H. Erdem Çıpa and Emine Fetvacı, editors, Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection?
H. Erdem Çıpa and Emine Fetvacı (HEÇ & EF): The book grew out of a small symposium on Ottoman historiography that we organized in 2009 at Indiana University, Bloomington. The quality of the papers and the congeniality of the participants sparked such intense and fruitful conversations that we wanted to take the project further and publish a book containing expanded versions of those papers.
The study of Ottoman history is a very lively and exciting field right now. Recent scholarship on Ottoman historiography has been moving away from an understanding of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century histories as embodying a single, monolithic ideal of the Ottoman state and dynasty. Simultaneously, new studies address motivations of individuals, social groups, or political factions reacting to very specific historical circumstances in their textual analyses, instead of assigning to historical texts an “Ottoman” understanding of world events, or “Ottoman” cultural or political motives and interests. The papers in this volume contribute to these historiographical developments and reflect our ever-increasing knowledge about the Ottomans.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HEÇ & EF: The volume consists of seven essays that examine the work of individual historians, explore the presentation of specific events, and investigate various genres of historical writing. Dimitris Kastritsis examines one of the earliest surviving Ottoman chronicles, concerning the interregnum period of 1402-13; Baki Tezcan analyzes the representation of Mongols in early Ottoman chronicles and what this says about the Ottomans` self-perception; Kaya Şahin focuses on the life and historical masterpiece of Celalzade Mustafa, a prominent sixteenth-century Ottoman historian in the context of the emergence of an Ottoman imperial identity; Tijana Krstić looks at various historical texts to study how they discuss religious conversion; Giancarlo Casale examines a particular sixteenth-century map and what it reveals about early-modern Ottoman notions of their place in the world; Sinem Eryılmaz studies a number of paintings from the Süleymanname to tease out the understanding of authority that they reveal; and finally, Hakan Karateke conducts a close study of nineteenth-century Ottoman world histories and the changing attitudes those represent about history.
All together, these essays illuminate the various kinds of historical works that were composed in the Ottoman Empire, especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the activity of historical writing reached new heights. They also tell us a lot about who the historians were, what different types of historical works they produced, and what ends historical writing could and did serve in the Ottoman context.
The writing of history provided the Ottomans with a means to not only record their achievements, but also to present themselves in idealized ways, in particular vis-à-vis rival imperial entities in the West (Habsburgs) and the East (Safavids). As with a number of early modern states, the Ottomans went through a period of consolidation, especially after the incorporation of vast and vastly different geographic areas and peoples into the empire. Such a multilingual, multi-confessional, multi-ethnic empire still had to hold together somehow. At times, this meant the adoption of new ideologies; at other times, it meant the advertising of core concepts to the newly incorporated areas. The notion of what it meant to be “Ottoman” evolved through the writing and illustrating of histories. Such books preserved the empire`s imperial traditions and presented idealized versions of its history.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
EF: I am an art historian who has spent a lot of time thinking about how illustrated books of history present Ottoman history and the Ottoman court. Indeed, my first book, Picturing History at the Ottoman Court (Indiana University Press, 2013), is precisely about the important roles played by illustrated histories in shaping Ottoman social hierarchies and creating an imperial identity during the sixteenth century. So I have been interested in the writing of history and the various uses to which history can be put for a long time. In this respect, the present volume builds on my previous work. But since I am an art historian, the exclusive focus on history is new for me.
HEÇ: I have always been fascinated by the varied ways in which Ottoman authors approached the history of the Empire in general, as well as their presentation of specific—and controversial—episodes in Ottoman history in particular. Since I am interested in social movements, rebellions, and succession struggles in the Eurasian context, my previous work focused on the historiography of the rebellion of Sheikh Bedreddin in 1416, the revolt led by a certain Shahkulu in 1511, and the succession struggle between the sons of Bayezid II that resulted in the rise of Selim I to the throne. The manner in which Ottoman chroniclers writing the history of a highly-centralized Sunni Islamic state approached the rebellion led by a charismatic Ottoman mystic in the Balkan provinces of the empire in the beginning of the fifteenth century, for example, tells us a great deal about the early stages of the development of the Ottoman identity as a Sunni one.
The same can be said about Ottoman historians’ handling of the Safavid-instigated rebellion of Shahkulu in Anatolia within the specific context of the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry, the very historical period when a Sunni Ottoman imperial identity appears to have been formulated in opposition to its Shiite Safavid counterpart. The numerous ways Ottoman chroniclers relate specific events that transpired during the rise to power of Selim I (for example, Selim’s battle with his father Bayezid II; the latter’s forceful deposition and suspicious death; Selim’s penchant for violence and his utilization of fear as an indispensible tool for the maintenance of law and order throughout the empire and at the imperial court) also shed light on the creation of a meticulously “copyedited” legitimate image for a controversial Ottoman monarch. Thus, as a volume consisting of essays focusing on Ottoman historiography, the current volume is closely related to my earlier work, but expands my research interests into new materials and themes.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HEÇ & EF: We hope that in addition to scholars and students of Ottoman history, others interested in the Ottomans will also read this book. We hope that it says something about the writing of history in general. Readers often respond to historical writing by taking it literally and not questioning the motives behind the writing. We hope that this book will serve as a reminder that all history is written from a certain point of view and not without specific agendas. What we mean by this is something a bit more nuanced than "history is always written from the perspective of the winners," but it is not unrelated. Just think of the way different news channels today report on current events; the historians of the Ottoman Empire had similarly divergent takes on the same episodes. As a very simple example, a commander coming back from a certain war might hire a historian to record the campaign in a way that highlights his contributions over those of a rival officer. Or the depiction of a certain festival might omit any unrest that may have taken place on the streets during the same time in order to promote an image of peace and prosperity. But people reading these histories today, because they are not familiar with other, divergent, and at times rival, accounts of the same events, would not know that what they are reading is a biased perspective. It always is, inevitably.
