Late Ottoman Communities: Between Intellectualism and Political Action
Panel IX-06, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm
This panel examines cases of nascent political thought, organization, and action amongst late Ottoman minority communities, while problematizing the fraught notion of 'minority' in the late Empire. The papers comprising the panel attend to the experiences of Muslim Cretan, Greek, Armenian and Jewish Ottomans, and are driven by a shared scholarly focus on the dialectical relationship between intellectual discourse and political activism. In comparatively examining the discursive output and the inter- and intra-communal activism arising from within these late Ottoman communities, the contributors seek to work towards a framework emphasizing communal as well as individual agency and dynamism across ethno-religious and linguistic divides: The contribution on Ottoman Armenian history examines the interlinking of ongoing debates, communal activism, and institutional change that led to the dramatic reconfiguration of that community’s structure and identity in the late 19th century. The paper on Ottoman Greek history draws on reception theory to examine representations of the Ottoman ancien régime in the work of late Ottoman Greek writers as a “classical past” usable in the creation and advancement of a distinctly Rum formulation of political Ottomanism. The study on Crete’s displaced Muslim community, navigating a multilingual discursive framework and drawing on work in sensory history, elucidates that community’s struggle not only towards self-emancipation but also for a leading role in late Ottoman mass protest movements. The paper focusing on the Ottoman Jewish experience studies Edirne between the Young Turk Revolution and the Balkan Wars, examining the disruption, in this period, of power dynamics within the local Jewish community and the new debates about the place of Jews in a constitutional monarchy. In focusing on 'minority' agents as leaders and changemakers within their respective communities and across the Empire, we propose a panel that centers alterity -and grassroots intellectual, cultural, political change that stem from it- as a rich scholarly lode of understanding the late Ottoman experience.
The literature on Ottoman history-writing carries a marked focus on Muslim Ottoman historians’ narratives, perceptions, and debates on Ottoman history. My proposed paper examines non-Muslim -and, in the final two decades of the Empire’s lifespan, increasingly “minority”- visions of the imperial long duree as constructed in the early 20th century by a number of Greek Ottoman writers and historians. What visions of the political and ethical nature of the early and “classical” Empire were formulated by Rum commentators, and how did that perceived Ottoman geist evolve over the imperial long durée? Why -in the Rum scholars' own words- did distant Ottoman history matter? In what ways were narratives of that usable 'classical' past bore the imprint of competing Rum visions of political Ottomanism, and, in turn, how did they seek to define post-1908 Ottoman Greek political activism and identity? How did modern anxieties about communal rights, assimilation, and integration in the Second Constitutional Period interact with Greek Ottoman efforts to create a usable or superannuated imperial past? What narratological strategies did academic and popular Rum histories of the Ottoman Empire utilize to dialectically reconcile competing commitments to the valors of Ottoman and Byzantine imperial pasts, Orientalist European historiography, a “local,” Ottoman identity, and a growing affinity with the Helladic state? Ultimately, drawing from theoretical work in reception studies, I elucidate and contextualize the possible cultural, political, and intellectual meanings of a classical Ottoman legacy for Rum intellectuals and activists of the 1910s and 1920s. Works discussed include Prof. Pavlos Karolidis’ Logoi kai Ipomnimata, (“Discourses and Memoranda”), Archbishop Ambrosios’ Istoria tou Tourkikou Kratous, (“The History of the Turkish State”), Emmanouil Emmanouilidis’ Ta teleftaia eti tou Othomanikou Aftokratoriou (“The Final Years of the Ottoman State”), Mentzos and Kyriazes’ Ta Mysteria Tou Soultan Xamit tou B (“The Mysteries of Sultan Hamid the Second”), A. Kavafakis’ I Istoria tou Valkanikou Polemou (The History of the Balkan Wars) -- all studies in Ottoman history compiled by Rum authors in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, blossoming constitutional movements in the Middle East drew participants from different ethno-religious (Tunisia and Mount Lebanon, Jews, Armenians, Iranians and Greeks), cultural, and ideological backgrounds. These individuals relied on debate and interaction with one another to form coherence out of movements from a range of disparate views. This paper explores these two concepts, constitutional reform and the politics of communal organization and administration among Ottoman-Armenians by contextualizing the Armenian National Constitution of 1863 as an element within the wider framework of Ottoman social, religious and educational reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tracing the development and the ways in which communal institutions functioned in the center as well as in the provinces, this paper discusses the processes of solidification of communal boundaries and the rigidification of religious identities during a period of major imperial reorganization and social reshuffling. By focusing on various cases from the capital and the provinces, I examine how (and to what extent) constitutionalism was practiced on the micro-community level, and what were the debates and challenges that it generated. Zooming on the social processes that were taking place among the Ottoman-Armenian community, this research traces the emergence and fall of the Constitutional Order (by the mid-century) among these Ottoman subjects and its gradual replacement with a Radical Order, a new communal configuration marked by the rise of revolutionary and radical politics.
