MESA Banner
Ottoman geographical knowledge and the early modern information order in the light of Sayyid `Ali Akbar’s Khataynameh

Session XIII-01, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

RoundTable Description
Recent publications have dramatically expanded our knowledge of Ottoman geographical writing, and how it intersected with the culture and politics of the empire. The recent translation of Katip Çelebi’s monumental Cihannüma is a good example of this trend. Produced in the mid-seventeenth century, left unfinished at the author’s death, and ultimately combined with another geographical work by Abu Bakr al-Dimashqi, this geographical compendium provides insight on both the originality and limitations of geographical knowledge among Ottoman intellectuals. Another project is now underway to translate the Khataynameh (“Book of China”) of Sayyid `Ali Akbar Khatayi. Presented to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1518, this work was an important contribution to Ottoman knowledge about the Ming Dynasty of China. It is also an important source of evidence for the negotiated spaces in which Islamicate geographical knowledge was produced. Later translated into Ottoman Turkish as the Hıtayname, and (re-)presented to Sultan Murad III in 1582, it acquired additional significance in a new historical context. This roundtable will discuss the current state of geographical studies in light of this emerging project, and how a closer examination of the Khataynameh could further develop our understanding about the multiple roles played by this notable work. The discussion will open with five short assessments. The first will discuss the Persian-language foundation of the Khataynameh, the project of translation, and its roots in a context of medieval Persianate thought. The second will discuss the Ottoman translations of the Khataynameh, and how these translators emphasized key elements of Chinese governance to appeal to new audiences. The third will illustrate how the perception of China in the Khataynameh were often products of the oral traditions of the frontier regions between China and the Muslim world, or based on popular perceptions of the Chinese court, rather than information from Ming Dynasty sources. The fourth will approach the Khataynameh as part of a negotiation between Ottoman rulers, the author, and later translators that aimed to construct a philosopher-king archetype as a model for governance. The fifth will illustrate how the process of translation for the Ottoman court changed the emphasis of the text from geography to a focus on law as its defining element. Taken as a whole, the roundtable will assess how far we have come, new directions for scholarship, and solicit ideas on how a new translation of the Khataynameh can contribute to further progress.
  • As a book-length description of a single region, the Khataynameh is unusual as a specimen of premodern Islamicate geographical writing, even as such works became more common in Western European languages later in the 16th century. It may be considered an example of political reportage: other Islamicate examples of this genre include ‘Abd al-Razzaq Samarqandi’s description of the Vijayanagara polity and Ghiyas al-Din Naqqash’s account of Shahrukh’s embassy to the Ming court, the 17th century Safinah-yi Sulaymani, a description of the Indian Ocean and the kingdom of Siam, and the Risale-i Tatar-i Leh, an Ottoman text on Muslims in Poland. However, the Khataynamah places China within an eschatological frame, giving an explicitly millennarian interpretation to the Zhengde emperor’s rumored conversion to Islam, and placing relatively strong emphasis on topoi common to Islamicate writing on China, such as its supposed exemption from the Deluge, as well as advancing new claims, such as that China’s law (qanun) has protected it from plagues, famines, and civil wars. In this respect it differs greatly from other examples of political reportage. Given the similarities between these utopian tendencies in the Khataynameh and in Spanish and English writing on China of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and its continuity with earlier Islamicate writing on China, the Khataynameh offers evidence of a long-lived utopian discourse on China dating to perhaps the early medieval period. The existence of such a utopian tradition raises provocative questions about Islamic and global history. Given the central role of utopian writing and utopian experiments (in which China figured prominently) in European Enlightenment thought, how might such an Islamicate utopian discourse change our understanding of the temporality and geography of the Enlightenment? How might the convergence of political reportage and apocalyptic as textual modes grounded in processes of communication revise our chronology of early modernity and its underlying cultural and structural processes? How might recognizing traces of this utopian discourse in long-familiar texts, such as the Alexander epics, change our understanding of Persianate political thought?
  • Given that the Khataynameh (“Book of China”) of `Ali Akbar was originally written in Persian, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Ottoman Turkish translations of the work that followed have little to offer the scholar in the way of additional information about the text’s contents. This presentation will argue that this perspective is not entirely accurate, and overlooks moments in which the various translations of the work present its contents in distinctive ways that offer insight on how this geographical work was received and interpreted. The presentation will focus on two separate translations of the text that were made from the original Persian into Ottoman Turkish. One translation, MS Ayasofya 3188, hews much closer to the Persian original, and seems to be an independent translation. The other translation, represented by MS Esad Efendi 1852 and Nuruosmaniye 3095, among others, translated the material in a significantly different style, and sometimes interpolated novel content. Special emphasis will be placed on the presentation and reception of chapter six of the Khataynameh. In the table of contents that prefaces the work, most of the Ottoman Turkish translators of the work offered a much more detailed description of the Chinese court system to its intended audience than the Persian original. Moreover, the preponderance of this novel description focuses on aspects of the Chinese court that parallel the Ottoman imperial harem system. Given the context of the translations, which were presented to the court of Murad III in the 1580s, the presentation will argue that the translator’s interpolations in the latter set of manuscripts dovetailed with the growing power of harem institutions and personnel at the Ottoman royal court by the end of the sixteenth century, which grew markedly thereafter. Thus, these works demonstrate how the process of translation could subtly alter the Ottoman reception of the work, and indicate shifts in the audience for its contents.
