You are on page 1of 16

THE CHANGING FACE OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY: PAST AND

FUTURE SCHOLARSHIP
Author(s): KARL BARBIR
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Oriente Moderno, Nuova serie, Anno 18 (79), Nr. 1, THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE IN THE
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY (1999), pp. 253-267
Published by: Istituto per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25817604 .
Accessed: 13/12/2012 11:05
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Istituto per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to
Oriente Moderno.

http://www.jstor.org

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

KARL BARBIR
THE CHANGING FACE OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY:
PAST AND FUTURE SCHOLARSHIP
suggests two classic articles: Albert Hourani's
of the Fertile Crescent in theXVIIIth century",
"Eighteenth century Ottoman realities".1 The
and 35 years respectively may appear to be an
eternity in the flow of publication, particularly in contemporary scholar
ship, which is organised now along Stakhanovite lines. Ideas, however,
have a way of taking their time tomake an impact, and nowhere more so
than in the work of students and of readers of these two articles. In re

title of this essay


"The
changing face
The
and Norman
Itzkowitz's
more
of
than 40
passing

reading them, it is instructive that, in both instances, themain lines of ar


gument which the authors laid out have been followed up by their stu
dents; and other scholars have expanded the scope of research into areas
none could have imagined possible a few decades ago, particularly into
social and economic history.
In a rather perverse sense, however, the two authors have succeeded

all too well: what was once simple, forty-some years ago, in theminds of
and Bowen, for instance, is now fragmented and complicated. The
verities about ruling institution and Muslim
institution, about Ottoman
and
the
claim
of
and
Bowen
that they had read
Gibb
decline,
startling
a quaint look.2 As
sources
now
read
that
have
20,000
(has anyone
many?)
we have learned more, in other words, we have in a sense learned less.
This is the price of specialisation. In a recent text on themodern Near
East between 1792 and 1923, Malcolm Yapp wrote: ?A generation or so
ago teaching Ottoman history was a simple task... Since that delightful
Gibb

age of pellucid exposition thework of historians has contrived to blur the

* Iwould like to
acknowledge the supportof Dr. Thomas Bulger, Dean of Arts at
Siena College, in enablingme toparticipate in theFirst SkilliterLibraryColloquium

on Ottoman

History.

In

its original

state,

this essay

was

informal

in tone and

at

temptedto summariseand clarifycertain issues raised at thecolloquium and in the


author's own mind. It has seemed rightto retain thatstyle in thehope thatthisessay
will succeed in stimulatingnew thoughtabout the common enterpriseof thosewho
participated in thiscolloquium.
1- Hourani, Albert, "The changingface of theFertileCrescent in theXVIIIth Cen
tury",in: Studia Islamica, VIII (1957), p. 89-122; Itzkowitz,Norman, "Eighteenth
centuryOttoman realities", in:Studia Islamica, XVI (1962), p. 73-94.
2

Gibb,

London,

H.A.R.

and Bowen,

1950-1957,

vol.

I, p.

Harold,

Islamic

Society

and

the West,

1.

OM, n.s.XVIII (LXXIX), 1, 1999

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2 parts,

in I vol.,

254

Karl

Barbir

picture at all points, to qualify every generalisation and to introduce


- all the
articles,
nothing but ambiguity?.3 In spite of all the progress
- we are
still faced with fundamental problems,
books, and conferences
which may not be a bad thing. For example, if 'decline' will not work to
explain what was happening in the 18th or for thatmatter the 17th
century, then what will? Furthermore, we still have to know what was
Ottoman about the particular phenomena we propose to deal with. Can
we, for example, speak, as Roger Owen once asked, of a unit of study de

fined as an empire, theOttoman, or as a religious tradition, Islam?4 That


most specialists have shied away from these sweeping, essentialist ap
proaches is a sign of progress.
Since the articles of Itzkowitz and Hourani are certainly well known

and have helped to supplant some of the older approaches, itmight be


useful here, firstly, to review not so much what they said but, rather,what
they had to contend with. Then, secondly, this essay will consider what
can rightly be called the changing face of theOttoman empire in the 18th
century, namely the new scholarship and problems which deal with this
topic. Itwill conclude with some remarks concerning the relationship of
this scholarship to broader cultures and audiences, in many lands and

frommany traditions.
Mr Hourani's article served for a long time as a gateway to the field
for several generations of students. Here may be found many of the di
lemmas with which we must still contend, and a suggested solution which
has stood the test of time, although the author has in factmodified much
of what he said in that early piece.5 More than a decade ago, he made a
startling confession in the introduction to one of his volumes of collected
essays: '[These essays] are products of an attempt both towrite about the
modern history of the region and at the same time to discover how to
write about itand explain tomyself why I have not been more successful
in doing so'.6 This is not, I believe, a case of excessive modesty, but of

Modern Near East, London andNew York, 1987,


3 - Yapp, M.E., TheMaking of the
p. 97.

