Pre-20th Century History-Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State

By Cook, Weston F., Jr. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Pre-20th Century History-Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State


Cook, Weston F., Jr., The Middle East Journal


Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State, by Cemal Kafadar. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1995. xx + 154 pages. Abbrevs. to p. 156. Notes to p. 191. Select Bibl. to p. 207. Index to p. 221. $18.95 paper.

The formative first two centuries of Ottoman history have not enjoyed the interest later periods have received. Despite recent fascination with state building, state formation and state-civil society relations, some sound explanations for the scholarly reluctance toward the earlier period exist. The range of language skills needed to understand late medieval Anatolia is daunting and, even more discouraging, written sources surviving from the 1250-1450 AD period are few. Studies of accessible material sourcescoins, art, architecture-are only just coming out of a long hiatus (thanks to art historians like Rochelle Kessler and E. Sara Wolper, for example). Finally, despite different analyses offered by scholars over the last two decades, interpreters of the "rise of the Ottomans" have remained enthralled by paradigms crafted by two mid-20thcentury analysts, namely, Paul Wittek and Mehmet Koprulu. In this context, Cemal Kafadar's new study of Ottoman roots is a welcome shaking of the foundations, a masterful "state of the scholarship" review.

Kafadar is exceptionally suited to the task. He has an encyclopedic command of the primary sources. He is thoroughly conversant with secondary interpretive works. Comparative history, literature, anthropology and religious studies inform his historiographic examination no less than "Ottoman facts." His excellent endnotes and bibliography alone will be invaluable to any future research in this area.

Kafadar's fundamental critique of both Koprulu and Wittek is that, in formulating a theory of Ottoman origins, both engage in a kind of elaborate reductionism that ignores the intricate historical processes which-over two very long centuries-turned one of many petty Anatolian amirates into a transcontinental empire. A courageous statesman as well as a brilliant scholar, Koprulu cast the Ottomans as a distinctive tribe from the great Oghuz confederation in Turkey. He stressed the Turkishness of the Ottoman founders who mobilized thousands of fellow Turkish refugees, fleeing to Anatolia to escape the Mongols. In so doing, Koprulu slighted the pre-existing cosmopolitan traditions and resources already present in the peninsula. Partly in response to Koprulu, Wittek, an Austrian linguist and historian, offered his famous "gazi band" thesis. For Wittek, the attractions of the Ottoman amir derived not from lineage-grounded kinship ties or proto-nationalist ethnic solidarity, but warrior charisma and religious zeal. The first sultans, Ertugrul, Uthman, Orhan and Murad, were political entrepreneurs, who assembled followers into "gazi bands" based on military skill, clerical talent, chivalric loyalty, and a rather personalized vision of Islam that did not bar Christians or Jews from service in "Holy War." If Koprulu's "original" Ottoman state was "exclusivist," Wittek's was "inclusivist. …

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