Response: Donald Quataert’s “The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922”

Donald Quataert’s book, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 (New Approaches to European History), is an engaging overview that challenges popular (mis)conceptions about internal dynamics of the empire in regards to inter-communal relations and the role it played internationally. Throughout the text, Quataert takes care to place the Ottoman Empire in context, something which he seems to believe has been rarely done in past historical works, resulting in inflated claims of both power and weakness, as well as claims of undue cruelty both to its own citizens and its enemies. In short, while providing a good overview of the empire, Quataert also does an effective job in leveling the playing field so that the reader is able to understand that both the perceived negative and positive actions of the empire are not unique to the Ottoman Empire, cutting through caricatures to present a balanced view of history.

Having never read anything regarding the Ottoman Empire before, the text was very instructional. I was previously under the impression that the Ottoman Empire was a primarily Middle Eastern, Muslim empire that was organized along monarchical and religious lines. The information presented about the gradual shift in power from the sultan to the viziers/pashas and then to the Jannisaries was interesting. What sort of authority did the office of sultan still hold that it was maintained for the purposes of political legitimation? Why was there never an attempt to restructure the central government? Or was the sultan a political figurehead in a similar way to modern Prime Ministers and Presidents?

I was also very interested to find out that for a large portion of the empire’s existence, the vast majority of the population resided in the European provinces, making the empire more European than Middle Eastern. The fact that the Ottoman Empire expanded so far into southeastern Europe helps to explain the modern mistrust and fear of Turkey and, as the author says, the hesitance the European Union is displaying regarding Turkey’s application for membership. It’s a hesitancy and fear that’s a legacy of the Ottoman Empire’s initial military successes, but why does Turkey bear the legacy of that fear? Is there something about Turkey that makes it different from the other former Ottoman lands? The Ottoman’s central administration was located in Turkey, but in the formation of the modern Republic of Turkey, the Ottoman legacy was almost completely abolished. Is there some fear that Turkey might use the European Union to ascend economically and politically and once again pose a political threat to the European nations?

One thing that I wish had been better addressed in the text was the legal system in the Ottoman Empire. How heavily did it rely on religious law? How much was secular law? Was there a process where the ulema approved the laws, or was religious validation not required? Was religious law widely applied or was it limited to civil courts? Also, how heavily were communal religious courts used, and how often were there appeals to Islamic courts? What did sectarian (non-Muslim) courts use as a basis for law and are any of the law books they used still existent? Or were they more informal? The particulars of the law systems is probably a subject for a separate book, but the author didn’t seem to spend too much time discussing the court system in general, and the fact that non-Muslim citizens often appealed to the Islamic courts for ‘justice’ makes it a point of interest.

Overall, Donald Quataert’s book tackles a subject that, judging by his text, has often been unfairly maligned in popular media due to old biases and fears. His attempt to overcome those misconceptions are obvious throughout the text, where he constantly makes comparisons between the Ottoman Empire’s methods or actions and those of other contemporaneous political entities. The division of the book into sections that generally cover time periods, followed by chapters that address certain aspects of Ottoman society helps the reader to place the more detailed information into the greater framework of events. The Ottoman Empire: 1700-1922 is an excellent introduction to an important period of history.

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