- Εκ δυσμών το φως; Εξελληνισμός και οριενταλισμός στην Οθωμανική Αυτοκρατορία (μέσα 19ου–αρχές 20ου αιώνα)(Χάρης Εξερτζόγλου) [Light from the West? Hellenism and Orientalism in the Ottoman Empire (mid-nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century)] by Haris Exertzoglou
Almost four decades after the publication of the late Hayden White’s Metahistory (1975), Haris Exertzoglou’s engaging study reminds us of intellectual history’s endless potential to capture the nature of historical writing. In both format and content, the book mirrors itself structurally in its own deliberations. The book is divided into seven consecutive chapters, all of which revolve around the same central issue: the intellectual vista of Greek Orthodox communities in the late Ottoman Empire, as shaped by their understandings of East and West. Exertzoglou’s protagonists do not identify fully with either category. Their narratives form acts of translation that borrow from the abovementioned polarity in order to negate it de facto. Hence, they try to define themselves by creating an original in-between space of intellectual existence. At times, they wrestle with external dogmatisms. At times, they produce their own. The resulting tension is the central focus of the book, which discusses modernity as the expression—and the synthesis—of imperfect divisions.
Already in his Prologue, Exertzoglou reminds us that Greek Orthodox thought was an integral part of the late Ottoman Empire. This approach challenges the isolationist tendencies that continue to characterize Modern Greek Studies. Moreover, it reveals that the exclusive association of Ottoman history with Islam originates in—as well as reproduces—problematic ideological, methodological, and political stereotypes. Given that the author himself meticulously traces the intellectual entanglements of the existing literature, the limited length of this review cannot do the book justice. Suffice it to say that reading Exertzoglou’s work side by side with the classic contributions of Selim Deringil (2000) and Ussama Makdisi (2002)—to mention only two indicative [End Page 404] works that resonate with Exertzoglou’s analysis—affirms that Ottoman intellectual history should neither focus merely on Islam nor merely on the central dynasty or the capital city.
This main premise becomes clear in the Introduction and Chapter 1, which examine the intersection between nationalism, colonialism, and empire in the Greek Orthodox intellectual universe. The narrative focuses on the tension between East and West, as understood by the book’s protagonists, namely, Greek Orthodox intellectuals. To them, the West was identified with progress, industrialization, modern infrastructure, and the secularization of education. Did their anti-Western tendencies automatically imply a black-and-white contrast between modernity and tradition? Quite to the contrary, Exertzoglou argues. For the book’s protagonists, this very tension became modernity. In other words, they tried to reconcile Western progress with their own understanding of tradition. By implication, they did not accept Western modernity as universal; rather, they proposed that the integration of Greek values with Western progress produced the only version of modernity with universal value.
Building on the above argument, the second chapter discusses the example of material culture along the lines of binary perceptions; in other words, it focuses on the objects, resources, and other ponderable manifestations of East versus West. Western modernity centered on technological innovation and industrial capitalism. Hence, it established an uneven relationship with the East in the abovementioned spheres. Far from remaining the passive terrain for Western expansion, however, some Greek Orthodox communities and urban strata found a new sense of agency in the production and theorization of material culture. They claimed a central role in communal education, defending a convenient hybrid of material progress and traditional values. By doing so, they transformed—without erasing—the traditional role played by religion in educating the nation. Greek Orthodox intellectuals equated the study of Greek letters, under the guidance of urban middle-classes, with an inner-civilizing mission for Ottoman lands. They presented antiquity, in particular, as proof of their own cultural superiority over the West, despite the fact that they drew inspiration from the West’s own appropriation of ancient Greece.
As discussed in Chapters 4 and 5...