Ottomans on the couch

An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1914
October 26, 1995

As a political history, the story of the Ottoman empire traditionally has been told in three chapters. There was a dynamic rise from the 14th to the 16th centuries, a decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, and a last-ditch effort at reform along European lines in the 19th century before collapse after the first world war. The answer to a historical framework devoid of dynamism seemed to lie in the study of society and economy. Inspired by the Annales school and the opening of Turkish archives in the 1950s, providing an inexhaustible source of material, researchers over the past quarter century have eschewed the political in favour of the social and economic history of the Ottoman empire. This book is a synthesis of the state of that work by Turkish and Western scholars.

Halil Inalcik, the doyen of Ottoman studies, has overseen the shift in emphasis. His 1973 study, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600, belongs to the earlier tradition of political history predicated on a rise and fall model. Yet by the 1970s his own work had already taken the socioeconomic turn, building on the work of earlier pioneers like Omer Lutfi Barkan. The current book was initiated by Inalcik a decade ago as a collaborative effort. The results are a landmark in every sense of the word.

The work is divided into four parts which reflect a modest attempt to revise the standard periodisation of Ottoman historiography. In part I, Inalcik returns to the Empire's first centuries (1300-1600), though no longer termed "the classical age". Suraiya Faroqhi examines the 17th century in part II, which she termed a period of "crisis and change". The 18th century is treated as "the age of the ayans" (local leaders), ie of decentralisation, by Bruce Mc-Gowan. In part IV Donald Quataert reverts to the standard label of the period 1812-1914 as "the age of reforms". The appendix by Sevket Pamuk follows the diverse Ottoman currencies.

Each part could stand on its own as a separate book. Given the book's size and its high price, it might make sense to break it up into individual paperbacks to reach students and the general reader. Each part is fairly idiosyncratic, reflecting the published research interests of its author. Yet key themes provide a certain cohesion. Foremost among these is trade, though demography, the land regime, the elite, urban craftsmen, and peasant cultivation are also treated extensively.

The book's chief success is in demonstrating how far Ottoman historians have come in extending our understanding of the way of life of Ottoman subjects and their relations to both their own government and the outside world. And the authors succeed in bringing their subject to life. Inalcik's masterful treatment of early Ottoman trade with India and northern Europeans and Faroqhi's fascinating chapters on urban social life and ceremonial make for good reading. Beyond that, the cumulative mass of information establishes the centrality of Ottoman history in eastern European and Mediterranean socioeconomic history.

This book will remain both the standard reference on the subject and the target of revision for years. Specialist readers will cluck over lacunae - more remains to be said about the 18th century, much more remains to be said about the Arab provinces, and about Ottoman women - though to some extent these reflect gaps in the literature more than oversights by the authors. One hopes that the literature in the field will show as much vitality over the next quarter-century.

Eugene Rogan is lecturer in the modern history of the Middle East, St Antony's College, Oxford.

An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1914

Editor - Halil Inalcik with Donald Quataert
ISBN - 0 521 34315 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 1026

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments