- Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective
One of the most difficult elements for world historians to integrate into their teaching and scholarship, especially if they are nonspecialists, is the Ottoman Empire. For this reason alone, Empire of Difference is welcome as an ambitious study that seeks to analyze the entire sweep of Ottoman history from its origins in the late thirteenth century to its final collapse in the early twentieth. It is, in part, a reaction to other recent attempts to conceptualize the full sweep of the empire’s history, such as Caroline Finkel’s predominantly chronological and narrative history, Osman’s Dream (2005). However, Barkey implicitly critiques the Finkel model and argues for a different type of interpretive lens that focuses on the “modalities of empire,” such as how it was ruled and organized (p. 8). In so doing, Barkey also builds on earlier work that sought to establish a comparative framework of empire that compares the activities of the Ottomans to other empire builders, and not just their contemporaries in Russia and Austria-Hungary, but also the Roman and Byzantine frameworks from a preceding era.
The root question of Barkey’s study is why Ottoman institutions and rule achieved the longevity that they did, despite the unequal treatment of the diverse peoples who constituted the empire’s subjects. To address this “undertheorized” question, Barkey posits that the existence of three conditions are necessary for the successful maintenance of empire: (1) the legitimacy of a supranational ideology, be it religious or dynastic, that wins over key members of the society’s elites; (2) an ability to incorporate and order diverse populations through either toleration or assimilation, with the possibility of “permeable boundaries”; and (3) administrative strategies that aim to have regional actors negotiate with the central state rather than with each other (p. 13). Barkey argues that a full understanding of the Ottoman enterprise must focus its attention primarily on the intermediary groups and institutions that negotiated with state power (what she calls “brokerage”), and abandon [End Page 601] the earlier state-or regional-based perspectives that marked the foundation of Ottoman studies.
What follows are seven essays on various aspects of the empire’s construction, development, and transformation over time, commencing with its origins as a frontier state between the weakening empires of Byzantium and the Seljuks of Rum. Building on previous scholarship, Barkey illustrates, through visual reconstructions, the networks of people that surrounded the early Ottoman rulers Osman and Orhan. Pointing out the mixed religious and ethnic origins of the notables that integrate into the Ottoman sphere of influence, she argues that what set the early Ottoman polity apart from its Turco-Muslim competitors in the Byzantine frontier region was its ability of its rulers to act as a broker between groups with differing interests. This allowed the different groups to cooperate as a unified whole, most notably by deflecting nomadic peoples from attacks on the sedentary societies that fell within the early Ottoman orbit. By situating themselves the central point at which the various diverse groups of the Byzantine frontier region met and negotiated their positions, the Ottomans founded a hub-and-spoke system that made all the parties involved in it dependent on their brokerage to achieve their individual goals.
Somewhat ironically, as the small polity of expansionary raiders morphed into an empire of far-flung territories with the final conquest of the Byzantines in 1453, its leadership came to rely more heavily on its Christian populations through its reliance on the controversial devshirme system of recruitment. This system either recruited or seized young non-Muslim boys from the subject population, who would be taken, nominally converted to Islam, and placed in positions of administrative and military power after completing an extensive course of training. The purpose of this institution was to weaken the more longstanding nomadic and predatory Turco-Muslim notables who were the original core of the Ottoman state. These older, more established leaders disliked being made subordinate to a bureaucratic...