4 - Owen, Roger, "The Middle East in theeighteenthcentury- an 'Islamic* society


indecline: a critiqueofGibb and Bowen's", in:Review of the
Middle East Studies, I
(1975), p. 101-112.
5 - Over the last twodecades,Mr Hourani haswrittenextensivelyabout theproblems
ofMiddle Eastern historiography.I rememberhim sharing ideaswith us graduate
studentsat PrincetonUniversity in thespringof 1972. Some fouryears later,he con
tributeda longessay to a collectivework examining thewhole field ofMiddle East
ern studies; ithas been reprintedas "The present stateof Islamic andMiddle Eastern
Middle East, Berkeley, 1980,p. 161-196.A more
historiography",in:Europe and the
recentessay is his "How shouldwe write thehistoryof theMiddle East?", in: Inter
national Journal ofMiddle East Studies,XXIII (1991), p. 125-136.
6

"Introduction",
1981, p. xi.

in: Hourani,

A.,

The Emergence

of Modern

keley,

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Middle

East,

Ber

Face of the Ottoman

The Changing

255

Empire

real doubt and struggle, an object lesson for lesser scholars; and we
would do well to ponder it.Today, there ismuch more variety inmodes
of analysis and interpretation than even ten years ago; and it is almost
certain, given the rapid development of interest in the 18th-centuryOtto
man world,
that fundamental shifts in perspective will have been
achieved by the turn of the century.
In the interim, a re-reading of 'The changing face of the Fertile Cres

cent in theXVIIIth Century' allows for sensitivity to points thatmay not


have been so clear earlier. From today's perspective, what is striking is
the way in which the author locates the 18th century as preceding the
dramatic rise of European power over the rest of the globe during the
19th.Given recent talk about a 'new world order', it is interesting to note
argument that people in Asia were anxious in the 1950s 'to
with
their own past; and the changes which continue do not
hands
join
tend so much to absorb the communities of the East into that of Europe as
to absorb it into a new world-community, linked at least on the level of

Hourani's

technique and of social and political organisation'.7 But, of course, Mr


Hourani does much more here. He goes on to sketch out his purpose,
namely:
to look once more at the civilization of theNear East as itwas be
fore the full impact of themodern West was felt, and to ask
whether in fact itwas decaying or lifeless;whether indeedwe can
of a self-contained

speak

Ottoman

Moslem

society...;

and how

far

what happened in the 19th centurywas simply the injection of


something new, or the furtherdevelopment ofmovements already
generated in thevery heart ofNear Eastern society, and now given
new strengthor a new turnby the insertion into them of the in
creased

influence

of Europe.8

Of great salience isMr Hourani's


appreciation of the Ottoman empire:
so
one
distant
from
another, and peoples so varied in beliefs and
'Regions
not
of
could
have
been
held together in political unity by any
life,
ways
a
tour
de
But
less
than
rather than limiting himself to poli
thing
force'.9
on
his
the
in
author
survey to criticise the temptation to judge
tics,
goes
Ottoman society and politics by themythical standard of Siileyman the
reign, and to suggest new movements of change, the emer
Magnificent's
gence of new social groups and forces. In particular, Mr Hourani de
scribes the pattern now recognised as 'decentralisation', but identified
then with the rise of local rulers, such as the ayan and derebeys; the
changed conditions for non-Muslim communities (not only enhanced
7

Hourani,

S-Ibid,

face...",

"Changing

p. 89-90.

p. 90-91.

9 - Ibid, p. 91. This forcefulstatementwas to be the inspirationforMr Hourani's


celebrated

1969

lecture

to an audience

of non-specialists,

"The Ottoman

background

Middle East, p. 1-18.


of themodernMiddle East", reprintedin:TheEmergence of the

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

256

Karl

Barbir

opportunities but also changed cultural orientations); and the


like the 'Abd al-Wahhab
challenges posed by indigenous movements
Sa'ud alliance inArabia.10 It is to these changes thatMr Hourani devotes
economic

himself in the balance of his article.


A re-reading aftermany years, from the perspective of today, suggests
two furtherobservations concerning what Mr Hourani did: the first is the
centrality, the common denominator, as itwere, of the Ottoman experi

ence; the second is the dynamic character of that experience in the 18th
century. From here, Mr Hourani goes on to argue that the changed inter
national environment by the 19th century had introduced new elements of
dynamism. Among those elements were the strategic shift in themilitary
balance of power between Europe and the Ottoman empire, the subordi
nation of the Ottoman economy to that of Europe, and the rise to power

of European ambassadors and consuls in the Ottoman empire: 'the in


creased influence of theWest...
entered as a factor into certain develop
ments already generated from within the Ottoman community'.11 Here,
there is continuity, rather than abrupt change; an appreciation of the Ot
toman environment; and a broad conception of history which allows for

the interplay of political, economic, and cultural forces.


More so than Hourani, Itzkowitz is concerned to ground the Ottoman
experience in some empirical reality which can be demonstrated by the
Ottoman sources he uses (primarily biographical dictionaries and chroni
cles), and then to see elements of that reality as having some continuity

with what was

to come in the 19th century. The principal method he uses


analysis, also known as prosopography, which enjoyed
great popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still a useful approach.12
Once again, a re-reading of this article suggests two points. First is Itzko
witz's famous critique of the Lybyer thesis, firstpublished in 1913 and
taken over and repeated by many other scholars, and particularly by Gibb
and Bowen in Islamic Society and theWest. Briefly, and perhaps to over
simplify, the Lybyer thesis posited a sharp distinction between the 'Rul
is career-line

ing Institution', composed of the sultan and converted Christian 'slaves'


who staffed themilitary and bureaucracy, as they existed in the sixteenth
century; and the 'Moslem Institution', composed of the official religious
hierarchy and related sub-institutions such as Sufi orders, whose mem
bers were free-born Muslims.13 Taking up the Lybyer thesis, Gibb and
Bowen extended itby largely attributing the decline of the Ottoman em
10

11 -

Hourani,

"Changing

face...",

p. 96-97.

