MESA Banner
The Caucasus within the Ottoman World

Panel III-11, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel examines histories of the Caucasus as an integral part of the Ottoman world between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Black and Caspian Seas, had long been an arena of competition between the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Imperial Russia. The Ottoman government, while laying claim to sovereignty over different parts of the region, exercised limited political control in the region. Nevertheless, the Caucasus maintained an important place in the Ottoman imaginary. Furthermore, many Caucasus communities—Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Yazidis—held allegiance to, or deep familial and mercantile ties with, the Ottoman Empire. Recent scholarship demonstrated how movements of pilgrims, refugees, prisoners of war, slaves, and intellectuals intricately tied the Caucasus to the Ottoman world. The panelists propose several conceptual interventions in studying the Caucasus within Ottoman and global history. First, they challenge the traditional geographic divide between the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus, which is largely a twentieth-century political distinction, instead exploring Ottoman connections with western and eastern regions of the Caucasus, and points of intersections throughout the mountains. Second, the Caucasus is often presented as an imperial (usually Russian) frontier in historiography. The panelists examine the Caucasus as a zone of mutual interaction, not a frontier, between the three empires and the Caucasus communities. Third, the panelists emphasize local Caucasus actors and their role in shaping the Ottoman world, whether through the Black Sea slave trade, Muslim refugee resettlement from the Caucasus, spatial development of the region during the late imperial period, or nation-building projects in the 1910s and 1920s. The objective of the panel is to generate a conversation among scholars of the Caucasus, who study its different areas and historical periods, about the region’s evolving importance in the Ottoman world and its place within the broader Ottoman and Middle Eastern historiography. Furthermore, the study of the Caucasus has often been relegated to Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies because of the region’s Soviet and post-Soviet legacy. This panel reasserts the region’s place within Middle Eastern studies, extending the conversation on the Ottoman heritage in the region and the region’s impact on the Ottoman Empire.
  • This paper examines the migration of North Caucasian Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, focusing on the geography of refugee resettlement and Ottoman objectives in providing refuge for foreign Muslims. Between the 1850s and World War I, about a million North Caucasian refugees arrived in the Ottoman Empire. Many of them, especially western Circassians, were survivors of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Russian army during the Caucasus War of 1817–64. Others, especially Chechens, Kabardians, Ossetians, and Dagestanis, were pushed out during Russia’s civil reforms after 1864. The Ottoman government pursued an open-door policy for Muslim refugees and resettled North Caucasians throughout the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Levant. In this paper, I argue that the Ottoman government had three major objectives in resettling North Caucasians. The first one was economic. North Caucasians were resettled almost exclusively in the countryside. The government expected refugees to cultivate wheat, barley, and corn, export their agricultural surplus, and become tax-paying subjects. The second objective was to bring nomadic territories under state control. The settlement of refugees necessitated surveying the land, building roads, and bringing state officials and tax collectors into the empire’s remote provinces. The Ottoman government readily used refugees as settlers to extend Ottoman sovereignty in its far-flung provinces. The third objective was sectarian. After the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–78, the Ottoman government settled many refugees in provinces with large non-Muslim populations. By changing demographic ratios in favor of Muslims, the Hamidian government sought to prevent territorial losses and to counter any future claims by national movements. The geography of North Caucasian resettlement reflected the government’s objectives and the manner of refugees’ arrival. In the 1860s, refugees arriving by sea, mostly western Circassians, settled in the northern Balkans and northern and western Anatolia, as the government could expeditiously move refugees there from port cities. Refugees arriving by land, including Kabardians and Chechens, settled primarily on the nomadic frontier in central Anatolia and Syria. After 1878, the government directed North Caucasians fleeing the Balkans to Ottoman ports in western Anatolia, Lebanon, and Palestine, and from there to settlements in central Anatolia and the interior of Syria and Transjordan. This paper is based on years of archival research in Turkey, Jordan, and Bulgaria and provides a structured model of late Ottoman refugee resettlement. It further demonstrates how the Caucasus was “mapped onto” the modern Middle East through the process of refugee migration.
