, Warren Buffett, consistently ranked in the top three on Forbes’ list of the world's richest human beings.

Now I can't say with one hundred percent certainty that Mr Buffett calls Foreign Policy Magazine writers into his office of a Monday morning to give specific instructions on what they are going to write this week. I do suspect, however, that there are some men in the United States (and women too, for all I know) who feel they are entitled to a major say in shaping the nations domestic and foreign policy. Presidents come and go, but the Buffetts and the Meyers are in this for the long haul. If all those starry-eyed US citizens who, full of hope for a better future, voted for Barack Obama in 2008, wonder what went wrong, they just need to take a look at the policy movers and shakers who weren't actually up for election.

But why pick on Turkey? With its 75 million people and economy ranked 17th in the world, it's never going to be a major global power again. It seems to have minimal fossil fuel resources, treats its people relatively well, welcomes tourists from wealthier nations to its bars, beaches and historical sites, and has no aggressive territorial aims. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, Turkey's location gives it huge geo-political significance. Situated on the back-doorstep of Europe, buffering Christendom against the Islamic tide of the Middle East and straddling the narrow sea-lane that gives warm water access for shipping to and from Russia and the land-locked republics of Central Asia, Turkey inevitably looms large in the strategic planning of the world's big players. It has always been so, since time immemorial.

If you want a military base from which to bomb Baghdad, or site nuclear missiles within easy reach of Moscow, Turkey's a good location. If you want to run a pipeline bringing oil from Kazakhstan to Europe, you might want to run it through Turkey. If you want diplomatically immune and reasonably secure  consulates and embassies from which to manage intelligence-gathering operations in Russia, the Middle East and beyond, hard to find a better place. Turkey, as noted above, has a stable democracy, a relatively satisfied population, fairly reliable and efficient internal security, and, despite the doom-sayers, little likelihood of being taken over by Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. Plus, it's a nice place to live, if you're a big wheel in business or the diplomatic corps, and you have to be posted abroad.

The downside, from the perspective of those big world players, is that Turkey is a bit of a free spirit in the world of international affairs. The Ottoman Empire it may not be, but there is a strong residual memory of a time when Istanbul was capital of an empire wielding considerable power in early modern Europe. Apart from a brief spell of five years after the First World War when the city was occupied by British and French military, the heartland of modern Turkey was never subsumed into, nor colonised by any foreign empire. In the early years of the Republic, Turkey managed to maintain neutrality during the Second World War and avoid invasion by the Nazi war machine.

They did send troops to Korea in the early 1950s, and put their lives on the line for NATO as a bulwark against Soviet expansion during the Cold War years. Nevertheless, they have always reserved the right to make their own decisions, as George Dubya found out when he invaded Iraq in 2003. Bush and his team would have dearly loved to include Turkey in their ‘Coalition of the Willing’ to show that they were not just a coalition of willing Christians against the Muslims. It was said the US Government offered a substantial financial incentive to secure Turkey's participation. Unfortunately some indiscreet aide let slip the opinion that the Turks could be bought, and the Turks, whose sense of pride and honour sometimes gets them into trouble, not only pulled out, but also refused to allow their İncirlik base to be used for launching US bombers.

So, democracy, despite the hype, is probably less popular in their corridors of power than Western leaders would have us believe.  When Egyptians rose in Tahrir Square against 30-year President Hosni Mubarak, their protest led to the ousting of a ruler much loved by US leaders but not awfully popular in his own country. It has been suggested that he at least had prior knowledge of the assassination of predecessor Anwar Sadat. At no time did Egyptian citizens elect him in a free and democratic election. He was widely regarded at home as an American puppet, and there is no doubt that his huge military machine was supplied by the generosity of successive United States Governments.

