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Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State

Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State

by Cemal Kafadar

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Cemal Kafadar offers a much more subtle and complex interpretation of the early Ottoman period than that provided by other historians. His careful analysis of medieval as well as modern historiography from the perspective of a cultural historian demonstrates how ethnic, tribal, linguistic, religious, and political affiliations were all at play in the struggle for


Cemal Kafadar offers a much more subtle and complex interpretation of the early Ottoman period than that provided by other historians. His careful analysis of medieval as well as modern historiography from the perspective of a cultural historian demonstrates how ethnic, tribal, linguistic, religious, and political affiliations were all at play in the struggle for power in Anatolia and the Balkans during the late Middle Ages.

This highly original look at the rise of the Ottoman empire—the longest-lived political entity in human history—shows the transformation of a tiny frontier enterprise into a centralized imperial state that saw itself as both leader of the world's Muslims and heir to the Eastern Roman Empire.

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Between Two Worlds

The Construction of the Ottoman State

By Cemal Kafadar


Copyright © 1995 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91805-4


The Moderns

If you have nothing to tell us except that one barbarian succeeded another on the banks of the Oxus and Jaxartes, what is that to us? Voltaire, article on history, Encyclopédie

The Rise of the Ottoman State in Modern Historiography

Beginning in the fifteenth century, numerous historical accounts were composed, by Ottomans and others, that relate a series of events delineating the emergence and expansion of Ottoman power, but none of these would have passed Voltaire's test. From the point of view of modern historiography, they contain no explanation, no analysis of underlying causes or dynamics, and are only narratives of events in succession about successive dynasties and states. Naturally, a reader of Dumézil would be ready to trace implicit explanatory models in these sources, as literary or nonanalytical as they may seem, through an examination of their selection and ordering of events. However, this would not change the fact that "the rise of the Ottoman state" was not problematized and explicit causal explanations were not sought until after the full impact of positivist and historicist thought on Ottoman studies at the turn of this century.

Ottoman histories from the earliest written works in the fifteenth century to the late imperial age tend to start off with Osman's genealogy and his dream against the backdrop of the physical and political turmoil caused by the Chingisids in western Asia. With Turks pouring into Asia Minor due to the onslaught of the Mongol armies and with Seljuk power disintegrating, a young warrior (son of so-and-so, son of so-and-so, etc.) has an auspicious dream that is read to imply the dreamer and his descendants are selected by God for rulership. There are various versions of this legend, and some attribute the dream to Ertozril, Osman's father, but they all precede Osman's bid for political power and indicate that it was endowed with divine sanction. To the chroniclers and their audience, pedigree and divine sanction clearly played a crucial role in the rise of Ottoman power. These are accompanied by such personal qualities as sincere faith, righteousness, valor, and leadership.

Further, supplementary explanations could be woven into this model depending on the narrator's concerns. Just as genealogies could be reshaped or embellished through, say, remembrance of forgotten ancestors, divine blessing could easily accommodate some holy person who may be assigned intermediacy in its allocation or verification. If you wanted to make sure that you and yours got proper credit for their real or imagined contribution to Ottoman successes, you might include an episode or two to underline the nature of that contribution. In the vita of Haci Bektas, for instance, the patron saint of the Bektasi order of dervishes, rulership is again a question of divine selection whereby God's sanction is removed from the House of Seljuk and transferred to that of Ertoril. However, the transfer does not take place through direct intervention by God. The news is broken by Haci Bektas, who, thanks to his vilayet (proximity to God), has access to such divine secrets and power to intercede in the actual transmission of rulership. His blessing turns out to be another "factor" in the rise of Ottoman power.

In European sources, the question of origins again took up considerable space, but here the emphasis was on ethnicity or race rather than Osman's genealogy: are Turks indeed Trojans; or are they Scythians? What needed to be explained to European audiences was not so much the emergence of the Ottomans in particular but the arrival of the "Turkish menace" or "yoke" at large. Whether they were Trojans avenging Hector or Scythians out to destroy, or an Inner Asiatic people related to the Huns as it was later discovered, their superb military skills — a racial characteristic — would need to be underlined as well as the fact that they were now within the fold of Islam, thus armed with a "warlike religion." God's design, often in the form of a punishment for the sins of Christians, should not be neglected in this context.

Against this background, it is easy to understand why Samuel Johnson thought so highly of Richard Knolles (1550?–1610) as to call him "the first of historians," even though the good doctor was quick to add that the historian was "unhappy ... in the choice of his subject." To explain the "beginning, progresse, and perpetuall felicity of this the Othoman Empire," Knolles referred to

such a rare unitie and agreement amongst them, as well in the manner of their Religion (if it be so to bee called) as in matters concerning their State (especially in all their enterprises to be taken in hand for the augmenting of their Empire) as that thereof they call themselves Islami, that is to say Men of one minde, or at peace amongst themselves; so that it is not to bee marvelled, if thereby they grow strong themselves, and dreadfull unto others. Joyne unto this their courage, ... their frugalitie and temperatenesse in their dyet and other manner of living; their carefull observing of their antient Military Discipline; their cheerefull and almost incredible obedience unto their Princes and Sultans.... Whereunto may bee added the two strongest sinewes of every well governed Commonwealth; Reward propounded to the good, and Punishment threatened unto the offender; where the prize is for vertue and valour set up, and the way laid open for every common person, be he never so meanly borne, to aspire unto the greatest honours and preferments both of the Court and of the Field.

Whatever the value of Knolles's explanations, however, they are clearly not targeted at the earlier phase of Ottoman history, or at the formative stages of the state, as such. This is also true of the more theoretical discourse on comparative political systems undertaken by various Renaissance European authors, such as Machiavelli and Jean Bodin, whose works must have been read by some of the authors of the abundant European historical literature on the Ottomans. It was in fact none other than Knolles who translated Bodin's De la legislation, ou Du gouvernement politique des empires into English just before writing his history of the Ottomans. Like Knolles, the writers of comparative politics analyzed the strengths of the Ottoman system as it stood after the process of imperial construction but were not interested in that process itself. Nor is there anything specifically Ottoman in Knolles's account; all of the "factors" mentioned by him might apply to any of the Turco-Muslim polities the Ottomans competed with. Knolles was explaining the success not of the Ottomans in particular but of the "Turk" — a designation that was more or less synonymous with "Ottoman" and often also with "Muslim" among the Europeans of his age. Besides, as impressive as Knolles's precociously analytical attitude may be, it is submerged in hundreds of pages of traditional histoire événementielle.

This is also true for the most comprehensive and monumental narrative of Ottoman history ever written, Die Geschichte des osmanischen Reiches by the Viennese historian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774–1856), who represents the culmination of that tradition. And it is true, though there are more than glimpses of a new historiography here, even for Nicolae Iorga (1871–1940), the Rumanian medievalist, whose neglected history of the Ottoman Empire is, on the one hand, a throwback to the mode of grand narrative with emphasis on politico-military events but, on the other, a product of the new Kulturgeschichte. After all, he had been goaded to the task by his mentor, Lamprecht, the German historian whose anti-Rankean genetic method was meant to investigate not "how it actually was" but "how it actually came to be" (wie es eigentlich geworden ist). Not only was Iorga keen on underlining the significance of the Seljuk era as a formative background, but he also chose to include a nonnarrative chapter emphasizing "the military village life of the Turks" and the appeal of Ottoman administration to the Balkan peasantry by providing it protection, he argued, from seigniorial abuse.

It was not before the First World War, when the demise of the Ottoman state seemed imminent, that its emergence appeared as a specific question in historians' imagination. How was it that this state, now looking so weak and decrepit, so old-fashioned, still so oriental after many westernizing reforms, had once been so enormously successful? And the success, many realized, was not just in terms of expansion, which could be easily explained by militarism and violence. This state once ruled, without major unrest, over a huge population with a dizzying variety of religions, languages, and traditions. How could some "barbarians," still nomadic at the outset of their empire-building enterprise, create such a sophisticated, even if ultimately "despotic," polity? The Ottoman patriot or Turkish nationalist would want to demonstrate, with a different wording of course, that this was not surprising, but he or she would be well aware that the question was of utmost weight for one's dignity or possibly the nation's very existence in the context of a new world order that clipped non-European empires into nation-states; these were in principle to be formed by peoples who could demonstrate through their historical experience that they were mature enough to govern themselves.

H. A. Gibbons (1880–1934), an American teaching at Robert College (Istanbul) in the 1910s, was the first to problematize and devote a monograph to the origins of the Ottoman state. Pointing out that the earliest Ottoman sources — the basis for almost all speculation on the topic until then — were from the fifteenth century, he dismissed them as late fabrications. In fact, his assessment of Ottoman historiography is not very different from that of Busbecq, the Habsburg envoy to Sleymn the Magnificent (r. 1520–66). Echoing the sixteenth-century diplomat, who thought that "Turks have no idea of chronology and dates, and make a wonderful mixture of all the epochs of history," Gibbons wrote: "We must reject entirely the appreciations of Ottoman historians. None has yet arisen of his [Osman's] own people who has attempted to separate the small measure of truth from the mass of fiction that obscures the real man in the founder of the Ottoman dynasty." He thus reached the conclusion that "in the absence of contemporary evidence and of uncon-flicting tradition, we must form our judgement of Osman wholly upon what he accomplished." Oddly enough after this damning assessment, Gibbons not only used parts of the Ottoman historiographic tradition but even chose to rely on a particularly dubious element of it for his most pivotal argument.

One of his radically novel assertions was that Osman and his followers were pagan Turks living as nomadic pastoralists on the Byzantine frontier and pursuing successful predatory activities due to weakened defenses in that area. Converting to Islam at some stage of Osman's career, as the dream story implied according to Gibbons, these nomads were overtaken by a proselytizing spirit and forced many of their Christian neighbors to convert as well. The story of Osman's blessed reverie, Gibbons thought, may well have been a legend but it was meant to capture a particular moment in the young chieftain's real life, namely, his adoption of a new faith and of a politico-military career in its name.

Taking another piece of evidence from that "mass of fiction" that he otherwise deemed Ottoman histories to be, Gibbons "calculated" that the "four hundred tents" of Osman's tribe must have been joined by so many converts that the new community increased "tenfold" by this process. A new "race" was born — that of the Osmanhs — out of the mixture of ex-pagan Turks and ex-Christian Greeks. The expansion of Osmanli (the Turkish form of "Ottoman") power was accompanied not so much by fresh elements from the East but by more and more "defections and conversions from among the Byzantine Greeks; so, the creative force of the Ottoman Empire must not be attributed to an Asiatic people but to European" elements.

This was after all a time when a historian did not even feel the need to be apologetic for making remarks like the following: "The government and the ruling classes of the Ottoman Empire are negatively rather than positively evil. There is nothing inherently bad about the Osmanli. He is inert, and has thus failed to reach the standards set by the progress of civilization. He lacks ideals." Shrug or sigh as one might upon reading such comments today, when cultural domination is asserted and practiced in much subtler ways, Gibbons's self-satisfied lack of sensitivity for the "natives" allowed him to be free of neurotic caution and to make some daring suggestions. Whatever the weaknesses of his specific arguments, and despite his exaggerations and racialization of the issue, he was not altogether off the mark in underlining the emergence of a new political community out of some combination of people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. It may also shed quite a bit of light on the possibly humble origins and enterprising nature of the early Ottomans to see Osman as a "self-made man." And even Gibbons's ardent critics agreed that Ottoman expansion in the Balkans must be seen not as the outcome of a series of booty-seeking raids but as "part of a plan of settlement" accompanied by such raids.

For more than two decades following Gibbons's book, the foundation of the Ottoman state and the identity of its founders were hot topics. His theory enjoyed some recognition outside the world of Orientalists especially since it could be superimposed on the theory of some Byzantinists at the time that the flourishing of early Ottoman administrative institutions and practices was due, not to a Turco-Islamic, but to a Byzantine heritage. As Charles Diehl, a French Byzantinist, put it, "the Turks ... those rough warriors were neither administrators nor lawyers, and they understood little of political science. Consequently they modelled many of their state institutions and much of their administrative organization upon what they found in Byzantium." While underlining the long historical evolution of the Turks as a background to the Ottomans, Iorga also held that the latter, "conquérants malgré eux," were almost totally assimilated into Byzantine life except in their religion. The empire they went on to build retained an element, to use his felicitous phrase, of "Byzance aprés Byzance."

Nevertheless, most scholars of Ottoman or oriental history were critical of Gibbons, while some notable cases like Babinger and Grousset were inclined to accept that Osman converted to Islam at a later stage of his chiefdom. These were no more than exceptions however. Giese, for instance, criticized Gibbons's theories and use of evidence, particularly the construction of an argument around the dream legend, and suggested a new catalyst to the Ottoman conquests: Osman's relations with, or rather support among, the ahi brotherhoods. These brotherhoods were the Anatolian version of the early Islamic futuwwa organizations, which comprised urban artisanal and mercantile milieux conforming to a quasi-chivalric, quasi-Sufi code of behavior and corporation. Kramers took this suggestion a step further and argued that Osman was one of the leaders of the as from the Paphlagonian town of Osmancik — whence he supposedly drew his sobriquet. Several prominent Orientalists such as Houtsma, Huart, Marquart, Massignon, and Mordtmann were eager to comment on issues related to Osman's ethnic or religious identity in those years. And identity — in a combination of ethnic, national, racial, and religious categories — was held to have a major explanatory value in historical understanding, especially in locating the rightful place of individuals and nations in the linear progression of civilization. While the minute differences of the arguments and speculations advanced by all these scholars need not be reproduced here in detail, it should be noted that a common underlying assumption characterized their positions and differentiated them from that of Gibbons; in one way or the other, they all tended to emphasize the "oriental" nature of the Ottomans and accepted the essentially Turco-Muslim identity of the founders of the state.

There was soon an attempt at synthesis by Langer and Blake, who breathed a new historiographic spirit into the debate by bringing in material and sociological factors, such as geography, changing trade patterns, and social organization of religious orders or artisanal associations. Though unable to use the primary sources in Middle Eastern languages, the two coauthors anticipated many of the points and perspectives that were soon to be taken up by two of the most prominent specialists in the field: Köprülü and Wittek. While recognizing the significance of conversions from Christianity to Islam, they were cautious enough not to draw any specific demographic configurations from all this. Nor would they accept that Osman had been born pagan on such flimsy evidence, but they were convinced that "religion played a part, perhaps an important part, in the story of Ottoman expansion." The "elan of the early Ottoman conquerors:' they felt, could be explained by the presence of the dervishes around them. Underlining the growth of trade and the proliferation of the ahi organizations as well, they reached the conclusion that "the first sultans had more than a mere horde of nomads to rely upon?


Excerpted from Between Two Worlds by Cemal Kafadar. Copyright © 1995 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Cemal Kafadar is Associate Professor of History at Harvard University.

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