"The Language of the Documents"

The late Halil İnalcık's major contributions to the study of the Ottoman Empire helped ensure that the empire took its place on the shelves of world history...

27 Temmuz 2016 13:00

Halil İnalcık embodied more than a hint of the empire whose history he told so well. He created his own sense of distance through time and through space, from the Crimea to the Balkans, from the nineteenth century to the thirteenth, from the peasant's patch to the Sultan's throne.

And like empire, Halil İnalcık was touched by mystique. Although he spent a portion of his career trying to unravel the emergence of the Ottoman state, his own origins had more than a sense of mystery. He was born... no one knows exactly when. Family legend had it that it was the year Uncle Ali returned from Hungary, sometime towards the end of the First World War, probably 1916. On his mother's side he was descended from a dervish sheikh at the holy shrine of Eyüp. His paternal grandfather and namesake Halil Efendi was the muezzin in the Khan's Mosque in the Crimean city of Bahçesaray, who fled into the Ottoman domains to avoid the call-up to fight in the Russo-Japanese war. Halil Efendi's son became a man of many trades, including that of a perfumer whose "Ottoman Cologne" was exported to Europe.

And yet it would be a mistake to make too much of the metaphor of empire. Professor İnalcık was above all a product of the Republic. Trouble in the cologne business meant that the family moved to Ankara in 1925. His was the generation which knew Atatürk as a real father and which cried real tears when the great man died. İnalcık's intellectual career paralleled the intellectual climate of Ankara, from the nationalistic concern with roots and origins to the attempt to see Turkey take its place in the world and finally to efforts to place Ottoman history in a global context.

It is ironical that the intellect which has possibly had the deepest effect on Halil İnalcık's work belonged to a man whose understanding of Ottoman history was patchy. İnalcık follows in the footsteps of the historical sociology of Max Weber. It is from Weber and Weberian scholars that İnalcık acquired his concerns with the social configuration of an empire that ruled the lives of millions over generations. When we think of Ottoman institutions, military, bureaucratic and spiritual, we invoke images whose clarity owes much to the work of Professor İnalcık. Yet Weber himself thought of the Ottomans not in terms of the orderliness of empire, but as the ideal type of pure despotism, a form of arbitrary rule which he called "sultanism." İnalcık's major task was to unpick that false abstraction and ground a Weberian ideal type in real archival study. For many years, the English speaking world relied on The Ottoman Empire in the Classical Age (1973).

The Ottoman Empire: Classical Age 1300 - 1600, Halil İnalcık, Phoenix PressOf course his own command over Ottoman studies had something of the imperious Sultan about it and he divided and ruled the pretenders to his throne, a stable of Ottoman PhD the students at the University of Chicago where he held a chair in Ottoman history. Each had their own, often contradictory image of what it was like to learn in his shadow. And more than ten of them became professors in their own right.

His early work had little to do with dynastic history but was a social history and the history - of the institutions that controlled individual lives and of the ideology that shaped those institutions. In his words, a history that was "material, individual, emotional, spiritual."

It was his insistence on these latter components which, he insisted differentiated his work from Marxist historians. Although influenced by Marxian sociology, he expressed regret for the time he spent trying to engage with contemporary Marxist criticisms of his work. That camp, he felt was theory driven - ultimately compelled towards the simplification of the reductionist grand concept. His own work, he suggested, allowed himself to be buffeted by the complexity of an empirical reality, a reality which is etched by the massive documentation of the Ottoman Empire. The result is that his writings litter the footnotes of those, paradoxically, who still sought to take issue with his methodology.

İnalcık was, above all, a scholar of the Ottoman archives. It was during the 1950s that he discovered, in an act of historical archaeology, the importance of the Ottoman legal records (the sicils) by rescuing a series of worm-ridden volumes from a depot in Bursa. It is this respect for the sources of Ottoman history that characterises his work and that of his students.

Here he was clearly influenced by Ömer Lütfi Barkan, the great "defterologist" of Ottoman history, defters being the ledgers in which the servants of the Ottoman state kept their accounts and records. The challenge he inherited from Barkan was to make Ottoman social structure intelligible from the bits and pieces of written remains.

"It was Barkan who opened our eyes," İnalcık said. And with his eyes wide open, what he saw was the social history of an empire as told through the careful documentation of its bureaucrats. It was İnalcık's further contention that the still unexplored wealth of this documentation meant that Ottoman studies was slow to take its place as one of the great social scientific disciplines. And yet he maintained it provided the best opportunity to study empire.

