Ottoman Historiography: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century.

Author:Gerber, Haim
Position:Critical essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

This review article discusses two books on the Ottoman empire that are derived from panels at the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting some years back. One of these books deals with the question of Ottoman identity, or other forms of identity within the Ottoman realm, the other with law in the Ottoman empire. The topics are clearly different, but it is not difficult to trace commonalities between them. The topic of identity contains many legal issues: if you identified as Shi'I Kizilbas in sixteenth-century Anatolia, you had a major legal problem on your hands. You might have a similar problem at the other end of the empire if you identified as a Bulgarian nationalist. Nabil Al-Tikriti's article in the identity book provides a third example: it gives a detailed definition of Ottoman Hanafism since the sixteenth century, which included where one could sue in court and according to what exact law. These were legal and identity issues at one and the same time. As the two books nevertheless belong to different fields of research, the rest of this article will be devoted to their separate treatment.

Unlike the case for books bearing a similarly generic title, Living in the Ottoman Realm is not composed of a haphazard collection of studies. It is devoted to one specific topic, as specified in the subtitle--empire and identity. By identity, reference is mainly made to how people saw themselves, in this case in relation to their being Ottoman, but the introduction by Christine Isom-Verhaaren and Kent Schull (pp. 1-15) makes it clear that the reference is also to identity that is unconnected to the empire per se, provided the people in question lived within the Ottoman sphere of influence. Thus, the fifteenth-century Genoese who are discussed in one chapter were far removed from any real cultural identity with the Ottomans but they were nevertheless within the Ottoman realm, hence their case is relevant. At the other end of Ottoman history, Bulgarian nationalists in 1878 did not want anything to do with Ottoman identity, but negative identity also counts as identity, hence is relevant as well.

The topic is, of course, exceedingly interesting, since first-person narratives are inherently of interest but are so difficult to come by. Therefore, the fact that Mahmud Pasa Angelovic, the convert to Islam and to Ottomanism, would later in life excel also as an Ottoman poet, speaks volumes about his identity.

Not surprisingly, most of the individuals studied in the book are luminaries of high rank, a somewhat odd situation in an age when history from the bottom up is a near-sacred slogan. But this is probably inevitable if you are going to say anything on individuals and their thought, as this topic requires. This point presents a real challenge to the book, however: we may probably assume that sultans saw themselves as Ottomans, as did the statesmen who were close to them. But the more we descend the class ladder, the more problematic the question becomes. Did the people of Jerusalem or Ayntab see themselves as part of any entity other than their own city? Did simple folk in villages and tribal formations see the Ottoman state as anything other than a tax-extorting body? If so, the evidence still eludes us, and let me say immediately, for many of these studies, extracting concrete information on self-view is a great challenge. The consolation is that this book is a first effort in this new journey.

The predicament of reviewing Living in the Ottoman Realm is that the editors have formulated a fundamental scholarly question around which the material is organized and the reviewer should be able to simply search whether the big question of Ottoman identity is answered in each study; yet in most chapters the answer to the question is not at all evident. We are not fortunate enough to get information on how the protagonists identified themselves--possibly because the question of identity was not posed in real life--and as scholars rarely ease the life of their readers (or reviewers) by detailing their arguments in one short and lucid paragraph, the search thus encounters obstacles.

One notices immediately the variety of detailed subject matter: almost every one of the twenty-two studies is nuanced enough to resist classification into patterns. Since I felt that imposing on these studies my own artificial patterns would distort them too much, the only alternative seemed to be to summarize each separately, keeping my eyes focused on the concept of identity and begging the reader's patience.

