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Archive for the ‘historiography’ Category

Jihad goes to School in Turkey


AKP member Ahmet Hamdi Çamlı, who used to be a driver of Turkey’s President but at present seems to be a member of the Youth, Sports and Culture Commission of the Ministry for National Education,(1) has now also made the news in Turkey.


And this driver-turned-official has namely made a number of remarks relating to the Ministry for National Education’s decision to include the teaching of the concept of Jihad in Turkey’s schools. On Friday, 21 July 2017, Çamlı told the press the following: “[w]hen you look at the Ottoman sultans, almost none of them performed the pilgrimage in order not to take a break from jihad . . . There is no use in teaching math to a kid who does not know the concept of jihad”.(2) While it is true that no Ottoman Sultan has ever undertaken the holy pilgrimage to Meccah, the reasons were more likely practical that concerned with upholding jihad. The Ottomans did not see themselves as mujahids (practitioner of jihad or striving in the way of God), and did not employ the concept of jihad in their war efforts till the late 18th century. Quite some years ago now, I talked about the concept of jihad (Originally published on 18 September 2010): “[n]owadays the term jihad is much bandied about and used and/or abused at will by Muslims as well as non-Muslims the world over. The historian and Islam specialist Mark Sedgwick maintains that the concept of jihad was developed in the 8th century, when it basically functioned as a ‘mixture of the Army Regulations and the Geneva Conventions, appropriate for the circumstances of the time’. At the time of the Islamic conquests (7-8th centuries), the world was divided between a House of Islam (Darülislam) and the House of War (Darülharb) and international relations between both spheres were primarily military in nature. But as the centuries progressed and relations between Muslims and the outside world achieved a quasi-peaceful status quo, punctuated by commercial exchanges and trade links, the idea of jihad changed as well. There is the well-known distinction between the greater jihad (al-jihād al-akbar) and the lesser jihad (al-jihād al-asghar), between a personal struggle in the way of Allah (crf. Surah 29:69) and an armed struggle to protect believers against oppression and violence perpetrated by unbelievers. In other words, jihad evolved from a code of war into a defensive mechanism, tantamount to a religious duty leading to religious rewards”.(3)


Ghaza not Jihad

Back in the 1930s, the Orientalist Paul Wittek ‘proposed his Ghazî thesis to explain the sudden and apparently inexplicable emergence of the Ottoman state at the end of the 13th century. The Austrian historian and Orientalist argued that the Ottomans, [had been] imbued with a Ghazî spirit, meaning a zealous warlike attitude brimming with a glowing fervour for Holy War [or Ghaza, in Wittek’s wording], necessarily carried the day at the time. Wittek thought that Ottoman Ghazîs possessed a clear advantage over their contemporaries as members of a polity that had always been inspired by a fanatic enthusiasm for conquest, booty, and expansion’. Ghaza and not Jihad had been the Ottomans’ raison d’être acccording to this Orientalist. And this opinion was adopted by historians and Ottomanists alike. In due time though, authors like Rudi Lindner and Cemal Kafadar offered a somewhat different perspective, basically debunking the whole Ghazî ethos and spirit, but popular opinion still seems largely beholden to this interpretation. With regards to the application of the concept of jihad in an Ottoman context, we have to wait till the year 1774. At that stage, Sultan Mustafa III (1757-74) was waging war against Catherine the Great (1762-96) and the Ottomans were on the losing side. As a result, Mustafa III had his Sheik-ul-Islam issue a call for jihad to defend the Ottoman Empire against a victorious infidel, the Russian Empire. After all, according to Islamic theory jihad is a defensive mechanism . . . following the Prophet’s death in 632, the first time Muslims declared a jihad was in the year 1099. The Crusaders besieged the city of Jerusalem in the period 7 June – 15 July 1099 before conquering the third holy site in Islam. In response to this calamity, Muslims rulers called for a universal jihad to liberate Muslim lands from the hands of Christian infidels . . . but the reconquest of Jerusalem did not take place until 2 October 1187.(4)


(1) ‘Mil.Eğit. Genç. Spor ve Kültür Kom. Üyesi’ “Ahmet Hamdi ÇAMLI” Twitter. https://twitter.com/ahmethamdicamli.

(2) “Ruling AKP’s Deputy: Useless To Teach Math To A Kid Who Does Not Know Concept Of Jihad” SCF (22 July 2017). https://stockholmcf.org/ruling-akps-deputy-useless-to-teach-math-to-a-kid-who-does-not-know-concept-of-jihad/

(3) “The War in Afghanistan: Jihad, Foreign Fighters and al Qaeda” The Erimtan Angle (04 Feb 2017). https://sitanbul.wordpress.com/2017/02/04/the-war-in-afghanistan-jihad-foreign-fighters-and-al-qaeda/.

