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Sovereign Bodies From the Balkans to Bengal

Panel VII-6, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Once dismissed as bastions of an outdated “great man theory of history,” kingship and court studies have returned to the forefront of the scholarly agenda with renewed force. It is now increasingly recognized—perhaps in light of recent events in global geopolitics from the rise of Donald Trump to the recent death of the longest-reigning British monarch—that kingship and other non-democratic, non-liberal articulations of sovereignty have been the norm throughout much of human history. Moreover, these forms of sovereignty and their workings are never purely the “elite” concerns of a privileged few, but are rather deeply implicated in the social, political, religious, and intellectual lives of the human and non-human communities they seek to govern. But how to get at the abundant and multifarious nature of the relationships between sovereigns and subjects? How can we render that which is now widely seen as inherently “elite” and “out of touch” as a window onto the mentalities, societies, and logics of pre-modern audiences so far removed from our time? One answer to this quandary can be found in “embodied” approaches to the performance of sovereignty. Indeed, recent scholarship on the nature of monarchical sovereignty evinces a renewed focus on the physical bodies of rulers—either imagined as symbols of extrahuman import or as literal bodies moving through space—and the extent to which they have been central to the practice of historical monarchy. While courtly discourses, knowledges, and cultural production were typically the preserve of a small, highly initiated inner cohort, rulers’ bodies, by virtue of their legibility to human minds, were often visible to wider segments of subject populations, either through the projection of their form through curated image or metaphor, or the actual progress of court societies “out-of-doors” and amidst the habitations of their subjects. The papers that compose this panel employ the concept of embodiment to take Islamic rulership out of its ossified position at the head of an abstract "circle of justice" and restore it to its central place in the social, religious, political, and intellectual history of the Islamicate world.
Art/Art History
Religious Studies/Theology
  • The current historiographic consensus on the nature of the Ottoman dynastic institution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries holds that emperors of the period typically “reigned but did not rule,” and that many had little if any direct contact with their subjects outside of sedentary palace structures. While future research on the subject may continue to confirm the validity of this “figurehead thesis” with respect to the realm of politics and everyday administration, the bases of this debate tend to overlook the multitude of ways in which all sultanic regimes of the period engaged with the human and non-human inhabitants of the municipalities in which Ottoman court societies resided. To share a city, neighbourhood, town, village, forest, plain, roadway, waterscape, or other habitation with the court was thus to cohabit with a biodiverse, mobile, and highly populous collective whose conspicuous presence in Ottoman locales could significantly influence municipal life by virtue of its demography, wealth, hunger, violence, and distribution of privilege, among other forms of influence. Recent social historical scholarship has ably demonstrated the close relationship between the dynasty’s public celebration of its “life cycle” (imperial births, circumcisions, and deaths) and the human population of Istanbul, who were incited to engage in these events as audience-participants. However, the dynasty did not always mark its biological milestones with heavily orchestrated fêtes of this kind, but rather with more impromptu protocols which could nevertheless substantially affect life in their broader municipal surroundings for the local humans and animals caught within their ambit. Based on an analysis of texts penned by both Ottoman and foreign observers of courtly-municipal interactions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this paper argues that Ottoman court societies of the era enacted measures to accommodate dynastic biological factors such as the needs of dynastic women pregnant with heirs to the throne, or the sudden deaths of regnant emperors outside of Istanbul in ways that could restrict or enable the mobility of local denizens, alter the physical environment of a municipality, create novel labour conditions, or necessitate forms of multi-species migration between locales. As Ottoman courts of the empire’s middle centuries were not strictly Istanbuline “creatures,” spending time in towns, cities, and villages throughout much of southeastern Europe, there is cause to historicize these practices as responses to biological exigencies related to the dynasty’s “life cycle,” but which also functioned as factors in this region’s social histories of monarchy.
  • What makes a sovereign, and a messianic one at that? Whilst much of the scholarship on Ottoman sacred kingship might argue that the answer lies in normative treatises on government and chronicles of history penned by scholar-bureaucrats at court, there is also growing appreciation--mostly outside of the field of Ottoman Studies--that the key to the decipherment of divine kingship as a genre lies in the embodied enactment and performance of it. In other words, kings had recourse to an array of ritual-symbolic tools via which they could render themselves and their bodies sacred, cosmic, or divine. These were the building blocks of a scaffold that gave structure, shape, and strength to virtually all early modern articulations of sovereignty from the Balkans to Bengal. In order to demonstrate the productive potential of this problématique, this paper will narrow in on one of the most spectacular festivals of the early modern era: the circumcision festival held by Sultan Murad III for his son and eventual successor prince Mehmed in 1582. Held amidst heightened awareness of the onset of the Islamic Millennium (c. 1591-92), the festival has been interpreted by Ottoman scholars in a plethora of ways: as a source of dynastic legitimation at court, an avenue of leisurely diversion for the populace, and a diplomatic coup de theatre in front of foreign audiences. While all are valid, these interpretations relegate the sacred to the periphery and push the imperatives of sacred kingship and its occultist repertoires out of view. Focusing on a few key pyrotechnical performances that were described by one Ottoman observer as wondrous magic, and which involved the thaumaturgical presence of the sultan’s body, this paper will demonstrate that the demonstration of messianic and sacred kingship--that most extreme and radical type of sovereignty--was enacted via the elemental and mysterious medium of fire.
