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  • The Ottoman Age of Exploration by Giancarlo Casale
  • Sam White (bio)
The Ottoman Age of Exploration by Giancarlo Casale by Giancarlo Casale. By Giancarlo Casale. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xx+282. $21.95.

The Ottoman Age of Exploration offers an original and insightful narrative of imperial expansion into the Indian Ocean world at the height of Ottoman power in the sixteenth century. Drawing on both Ottoman and Portuguese sources, author Giancarlo Casale overturns the older view that Muslim powers responded slowly or ineffectually to European maritime expansion. Instead, he explains Ottoman actions in terms of a deliberate geopolitical strategy and domestic factional politics. While this is a valuable contribution to early modern Ottoman and world history, the work is not necessarily targeted toward historians of science or technology; it remains firmly focused on the political and military narrative, with only occasional forays into Ottoman geography, cartography, and navigation.

The author packs a wide-ranging narrative into a fairly brief and readable text. The introduction begins by arguing that the Ottoman “age of exploration” shared four key features with its European counterparts: a starting point of relative isolation, an expansionist ideology, military and naval technological innovation, and a new intellectual interest in the outside world. Chapter 1 makes this comparison, arguing that the Indian Ocean policies of Sultan Selim I (1512–20) were not unlike those of Henry the Navigator in Portugal. With the recent conquest of Mamluk lands, the Ottomans had only just entered a novel Indian Ocean world. Rather than proving slow to respond to the Portuguese, the Ottomans were fairly quick to seize on the new commercial and strategic possibilities of maritime access. Chapter 2 discusses the next two decades of Ottoman policy, dominated by the grand vizierate of Ibrahim Pasha, as an “age of reconnaissance,” when the Ottomans overcame considerable logistical obstacles to build a Red Sea fleet and initiate contacts in east Africa and India. The following two chapters narrate the first Ottoman “world war” with the Portuguese as the Ottomans struggled to assert their presence in the Arabian Sea and parts of Muslim India over the 1540s and ’50s. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the high tide of the Ottoman advance in the Indian Ocean from the 1560s through the ’80s, which included both substantial military expeditions and the “soft power” that came from championing the sultan as caliph of a Muslim world under threat from invading Christians. In the final chapter, the author considers the retreat of Ottoman political and military power, following a failed siege of Mombasa in 1589 and the rise of rival Muslim powers in India and Aceh. He argues that even though Ottomans were forced to give way in their grand strategy, the empire had largely achieved its objectives in breaking the Portuguese claims to hegemony and opening up trade in the Indian Ocean. [End Page 970]

For the most part, discussions of Ottoman science and technology only come up as brief asides. Despite the work’s focus on maritime trade and naval engagements, there are few descriptions of Ottoman ships or shipbuilding and only passing discussions of navigation. In this regard, the study reflects the very different source base of Ottoman history, one far more reliant upon state documents and less abundant in personal narratives, private publications, and commercial documents than its European counterparts. Moreover, the Ottoman ban on printing in Arabic script meant that substantially fewer works of science were produced or have survived. The author does give a brief history of the development of Ottoman maps in chapter 1, including Ottoman adoption of portolans and Ptolemaic world maps by the early 1500s; and at different points he discusses the atlas of Piri Reis and the anonymous Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi (ca.1582) in order to emphasize their contributions to Indian Ocean exploration, as well as their more famous depictions of the New World. However, the only extended discussion of Ottoman cartography and geography comes in the final chapter, which describes late-sixteenth-century developments in Ottoman maps and new travel guides to Asian lands. Here, the author also examines the exchange of knowledge between Ottomans and Europeans. He concludes that Ottoman...