Ibid., p. 121. The increased influenceof theWest may be seen in thefact that
after 1792 permanentEuropean embassieswere established inEuropean capitals, an
eventwhose bicentennialwas celebrated in theconveningof theFirst SkilliterCollo
quium.
12
For

an appraisal

of this method

Daedalus, C (Winter 1971), p. 46-79.


13

Described

in Itzkowitz,

see Stone,

"Realities...",

Lawrence,

"Prosopography...",

p. 75.

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

in:

The Changing

Face

of the Ottoman

257

Empire

pire to the permeation, during the 17th and 18th centuries, of the 'Ruling
Institution' by members of the 'Moslem Institution'.14 Situating the Ly
byer thesis from the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge, Itzkowitz
notes something troubling, which still persists among us far too often:
?The fact that the Lybyer thesis quickly became a truth to be repeated in
stead of a springboard to further research is regrettable...?.15 Itzkowitz
explains this phenomenon as the result of both 'comparatively little inter
est inOttoman history' and a lack among historians of the necessary lan

guages and other tools.16 But he also suggests, furtheron, a third,more


sinister, reason: today we would call it orientalism, in itsworst sense.
Here, Itzkowitz comments that the Lybyer thesis, repeated by Gibb and
Bowen,

has the advantage of being simple, and clear-cut, easily grasped,


and - hopefully - easily remembered.Also, by crediting the suc
cess of theOttomans to thepresence ofmen of Christian origins in
positions of importance,and the subsequent decline of the great
empire to the replacement of thoseChristians by theMuslim bom,
the thesis has the additional merit of being comforting to the
ChristianWest's deep-seated sense of superiority.17
Itzkowitz then goes on to refute the Lybyer thesis with evidence from
original Ottoman sources and by using the prosopographic method.
From these observations concerning an attempt some 30 years ago to
get to the 'realities' of the 18th-century Ottoman world, it is clear how
much has changed. Today, there are a goodly number of people, inmany
countries and cultural traditions,who know the languages, have an inter

est in the field, have published important studies, and, it is hoped, have
set aside antiquated ideas of superiority, or at least made themselves
aware of their own commitments, biases, and prejudices. Although this
problem is still contentious and difficult, it is at least now out in the open,
for better or forworse.18

U-Ibid.,p.

81.

\5~Ibid.,p.

76.

\6-Ibid.,p.

11.

17 - Ibid., p. 81. This prejudice is one ofmany which are grouped under the rubric
'orientalism'by Edward Said in:Orientalism,New York, 1978, one of themost in
fluential,and controversial,works of recentculturalcriticism,with applicationswell
beyond theOttoman empireor the Islamicworld. Itzkowitzcertainlytriedto convey
the prejudices of orientalismwhen he noted (Itzkowitz, "Realities...", p. 77) that
specialists
ance upon,

in Lybyer's

still persist

is revealed

time, and

and commendation

since,

avoided

of, the European

consulting
records was

'oriental'

sources:

and remains

?Reli

prominent

featureofwhat passes forhistorical scholarshipon theNear East?. Kipling penetrated


towhat is perhaps at the root of thiskind of attitudewhen he wrote ?You'll never
plumb theOrientalmind. And even ifyou do, itwon't be worth the toil?.
18- That thekind of culturalprejudiceswhich Edward Said explored inOrientalism
inmany

facets of contemporary

life. In an

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

interview

broadcast

258

Karl

Barbir

'
The second point to arise from a re-reading of 18th century Ottoman
realities' is, once again, theway inwhich Itzkowitz conveys the dynamic
nature of Ottoman state and society, or at least that part of itwith which
he was concerned, namely the ruling elite. Demonstrating the phenome
non during the 18th century of efendis-tnrned-pasas, that is,members of
the central bureaucracy advancing to careers in the military-provincial
governor class,19 then to the vizier ate, Itzkowitz goes on to suggest that
perhaps thedevelopment of such a group ofmen isbut thereflection
of an importantstrugglewhich appears to be going on the strug
gle between thebureaucracy and themilitary.This, of course, is ob
scured ifreligious origins ratherthancareer lines are stressed.20
by saying that an important role was played by efendis
turned-pasas in the 19th-century reformmovements. Both of these obser
vations are offered briefly and tentatively, but they anticipate many ques
concludes

He

tions which have since been raised. Itzkowitz, like Hourani in his time,
provides a significant alternative to prevailing ideas. The next generation
of scholars has extended this assumption of dynamism, of a living soci
ety, from the elite to the unprivileged, indeed themajority, of the Otto
man population: townsmen, peasants, nomads, and others.21 The result is
on National Public Radio in theUnited States during the Spring of 1992, James
David

Barber,

of Duke

University,

that our world

said

can now

into two

be divided

parts: (1) what Barber calls 'Mcworld', thoseparts of theglobe which participate in

mass

of fast food,

consumption

fashion, music,

entertainment,

faxes,

computers,

etc.

(all ofwhich cross national boundaries); and (2) what Barber calls 'jihad', thoseparts
still governed
stressing ethnic and/or relig
by primordial
relationships
at
war
with
the
international
constantly
emerging
plastic culture as well as

of the world
ious bonds,

with theirneighbourswho differin seeminglysmallways (examples:Nagorno/Kara


bakh, Cyprus,

Lebanon,

Israel/Palestine,

the former Yugoslavia,

on

etc.). Specialists

the

Islamicworld and theMiddle East will notewithwry amusementtheappropriationof

the term gihad,

wrenched

19

"Realities",

Itzkowitz,

from its historical

context,

for a contemporary

purpose.

p. 86.

p. 87.

20-Ibid.,

21 - Selected studiesof the 18th-century


Ottomanworld which are relevantto thear

gument

are:

here

'Abd

al-Rahman,

A.,

al-RTf al-Misri fi

'l-qarn al-tamin

'asara,

al

au Caire

au

Qahirah, 1974; Abou-el-Haj, Rifaat, The 1703 Rebellion and theStructureof Otto

man Politics,
Istanbul,
18e siecle, Damascus,

1984; Raymond,
1973-74;

Andre,

Raymond,

et commercants

Artisans

Andre,

Grandes

Daniel,

La

villes

arabes

I'epoque

The Great Arab Cities in the 16th


ottomane,Paris, 1985, partialEnglish translation,
18th Centuries,

New

York,

1984;

Panzac,

peste

dans

Vempire

ottoman,

Louvain, 1985; Panzac, Daniel, "Internationaland domesticmaritime trade in the


Ottoman empire during the 18thcentury",in: InternationalJournal ofMiddle East
Studies, XXIV (1992), p. 189-206; the collection of studies edited by Thomas Naff
and Roger Owen, Studies in 18th and 19thCentury,Carbondale, 1977; anothercol
lection,Philipp, Thomas (ed.), (Berliner Islamstudien,vol. 5), Stuttgart,1992;Mas
ters, Bruce,

The Origins

of Western

Economic

Dominance

in theMiddle

East:

Mer

cantilism and the Islamic Economy in Aleppo. 1660-1750, New York, 1988; and
Marcus,

Abraham,

The Middle

East

on the Eve

ofModernity,

New

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

York,

1989.

The Changing

Face

of the Ottoman

259

Empire

richer,more complicated picture, one certain to be modified fur


new
therby
inquiries.
This rather rapid review of Hourani and Itzkowitz must now be set
aside in order to consider the present. What, itmay be asked, is the status
of our subject, the 18th-century Ottoman world? Here, I would like to
suggest three problems which have recurred for nearly 30 years. Al
though they are by no means the only problems which could be raised,
a much

the fact that they have recurred should suggest once again how our stud
ies are so unlike the hard sciences: there are relatively few settledmatters;
and, as historians, our own life choices, commitments, and times tend to
help shape what we find significant in the past.22 In other words, each
historian is 'hooked' to a particular field or subject, just as Sir Hamilton
(born in Alexandria, Egypt) was said by Albert Hourani to have
'knitwith his doom'.23 Today, however, these hooks abound in va
riety and context.
In Europe and America, for instance, the hooks are at least three-fold.

Gibb
been

First, an increasing number of Americans and Europeans are themselves


ofMiddle Eastern origin: recent waves of immigration (over roughly the
last three decades) have brought Iranians, Egyptians, Turks, Lebanese,
Afghans and Israelis, among others, to theUnited States and Europe. Stu
dents of the second generation, raised and educated outside theMiddle
East, want to know about the region from which their parents came. Sec
ond, students without thatbiographical connection are 'hooked' by recent
events: war, revolution, terrorism,etc. They want to know why these events
occur, and what the people involved are like. Some of these students also
have what might be called a policy bent: theywant to know what the can
be done to affect theMiddle Eastern situation. Unfortunately, inmany in

22

strates

furious

debate

demon
in recent pages of the British journal Past and Present
are not confined
to the study of the 18th-century Ottoman

that such problems

world. The controversyin thatdistinguishedjournal began with a modest note by


Stone concerning what he regards as a crisis in the historical
profession:
CXXXI
in: Past and Present,
(May
1991), p.
history and post-modernism",
critical theory (particularly
that contemporary
In his piece, Stone observes
217-218.
a salient part of post-modern
deconstruction,
culture) threatens to deny the possibility

Lawrence
"Notes:

of attainingany knowledge of thepast. Spirited responseswere printed in shortorder:


Patrick Joyce and Catriona Kelly, "History and post-modernism,II", in:Past and
Present, CXXXIII (November 1991), p. 204-209 and 209-213 respectively.Stone
himself thenreplied in a thirdround,"Historyand post-modernism,
HI", followed in
thesame issue byGabrielle Spiegel, "Historyand post-modernism,IV", in:Past and
Present, CXXXV (May 1992), p. 189-194 and 194-208. Professor Spiegel seems to
have startedthedebate bywriting a fine article,which Stone verymuch admired,and
which specialists on theOttoman empire in the 18thcentury
mightwell find instruc
tive: "History,historicism,and the social logic of the text in theMiddle Ages", in:
Speculum, LXV (1990), p. 59-86.
23

This

poetic

phrase

appears

in Albert

Hourani's

'H.A.R.

Gibb:

the vocation

of an

Middle East, p. 104-134; thephrase ison p. 106.


orientalist', inhisEurope and the

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

260

Karl

Barbir

stitutions, this policy bent actually drives the programmes in Middle


Eastern Studies; I recall one American programme director saying that
should theArab-Israeli conflict ever be resolved, that all programmes of
Middle Eastern Studies in theUnited States would collapse! In a similar
vein, more recently, specialists on the former Soviet Union were reported
to be suffering from a depression: their field of study had apparently dis
appeared! Third, there are serious students of history and society who
want to understand theMiddle East for comparative purposes; their ques
tions arise from the assumption that all human societies are comparable
and worthy of respect and study.
Historians who live and practise in the lands where the Ottoman em
pire once held sway encounter a different set of hooks. There, few remain
alive towhom the empire's life, its realities, are vivid memories. If any

thing, the passage of time has made the 'pastness' of theOttoman empire
past: it is now truly a part of history, and as such itmust be dealt with re
alistically, as a part of the past, rather than denied or condemned, as it
once was, when nationalism among the former peoples of the empire be

ideology, and when a personal memory of the em


last
the
rulers,
Young Turks, was vivid and painful, associated as it
pire's
was with Turkish nationalism and the disasters of the First World War
and its aftermath. It has only been within the last decade, for example,
that some Arab scholars have tried to come to terms with theirOttoman
came

the dominant

heritage in the realisation that 400 years of history cannot be swept aside
so neatly.24

this context of choice and commitment, the three suggested


problems facing students of 18th-centuryOttoman peoples take on added
meaning, for answers to them &re loaded with value judgements and im
plicit assumptions.
The first problem has to do with the fact that our subject, theOttoman
world - Ottoman peoples and society - should be seen as 'normal', not
exotic; comparable to other peoples and societies, not incommensurable.
recent book,
This is the thrust of the argument in Rifaat Abou-El-Haj's
Formation of theModern State: the Ottoman Empire. Sixteenth toEight
Within

24 - To illustratethemagnitude of thisproblem of coming to terms


with an historical
the
of
studied sensi
the
1952-1980,
compare
heritage,
historiography
period roughly
tivelyby Abou-El-Haj, Rifaat, "The social uses of thepast: recentArab historiogra
phy of Ottoman rule", in:InternationalJournal ofMiddle East Studies, XIV (1982),

for Ot
of associations
p. 185-201, with more recent trends, such as the establishment
toman studies in several Arab countries. This development,
inmy view, represents a

trend in the evolution of thoughtin theArabic-speaking part of what once was the

Ottoman

empire.

For

a representative

sample

of this new

thinking,

see

the first num

bers of a new journal, Arabic Historical Review for Ottoman Studies (or AHROS),
edited and published byAbdeljelil Temimi of theUniversity of Tunis; and Professor

Temimi's

essay,

"Problematiques

de

la recherche

historique

sur les provinces

arabes

a l'epoque ottomane", in:AHROS, III-IV (December 1991),p. 111-117 (Arabic ver


sion, p. 23-30).

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

The Changing

Face

of the Ottoman

261

Empire

eenth Centuries. There, he decries the historiography which 'continues to


emphasise the peculiarities, oddities, and particularism of Ottoman his
tory and civilisation'.25 Professor Abou-El-Haj's
critique will, I am sure,
stimulate considerable discussion of the strengths and weaknesses
of
what we have done and what we may do in the future. However,
the
sooner we agree that our subjects of study are 'normal', comparable to
other subjects in other times and places, the better off we will certainly
be.26 In effect, I am asking that the 'hook' of 'exoticism' be rejected, and
a new approach, based upon certain shared values concerning past human
experience, be substituted. There is no easy way to accomplish this task,
but it seems tome to be the only approach thatwill unite the efforts of
scholars interested in the 18th century, regardless of their backgrounds,
interests, and concerns.

The second problem is the persistence of the Ottoman empire despite


all the difficulties it faced during the 17th and 18th centuries. This is the
central problem before all specialists; indeed, if the empire was in such
difficulty, if it suffered so grievously from internal and external chal

lenges, then how did it survive? Answering this question requires us to go


beyond the usual generalisations about lack of alternative structures, or
the cancelling out, in effect, of European rivalries concerning the Otto
man patrimony. In regard to the internal situation of the empire, which
rightly remains a primary target of future research, Professor Abou-El

Haj argues that during the 17th and 18th centuries, therewere apparently
contradictory forces of centralisation and decentralisation at work. The
way that they interacted, he believes, might well have preserved at least
the essentials of the empire, but they also introduced enormous changes:
in the system of tax collection, the composition of the ruling elite, the
factionalism within that elite; and so on. This is a somewhat more elabo
rate and empirically informed hypothesis than that suggested by Hourani
40 years ago, an indication of the progress thathas been made and which
has been the work of many hands; and it has themerit of suggesting a
dynamic process, rather than headlong decline or stagnation, the previous
25

4Ali Abou-El-Haj,

Sixteenth

Rifaat,

to Eighteenth

Formation

Centuries,

Albany,

State:
the Ottoman Empire
of theModern
and Cor
1991, p. 1. As Suraiya Faroqhi

nell Fleischer point out in thepreface to thiswork (p. xi), ?such relativelyinnocuous
statements
may stop being innocuouswhen one considers thecontext inwhich they
aremade?, namely the tradition
which continues to see theexperienceof other civili
sations

as exotic,

those found

strange,
elsewhere.

and not necessarily

subject

to trends and forces

similar

to

26 - That thegeneral public still is fascinatedby theexoticism and apparentrigidity


and unchanging characterof theOttoman empire is revealed in thefollowing refer
ence to theOttoman backgroundof themodernMiddle East in therecentbest-selling
collection of essays (manyof themconcerning the 1991GulfWar) by thejournalist,
P.J.O'Rourke: ?Until 1918 theArabian peninsulawas ruledby theOttoman empire,
so called

O'Rourke,

because

it had

P.J., Give War

the same

a Chance,

amount
New

of intelligence

York,

1992, p.

and energy

167.

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

as a footstool?,

262

Karl

Barbir

alternative which Hourani tried tomodify and make comprehensible.


The third and last problem is the very role of theWest. On one hand,
it is tempting for some scholars to see theWest as interrupting internal
processes already under way within Ottoman society. On the other hand,
this emphasis on 'interruption' suggests suddenness, abrupt change in the

19th century, rather than an organic, natural development from previous


own way during
experience. IfOttoman society, however, evolved in its
the 17th and 18th centuries, the notion of interruptionmakes the 'pre
we all
interruption' period moot by implication, in spite of the fact that
have sustained our own work by assuming that themiddle centuries of
Ottoman history are important. To say or to imply thatwhatever hap

pened before the coming of theWest is unimportant by comparison rele


gates us to defining our subject of study in terms of the experience of
Europe, towhich it is thenmade a footnote.27 A fascinating alternative to
this rather routine approach was offered long ago by Alexander Russell,
who was physician to the Levant Company inAleppo during themiddle

of the 18th century. In his famous work, The Natural History of


Russell
offered several important observations. Mixing freely over
Aleppo,
the years with the local population, unlike many other European residents
of his time,Russell's observations are grounded in a broad and wise con
ception of human nature and in a keen awareness of the strengths and
weaknesses of both western and middle eastern societies. He represents in
decades

these respects the outlook of the Enlightenment. Within certain obvious


to the prob
limits, one may generalise from his observations of Aleppo
lem discussed here. Russell reports that: 'Religion, not reverenced as for
merly, retains littlemore than its outward form: not having influence suf
ficiently to restrain the numerous vices, which modern luxury, and the
frivolous spirit of the age, have universally introduced'.28 In this obser
vation one may detect the degree towhich western tastes and goods had

27 - This point ismade most forcefullyby Roger Owen in "TheMiddle East in the
eighteenth

cit, p.

century..."

102, where

Owen

sharply

criticises

?what

remains

basi

cally a nineteenthcenturyhistoricalmethod with itsemphasis on thenarrow studyof


texts,with itsdefinitionof culture in termsof theproductionof ideas or artobjects,
with itsmystificatoryattitude to the role of religion,with itsbuilt - in tendencyto
compare

so-called

Western

with

so-called

Islamic

civilisation

always

to the latter's

disadvantage)). Likewise, Owen (p. 108) criticises the obsession of some western
scholarswith thenotion of Ottoman decline; in his view, thatconception is ?clearly
ideological and stemsdirectlyfrom the initialprojectof examining theMiddle East in
termsof an entitycalled 'Islamic' society, somethingwhich can only be compared
with anotherentity- Western society.Once thenatureof thisproject is clearly stated
then the use of such concepts

as

'decline'

stand revealed

for what

they are: part of an

Middle Eastern society in termsof one particular


ideological apparatus for regarding
world view, and forpreventing itfrombeing analysed in termsof thereal forces and
relations

at work within

it?.

28 - Russell, Alexander, The Natural History of Aleppo, 2nd ed. revised by Patrick
Russell,

2 vols.,

London:

G. G.

and J. Robinson,

1794,1,

p. 336.

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

The Changing

Face

of the Ottoman

263

Empire

become popular among the better-off segments of Aleppine society by


themiddle to late 18th century. A clearer indication of the economic and
social implications of the diffusion of western consumption habits, and of
important changes going on within this one segment of Ottoman society,
is contained in the following remark made to Russell by a mufti of Alep

po, whom Russell knew intimately: 'If you take... the reverse of what
you have seen daily practised by us, to be the actual law, you will be
nearer the truthand in less danger ofmisleading your countrymen'.29

That Russell and the mufti were not exceptional or unusual in their
'
perceptions of their own times may be learned from the famed Abd al
Rahman al-Gabartl, chronicler of the 18th and early 19th centuries, wit
ness to theNapoleonic
occupation of Egypt, the establishment of the dy
'All, and busy correspondent with important schol
nasty ofMuhammad
ars elsewhere in the Ottoman world, from Istanbul to Damascus.
In his
introduction, he writes:

Peoples of the past, from the timeGod created this human race,
devoted themselves to thewriting of history, forebear after fore
bear, descendant after descendant, until the people of our time
abandoned it, ignored it,passed over it,neglected it,considered it
thework of the idle, and said: it is [merely] the tales of the an
cients [asdtir aUawwaliri]. By my life, theymay be excused; they
are busy with more importantthingsand are not pleased toweary
theirpens on such an arduous path. Things in this age have been
turnedupside down; [history's] prestige has declined; the founda
tions of judgement have become unsteady. Events are recorded
neither in registersnor inbooks. The concerns of themoment that
are not of [immediate] benefit are lost.What has passed and gone
cannot be recovered except when some poor wretch, secluded in
the corners of obscurity and neglect, withdrawn fromwhat others
do, occupies himself in the time of his isolation and consoles his
solitude by counting thewickednesses of fateand itsblessings.30
Here, we have but a glimpse of what 18th-century Ottoman realities
and the changing face of the Fertile Crescent were; and that glimpse is an
object lesson for the future. In effect,we are challenged, as other histori
ans are, to see the experience of our subjects of study as normal; to evalu
ate the relative importance of continuity and of change; and tomake the

whole process believable to contemporary readers.


In that connection, the conclusion of this essay introduces a topic
which, on the face of it,may not be so pleasant but which is not peculiar
to specialists of theOttoman empire in the 18th century. It is our relation
are. If,
ship as specialists to our broader cultures, regardless of which they
as many of us would agree, we are in some respects in trouble with the
29
30

Bulaq:

Russell,

op. cit., I, p. 337.

al-GabartT,
Bulaq

Press,

'Abd

al-Rahman,

1879, vol.

'Agd'ib

al-atar

Ji

'l-taragim

I, p. 5.

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

al-ahbar,

4 vols.,

264

Karl

Barbir

broader subject of history, history itself is in trouble, with the broader


world 'out there', the general public which pays our wages and which
sends us students, our hope for the future. These difficulties deserve
elaboration.
It was not so long ago that non-specialist historians, much less the
general public, saw nothing of value in our interest in the 18th-century

Ottoman world;31 and it is unfortunate that there are still those who still
make that judgement today, not necessarily out of ignorance or dense
ness, but because of the straitened circumstances of specialised knowl
edge inmany countries. There are several dimensions to this difficulty.
One is the question of what themodern Middle East is about. This may
seem peculiar, since we who write about the 18th-century Ottoman em
pire do not automatically think of ourselves as students ofmodern Middle

Eastern history. To non-specialists, of course, we are: somehow, we fit in


with what is said about the 19th and twentieth centuries, and the dramatic
and conflict-ridden years of those centuries. What we do may be seen as a
baseline formore dramatic and more recent developments, but it is rarely
taken seriously. As recent evidence there is theDecember
1991 issue of
theAmerican Historical Review, an astonishing event in its own right, for
the United States at any rate.32 This issue was devoted to the modern
Middle East, but confined to the 19th and twentieth centuries. In spite of
the fact that several specialists on the 18th-centuryOttoman empire were
cited in various footnotes, they remain just that- footnotes inwhat is re
garded as a more important historical period, the 'real' modern Middle
East, the 19th and twentieth centuries. Although none of us would dispute
the importance of what is presented in that issue of theAmerican Histori
-

In that regard, Iwould


like to share an anecdote
stu
from my days as a graduate
some 20 years ago. I was
in one interview
confronted
looking for employment
in American
to know my area of research.
In
by a senior scholar
history who wanted
I described my broad field of interest - the Ottoman-Arab
world
between
response,
1500 and the present
and the subject of my thesis, 18th-century Damascus.
He re
31

dent

marked thatmy field seemed awfully narrow to him. In fact, he said: 'My field is
much broader.' Being impetuousand ratherdefensive aboutmy subject,as graduate
studentssometimesare, I asked himwhat his area of specialisationwas. He promptly
replied:

'the second

administration

of Andrew

Jackson'.

32 -American Historical Review, LXXXXVI, 5 (1991), p. 1363-1496. The contribu


tionswere: Khalidi, Rashid, "Arab nationalism:historicalproblems in the literature",
p. 1363-1373; Khoury, Philip S., "Continuityand change in Syrian political life: the
19thand 20th centuries",p. 1374-1395; Devlin, JohnF., "The Baath Party: rise and
Marion and Sluglett,Peter,"The histo
metamorphosis",p. 1396-1407;Farouk-Sluglett,
riographyof modern Iraq", p. 1408-1421;Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid, "Survey of
Egyptianworks of history",p. 1422-1434; Peterson, J.E., "The Arabian Peninsula in
modern times:a historiographicalsurvey",p. 1435-1449; Stein,KennethW., "A his
on theorigins of theArab-Israeli conflict",p. 1450
toriographyreview of literature
1465; Reich, Bernard, "Themes in thehistoryof the state of Israel", p. 1466-1478;
Bakhash,

Shaul,

"Iran",

p.

1479-1496.

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

The Changing

face

of the Ottoman

265

Empire

cat Review, we might regret the fact that the editor rather densely insisted
that the genesis of that issue ?was the recent war in the Persian Gulf?.
the editor did say that he hoped that ?the essays [would] di
Nonetheless,
rect... readers to scholarly works thatwould allow them to deepen their
knowledge ofMiddle East history?.33
We should celebrate the fact that someone is paying attention to any
aspect of what we are interested in, regardless of the tragic events that
prompted that attention. It is perhaps ironic thatMr Hourani's recent his
tory of theArabs has won phenomenal success (more than 100,000 cop
ies have been sold) in part because of theGulf War.34 That success would
indicate a public, in the English-speaking world at least, receptive and
I would offer these reser
willing to hear from a specialist. Nonetheless,
as
in
the
of
them
vations,
spirit
challenges to our futurework.
posing
we
are
to
audiences
that potentially may re
the
broader
sensitive
Firstly,
ceive our efforts, beyond the specialists whom we know and admire? To

