Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future

Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future

Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future

Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future


Ottoman historical writing of the 15th and 16th centuries played a significant role in fashioning Ottoman identity and institutionalizing the dynastic state structure during this period of rapid imperial expansion. This volume shows how the writing of history achieved these effects by examining the implicit messages conveyed by the texts and illustrations of key manuscripts. It answers such questions as how the Ottomans understood themselves within their court and in relation to non-Ottoman others; how they visualized the ideal ruler; how they defined their culture and place in the world; and what the significance of Islam was in their self-definition.


Ottoman scholars of the early modern era produced an unprecedented number of works with historical subject matter. Beginning in the fifteenth century, authors of various backgrounds composed chronicles; biographical dictionaries; hagiographies; local, dynastic, or universal histories; campaign accounts; compilations of letters; and other literary texts with historical content. the Ottoman historical record consisted of verse and prose accounts; Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and some Arabic texts; and a plethora of archival sources and supporting documents. the writers of these historical texts came from several milieus; indeed, very few were career historians: many were scribes, bureaucrats, soldiers, poets, religious scholars, grand viziers, tax collectors, and men of other professions. the roster included supporters of the state, dissenters, and eulogizers, as well as complainers and critics.

Members of the Ottoman dynasty and administration, too, were attuned to the value of historical writing and experimented with appointing official historians. One such experiment began in the sixteenth century and led to the creation of numerous dynastic accounts that were illustrated in luxurious manuscripts. At the end of the seventeenth century another kind of office was created, that of the court chronicler. the holder of this post was given access to archival records and kept a record of important events in Ottoman history. Thus, Ottoman rulers and those around them—in a manner similar to that of other European monarchs, such as the Habsburgs in Spain— sought to create a historical record that favored their interests and concerns. Yet, historical writing was far from being constrained to court-sponsored projects.

Indeed, the historical imagination had such a hold on the Ottomans that authors and readers alike often viewed the present in terms of literary or historical models. Thus we read about Ottoman rulers who are the Alexanders or Solomons of their age and grand viziers called “Asaf,” linking them to Solomon’s vizier. the first occupants of the office of court historian were charged with writing Shāhnāma-like accounts of the Ottoman dynasty, in the same meter and rhyme scheme of the eleventh-century poem by Firdawsī, and in Persian; in its first incarnation the position was called the şehnāmeci, or Shāhnāma-writer. That the image of the Ottoman sultan was modeled in some instances after Shāhnāma figures is as evident in the textual content of the manuscripts as in the visual representations that sometimes accompany them. the history of the Ottoman state and Ottoman historiography developed, not surprisingly, in tandem.

Given the Ottomans’ predilection for historical writing and record keeping, modern historians of the Ottoman Empire have had a dazzling array of materials through . . .

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