History, Reality and The Ottomans

April 12, 2008 § 14 Comments

There are a number of views expressed by European travel writers on the Ottomans and the Ottoman territories.  For example, a 16th century travel writer named Peter Gyllius, often cited by Edward Gibbon and other European historians of the late 18th and 19th centuries, is critical and negative toward the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. Today scholars have recognized him as, ‘a traveler who avoided looking at the Ottoman capital while spending a considerable amount of time in it’.

Edward Gibbon refers to Gyllius’ writings on Istanbul and the various sites he witnessed saying,

“From these wonders, which lived only in memory or belief, he distinguishes, however, the porphyry pillar, the column and colossus of Justinian, and the church, more especially the dome, of St. Sophia; the best conclusion, since it could not be described according to its merits, and after it no other object could deserve to be mentioned.” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

These writings have been accepted by Western scholars with little analysis or criticism. However, a number of historians today have given a deeper analysis to this work. And as a result an increasing number of Western scholars and historians are looking to non-European travel writers for reliable accounts of Ottoman history. References like famed 17th century travel writer Evliya Çelebi, an Ottoman travel writer who documented the life, lifestyle and culture of the 17th century Ottoman Empire. Suraiya Faroqhi, Professor of Ottoman Studies at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich writes,

“French, English, Italian or German travellers of that period generally expected a major city to possess buildings several stories high. In part this was probably due to the Roman traditions they had all imbibed; in the imperial period, Rome contained numerous plots of land bordered by streets (insulae) covered over with residential construction of six to seven storeys. Frequently, the wealthier inhabitants lived on the first floor, while the upper stories were occupied by the poor; a comparable arrangement also existed in some parts of eighteenth century-Paris. Moreover, in the core of the city, business and residence were closely intertwined, with shops occupying the ground floor and residences the remainder of the building. On a practical level, this arrangement probably had something to do with the fact that until the middle of the nineteenth century, most European cities were still surrounded by walls. Outer suburbs existed, but wholesale building in the unwalled areas was often forbidden for defensive reasons. High densities on a small built-up area were the outcome, and typical French or English visitor to an Ottoman twon would be on the lookout for evidence of similar crowding (compare Braudel, 1979, vol. I, pp. 432ff).”

In contrast Faroqhi discusses the classic Ottoman urban image noting,

“Ottoman towns were however arranged according to different considerations. Most of them possessed a citadel which might contain a number of urban quarters. But at least in Anatolia, the commercial district normally lay outside the citadel. Markets might be located in an undefended lower town, probably because most urban sites were remote from endangered frontiers. But even when a city wall might have seemed advisable for security reasons, Ottoman townsmen – or the central administration for that matter – rarely decided to defend the entire built-up area in this fashion. Ankara constitutes one of the few, exceptional instances in which a new city wall was built in the troubled years around 1600; even a century later, this wall still protected the entire built-up space. By contrast, towns in coastal and therefore exposed regions of western and southern Anatolia were rarely protected by a full city wall. Whenever the situation became too dangerous, such settlements therefore contracted until in the case of emergency, the entire population could find refuge in the citadel (Stoianovich, 1970; Ergenç, 1980; Faroqhi, 1984, pp. 23ff).”

In the observations of European travel writers exists images defined by social prejudices which also effect these historical accounts as noted by Professor Faroqhi,

“On a more general level, the notions and prejudices about Turks and Middle Easterners that European travellers subscribed to have also influenced their judgments about Ottoman towns. In the sixteenth century at least, most visitors were highly impressed by the Sultans’ military power. To give but one example among many, Busbecq’s account is full of praise concerning such features as the lack of an entrenched aristocracy, the single-minded devotion of all military men to the ruler or the discipline and frugality of the janissaries (Busbecq, tr. Forster, 1968). But it seems that, possibly in order to avoid totally revising their mental map of the world, these European authors were unwilling to admit that Ottomans might be good at anything but warfare.”

She continues,

“Referring once again to the authors of late antiquity, European writers sometimes compared the Ottomans to the Germans or Huns who battered the Roman Empire during its final centuries. Pious commentators might add that the Ottomans were victorious because of the sins of the Christians in general, and more particularly the selfishness and disunity of Christian princes. Praise for non-military achievements in the Ottoman world on the part of contemporary European travellers is therefore rare, and usually hedged in the numerous ‘yes, but’s. A whole set of definitions was worked out in order to not have to come to terms with Ottomans as artists, craftsmen, or musicians. We have already encountered the tendency to regard Ottoman buildings as Roman. A variant of this theme was the tendency to ascribe all the positive sides of Ottoman rule to the activities of converted Christians, a tendency which has not died out even in the late twentieth century.”

