Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review (#48 of 2014) The Cambridge History of Turkey vol. I Byzantium to Turkey 1071-1453

The Cambridge History of Turkey (Volume 1)
This is among the most academic historical works I have ever read; it was extremely informative. The depth of information drawn from sources in multiple languages is quite impressive. That said, it was a definite endeavor to read this book in its entirety. Each chapter is an essay by a different contributor focusing on a different aspect of Turkish history from 1071 to 1453 A.D. I have three more volumes to get through!

This book covers the period when nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppes first began to propagate into Anatolia. The Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans, and Turkoman histories are chronicled. Their political and economic systems are detailed, along with the development of religious thought and literature. Many people forget that the Mongols also conquered territory and subjugated the Seljuks, and had a major influence in Anatolian development. The book actually begins by looking at the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Turks from the point of view of Rome and Constantinople. 

There is quite a bit of tedium in the detail, particularly in the chronology of rulers from Constaninople and the succession of power during the Mongol-dominated years. The most interesting and easy-to-read essay is the last one, "Social, cultural and intellectual life, 1071-1463" by Ahmet Ya┼čar Ocak of Hacettepe University in Ankara. It covers much of the cultural and religious life of the period, exploring in depth the interaction of both native cultures, Christian cultures-- both Orthodox and heterodox, those held by Romans and those held by others who had adopted the faith. I also enjoyed Dr. Kate Fleet's chapter on the Turkish economy.

Many people, and a recent Turkish movie, emphasize 1453-- the fall of Constantinople -- as a huge surprise that shocked the world. History is clear, however, that the fall of Constantinople was just the end of a culmination of hundreds of years of history. The Byzantine Empire had already fallen, Turks had already conquered areas in the Balkans and claimed formerly Greek territories. They had both fought alongside the Byzantines, hired them for military service, and fought against them. Christians of all stripes all over Anatolia no longer looked to Constantinople as a protector or relevant long before 1453-- the Turks had taken over that role long ago.

"The defeat of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Malazgirt (Manzikert) in 1071 ushered in a period of (Roman/Byzantine) military decline, which, despite its fluctuations, culminated with the capture of Constantinople in 1453. "

The Western empire was already divided both politically and religiously. Constantinople competed for territory, the open sea, and economic influence among the Slavs, the Turks, the Venetians, other Italians, and others in Western Europe. In 1204, Constantinople was brutally plundered by Christian crusaders and Latin rule was imposed. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches were briefly united in 1274, but were soon to be at odds with one another again. So, the narrative of East vs. West in terms of Europe versus Asia is a false one.
In 1243, the Seljuk Turks were conquered from the East by Mongolians who ruled from a considerable distance. Around that time, the tribe of Osmans appeared in Anatolia and began to act independently of the Seljuks around 1299. The Ottomans slowly rose to prominence in the 1300s against Mongols, Persians, Byzantines, and other Turkish peoples. By 1354, Ottomans had reached Thrace and were headed toward the Balkans. 1389 saw the Battle of Kosovo against the Christian Serbs, the outcome of which still reverberates in world politics today. By 1453, the Ottomans were already a world power complete with seafaring navy. Taking Constantinople just gave them the ability to hinder the Eastern spice trade and charge exhorbitant taxes on Europeans passing through. (This led to Columbus' discovery of the Americas in 1492 since Europe was eager to find a better route to India.)

Evolving Ottoman economic policy is described as pragmatic and effective:

"It can be argued that there was a Turkish economic approach which was essentially pragmatic and laissez-faire, motivated by a desire to avoid economic disruption, a willingness to adopt rather than change economic systems which were already in place, and an avoidance of complex structures, as well as a proactive engagement involving active promotion of economic development, both rural and urban, protection of merchants, both local and foreign, cultivation of commercial relations, in particular with the west, and manipulation of the market."

Throughout the period covered by the book, cities and settlements changed hands multiple times, loyalties shifted, and borders were fluid. I enjoyed some of the brief histories of people groups I have encountered, such as the Gagauz-- an ethnically Christian but Turkic-speaking people. There is interesting research on at how Muslims and Christians both adopted syncretic practices of native pagans, namely shrines created to venerated saints or prominent Islamic clergy.

"(T)he Christianity of the Anatolian population was created from an amalgam of the influences of old pagan cults and local religions with Christianity . A similar process applied, too, to popular Islam. Thus, the formation in the towns and villages of an Islam and a Christianity which tended to superstition, outside the medreses and political government circles, brought the two peoples close to each other."

I enjoyed the explanations of the evolution of various schools of Sunni and Sufi thought in Anatolia, and how it was Sufi influence that caused Turkish to replace Persian or Arabic in official matters and recorded literature.

"There is no doubt that among the most important social and cultural trans-formations in the history of Islam was the spreading of organised Sufi tarikats and their influence on the popular understanding of Islam. The most obvious sign of this was the extensive spread of saintly cults among the people almost everywhere throughout the Islamic world, and their dominance over literate, ‘Quranic' Islam."

I look forward to checking out some of the translated sources cited in the text as well as the next three volumes. 4.5 stars out of 5.


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