Eyes on the old East

The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650 - The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. First edition
February 27, 2004

These two introductions to Ottoman history from the inception of the polity to the mid-17th century present a fascinating insight into the development of Ottoman studies during recent decades, as well as into the very different academic approaches of British and American scholars.

British scholar Colin Imber analyses the Ottoman polity, starting with the question: "What kind of a 'state' was the Ottoman empire?" He begins with a chronological survey, followed by chapters on the dynasty, recruitment of government servants, the imperial and provincial administrations, law and the military.

It is thus an institutional history in the best sense, providing a well-researched and solid introduction that gives a clear sense of the evolution of the Ottoman polity. It also touches on such salient (and controversial) points as the enslavement, conversion and training of Christians - first from without, later from within the empire - for service of the state.

One of the most fascinating sections, appealing to a wider audience than students and scholars working on Middle-Eastern history, is the concluding discussion. Having laid out the institutions of the empire, Imber asks whether the Ottoman state can qualify as an absolutist state, comparable to the type commonly associated with early-modern (western) Europe. Imber rightly insists on the limits to truly absolute rule in the empire, imposed as much by political expedience as by the judicial establishment that had recourse to divine law. However, his discussion is somewhat marred by the fact that he does not engage in a wider discussion of absolutism and thus does not situate his question in a proper comparative framework.

A reader whose appetite has been whetted by this question will be tempted to turn to Daniel Goffman's study, which is part of a series on new approaches to European history.

Goffman covers much of the same ground as Imber in terms of factual history. However, the history of the empire is told not so much from the perspective of a state as from that of a political and economic entity.

Goffman argues passionately that the Ottoman empire, far from being the quintessential European enemy, became very much a part of the European concert of power, notably between the 16th and 18th centuries. The argument rests less on a structural comparison than on a history of the relations between Christian Europe and the Muslim empire.

Hence, diplomats and merchants, commercial diasporas and ethnic minorities occupy centre stage, notably in the second part of the book, which is devoted to the elaboration of his argument. The partly documented, partly imaginary story of one Ottoman official who was sent to Venice guides the reader through the chapters in which this argument is laid out.

In many ways, Goffman's book, with its strong mission, makes for more inspiring reading - notably for students who are new to the subject, or for a wider audience curious about how to situate this empire, which spanned Asia and Europe. His argument gains new relevance in the light of discussions about the "cultural frontiers" of Europe following enlargement of the European Union and growing fears of a new clash of cultures.

Goffman also takes on a number of other received wisdoms, such as the paradigm of Ottoman decline after the reign of SŸleyman the Great. While his passion inspires, the arguments presented do not always fully support his views. Most prominently, the "almost universal perception of the Ottoman Empire as a European state" in the end amounts more to the perception of a lessening threat from the empire leading to its consideration as one of many polities than to an acceptance that it was European - for example, in the realm of the law of nations.

Even if the underlying question of what exactly constitutes Europeanness remains open, a systematic structural comparison of Christian Europe and the Muslim empire would still have been useful.

Goffman's positive image of the empire may sometimes smack of apologia, but he presents a fascinating and vivid account of Ottoman-western relations that inspires new questions and challenges older views. Ideally, a student would read both textbooks.

Ulrike Freitag is director, Centre of Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin.


The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. First edition

Author - Colin Imber
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 405
Price - £47.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 333 61386 4 and 61387 2

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