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Rereading Janissary Rebellions

posted by Ayşenur Çenesiz August 6, 2018 0 comments

I want to share some important points grabbed my attention from Mehmet Mert Sunar’s PhD dissertation called “Cauldron of dissent: A study of Janissary Corps: 1807-1826”. I’ll specifically go into one of the chapters of it: “Janissaries and the 19th Century Istanbul Rebellions”. In this chapter, Sunar takes 3 different incidents, namely, the Kabakçı Incident of 1807, the Alemdar Incident of 1808 and the last Janissary uprising of 1826. The reason why I find this study important is that Sunar not only gives the characteristics of mentioned rebellions but also reveals the deficiencies of the Ottoman histography. His criticisms towards them enable us to question the mostly accepted truths.

Sunar pays high attention to the continuity of elitist approach from Republican to contemporary Ottoman historians towards these rebellions. They both have tended to label all the incidents as “janissary uprising”, although even the meaning of “janissary” wasn’t constant throughout the Ottoman history. This is a dangerous generalization trap. In the 19th century, janissaries had already lost their military characteristics and started to be integrated more in civil life. They were influential members of guilds, labor groups, transportation and construction sectors, etc. Sunar argues that what have led us to have such superficial interpretations on Istanbul rebellions are these misconceptions. Moreover, degrading all incidents into a simple intra-struggle between reformists and conservatives causes the conscious ignorance of the individual participants’ roles. The reason why these participants have been ignored in most of the works is defended with their irrationality and political incapability.

On the contrary, Sunar argues that Janissaries and their allies were pragmatic and rational enough, when they decided to revolt against the central authority. As a social fact, interests of the Janissaries and the urban crowd were overlapped, thus, they had a strong relationship. They deliberately decided to protect themselves and their interests when they felt insecure about their well-beings. Furthermore, their following some certain rules during these rebellions to gain legitimacy proves their rationality. They tried to maintain discipline and security in civil and commercial life as they promised to the public before the rebellion. They were not acting like maddened mobs.

What I find the most interesting in Sunar’s work is his giving importance on demands and motives of different actors in these rebellions. By doing that, he opens new windows for us to look at them with different perspectives. I strongly advise his work for those who want to investigate the nature of these rebellions and the identities of cross-section participants of them.

Featured Image: Harvard University


Historians and Values

posted by Ayşenur Çenesiz April 7, 2018 0 comments

What would be your reaction if I told you about women sold by their husbands in a public auction square like a slave or an animal with a rope around their necks? What if you knew that Wife Selling was not figurative but a historical fact as one of the common customs in 19th century? Most probably, you would be sorry for them and blame their husbands for their barbarism and brutality. Let’s try to look at this issue from a different perspective.

The tradition which I mentioned above was conceptualized as Wife Selling by historians. Although the time that it started and ended is controversial, it is generally believed that Wife Selling had been being applied from the 12th century to the 19th century. The selling process, which carries a symbolic meaning, can be read as a practice making divorcement possible. The debate on the reasons why people, especially from the humbler classes of societies, needed it has caused a deep division among historians. With their own value judgments, bourgeois historians have tended to see Wife Selling as barbarism and backwardness. On the contrary, Marxist historians, such as E. P. Thompson, highlight the necessity for reading this activity as a reaction to the authority. In his work, which includes approximately 300 examples, Thompson argues that the women sold had gave their consent on selling and their prices were not as high as a normal commercial activity. It must have been a symbolic price.

When abovementioned arguments are considered, Wife Selling can be read as the alternative practice of divorcement for those who couldn’t get divorced because of the oppression of the state and the church.

It wouldn’t be wrong if the nature of the discipline was considered as the reason of this divergence. What a historian takes into consideration, what she doesn’t and how she does it, while she tries to find the connections between the causes and the effects, can be affected by the values of her time and position. The divergence between bourgeois and Marxist historians on the Wife Selling practice demonstrates this problem well. The first describes it as an indicator of being backward and underdeveloped because they judge the past with their own criteria of development. On the other hand, the latter prefers to see it as a struggle between the people from a humbler class of the society and religious-political authorities. All in all, it is important to keep in mind that the history studies are possible to be shaped by the lenses of the historians. So, it can’t always be objective.

Related Readings:

  • E. P. Thompson, “The Selling of Wives”, Customs in Common.
  • M. Stanford, A Companion to the Study of History.

On Yesterday

posted by Ayşenur Çenesiz March 1, 2018 0 comments

In August 2017, I spent a month in the Ankara office of Tarih Vakfı (History Foundation) voluntarily. While I served my humble assistance there, I had the opportunity to utilize their rich library of their own publishing. I skimmed through the articles and books. One of them was Dün Sancısı written by Oktay Özel, who is an Assistant Professor in Bilkent University History Department. In this post I want to share my notes on this book.

Dün Sancısı is a compilation of symposium papers and articles of Özel, published in various journals such as Toplum ve Bilim, Kebikeç and Toplumsal Tarih. It touches a wide range of subjects from the problems of the nature of history as a discipline to how history has been used as an effective political tool. Although they are all related to history, I believe it will attract not only historians and social scientists but also anyone interested in humanities and social issues.

What specifically grabbed my attention in the book was the critical approach of Özel towards his own discipline, history. For him, history studies which have centered on classical age of the Ottoman Empire can be seen one of the most problematic area in Turkey. They are not scientific and analytical. Besides, the knowledge of history can be easily manipulated and used by politicians for their own interests. From the assassination of Hrant Dink to the problems of archives in Turkey, Özel reminds how the politized history have become dangerous.

