Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 161-163
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A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire
A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire. By Sevket Pamuk (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999) 276 pp. $69.95
For Ottoman economic historians, this book provided the brightest fireworks of the year 2000. Pamuk has published the first chronologically and spatially comprehensive history of the Ottoman monetary system, with complete time series for the various coin types. He has also contributed significantly to many debates in economic history. He bases his analysis on a five-part periodization, sorting problems among periods to dispel the ahistorical blur heretofore common (20). The emergent empire enjoyed a relatively stable, silver currency, the akçe (1300-1477). With rapid expansion, the empire created a unified gold coinage, that "ultimate symbol of sovereignty," while accommodating different silver zones (1477-1585). Monetary instability marked the next period, internal problems being compounded by intercontinental specie flows. The akçe disappeared, and foreign coins increased in circulation (1585-1690).
The establishment of a new Ottoman coin, the gurus (compare Grosschen), signaled a subsequent recovery, characterized by relative monetary stability until the 1780s, and thereafter by war-induced crises and debasements (1690-1844). During the final period, bimetallism based on the silver kurus and the gold lira was associated with growing integration into world financial markets, the end of debasements but the start of foreign borrowing, the "limping gold standard" from the 1880s onward, and the rise of commercial banking. This analysis and its monetary time series will gain in value with full publication of Pamuk's work on Ottoman prices, results of which have begun to appear. [End Page 161]
The goals of the study include overcoming the "compartmentalized approach" to economic history, achieving an empire-wide analysis, from Hungary to Algeria, situated in global context (225). Pamuk critiques commonplace ideas about limited monetary circulation or underdeveloped credit in the early empire, stressing extensive Muslim, as well as non-Muslim, participation (77-87). Emphasizing state policy but pointing out that the state could not ignore powerful interest groups, he shows that debasement was not a constant instrument of policy but most characterized the periods of Mehmed the Conqueror (1451-1481), monetary destabilization (1580-1640), and Mahmud II (1808-1839). Pamuk's comments on how a government might benefit from devaluation (via seigniorage rights, for example) are enlightening. Concerning the sixteenth-century price revolution, he agrees with Barkan on the magnitude of Ottoman price increases but finds that silver inflation accounted for less and Ottoman debasement for more of the change than Barkan thought. 1 Pamuk critiques Hamilton and others for exaggerating the implications of the price revolution for the rise of capitalism in Europe, as well as Barkan for seeing it as a precipitant of Ottoman "economic decline" (112-130, 228). 2
Pamuk adds new economic realism to the "anti-declinist" trend in Ottoman historiography of the early modern period; Ottomanists have much to learn from him concerning the differences in trends between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His discussion of the crisis conditions of the early seventeenth century (131-147), followed by virtual cessation of Ottoman mint activity and massive exports of often- debased coinage from Europe to the Ottoman realm, leaves one wondering whether more was not involved than the political and economic factors that he discusses. His analysis of the eighteenth-century upturn and the economic crises between 1787 and 1839 are innovative. His account of the nineteenth-century Ottoman economy would be hard to beat for clarity and concision.
This magisterial interdisciplinary work, product of the intellectual teamwork of Pamuk and his archival assistants, along with their combined expertise in economics and Ottoman paleography, sets a new standard in Ottoman economic historiography. There are some loose ends. The discussion of global specie flows in the sixteenth century, though referring to Flynn, Giraldez, and von Glahn, would also have benefited from Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence. 3 The early [End Page 162] seventeenth-century deterioration is so dire as to raise questions about factors that are...