The big question is, who makes these things happen? And who controls the news media so that ordinary citizens in the United States and elsewhere are kept in the dark about what is actually going on? Clearly Barack Obama is not the only one calling the tune of American foreign and domestic policy. And Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has a hard job to maintain his country’s independence in the face of a slanderous campaign by Western media. And I will refrain from adolescent speculation on what the 'A' in Steven A Cook stands for.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Saints and Miracles, Ottomans and Turks

'Pope canonises 800 martyrs killed by Turks.' It's an eye-catching headline that appeared in the Australian ABC news on May 14. Well, first let's be clear that Pope Francis did not, in fact, pound said martyrs bodies into dust with papal artillery. The process of canonisation refers to an arcane medieval process by which human beings are said to be elevated to sainthood[1].

Well and good – but I’m more concerned about what those dreadful Turks have been up to. More slaughtering and massacring, it seems. When did this heinous crime take place? Not all that recently, it turns out. If you are a devout Catholic and in the habit of commemorating such events, you'll be able to polish up your rosary beads prior to the 533rd anniversary on August 11 this year.

The clan of Osman, one of many Muslim Turkish principalities dotted around Anatolia, began its rise to prominence towards the end of the 13th century. 1299 is generally accepted as the year they achieved supremacy over their contemporaries, emerging as an entity which rapidly grew into a major empire. By the early 15th century Ottoman armies had made major inroads into continental Europe, and in 1453, their young Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, capital city of the 1000-year-old Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

Now, in case you're wondering what right those Turkish Ottomans had to be in Italy murdering Christians, you have to realise that Mehmet had a reputation to uphold. He had earned the sobriquet of ‘The Conqueror’ after that business with Constantinople - and anyway, conquering is what empires do; it's in the definition. Ask the British, the Russians, or a nearby historian. Sultan Mehmet's target was Rome. Having conquered the Eastern Roman Empire (in fact the only one left since the Western one had fallen to barbarians in the 5th century), Mehmet felt he had a right to add ‘Emperor of the Romans’ to his royal CV. Nevertheless, it would clearly increase the credibility of his claim if he also added the actual city of Rome to his dominions.

Evidently the Romans themselves felt the imminence of the threat. When a largish Ottoman force landed at Otranto in July 1480 and began a siege of the city, plans were made for evacuation. Now one thing we should understand at this point is that besieging other people's cities was perfectly normal practice in those days. A Christian crusading army from Western Europe had done it to Constantinople in the 13th century before that imperial capital ever fell into Muslim hands. Their successful siege was followed by three days of raping, murdering and pillaging, which is another important concept to grasp. Capturing a walled city by siege without the cooperation of the inhabitants was often a long drawn-out process. The usual procedure was to give the local citizens a chance to surrender and be let off lightly. If they chose to resist, however, the consequences were pretty much as you would expect. The victorious general would reward the efforts of his troops with license to let off steam and seize what booty they could, in the ancient and modern senses of the word. Members of the losing side would expect to be killed or sold into slavery as a matter of course. If the Ottoman general Gedik Ahmet Pasha gave the Otrantan males the option of saving their bacon by converting to Islam, he was probably being more generous than most of his contemporaries.  Let's not forget that, a decade or so after this event, thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the attentions of the Inquisition in Spain took sanctuary in Ottoman domains on the invitation of Sultan Mehmet's son and successor, Bayezid II.

Still, the first casualty of war is truth, they say. In the ongoing civil war in Syria, the first, I am informed, to be waged in the age of social media, we are seeing the use of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube for propaganda purposes. It is in the interests of both sides to demonise the other, and, as we are reminded by a certain well-publicised incident involving a rebel leader, an enemy corpse, a knife and some internal organs, to intimidate the opposition with demonstrations of their own ferocity.

It was definitely not in the interests of the Ottoman besiegers of Otranto to deal leniently with defenders who had put them to considerable trouble. On the other hand, it might well suit the Italian authorities to portray the invading foe as inhuman beasts. So, we are told, 813 men of Otranto, steadfastly refusing to accept the Prophet Mohammed into their lives, were duly beheaded. Incidentally, you might want to ask what the total population of the city was at the time. Estimates range from 8,000 to 20,000. Even if you run with the lower figure, that raises the question of what happened to the other 7,187 citizens Did they convert to save their own lives?

