Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution

Synopsis

This vividly detailed revisionist history opens a new vista on the great Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century, a key period often seen as the eve of Tanzimat westernizing reforms and the beginning of three distinct histories--ethnic nationalism in the Balkans, imperial modernization from Istanbul, and European colonialism in the Middle East. Christine Philliou brilliantly shines a new light on imperial crisis and change in the 1820s and 1830s by unearthing the life of one man. Stephanos Vogorides (1780-1859) was part of a network of Christian elites known phanariots, institutionally excluded from power yet intimately bound up with Ottoman governance. By tracing the contours of the wide-ranging networks--crossing ethnic, religious, and institutional boundaries--in which the phanariots moved, Philliou provides a unique view of Ottoman power and, ultimately, of the Ottoman legacies in the Middle East and Balkans today. What emerges is a wide-angled analysis of governance as a lived experience at a moment in which there was no clear blueprint for power.

Excerpt

The origins of this book lie in a fundamental split in the way we remember the Ottoman Empire. For much of the twentieth century, the prevailing assumption was that the “Ottoman legacy” was one of authoritarianism, ethnic strife, and economic and cultural backwardness in the Middle East and Balkans. More recently, scholars have begun to hark back to a cosmopolitan multiconfessional Ottoman Empire, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived virtually free of communal strife under the umbrella of a flexible and accommodating Ottoman state. Were the Ottomans a force for stagnation and repression that kept the modern world at bay, or were they early modern pioneers of tolerance and cosmopolitanism?

The implicit question in this debate is whether the Ottoman Empire was behind or ahead of the (western European) norm. the one view, that the Ottomans were behind, is based on entrenched orientalist stereotypes that date back to the Ottoman period itself. the other view, which implies that they were ahead of their time, and thus ahead of Europe, with their tolerance for a multiconfessional subject population, springs from a strong revisionist impulse. Adherents of both views have a wealth of evidence from which to draw. It is the very acceptance of these terms—ahead/behind, regressive/progressive—however, and of the implicit norm against which to compare the Ottomans that necessarily limits us to two diametrically opposed visions.

A major aim of this study is to shift the terms of the debate about the Ottoman past. It achieves this aim by turning to what has been a black hole between tolerance and violence. Chronologically, this means the first half of the nineteenth century, when the supposed fluidity and tolerance of the early modern period shifted into an era of top-down attempts to reform, modernize, and Westernize and ulti-

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