(4) Cfr. Wikipedia.

Ciudad Blanca found in the Honduran Rainforest

Last year, NewsFixHouston reported that ‘University of Houston researchers may have discovered the lost city of Ciudad Blanca using advanced laser technology (15 June 2012)’.

Now, this year Stephanie Pappas reports that ‘[n]ew images of a possible lost city hidden by Honduran rain forests show what might be the building foundations and mounds of Ciudad Blanca, a never-confirmed legendary metropolis. Archaeologists and filmmakers Steven Elkins and Bill Benenson announced last year that they had discovered possible ruins in Honduras’ Mosquitia region using lidar, or light detection and ranging. Essentially, slow-flying planes send constant laser pulses groundward as they pass over the rain forest, imaging the topography below the thick forest canopy. What the archaeologists found — and what the new images reveal — are features that could be ancient ruins, including canals, roads, building foundations and terraced agricultural land. The University of Houston archaeologists who led the expedition will reveal their new images and discuss them [on 15 May 2013] at the American Geophysical Union Meeting of the Americas in Cancun’.[1]

[1] Stephanie Pappas, “Ciudad Blanca, Legendary Lost City, Possibly Found In Honduran Rain Forest” Huffington Post (15 May 2013). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/15/ciudad-blanca-lost-city-found-honduras_n_3280344.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003.

Ancients Behaving Badly: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is hailed as a great leader and military genius. But behind his brilliant reputation lurks a more sinister side. He is responsible for murder, mutilation and the destruction of an entire nation. When Caesar arrives in Gaul, the population is six million. When he leaves less than five million remain alive and 1.5 million of those survivors are now slaves.

Collecting Ancient Central America: Museums, Explorers, & Archaeologists in Pursuit of the Past

Starting in the late 19th century, travelers, amateur scientists, businessmen, politicians, and later, professional archaeologists returned from Central America with never-before-seen artifacts. Many of these ceramic, stone, gold, and jade objects ended up in museums and many entered private collections. Regardless of their final destination, these early collections have helped, and continue to help, define a unique and unparalleled ancient history of Central America. This symposium delves into this history by looking at both early antiquarians and more recent scholarly approaches to collecting and understanding the past. It focuses on individuals, institutions, and the social and political factors that have impacted the collecting of objects from Belize and Guatemala in the north, down to Panama in the south. By extension, this conversation is also about understanding the history of archaeology, the history of museum building, and how we construct the past. Featured scholars include Dr. John Hoopes (University of Kansas), Dr. Francisco Corrales (National Museum of Costa Rica), Dr. Rosemary Joyce (University of California, Berkeley), Luis Sánchez (Department of Environmental Management, Costa Rican Institute of Electricity), Dr. James Snead (California State University Northridge), Dr. Elin Danien (University of Pennsylvania), and Dr. Alexander Benitez (George Mason University).


An Academic Entry: A Teleological Agenda

The sources of Ahmed Refik’s Lale Devri and the Paradigm of the ‘Tulip Age’: a Teleological Agenda’

This article looks at the source material used by the Ottoman historian Ahmed Refik in writing his book Lâle Devri. The book portrays the final 12 years of the reign of the Ottoman sultan Ahmed III, and the administration of the Grand Vezir Damad İbrahim Paşa (1718-30), suggesting that this so-called ‘Tulip Age’ was ‘the herald of the Tanzimat’, or the opening move of a policy of Westernisation that was to lead to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

To Read the Article,

Click Here

An Academic Entry: Hittites, Ottomans and Turks

Hittites, Ottomans and Turks:

Agaoglu Ahmed Bey and the Kemalist Construction

 of Turkish Nationhood in Anatolia

This article analyses the position of the Hittites in the theoretical development of Turkish nationalism in the 20th century. The piece provides an outline of the full content of the Hittite claim in a Turkish nationalist context, particularly its promulgation as part of the so-called ‘Turkish History Thesis’. Following this, I will give full weight to the historical circumstances surrounding the
emergence of the Hittite trope in Turkish writing . . . The article shows that the propagation of the Kemalist concept of Turkish nationalism in Anatolia dates back to 1922, a year prior to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

To Read the article,

 Click Here!

