INTERVIEW: Douglas Howard on his history of the Ottoman Empire

INTERVIEW: Douglas Howard on his history of the Ottoman Empire

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Douglas Howard on his history of the Ottoman Empire Recently published by Cambridge University Press, “A History of the Ottoman Empire” by Douglas Howard, Professor of History at Calvin College in Michigan, is the first single-volume history of the Ottomans to appear in a number of years. 

In little over 300 pages, the book (reviewed in HDN here) covers more than 600 years of history - from the empire’s 13th century origins in the Balkans and western Anatolia to its protracted, violent dissolution at the start of the 20th century. 

The Ottoman ruling family enjoyed the longest span of uninterrupted dynastic sovereignty in world history, but it also had to contend with huge upheavals - wars, mutinies, scandals, riots, disasters, and epidemics.

The empire was essentially a pre-modern state that managed to persist for so long through reform and skillful geopolitical maneuvering. The book gives the grand sweep of Ottoman history but it is also punctuated by boxes and appendices giving useful detours on various other points of interest - cultural products, travelogues, Sufi poetry, and memoirs.

Howard spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about the book and what he learned while researching it.

Why write the book at this time? 

I had in mind the idea of writing a book like this from when I was a graduate student. I was interested in the challenge of writing a history of the Ottoman Empire in a single volume, but I didn’t start until Cambridge came to me to ask if I'd be interested in the project. So it was really the publisher's idea that the time was right. I'd written a history of Turkey before, which perhaps showed an interest in a narrative sort of approach.

You had to cover a 600-year plus sweep of history over an extraordinarily diverse political landscape in just over 300 pages. Were there any particular challenges?

All of my colleagues agree about how intimidating it is to write a history of the empire from start to finish in a single volume. It's also the case that most of us in the field of Ottoman history work either on the first 300 or 400 years of the empire or the last 200 or 300. There seems to be some sort of barrier in the 1700s that keeps people from working on both, so it was a challenge for me, as someone who had written mostly about the 1500s and 1600s, to venture into that later period and to try to find common themes across that bridge.

There’s a popular view that there was a kind of Pax Ottomana. Indeed that’s often the case when people look back at any historical empire, seeing them as often oppressive but at least upholding the peace. But the book shows how the Ottoman territory was so often the site of upheaval, wars, rebellions, riots, disasters, epidemics and scandals. 

I wanted to write about the sources of people's pain and suffering. Of course at some level the Ottomans - like the Safavid Empire or the Mughal Empire or the Ming dynasty - did bring an overarching order to a large territory, with intrusive authority. But that always came at a cost. Empires always had their discontents and I wanted to bring that out. Our lives as human beings are full of difficulty, even for the victors, even for elites and even for servants of the state. I tried to write about that because for a contemporary reader it seems to me what's interesting about the past.

You write at one point: “Violence or the threat of violence became almost routine as a means of negotiating political change ... In such constant political turmoil, the Ottoman sultans often appeared to have little day-to-day political or military authority.” That cuts against the grain of some clichéd ideas about the Ottoman Empire and how it was a kind of pre-modern despotic system where everything was under the control of the sultan. You show how it was a lot more sophisticated.

It was an agrarian age empire. It's easy for us to forget when we use terms like “absolutism” that in the age before modernity and modern methods of communication it was difficult for agrarian age states to control what was happening in provinces distant from the capital. Of course they could learn about it from reports, and there was ultimately the threat of force but their actual day to day ability to control events was limited by technology and travel. 

When you read the decrees of the sultans they can be very direct and intimidating. They often contain threats of retaliation if orders aren't carried out. But the correspondence between provinces and the center shows that there was quite a bit of negotiating room for local people to present their needs to the authorities and get them addressed.

The Ottoman Empire was famously diverse - religiously, linguistically and culturally - but something that the book gets across is the centrality of Islam to the practice, beliefs, and motivations of the authorities throughout Ottoman history. Was that something you set out to do from the start or did it come through as you were researching?

Often the role of religion is not clearly expressed in Ottoman histories. But I wanted to write about the Ottoman "worldview," and that worldview was infused with an Islamic point of view. Writing about the Ottoman worldview is impossible to do without talking a lot about religion. You can't understand the Ottomans without understanding that the dynasty was a Muslim dynasty and they looked at things from an Islamic point of view. At the same time, for centuries at least half the population of the empire was not Muslim; they were Christians and Jews and others. And even the Muslim community was not monolithic; there were Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims - and many variations within both of those. So the dynasty was certainly Muslim but that didn't mean it imposed uniformity on the population. 

