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The Decline of Rise: Re-examining the Ottoman Rise Paradigm

Panel IV-7, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Over the past forty years, Ottomanists have gradually undermined the once-uncontested “decline thesis,” which posited a unidirectional rise and decline of the Ottoman empire. Having participated in or witnessed decline’s decline, this panel proposes to launch a collective and wide-ranging discussion of “rise”. New research has pointed in this direction for quite some time, generating the papers that comprise this panel. They address critically the enduring attraction of “rise,” and the historical and historiographical evidence cited to sustain the narrative of a largely uninterrupted successful trajectory of the early Ottomans. The studies that discredited decline emerged from Ottoman archival research that flourished increasingly from the 1950s. Ottoman “rise” is a much more problematic paradigm to shift, largely because many fewer and more fragmentary contemporary sources, written or material, survive from the first 150 years of Ottoman history (1300-1450). A much smaller percentage of these were created by the Ottomans themselves than would be the case even by 1500. However, the scholarly challenge of exploring Armenian, Byzantine, Mamluk, Bulgarian, Serbian, Hungarian, Albanian, and other sources was not merely one of learning medieval and early modern versions of half a dozen unrelated languages. Scholars (and their supporters) also had to acknowledge that early Ottoman history was Byzantine, Mamluk, etc. at all. The historiographical debates about the origins of Ottoman success made clear the conceptual walls that had to come down before Ottoman “rise” could be genuinely re-evaluated. The presentations in this panel address various aspects of the Ottoman rise. The first discusses modern historiography and different conceptualizations of the foundation and rise of the Ottoman Empire. The second examines memory, censorship, and alternative history concerning the beginnings of the Ottoman enterprise. The third paper investigates early examples of Ottoman historical writing from the fifteenth century to suggest how contemporary historians’ conceptions of the period were shaped by the Ottoman narrative chronicles. In the fourth presentation, the case of Edirne demonstrates how a uniform “rise” narrative impeded more nuanced interpretations of the Ottoman state and empire building. The final presentation problematizes teleological applications of the rise paradigm in the history of architecture.
Art/Art History
  • When talking about empires, “rise” is, of course, the counterpart to “decline.” Scholars have questioned the idea of Ottoman decline, its timing, and the mechanisms behind it, although we have not yet revised the relationship between “decline” and “fall.” On the other side of this paradigm, we can question (but not eliminate) the idea of an Ottoman rise, in that the Ottomans did begin, and did become more powerful and larger over time. However, the “gazi” debate was precisely about the mechanism and the timing of the empire’s rise, and there is more to be investigated around that concept. In addition, we need to question the nature of the rise more broadly, as this panel seeks to do. The paradigm of rise and decline posits that whatever made the empire rise in the first place, its absence made the empire decline. For a long time that was understood to mean military zeal on behalf of Islam, and that idea has been thoroughly debunked. Later advice works constructed the empire’s moving force as purity vs. corruption, which can also be debunked. Kafadar thought the force shaping the empire was the tension between centripetal and centrifugal movements; Lowry thought it was mainly greed and the incorporation of Byzantines. Part of their difference seems to me to be due to their respective focus on Anatolia and Rumeli, popular and state movements; hardly anybody considers the whole empire together. It is likely that “rise” meant different things to different people in different places and different periods. This paper is a historiographical and methodological look at the problem of conceptualizing the Ottomans' rise. It attempts to disaggregate the notion of “rise” and look at some of the forces pushing the Ottomans to create an empire, paying particular attention to the Ottomans’ Seljuk, Ilkhanid, and Byzantine imperial models. Incorporating the newer scholarship in the field, it examines the problems with the concept of “rise” and the ways these problems have been and might be addressed. In particular, it looks outside the borders of the Ottoman lands to see what “empire” meant in fourteenth-century West Asia and how the post-Mongol political landscape might have looked to the Ottomans.
  • Dr. Dimitris Kastritsis
    The development of historical writing in the early Ottoman Empire is still typically viewed in terms of a paradigm established in the 1960s by Victor Ménage and Halil İnalcık. This model focuses on narratives of early Ottoman history, which culminated in dynastic histories (Tevārīh-i Āl-i ʿOs̱mān) compiled under Sultan Bayezid II and his successors. In line with historical and philological practices at the time, these scholars took a positivistic approach to comparing various narrative strands, in order to assess their relationship to each other and their factual value. Although some sources were traced to the early fifteenth century, including a book of exploits attributed to Yahşı Fakih and various lists of events compiled under Murad II, more extensive literary narratives were largely ignored except insofar as they included accounts of early Ottoman history. This resulted in a limited perspective on Ottoman historical literature from the early to mid-15th century, which tends to focus on broader views of the past and the place of the Ottoman dynasty within it. This paper focuses on the universal history Bahjat al-Tavārīkh, a work in Persian by the Ottoman author Şükrullah, completed in 863/1458-59 under the patronage of Mehmed II’s grand vizier Mahmud Paşa. I will show that as in the case of two earlier works completed in Ottoman courts, Ahmedī’s İskendernāme and Yazıcıoğlu ʿAlī’s history of the Seljuks of Rum, Şükrullah’s work presents the non-Ottoman past in distinctly Ottoman terms. I will argue that at a time when Greek authors such as Laonikos Chalkokondyles produced works often viewed as forming part of the Renaissance (Byzantine or otherwise), Ottoman authors felt a similar need to explain their own times by taking a broader perspective on antiquity and world history.
