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A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire

February 28, 2009

A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire

By M. Sukru Hanioglu

Princeton University Press (2008), 288 pp.

Reviewed by Seth C. Elder*

Far too often, the narrative of the collapse of an empire becomes a moral drama. Wealth is drained away by decadence, and power undercut by corruption. There are attempts at recovery, reform, re-consolidation; perhaps a war, or a grand alliance, or another gamble which seems mad in hindsight. Private fiefdoms emerge, tribes break away, and hostile external powers chip away at the borders.

These are the lessons of imperial overreach, of hubris – simple enough, even cliched, but never truly learned. Few empires better exemplify these characteristics than did the Ottoman Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In modern retrospective views of this period, histories largely formed by former subject nations of the Ottomans, medieval brutality is administered by a faceless bureaucracy. European powers nip at the edges, subject peoples fight for autonomy or outright independence, while an inefficient Sublime Porte hopelessly navigates between Islam and the West. One wonders what the Ottomans were thinking: wasn’t it obvious to them that their empire was bound to fall as well?

It is exactly this sort of historical determinism that Professor M. Sukru Hanioglu seeks to correct in A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire. “The usual human failure to take account of historical contingency,” he writes in the introduction, “has been reinforced by prevalent nationalist narratives in the Ottoman successor states… this retrospective approach to late Ottoman history has become, it seems to me, a major obstacle in viewing the period as it really was.”

In a mere 212 pages, Hanioglu attempts to present the period “as it really was”, using contemporary histories and Ottoman archival evidence to portray a sprawling, chaotic, and tension-filled empire over the course of more than 100 years. Bureaucrats, authors, treaties and battles barrage the reader to the point of incomprehension, while diplomatic and military endeavors with Great Powers and autonomous regions within the Empire itself bewilder with their complexity. Hanioglu jumps from an almost-independent Egypt to a loyal Albania, between Istanbul conservatives and Rumelian radicals, all within a few pages.

Yet amidst this confusion, Hanioglu accomplishes his goal. Consider the following anecdote from the first chapter, ‘At the turn of the Nineteenth Century’:

“In 1917, the Ottoman Foreign Ministry charged two ambassadors with the preparation of an official memorandum on the history of the Southern Arabian region of Hadramawt in order to substantiate Ottoman claims to this territory after the war. As an exhaustive search through the Ottoman archives yielded no data whatsoever on the area, the ambassadors resorted to composing their memorandum on the basis of the entry in the Encyclopedia Brittannica.”

To readers used to histories framed in nation-states, within definite borders, the power structure of the Ottoman Empire is nearly impossible to visualize. Hanioglu does not explain these political arrangements; working from an Istanbul-centric perspective, he briefly mentions the autonomy of certain regions and the near-independence of others. Individual Ottoman states sign independent treaties, and occasionally engage in unilateral wars, and the reader is left to his or her own understanding.

This is, of course, the point. The Ottoman Empire was so vast and convoluted as to be beyond full comprehension to the Sultan, his court, and his ministers; so it is to Hanioglu’s audience as well. Hanioglu divides his chapters among military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural headings; his stated themes are the conflicts of attempted centralization, modernization, and integration into Europe. However, ungovernable vastness remains the unifying concept within the book.

The unmanageability of the Empire becomes especially clear during the Tanzimat reform period, as the secular ‘Ottoman’ identity is introduced as a centralizing measure. HanioÆ’ülu writes:

“The idea of an overarching ottoman identity clashed with the increasing autonomy of religious communities within the empire; bureaucratic centralization conflicted with political fragmentation; the ideal of participation came up against the principle of top-down reform; the conservative spirit… contradicted the progressive drive to emulate the French penal code; new civil courts coexisted uneasily side by side with the traditional shari’a courts; a modern university with old medreses; an academy of modern science with the ulema gatherings of the past; European theater with the time-honored shadow puppet show; and the novel with the Divan poetry.” (pp. 104-5)

These listed tensions were only internal; the Tanzimat period saw diplomatic difficulties with the Great Powers of Europe which became more complex at the beginning of the 20th century.

Yet as the reader follows the ever-mounting internal and external tensions which pull the Empire in numerous directions, it is never wholly clear what course will actually be taken by its leadership. The late Ottoman Empire, while most certainly in a state of chaotic decline, could not be said to have been collapsing until the Balkan Wars, which Hanioglu acknowledges as “one of the least expected developments of the early twentieth century.” (p. 170) The effect of this trauma on the Ottomans is described by the author thus:  “a defeat of this magnitude at the hands of former subjects was a very difficult pill to swallow. Reducing an empire of three continents to an Asiatic state, it shattered Ottoman pride and self- confidence.” (p. 173)

Reduced to begging for alliances in order to maintain what was left of their territory, as well as the rise of Turkish nationalism within Anatolia, the Ottomans attempted a handful of consolidating and reformist measures. Nonetheless, the Empire would be completely dissolved following its defeat in the First World War. Hanioglu summarizes how and why this collapse occurred, but there is never a sense that the collapse had to happen.

Hanioglu, therefore, largely succeeds in presenting the Ottoman Empire as it was – that is, to a one without the benefit of hindsight, without the obscuring notion of the inevitability of collapse. The author necessarily moves at a frenzied pace, which will overwhelm a patient reader interested in facts and figures, and may frustrate anyone who chooses the book as an introductory Ottoman text. However, to readers familiar with the Ottoman Empire through the Balkans, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire is especially commendable as a fresh introduction to a bygone view from Istanbul.

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*Seth C. Elder is an American researcher and US State Department Fulbright Scholar in Skopje, Macedonia. His primary research interests include archeology, cultural heritage protection and economic development in rural communities. He is a graduate of DePauw University in Illinois.

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