This paper examines a variety of roles performed by Cretan refugees in mass protests that enveloped the Ottoman Empire between 1908 and 1911, a movement inspired by a multi-state political crisis over the status of Crete. I argue that Cretan Muslim refugees became the driving force of this empire-wide grassroots movement, which comprised scores of popular rallies and an economic boycott of Greece. With close attention to the senses of sight and hearing in the Ottoman protest-scape, my paper seeks to explore a lesser-known displaced community in the late empire through the lens of sensory history. Overall, I propose a refugee/émigré-centered perspective to contribute to the emancipation of the history of displaced people from an emphasis on resettlement and humanitarianism. Thus, I seek to show not how the state helped Cretan refugees, but rather how an émigré community helped build a mass movement of popular protest during the empire’s final years. By underscoring distinct yet complementary roles played by Cretan Muslims of diverse social classes, I seek to disaggregate around an eighty thousand strong refugee/émigré community in terms of its involvement in the protest movement. I do this by juxtaposing the activities of a tight-knit community of Cretan intellectuals with that of Cretan boycotters and protestors who left a legacy not through printed words but deeds in the streets.
After the period 1878-1885, when Bulgaria’s de facto southern border was drawn through Edirne’s backyard, this storied Ottoman city came to be regarded by contemporaries as peripheral and past its prime. But in 1908, the Young Turk Revolution brought new energy to Edirne and its Jewish community. New freedoms of the press and association disrupted power dynamics within the Jewish community and created a public sphere where leaders and intellectuals from the various religious communities could converse. Also in 1908, Bulgaria’s official declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire gave new meaning to the border and prompted Jewish writers in Edirne to think hard about what Jews in both countries owed to their respective states and to fellow Ladino-speakers—who were often family members—living just beyond the boundary line.
Using Ladino newspapers, Ottoman government documents, and French-language letters penned by directors of Jewish schools (among other sources), this paper argues that the confluence of these two events—plus a Jewish population boom—brought political energy to an all-time high in Edirne’s Jewish community. Jews who heeded the new government’s call for integration across religious lines sometimes clashed with those who gravitated toward Zionism, a movement that gained popularity among Ottoman Jews after the Young Turk Revolution. But for reasons related to its history and location, the Jews of Edirne were especially drawn to a middle path, a politics of decentralization that sought to preserve Jewish autonomy while promoting civic virtues vis-à-vis the constitutional state and the local Christian and Muslim communities. Leaders of this camp tended to be savvy upstarts who were fluent in the Young Turk discourse of democracy, liberalism, and integration, even as they championed a form of Jewish politics that was unapologetic in its defense of communal interests.
Not only does this paper fill a gap in the scholarship on Ottoman Jews—a historiography that overwhelmingly focuses on port cities at the expense of inland centers such as Edirne—it also helps us understand the processes by which twentieth-century borders were created and the ways in which the latter shaped Jewish life in late-imperial borderlands.