In the first (pp. 21-28) of six chapters of part one, covering the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, Nicolas Trepanier analyzes identity via the prism of food-giving in early Ottoman Anatolia, a function performed by religious endowments, at this time mostly by major endowments of rulers or those very close to them. In such a pattern of relationship between rulers and the common people, the anthropological model of reciprocity was broken and commoners were not supposed to contribute food to the elite. One commodity commoners possessed that the elite needed was legitimacy. And it is indeed believed that this was the function of food distribution by the political elite in early Turkish Anatolia, as, indeed, throughout Ottoman history. An interesting point in this model was the role of professional men of religion, such as dervishes, who were members of the elite but among the recipients of food donations. The explanation is that they were marginal elements of the elite, not members in the full sense. The identity factor in that early Turkish Anatolia was not connected to any state or to the Ottomans. Food distribution confirmed the social structure and strengthened the bond between various layers, and thus gave an identity to all living there.

In chapter two (pp. 29-41) Zeynep Aydogan examines three well-known collections of heroic folk stories from twelfth- to fourteenth-century Anatolia in order to trace some aspects in the culture of the Turkish population of that area. A major aspect of that culture was the idea of frontier--a large and loosely defined area that was a border between the Islamic region to the south and the Byzantine region to the north. It was an area of movement, migration, and struggle. At the beginning of this period the frontier was in the area between Malatya and the Taurus mountains; some generations later this frontier had moved to the region between Sivas and Ankara, and a hundred years later it moved to the Balkans. Each of these regions is the subject of one of these heroic stories, in which folk heroes commit acts of heroism while overcoming mighty fortresses in the realm of the adversary.

This brings us to the transformation in the Turkish culture of the time of the term al-Rum, which in Arab classical parlance meant the area of the Eastern Roman empire. This is its meaning in the first two chapters. But in the third (pp. 42-54) by F. Ozden Mercan, Anatolia had become identified so much with the Turks that al-Rum became the land of the Turks, Anatolia. This chapter describes the activities of two Genoese families active in Constantinople and Istanbul before and after the Ottoman occupation of 1453. The economic and social success of these families was phenomenal, their members being most welcome to both the Ottomans and the Byzantines. During the siege of Constantinople they supplied the Ottomans with everything they needed to succeed in the siege, while at night they could be on the walls fighting with the Byzantines. This went on unnoticed, or tolerated. Afterward, they oiled the early Ottoman economy by supplying large-scale credit, exploiting and digging up various useful Anatolian natural resources, and treading carefully with the political regime, until they were finally eclipsed by younger forces. On the whole, there is no account of Ottoman identity as such in this study, but only an interesting story focusing on one or more individuals.

In chapter four (pp. 55-65) Theoharis Stavrides presents a unique narrative in which the hero is Mahmud Pasa Angelovic, who for fifteen years was grand vizier during Mehmed II's reign and the first grand vizier to be drawn from the pool of the newly formed institution of kapi kulu, slaves of the Porte, or, more properly, of the sultan. The story, apparently true, is that the boy Mahmud and his mother were captured on the road by the officers of the boy levy in the Balkans, whereupon he was brought to the Ottoman palace and joined the imperial school for bureaucrats to earn the qualifications necessary to run an empire. To all appearances, Mahmud had real family ties with the ruling Serbian dynasty eclipsed by the Ottomans. Despite this, he became an all-out loyal Ottoman. This is evident by the fact that among his unusual qualities biographers mention that he composed a book of Ottoman-Turkish poetry, a feat that only an utter devotee of this culture could accomplish.

Murat Cem Menguc describes the identity issue connected with the historian Nesri in chapter five (pp. 66-78). Mehmed Nesri (ca. 1450-1520) is considered by many as the best Ottoman historian of the formative period because he is supposed to have a wider array of sources than most others and because he was not a palace historian, writing to glorify the house of Osman in expectation of lavish stipends. His book of history is full of critical comments on sultans involved in events that he covered, particularly Mehmed II. An example is his criticism of the execution of many of Uzun Hasan's soldiers, all Turkish-speaking Turkmens, after the famous battle between the two states in 1473. The controversial execution of Grand Vizier Mahmud Pasa is also openly censured. While Nesri himself claims that his purpose in writing was to educate future rulers in how to govern, Menguc believes that his main purpose was to prove that the Ottoman project was based on "the Turkic heritage." Needless...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP