Monday, April 10, 2017

Sultans of Rome: The Turkish World Expansion

Some works of history are excellent introductions to the history of a period, region, people. Others are much better read only if you already had some background knowledge -- either because they assume such knowledge, or because the author has such a pronounced point of view that background knowledge is desirable to balance out what is being written, or not written.

Sultans of Rome: The Turkish World Expansion by archaeologist Warwick Ball falls into the last category.

Which is not to say that I did not find it a useful and informative work of history. It gives an excellent overview of Turkish history, informatively covering the centuries before the Seljuks conquered much of the Middle East. The difficulty comes with the coverage of the Ottoman Empire (Chapters 7 - 10).

A European State
The author is at pains to point out that the Ottoman Empire was, from very early on, a European state. The Ottomans first took territory in Europe in 1354. The movement of its capital from Bursa to Edirne (formerly Adrianople) in 1363 meant that its capital was in Europe for the rest of its history, until the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate in 1922 and the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. With Selim I's conquest and abolition of the shadow Abbasid Caliphate in Cairo, this location history meant that the Sunni Caliphate was resident in Europe for over 400 years, though the Ottomans put much more emphasis on the title once they started losing Muslim-inhabited lands to European states, particularly Russia.

Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent --
being positively Roman in its use of client states.
At its height, the Ottoman Empire controlled about 20% of the land area of Europe (p.7). It was clearly a part of the European state system. Even the phrase used of its latter years, the sick man of Europe, acknowledged that. So, yes the Ottomans were a European state, indeed a European Great Power an acknowledged (though not original) member of the Concert of Europe. So it is easy to have fun with various historians and commentators who talk of the Ottomans as being somehow exterior to Europe and to being European; and Ball does have such fun.

The trouble is that Ball is so concerned to score points in current controversies--former French President Giscard d'Estaing's comments about Turkey not being part of Europe are clearly a particular annoyance--that his text systematically minimises differences, and emphasises similarities, between the Ottoman state and European states.  In doing so, Ball does make several useful corrective points. But he also pushes his book into the realm of polemic.

Ottoman astronomers, C16th.
The notion of a clash of civilisations based on Team Christian versus Team Islam is easily demolished. Not least because there was often such vicious hostility between Catholics and Orthodox on one side, and Sunni and Shia on the other. Selim the Grim's expansion of the Ottoman Empire by 70% with, among other things, the conquest of Mamluk Egypt, completely (if temporarily) shifting the axis of advance of the Empire from conquest of Christian lands to conquest of Muslim lands, was largely motivated (or at least justified as being) to block the advances of the rabidly Shia Safavid dynasty which had conquered Iran and brutally converted it to being Shia.

And the Ottomans were ever opportunistic, making alliances with Christian states when it suited them, incorporating Christian forces into their armies, having Christian vassal states. The border lands between civilisations are noted for such patterns. But that does not mean they are not border lands between civilisations.

But a civilisational divide
To talk of the Ottomans not being a European Power is geographic nonsense. But to talk of them being of a different civilisation than the Christian states is not. The advance of the Ottomans into Europe was the advance of a civilisation from outside Europe into Europe. As the Ottomans imperium lost ground after 1683, so that was the retreat of a civilisation from Europe.

Skull tower at Nis, Serbia, erected by
the Ottoman commander to contain skulls
of defeated Serbian rebels, 1809.
That there were non-Muslim minorities in Muslim lands did not mean that Muslim-majority countries were not lands of Islam as a civilisation. Just as the leaving of Muslim minorities in Christian-majority countries did not stop those being lands of a different civilisation. Nor was being a majority required for a civilisational divide, who controlled the state in a territory was sufficient. The border of the Ottoman Empire was a civilisational divide, one that not only represented a different established religion, but different marriage systems, understanding of law, basic institutions and metaphysical presumptions.

Jihad as system
When Ball writes "the perceived Holy War symbolised by Kossovo--was simply not an issue to the early Ottomans" (p.98) he is being less than accurate. The Ottomans turned jihad into a system. A system operated for their benefit, but a system nonetheless. (Indeed, creating systems to expand and buttress their rule was the Ottoman genius.) All the first nine rulers of the Ottoman state called themselves ghazis (holy warriors).

Serbian historian Srdja Trifkovic, in his The Krajina Chronicles: A History of the Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia (which I review here) provides a useful summary of how the Ottomans used jihad, (and his work is a useful corrective to Ball's Ottoman spruiking more generally). Raiders devastated border regions, promoting flight and reducing economic activity (and thus long-term ability to resist) while the spoils of raids (already sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence) motivated and maintained the raiders. Larger armies periodically probed the borders. Eventually, conquest of a new region would be accomplished, the surviving inhabitants would be subject to the jizya poll tax on non-believers, Muslim warriors were settled as “tax-farmers” in the newly-conquered region and the process would roll on from the new (expanded) borders.

Mehmet II triumphal entry into Constantinople
(painting by Benjamin Constant).
The Ottomans could be very pragmatic in how they interpreted non-believer submission to their rule. Hence their extensive use of Christian vassal states and Christian warriors. But that same pragmatism used jihad quite ruthlessly as a means and justification for imperial expansion. The Ottomans were never a jihadi state, but they were certainly a state that used jihad, and did so quite systematically. They saw themselves as expanding dar al-Islam; as, indeed, they were. During the long imperial retreat, they were defending dar al-Islam.

An Islamic Empire
As Ball points out, it was only after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 that Muslims became a majority of the Empire's subjects (p.158). The balance of pragmatic consideration then moved to harsher treatment of what were now clearly non-Muslim minorities. This culminated in Hamidian Massacres of the 1890s and the Armenian, Assyrian and Pontic-Greek genocides followed during the Dynasts War. While admitting to the slaughters, Ball is at pains to blame European factors--the rise of nationalism (p.156), the push of the Christian Powers to protect Christian nationalities within the Empire (p.158). This represents a sadly typical "I will now signal I am a good and sophisticated person" move of allocating the "real" agency for anything bad to those bad "white" people. Ball having systematically glided over awkward bits in his Ottoman narrative makes it easier to do.

A photograph, taken by the American W. L. Sachtleben,
depicting the victims of a massacre of Armenians
 in Erzerum on October 30, 1895, being gathered
for burial at the town's Armenian cemetery.
The reality is that the Ottoman Empire was always ultimately an Islamic state. The Ottoman dynasty prided itself on being a defender of Sunni Orthodoxy and Sharia, albeit with typical Ottoman systematic finessing, was the dominant law of the Empire. (In accordance with Sharia, the various millets each operated their own law, but only as subordinate to Sharia.) With a majority of their subjects being non-Muslims, of course the Ottomans were pragmatic in their treatment of non-Muslims. But Muslim supremacy was always the bedrock the state was built on.

The balance of tolerance and oppression
There is a recurring pattern in history of states with established and legitimating religions being pragmatic when the dominant group is a minority and then becoming increasingly oppressive as the dominant group's proportion of the population shifts to being a majority, with that intolerant oppressiveness worsening as their dominant group's proportion of the population increases further. We can see this pattern in Norman Sicily, where the treatment of Jews and Muslims was relatively tolerant when the Christians were a minority, tending to worsen as the Christians became a majority and culminating in the expulsion of the remaining Muslims (and later the Jews). We can also see the pattern in Spain and Portugal during and after the Reconquista, culminating in the expulsion of the Jews and later of the Moriscoes.

Similarly, the treatment of Jews in Christian Europe was often worse than in Islamic Europe because Jews were typically the only significant religious minority in Christian states, and a relatively small one at that, while Jews were part of a wider mosaic of religious groups in Islamic realms. (Not that Jews did not also suffer massacres and pogroms in Islamic lands.)

Selim III receiving foreign dignitaries,  1789.
But the wider pattern also occurs in Islamic lands. Indeed, is continuing to this day, with the flight of the Jews after 1948 and the current steady erosion of Christian populations in the Middle East. The Ottoman massacres and genocides were a particularly vile manifestation of the wider historical pattern. (The Habsburg Monarchy also had ethnic minorities of dubious loyalty in a time of rising nationalism, with Russia posing as protectors of Orthodox groups: but the Habsburg state did not resort to massacres and death-marches as a response, not even under the stress of the Great War.)

So, there are some serious weaknesses in Ball's treatment of the Ottoman Empire. But there is also plenty of useful and striking information. And even folk being polemical can make useful points. The discussion of the Ottoman attempt to incorporate the Roman heritage, for example, is enlightening.

The real strength of the book is in its treatment of the wider Turkish history, which extends centuries before the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires.  The Turks are no longer the folk who suddenly appear out of the steppes as conquerors in the C11th, but as a people with a rich and complex history before that. So, a useful book, but not one to be read as a stand-alone, particularly not regarding Ottoman history.

No comments:

Post a Comment