J: What other projects are you each working on now?
HEÇ: I am writing a book on the development of historical representation of the Ottoman ruler Selim I (r. 1512-1520), with specific attention paid to the Selimname literature and anonymous chronicles.
EF: I am currently working on two projects: one concerns the illustration of historical books in the broader Islamic world in the early-modern era, and the other focuses on an album of painting and calligraphy that was prepared for the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603-17).
J: How do you see the potential for this book`s focus on Ottoman history writing to affect contemporary engagements with Ottoman history?
HEÇ & EF: In addition to making readers more aware of the craft of historical writing, we hope that the book highlights the availability of detailed historical accounts from the Ottoman period. Current interest in Ottoman history in the media and the arts, especially in Turkey, does not truly make use of actual historical sources; instead, it relies on popular stereotypes and assumptions. For instance, popular historical novels and television shows cater to the dominant (and increasingly conservative) religious and nationalist sentiments by reinforcing an idealized image of the Ottoman Empire and its rulers. For the most part, the majority of scholarly writing produced in Turkey is equally uncritical and lacking in nuance. We hope this book will inspire readers to dig further into original written sources.
Excerpts from Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future
Ottoman scholars of the early modern era produced an unprecedented number of works with historical subject matter. Beginning in the fifteenth century, authors of various backgrounds composed chronicles; biographical dictionaries; hagiographies; local, dynastic, or universal histories; campaign accounts; compilations of letters; and other literary texts with historical content. The Ottoman historical record consisted of verse and prose accounts; Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and some Arabic texts; and a plethora of archival sources and supporting documents. The writers of these historical texts came from several milieus; indeed, very few were career historians: many were scribes, bureaucrats, soldiers, poets, religious scholars, grand viziers, tax collectors, and men of other professions. The roster included supporters of the state, dissenters, and eulogizers, as well as complainers and critics.
Members of the Ottoman dynasty and administration, too, were attuned to the value of historical writing and experimented with appointing official historians. One such experiment began in the sixteenth century and led to the creation of numerous dynastic accounts that were illustrated in luxurious manuscripts. At the end of the seventeenth century another kind of office was created, that of the court chronicler. The holder of this post was given access to archival records and kept a record of important events in Ottoman history. Thus, Ottoman rulers and those around them—in a manner similar to that of other European monarchs, such as the Habsburgs in Spain—sought to create a historical record that favored their interests and concerns. Yet, historical writing was far from being constrained to court-sponsored projects.
Indeed, the historical imagination had such a hold on the Ottomans that authors and readers alike often viewed the present in terms of literary or historical models. Thus we read about Ottoman rulers who are the Alexanders or Solomons of their age and grand viziers called “Asaf,” linking them to Solomon’s vizier. The first occupants of the office of court historian were charged with writing Shahnama-like accounts of the Ottoman dynasty, in the same meter and rhyme scheme of the eleventh-century poem by Firdawsi, and in Persian; in its first incarnation the position was called the şehnameci, or Shahnama-writer. That the image of the Ottoman sultan was modeled in some instances after Shahnama figures is as evident in the textual content of the manuscripts as in the visual representations that sometimes accompany them. The history of the Ottoman state and Ottoman historiography developed, not surprisingly, in tandem.
We have chosen to explore three themes within Ottoman historiography: the question of audience, the significance and implications of genre in historical writing, and the definition of what or who is “Ottoman” through the writing of history. By questioning for whom these histories were written, to what expectations they cater, and in which contexts they were read, the essays consider the oft -neglected consumers of these histories. By grappling with the question of what constitutes history in the Ottoman context, and examining the visual and verbal means in which notions of history are signaled in illustrated works, they also move toward a more nuanced definition of Ottoman historiography. The authors remind us of the multiplicity of genres of historical writing and their blending. They provide evidence of dynastic histories that are written into universal histories, biographical dictionaries incorporated into regional histories, war accounts within universal histories, and so on.
The strongest thread running through the essays is the desire, on the part of Ottoman authors, to define who and what is “Ottoman”—perhaps not surprising, as fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Ottomans were clearly preoccupied with determining the nature and contours of their polity and their place in the world. As the geographic boundaries of the state changed dramatically in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ottoman identity had to accommodate these changes. A frenzy of legal writing—written with the goal of integrating the peoples and the lands conquered under Sultan Süleyman (r. 1520–1566) and his father Selim I (r. 1512–1520)—helped to give order to the newly expanded empire. More often than not, historiography was used to give shape to the newly expanded empire. Many of the studies in the present volume trace the ways in which this happened.
[Excerpted from Writing History at the Ottoman Court: Editing the Past, Fashioning the Future, edited by H. Erdem Çıpa and Emine Fetvacı, by permission of the editors. © 2013 by Indiana University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]