Leaving that question aside, thereafter, by some process not entirely clear, the bones of some of those steadfast gentlemen were installed in the cathedral of Otranto and others in the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples, where, apparently, they can be seen today, providing a gruesome reminder of, exactly what, I'm not sure - the price of too strict adherence to the Catholic faith? The monstrous inhumanity of Muslims? A general memento mori warning against too great an attachment to things of the world?

Saintly remains in Otranto Cathedral
Whatever, it's an impressive display, I'm sure you'll agree. Apparently it provided a focal point for the prayers of a nun, sister Francesca Levote who, diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, was miraculously cured by the intercession of one (or maybe all) of the 813 Otranto martyrs. Hard for the Almighty to turn down a deputation like that, I guess. Certainly that was the feeling of the Holy Vatican Fathers, who decided to count the nun's cure as one of the two miracles required for canonisation. In the absence of a second one, it was apparently further decided that that requirement could be waived in view of the fact that the Blessed martyrs had been killed 'in hatred of the faith'. Once again, it's not easy to know how church authorities established the exact motivation of the Ottoman victors back in 1480, but perhaps they too had divine assistance.

Anyway, it seemed the Otranto 800 were headed at last for sainthood and glory - and not before time, you might think, given that the first step, beatification[2], had actually been taken way back in 1771. In retrospect, it's a pity that Pope Clement IV couldn't have moved things along a little faster at the time, since he probably didn't have to contend with the level of scientific and news media scrutiny that bedevils miracle-workers in the 21st century. Now, apparently, an Italian doctor by the name of Salvatore Toma has challenged the efficacy of the nun's miraculous cure with a counter claim that he had been treating Sister Francesca with a special mix of chemo and radiotherapy, and was attributing her recovery to his own less divine ministrations.

Well, I have to say, I'm with Hamlet on this one. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Salvatore, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of working miracles, and I wouldn't want to get into debating the mysteries of divine intervention with their new Pope or any lesser cardinals. As Tristram Shandy remarks in the novel by Lawrence Sterne, ‘So long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him – pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?’

What does disturb me a little, however, is a feeling that, despite Papal protestations to the contrary, there’s a bit of an anti-Islamic thing going on here. Coming at a time when news media in Western societies seem only too ready to stir up the flames of Islamophobia, it ill-behoves leaders of a religion of peace to fan hot coals. I hope it’s not a pre-meditated ploy to distract media attention from persistent accusations of sexual misconduct by priests, and high-level cover-ups.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve got it wrong. I read that Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict have considerably simplified the procedure for beatification (more or less a guaranteed ticket to heaven). In fact, John Paul is said to have handed out more Papal passes than all his predecessors combined since 1590.  Maybe those guys know something we don’t. Is it possible they’ve been given a date for the Second Coming? Maybe they’re working on getting a bunch of Catholics into heaven early to avoid the rush when all those American Pentecostals get Raptured.

Incidentally, Osman, the second Ottoman Sultan, married a Greek Byzantine princess, making their son Murad I no more than half Turkish. He in turn fathered his successor with another Byzantine lady, making Bayezid I at least 75 percent Greek. This was pretty much standard procedure for Ottoman sultans, as was the appointment of non-Turks to the role of Grand Vizier, or chief minister, and other high military and civilian positions. To equate ‘Ottoman’ and ‘Turk’ is as much of a nonsense as identifying ‘English’ with ‘German’.

[1] A person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth.
[2] Beatification is a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a dead person's entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name (intercession of saints). Beatification is the third of the four steps in the canonization process. A person who is beatified is in English given the title "Blessed".

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

What Happened to the Ottomans? - The ageing of empires

‘I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said, 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, in the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .'

. . . all that remained, in the early 19th century imagination of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, of an ancient, once mighty emperor, Ozymandias, who no doubt thought his empire would last forever. Perhaps Shelley had in mind the empire of which he himself was a subject, currently approaching the zenith of its power, and wished to remind its ruling elite, ever so subtly, that their time too would come, that a little humility might not go amiss.

