Nov 25, 2006

Book Review: The Ottomans - Dissolving Images

The Ottomans: Dissolving Images Wheatcroft, Andrew

New York: Viking Press, 322 pages

Wheatcroft is a lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Scotland’s University of Stirling, and one of his areas of specialization is in the textual and graphic presentation of history. He has published numerous books related to the historical representation of intellectual thought in print and graphic media, and this work shows the influence of the self-fashioning models developed by Stephen Greenblatt.

In The Ottomans: Dissolving Images Wheatcroft approached the topic from both European and Turkish perspectives, using accounts from Western travelers as well as historical Ottoman narratives in an attempt to provide a relatively balanced examination of the Osmanli dynasty in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. Wheatcroft produced a text less concerned with the traditional history of the Ottomans as much as the ways in which the internal and external images of the sultanate changed over time.

The text roughly follows a chronological approach, with chapters that revolve around particular themes related to stereotypes and myths – both internal and external – of the Osmanli. Accompanying the text are several sections of paintings and photographs – for which the author strove to avoid Orientalist caricatures (except when discussing Western misconceptions) - that provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. Notes accompany the sections with illustrations, offering additional insight into the visual representations of the Ottomans. The author provided footnotes throughout the book, included an 18-page bibliography, and added a list of Ottoman sultans from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the abolition of the sultanate during the reign of Mehmed VI in 1922.

One of the most pernicious of Western stereotypes of the Ottomans is that of the “Lustful Turk,” the grotesque caricature of Turkish people and rulers as sexual deviants with insatiable appetites. Wheatcroft traced this notion to the early eighteenth century, and argued that this warped view reached its peak in the nineteenth century in Western literature. Of particular prurient interest to Europeans was the concept of the harem, which became lodged in the collective mind of Westerners as a sort of majestic brothel. Wheatcroft provided numerous examples of these Western misconceptions, and argued that this stereotype was reinforced by the fact that male Western visitors were not permitted to enter the harem. Being barred from the harem, Wheatcroft argued, male Europeans could only speculate what happened behind its closed doors:
…cut off from the light and the open air, it was thought, women deteriorated physically and psychologically. The harem, with its blank windowless walls, remote from the outside world, seemed to [European] men an inevitable breeding ground for vice and moral decay.
In addition, Wheatcroft demonstrated that Europeans later began to envision a sultanate in which sodomy, incest, and even rape were supposedly normal sexual occurrences. In an 1870 work entitled The Sultan’s Reverie: An Extract from the Pleasures of Cruelty, the Ottoman sultan moves from his harem to raping his own mother-in-law in an attempt to satiate his deep lust. The author also included a dubious passage from T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph in which the British liaison officer implied that he had been raped by the Bey of Deraa.

Map of Ottoman Empire in 1885

Yet another Western stereotype of the Ottomans that began to circulate in the late medieval era, and gaining much greater currency in the eighteenth century, was that of the “Terrible Turk.” Wheatcroft argued that, for Europeans well versed in the arts of brutality, “the cruelty lay not so much in the punishment inflicted as its arbitrariness.” These Western beliefs were seemingly “verified” in violence by Turks against Christians in the nineteenth century in such groups as Greeks, Bosnians, Bulgarians, and – most notoriously - the Armenians in the two decades prior to World War I. Wheatcroft noted that the press-driven documentation of Turkish atrocities conveniently ignored similar acts of group violence against Turkish-speaking peoples in the same conflicts.

Wheatcroft did not include a discussion in The Ottomans: Dissolving Images of the nineteenth-century development of scientific racism as a contributory factor in the rise of these more noxious stereotypes of the House of Osman. This is a puzzling omission, as the literary portrayals of Ottomans as lustful and terrible owed much to the credibility these stereotypes gained from the pseudo-scientific theories of racial hierarchy espoused by such European thinkers as Arthur de Gobineau, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Herbert Spencer.

Wheatcroft centered the text squarely on Stamboul (which the author called a “microcosm of the empire” ) and the suburbs of the Ottoman capitol city, reflecting the importance of the imperial heart. Readers, however, do not get a sense of the workings of the Ottoman administration in the Balkans, the Levant, and North Africa, areas crucial to the longevity of the Ottoman Empire. While the Ottomans did rely heavily on the talents of local elites, it is misleading to believe that areas beyond the Golden Horn were mere peripheries, and the book’s narrow geographic focus makes it seem a bit myopic in its analysis of the House of Osman.

Wheatcroft relied more heavily on secondary than primary sources in this synthesis, and there is a striking imbalance (skewed in favor of the West) between the European and Turkish sources. In addition, the material is centered squarely on Constantinople/Stamboul, with the result that readers learn little about the rest of the Ottoman Empire. While the text itself is – on the surface - balanced in its presentation, there is an overtly Western European feel to the finished product; one leaves the text with the impression that Wheatcroft was unable to transcend his roots, and that the author remained a sort of historical tourist. This Wheatcroft freely acknowledged, and is one of the book’s most significant arguments:
The theme of this book is that there is no closure: that the relationship between the Ottoman and Europe, between the Turk and the West, is constantly changing and reforming. But equally it can never escape from the embrace of fundamental misunderstanding.
This “fundamental misunderstanding” by the West of Middle Eastern peoples continues to this day, and Wheatcroft’s book should be required reading for Western diplomats, policy makers, and scholars in the social sciences and humanities. While this reviewer disagrees with the assertion that we – as Europeans, neo-Europeans, and Westernized peoples - “can never escape” the inability to understand cultures different from the West, Wheatcroft’s work is an important contribution to understanding the historical barriers that separate the West from the rest of the world.


microdot said...

Very interesting review. I have been reading a lot about the development of the administration and military system of the Ottomans... The Janisaries and the boy tribute system... Also the melange of cultures that made up the Ottoman Empire. It truly was a melting pot that allowed Moslem, Christians and Jews to live together peacefully in a co-dependance for a few hundred years.
Do you know of any work that focuses on the Ragusan Republic? I have read chapters in a few books about them and their system of government and of their tragic end when Napoleon conquered them...they refused to have children after being conquered and all the noble families died out.

historymike said...

A bit dry, but one of the definitive books on Ragusa is Francis W. Carter's Dubrovnik (Ragusa): A Classic City-State , 1972.

I would also check out The Ragusan Republic: Victim of Napoleon and its own Conservatism by Harriet Bjelovucic (1970).

microdot said...

Thank you Mike. I just checked back here and saw your suggestions. Maybe I can find one or both used on Amazon!
I just started The Serbs, History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia by Tim Judah
Pretty juicy stuff........