A new evaluation of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire

An interesting article written from a Turkish perspective.

First published in Today’s Zaman by GÖKNUR AKÇADAĞ

All research dealing with contemporary mindsets has to hark back to past states and civilizations. It is not possible while following this methodology to “decide to leave the past in the past,” nor is it possible to suggest an unchanged historical approach in which no new evaluations are carried out.

All contemporary notions related to bringing the past to light are 150-200 years old. Today, it can be said that people who have been trying to establish a united Europe of nations, religions and cultures through developed and revised approaches fancy the examples of the Pax Romana and Pax Ottoman even though these cannot be fully realized in practice.

Successive civilizations

The Roman, East Roman (or Byzantine as it was called by the Turks) and Ottoman Empires are the main civilizations that have greatly affected European history. Therefore, even today these empires are being studied and compared with one another. Christianity witnessed a bifurcation into Western Christianity, whose center was Rome, and Eastern Christianity, whose center was Constantinople.

The main difference between the two Christianities resulted from their locations and other geographically related factors. The Greek, which Rome superseded, Arab and Persian civilizations with which Rome fought were not eradicated or even alien to one another. Also Romans, Byzantines and Turks knew each other and the interaction continued. The Roman period experienced pagan polytheistic religions and the birth of Christianity. The Eastern Roman Empire symbolized Christianity, while the Ottoman Empire symbolized Islam.

A dominant language existed in the official domain as they were universal empires, though the lands they ruled were multilingual. Latin in the Roman Empire, Greek in Byzantium and Turkish in the Ottoman Empire were the dominant languages. In the public offices of the Ottoman Empire, many people of different origins could be promoted within their posts based solely on merit. Many non-Muslims in particular were able to work in provincial public office. The Byzantine Empire thrived longer than the Ottoman Empire; however, the Ottoman Empire symbolizes diversity more than the former.

These empires shared similarities with the civilizations that they superseded, and they never tried to change all that they had inherited from them. The Turks, for example, did not change the names of places, but rather adjusted them to “normalize” pronunciation with the Turkish language. The names of places ending in “polis” were transformed into “bolu-boli” while Ancyra-Anküra-Angora became Engürü-Ankara and Melitene became Malatiyye-Malatya.

We all live in a cosmopolitan and multicultural landscape. But there are some who don’t seem aware of it. They refuse to accept this fact, producing a false impression about former civilizations in their minds. They suppose that history only consists of their own nation, culture, victories, language, etc. The Ottoman palace used words and terms belonging to prior civilizations, for example, the name “Constantinople.” It is now so baffling that some people became flustered and articles that raised hell were penned by columnists when Bono, the vocalist of U2, referred to Istanbul as “Constantinople”; historians know this Ottoman firman: “Be makam-ı Konstantiniyye el Mahmiyye,” referring to İstanbul as Constantinople.

And witness the nationalistic fervor when comparing the Ottomans with the Byzantines. In fact, this is not peculiar to comparisons of these empires alone. This can also be observed in modern historiography. Even Americans and Britons, who have extensive historical backgrounds in common, may put forward strikingly opposite ideas in their historical coverage of events — most British historians do not mention the War of 1812, while in the American history of the war, England is mentioned as a country that was not an ally. The parties may discuss historical events in a very different light. The custom of ignoring the common ground between the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires is now being replaced by new approaches and research to this end.

‘Byzantine and Ottoman civilizations in World History’ symposium and a re-evaluation?

Several international and national historians gathered in Istanbul to participate in “Byzantine and Ottoman Civilizations in World History,’’ which was organized by İstanbul Şehir University and the World History Association (WHA) Oct. 21-24, 2010. In this symposium distinguished Byzantinists and Ottomanists discussed the profound effect that these two great cultures and empires have had in global-historical terms over a span of 16 centuries.

The most important aspect during the lifetimes of both empires is that different nations and religions were able to coexist throughout the large area of the two empires. World history, as the motto of the WHA highlights, “is trans-cultural, trans-regional and trans-national.” This motto draws attention to this point and the dynamics of the common history of mankind.

Professor Gökhan Çetinsaya, rector of İstanbul Şehir University, stressed that it was essential to include the Byzantine and Ottoman civilizations in every historical study to understand world history. “These two empires ruled a large part of the world, and their spirits still echo in the world. It is really difficult to comprehend the influences of these empires. Denying their existence is to deny the history of the world in today’s context,” he pointed out. The president of the World History Association, Alfred Andrea, stated, “Over these three days of shared scholarship, we all will be enriched as we come to understand more fully and deeply the many ways in which Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire dominated their immediate worlds, influenced the course of history far beyond their frontiers and were equally touched and influenced by foreign cultures both near and distant.”

Leading historians such as Professor Kemal Karpat and Mehmet Genç, lecturers at İstanbul Şehir University, and Professor Cemal Kafadar, a lecturer at Harvard University, addressed the crowded audience in a panel discussion titled “Civilizations and World History,” which evaluated the two empires.

It was suggested that the history of the regions these two empires ruled was in fact world history. Similar ideas have been argued in the past. Today it is agreed that disaster, not peace, befell the region upon the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

In the past Arnold Toynbee, an eminent historian, had suggested that, and now many leading historians feel the same.

Kafadar said that Turkey should not be alienated from Ottoman history in the region. He pointed out that re-evaluating history has gained much more importance today than previously. He criticized some practices such as narrations embellished with harem stories, the trend that sees historical and cultural heritage as a part of the tourism industry and the cherishing of a customer-oriented approach.

One must appreciate the value of coexistence as well as “being in the center not the periphery.” The two Roman empires and the Ottoman Empire, which was established in the same location, were at the hub of history and action. Christianity initially came from Anatolia; it was Roman Emperor Constantine (311-337) who saved it from persecution, helping make it a worldwide faith. The foundations of Christian theology were established by the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which took place in Anatolia. The great separation of churches into Eastern and Western occurred in Hagia Sophia, İstanbul. The Byzantines had called themselves Romans (hegemonia ton Rhomanion), while the name Byzantium was later given by modern historians.

Such knowledge gleaned from history is an example related to the historical importance of this land that we have inherited from the past. Today, the heritage of the place where we live is one of the factors connecting Turkey to Europe and to the World.

Don’t those in Europe who allege that Turkey is not part of Western culture shoot themselves in the foot?

Christian Wulff, the president of Germany, was referring to what we cited above when he said, “Here, in Turkey, it is certain that Christianity has a long tradition.” We must point out that the majority of Europeans who allege that Turkey is not part of Western culture are not aware of the legacy which has supported them.

The Byzantine Empire filled the gap resulting from the fall of the Roman Empire, as the second Roman Empire. The Seljuks were born subsequent to the fall of the Arabs. The Ottoman Empire, which was born in the midst of Byzantium in the West and the Seljuks in the East, would reach the borders of the Roman and Arabian empires. It was able to join the East with the West — Christianity and Islam; nomadic and settled life and the great diversity within the political boundaries — far beyond the scope of what the empires of Alexander the Great and Caesar had been able to do: All of this existed under the Ottoman roof for a long time. But later it was not able to adapt itself to the globalized world order.

As Omar El-Khattab, who recounted the nature and mission of the state, pointed out, “Those who can be mild without being soft and powerful without being violent can rule.” Or as a king implied to his subjects, “I embedded respect not stained by hate and love not stained by disrespectfulness into their heart.” The combination of these two aforementioned sayings was witnessed in every period, albeit in different proportions during the rule of these two empires.

*Assistant Professor Göknur Akçadağ is an instructor at Yıldız Technical University, department of humanities and social sciences, İstanbul.

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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10 Responses to A new evaluation of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire

  1. Thank you, very nice..

  2. Colin says:

    Thanks to Prof AKÇADAĞ for writing this. I have been won over by his argument and I now want to read more history written by Turkish historians if I can find translations.

  3. abvgd says:

    Loose comparisons can always be made but I fail to see any *relevant* cultural or other links between the Ottomans and the Byzantines. In fact, given that the Ottomans conquered the Byzantine heartlands it’s rather perplexing how little of the rich Greco-Roman heritage managed to survive and become adopted into Ottoman culture.

    The Greek and Latin halves of the Roman Empire were indeed distinct from each other but they were also heavily intertwined in so many ways over many centuries and the culture they represented was not jointly called Greco-Roman for nothing. Paganism and Christianity were two phases of a common Greco-Roman historical development and experience. I don’t think you could say the same regarding the cultural links between the Byzantines and the Turks/Ottomans.

    This dramatic break with Byzantine tradition was also felt in the Balkan states conquered by the Ottomans, that had previously been under Byzantine cultural and religious influence. On the whole, I feel that the Arabs have a far more relevant claim to have adopted Byzantine culture than the Ottomans. But maybe I’m missing something?

  4. Bill says:

    In order for Turkish Historians to have world wide acceptance , they must come to terms
    that the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire if you prefer, was a Greek in culture,and language, Hellenistic/Roman in judicial and administration. The deliberate and calculated
    omitance of “Greek” the most significant element of the Byzantine Civilization.
    Your continous mention of Byzantine and Ottoman Empires as being contemporary is far
    from true. Byzantine cIvilization pre-existed and significantly influenced the Arabic Civilization and consequently the Ottoman. Because the same people that lived worked
    and created under the Byzantine Empire , carried on their lives under a minority of
    Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire. I am very amazed of the way historians treat these matters.
    It is like these populations disappeared from the face of the earth.

  5. cynthia curran says:

    I read that in the middle Byzantine period historians skipped from the seven kings to Julius Caesar. John Zonaras wrote more about the Roman Republic and Roman History in general than many of the middle Byzantine historians or Rum Historians Its true that the Eastern Empire had lot of dealings with the west even though they didn’t get along particulary during certain periods of history. There was a great deal of trade with the west even the Saxons had silverware from the Byzantines in the dark ages. I can’t remember the emperor but he had a hat from the Italian styles of the late middle ages. I think with the Ottomans the connections are not religion but adminstrative or the Ottomans use the old Valens aquaedcut and so forth.

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  8. “In the public offices of the Ottoman Empire, many people of different origins could be promoted within their posts based solely on merit. Many non-Muslims in particular were able to work in provincial public office. The Byzantine Empire thrived longer than the Ottoman Empire; however, the Ottoman Empire symbolizes diversity more than the former.”

    This makes it look as though this was not true in the Roman and Byzantine empires, but it was not only possible, it was widespread. Germans became Roman generals and emperors. Serbs became Byzantine generals and emperors. The Pechenegs were absorbed into the Byzantine empire as a whole nation.

  9. proverbs6to10 says:

    Germans became generals, but not sure that any made emperor. That was probably the last taboo?

  10. Kosta says:

    It is nice to write history in your own personal prospective but besides you the whole world knows
    What Constantinople was go read a book with actual facts first than you can make comments that can actually educate people.
    I’m Greek and I personally don’t agree with either the Greek nor the Turkish prospective Because each one trying to make it work to there own benefit not allowing people today really learn the actual history behind this Byzantium mystery

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