- A Movable Empire: Ottoman Nomads, Migrants and Refugees by Resat Kasaba
“The Ottoman Empire began and ended with migration” (11) wrote the Ottomanist and historical sociologist Resat Kasaba in his second monograph A Movable Empire, where he attempts to theoreticize the six-century long interaction between the Ottoman central mechanism and nomadic/tribal groups. In his brief introduction in chapter one Kasaba questions the assumption of a sharp divide between stasis and mobility as markers of civilization and barbarism. He leaves behind the apologetic explanations of the modernists about why nomadism/tribalism persisted for so long across the Ottoman lands. He points out that the nomads/tribes were “constitutive element[s]” (8) in the Ottoman state’s institutionalization process. In each of the following three chapters, the author analyzes three major stages in the evolution of the relationship between the Ottoman center and nomadic/tribal groups. The second chapter examines the arrival of the first waves of the Central Asian Turkic tribes into Anatolia in the midst of continuous population displacements caused by the Mongols. In a land lacking “firm [social] boundaries and fixed categories,” (15) the early Ottoman state deliberately avoided to intervene with the lifestyle of these nomadic groups, and employed them in populating newly conquered territories and emerging buffer zones. Kasaba argues that the preservation of nomadism in this stage “as a legally constituted administrative category” (30) paved the way for its long-term presence in the empire, although a universally consistent terminology remained absent from state documents.
In the next stage discussed in chapter three, Kasaba argues that the Ottoman government began to approach nomads/tribes as a source of weakness from the seventeenth century on, when the new international system in Europe forced states to demarcate borders clearly. Mobility was now regarded “not as an asset to be manipulated and taken advantage of but as potential source of weakness to be contained” (54). Kasaba argues that the efforts in this era to employ nomads and tribal people as guards, couriers, and as manpower in the army, and to populate emptied villages and agricultural areas demonstrate that the Ottoman government was conceiving new methods of organizing nomadic people. However, these efforts to sedentarize itinerant subjects were not immune from resistance when tribes were not happy with the size of the plot given to them or the distances they have to travel. At the end, Kasaba argues, there were temporary gains and limited success in the policies, and much of the empire was still unsettled by the end of the eighteenth century.
In the nineteenth century, as Kasaba illustrates in the fourth chapter, the trend once again turned toward tribalism, if not nomadism. The Ottoman institutionalization and accompanying bureaucratization in the nineteenth century was not quite effective in eliminating provincial tribalism despite steps taken in that direction. As a result, the state preferred—and sometimes was obliged to do so—to cooperate with powerful tribes and use them as provincial representatives. During the nineteenth century there was a steady increase in the number of settlements and villages in tribal areas associated with specific tribes. Kasaba notes that the nineteenth century institutionalization was not only unable to cast out [End Page 471] tribalism; but it also reinforced tribal identities among Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and other tribes.
Such a large temporal and spatial analysis naturally necessitated a macronarrative which the author constructed successfully. Kasaba’s categorization of the Ottoman policies toward non-sedentary elements in three chronological phases is reasonably compelling, and to the best of this reader’s knowledge, represents the first attempt to theoreticize the history of the tribal/nomadic elements in the empire. His cautious reservation not to take presence or absence of nomadism and sedentary life style as markers of backwardness or modernity in the Ottoman Empire helps him situate the discussion in a non-Eurocentric framework and increases his work’s authority.
The book has easily detectable shortcomings emanating from its relative brevity for the topic it covers. The exemplary evidence Kasaba provides in chapter three...