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Revisionist Ottoman History: Discoveries in the Archives and Beyond

Session XII-05, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The Ottoman captain Hüsam Reis, whose son became Grand Admiral, never appears in Ottoman narrative sources, but his activities are detailed in the Registers of Important Affairs. Chronicles describe the Ottomans’ conquest of Azerbzijan, but archival documents show what they did with the conquered land and its revenues. For those who specialize in Ottoman history, a variety of sources exist ranging from narrative histories, mirrors for princes, to a plethora of types of documents produced by the state and other institutions. Ideally, historians consult sources of multiple genres by which analysis they may create the most accurate picture of an Ottoman past. Sometimes one finds sources from multiple genres, however often particular topics rely on a specialized range of sources, and currently those sources are likely to be narrative. Many groups in Ottoman society and many topics modern historians deem essential to a full understanding of the empire are absent from the narrative sources, but that does not mean there are no sources. A wide variety of archival sources is available to supplement the narrative and literary sources that have been so popular in recent years and to illuminate aspects of Ottoman history that the narrative sources neglect. Each participant on the panel reflects especially on the variety of archival sources that have been essential for understanding a topic of interest, which might be studied very incompletely from narrative sources, if at all. These sources range in time from the mid 16th century until the final years of the empire in the early 20th century. In genre, they range from petitions and investigative reports in criminal cases, petitions and orders from the government relating to technological changes, surveys of newly conquered territories in the borderlands with the Safavids, siyakat records of salaries and revenue awards produced by the financial sector of the state to study the social history of military groups, and Muhimme defter orders from the divan to various individuals to study captains of the fleet. What the approaches of all the authors share methodologically are attempts to record the experiences of individuals and groups who have often been ignored or seen solely through the perspective of literary elites, with the aim to bring deeper and broader understanding of this diverse empire through broadening the source base.
  • The Ottoman navy has attracted less historical analysis than many other aspects of Ottoman military history, which may be attributed to the lack of narrative sources that focus primarily on the naval forces of the empire. However, archival documents can be used to remedy this deficiency. To demonstrate this, an outstanding exception, Tuhfetu’l-kibar fi Esfari’l-Bihar, by Katib Çelebi, d. 1657, which covers naval history in the Ottoman Empire from 1453 during the reign of Mehmed II until 1656, the year before his death will be compared with the Muhimme Registers. This narrative source is rich in covering many aspects of Ottoman naval forces including battles and information concerning outstanding admirals. However, Katib Celebi’s account is merely the tip of the iceberg, failing to present a more complete picture of the role of the Ottoman navy in the everyday life of the empire. A variety of sources exist to explore other aspects of the navy, such as financial records used by Idris Bostan in Osmanlı bahriye teşkilatı. Beyond sources devoted primarily to naval forces, the Mühimme Registers of the Ottoman Empire provide a wealth of information relating to the navy, which might rate the merest passing mention in Katib Çelebi, or be passed over in total silence. For the reign of Süleyman, some examples exist, which will be analyzed in this paper, by comparing and constrasting the information provided by Katib Çelebi with a sampling of documents from the registers. These include the events of 1551, recorded in one of the earliest surviving registers. Looking at a percentage of documents included in the first half of this register, fully 10 percent relate to naval matters. In Katib Çelebi, information on naval events in this year required less than one folio page. Another example from the reign of Suleyman concerns the year 1560, when Katib Çelebi gives a brief account of Admiral Piyale Pasha’s victory at Djerba, but includes nothing about defense against piracy or defending Azak an Ottoman port on the Black Sea from attacks instigated by Russia. This paper argues that without using Ottoman documents, a very partial history of the empire is produced. While many different types of documents are in existence this paper will argue the value of the Mühimme registers for specifically studying Ottoman history as they place naval affairs in a larger imperial context.
  • Archival sources have been disdained in recent decades, but they provide insight into topics not covered and people left undescribed in narrative sources. Ottoman state servants such as Janissaries and timar-holders appear in narrative sources as undifferentiated groups, and scholarship has generally followed the same path, although we know that is inaccurate. Consequently, sudden shifts in their behavior, such as when the Janissaries started interfering in politics, remain somewhat inexplicable. Narrative sources, and particularly advice works, a genre that flourished during the period 1580-1650, are often accepted at face value with no control or critique. Archival sources, however, allow us to disaggregate groups in Ottoman society with the purpose of identifying internal differences and tensions within such groups and changes in their aims and aspirations. Court registers, for example, are used with great success to research women, slaves, and other groups that appear infrequently in narrative sources. This paper explores some archival sources that tell us about the recruitment of men for state service. Writers of advice literature attributed problems with groups of state servants, especially the military groups, to their nontraditional recruitment patterns. For military groups, archival sources allow us to analyze their recruitment processes in great detail. Registers of timar holdings (icmal defterleri) list all timar-holders in a particular area; their names, their patronymics, and their titles reveal their social origins. Salary registers of Janissaries list the names of all individuals receiving Janissary salaries, with either their place of origin or a patronymic or pseudo-patronymic. I categorize the information on origins in these registers to distinguish traditional from nontraditional recruitment sources. Simple arithmetical methods are used to determine the proportion of timar-holders or Janissaries falling into each category. These percentages are tracked from approximately 1550 to 1650 (depending on document survival) to reveal changes in recruitment and group composition over time. Comparison between the advice literature’s statements and the quantitative and qualitative data obtained from the archival documents permits a critique of the advice literature as well as stereotypes in the scholarship, and encourages an exploration of the changing social and political history of the Ottoman military forces. What this paper reveals is that even the most unpromising archival documents, such as lists of names and salaries, can be of service in discovering information about, and explaining the behavior of, groups not mentioned or insufficiently discussed in the narrative sources
  • This presentation focuses on the varied sources related to Criminal Justice in the Ottoman Empire, particularly petitions, investigative reports, interrogation reports, statistical surveys, memoirs, travel literature, and popular accounts of prison conditions and experiences from a variety of perspectives. While very limited sources remain from non-political prisoners, primarily due to a lack of literacy and preservation of the average prisoners’ experiences, it is possible to recapture echoes of their experiences by utilizing the approach of what Donald Quataert called “history from below” and by reading the archival documents against the grain. Additionally, by coupling “official” archival documentation with popular press, traveler accounts, photographs, contemporary sociological surveys, and political prisoner accounts it is possible to recapture the voices of the subaltern within the prisons themselves. My presentation discusses the pitfalls, limitations, and possibilities of these various official and non-official sources related to crime and punishment within the late Ottoman Empire and what insights they might offer to broader trends and issues in late Ottoman politics, society, administration, and public opinion regarding crime and punishment, and their intersections with changing cultural sensibilities during this period.
  • Bordering and Surveying the Borderland: Azerbaijan under Ottoman Rule Ottoman centralization policies in the post- conquest era often involved surveying the borderland and recording populations, sources of revenue as well as bordering urban geographies and rural landscapes. My paper based on the rich paper trail and documentation of two periods of Ottoman administration of Azerbaijan ( 1585 & 1725)an important borderland between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires will focus on the Ottoman methods of bordering and administration as well as the importance of Ottoman defters for the study of rural and urban landscapes. How did Ottoman surveyors survey such a vast territory ( entire western Iran including Azerbaijan) at a time when their empire was in the process of ‘decline?’ What was the Ottoman grand strategy in the east after the collapse of theSafavid empire in 1725 and what can we learn from the Ottoman correspondence with governors in Azerbaijan and the eastern border towns ( Erzurum) about it ( Muhimme registers)? In other words, how did Ottoman concept of empire and its administration of eastern Borderlands change and evolve from based on a study of Ottoman archival records? At the end I will offer some documents from the Safavid archives.