Investigating “Frontier Orientalism” in the Habsburg-Ottoman Borderlands

AHA Session 83
Conference Group for Central European History 5
Society for Austrian and Habsburg History 2
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 204 (Hynes Convention Center)
Larry Wolff, New York University
Larry Wolff, New York University

Session Abstract

In the mid-1990s social anthropologist Andre Gingrich proposed the concept of “frontier orientalism” for understanding the place of Muslims and Turks in modern Central and Southeastern European popular culture and politics. His frontier orientalism “is conceived of as a systematic set of metaphors and myths that reside in folk and public culture in those countries of Europe which have the history of interaction with neighboring regions of the Muslim periphery. The concept primarily refers to the frontier (or antemurale) myths about the timeless mission of a Christian homeland adjacent to the military border…”(1998) If Edward Said’s orientalism refers to a British and French overseas colonial ideology most easily traced in academic, scientific and artistic “high culture,” Gingrich’s orientalism is local and multiple: it exists and is reproduced in everyday life among those who live on or near a frontier—real or imagined, present or historical—with the Other. One legacy of the long conflicts between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, which resulted in multiple large and small-scale exchanges of territory, is that such frontiers can be imagined nearly anywhere.

We envision this panel as a series of case studies investigating where historical actors imagined frontiers between Christian and Muslim to be, what the frontiers consisted of, and what was at stake for upholding or breaching them. Andrew Wheatcroft provides a necessary introduction to the concept of the early modern Muslim Erbfeind in Austria, but demonstrates that the image underwent considerable change after 1800.  By century’s end the threatening Other had morphed into a Balkan Christian. Moving from general cultural trends to a particular historical figure, Tolga Esmer studies a forgotten bandit from Ottoman Bulgaria. Kara Feyzi's early nineteenth-century networks were broadly inter-confessional, as were the targets of their collective violence. The paper examines how the imperial centers in Vienna and Istanbul made sense of a man and a movement that transgressed frontiers with impunity. Maureen Healy turns to the work of state-sanctioned “frontiersmen,” Habsburg civil servants who administered Bosnia-Herzegovina after 1878. She frames their colonial efforts as a multi-faceted attempt to move a frontier, to flip a territory from “Turkish” to “European,” and reveals the orientalist myths that were both challenged and reinforced in the process. Finally, Dominique Reill examines Vincenzo Solitro’s 1844 Documenti storici sull'Istria e la Dalmazia which documents the effects of centuries of unstable borders on local populations in Dalmatian/Bosnian hinterlands. Dalmatians' visions of their Bosnian/Ottoman neighbors were orientalist but included instances of historical empathy as well.

One of the novel, and we hope productive, aspects of this panel is the research focus on the 19th century. The historiography of Habsburg-Ottoman relations is centered in the early modern period, and we hope the research presented here will help to inch this field forward in time. We envision a wide audience for the panel: geographically it will appeal to historians of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires as well as Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Thematically, we anticipate interest among historians working on orientalism, borderlands and frontier studies.

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