Cocktails and the caliphate

Last week the man who would have been the 45th head of the continent-spanning Ottoman dynasty, founded by Osman I in 1299, died. Ertugrul Osman instead lived in a rent-controlled flat in New York City.

Mercator-Hondius-1609-Ottoman_EmpireNow if you read the story in the Telegraph, you learn some colorful details about Osman’s life. He was the youngest son of Prince Mehmed Burhaneddin and his first wife Aliye Melek Nazliar Hanim. At age 10, he was sent to Vienna to study where he learned that the caliphate, which gave the Sultan authority over the world’s Sunni Muslims, was abolished.

And then we learn about how he lived quite modestly — except for a love of cocktails, apparently — and never sought a return to power. In fact, he said he thought democracy was working quite well for Turkey. My favorite detail, though, is how he traveled the world without a Turkish passport — instead using documents claiming to be a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. Awesome.

But this report from CNN.com did such a better job of exploring some of the religious angles to his death. First, it did a much better job explaining the significance of the banning of Osman’s family:

“His death marks the passing of an era,” wrote Jason Goodwin, author of “Lords of the Horizons,” which tells the history of the Ottoman Empire, in an e-mail to CNN. “Osman himself was born into a family that still ruled an empire stretching from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean. He was named after the founder of his dynasty, who lived seven centuries ago.”

During annual campaigns at the peak of its power, the Ottoman Sultan’s army of Janissaries struck fear into the hearts of European monarchs. For 400 years, the Ottomans declared themselves the “caliphs” — spiritual leaders — of the Muslim world.

But the empire declined during the 19th century, eventually suffering a humiliating defeat and partition at the hands of Allied armies during World War I.

In 1922, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, sent the last Ottoman sultan packing aboard a British warship. Two years later, Ataturk banned the caliphate, declaring Turkey a secular state.

It might have been worth a mention of the failed siege at the gates of Vienna in 1683, too, but this story is dealing with some pretty serious space constraints.

The story explains that Osman’s Muslim funeral was attended by “Turkish state ministers, artists and media glitterati.” But there were also quite a few mourners who were simply citizens of Turkey. The story describes them rushing other surviving family members and apologizing for how they were treated. And it turns out that there is a religion angle here, too.

The royal family seems to be especially revered by devout muslim Turks, who see the sultan’s descendants as a link to the abolished Islamic caliphate.

“They are our grandfathers,” said a young man named Fatih, who wore the long beard, turban and robes of a fundamentalist Islamic sect. “They glorified our religion and brought it to the highest level.”

The funeral was attended by an eclectic mix of mourners — stylishly dressed members of the royal family who grew up in Europe alongside fervent Islamists, some of whom pushed through the crowd ordering women to move to the back to pray.

I’m not sure why “Muslim” isn’t capitalized in the first sentence or, exactly, what “devout” means. But the CNN.com story does such a nice job of quickly explaining some of the religious history and current religious drama playing out in Turkey.

Having said that, both stories could have done a lot more to explain exactly what the caliphate was and its religious basis and significance to Muslim governance.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Jerry

    Having said that, both stories could have done a lot more to explain exactly what the caliphate was and its religious basis and significance to Muslim governance.

    This is a fundamental limitation to reporting versus providing background information. I would be interested in reading a comparison of the Papacy and Caliphate in selection, governance, history etc. There are some parallels about the loss of temporal power etc, but there are also significant differences.

    Maybe some day news stories will always have “click here to learn more” links.


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