Monday, March 30

Interpretation of the Ottoman Empire history today

Map of the Arabian Peninsula, 1732, from Kitab-ı cihannüma (Constantinople), 1732, from Kâtip Çelebi (1609-1657). In Ottoman Turkish (Arabic script), printed by İbrahim Müteferrika. Type 794.34.475 Houghton Library / Wiki Commons.

In the summer of 1682, French warships appeared in front of the port of Algiers. They had been sent to bomb the North African city to take revenge on the Algerian armed forces that had confiscated French shipping to impose a new peace treaty on the Dey. Algiers was beaten. Houses, mosques and other public buildings have been destroyed. The French returned the next summer and again in the summer of 1688 to enforce their will against the Algerian authorities by indiscriminate fire.

The French fleet was accompanied in 1683 by a translator, François Pétis de la Croix, an orientalist with mastery of the Arabic, Persian, Armenian and Turkish languages. He served as a royal interpreter of oriental languages, like his father (also François). Known for his own interpretation of Thousand and one Nightde la Croix was an employee of the French state, whose education and training was sponsored by one of the most capable administrators of Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. De la Croix used his knowledge of Turkish to write the contract that the Algerians were forced to adopt in 1684 and helped in the arms negotiations on contracts with other North African parties.

Another of the royal interpreters of oriental languages, a high-ranking colleague of de la Croix, was Barthélemy d & # 39; Herbelot de Molainville. D’Herbelot is perhaps best known for compiling his Bibliothèque orientale (published posthumously in 1697). This bibliographic encyclopedia is the central piece of evidence for Noel Malcolm's final argument in Useful enemies: Edward Said did not prove this in his influential study Orientalism (1978) that the collection of early modern Western knowledge of the Islamic world had no influence on the exercise of its political power. Malcolm claims that since Herberot dedicated his life and career to opening Arabic, Persian and Turkish texts to a wider audience, he simply could not have been part of a malicious orientalist project. As evidence, he points out that d’Herbelot used the epic bibliographical dictionary by the great Ottoman scholar Katib Çelebi from the 17th century as the main source and model for the book Bibiliothèque orientale, This argument, which appears on the last pages of Malcolm's book, comes out of the blue. It is not surprising, however, that Malcolm, who wrote an extremely positive review of Robert Irwin's review of Said, For the pleasure of knowledge: the orientalists and their enemies (2006) should use his own book on European science about the Ottoman world to make a judgment Orientalism and the scholarship that influenced it in the decades that followed.

For Malcolm, orientalism was not a monolithic undertaking, but a series of strands of research that necessarily differed over time and place. Most of the time it was a mirror that withstood the mistakes of European politics and society, instead of forming a consistent and insidious project to undermine the East. Useful enemies is largely chronological from the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the publication of Montesquieu The spirit of the law in 1748, which drew a clear line between European civilization and Eastern barbarism. Malcolm's book, which comes to an end before the traditional beginning of “modernity”, is important in order to ensure a clear distinction between innocent early modern curiosity and modern malice.

A lot of soil is covered here, but it has largely leaked out. For example, what Malcolm describes as a "new paradigm" – the phenomenon of largely positive portrayals of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, which results in part from contacts made through the Franco-Ottoman alliance – is not a new argument, and it was dealt with, among others, by Christine Isom-Verhaaren and Pascale Barthe.

Palmira Brummett's book is a book that shows convincingly how Europe's attitude towards the Ottomans changes through texts, maps and pictures Mapping the Ottomans: Sovereignty, Territory, and Identity in the Early Modern Mediterranean (2015), which is strangely lacking in Malcolm's bibliography. Brummett has broken the dividing lines between "Ottoman Studies" and "European Studies". Malcolm decides to keep the barriers high and focus on the European perspective instead of considering the impact of intercultural encounters. As he made clear in his preface, "it is a study of the political thinking of the West about Islam and the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period, not a study of Islam and the Ottoman Empire itself". Can they be separated so cleanly?

While Useful enemies With some insight into European political thinking about the Ottomans, it would have benefited from anchoring this science in the context of the interactions between the Ottomans and Western Europe. Certainly, as Malcolm argues, European science about the Ottoman Empire had utility in reflecting European fears about changes in his own societies. Much of it was driven by real curiosity. At the same time, it is important to remember the connections between oriental science, state patronage and state politics.

The goals of Katib Çelebi and d’Herbelot in creating bibliographic encyclopedias of the Islamic world were different. Influential orientalists, especially from France, were not only scholars of literature and philology, but also agents of a state. Useful enemies ignores the fact that the knowledge acquired has been incorporated into strategies and approaches that, particularly in the case of France, are increasingly aimed at exercising power and control in the Mediterranean and beyond. Scholars like de la Croix, who accompanied a French military force on their campaign in North Africa a century before Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt, destroy the illusion of innocent, inward-looking scholarship and make the close relationship between early modern knowledge, power and knowledge clear.

Useful enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western political thought, 1450-1750
Noel Malcolm
Oxford 512pp £ 25

Michael Talbot is a history lecturer at the University of Greenwich.

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