An Academic Entry: On Saadabad

 Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee

The Construction of Saadabad Revisited Yet Again

 Given that this is my first “real” blog-post on wordpress, I thought it wise to comment on something I came across on the interwebz – namely, a critique of an article of mine. But rather than just barging right into it, I will give a bit of background so that the casual blog-reader who happens to stumble across this entry has an idea about what I am talking about.

The above-pictured book edited by Dana Sajdi[i] is the outcome of the symposium “Rethinking culture in the Ottoman eighteenth century” that took place in Princeton early in 2005. In Princeton a great many ‘young scholars’ contributed to a lively discussion on the state of the Ottoman eighteenth century in contemporary Ottomanist thinking. A number of these contributors were selected to transform their presentations into articles to be published in a book of proceedings. On Amazon, the book is described as follows: ‘Tulips and coffee are defining cultural products of the Ottoman eighteenth century, along with their related institutions of palace and coffeehouse. These cultural products hold multiple meanings in the history and historiography of the period. They are associated with the daily life of common people and their sociabilities, on the one hand, and with the Ottoman court and imperial legitimacy, on the other. Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee offers a critical exploration of definitive cultural phenomena of the Ottoman eighteenth century, such as, the coffee house, the printing press, imperial architecture and royal pageantry and festivals. Chapters explore subjects ranging from the changing forms of imperial ritual in Ottoman circumcision celebrations, to the history of the construction of the famed palace of Saadabad, to the reputedly failed project of the first Ottoman printing press’. While, Madeline Zilfi, Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland, had this to say about the volume: “’Insightful engagement with the byways of Ottoman sociability and aesthetics, will amply reward the attention of a broad readership of cultural and gender historians as well as area specialists . . . The collection is a rarity in Ottoman studies thanks to its relatively tight temporal focus and the fresh methodologies and perspectives that it advances”. And we owe it all to Professor Dana Sajdi, who painstakingly edited the contributions transforming them into well-oiled pieces effortlessly fitting into the hinges of the metaphorical door to new sights and interpretations that is the book Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee.  


And I was one of those whose contribution to the symposium was deemed worthy for publication. As indicated higher, my piece deals with “the history of the construction of the famed palace of Saadabad”: “The Perception of Saadabad: The ‘Tulip Age’ and the Ottoman-Safavid Rivalry”. Dr. Astrid Meier[ii]  posted this insightful piece of criticism on the highly popular academic website H-Net: “Can Erimtan’s article opens the volume with an appeal to rethink the characterization of the so-called Tulip Age (1718–1730) as “a short-lived but highly productive era of Westernization during Damad Ibrahim Paşa’s tenure as … grand vizier” (pp. 42–43). Erimtan explores the contested perceptions of the Saadabad summer palace, situated outside the city walls of Istanbul, a building which has long vanished without leaving a trace. The void can be filled with descriptions from various perspectives. Erimtan posits that whereas former scholarship saw the construction as influenced by recent views of Versailles and Fontainebleau, “the Ottoman empire had at the time not necessarily been looking westward for inspiration” (p. 43), that, on the contrary, the palace is following models from Safavid Iran, Mughal India or other regions of the Islamic world. A meticulous investigation of the meta-narratives of writing Ottoman history leads to the not altogether surprising result that early 18th-century Istanbul presents a much more complex culturescape than the simplistic notion of Westernization implies. In replacing one exclusivist way of thinking by another, however, Erimtan exposes himself to the question of what we gain by describing modes and articulations of cultural life in the Ottoman capital in terms of an either/or of Western vs. Safavid/Islamic influences instead of a lieu of encounters of various kinds and directions”.[iii] 

Is my article guilty of “replacing one exclusivist way of thinking by another”???  Arguably, it is. In order to explain my stance, I will have to revisit some of the arguments I developed in my piece. I won’t go deeply into the narrativistic aspect of history-writing here, as the art of story-telling will be something I will deal with below in the further course of this blog post. But did my contribution really attempt to bring a resolution to the “either/or of Western vs. Safavid/Islamic influences” conundrum??? Let me quote the piece in question: “Rather than claiming a Safavid inspiration for Saadabad, it is my belief that Damad İbrahim and Ahmed III were cultivated Ottomans who were consciously reaffirming their allegiance to the cultural world of the early modern Islamic world by creating [a] kasır that functioned as a visual reminder of the Ottomans designs on the lands of Iran” (62). At the time, the Ottomans’ arch-enemies, the Safavids, were in dire straits and the Ottomans tried to capitilise on that. And thus, I argue that the architectural patronage of the Sultan and his retinue somehow reflected that political decision – a political decision that redirected the Ottomans’ attention to the east, to the Safavid Empire, to their religious, political and cultural rival whose outstanding achievements in terms of architecture and cultural refinement were well-known all over the contemporary Islamic world. So, in a way, one could indeed say that my contribution to Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee appears to be espousing an “exclusivist way of thinking”. In my story of Saadabad, I do not assign a lot of credibility to the Yirmisekiz Çelebi narrative that sees his Takrir (his little report on his trip that later received such lofty names like Sefâretname) assume the form of a manifesto in favour of Westernisation. This view of the little book was arguably first put forward by none other than the famous writer and intellectual Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-62): 