In conclusion, it should be noted that these prejudices are the ‘realities’ that todays historians are facing when presenting accounts of Ottoman history. And as Professor Faroqhi has stated, there is an intellectual “trap” in taking European travelers written accounts on the Ottomans Sultans, Ottoman towns and lifestyle at face value. Especially when producing images or imagery concerning the Ottomans. Muslims and people serious about history should be investigating the ‘objectivity’ of European travelers’ written sources on the Ottomans. In the end you will find much more satisfaction than the hollow feeling, as if you had just been had, when referencing some European travel writers.

Faoqhi, Suraiya. Approaching Ottoman History: An Introduction to the Sources. Cambridge University Press, 1999


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§ 14 Responses to History, Reality and The Ottomans

  • Tim Ramsey says:

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.

    Tim Ramsey

  • Islamify.com says:

    History, Reality and The Ottomans…

    Interesting article about correcting misconceptions on Ottoman history….

  • JDsg says:

    One comment and one quibble. 😉 As a student of Roman history for the past twenty years or so, one learns to take Edward Gibbon (author of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”) with a grain of salt on certain topics, especially anything that relates to Islam, whether it be the Prophet (pbuh) or anything else. He was an Islamophobe.

    Now, the quibble. Realizing you didn’t write the following:

    …Rome contained numerous plots of land bordered by streets (insulae) covered over with residential construction of six to seven storeys.

    Suraiya Faroqhi writes poorly by making it seem like (at least, IMO) that the Latin word for streets is “insulae.” Actually, “insulae” (pl. form of insula, literally “islands”) refer to apartment buildings. A better written sentence then would be:

    …Rome contained numerous plots of land bordered by streets covered over with residential construction of six to seven storeys (insulae).

    Those who are about to die salute you! 😉

  • James says:

    Well history is not what it used be is it? As one person put it “All History is contemporary history” Our view of the past is effected by our present condition. Back in bad old days of Jim Crow there was no such thing as Black History. No one cared about the history of Africa because the bias was that Africans had no history. Only after the anti-colonial movement in Africa and the Civil Rights struggle in the USA did that particular canard get disproved.

    For the longest time the Ottomans were the “barbarians at the gate” a threat to Europe. Suliman was knocking at the gates of Vienna before bad weather turned him back. For nearly a century the Ottomans were an existential threat to Christian Europe.

    In the later part of the Ottoman period the empire was “The Sick Man of Europe.” Either way not a position for love and affection. It only now that cooler and more level heads can reevaluate the history of the Ottomans. Only now are we looking at the source material. This is the way of history; there is the orthodox view and then come the revisionists. Each generation brings a different view, sometimes they bring in new tools. With Islam front and center in the present reality, there is no doubt that the history of Islam from the Prophet (pbuh) through the Califs and to the Ottomans will be reevaluated. We will not make the same old mistakes with the history this time; we will boldly make bigger and better ones!

  • Hakkani7 says:


    Selam Aleykum,

    “we will boldly make bigger and better ones!”

    – I like this. It implies that without guidance, even the best of intentions are vulnerable to the machinations of our own irrepressible egos.

    Insh’Allah with the support of our Seyh, even this will be surmountable. Ameen!

    Good post, Saifuddin, Mash’Allah!

    Allah emanat ol,

    – Hyder Ali

  • Saifuddin says:


    as-salaamu ‘alaikum. JDsg and James thank you for your comments. Though JDsg I am curious as to what you mean by,

    “Those who are about to die salute you!

    I’m not sure I follow you, please explain.


  • patb says:

    “Those who are about to die salute you!

    Supposedly the verbal salute given to the primary official/bigwig by the gladiators prior to combat in the arena. Roman lore.

  • Saifuddin says:


    as-salaamu ‘alaikum patb. This must have been a reasonably good post. I drew out all of my old friends, the history aficionados, mashaAllah! Thanks patb.


  • darvish says:

    Excellent history post 🙂 Of course all Orientalist historians are suspect given their European biases, but much can be gleaned, and the grain of salt added, by what they say and how they say it. There really is no objectivity.

    Ya Haqq!

  • JDsg says:

    Saifuddin: Patb is correct; I was quoting the Roman gladiator’s salute. Next time you watch Spartacus or Gladiator… 😉

    @ Darvish: “There really is no objectivity.”

    Absolutely! Only for the dry facts: dates, names, places. Everything else historically is subjective.

  • Abdur Rahman says:

    Salaams Saifuddin,

    An interesting post and an interesting discussion

    Abdur Rahman

  • Çok yaşa Osmanlı !

  • Murat says:

    http://www.barbaros.biz [Ottoman Navy and Navigation]

  • Türker says:

    Selamün Aleyküm Cümlenize

    Seyfeddin(Saifuddin) kardeşimden ve konuyu yazıp aktaranlardan Allah (cc) razı olsun. Osmanlı geçmişte değil, uzakta değil; bilakis çok yakındadır. Osmanlı’nın adaletli elleri kurucuları Türk Milletinin elleridir. Gün ola gün yüze vura…

    Hepinizi Türkiye ye beklerim.

    Tanrı Türk’ü korusun ve yüceltsin.


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