February 28, 2016


The birthday of Osman I is unknown, but it is believed that he died in February of 1326.

n. a low, cushioned seat without a back or arms
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

It is truly a shame that a man once seated at a throne atop the entire world should be reduced to a lowly stuffed footstool, but such is the unfortunate legacy of Osman I.

In the late thirteenth century, a shift in the balance of world power was taking place. Following the death of Genghis Khan, hordes of Mongols were pillaging their way west toward Europe at the same time that the Christian Byzantine Empire began losing its stronghold over mostly Muslim Asia Minor. From the middle of this cultural sandwich rose the Ottoman Empire, which would rule for more than six hundred years.

Born in 1259, Osman I was the sultan of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in the early fourteenth century. He managed to band his Turkish countrymen together with the mercenaries and refugees fleeing the Mongolian raiders and successfully established his people as the Islamic successors to the Byzantine Empire (the eastern version of the Holy Roman one next door). Building upon his legacy, within two hundred years the Ottoman Empire sprawled across most of western Asia, southeastern Europe, and northern Africa. Its capital, Constantinople, was the crossroads for the eastern and western worlds for most of the prior millennium. Osman himself was celebrated in poem and song for centuries after for his bravery, beauty, and, strangely, for his “wondrous length and strength of arm.” Turkish delight on a moonlit night, indeed.

How Osman became a glorified hassock is a bit more of a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary places the first written usage of ottoman as furniture in 1789, from no less than jaunty trendsetter Thomas Jefferson. Europeans in the eighteenth century simply could not get enough of the marvels of the Near East and provided an eager market for the pillows, carpets, and low-slung furnishings that satisfied the fantasies of an exotic Arabian night. The rich textiles imported from the Ottoman Empire were variously called ottomane (French), ottomana (Italian), otomana (Spanish), and Ottomane (German). Following the lead of the French, the English word morphed from the textured fabrics to divans and then from chairs to footstools.

Osman died in 1326, but the Ottoman Empire was not dissolved and succeeded by the Republic of Turkey until 1923. Despite his namesake being well represented as a home furnishing by that point, Osman and the Turkish wards of his empire did ultimately have their etymological revenge against the Western infidels. Though it had been called Byzantium, New Rome, and Stamboul at various points in history, in 1930 Constantinople was officially renamed Istanbul—the Turkish name for the city since the tenth century. The Four Lads immortalized the cartographical coup in their swing hit “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” in 1953, as did a revival of the song in 1990 by alt-pop darlings They Might Be Giants.