To Halil İnalcık

To Halil İnalcık

The great Ottoman historian Professor Halil İnalcık passed away on July 25 at the age of 100. İnalcık wrote groundbreaking books and articles on a vast range of themes: social responses to the Tanzimat reforms, peasant economies, methods of Ottoman conquest, the Khanate of Crimea, capital formation in the urban economy, the Ottoman legal order and Indian Ocean trade. In his prolific career, İnalcık reshaped the field of Ottoman history. There is no doubt that along with Köprülü, Wittek, and Barkan, İnalcık was one of the founding fathers of modern Ottoman studies. In the scope and impact of his work, İnalcık is the field’s most influential scholar.

İnalcık was a graduate of and professor at Ankara University, the first academic institution in the young Turkish Republic. Since the early 1950s, his work was recognized in Western academies for its critical interventions, including his critique of renowned German orientalist Franz Babinger’s account of Mehmed II. Between 1950 and 1970, İnalcık published important pieces shaking established Orientalist assumptions about the Ottoman Empire. In 1972, he moved to the University of Chicago. The university was a leader in global history. Teaching alongside William McNeill, a prominent world historian, and Marshall Hodgson, a great scholar of Islamic Civilization, İnalcık built the first full-fledged program in Ottoman history in the United States. 

In 1994, İnalcık returned to Turkey to found a new history department at Bilkent. He gathered an international cadre for a new program, which integrated technical aspects of Ottoman studies, such as paleography and archival research, with comparative global history. I am a lucky student who studied with İnalcik and later taught in the department.

Much ink will be spilled over İnalcık’s legacy as we discuss his impact and contributions. We will determine where the “post-İnalcık era” in Ottoman studies should lead. It is still early for these academic discussions. But since July 25, I have read many excellent obituaries for İnalcık in the Turkish press. It is striking that in a deeply polarized country, writers from a range of orientations expressed their admiration for İnalcık and his scholarship. A few of these accounts were critical, such as Kurşat Bumin’s. Bumin expressed respect for the great historian but criticized him for being a Turkish nationalist. He cited İnalcık’s public remarks that implied that Turks should not trust the West. Bumin complained about historians in Turkey, pointing out that even such a great historian could lack the intellectual depth to go beyond a crude nationalistic discourse. 

İnalcık’s political views were shaped in the first half of the 20th century. He was born during the collapse of the Ottoman world and grew up during the foundation of modern Turkey. For his generation, nationalism was a solution (with socialism) to give meaning to the fall of the old order and the beginning of the new. While providing the masses with a sense of honor after colonialism and European expansion, nationalism motivated intellectuals (particularly historians) to free their national narratives from Western hegemony in different corners of the world. İnalcık was loyal to these ideas throughout his life. 

However, his nationalism did not push İnalcık to glorify the empire he studied. On the contrary, he was critical of the Ottoman past. This critical attitude came in part from his profound intellectual and academic rigor. But it was also the consequence of his very nationalism. Believing in a republic of which he was a product, İnalcık saw the Ottoman Empire as an “old order,” which was to be understood critically and from a distance. The empire was not to be revived, but examined on its own terms, while situating the emergence of Turkey in global history. In this respect, İnalcık should be separated from conservative nationalist historians and understood in the intellectual context of Republican Turkey with critical reception of the Ottoman past.

We will continue to study İnalcık’s academic impact and intellectual orientation, his long career and extraordinary productivity. Should we characterize Halil İnalcık as a scholar with a linear intellectual life whose thoughts did not change over time? Or, as someone who experienced multiple phases (and contradictions) over the course of his long life? I think the answer is the latter, and that he was more coherent than we might think. 

Goodbye, sevgili hocam, for now! 

Ali Yaycıoğlu is assistant professor of Ottoman and Islamic History at Stanford University.