  • In death as much as in life, members of the House of Osman, and the sultans in particular, enjoyed rare privileges that marked the distinguished status of their persons. It is well known that the bodies of sultans and princes who died outside the Ottoman capital were transported back there for interment, directly contravening the Islamic principle of swift local burial. Such special treatment was afforded also to the sultans’ garments, which, as the material and visual manifestation of the sovereign’s body, became almost literal extensions of it, carefully preserved in the palace treasury. This paper will explore the sartorial dimensions of Ottoman embodied kingship, and especially how costume served to perpetuate the sultan’s aura post-mortem. A conspicuous emblem of Muslim identity and rule, the turban took on a correspondingly prominent role in the sultan’s memorialization, not only through its display during the funeral procession, but also—and more abidingly—through its placement at the head of his cenotaph for the benefit of visitors to his tomb. So strong was this symbolic charge that it endured even after the turban itself decayed to the point of needing to be replaced, each new iteration taking on the bodily associations of the original. These posthumous customs will be considered in relation to the various ceremonial and iconographic practices that preceded them during the sultan’s reign, as when he would appear already turbaned alongside additional royal headdresses that redoubled his kingly image. While focusing on the figure of the sovereign, the paper will also address related traditions in the non-royal sphere, in particular the marking of Ottoman men’s graves with tombstones sculpted to imitate the headgear they had worn in life. The superficial resemblance between these fictive turbans—lifelike in appearance but carved of lifeless stone—and the actual turbans surmounting the sultans’ cenotaphs only emphasized the distinctness of the latter, which, by materially invoking the sovereign’s own body, kept alive its auspicious presence.
  • After the First World War ended in Ottoman defeat, Indians of diverse religious and political backgrounds lobbied British authorities not to terminate the position of the Ottoman caliph. Scholars have typically—and not incorrectly—regarded the so-called Khilafat Movement as an attempt to appropriate a geopolitical crisis to forward domestic goals, namely, a renegotiation of the power assigned to Indian subjects within the British Empire. What has not been addressed is the extent to which the movement also reflected a contemporary current in Indian notions of sovereignty, within which abstract conceptions of nationhood found expression in the bodies of royal figures, whether historical Indian monarchs like Shivaji, Akbar, and Ranjit Singh, or contemporary British royals like Victoria, Edward VII, and George V. These embodied notions of sovereignty were fueled by expanding and intersecting networks of print culture, bazaar art, and popular cinema, which standardized representations of royal figures and enhanced the ability of everyday Indians to consume them. But in this visual arena, the Ottoman caliph is curiously difficult to locate: despite the centrality of Mehmed VI (r. 1918–22) and, later, Abdülmecid II (r. 1922–24) in Khilafat discourse, images of either are rare in the Indian public sphere. While this stems in part from the state’s occasional proscription of Khilafat materials, it also points to the distinct role that the caliph was assigned within an emerging constellation of royal icons. If images of British and historical Indian monarchs served to offset their subjects’ perceived distance—whether temporal or geographic—then the tendency to leave the Ottoman caliph unrepresented suggests an embrace of his remoteness. Rendered distant, undefined, and usually even unnamed, the nonetheless omnipresent figure emerges as a pliable and capacious symbol through which to tie together multiple understandings of Islamic history and Indian nationalism. This paper seeks to unlock the ways in which the indeterminate figure of the Ottoman caliph emerged within, and contributed to, a broader tendency to specify and visualize royal figures in late colonial India. It also uncovers, as a corollary, how the Ottoman line maintained its allure among many Indians even after its abolishment in 1924, as evidenced by their interest in the Ottoman Empire’s early modern history and the public attention they afforded to the future Nizam of Hyderabad, Mukarram Jah (1933–2023), who, as the grandson of Abdülmecid, gave the Ottoman legacy a fully embodied—and distinctly Indian—form.