Edhem Eldem – Saving Ottoman History from the Turks

In his lecture, Professor Edhem Eldem argued that nationalism and current Turkish politics constitute a barrier to research on the Ottoman Empire in today’s Turkey. Quite often, and everywhere, history is being used for political causes, and in the case of Ottoman history, this problem has become worse under the AKP governments. This leads to uncritical academic research and institutionalized myopic perception of historical research in civil society.

In order to make his argument, Professor Eldem detailed the current situation of research, as one, which stretches between obsolete methods, that have characterized research in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and aspirations to imitate and compete with Western historical research without the required tools and resources to do so. The availability of well-known Ottoman sources, such as Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname, constitutes an easy path to research of ready-made topics and questions. In many cases, these questions derive from Western perspectives and research in European history. However, these are then applied by many Turkish scholars to the study of Ottoman history, but without critical thinking or the kind of curiosity that produces new and stimulating topics of research. The capacity to read Ottoman Turkish still counts as the almost sole important skill required for a good historical research in Turkey.

The continuity between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey has become the accepted view in historical research, and even Kemalism espoused an element of Ottomanism, as the its national narrative clearly demonstrates. These perceptions grew stronger in the 1950s during Menderes decade. They reached their peak under the AKP, in a way that current political reality is being projected backwards onto Ottoman history. To the average “Turk in the street,” there is a continuity that runs from Ottomanism, through Islam and Turkishness, to the Turkish Republic, in a way that ignores the complexity of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, it can be said that in Turkey, Ottoman history is a prelude to Turkish national history, or to a Turkish history with an Ottoman twist. It is hard for the average Turk to perceive that Greeks, for example, were Ottoman subjects. Considering the Muslim part of the population as “the real Ottomans,” and the imperial center as the entire empire, are quite common premises in historical research in Turkey even today.

All this cannot be detached from popular views in Turkish society, which very often is base on “conspiracy theories,” and that in turn leads to paranoid perceptions of an isolated nation victimized by hostile regional and global forces. The public expectations from historians in Turkey are not to introduce interesting and innovating ideas, but to pander to public opinion and pump national self-esteem. It also affects academia, where the myopic perception of more important and less important topics is well established. In addition, the very important medium level of good popular history, as exists in other countries, such as the UK and France, is rather of a low intellectual form.

Israel, despite its own problems of nationalist perceptions of its past overshadowing historical research and popular history, is a unique case. As it is the only country in the Middle East which is not a successor state, it is able to maintain a certain detachment from its Ottoman past that enables less biased perceptions of the Ottoman Empire. This accounts for the originality in the Ottoman topics being researched in Israeli universities, an originality that unfortunately cannot be found in most of Turkey institutions of higher education, due to the problems mentioned above.