  • Due to the influence of globalization on academic trends, the importance of the study on transnational connections and comparisons such as those between the Islamic and Asian worlds has dramatically increased. Translations of key primary sources are particularly important because they would encourage more scholars to use them to push the boundaries of their research. In this context, the collaborative project of the English translation of Khataynameh is timely, as there has been no accessible English translation for the Khataynameh text despite its importance in covering the Sino-Islamic contact in early modern history. A collaborative approach by scholars with different regional and linguistic expertise has excellent potential for not only providing a good translation, but also for producing an enhanced, annotated translation of a critical historical source, one useful for scholarship in general while also constituting a readable text for history classes unraveling the nuances of cross-cultural communication between different societies in a larger context of world history. This presentation will address some approaches and strategies to writing annotations based on comparing the Khataynameh text to information in relevant Chinese and Arabic sources, including Arabic geographies and Ming-era literature and gazetteers. While the existing annotations in a Turkish translation tend to focus on assessing the book’s accuracy, either approving or rejecting content as “not attested in Chinese sources,” such cursory commentary could be improved upon greatly, especially in the case of content in the text that clearly has some Chinese origin, but is not accurate. For example, Khatayi’s story of Confucius does not seem to be a standard Chinese account, but it corresponds to a Chinese perception of Confucius having tempered the brutality of rulers. In this sense, the aspects of the Chinese context that would benefit from clarification are not only the background of diplomatic interaction and the actions/policies of the Ming court, but the “low culture” of the streets, markets, and semi-elite Chinese Muslim communities that also seem to register in the text, as in his story of Confucius as well as his description of the Shaolin monastery. This presentation argues that a principal goal of annotations to a translation of the text should be identifying the origins of information Khatayi provides about China and Chinese culture, which may derive from tropes or lore attested in Arabic sources, or else may derive from events or local lore in the frontier regions where Khatayi traveled.
  • What does a king need to know? What do the king’s subjects and servants need to know? What does a king need his subjects and servants to know? What do they in turn want their king to know? And what do they want the king to know about what they know? These are the essential questions which drive the complex moral economy of knowledge production and dissemination encapsulated by the term “patronage”. Next to poetic production historiography, whether in the form of chronicles or of mirrors-for-princes is a characteristic genre that serves as currency in this moral economy, as such works are commissioned by, or dedicated to rulers in many a period and place in history. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, however, the prevalent paradigm of interpreting patronage is to view works produced in such a context as articulations of an imperial self-image projected from the palace to servants, subjects, and rivals. Geographical literature, categorized as historiography in the Ottoman canon, and cartography have similarly been understood to provide useful practical knowledge, and serve to create an imperial image. The Khatayname, too, participates in the Ottoman system of patronage for literary production, as clearly evident in its introduction. Yet, what exactly did its unique subject matter and presentation add to the moral economy defined by the constant negotiation between author and king? By placing it in the wider context of Ottoman patronage of geographical works, this presentation will demonstrate that early modern geographers were not simply providing kings with applicable knowledge, nor were kings in the business of disseminating such knowledge. Rather, geographical knowledge contributed to the making of a kind of philosopher-king who by virtue of his superior knowledge would be the guarantor of justice in a divinely ordered cosmos. The shift to worldly concerns of practicality, by contrast, mark a distinct departure that can be dated no earlier than the seventeenth century.
  • This contribution to the round table focuses on the change of emphasis in the title of the translation of the Khataynameh through a close reading of the preface to the translation, including its section devoted to the invocation of God, and argues that the Turkish translation is at least as much about Ottoman politics as it is about China. The Law-Book of China is a modified Ottoman Turkish translation of a Persian work called the Book of China by a certain Ali Akbar. Ali Akbar seems to have been a merchant of Central Asian origin with some experience in or about China. He wrote the Book of China in Istanbul in 1516 and dedicated it to the reigning Ottoman sultan. The work consists of twenty-one chapters, dealing with various topics ranging from Chinese roads, cities, soldiers, and agriculture to the administration of the empire and the palace. In the preface Ali Akbar states his reason for the composition of the work. Everyone, he says, brings curious presents from all parts of the world to the Ottoman sultan Selim. Thus, his gift from the kingdom of China is a compilation of curious customs. Yih-Min Lin, who attempted a thorough comparison of the information provided by Ali Akbar with Chinese sources, believes that Ali Akbar had probably never made it to China himself. Lin argues that Ali Akbar composed a didactic work to “set a positive example by describing a strong, well-organized and, above all, well-disciplined society.” Some sixty-five years after its composition, around 1582, Ali Akbar’s work gained a new currency when an anonymous Ottoman man of letters translated the Book of China into Ottoman Turkish with the title of the Law-Book of China. This anonymous translator also composed a new preface to his work, which reflects the added emphasis on the notion of law. This presentation will provide a closed reading of selected passages from the preface to draw the new framework of the work as precisely as possible.