But it is not generally in the nature of the mighty and powerful to be humble. Wealth and temporal power are mind-distorting drugs imparting to their possessors a sense of entitlement and immortality, endowing them with the arrogance to deny or defy the lessons of history.

The British Empire reached the limits of its global outreach in 1922, the cartographical red dye of its jurisdiction covering 34 million km2, or twenty-five percent of the world's land area. It lived on for a further thirty years, perhaps, huffing and puffing geriatrically through increasingly insurmountable crises in India, Iran and Egypt, until finally forced to recognise that its place in the unsetting sun of God's grace and favour had been arrogated by the United States of America.

Out of curiosity, recently I went a-searching online for an answer to the question: ‘Which empire in the history of the world lasted longest?’ It's a surprisingly debatable question, and not only because of the difficulty in defining what an empire is, though that in itself is problematic. Consider that the British Empire never actually had an emperor (unless you count Queen Victoria's claim to be Empress of India). Or reflect on whether the United States qualifies for imperial status. Then there is the matter of when you date the beginnings of empire. England's Golden Age would be considered by many to have been the reign of Elizabeth Tudor - but she wasn't even Queen of Scotland, never mind Great Britain, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada could be attributed more to good luck or the hand of God than actual naval supremacy. The exploits of Clive in India, between 1748 and 1765, when he acquired that jewel for the British East India Company - an interesting example of privatisation actually preceding state ownership and control – coinciding with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, can be argued with more confidence. If we run with that period, we can credit Imperial Albion with a maximum span of 200 years.

One website I visited announced confidently that the crown for imperial longevity must go to the Romans, asserting that their continuous existence of 2206 years, from 753 BCE until 1453 CE could not be bettered. But do those dates stand up to scrutiny? Sure, what we count as 753 BCE was taken by Imperial Romans as the year of their foundation, all years numbered from there and labeled AUC – the abbreviation for a Latin sentence meaning 'I'm the emperor so do as you're told.' Still, that year is highly questionable as a starting point for Rome's period of imperial glory, being more mythical than factual. The Carthaginians had some claim to serious Mediterranean rivalry until they were wiped off the map in 146 BCE, but the earliest safely defensible date is probably Julius Caesar’s appointment as dictator in 44 BCE.

Some might argue that converting to Christianity was the death of the Roman Empire, in which case the cut off point has to be 391 CE, when Theodosius I decreed that citizens henceforth would give up their pagan practices and follow Jesus. Even if we allow the Christianised Romans to claim imperial continuity, it is generally agreed that the city of Rome fell to barbarian invasion in 476, and with it, arguably, the eponymous empire ended too. For sure, the Empire of the East continued for a further thousand years - but contemporary Western Christendom was reluctant to count them as Roman, preferring to call them Greeks, by virtue of the language they spoke, and the need to justify the claim of Popes and their earthly disciples to be leaders of a Holy Roman Empire. Well, we could count that one, I suppose, but you can see how the whole definition thing gets exceedingly messy. Even more so if we take seriously the claim of the Ottoman Sultans who, after conquering the eastern capital in 1453, subsequently began, with some justification, to consider themselves heirs to the Romans. In that case we can add a further 480 years to our figure of 2206. To sum up, we could ascribe any figure from a minimum of 435 to a maximum of 2,686 years! You might say the Egyptians could beat that, but then geographical size must be a major factor in defining an empire, and the Nile Valley isn't really competitive in that department.

Well anyway, I'm not taking sides in that debate. Superior minds to mine, better versed in the minutiae of historical data, continue to wrangle, and in the end, who really cares? The one thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that, in the modern age, with the advance of industrial technology, communications, economic wizardry and military hardware, the lifespan of empires seems to be getting shorter, and the record of the Romans, whatever you think it was, is unlikely to be broken. The Ottoman sultans, with a relatively undisputed collective reign of 624 years, are probably the only contenders for the title in modern times. A question often posed is, ‘Why did their empire collapse?’ and I definitely want to address that - but in the process, I think we should also consider their achievement.

