The Ottoman empire was one of the largest, most magnificent and enduring of all empires. Inspired and sustained by Islam and Islamic institutions, it replaced the Byzantine empire as the major power in the eastern Mediterranean and, with Constantinople at its heart, was ruled by a single dynasty for seven centuries. Lasting from 1301 until 1923, its apogee came during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled between 1520 and 1566. In this month's Signposts, Caroline Finkel, author of Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923 (John Murray, 2005), discusses the historic reach and continued importance of this mighty empire.
Being an Ottoman historian can be a blessing, but let's get the curse out of the way first. No historian of England would be expected to know about Thomas More and then pronounce authoritatively on the Dunkirk
evacuation. Yet Ottomanists are assumed to have a firm grasp on all six centuries of a state that covered a fair portion of the globe. The blessing is the wealth of topics that this long temporal span and vast geography encompass. Once the scholarly fundamentals of the discipline are learnt, we may follow Ottoman troops up the Nile in the 16th century, immerse ourselves in the records of a 17th-century provincial Anatolian court, trace the formation of a rebel movement in the 19th-century Balkans and much, much more.
To my mind 'Ottoman history' is a capacious category of study that denotes the history of any and all of the times and places where Ottoman administration held sway, whether with a strong hand or tentatively. However, many colleagues, although their research would qualify them as Ottoman historians according to my definition, prefer to consider themselves students of the history of more narrowly defined categories--as social historians of Egypt, for instance, or as religious historians focusing on 19th-century Albania. For them the Ottoman element in what they study recedes in importance to the point where it may go unacknowledged.
I recently attended a symposium in Ankara on food history and visit Istanbul for another on fortifications--both with significant Ottoman components. Yet another focuses on the sources employed in the ten-volume Book of Travels by 'the Ottoman Pepys', the globe-trotting courtier Evliya Celebi, whom UNESCO has proclaimed Man of the Year in 2011, the 400th anniversary of his birth. The worlds of the modern Ottoman historian are every bit as varied as those of the societies and cultures that were once part of the empire.
When I was drawn into studying the Ottoman world in the 1980s the field was far less crowded and complex than it is today. In those days it was hard to find a book reviewer who was not a friend of the author. The chronological narrative was still in the making, basic institutions were barely understood and the paradigm was the now discredited mantra of the empire's rise, stagnation and fall. The generation of scholars who taught us may have had better language training than most today, but the range of sources they worked with was by and large limited to Ottoman chronicles and the archival documents of the central state. Ottoman history was about text. In particular, the visual was lacking: images were for art historians. When I first went to work in the archives in Istanbul in the early 1980s, in a building behind the Sublime Porte itself, I feared that we were the last generation who would do so. It seemed that the Ottoman language, the essential tool of the Ottoman historian, was about to become as dead as a Latin.
Luckily I was wrong. As might be expected, the greatest growth in interest has been in Turkey. During the 1980s the university system expanded and history became a subject of choice, not merely in the prevailing points entry system, a consolation prize for those who wanted to read engineering. History graduates from Turkish universities are accepted to study for their doctorates abroad, many in the US, and may go on to teach there and produce the next generation. …