Sunday, May 27

History of the Ottomans Click for more info

I distinctly remember the day I realised that The Ottomans were in fact Muslim. I was very young, and assumed to be Muslim was to live in a minority. It was a quality few people had, and something that made me different.

On being told this little fact, I suddently had so many questions. They ranged from "but weren't they the bad guys?" to "woah, you mean the Muslims had some kind of power?" to "you mean you can get non brown or Arab Muslims?". Looking back I realise exactly how naive I was.

But as one grows older, wiser and more cynical they learn not to blame themselves too much for being ignorance. My lack of awareness wasn't my fault, but that of an education system that had this pretty important part of world history almost clinically cut out of it. Compared to what I had known about Greek, Chinese, Persian and British empires at that age, I would even go on to say it was deliberately repressed.

But of course once you know there is knowledge out there you want there's no real excuse not to pursue it. Which finally brings me to this review or a two day course I attended this weekend with Ebrahim College, the title of which promised to fill me in on exactly what I wanted to know: The History of the Ottomans. Actually to be honest the main pulling point for me was that they were also showing the feature film Fatih 1453 about the conquering of Constantinople.

I generally tend to avoid the typically Islamic courses places like Ebrahim College tend to offer. They're not really my cup of tea (and I may write about my position on how we overuse prescription as a crutch and neglect introspection some other time), but I figured that this particular course would be academic enough for me to enjoy. I was right and wrong in this, but more about that in a bit.

On day one, the lecture topics were pretty varied, which is always a good thing, except when they don't really flow from one into another. For example I would have expected any history course to be laid out in some kind of chronological order with a flowing narrative, pretty much as if it's a story that's being told. Looking back at the programme outline, it is clear that this was attempted in this case, but in my opinion it was poorly executed and I found it all a little disconnected and muddled. Professor Mehmet Ipsirli was clearly knowledgeable about this stuff, but I'm not sure I took away much from his opening "Emergence of power: political, social and administrative structure" talk. Similarly Professor Alparslan Acikgenc's "Ottoman culture, Science and Philosophy" course was a bit over my head too.

To be fair this was more a matter of taste than anything else, me being more suited to structure and pointedness in talks. Nevertheless I felt that Professor Azmi Ozcan's "Caliphate institution of the Ottomans and Relationship with the other Muslim Countries" was a little vague in content, although I did love the clarity in how he explained how the caliphate was not religious but political. I don't even remember what Professor Ipsirli said in his second lecture "The institution of Rulership of the Ottomans and the Great Sultans".

But as time went on and more lecturers presented, I found the courses did become more structured and so easier to follow for me. Professor Acikgenc returned to tell us about "Islamic Education in the Ottoman Period", a talk which I thought was wonderful in its focus and literacy. It was interesting to hear about how education belonged to the community rather than the state during the early years of the empire. Unfortunately I don't think I got as much from Professor Ozcan's second lecture "The Causes of Decline" as I did from his first.

Of course it goes without saying that I was irritated by the audience. Although the course itself wasn't an Islamic Course in the typical sense, the crowd most certainly was, and we had all the lack of etiquette in the Q&As that followed each talk that we usually see during these things. Over-fawning, pontification, self-promotion and digression were the name of the game here and although the lecturers were polite enough to go along with it, I would have expected the various chairs from the college to keep things in control and moving a little more. In my opinion a lot of the value to be had in these talks is wasted simply because we don;t know how to ask pertinent questions in a concise manner. But hey, I guess that's why I avoid these things.

Day two was much better. A new presenter, Dr Salim Ayduz, gave two lectures: the first was on "Contributions of Ottoman Science and technology to Modern Civilisation" and then a more focussed "Muhammed II and the Siege of Constantinople". Both were excellently prepared and structured and I felt that I took a lot away from them and even the Q&As were decent. I was especially interested in hearing how Da Vinci and Copernicus may have each plagiarised Ottoman scholars, and how in contrast the same Ottoman scholars would credit their inspirations and refuse to accept that they had "invented" anything themselves. Dr Ayduz may be a little biased, but it was clear over the course of his two lectures that there was a certain honour in the way the Ottomans rolled.

The day ended with an extended panel Q&A which had some really good questions asked and answered. The film that I (and most other people there, it seems) had come to watch had actually been cancelled; Ebrahim College were denied the ability to cut certain scenes in order to make it acceptable for them to show. A bit of a shame then, except that I wasn't able to stay for personal reasons anyway.

Overall I would say that I don't think I got all I wanted from this course. Although I have a taste of some of the aspects of Ottoman culture I'm still missing the "bigger picture" of what went on during the period, and I'm not sure I'm even aware of some of the more interesting deeper aspects of the empire. And of course I still haven't seen Fatih either. That said, it has served as a launchpad into further independent study, albeit an inefficient one at two days long, and I hope to explore some of the themes that personally interested me at a later date.