No other book occupies such an important place in our history of Westernisation. In this work, almost every line of which is accompanied by a hidden idea of comparison, and entire programme is concealed.

Tanpınar’s words have left their mark on the thinking and writing of countless historians, intellectuals, and other writers, and thinkers. Subsequent narratives of Ahmed III, Damad Ibrahim, and Saadabad have always stayed close to his value-judgement, as if Istanbul in the 1720s was somehow disconnected from the rest of Ottoman life and death happening at the time. Even Robert Olson, in his book dealing with the Ottoman invasion of Iran [The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman-Persian Relations 1718-1743] was unable to resist the lure of Tanpınar’s seductive phrases, as he talks about “the westernizing reforms of the Tulip Period”, arguably manifested in the construction of Saadabad as a copy of Versailles, taking place while Ottoman armies were fighting against Ashraf Shah and later Tahmasp Kuli Khan (Nadir Shah) in the east. Instead of regarding the ‘Tulip Age’ as the temporal locus for Westernising reforms manifested in samples of architectural patronage, my story takes account of descriptions of the political and military events taking place in Istanbul and the Ottoman borderlands of the 1720s. At the time, the Ottoman authorities were looking for new ways to replenish the treasury. The power-vacuum in Iran, caused by the Afghan insurrection that brought an end to the life of Shah Sultan Husayn in 1722, appeared to offer the possibility of adding new taxable lands to the Ottoman Dominions. In order to get hold of these new sources of income, the Ottomans concluded a treaty with the Russians. Together they invaded the former Safavid lands and divided the territorial spoils between them. Prior to these military actions, the Sultan’s private kasır of Saadabad was erected on the plains next to the river of Kâğıdhane: “My story of the construction of Saadabad holds that it was conceived as a[n Ottoman] building containing conscious allusions to the Safavid architectural image” (61-2), as enclosed in the city of Isfahan established by Shah Abbas the Great (1587–1629) and restored by Sultan Husayn (1694-1722) in the 1710s. Or, more preciselys: “Damad İbrahim and Ahmed III ensured that the Ottoman Saadabad contained apparently readily intelligible references to Safavid Isfahan” ([85], 187). The operations of my narrative allow for the development of an internal Ottoman rationale behind the refurbishment of the Kâğıdhane area. As such, my piece does not portray the “construction of the famed palace of Saadabad” as a centre for a fertile interaction between civilisational modes or any kind of cross-cultural activity. As a result, I am guilty of favouring “one exclusivist way of thinking”, in that I am not claiming that Saadabad was the first physical manifestation of Westernisation, nor do I argue that Ottoman patrons looked towards their arch-enemies for inspiration. Instead, I am putting forward the proposition that the construction of Saadabad took place in a specific socio-political context, and that our stories of its building should take account of representations of that context. Does “early 18th-century Istanbul present a much more complex culturescape”??? Indubitably so, but . . .


But that “culturescape” was a living thing carried by living men and women, and as such, the textual representations of the “history of the construction of the famed palace of Saadabad” do not point in the direction of any traces of that “complexity” in the textual remains of the material culture of the 1720s as lived in Istanbul.