  • Mr. Samet Budak
    This presentation is about a figure called Abdülaziz, who arguably played a significant part in the foundation of the Ottoman Empire. His memory was deliberately obliterated from the mainstream chronicles written to glorify the role of the House of Osman and its “unchallenged success story beginning with the earliest moments of the Ottoman enterprise.” In this presentation, rather than offering an alternative to what happened, I will investigate how the groups that were sidelined by the centralizing state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries chose to remember the beginnings of Ottoman history. In this alternative version, Abdülaziz was a vizier and a member of the Seljuk dynasty who granted “independence” to his vassal Osman, the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty. Abdülaziz was the one who interpreted the famous dream of Osman/Ertuğrul, a harbinger of universal dominion. He married his daughter to Osman, and their son Orhan became the dynasty’s second ruler. Abdülaziz also commanded the first raids in Europe against the Byzantines alongside several other frontier lords who were not necessarily devoted followers of the Ottoman center. His son Israil was the father of Bedreddin of Simavna, who led a rebellion with perennialist, utopian, and millenarian overtones against the Ottoman state in the early fifteenth century. Following this rebellion and the grandson’s downfall and execution, this family’s claims and Abdülaziz’s deeds were expunged from historical accounts. Abdülaziz’s memory reappeared much later among the circles that were marginalized due to the centralizing Ottoman state’s actions in both political and religious life. By examining neglected historical accounts, this presentation focuses on how an alternative historical narrative was assigned to marginalized groups, effectively calling its legitimacy into question. The presentation also demonstrates how to make use of the concepts of memory and censorship in order to go beyond a one-dimensional historiographic tradition of the Ottoman rise created by state-sponsored and ideologically driven compositions.
  • This paper addresses the question the Ottoman rise narrative from the point of view of architectural history. In this narrative, the monuments designed by chief architect Sinan (d. 1588) are presented as the culmination of Ottoman architecture in the ‘classical age’. Sinan is presented as an early modern star architect in the empire’s service, building peerless monuments after which only decline could follow. Two consequences emerge from such approaches. First, Ottoman architecture built after Sinan’s death becomes part of a decline narrative, with the result that the seventeenth century remains the least studied period of Ottoman architectural history. Second, and more relevant in the present context, Ottoman monuments built between the early fourteenth and the early sixteenth century are integrated into a narrative leading towards Sinan’s projects. Effectively, both the rise and decline paradigms are embodied in a framework that centers Sinan’s buildings as masterpieces. Stepping way from this narrative, recent scholarship on Ottoman architecture in the fourteenth and fifteenth century has shown the diverse nature of construction projects in this period. Elements of Byzantine, Seljuk, Timurid, and Mamluk architecture were integrated as workers with various backgrounds and expertise are active on construction sites under Ottoman patronage. Such diverse construction projects continued in the period of crisis after Bayezid I’s defeat at the hands of Timur, and beyond as territories lost in 1401 were slowly regained, and expansion continued. With the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the creation of a new capital began, with imperial construction projects under Mehmed II focusing on Istanbul. While imperial Byzantine architecture, and particularly Hagia Sophia, increasingly served as model and inspiration, Ottoman builders remained engaged in a wide range of building practices. Not until the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries did increasing centralization of artistic production lead to the emergence of an easily recognizable style that would become closely associated with Ottoman imperial rule. A few decades later, Sinan’s work built on these earlier designs. This paper draws a long arch from the early fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth century, arguing that stepping away from a narrative predicated on Ottoman rise, we gain new understandings of the empire’s complex architectural heritage.
  • Wittek’s The Rise of the Ottoman Empire (1938) was one of the earliest texts many of us read as students of Ottoman history. Embedded in the title were two certainties: 1) there was something called the Ottoman Empire, and 2) it rose. That slim book grounded scholarship and synthetic writing alike about the period from 1300 to the conquest of Constantinople. This paper reconsiders the idea of Ottoman rise from the perspective of the city of Edirne, which was assigned a key role in the narrative of rise as the second Ottoman imperial capital. The case of Edirne demonstrates how a uniform “rise” narrative masked or minimized challenges to the formation of the early Ottoman state and society. The paper asks two pairs of questions: What was Ottoman about Edirne, and when did it become noticeably Ottoman? When was Edirne the Ottoman capital and what was an Ottoman capital at that point? Initial answers to these four questions suggest that from its conquest to the conquest of Constantinople, Edirne was a key location for the cohering of “Ottoman”, including forms of governance, ceremonial, architecture and identity. It was also the space where the Ottomans evolved the basic elements for a sedentary Ottoman capital, eventually realized in Istanbul. These proposed answers derive from a review of the sources and scholarship on Edirne’s early Ottoman history. Sources include Ottoman, Byzantine, and other constructions and intrusions into the local landscape, together with the written evidence of Ottoman and Byzantine historical accounts or documents and the written observations of people who passed through Edirne and Thrace during this era. None of these are very plentiful and altogether offer fragmentary evidence. Yet asking new questions compels a reconsideration of seemingly exhausted evidence and new ways to think about the answers.