Until the 16th century the Ottoman Empire wasn't even a Muslim-majority state. The territories ruled by the Ottoman sultans were still majority non-Muslim until the early 1600s.

The shift in the balance of the population toward Islam occurred fairly late. Even as late as the 1880s, when the first real Ottoman census figures can be looked at, the population was only about 75 percent Muslim.

Another thing that comes through in the book is that from the beginning the empire’s center of gravity was Rumelia or Eastern Europe, not Anatolia. Rumelia was always seen as the Ottoman heartland, far more so than Anatolia. 

Right, in lists of Ottoman provinces, Rumelia was always at the top. Anadolu, or Anatolia, was second. Even the concept of Anatolia has changed over time. The current usage of Anatolia - as referring to the entire peninsula, from the Black Sea to the Aegean and the Mediterranean, encompassing what today we think of as the Republic of Turkey - is a modern thing. Thinking of "Anatolia" and "Turkey" as synonymous is a 20th century idea. Before that, Anatolia was a small province that comprised the western and northwestern parts of today’s Turkey. The Anatolian plateau, so to speak, was divided between a number of different provinces, Rum and Karaman.

This idea of "worldview" probes the perspectives and motivations of people at the time as they saw it, rather than looking back with hindsight or trying to impose a pattern on history after the fact. So, for example, there's not much emphasis on the classic narrative of the empire's "rise and fall." It's more of an open-ended sense of research that comes across in the book.

Worldview is a complicated thing. It involves parts of ourselves that we have no choice in making. It involves our connection with the world around us. I wanted to avoid the narrative arc of the "rise and fall" of the empire, so I looked for ways to do that. One way that I lit upon was how I divided the book: The periodization of the book. I made every chapter a century in Islamic terms, so that no period gets more emphasis than any other. To me, all people's lives are important and all periods are important in their own way. So for example I wanted to avoid zeroing in on the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent as a kind of classical expression of things; I also wanted to avoid zeroing in on the period of the 1800s as somehow decrepit. Because I think such characterizations are somewhat misleading.

Nevertheless, the decline and fall of the empire is key. You talk about a “War of Ottoman Dissolution” from summer 1908 to August 1923. This was a long period encompassing the Balkan Wars, the First World War and the war of independence that led to the declaration of the Republic of Turkey. It was a cataclysmic time in which the political order was completely transformed. How did you want to approach this era?

It was difficult. That last section was the hardest part to write because of the extraordinary violence it involves. Of course all periods of history are violent, that's human history. But that period of the first 25 years of the last century stands out as a strikingly violent period in southwestern Asia. I knew that I had to write about the Armenian genocide, the Balkan Wars, military defeat on the eastern front and so on. And I knew that many readers would be very interested in this section and may even go to that part of the book first. I wanted to find a way to convey the human misery of the time while also pointing out that there was nothing inevitable about it. People made choices and did things that brought this about. 

To me, in 1908, 1909, and 1910 there was no reason why the Ottoman Empire could not have continued another century. Of course it would have been very different, but it was specific events and specific choices by specific people that led to the violent cataclysm that occurred. The sadness of it as I worked over the evidence really struck me and I wanted to bring that out.

There are many continuities from the Ottoman to the Republican eras that get less popular attention than necessary. What are the major continuities from the Ottoman to the Republican eras that are still salient today? 

That's a difficult question. Certainly people's ideas about their place in the world change very slowly. People's ideas and concepts of authority change very slowly. It's not hard to observe in the late Ottoman era the seeds of republican notions of what democracy was, what guided democracy was, the continuity of the late Ottoman constitutional periods with the early Republic strikes me. Also the very late notion of a kind of ethnic unity to the idea of the nation certainly continues from the late Ottoman period into the republic. 

Is there any particular Ottoman sultan who you're particularly fond of? Or any particular era of the empire’s history that you particularly enjoyed researching?

I liked the stories that I was able to tell in the book about Sultan Murat IV [r. 1623-1640]. He had such a reputation for violence and ruthlessness, but at the same time the stories that Evliya Çelebi tells about him are humorous and human. So I like his contrasts, his extremes - the sense of humor and the incredible and indescribable violence that he sometimes perpetrated.

As for an era, I spent a long time before I wrote the book writing about the 1600s and 1700s. So I’m a little more familiar with that period than the rest. But at the same time, as I walk around Istanbul I often notice the early 20th century city. I'd love to read someone's book about Istanbul in 1900. There's a whole literature on other imperial cities at the turn of the 20th century - there's one about Vienna, one about Budapest. It would be great to have a colleague write a book about Istanbul in 1900. That would be fascinating.

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