coin a phrase, are we reader-friendly? Or will we continue to be 'priests


of a mystery', as Mr Hourani put it in one of his essays? Secondly, are we
prepared to deal with the diversity of perspectives arising from the very
facts of history after the 18th century - namely, the emergence of nation
states which were once part of theOttoman empire and which now have
to look back with meaning at their respective traditions? Can we accom
modate this diversity of perspectives? There is a lively tradition of his

torical writing in the ex-Ottoman lands of what is now the Arab world,
alongside themore familiar south east European lands that have recog
nised theirOttoman heritage, for better or forworse.
Yet, what unites the efforts of those interested in theOttoman empire
in the 18th century, other than chronology and place? Some suggestive
answers may be found in a recently reprinted essay byWilliam Bouwsma,
a cultural historian of early modern Europe. In that essay, he argues that
history is accessible to all individuals, that it provides social utility, yet
that as a discipline it has forgotten that it is 'two-faced', like Janus: it
faces in one direction
the profession with footnotes, trendy approaches,
and academic vaudeville; but italso faces in another direction, toward the
general public, where itmust make sense, reach common experience,
provoke as well as reassure, stimulate and move.35 The academic profes
33 - "In this issue: themodern Middle East", in: American Historical Review,
LXXXXVI/5 (December 1991),p. iv.
34 - Hourani, Albert,A History of theArab Peoples, Cambridge,Mass., 1991.
35

Bouwsma,

William,

"The

history

teacher

as mediator",

in: A Usable

Past;

Es

says inEuropean Cultural History, Berkeley, 1990, p. 421-430, esp. p. 423, and p.
425 forhistoryas a social utility.A similarcall forwider relevance,but froma differ
ent perspective, thatof 'hooking' a non-specialist audience thatneeds an organising
myth, a not-so-factualframework to explain the past, is McNeill, William H.,
"Mythistory,

or truth,myth,

Chicago, 1986,p. 3-22.

history, and historians",

in:Mythistory

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

and Other Essays,

266

Karl

barbir

sion of history, in some countries at least, is in trouble because ithas ne


glected its public and has failed to be what itwas when it began in the
19th century as a profession: the conscience of its society, and particu
larly of themodern nation state. Itwas this kind of past, and a role for it,

thatwas put to death afterWorld War II. Indeed, Professor J.H. Plumb
celebrated its death in a famous book published more than two decades
ago. Plumb concluded his work with these memorable words: 'The old
past is dying, its force weakening, and so it should. Indeed, the historian
should speed iton itsway, for itwas compounded of bigotry, of national

vanity, of class domination'.36


What do these ideas suggest to us, who come from so many traditions
and countries and have devoted so much time to the 18th-century Otto
man empire? One alternative, namely a return to what Professor Plumb
decried in his book
self-congratulation, self-serving patriotism, even the
worst excesses of orientalism, or its antithesis - would do much to de
stroy thework of the last 30 years, as individual societies would seek sol
ace in their own primordial fears. More than two decades ago, Professor
Plumb himself noted that 'much of the professionalism of history remains
professional; in spite of the huge output of paperback histories, the results
of professional history are not conveyed with the emphasis and cogency

that society needs'.37 In fact, the trend by which societies retain a vivid
memory of theworst aspects of a mythical past seems still to be at work
inmany places on our planet.38
Other alternatives, particularly the big models and big structures are
also problematic. Although orientalism is in retreat, at least in theway it
was done until fairly recently, and
although modernisation theory is now
regarded as inadequate inmany respects, Marxism and its variants, and
world-systems theory, also have problems. One of the common difficul
ties in all these approaches is that they explain toomuch; they tempt us to
re-invent our worlds in the times of our subjects, and to evade the patient,
empirical work needed to establish the validity of such approaches. They
also allow us to invent people as categories, with labels of our own choos
ing; we are then prevented from respecting our subjects' consciousness,
or even paying attention to it.
36 - Plumb, J.H.,The Death of thePast, Boston, 1970, p. 140-145; thequotation is

on p.

145. A more

Noble

Dream:

The

Chicago, 1988.
37
38

Plumb,
See

Edward,

recent and much


'Objectivity

17 above.

"Orientalism

Question'

and

assessment

the American

is Novick,
Historical

Peter, That
Profession,

144.

op. cit, p.

note

less confident

Two

recent

reconsidered",

essays worth
in: Sullivan,

in that regard are: Said,


perusing
Earl L. and Ismael, Jacqueline
S.

(eds.), The ContemporaryStudy of theArab World, Edmonton, 1991, p. 35-50; and


Tucker, JudithE., "Taming theWest: trends in thewriting of modern Arab social
history inanglophone academia", in:Sharabi,Hisham (ed.), Theory,Politics, and the

Arab World:

Critical

Responses,

New

York

and London,

1990, p.

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

198-227.

The Changing

Face

of the Ottoman

Empire

267

Itmight well be asked: is there or can there be now such a thing as a


common approach to history, one that reminds us of our common citizen
ship in this new world order, however defined, and helps us to define our
places in it so thatwe are neither exploiters nor exploited? Our collective

challenge, at least in the view of thiswriter, lies in three areas: our agen
das, which we need tomake explicit; our evidence, which does not speak
for itself; and our audience, which we each must determine. May we all
be worthy students of our subject; and may we all be aware of our mutual
needs and concerns!
(Siena College, Loudonville N.Y.)

This content downloaded on Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:05:54 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions