Places Shaping Men: Investigations into the Role of Place in the Military Elite of the Ottoman Empire

AHA Session 71
Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Chamber Ballroom III (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Joshua Michael White, University of Virginia
Douglas E. Streusand, Marine Corps Command and Staff College

Session Abstract

        The Ottoman Empire differed from most contemporary empires in that it lacked a hereditary aristocracy.  The empire's governing elite came largely from the military, and military recruitment formed a major avenue of upward mobility.  Place of recruitment and place of deployment played significant roles in shaping the military elite and thus the governance of the empire as a whole.  This panel will investigate the intersection between people and places in the composition of the Ottoman Empire's military forces and the consequent ability of some members of society to hold important positions in the empire's functioning.  The papers, which cover the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, challenge the stereotype of a glorious age ending in the sixteenth century, when the classical land-based cavalry and military slave systems were rigorously followed, and a subsequent decline when the rules governing these systems were abandoned in a whirlwind of corruption.

        The first paper studies the lesser-known portion of the sixteenth-century, the Ottoman navy.  Based on biographical data from chronicles and other sources, it investigates the tension between recruitment of experienced seamen from coastal regions and well-educated personnel from the royal palace in Istanbul without naval expertise.  Such choices affected the performance of the Ottoman navy in significant battles of the period.  Since the combat forces at sea came largely from the land-based forces, by the end of the century they also affected recruitment for the land-based forces themselves.  The second paper continues to examine the distinction between Istanbul and the periphery for elite recruitment and training, looking at the traditional land-based cavalry, the "poster child" for Ottoman military capability.  It compares actual changes in recruitment in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, gleaned from surveys of land revenue grants, against contemporary critiques written by statesmen trained at the center in the form of advice literature and mirrors for princes.  The results counter some of our cherished beliefs about the Ottoman military as well as the concept of decline which usually governs our study of this period.  The third paper turns to the provincial forces in the later seventeenth century, just prior to the emergence of semi-autonomous governorships in Syria, often thought to be precursors of national states.  It investigates how these forces’ change in function from imperial defense to more regionally-based concerns with protection of the pilgrimage caravan intertwined with changes in recruitment and promotion.

         Together these papers show how the stereotypes about the Ottoman military have blinded us to the dynamics of change and the role of place in shaping the empire's elite personnel.  The Ottomans were not “interchangeable parts,” functioning in their positions according to impersonal rules, but individuals shaped by their backgrounds and performing according to their interests.  The empire must be seen, not as some kind of mechanical juggernaut, but as the outcome of decisions and efforts dependent on people and places.  Besides Ottoman historians, this panel will be of interest to scholars of the early modern period, empires, the military, elites, and historiographical change.

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