The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe.
This book has a mission. Goffman examines the Ottoman Empire and its place in early modern Europe. By tackling the interstate relations of the Islamic great power and its European counterparts as well as the many interactions between the cultures, he aims at deconstructing the "Ottoman Black Legend": the Ottoman Empire was not the negative counter image of the Christian occident. It was in many respects part of the Mediterranean world and southeastern Europe, as were other political players. Always denounced as extremely aggressive, driven by religious zeal, the Ottomans were no more violent than the surrounding dynasties--they just were more successful. The author has quite a different view from colleagues such as Colin Imber, who bluntly stated in his most recent book The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power (Houndmills and New York, 2002) that "the Ottoman Empire was, above all, a military organisation" (p. 324). That the Ottomans were part of the Mediterranean system was already outlined by earlier authors but, especially with the backdrop of the discussion of Turkey's inclusion in the European Union, Goffman wants to make the same point with fresh arguments.
The book combines a chronological and a thematic approach, with more features of a portrait than of a classical history. Here, the author uses a didactical tool by introducing the half fictitious character of a Cavus, an Ottoman official, who transmitted and enforced sultanic decrees inside the empire and on diplomatic missions abroad. In short vignettes, he makes his appearance in such stations of his career as to illustrate the main topic of the following chapter. With regards to the general lack of biographic and autobiographic sources in Ottoman literature and archival materials, the author wants "to recreate the movements, associations and dispositions of a person who was physically and culturally embedded in Ottoman civilisation" (p. xv).
The reader is introduced to the most important stages of Ottoman history as well as the institutions which kept it going. The emphasis, however, lies clearly on events and developments concerning the relations of the Ottoman Empire with Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Goffman's Europe is often a synonym for the Republic of Venice. The Signoria maintained the most elaborate relations with the powerful neighbour, establishing a network over almost all provinces of the vast realm. The diplomatic and military relations receive their usual share, but the author focuses extensively on commercial relations. Here, seventeenth-century strategic and commercial interests became as complex as today, when in Ottoman convoys British merchants carried supplies for the Ottoman army fighting Venetian troops on Crete (p. 218 and following). In addition, he sheds light on the enormous role of the continuous interaction between the foreign merchant colonies and the Christian and Jewish minorities for cultural exchange. Clearly, Constantinople with its multicultural population and foreign colonies is the model for this cultural interface, but it had its mirror images in almost every city.
The negative image of the Ottomans in contemporary European public opinion had a lot to do with the fact that most Europeans had no means of getting a first hand knowledge. Muslims in particular had no inclination to venture into the infidel lands, not to mention establishing permanent embassies or commercial outposts. Goffman notes that without the consent of their non-Muslim subjects, the Ottoman State would not have survived half a millennium.
Sometimes, however, he is stretching things a bit, transgressing the borders between a scientific tractate and a missionary polemic. The population of Malta did not frantically fight alongside with the Hospitaller Knights during the Great Siege of 1565 merely because of "a demonisation of the 'Turk,' whom the inhabitants had never resided with" (p. 151). First, the Maltese had sufficient legal and less legal commercial relations with the Ottoman colonies along the Barbary Coast. Second, no further indoctrination was necessary, since they knew exactly what to expect from an Ottoman victory: In 1551, Turgut Reis had raided the island of Gozo, taking the whole population of about 6,000 into slavery. A little more reading on this topic might have helped to avoid another error in this section: there is no place on Malta called "Malta Town." None of the cities there gave its name to the island or vice versa.
Despite the sometimes pushy presentation of its mission, the book is an excellent general summary not only of Goffman's earlier studies on European-Ottoman relations but of many articles by numerous other authors over the last years. It is a thoughtful as well as thought-provoking book. Vivid depiction, well-selected quotations from original sources, and a purposeful selection of maps and illustrations make it a pleasant reading even for the expert in the field. The general reader is assisted by a chronology and an Ottoman genealogy, a glossary of terms, a bibliographic essay, and an extensive index. It does not need a prophet to predict that history presented that way will encourage many readers to dig deeper.
City of Frankfurt
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2004|
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