 In the end, my “exclusivist way of thinking”, as expressed in my contribution to Dana Sajdi’s Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee, does not really deal with the “complex culturescape” of Istanbul as “a lieu of encounters of various kinds and directions” – East, West, North, or South, arguably . . . Instead, I am simply taking account of the representation of the contemporary context to compose a “cautionary tale” of Ottoman patrons trying to employ the cultural vehicles at their disposal as a way of conveying their policy decisions to the population of Istanbul, while undoubtedly rejoicing in recreating a small aspect of Shah Abbas the Great’s Safavid image contained in the city of Isfahan, nısf-ı cihan . . . Having said that now, I have to admit that it sounds somewhat disingenuous on my part, after all, the “Saadabad topos . . . symbolizes vital issues in Ottoman-Turkish history and historiography, particularly the double concept of modernization and Westernization” (50). Hence, my foray into narratological explanations. Again, quoting from my piece: “[t]he publication 30 years ago of Hayden White’s article, ‘The historical text as a literary artefact’, stimulated a debate on the extent to which history as a discipline can accurately recover a representation of the content of the past” (50). Or, how do Ottoman historians and other specialists writing about the reign of Ahmed III and his palace of Saadabad represent these “historical events”???  Are their writings supposed to be accurate textual photographs of the valley of Kâğıdhane in the 1720s???  Continuing along: “Hayden White’s narratological model of historical understanding would have it that historians select and impose a story, or an emplotment as he calls it, derived from the present to write about the past” (50).  In other words, here we have two clashing emplotments: the first one sees Saadabad as a building erected upon reading the “vivid descriptions” of Versailles and its fountains as an Ottoman response to Bourbon splendour. The latter, takes the building as a vehicle of cultural propaganda, aimed at a domestic audience as well as at foreign legations, which incorporates architectural elements of the Safavid image. Can either of these emplotments claim to represent the content of the past???  Again, quoting freely: “[t]he past is something that does not exist apart from a few traces and the historian’s imagination, an imagination that is subject to his or her rhetorical, metaphorical and ideological strategies of explanation” (50-1).

 But, what does this mean???  In my article I argued that the “danger in accepting the validity of this narratological model is that historical texts in the end become totally ‘self-referential’ and detached from the ‘real past’” (51). Somebody like Frank Ankersmit takes this stance to its logical conclusion and claims that historical texts are merely texts talking about other texts. Far, but not too far, from espousing such a stance, I hope that my piece about Saadabad primarily dealt with the building set up in 1722 through the medium of other texts, referring to actual people and their actions. The traditional emplotment of the Saadabad episode talked about an Ottoman official traveling to Paris and bringing back tidings of “beautiful things”, which were subsequently applied in Istanbul. The emplotment offered in my piece shows how a precarious situation in Iran was employed to further the Ottomans’ goals, with as a side-effect, how the well-known cultural achievements of the Safavids were emulated as a way of broadcasting a political and military message to a domestic audience: as a result, my emplotment “will necessarily also be an interpretation that cannot claim to be a truthful reflection of the past but that should be understood as an equally plausible rendering of the narrative of the building of Saadabad in 1722” (51). 

Rather than taking issue with the whole Westernisation template, my article merely tries to place the early 18th-century Ottoman Empire in context, as belonging to the early modern Islamic world prior to the onset of wholesale Westernisation and modernisation: “the Ottoman state was [after all] built on Islamic foundations . . . As [Ahmet] Yaşar Ocak recently states, in Ottoman studies scholars have traditionally focused on ‘political-legal structures and institutions [of Islam], rather that on the ideology, beliefs and practical dimensions of Islam in the Ottoman context’” (52). In the mid-eighteenth century, Ottoman patrons do start building structures displaying European forms of decoration (‘rococo’). But, Saadabad was an Ottoman building that did not display any rococo shapes or forms. In fact, the tradition of rocaille decoration did not emerge until the 1730s in France . . . The by now well-known tome the Usûl-i Mimari-i Osmanî (1873) talks about “le temps des pompons, des chicorées et des rocailles”, an era which the 19th-century Ottoman book starts at the reign of Mahmud I (1730-54). Contextualising the early 18th-century Ottoman state in this way “implies that Ottoman culture was not just steeped in the cultural idiom of Islam, but was rather part and parcel of the wider culture of Islam” (52). As for Ottoman-Safavid interplay on a cultural-architectural level: “Gülru Necipoğlu has convincingly demonstrated in one of her articles that symbolic interactions on an architectural [plane] were not unheard of in an Ottoman context” (53-4).


To my mind, the traditional emplotment of the Saadabad episode perpetuates long-held “Orientalists” beliefs about Ottoman backwardness and Western (or rather to use a contextually more correct term, Christian) progress and power, able to enthrall and seduce hapless Ottomans. I am planning to write a book that will explain how the trope of Versailles in Istanbul emerged in 18th-century writing and later became a staple in the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. So far, so good . . . 

[ii] Cfr. http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/history/faculty/alphabetical/sajdi_dana.html.

[iii] Astrid Meier, “Dana Sajdi. Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee: Leisure and Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century. London: I.B.Tauris, 2008. 262 S. $89.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84511-570-8.” H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2010). http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=30176.