Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Ottoman Historiography: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Ottoman Historiography: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

Article 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. …

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