Review: Cambridge History of Turkey

Volume 3: The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603–1839 Ed. Suraiya N Faroqhi Cambridge University Press

When the two and a third centuries covered in the latest volume of the Cambridge History of Turkey begin, the Ottoman Empire is the largest and most powerful state in Europe, second only to China in the whole Eurasian land-mass. At its close, the dying Sultan Mahmut II has just suffered a crippling defeat at the hands of his own vassal, Mohammad Ali of Egypt, and the empire temporarily has neither an army nor a navy. Worse still, the Great Powers of Europe had been eying the Ottoman Empire during the previous fifty or sixty years with a view to seizing all its lands. Since the Powers cannot do this without a major war among themselves the empire survives to limp on through the nineteenth century, learning to profit diplomatically from their bickering.

For much of the eighteenth century, however, the Ottoman state and society continued imperturbably along traditional Islamic lines apparently unaware of the approaching danger. Two generations ago, two British scholars, HAR Gibb and Harold Bowen published a magisterial volume on the Ottoman Empire on the eve of westernisation, but their method was remorselessly institutional. Today institutional studies are out of fashion, along with political and diplomatic history. So too is the idea of a “decline” of the Ottoman Empire as opposed to a more benign “decentralisation” – though the inconvenient fact that it grew relatively much weaker, keeps on cropping up. Instead centre stage is taken up by social and economic history.

This 500-page study begins in true twenty-first century style with a twenty-five-page article on ecology, followed by a rather short eighteen-page survey of “political and diplomatic developments” during two and a bit centuries. Then come sections on the political culture of great houses, warfare and public finance, followed by “semi-autonomous forces” (Arab and Balkan) versus the imperial centre, and then “social groups” (Islamic clergy, Muslim women, Jews, and Christians). Then come chapters on “making a living” (ie economics). This section includes a notably fine essay on the capitulations, the privileges enjoyed by the Western powers in the Ottoman lands, by Edhem Eldem; and finally there are chapters on music, arts, and literature.

Many of these chapters read like stand-alone essays and less like parts of an integrated volume designed to pilot a newcomer through the subject in the tradition which Lord Acton established in the Cambridge Modern History a hundred years ago. The gaze of some contributors seems focussed more on current academic writing and less on the past itself and may thus look rather curious in a few years’ time. Some essays, it must be said, (Eldem and Carter Finlay for example) are excellent. Still it might not be too harsh to suggest that for anyone who wants to be piloted through a vast subject area, much of it still highly relevant to our own time, some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books might better introductory reading.

The concentration on social forces leads to a striking and somewhat depressing lack of interest in personalities and human beings as historical actors. The English has not always been edited as well as it might have been. And the overall treatment, which has perforce to be highly compact throughout, becomes in some cases downright procrustean. Mahmut II and his contemporaries do not benefit from being lumped in with the eighteenth century, rather than (as has always been the case until now) regarded as the uncertain and stormy beginning of a new era with radically new problems. In part this is because the volume, sidestepping the idea of ‘decline’, also generally also turns away its eyes from what was Gibb and Bowen’s starting point: the impact of the West, a process which was getting under way by the early eighteenth century.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 38
  • What is a Turk?

    Christian Tyler, author of Wild West China, The Taming of Xinjiang, assesses Ergun Çağatay’s extraordinary volume of photographs of the wider Turkic world

  • Feast Food

    The çörek is full of symbolism, and its association with religious festivals reflects earlier pagan customs. All sorts of buns, loaves and çörek are eaten at Sabantoy, the colourful June festival celebrated by the Altay, Çuvaş, Tatar and Başkurt peoples of Central Asia.
    More cookery features


  • The Birthplace of Empire

    Heath W Lowry, in the first of a series of articles this issue, pays tribute to the city that gave the Ottoman state its first capital.


  • Whistlestop Bursa: A day out on the tiles

    John Carswell on the city that married the courtly arts of Asia to the princely aspirations of Renaissance Europe. Photographs by Jürgen Frank


  • The Beauty of the Beast

    No day passes in Turkey when horses are not racing – and when it comes to prize money the country now leads the field. Donna Landry visits Karacabey, the national stud near Bursa, with the Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel and discovers an equestrian paradise

  • The Patriot

    As Bursa lay in ruins after the earthquake of 1855, the man the Sultan sent to rescue the city was Ahmed Vefik Pasha. A brilliant man of letters, champion of Ottoman causes and very undiplomatic diplomat, he was to leave an indelible mark on Turkish culture. David Barchard reinstates a wayward hero.



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Issue 38, 2007 The Big Bursa Issue
£15.00 / $19.51 / 94.05 TL