The beginning of serious Turkish incursion into Anatolia is usually accepted as 1071 CE, when the Seljuk Sultan Alparslan defeated the Byzantine/Roman/Greek army led by the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes. The Seljuk Empire stretched from north India to the Aegean coast, from present-day Kyrgyzstan to the Persian Gulf, and the threat it posed to medieval Christendom was one of the major reasons for the Crusades that took place over the next 130 years. There is a good deal of impressive architecture still to be seen in Turkey today from the Seljuks and the Beylik fiefdoms that subsequently divided its Anatolian lands amongst themselves. One of these, led by a certain Osman, from whose name we derive our word Ottoman (Osmanlı in Turkish), rapidly gained supremacy, and began an expansion which would see it, by 1683, control an area of five million km2 spread over three continents, Asia, North Africa and Europe.

Once again, however, the dates are debatable. What serious claim did Osman’s territory have to imperial status in 1299, the year normally cited as the beginning of the Ottoman Empire? In retrospect, the reign of Sultan Suleiman, from 1520 to 1566, is widely accepted as that entity’s Golden Age. Known in English as ‘The Magnificent’, and to Turks as ‘The Law-giver’ (kanuni), Suleiman probably came nearest to bringing Islam to Western Europe, famously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1529.

The Treaty of Karlowitz, signed in 1699 with the so-called European Holy League, is often cited as marking the beginning of Ottoman decline, being the first time they had been obliged to give up previously conquered territory. Nevertheless, it was a further 224 years before the Empire breathed its last. Decline was a long slow process during which it continued to play a significant role in European politics and power games. The Sick Man of Europe was still strong enough, in 1915, to turn back the Royal Navy from the Dardanelles, and repel a land invasion by the British Empire and its allies, while simultaneously under attack on at least two other fronts. The end, interestingly, came from within rather than without. The last sultan, Mehmet Vahdettin, having become a virtual puppet of the occupying forces after World War I, was more or less legislated out of power by the newborn Turkish Republic, and quietly spirited off to England with the tatters of his imperial power.

So why did the Ottoman Empire fall? It’s an academic question. The fact is all empires fall, as Shelley warned. They are born, grow to maturity and experience a Golden Age when they feel themselves invincible and immortal, before lapsing into decline and finally death, or geo-political insignificance – a fate worse than death in the eyes of some. It happened to the Hittites and the Hapsburgs, the Moghuls, the Romans and the British – why should the Ottomans have been different? Perhaps the thing is that we in the West always looked upon the ‘East’ as ‘Other’, and have an enduring resentment of the centuries when power, wealth and prestige were centred there. We want to believe that those civilisations were somehow imperfect and corrupt, and contained within themselves the seeds of their own destruction.

The reality is simpler and universal. ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.’ The Roman Emperor Constantine I built his second Rome at the southern mouth of the Bosporus Straits because the contemporary world had shifted. The fertility of Asia Minor and its strategic location astride trade routes to the east, combined with Constantinople’s invincibility as a fortified city made it the capital of two major empires for a thousand years.

What happened next, essentially, was that the world shifted again. The European Renaissance, the consolidation of nation states, and a powerful desire to avoid paying tribute for the right to pass through Ottoman territory to access the wealth of India and China, provided the spur to develop instruments of navigation and a new generation of ships that would permit sea-farers to journey west, into the unknown, out of sight of land, with some chance of finding their way home again. The result, within a century or so, was that the Atlantic Ocean became the strategic centre of a new world order. Those European countries fortunate enough to have an Atlantic seaboard, Spain, Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands found themselves in a position to exploit the riches, mineral, vegetable and human, of the Americas, Africa and beyond.

Increasing wealth, competition for resources, a huge boom in international trade, led to the growth of cities, exchange of knowledge, the shift from a rural to an urban industrial society, the development of banking and capitalism – all of which created a situation where military technology advanced along with the ability to maintain professional standing armies.

