- A Provincial History of the Ottoman Empire: Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Nineteenth Century by Marc Aymes
Aymes’s remarkable book is an invitation into a world far gone and one that is exceptionally difficult to reconstruct. The Ottoman Empire is, Aymes argues, a provincial empire: that is, a de-centered empire, where center and periphery interact and interface, where knowledge about the periphery can be located in the center and vice versa (179–182). The broader argument here is to “provincialize” the Ottoman Empire; that is, to offer a view of the empire as it exists through the eyes of its provinces (and not to write a history of one of the Empire’s provinces). Aymes’s goal is to write provincial—and not merely local—history (33).
Cyprus is the historical investigation’s entry point into the broad universe of the Eastern Mediterranean and Aymes draws freely on historical research on adjacent places in order to supplement the book’s broader argument. As he states, “the aim of this work is to take Cyprus as its point of departure. The idea is not to write the history of a particular locality, Cyprus [. . .] Rather, the idea is to use it as a laboratory to understand, in an ideal-typical way, how the Ottoman province in general functioned” (6, emphasis in the original). So, this is not a book about Cyprus as a separate bounded entity or about a specific national or ethnic group. This is certainly a departure from the conventional historical mantra and makes this work akin to a historical sociology of the Ottoman Empire. This feature of the book makes it an exceptional work with broader ramifications that go well beyond the specifics of Cyprus. As a fellow traveler to the study of the Eastern Mediterranean, I salute this task with great enthusiasm as the model proposed bears extensive similarities to the work conducted by other social scientists. Unfortunately, though, while Aymes has skillfully borrowed from the social scientific repertoire of concepts and ideas, the bibliography and the overall style of the work remain confined strictly within the boundaries of conventional historical research. This might be an effective strategy for gaining an audience among fellow historians but it also undercuts the trans-disciplinary intentions implicit in Aymes’s own approach.
Substantively, the effective period of the material presented in the monograph covers the long nineteenth century, but more specifically, the period roughly between the 1820s and 1860s. Nearly all the book’s chapters are exceptionally thick and well researched; the arguments developed are complex, sophisticated, and often intricate; and the author repeatedly invites the reader to look behind the scenes, [End Page 187] to step into the self-censoring and diplomatic language imposed upon correspondence and official prose. For example, reading, or rather deciphering, the meaning behind crossed-over phrases in official documents offers a clue about intentions and therefore allows the author to speculate over the motives high on the agenda of Ottoman policymakers.
This provincial world explored in the book’s pages subverts the conventional boundaries between nations, religions, and ethnicities, and it features agents who make ingenious use of official categories of classification in order to safeguard and protect their own wellbeing and that of their kinship or to further their own wealth and status. In this world we encounter Ottoman officials who used to be Christians, “Europeans” who are in fact permanently settled in Cyprus (and might have been permanent inhabitants of the Empire for several generations), “illegal” landowners who are in fact powerful locals and of course the famous linovamvakoi (officially Muslim and informally Christian). In short, established binaries (such as Christian versus Muslim, Greek Cypriot versus Turkish Cypriot or European versus Middle Eastern or local) are thrown into question through meticulous archival research that painstakingly documents the agents’ restlessness and ingenious use of practices, laws, alliances, and opportunities. Aymes attempts to build an argument about the different synchronicities involved in constructing and maintaining a sense of provinciality and further offers...