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Issues :Fall2005/Spring2006 :BookReviews :MinoritiesintheOttomanEmpire

Book Reviews

MinoritiesintheOttomanEmpire
Edited by Molly Greene
Princeton,NJ:MarkusWienerPublishers,2005
(198pages)$22.95(paper)

Reviewed by Isa Blumi

FourdecadeshavepassedsincescholarsoftheOttomanEmpirebegantochallengethe
onceorthodox"declinethesis "espousedbyOrientalistsandmodernizationtheorists
alikewhichheldthattheempireexperiencedalinearprocessofpoliticalandsocietal
degeneration.RenownedrevisionistscholarssuchasAlbertHourani,RogerOwen,Caglar
Keyder,HuriInanIslamoglu,Rifa'atAbouElHaj,MehmetGen,ArielSalzmann,andJane
HathawaycounteredboththeessentialismofOrientalistswhoassumedtheinevitable
degenerationoftheempire,andthemodernizationtheorists'amnesiaregarding
colonialism.MinoritiesintheOttomanEmpire,editedbyMollyGreene,joinsthislongline
of"paradigmshifting" scholarship.Withcontributionsbyfourwellknownhistoriansofthe
earlymodernOttomanEmpireNajwaalQattan,FatmaMgeGek,Socrates
Petmezas,andAronRodriguethisvolumecontributestoourunderstandingofthe
relationshipsbetweenlocalandstateactorsinOttomansociety.

Forthemostpart,thethemesaddressedinthismodestcollectionstressthelocalcontext
andinterplaybetweentheOttomanstateandregionalagentsofchange.Whileunoriginal,
thefouressaysdochallengetheassumptionsofnonspecialistswho,unfortunately,may
initiallyonlybedrawntothebookbecauseofitssexytitleconnotingethnicandsectarian
conflictintheOttomanEmpire.Themostextensivepiece(andtheonemostinneedof
editorialvigilance)thatbesthighlightsthevalueofthisstudy,aswellasitsambiguous
correctiveclaim,isthecontributionbyPetmezas.Petmezas'studyexploreshow
communitiesineasternThessalyadaptedtochangingfiscalpracticesintheeighteenth
centuryOttomanEmpire.Althoughtheproseisattimesconfusinginthattheauthor
includestoomuchobscureempiricaldatatomakehispoint,Petmezas'study
neverthelesssuccessfullytrumpetsoldclaimsmadetwentyyearsagobyMehmetGen
andArielSalzmann,amongothers.Mostimportantly,Petmezas'findingsexplicitly
supportthoseofSalzmann,whodemonstratesagrowingroleforlocalelitesinthe
collectionofstatetaxes.Thisdoesnotsuggestimperial"decline" asmuchasinnovative
adaptation.

WhilePetmezas'studyemphasizestheadaptivecapacityoflocalelitesinharnessingthe
administrativetransformationsoftheentireempire,NajwaalQattan'schapteron
Damascuschallengesconventionsonhowtoreadurbanhistoryduringtheearlymodern
period.Perhapsthemostimportantpartofherstudyisanexplicitchallengetotheformal
characterizationsofDamascusalongsectarianlines:forexample,thedesignationof
neighborhoodssuchasBabSharqiorBabTumaasdistinctivelyChristian.Ratherthan
fallingintothetrapofseeingactivitiesinDamascusalongsectarianlines,alQattan
highlights,throughastudyofthelivelyrealestatemarket,apatternofinteractionthat
blurredsectariandifferences.BothChristiansandMuslimsinMahallatal Nasara(the
Christianquarter)sharedhousingarrangementsascoinvestorsandevenboughtproperty
fromoneanother.Thissuggeststhatconcernsaboutfindingsuitablelivingquarters,as
wellasmakingaprofitfromaninvestmentintherealestatemarket,supersededany
fixationonaneighbor'sorbusinesspartner'sreligiousidentity.LikePetmezas'essay,al
Qattan'sworknotonlyoffersaconclusionthatchallengestraditionalmethodsofwriting
aboutMiddleEasternhistorybutinstructivelyquestionstheveryutilityoftheterm
"minority" thatwasusedtomarketthisbook.

