History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

The Rise of Oriental Travel: English Visitors to the Ottoman Empire, 1580–1720

Author's response


The Rise of Oriental Travel: English Visitors to the Ottoman Empire, 1580–1720

Gerald MacLean
ISBN: 033397364X, pp. xxi + 267 and 36 illus, 2004

Jonathan Burton

Professor Burton's review of my recent book is both perceptive and shrewd; how can I be anything other than delighted and flattered? His masterful semiotic analysis of the cover brilliantly captures the design of the book's project, though in its very ingenuity perhaps misses a crucial set of contingent factors: those of marketing and the nitty-gritty of publishing, pricing and packaging. In these respects, too, as Noel Malcolm observed in reviewing the book for the Sunday Telegraph (25 April 2004), the title itself owes rather more to the demands of publishers for 'aggrandizing titles' than to the possible achievement of any single book. The choice of the Levni portrait for the front cover was indeed 'calculated' since it represents the earliest instance I have found of an Ottoman artist portraying a Western European without obvious distortion or bias, unlike the vilified, demonized or simply comic figures that appear, for example, in illustrations to Fuzuli's Hadikat al-Suada (British Library, MS. Or 7301 fos. 15v, 40v), or in the often reproduced battle scenes found in the Suleymanname and Hunername held in the library of the Topkapi Palace. Timing, chance and length were also significant factors in deciding what could be included, what had to go, and what might never be achieved.

Most of Burton's minor cavils about what is not in the book, which I readily acknowledge, result not only from such exigencies, but also from the plan to maintain a clear focus and style that would appeal to a broad readership. My own desire was to bring academic scholarship into the public arena. I wanted to write a book that would not only provide scholars with 'a useful archive for broader inquiries', as Burton elegantly puts it, but would also be legible to non-specialists. For my own part, my major concerns are the price, which all but puts the book out of the reach of general readers and undergraduates alike: I continue to hope an affordable paperback will appear in due course.

When beginning research for the book, I aimed to fulfil Burton's major concern and to examine in detail the interactive and transcultural nature of the Anglo-Ottoman encounter during the early modern period before the British Empire arose to face that of the Ottomans. Very quickly I learned that, while such ambitions were certainly beyond me, they may well be beyond the scope of any historian working in our times. After learning sufficient modern Turkish to be able to scan some of the historical scholarship in that language, after attending seminars and symposia on Ottoman historiography, and after talking with specialists, I also discovered some of the considerable problems endemic to the field. Anyone hoping to cover the vastness of the Ottoman borders with Europe comprehensively would need easy familiarity not only with Ottoman and modern Turkish, but also with Greek, Italian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, German, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, and Arabic and Persian languages and archives. Restricting my focus to the Ottoman Mediterranean was an early strategic decision since, for the most part, that is where the English were interested in going.

Even so, my book does not attempt to 'integrate Ottoman accounts with their English counterparts' because, for the early modern period, there are no such 'Ottoman accounts': or so I have been reliably informed. The work of scholars blessed with the necessary language skills. who have overcome the difficulties of gaining access to Ottoman archives. shows us that there simply is no analogous body of writing upon which to draw. Ottoman and Muslim travel writers never made it to England; even the renowned traveller Evliya Chelebi, who was no Ottoman, never came to England. The exchange of letters between Queen Elizabeth and various members of the Ottoman Porte – magisterially examined by Susan Skilliter and J. M. Stein – deserve much fuller treatment than I could possibly have given them in this book. As for attitudes towards the early modern English among those living within the Ottoman Empire, none of the great recorders of their own times, such as Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali, Selaniki Mustafa Efendi or Katip Chelebi, provides any useful clues: the English were simply not that important or interesting. These days, the situation seems to have reversed itself. The most distressing aspect of teaching university students in Istanbul has been answering the regular question 'What do your students in America think of us in Turkey?', to which I have yet to find a better answer than 'For the most part, hardly anything at all'.

In addition to the absence of evidence, there remains the thorny problem of translating and interpreting the Ottoman archives of the period in question. For these matters I can refer readers to Gabriel Piterberg's recent and lively study, An Ottoman Tragedy: History and Historiography at Play (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003) as well as to important (often incompatible and hotly contested) studies by scholars writing in, or translated into, English that I have found most useful: these include works by Ottomanists such as Omer Lutfi Barkan, Karen Barkey, Linda Darling, Edhem Eldem, Suraiya Faroqhi, Cornell Fleischer, Daniel Goffman, Jane Hathaway, Colin Imber, Halil Inalcik, Cemal Kafadar, Fuad Koprulu, Carl Kortepeter, Metin Kunt, Bruce Masters, Bruce McGowan, Victor Menage, Rhoads Murphey, Victor Ostapchuk, Sevket Pamuk, Leslie Peirce, Ariel Salzman, Stanford Shaw, Amy Singer, Andreas Tietze, Christine Woodhead and Dror Ze'evi, not to forget earlier archivally-based studies by H. A. Gibbons, Paul Wittek and Bernard Lewis, or the labours of contributors to the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. This is, of course, a slightly quirky list that reflects only my own reading rather than a comprehensive catalogue. Meanwhile the world awaits Dr Caroline Finkel's Osman's Dream: the Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923 (forthcoming, 2005), which will be the first full narrative account of the Ottoman Empire by an Ottomanist versed in the archives.

At the risk of contradicting myself, there are a few scattered references to the English in early Ottoman works. There is the account by Mustapha Safi of Ahmed I destroying Thomas Dallam's clockwork organ – not a clock – which Queen Elizabeth sent as an accession present to Mehmed III. Following leads from Gulru Necipoglu's brilliant study, Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: the Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1991), and M. Halim Spatar's annotated translation into Turkish of Stanley Mayes's 1956 book on Dallam, I set about finding this account. Relying on a network of friends and contacts in Istanbul, I was delighted when Dr. Idris Bostan of Istanbul University agreed to supply a transcription of the relevant passage from the copy in the Beyazit Library. Rather than being a mystery, my lack of direct comment on the passage arose from a simple logistical matter: the transcription arrived when the book was already in press and it was only the unbounded generosity of Professor Geoffrey Lewis that enabled me to include his elegant translation at all.

Burton perhaps not unreasonably observes that my claim to consider the 'contemporary historical setting of these visits as seen from the Ottoman side' goes 'largely unfulfilled'. It was clearly unwise of me not to qualify this claim in respect of the near impossibility of knowing what Ottoman views – for surely there were many different ones – of the English were. Here my only defence is that I hope to have done a better job of keeping what was going on inside the Ottoman Empire rather more clearly in mind than earlier studies by Samuel Chew, Boies Penrose or Brandon Beck. Of broader scope, Andrew Wheatcroft's recent Infidels: the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, 638-2002 (London: Viking, 2003) seems to me, at least, to have done an excellent job of keeping both sides fully in focus while writing for general readers as well as for undergraduates, teachers and scholars. While it is regrettable enough that it has taken recent world events to stir up undergraduate interest in matters Middle Eastern, it is also unfortunate that as a result of this new interest we are likely to see even more unreliable and sensationalizing works, such as those by Giles Milton and Jason Goodwin, being published and taken seriously.

As Burton points out, the key focus of my book is the English experience of the Ottoman Empire and its effect upon Englishness at a crucial period when the vernacular language was transforming itself into literature. I am delighted that he found 'convincing' the section on the captivity narrative of 'T. S.' as a contribution to our understanding of the early emergence of the novel, since I was specially pressed by limitations of the allocated word limit and had to omit a good deal of material here (and in the section on Blount) concerning what was otherwise knowable to contemporary readers of English concerning Ottoman North Africa. I also agree with Burton that Dallam's journal displays 'more literary qualities than most' accounts, and continue to wonder why no publisher has yet agreed to take on a modernized and annotated edition to replace the scarce and unreliable edition published long ago by the Hakluyt Society.

I would also like, if I may, to take this opportunity to correct two substantial errors in the book: Lokman was not an 'Ottoman artist' as captions to three of the illustrations claim, but the author of the work being illustrated. And the scholar Susan Skilliter has only one 'e' in her second name.

With Professor Nabil Matar I am currently working on a study of the nature, range and extent to which English culture during the early modern period was influenced by contact with the Ottoman world and welcome any suggestions or correctives to my book or this response.

Jonathan Burton's Review

Back to top