THE DECLINE AND FALL of the Ottoman empire has always offered glorious opportunities to a historian. The subject is so vast that he can cover the story of the empire's decay, if he wants, through the women of the harem; or alternatively through the huge canopy of battle scenes; or through the court of the Tsars; or, if he prefers, through the eyes of politicians.

The late Lord Kinross, whose schoolarship of the Ottoman empire was unrivalled, has done a remarkable job of welding together the many fascinating aspects of the story into The Ottoman Centuries.

Personally, I have always been fascinated by the manner in which women in the harem manipulated their rulers (dissolute or otherwise) and Lord Kinross has given us nearly enough detail of what came to be known as "the reign of the favoured women" which lasted a hundred years, during which time a succession of beautiful wives-cum-mistresses, mothers and mothers-in-law ruthlessly dominated their sons and lovers, and started the process of bringing the empire to its knees. Against such a formidable array of women, the poor sultans never had a chance.

The harem was the heart of the empire, stocked with the most beautiful girls, captured or bought, many of them reared on Circassian slave farms, whose owners, incidentally, were indirectly responsible for introducing prevention against smallpox in order to ensure their "stocks" against disfigurement, which made them unsaleable.

The sultans were insatiable. Ibrahim "was ruled by his harem [and] the baths of the city were scoured at his order to find beauties for his pleasure." On his orders many shops were kept open all night and "favoured ladies were authorized to take what they pleased from the bazaars, without payment."

The women of the harem were guarded by the black eunuchs (conveniently bought after having been castrated in Africa as castration was not permitted under Islamic law). Lord Kinross might have written more about the endless intrigue in the harem, the sexual perversions of 200 or more women living in the hope of pleasuring only one man. They even formed attachments of a sort with eunuchs, and lebianism was rife.

Ironically, this power started under one of the greatest rulers of all, Suleiman the Magnificent, who was fearless in battle, a great law maker, and who presided over the empire at its zenith. He had one flaw. He became so infatuated with his Russian slave Roxeelana that he did the unforgivable thing - he married her. From that moment she held the whip hand.

Lord Kinross is at his best when dealing with the vast sweep of he empire, its huge battlefronts. He traces the history of the empire from the height of its power until it became the "sick man of Europe" and he does so with impeccable accuracy.

The sultans were a tough bunch. Murad IV, a splended athlete, used live page boys as targets when practicing archery (and he wasn't aiming for apples on their hands). When, during a ride he heard some ladies making noise in a nearby meadow, he was so annoyed he had them drowned immediately.

Murad was not the only spoilsport. One sultan drowned the 200 women of his harem in a fit of pique and had to start a brand-new collection (causing, incidentally, considerable inflation). Ibrahim had his 19 brothers strangled within moments of being proclaimed sultan but was decent enough to give them a state funeral, with invitations written in white ink on black paper.

It is very easy to go overboard when dealing with the excesses of tyrants, and a good historian like Lord Kinross has every right to be afraid of weighting the true balance of history. But one cannot deny that scandal is titillating, and makes very good reading. I feel a little regret tht Kinross did not devote a few pages, here and there, to describing in more detail the trivia of everyday life - for it is the trivia that brings the dead to life in such books.