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Being an Ottoman in the Early Modern Era

Session XI-04, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel studies the diversity of so-called Ottoman identities between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. This historical study brings together a range of rich primary sources such as the fifteenth-century self-narrative of an Ottoman captive in the form of a petition, the seventeenth century texts of prominent Ottoman geographers whose personal identities were closely entangled with the imperial vision, and finally the seventeenth century textual representation of Captives-turned-Ottomans in their own writings. The first paper presents a rare fifteenth-century captivity narrative produced in the context of Muslim imperial encounters. While captivity narratives have been generally considered as the products of ideologically oppositional worlds (Muslim vs. Christian; civilized vs. savage, etc.), this text provides us with an opportunity to think about the issues of identity and loyalty in the context of Ottoman and Mamluk rivalry. The second paper discusses the issue of identity formation from the angle of Captives-turned-Ottomans who seemed to exist comfortably in both their Muslim and Christian spaces in the seventeenth century. The third paper focuses on the cartographic works of two seventeenth-century Ottoman geographers and argues that their intellectual command of the traditional and contemporaneous works of cartography impacted how the Ottoman geographers and their readers envisioned their empire and constructed their imperial and personal identities. Thus, this panel sheds light to the complex identities of these individuals who contribute to the Ottoman society with their different backgrounds and diverse allegiances. Thus, providing close readings of these primary sources, the panel aims to contribute to the historiographical debate of the early modernity in the Ottoman studies, in particular to the questions surrounding early modern identity formation, as well as emphasizing the uniqueness of these individual cases.
  • This paper presents the earliest known fifteenth-century account of a Muslim taken captive by other Muslims. The document was sent from the Mamluk imperial capital Cairo and composed by an anonymous Ottoman officer who was captured after a disastrous Ottoman loss in February or March 1486 during the Ottoman-Mamluk war between 1485-1491. Catalogued as a petition in the Ottoman archives, the letter combines the characteristics of captivity narrative and advice literature. Captivity narratives have long been recognized for their central importance in early modern European historiography. Whereas the vast majority of texts considered by the broader field of captivity studies were produced by captives imprisoned by their religious adversaries, this document invites us to consider the intricacies of narratives produced by captives held by their Muslim co-religionists. More specifically in Ottoman studies, most available captivity narratives and research concern Christian European-Muslim Ottoman cases. The number of Muslim-to-Muslim captivity retellings are likely to increase with rising scholarly interest in sources that have been primarily overlooked so far such as letters. Produced through the lens of a once notable Ottoman officer, this text reveals how an Ottoman subject, who for a moment lived at the interstices of the two Muslim empires, chooses to present his allegiances and affiliations that he had once cultivated with the prominent individuals in the Mamluk lands. A close reading of this text reveals that his networks played an integral role in the formation of his identity and self-presentation. As illustrated by previous studies, similar networks within the Muslim world were ubiquitous and they fostered the sense of belonging to a greater community. Nonetheless, demonstrating loyalty to the Ottoman polity over religion seem essential for this captive to secure his redemption from captivity, and he achieved this task by proving his usefulness to his sovereign through advice and intelligence. Thus, this account first speaks to the complexity of entangled, yet competing, Ottoman-Mamluk encounters, and secondly, it enriches our current understanding of captivity narratives as texts illustrating the dichotomies between identities that were considered ideologically oppositional.
  • In the early modern period, maps held ideological and symbolic meanings to empower their users and readers to order and envision the world, to construct their territories, and to shape their identities both imperial and personal. ‘Ottoman Empire,’ for example, was a cartographic construction and so was being an Ottoman. This paper aims to investigate the close relationship between geographical works and articulation of multiple facets of Ottoman identity in the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire. The end of the sixteenth century saw a radical transformation in the character and use of maps. After Ptolemy’s Geography was translated into Latin in the early fifteenth century, humanist scholars in Europe were exposed to a set of new techniques. Ptolemy’s works introduced a geometric approach to the depiction of space that was defined by the celestial grid of longitude and latitude. In the same period, innovations in printing and the expansion of a commercial market increased circulation as maps found a new audience, literate urbanites. Commercial map-printing houses of Italy and the Netherlands contributed to the standardization of maps used and distributed across Europe. Mapping in this period shaped how cartographers, urban literati, and ruling elites conceived space, political power, and identities. Although this development impacted the Ottoman world, the Ottoman cartographers and their works have not yet fully been integrated into these discussions. This paper will investigate how the Ottoman geographers formulated and shaped the imperial as well as personal meanings of how to be an Ottoman in the seventeenth century through a historical analysis of cartographical works by Katip Çelebi (d. 1657) and Ebu Bekir ibn Behram ed-Dimashki (d. 1691). Both these geographers were active members of the intellectual community in the imperial capital and had close connections to the global networks of knowledge and politics. On the one hand, they were in command of the traditional works of cartography that were popular especially among the ruling circles. On the other hand they were in constant search for contemporaneous and more “accurate” cartographical information to please and at the same time educate their readers. This paper will argue that their dual intellectual stance between old and new, traditional and contemporaneous were reflected in their works and how they envisioned the world, the Ottoman Empire, and what it meant to be an Ottoman.
  • Many a member of the ruling class in the early modern Ottoman Empire was a Christian born Muslim. After being enslaved either as captives from outside the borders of the empire or as “collected boys” (devşirme oğlanları) from among the Christian communities in Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, these royal servants had to convert to Islam. We do not know much about their relationship with their religious identity (or identities) as they did not leave behind much written material to shed light on this question. Two early modern East European captive-turned-Ottomans, Albertus Bobovius/Ali Ufki and İbrahim Müteferrika, and their writings on topics that touch upon religion present us with a somewhat rare opportunity to discuss this question, as well as the way in which this question has been approached by scholars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Using some previously neglected evidence among their writings, this paper argues that contrary to the arguments of their modern scholarly interpreters, early modern captive-turned-Ottomans were neither attracted to Islam even before they were captured nor kept longing for an opportunity to return to Christendom to experience their original religion freely. Albertus Bobovius/Ali Ufki continued his engagement with Christianity both as a composer of Christian spiritual music and a translator of Christian holy texts. Yet he also composed Muslim spiritual music and displayed in his writings a very engaged attitude toward Islam as well. As for İbrahim Müteferrika, his Treatise on Islam (Risale-i İslamiye, 1710) is very far from documenting his rational attraction to Islam. It is instead a text that is trying to boost the morale of its Muslim readers in the aftermath of the disastrous Treaty of Karlowitz (1699). As suggested by various pieces of contemporary evidence, both Albertus Bobovius/Ali Ufki and İbrahim Müteferrika seem to have been able to feel at home both within their Christian and Muslim circles. The findings of this paper suggests that their modern interpreters could simply not imagine the possibility of the kind of ease with which these early modern Ottomans could cross different religious registers and feel equally at home in whichever one they found themselves in. This is likely the result of the impact of colonialism/Orientalism and nationalism on the modern understanding of religious identity.