Takingadifferenttrack,FatmaMgeGek'sstudyofcourtrecordsfromtheIstanbul
neighborhoodofGalatareinforcesargumentsmadebyJudithTuckerandRashidKhalidi,
amongothers,thatOttomanIslamiccourtsoftenservedasaviablesourceofrelieffornon
Muslimsubjectsseekingrecourseindisputesoverpropertyandinheritance.Muchlikethe
evidencehercounterpartsdiscoveredinPalestinianarchives,Gek'sfindingsrevealthat
bothRumOrthodox(sheerroneouslyusestheinaccurateethnonationalterm"Greek" )
andArmenianChristiansactivelyusedIslamiccourtstoaddresstheirlegaldisputes.The
turningtotheIslamiccourts,accordingtoGek,shouldnotbeinterpretedas
"Christian" effortstobalance"Muslim "power,assuggestedbysomehistoriansfixated
oninterpretingOttomanhistoryasoneofperpetualsectarianconflictrather,itshouldbe
understoodasanotherfunctionofadynamicofsocialandeconomicinteractionthatwas
oftenblindtosectariancategories.

Suchaconclusionchallengesthetraditionalmethodsofstudying"minority"
communitiesintheOttomanEmpire.Buttheramificationsofthischallenge,despitethe
effortsoftheotherthreearticles,appeartohaveescapedAronRodrigue,whoseshort
studyofBarukhbenIsaacMitrani,theJewisheducatorfromEdirne,continuestotreat
OttomanJewsasadistinctive(andperhapsisolated)componentinthelargerOttoman
social,economic,andpoliticalcontext.Unlikehiscolleagues,Rodriguereinforcesthe
perceptionthatfirmsectariandivides(andinthecasenotedinhisstudy,doctrinalaswell)
segregatedJewsfromtheirChristianandMuslimneighbors.Rodrigue'sdisinterestin
complimentingthethemeoftheotherthreecontributorsendsupleavingamixedmessage
abouttheimportanceofethnicityandsectarianidentitiesinthekindsofrelationsOttoman
subjectsmaintainedatmomentsoftransitionreflectedthroughoutthebook.

ThistakesmebacktomyprimaryconcernaboutMinoritiesintheOttomanEmpire.While
threeofthefourstudiescogentlymakeargumentsthatquestiontheaccuracyof
interpretingOttomansocialhistorysolelyonthebasisofsectariancommunalidentities,
thebookstillseekstocapitalizeonathemeofOttomandoctrinaldivision.Theutilityof
identifyinganyofthecommunitiesstudiedinthevolumeas"minorities," assuggestedin
thetitle,deservesgreaterskepticismthanispermittedbytheeditor'sintroduction.Indeed,
Greenefailstofullydefinetheterm,whichislefttotitillatethereaderwithallkindsof
suggestiveinnuendothatactuallycontradictthetheoreticalgoalsofthreeofthestudy's
authors.IfwefollowGek'sunderstandingof"minority" as"anysocialgroupthatdoes
notshareequallyintheresourcesofthesocietyatlarge itseemsweareactuallynot
talkingabout'minorities' atall"(69).Threeoftheauthorsactivelyrevealthatintheir
specificcontexts,itisdifficulttoascertainwhowouldfitGek'sdefinition.Intheend,the
ratherunimaginativeandperhapsevenopportunisticuseof"minorities" inthetitleonly
misleadsthereaderandmisrepresentsthegeneralthrustofthreeofthefourcontributions
tothevolume.

Oneislefttoconcludethatthisvolumewasahastilyassembledandpoorlyjustified
project.Thatsaid,itisalsoasuccessfulremixofaseriesofclassicthemesinOttoman
studies,clearlypresentedinawaythatisaccessibletonewstudentsoftheempire.
Additionally,allthecontributionsspendconsiderabletimediscussingtheirsources,
makingthemavaluableteachingtoolforprofessorswishingtoinfusetheirstudentswith
anappreciationforahistorian'sprimarysources.Ithereforestronglyrecommendthisbook
asausefultexttoteachOttomanhistory,withtheprovisothatstudentsbeaskedto
questionwhetherornottheconceptof"minorities "intheOttomanEmpireisilluminating
inthemajorityofthesecasestudies.

IsaBlumiisanassistantprofessorofMiddleEasternhistoryintheDepartmentofHistory
atGeorgiaStateUniversity.HispublicationsincludeRethinkingtheLateOttomanEmpire:
AComparativeSocialandPoliticalHistoryofAlbaniaandYemen,1878 1918(IsisPress,
2003).

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