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  • "Set aside from the pen and cut off from the foot":Imagining the Ottoman Empire and Kurdistan
  • Christopher Houston (bio)

Ever since the emergence of the nation-states of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran after World War I, the discourse on Kurdish nationalism has attributed a special significance to the "first division" of Kurdistan, the sixteenth-century incorporation of what is also denoted as the Kurdish regions into the Ottoman system. Some writers have seen the resulting autonomy as a golden age of Kurdish independence, at least in relation to what came afterward. Others have interpreted the event as initiating five hundred years of continuing external—Turkish and Persian—overlordship.1 Both summaries assume two key tenets of nationalism: first, that the social world is divided into territorial groups on the basis of their nationality; second, that those national groups have the right to self-determination. In examining more closely in this article these and other interpretations of that critical event, at least three related concerns connect vitally with contemporary discourse on Kurdish identity. First is the question of the origins and distinguishing features of the Ottoman Empire—Turkish, Islamic, or something more hybrid—and how those origins are made to explain the Ottoman role in Kurdistan. Second are constructions of the Ottoman prehistory of the Kurds. Third is the way these representations of Ottoman Kurdish history and prehistory articulate in turn to key components of official Turkish history, both to its account of the Ottomans and to its broader nationalist discourse on Turkishness.

In this article I seek to identify and critique the historiography of Ottoman Kurdistan and, in particular, the interpretation of one of its critical moments, the treaty in the early sixteenth century with the Ottomans that consolidated an extended period of Kurdish rulers' autonomy in Kurdistan. Although it is clear that the covert (and often overt) interlocutor of this historiography is official Turkish nationalist history, I concentrate on the production of historical knowledge about Kurds.2 To anticipate my conclusion, I argue that the historical constructions under discussion, while characterized by significant shades of difference among their individual interpretations, are unified by a shared political imagination. In their exploration of the Ottoman Kurdish history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the histories' theoretical obsession centers on the meaning and extent of the Kurdish principalities' political [End Page 397] autonomy. In other words, current perceptions of the Ottoman history of the Kurdish provinces are refracted through a nationalist prism, both Turkish and Kurdish. As counterpoint, I suggest that the long history of the political autonomy of the Kurdish regions be given an additional meaning, one that seeks to trace the region's connections with and synthesizing of Ottoman society and not only its domination by that society's imperial state.

Nationalizing the Ottoman Empire

For nearly all writings about Kurds, the four hundred years or more of Ottoman rule (indirect or otherwise) over much of the Kurdish territory is of critical importance.3 One key way the relationship is represented and politicized is through debates or claims over the genesis (and genius) of the empire itself. This is an interpretive task, given both the lack of extant sources from the fourteenth century and the wildly varied assessments of its origins.4 For example, in the final days of Britain's "informal" imperialism in the Ottoman territories the historian Herbert Gibbon wrote famously of the empire's non-Asiatic roots. Twenty years later the Turkish historian Fuat Köprülü was sketching out its Turkish ethnic core. In a key essay in the volume The Ottoman City and Its Parts, Speros Vryonis notes the Greek influence on the conqueror of Constantinople, Fatih Mehmet, while both Leigh Brown and Halil Inalcik argue in their respective essays in Imperial Legacy that the Ottomans were not a Turkish empire, despite this designation by Europe. Bernard Lewis hedges his bets by claiming that no other regime/people submerged their identity in Islam as much as the Ottoman Turks, although as Michael Meeker notes, such a position allows the nationalism of the Turkish Republicans to be represented as a natural corrective to a somehow unnatural repression.5

Although this may appear an arcane controversy...


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pp. 397-411
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