What happened to the Ottoman Empire? Even at the height of its power in the 16th century, it had reached the limits of its potential for further expansion. Sultan Suleiman’s failure to capture Vienna owed as much to the length of his supply lines as to the strength of Viennese resistance. Over the next two centuries, the Ottoman government lost its main source of revenue as world trade routes shifted to the Atlantic. For that and perhaps other reasons, they were unable to develop a financial system capable of financing industrialisation – their shrinking share of world trade and possibly their lack of coal and iron resources were contributing factors, as was their dependence on taxing agriculture as their second major source of income.

Undoubtedly the Ottoman system of government was anachronistic and inherently unstable in a modernising world. As it became less acceptable to do away with surplus male claimants to the throne, the alternatives produced less competent sultans. Grand viziers came and went too frequently for settled policy-making. Certainly, moreover, there were powerful military and religious elites resisting change in order to hold on to their own privileged positions in society. These tend to be the reasons traditionally offered for the Ottoman decline and fall.

Equally significant, however, were strengths which, over time became weaknesses. Ottoman society, for example, was tolerant of religious minorities, Christian and Jewish, according them freedoms not generally allowed in contemporary western lands. These minorities filled certain specialist roles crucial to the imperial economy. The rise of nationalism in the early 19th century, especially Greek nationalism, created serious divisions in the body politic, and severe weakening of the economy. Added to that was a huge influx of impoverished Muslim refugees displaced by, first the foundation of the kingdom of Greece, and later by the expansion of the Russian and Hapsburg empires into the Balkans, Crimea and Caucasus regions.

In the final analysis, history teaches us, empires rise and fall. As the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard observed, ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ What is true for a human life is equally true for the most powerful temporal empire. As humans engaged with the business of life in general, we lack the perspective to see our individual lives as a whole, and to foresee, or even to conceive our end. So it is with earthly empires. Undoubtedly the Ottomans, faced with the undeniable fact that things were not what they had been, were torn between those who saw economic, industrial and social progress as the only way to compete in the new world, and others harking back to a semi-mythical past where faith was stronger, morality black and white, life simpler and political decisions were more clear-cut.

So what of the present day? A couple of years ago I paid my first visit to the United States. Going there had never been a high priority for me, so I can say I was pleasantly surprised by enjoying my stay in New York City. This is not the place to describe my holiday, but I did come away with one striking impression – that the city had had its heyday. Maybe it was the scurrying rats in the dingy subway stations or perhaps that the main architectural wonders seemed to date from the 1890s to the 1930s. It recalled to my mind memories of huge multi-headlighted cars with aerodynamic wings and fins, symbols of an empire confident in its universal superiority. Sure there were blips, such as when the Russians got the first human into space, but on the whole, American technology was ahead of the field, leading the way to a future of wealth, comfort and abundant leisure for all. The USS United States held the Blue Ribband for Atlantic crossing and the Empire State Building (note the name) was the world's tallest for forty years.

In retrospect, I think things began to change in the 1960s. The pill and the liberation of women, rock’n’roll and the rise of youth power, the divisive shame of Viet Nam, the oil crisis of the 70s, tales of CIA meddling in the affairs of sovereign states abroad, all contributed to a questioning of purpose and loss of confidence incompatible with continuing imperial hauteur.

Of course the US is still the world's largest economy, and will remain so for some years to come. However, it is also the world's largest debtor nation, the debt totalling $17 trillion (106 percent of GDP) in 2013, or $52,000 for every man, woman and child. Were it not for sales of military hardware to Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Egypt, Pakistan, Venezuela and other 'developing' nations, the figure would likely be a lot worse. The new World Trade Centre, rising from the ashes of the old in downtown Manhattan will be the tallest man-made structure in the Western Hemisphere. Western financiers were able to derail the Asian economic tiger in 1998, but you can't see them getting away with the same trick again.

Empires rise and fall. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.