Reading Kanunname: Law and Governance in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Empire

By Heather Ferguson.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

Recent trends in Ottoman history writing capture the important link between frontiers and state authority. By pushing these modes of scholarship further, I hope to use the frontier metaphor to argue that it is in the very process of encounter that the state/authority/law is realized. This conception of state formation allows us to intervene in the debates concerning provincial administration, decline, and contact with Europe. Each of these rather huge and cumbrous historiographical concerns can be read within the crucible of encounter, process, and the consequences that result. Agitation by former mercenaries turned bandits, acquisition of martial and fiscal authority by provincial leaders, along with military and commercial exchanges with various European entitites were all part of the process of state formation.

Thus, frontiers can help us to elaborate the synthetic nature of the Ottoman imperial tradition and also demonstrate that the tug-of-war between center and province was internal to the process of state formation; that in the moment of perceiving military weakness, seventeenth-century Ottomans began to articulate for themselves a coherent state apparatus and thus contributed to its longeveity; and that encounter with Europe in the nineteenth-century was not a radical break or an overwhelming external imposition but rather part of the process of encounter and adaptation that formed an integral part of the Ottoman system.

This paper will focus on one archival cache that suggests how Ottoman authority was expanded and legitimized in the early seventeenth-century. The mühimmeler are records of sultanic orders to various state and non-state agents in the provinces. Literally translating as, “things of import” these documents reveal the quotidian concerns of an empire and, when read against the grain, the modes of action adopted by bargainers vis-à-vis the state. Concentrating on a province that includes parts of modern-day Lebanon and Northern Syria this collection records an imperial vision of unrest and strategies of consolidation as the Ottoman empire faces multiple challenges of war, fiscal transformation, and demographic change all leading to an increasingly mobile population. Based on these archival materials, my paper shows explicitly how Ottoman authority was consolidated in this contested periphery; the techniques by which the Ottomans dealt with the empire’s frontiers; and how these interactions participate in a more global process of negotiating empire and forging state power.

Keywords: Middle East History, Ottoman Studies, State Formation, Historiography

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 6, Issue 8, pp.75-82. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 547.081KB).

Heather Ferguson

Doctoral Candidate in History, History Department, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

Heather Ferguson graduated summa cum laude from La Sierra University with an honors thesis entitled Womenspirit Writing: Re-visioning Feminist Theologies as Sacred Biographies. After a summer spent studying Hebrew in Jerusalem, she continued her education at the University of Texas, Austin and received an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies (May, 1999). Heather’s thesis, Handicrafts, Heritage, and History: Rural Weavers, Urban Elites, and the Construction of Cultural Identity in Jordan, was based on both ethnographic and archival fieldwork. Her work in the History Dept. at the University of California, Berkeley includes language study and paleographic research in Arabic, Turkish, and Ottoman and grant supported research in Syria and Turkey. Moving from an original interest in the family and legal dynamics (see the publication “Property, Language, and Law: Conventions of Social Discourse in Seventeenth-century Tarablus al-Sham”) to a broader investigation of the seventeenth-century crisis as a global dynamic indicating efforts toward state centralization, Heather hopes to complete her dissertation in the 2008-2009 academic year.

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