Conference Report: Ottoman Topologies: A Spatial Experience in an Early Modern Empire and Beyond

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The “spatial turn” in humanities is slowly gaining a foothold in the field of Ottoman studies. Spatial history is by no means a monolithic field of academic inquiry. The conference Ottoman Topologies: A Spatial Experience in an Early Modern Empire and Beyond, hosted by Stanford University’s Department of History in May 2014, provided ample evidence that Ottoman scholars employed space and its derivatives (spatiality and territoriality) as meaningful analytical categories in various ways. This was one of the major conferences in spatial history and Ottoman history in North America this year, and the first to be dedicated solely to the “Ottoman spatial turn.”

The conference paid homage to another conference in Ottoman history, held at Stanford in 1957, which included such foundational figures in Middle Eastern studies as Halil İnalcık, Bernard Lewis, Richard Frye, Tibor Halasi-Kun and Sir Hamilton Gibb. The 2014 conference featured 27 scholars representing different academic generations and several fields: history, art history, literature and archaeology. The two-day event was co-sponsored by 19 departments and research centers on Stanford’s campus, including the Stanford Humanities Center and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.

The conference focused on the period between the 14th and 18th centuries, and consisted of six panels. The first five panels — Imagining Space, Mapping Space, Building Space, Experiencing Space and Administering Space — studied how Ottoman men and women engaged with the diverse regions, climates and peoples that made up the Ottoman political order. The sixth panel — Digitizing Space — explored new tools that scholars could use to enhance their spatial research.

The conference opened with Ali Yaycıoğlu’s (Stanford University) invitation to think broadly about “space” and how its study could enrich an intellectual agenda in Ottoman studies and Cemal Kafadar’s (Harvard University) keynote speech on the politics of space in Ottoman historiography. The first panel explored how early modern Ottoman residents imagined the space in which they operated. Ahmet Karamustafa (University of Maryland) investigated what Sufi tariqas could teach us about spatiality, whereas Nicolas Trépanier (University of Mississippi) discussed how the culture of medieval Anatolian residents shaped the way they perceived the territory around them and what physical elements of medieval Anatolia exist today. Rachel Goshgarian (Lafayette College) explored how a displaced Armenian population envisioned itself as a newly established Ottoman community in Crimea, and Selim Kuru (University of Washington) looked at a rare literary topology of 16th century Bursa in which Ottoman author Lâmi’î Çelebi expresses anxiety about the city’s fortunes to Süleyman the Lawgiver.

The second session focused on mapmakers and geographers of the Ottoman world. Gottfried Hagen (University of Michigan) discussed what made the maps “Ottoman” and encouraged scholars to dig deeper into cosmological, philosophical and theological contexts of the time to understand the intellectual environment in which maps were created. Maria Mavroudi (University of California, Berkeley) examined the appropriation of Ptolemy’s geography and its translation from Greek into Arabic at the court of Mehmet the Conqueror. Karen Pinto (Gettysburg College), through a close reading of a 16th century world map, demonstrated how Ottomans mediated Islamic cartographic space. Pınar Emiralioğlu (University of Pittsburgh) investigated the concept of the “Ottoman Enlightenment,” positing that Ottoman intellectuals actively participated in global intellectual debates, and through them refined their ideas about geographical knowledge and its role in politics and society.

The next group of panelists considered how Ottoman space, or spaces, were constructed. Aleksandar Sopov (Harvard University) explored the emergence of a new conception of urban space in 15th century İstanbul and Cairo, in which agricultural production took a prominent place. Patricia Blessing (Stanford University) presented an “eastern outlook” on the history of Anatolian architecture. Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh (University of California, Davis) and Shirine Hamadeh (Rice University), through studies of 17th century Aleppo and 18th century İstanbul, respectively, discussed how one could write early modern architectural and urban histories, when the existing sources have so few images representing architecture.

How the residents of the Ottoman world experienced the spaces around them was explored by Özer Ergenç (Bilkent University), who noted the richness of Ottoman interpretations of spatiality in the many terms used to convey a spatial meaning: mekan, mahal, mevki, mevzi, belde, vatan, alem, cihan, dar, dünya, arz, memleket, yurt, hıtta, safha, vilayet and nahiye. He argued that we should be careful to distinguish between the individual’s and the state’s perceptions of space. Helen Pfeifer (Princeton University) analyzed Pan-Ottoman elite culture, or “alternative geography,” centered around the majlis, or gatherings of people, and adab, or the manners needed to navigate this social milieu. Elizabeth Lambourn (De Montfort University) proposed adding animals as subjects of historical spatial analysis, as she did in her study on the movement of horses between the Ottoman and Mughal domains. In a captivating talk on “Ottoman Iceland,” Alan Mikhail (Yale University) explored how an eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki in the late 18th century, through an interruption of Indian Ocean monsoons, affected the Nile floods and subsequently the course of Egyptian political and social history.

The Ottoman world, assembled together over centuries of expansion and integration, was administered through many political, financial and legal regimes — the subject of the fifth panel. It is a historian’s task to study both fragmentation and uniformity across the empire, which was evident in the different approaches of Himmet Taşkömür (Harvard University) and Will Smiley (Yale University): judicial space as a flexible, variegated system domestically, or the Ottoman state participating in the creation of a global legal regime on war captives. Şevket Pamuk (Boğaziçi University) explored the monetary space of the Ottoman Empire. Antonis Hadjikyriacou (Princeton University) analyzed the concept of insularity and how it played out in Cyprus specifically and Ottoman islands in general.

The final panel was dedicated to the digitization of space. Owen Doonan (California State University, Northridge) and Hakan Karateke (University of Chicago) presented two projects: the Sinop Regional Archaeological Project and the Database for Ottoman Inscriptions, respectively. Victor Ostapchuk (University of Toronto) proposed looking at archival documents less as traditional sources and more as archaeological artifacts containing data on the locations of Ottoman people and their movements through space. Amy Singer (Tel Aviv University) questioned how we conceptualize geographic locations and asked how the early modern Ottomans perceived their urban sites within the empire’s political, economic, religious or environmental landscapes.

The conference closed with a general discussion, moderated by Cornell Fleischer (University of Chicago), on spatial history and how Ottoman scholars can engage with spatial history through various means. This is a fertile field, because Ottoman residents themselves constructed, recorded and understood space in many different ways.

Vladımır Troyansky, Stanford Unıversıty

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