Middle East turmoil is fuelling Ottoman nostalgia. But it's a dead end

They called it the Sublime Porte. It was the seat of an empire that stretched from Algiers to Baghdad and Aden to Budapest. The name suggests something dreamlike and luxurious. In reality, the Ottoman state was an extraordinary and ruthless machine. Its administrators, plucked from their families as children so they would be loyal only to the sultan, fought wars, collected taxes and founded cities with an efficiency unmatched at the time.

But the most intractable problems of the modern Middle East are found where that empire once had its core: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. This is no coincidence. The civil war in Syria, in particular, has cast people's minds back to the collapse of Ottoman power, and the arbitrary carve-up that created states which now, nearly 100 years later, seem on the brink of failure.

A renewed focus on the legacy of this disastrously mismanaged transition means the empire itself is being seen in a more sympathetic light. Millions across the region now tune in to Magnificent Century, a swashbuckling TV drama set in the glory days of Ottoman rule. Until recently, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was massively popular in Arab countries and his government was said to be pursuing a neo-Ottoman foreign policy, shifting its attention away from the west and towards Muslim partners. On Sunday evening the BBC broadcasts the first in a grand series aimed at explaining the empire to under-informed Europeans. But we should be wary of nostalgia.

Yes, the Ottomans managed to yoke together Arabs, Turks, Kurds and many others, and keep the peace for 600 years. When Ferdinand and Isabella expelled more than 100,000 Jews from Spain in 1492, Bayezid II welcomed them with open arms. The sultan, as caliph, was supposed to be a figurehead for Muslims regardless of their ethnicity. Trade and the arts thrived. On the other hand, non-Muslims had to pay extra taxes, including a levy of Christian boys destined for imperial service. And the Ottomans were committed to expansion, always at the point of a sword.

For the successor states in particular, to romanticise political union would be a mistake. The Ottomans sustained it using a slave army. Pan-Arabists managed it briefly only through coup d'etat and dictatorship. As for the magic binding powers some now ascribe to the imperial caliphate: this is nonsense. In the BBC programme there is talk of "post-caliph chaos". Writing in the Independent, Peter Popham argues that "a central point of reference for Muslims everywhere" was lost – forgetting millions of Shia Muslims to whom the caliphate meant nothing. He attributes both the partition of India and the rise of the Taliban to the lack of a single Sunni authority. But, by the time it was abolished, the title "caliph" had meant little in practical terms for many decades.

Ottomanism is a dead end. Ironically, a more realistic model might be that of the neighbouring Safavid empire, in Iran. Avoiding imperial overstretch, the Safavids were confined to a single linguistic, geographical and ethnic area – though they accommodated minorities as least as well as the Ottomans.

In the new Middle East, de facto borders are being drawn along majority ethnic or religious lines (the Kurds in northern Iraq, the Sunnis in the west and Shias in the south, for example). Ottoman nostalgists such as Edward Said called it a "ridiculous notion" that "every millet [the imperial term for a religious community] has to have its own state". But it is a political order that seems to exert a strong gravitational pull. The real challenge is to get to a point where minorities within these states have their rights guaranteed. Given the brutalising effects of the past 100 years in post-Ottoman lands, that may be a very long way off.

David Shariatmadari is a deputy editor on the Guardian comment desk.

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