Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Cambridge History of Turkey Vol. 2 1453-1603 (Book Review #99 of 2015)

The Cambridge History of Turkey (Volume 2)

Cambridge History of Turkey.

Like Volume I, this book took me about a year to work through. Volume II was apparently completed after Volume III due to the complexity of the information within. It covers the period roughly from Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the accession of Ahmed I in 1603. Each of the 13 chapters is written by a different scholar (with Kate Fleet penning two) and the wealth of scholarly research and translation is impressive. There is so much ongoing work going through archives and books written by poets, accountants, travelers, etc. in Arabic, Persian, Old Turkish, Greek, and Romance languages and each author has incorporated the latest and the best together to put together a complete story.

You get to relive the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe (Rumeli), the wars with the Mamluks in Egypt and the campaigns against Shahs in Iran. The never-ending wars are matched by the ongoing palace rivalries and intrigues between vizirs, would-be heirs, and others. I had read Ernle Bradford's The Great Siege: Malta 1565 which was quite helpful to recount the workings of the Turkish navy and the careers of officers like Turgut Reis. The Cambridge History gives very short shrift to the battle for Malta and its consequences.

As an economist, I found the chapters by Colin Imber and Murat Çızakça dealing with the economy of the Ottoman state interesting. The wealthy could hoard their money into charities (vakif) to avoid taxation, but the trick was to continue to be generous and yet have enough to live off of. Vakifs are still plentiful in modern Turkey and it was interesting to make this historical connection.

Murat Çızakça carefully deems the Ottoman Empire's political economy as "proto-pseudo socialist" P. 262). It was not based on class warfare but the government could "choke" the mercantile class when the need arose by price controls or other means. Ones who the Sultan disliked were doomed to be butchers in Istanbul, consigning them to a sure life of poverty.
"The functions of Ottoman government were, in essence, to raise revenue with which to support the sultan's army and court, to conduct war and relations with foreign powers, to uphold law and order, and to support what the ruling elite regarded as the right religion. Most day-to-day public functions – for example, the construction and maintenance of mosques, education, wel-fare of the poor, the provision of a water supply in towns and the upkeep of bridges and cemeteries  – were the responsibility of  vakıfs (endowments of land or other sources of income used for the charitable purpose dei ned by the founder), established through the private beneficence of individuals" (p. 205). 

There was also an interesting practice of raising revenue by farming out taxation on land, which was sort of like selling bonds. The Ottoman government did not run massive deficits or have a need to borrow formally until after the period covered. Fascinatingly, the Ottoman's pursued a policy of reverse-mercantilism: "the Ottomans impeded exports and promoted imports in order to maximise the supply of goods available in their markets. Thus the export-promoting European mercantilism was matched perfectly by an import-promoting Ottoman system!" (p. 260).

Generally, the Ottoman empire followed the pattern of exclusive political arrangements and extractive economic institutions typical of a declining state in Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail. Besides the government, there were guilds who kept reins on prices and innovation. There was also the practice of the devşirme as Christian youth were rounded up to be sent off to train as janissaries, fierce fighters for the Ottomans who basically had nothing to lose but like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome became a powerful political force in their own right. "The constant possibility of a janissary rebellion was a permanent check on the sultan's freedom of action" (p. 217). Fukuyama credits the janissary recruitment as helping the empire survive-- creating a loyal class of people who cannot inherit the kingdom (like eunuchs elsewhere). Çızakça concludes that "ever since the seventeenth century , income per capita in the Ottoman Empire, and later in Turkey , declined consistently when compared with Western European countries. Such a long-term decline can only have been caused by a path dependency over centuries, for which I have here suggested the term Ottoman 'proto-pseudo-socialism.' The trend was reversed only after the 1980s when the Özal government introduced modern capitalism" (p. 275). (This is one of the few look-aheads in this volume).

The religious situation within the Empire was also interesting. The volume really does not deal with the minority populations nearly as much as it could or should have, as there were plenty of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Kurds of various stripes. "(T)he Ottomans granted religious freedom to Christians and Jews. Martin Luther confirmed this much discussed religious tolerance when he observed that the Turks granted religious freedom to all, while the pope did not" (p. 249). Gilles Veinstein wrote the chapter on religious institutions and policies.

"Many Christians and Jews must have found conversion a tempting prospect, for by accepting Islam they both improved their social status and lightened their tax load. Apart from the adolescents drafted for service in the army and the sultan's court (devşirme), the Ottoman government thus saw no need to resort to forced conversions" (p. 323). "No Ottoman sultan ever visited Mecca," (p.351) although many funds were given to helping maintain the kabaa and other structures. I found the chronicling of various cults and heresies within Islam to be interesting, including a popular one in 1527 which claimed the superiority of Jesus over Muhammad (p. 341). As Turkish became the preferred language, religious works and legal rulings had to be translated into Turkish. Battles with Iran were partly over Sunni-Shia conflict and partly over imperial pride. Religion was basically complicated.

"(T)he Ottoman world view remained essentially theo-centric, continuing to attribute ultimate agency and causation to God alone, who had created the world and continued to create the links of cause and ef ect within each of its parts as well as between them. Such theocentrism oftentimes supposedly denotes a pre-modern, and in particular pre-Enlighten-ment, outlook, as opposed to a modern view which takes human experience and reason as the ultimate means for the comprehension of the universe; the latter view is therefore called anthropocentric. However, the Ottoman world view was anthropocentric in a different way, as it viewed all intellectual activity , all human knowledge, as serving the ultimate goal of individual or collective salvation. Outside of ascetic world rejection, a path open only to a select few , the proper understanding and manipulation of phenomena within the created world were important as means to this end" (p. 456). 

There is a chapter on the visual arts and architecture, if you like that sort of thing. I always find the research into population estimates to be interesting. "According to Barkan, in 1520–35 Rumeli and the sultans' capital, Istanbul, supposedly had a population of almost six million, while Anatolia and certain territories called 'Arab', probably more or less equivalent to Greater Syria, were home to about 5.7 million. By this count, the Ottoman central provinces had a population of about 11–12 million people, with Istanbul, the largest city , amounting to about 400,000 inhabitants...Ankara was home to a population of approximately 25,000 men and women; the city's principal crafts involved the weaving, dyeing and finishing of angora wool" (p. 375-376).

Selim S. Kuru pens the final chapter on the literature of Rum (western Anatolia and the European territories). The poets of Rum, according to their biographers, were Muslim poets who composed in the constantly developing medium of the language of Rum, a particular form of Anatolian Turkish. It was a fresh language given voice through the pens of the poets of Rum and, from the last decades of the fifteenth century onwards, it was establishing itself as one of the most extensively used literary languages of the world. For the poets themselves, it was a source of pride and often of great material wealth" (p. 591-592).

Some of the Sultans fancied themselves as poets. What I found most interesting, and disturbing, was the prevalence of pederasty in the literary works of the period (p. 573-575). Pederasty was a feature of male Greek culture (see Charles Freeman's Egypt, Greece, and Rome), is found throughout Central Asia (think The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan), and is a well-hidden part of Turkish culture today. One example: "A poet from Baghdad with the pen-name Halili (1407–85) told his own love story in a verse narrative entitled  Fürkatname (The Book of Separation) (composed in 1461), in which he finds a true love of God during his trip to Rum through a worldly passion he had for a boy" (p. 573). I wonder if the roots are in Greek influence (exported eastward through Central Asia by Alexander the Great) and then brought westward again by the migration of Turks from the Central Asian steppe.

In all, I give the work 4 stars out of 5. It does a poor job of showing every day life of a Turkish citizen, be he farmer, herder, shopkeeper, or slave. Women, particularly those in the palace, are almost completely ignored. Some of the sources quoted that might also contain information about these things were quoted for their other uses-- like explaining trade with the Ottomans and such. Still, it is a must-read for anyone seriously interested about Turkey and its history. I look forward to reading Vol. III in 2016 before moving on to contemporary histories.

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