  • This study attempts to unveil the long-term practice of the slave trade at the Russian-Ottoman borderland in the Caucasus in the first half of the nineteenth century. The spatial limit of this study extends from the eastern Black Sea shores under the control of the Ottoman Empire, namely Kobuleti and Adjara, to the southwestern part of the Caucasus Viceroyalty of the Russian Empire, formerly the kingdom of Imeretia. As the period in question witnessed the expansion of the Russian Empire in Transcaucasus and further attempts for centralization of the Ottoman Empire, the slave trade and body-trafficking which were active since the early eighteenth century and targeting the Ottoman market became under governmental scrutiny starting from the 1820s, especially on behalf of the Russian Empire. Despite the fact that the Russian government succeeded to limit body-trafficking through the border to a certain extent, the slave trade from the western regions of Transcaucasus continued well into the 1850s. Within this context, this study aims at uncovering the social origins of slave dealers and their political roles in this trans-imperial setting. Whereas the Ottoman slave dealers appeared to be the raiders and plunderers in the Russian sources of the period, they were not alone in this transaction. Their noble counterparts in the Russian side of the border actively participated in this trade by selling their serfs to Ottoman buyers until very late in the nineteenth century. The slave trade in the Western Caucasus could not be controlled entirely by the Russian officers since the same nobles were also the target clients of the Russian imperial project in the Caucasus. The Ottoman slave trade network, on the other hand, provided Ottoman borderland notables with career opportunities on an empire-wide basis and further political influence within their respective areas. While the slave trade was by no means compatible with the Russian imperial visions regarding the Caucasus, the Ottomans, although publicly denounced the slave trade as a result of international pressure, did not categorically exclude this practice from their imperial agenda. Focusing on the importance of the slave trade for the integration of local notables into the Russian and Ottoman imperial policies, this study seeks to understand the mutual relationship of borderland notables from the both sides vis-à-vis the process of empire-making in the Caucasus
  • Murat Yasar
    “16th-century Ottoman Territory- and Subject-Making Strategies in the Northwestern Caucasus” This paper will examine the objectives and ambitions of the Ottoman Porte in its dealings with the Adyghe people and principalities of the Northwestern Caucasus, from the Taman Peninsula to the central (Kabarda) section of the region, in the 16th century. The Ottoman Porte’s approach to the Adyghe people living in western section of the North Caucasus went through several transformations in the 16th century due to a complex set of reasons. This paper will analyze the reasons for these transformations and how these changes in Ottoman borderland strategies affected the perception of the region by the decision makers in Istanbul. While explaining this, the paper will also try to shed light on how the internal decision-making mechanism of the Porte worked when it came to foreign policy priorities in the 16th century. Additionally, the present paper will look into the issues of slavery, trade, vassalage, and the role of the Crimean Khanate in northern policy of the Ottoman Empire, presenting the fuller picture of the Northwestern Caucasus in the Ottoman imperial system. This paper draws from both Ottoman and Russian primary sources, mostly relying on the Ottoman registers of important affairs and Russian ambassadorial records, as well as Ottoman and Muscovite chronicles.
  • Ecem Saricayir
    Following the last Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78, the Russian Empire annexed the ethnically heterogeneous border regions of Kars, Ardahan (today Turkey), and Batum (today Batumi, Georgia) in the Ottoman Empire as war reparations. Ottoman subjects in these locations were permitted to sell their immovable property and immigrate to the Ottoman Empire within three years. This paper traces the spatial development of Kars and Batum after their annexation and in relation to land systems and property rights. Although rarely studied, this territorial shift magnified issues around land, property, and in both the Ottoman and Russian Empires. The Russian administration initially kept the Ottoman land system intact after annexing these territories. However, urban and rural development were urgent in both Kars and Batumi. In this paper, I investigate the work done by the Russian administration’s land commissions to understand, translate, and navigate the Ottoman land regulations in these border towns. Moreover, I examine how the remaining Ottoman subjects in the newly annexed Russian territories further complicated the Russian imperial plans by remaining in place or through land speculation. As such, I argue that these former Ottoman subjects postponed and limited the Russian settlement projects in these previously Ottoman territories. To trace the spatial developments and resistances to them in the South Caucasus borders, I utilize primary sources in Russian, such as newspapers, essays, and annual reports, as well as visual materials such as maps, drawings, and postcards. In doing so, this paper aims to contribute to the scholarship through a study of the built environment of the Caucasus.