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The Red Sea in History: An Interview with Alexis Wick

[Astronaut photograph of a panoramic view of most of the length of the Red Sea. Image by NASA via Wikimedia Commons] [Astronaut photograph of a panoramic view of most of the length of the Red Sea. Image by NASA via Wikimedia Commons]

The body of water now known as the Red Sea was surrounded for nearly four centuries by the Ottoman Empire's well-protected domains. During that time, it became a space of not only geological and geographic but also historical coherence. While the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and other maritime spaces have inspired their own fields of history writing, especially after the recent "oceanic turn," historians have been curiously silent about the Red Sea. In his new monograph, The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space, Alexis Wick takes this silence itself as an object of analysis. He shows that we have much to learn about how history (and Ottoman history in particular) "makes its object" by studying the emergence of the idea of the Red Sea, Ottoman or otherwise, and also the surprising absence of such a history until now. 

In Episode #258 of the Ottoman History Podcast, we sat down with Wick to discuss how and when the Red Sea emerged as a coherent spatial concept and why it has had to wait so long for its historian. Through a close "overreading" of a single Ottoman document, Wick explores how Ottoman officials talked about the space of the sea prior to the nineteenth century. He describes a multiple, relational form spatial thinking in which the sea took on many and sometimes overlapping names after its port cities and trade routes, rather than appearing as a coherent unit pictured on a two-dimensional map. In the nineteenth century, the expansion of European imperial power and new forms of geographical knowledge production introduced a more familiar concept of the sea to Ottoman lands.

For Wick, it is no accident that historians have been silent about the history of the Red Sea until now. Rather, this silence reflects the spatial assumptions that have shaped both Ottoman history and the discipline of history writ large. The emergence of history as a discipline in the early nineteenth century, Wick argues, helped to forge a new concept of "Europe" partly by appropriating to "Europe" both historicity and maritimity. Imagined links between Europe and seafaring, particularly in the Mediterranean, helped to naturalize European conquest. Meanwhile, Europe's "Others"—the Middle East, the lands of Islam, and sometimes, the Ottoman Empire—became associated with the land, and with cyclical or stagnant temporalities. Despite all of the ink that has been spilled revealing complex relationships between Ottomans and Europeans, then, Ottoman history has largely focused on the land and avoided the sea as part of its burden of birth, leaving the Red Sea a "lost space."

The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space is a important contribution to Ottoman history and to ongoing conversations about history and theory. Wick's highly original account of the constitutive assumptions of Ottoman historiography should prompt Ottomanists to reconsider some of the core assumptions of their field. But his use of Ottoman history as a vantage point to raise critical questions about historical methodology, spatiality, and disciplinary formation will be of broad interest to anyone who is curious about how power and knowledge shape both our present and our past.  


Alexis Wick is Assistant Professor of History at the American University of Beirut. His first book, The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space (University of California Press, 2016), presents an innovative account of the Ottoman Red Sea world even as it traces the genealogy of the concept of the sea. His current research explores the history of coffee, the poetics and practices of space in the Islamic tradition, and the introduction of a new concept of humanity in nineteenth century Ottoman and Arabic discourse. He is also writing a collection of essays on the various embodiments of the idea of Palestine in different times and places.

Susanna Ferguson is a PhD Candidate in Middle Eastern History at Columbia University. She is currently working on a dissertation entitled "Tracing Tarbiya: Women, Gender and Childrearing in Egypt and Lebanon, 1865-1939."

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