Rather than Barkan, Professor İnalcık cited the legal historian Sadri Maksudi Arsal as the scholar who touched him most deeply. Arsal was a professor at the Ankara Law Faculty and a family friend to whom the young İnalcık served as a secretary. He soon acquired the role of sounding board for ideas on jurisprudence and the general principles of law.

Indeed, it was quite by accident, he claimed, that he became a historian. Up to that time he had been a student of literature with notions of becoming a poet. Given his education in Ankara's Gazi Teacher Training College, the logical progression would have been for him to have taught high school.

Instead, he went to the Language, History and Geography faculty of Ankara University where he met the other great influence in his life, the historian Mehmet Fuad Köprülü. Köprülü brought to Turkey from Paris the germ of social history. Through him, İnalcık got to hear of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre and eventually Febvre's great student, Fernand Braudel.

It was 1950, and in Paris that he attended the International Congress of Historical Sciences. By this time he was already an exceptionally young member of the Turkish Historical Association. Braudel and Braudel's book La Méditerranée dominated the proceedings. For İnalcık, the way ahead was clear. He had spent the previous year in the British Museum filling thirty notebooks with diplomatic history. These were never to be opened. Instead he began to see the Ottomans as part of the Mediterranean world and to view the Empire in terms of world trade. It would be wrong to say that he was the only one to shed the nationalist cast in which the historians of his generation had been moulded, yet he was certainly successful in escaping the essentially defensive posture of a nationalist history by realising what it was his subject had to offer the international scholarly community.

Halil İnalcık cites his time in England as another formative experience. This was a depressed post-war England where the greatest excitement was to attend Attlee's celebration party on the night of his electoral victory over Churchill. Even so, he was exposed to the more controlled stimulus of the seminars at the School of Oriental and African Studies conducted by Paul Wittek.

İnalcık says that he owes much to his friendship with Wittek who was, according to the accounts of his students, a difficult man. Yet İnalcık leaps to the defence of Wittek against the (by now) students of those students who seek to rewrite his legacy. It was Wittek "who introduced a critical approach to the early Ottoman tradition." If it was Barkan and others like Uzunçarşılı who taught respect for the document, it was Wittek who pioneered the art of the critical interpretation of sources. It was only then that Ottomanists acquired the language of their trade, what Halil İnalcık refers to as "the language of the documents."

Perhaps the cruellest parallel between Professor İnalcık's own career and intellectual history of his country, is that he felt obliged to leave Turkey at the beginning of the 1970s when life in Turkish universities became intolerable and a liberal academic tradition almost impossible to sustain.

A frequent visitor to America, he moved to Chicago permanently in 1972 to take up a university chair. In a way this has merely been an extension of empire - and the material and human resources he has created in Chicago have helped to feed the pursuit of history back in Turkey.

In 1994, Halil İnalcık retired from Chicago and came back to Turkey to establish the history department at Ankara's Bilkent University. In an interview at the time, he expressed concern that Turkish universities no longer served the intellects they housed and was no longer geared to generate creative research. These were days when access to the Ottoman archives was highly restricted, particularly to outside scholars. This was a  legacy of an attitude that history belonged to the nation and not the world and that knowledge was finite - to allow a foreign scholar to see it would be to consume its contents. He joined the successful campaign to make the archives more easily accessible. He continued the struggle to improve the conditions of and access to other important collections.

If knowledge of the documents has enabled him to write "global history," it also allowed him to come to terms with what he saw as the basic social unit in the Ottoman Empire, the peasant household or çifthane. It was this which it was the state's policy to preserve and which became the basis of taxation and of a fiscal efficiency on which political power was founded.

Halil İnalcık was a founding editor of the Cambridge An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire (1994) to which he contributed a two hundred page chapter "State, Land and Peasant." At the time he said that had he been a younger man, he claimed, he would have written the volumes himself. Even so, his major contribution was no fin d'empire gesture. The completion of the Economic and Social History helped ensure that the Ottoman Empire took its place on the shelves of world history.

Professor İnalcık remained an active scholar and a prolific author to the very end of his life. He was an editor and a principal contributor to volume five of the UNESCO History of Humanity which covered the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. His last work in English, Turkey and Europe in History was published in 2006.

Halil İnalcık, born İstanbul, 1916 and died Ankara, July 2016.