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.

Response: Cemal Kafadar’s “Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State”

Cemal Kafadar’s book, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State, is an attempt to find a middle-ground between existing theories that paints a more realistic picture of a dynamic and fluid process that didn’t exist in polar opposites, as presented in the theories put forward by Herbert Gibbons, Paul Wittek and M. F. Koprulu. By that, I mean their theories seem to be presenting history in a way that supports a contemporaneous need to justify the superior role of one group or another, or a particular aspect of a group, rather than in a way that produces a realistic and sufficiently complex set of events. Cemal Kafadar recognizes this and, rather than producing another theory and trying to prove it, he attempts to reconcile the theories presented by Gibbons, Wittek and Koprulu into something that might better approximate the truth of the origins of the Ottoman state.

Kafadar tells us that very little written documentation exists from the foundational period of the Ottoman state, and what does exist is only useful up to a certain point because of the possibility of the text being altered to fit the author’s needs. According to Kafadar, it’s possible that the Ottomans didn’t know where they came from. When attempting to establish an empire, however, it’s important to have political legitimacy and creating a new historical narrative is one way to establish the right to rule. Attempts to establish that right are obvious in the creation of false lineages that allowed the Ottomans to trace their descent to Noah (Islamic legitimacy) and to the Oghuz Turks through the Kayi tribe (ethnic legitimacy?). Regardless of whether or not these lineages are accurate, knowing that they were important at the time as symbols of political legitimacy can help explain the problems the Ottomans were facing at the time. Why did they feel that they needed to shore up their right to rule at those particular times?

It was especially interesting to see the changing role of Islam and the gradual shift from a localized version of Islam to a more orthodox Sunni version of Islam. How important was Islam in the beginning of the Ottoman’s attempt to found a state? Did they even conceive of it as ‘gaza’ at the time? Or was it later legitimated as gaza by historians seeking to shore up the Ottoman’s Islamic credentials? Kafadar mentioned that religious identities at the time were very fluid and often Muslims would ally with Christians for the sake of raiding and battling rivals. It’s likely that the Ottomans also engaged in that practice. And, it’s also likely that they didn’t feel any less Muslim for doing so, given that they had Islamic titles, like “Champion of the Faith.” What made a good Muslim in that period? It’s probably not even possible to make that distinction today, but it’s interesting to see how much more cavalier the reality was, compared to the supposed Islamic norms.

Kafadar made a brief mention of the similarity between events in Anatolia and the events in the Iberian peninsula, where the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty were slowly being whittled down by the Catholics in the Reconquista. In that conflict, there were also Muslim mini-states that would ally with Christians against a rival Muslim mini-state, with the end result being that Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the last Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in 1492. The rulers of the Muslim mini-states in the Iberian peninsula had to know what would eventually happen to them, so why did they continue to ally with Christians? How important was religion to them, compared to politics and political power? In the same way, modern thinkers were probably reading too much into the religious aspect of the frontier warfare in Anatolia.

The literature concerning the frontier area is especially interesting in how it depicts the role of women. If Islam were a driving force in Turkish expansion in the area, then why were women depicted in roles that supposedly broke Islamic norms? Efromiya is depicted as a woman convert to Islam that battled alongside men she wasn’t related to, kept their company at night, and didn’t cover herself, and likely had a lover for a while before being married to him (Artuhi). Similarly, in the Book of Dede Korkut, Kan Turali sets out to look for a woman that is good at cutting the heads off of infidels, which isn’t a role traditionally filled by a Muslim woman, or at least not the way we think of a Muslim woman today. He eventually marries a Christian woman, Princess Saljan, who is presented as strong-willed and highly sexual (“she went weak at the knees, her cat miaowed, she slavered like a sick calf…[ and] said, ‘If only God Most High would put mercy into my father’s heart, if only he would fix a bride-price and give me to this man!’”, p 69). How do these stories fit into the actual history of the region? Are they complete fictions that only represent the general fantasies of men at the time for foreign women? Was this considered legitimate behavior in that time and place?

The only thing that could have made reading his book clearer and more readily understood would have been an introduction that spelled out their theories before Kafadar launched into his own interpretation of them and the events that surround the founding of the Ottoman state. Since there is as yet very little existing documentation from that period, the best we can do is make conjectures about the period and Kafadar does a good job in reducing Wittek, Gibbons, and Koprulu’s one dimensional theories into something more life-like and believable.