Not only Özel’s critical approach but also his way of using the language makes Dün Sancısı remarkable. Readers can feel themselves as in the symposium while reading Özel’s symposium papers. I especially felt in that way while I was reading “The Last Quarter Century of Ottoman Historiography in Turkey: A Balance-Sheet Essay”. Özel mentions the situation of Ottoman historiography in different periods as if he’s giving a lecture in a classroom, referring prominent sources of literature. For me, his way of writing is a treasure for those who are tired of cold and lifeless academic language.

The perception of history which is built and learnt together, Özel argues, is the solution to the mentioned problems. We have witnessed how the hate and intolerance to “others” is being intensified day by day. Such an environment makes it impossible for us to build and learn the history together. Nevertheless, Özel is not hopeless, rather he draws attention to the role of historians as professionals against emotional and hateful political interests.


Bureaucracy in Ottoman and Turkish Governances

posted by Ayşenur Çenesiz January 29, 2018 0 comments

History is defined as a phenomenon full of ups and downs and the basic concept of it is determined as ‘the change’ by Michael Stanford in his article “A Companion to the Study of History”. It is significant to see these changes and reveal the connections between past and present so that the study of history can gain meaning. In this sense, I want to reflect my position towards “Bureaucracy in the Ottoman – Turkish Polity” written by Ümit Berkman and Metin Heper, focusing on the Ottoman bureaucracy from establishment to dissolution.

Berkman and Heper benefit periodization of the empire that each of these periods carries some certain characteristics. Changes through these periods have been made to be understood easily. In the period of 1299-1789, they firstly consider the initial institutionalization pattern in which Sultan’s power is a monopoly in a closed system over all the other institutions in the empire. However, it becomes more complicated afterwards. Starting from the second half of the sixteenth century “nizam” had been degenerated with the rise of civil bureaucracy by the transfer of the power from sultan to grand vizier and the increasing significance of “Ayan” which are provincial notables. According to the authors, the period between 1789 and 1909 was important as the Bureaucratic Ruling Tradition emerged. In reformation era, new type of bureaucracy was shaped by new servants of state (not sultan) in order to save the empire with new political formula based on reasoning. Although Abdülhamid II’s strong centralization attempts, civil bureaucracy had a crucial role in the political scene not only in Young Turk era but also in Early Republican era up until 1950s. Multi-party system was adapted in 1950. Afterwards, the cooperation between bureaucracy and military and the struggle of political parties for bureaucratic positions never have ended. These can be observed especially in the period of coups d’état.

Although it is said that the periodization of the empire makes it easy to track the changes through them, the wideness of the spectrum that Berkman and Heper introduce their projection which is from the establishment of the empire to the contemporary Turkey, makes it hard for the reader to cope with it. (from 1299 to 2000s) From the perspective of a reader, it can be said that this study needs a serious concentration to digest and understand the evolution of the bureaucratic structure comprehensively through seven centuries. In my point of view, transformation of the characteristics of the Ottoman bureaucracy should be examined in correspondence with all other related changes in the empire. For instance, the features of the fifteenth century considerably differs from the features of the nineteenth century and they have to be studied separately as an issue of different articles in order to make it possible to see how the different conditions have had different effects on the evolution of the Ottoman bureaucracy in a wider perspective.

Besides, in my opinion, if Marc Bloch’s methodological approach (one of the founders of Annales Ecole in historiography) was implemented in the article, it could be easier for readers to understand what he emphasizes. Berkman and Heper try to connect the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Republican era in terms of bureaucracy. Marc Bloch looks at the feudal society in his French Rural History published in 1931. However, while he focuses on feudal society in his book he uses “regressive method” which implies that historians should follow the path from the known to the unknown. On the contrary, the article at hand follows the opposite direction which is from the unknown to the known, in other words, from too much past to today. One of the consequences of not using regressive method is seen in the beginning of the article in which so much details were dealed without giving general picture of the Ottoman bureaucracy. These details make readers feel tired at the end of the article without giving them a chance to clearly connect the relationship between past and present.

Lastly, I would rather see the Weber’s “patrimonial bureaucracy” concept wasn’t missed while the Ottoman Bureaucracy was being studied. Carter Findley says that until 1830s, the era of reformation, sultan had had the absolute authority over ruling institutions and the servants of them. Sultan could punish them, for example the grand vizier, whenever and however he wants. Findley also points out that the Ottoman patrimonialism differs from other societies’. For example, in Europe, being a member of high status can create a demand for power while in the Ottoman Empire such demand was impossible as there is an absolute authority of the sultan. The change of the bureaucratic system in the Ottoman Empire corresponded with the weakening of the patrimonial system which is explained above. Therefore, not considering this concept in an article about the evolution of the Ottoman Bureaucracy seems to make it deficient.

To conclude, it can be said that the article of Berkman and Heper was a satisfying source to see the alteration of the Turkish bureaucratic system, although there were some aspects of it which make the readers to have a hard time to cope with it. If the regressive method was used, it would be easier for them to track the changes through such a long time interval. Furthermore, as a reader I would rather see the relationship between the changes in the patrimonial system and the transformation of the Ottoman bureaucracy as they were inseparable in terms of their characteristics.


Peter Burke: Exiles and expatriates in the history of knowledge, 1500-2000

Carter Finley: Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Bürokratik Reform: Babıali, 1789-1922

Ümit Berkman & Metin Heper: Bureaucracy in the Ottoman- Turkish Polity

Michael Stanford: A Companion to the Study of History