- Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution by Christine M. Philliou, and: The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent by Benjamin C. Fortna, and: The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant by Dana Sajdi
Since the 1990s, there has been a surge of interest in connecting microhistory to world history. Despite the apparent contrast between them, stories of individuals, events, and places are now seen as part and parcel of a much larger history. This trend is termed by some historians as "global microhistory."1 The books under review here are part of this surging interest in many fields of history. The lives of such individuals and groups allow historians to draw connections between their micro and macro worlds. Historians frame the story of their subjects within the story of the Ottoman Empire, which comprised many ethnic, religious, and language groups. Each individual mentioned in these three works reflects this diversity in the empire: a Greek Orthodox in the Ottoman bureaucracy studied by Christine Philliou's Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution; a Circassian Muslim who worked closely with the Young Turks and later opposed the establishment of the modern Turkey presented by Benjamin C. Fortna in his work The Circassian: A life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent [End Page 438] and Special Agent; and a Damascene barber who decided to write a book on his observations of rulers and notables of his city examined in The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant by Dana Sajdi.
Yet these three books make a distinct contribution to Ottoman historiography. Despite the abundance of archival sources and primary historical accounts on ordinary people, modern biographical works in Ottoman history focused mostly on rulers and bureaucrats.2 This stands in contrast to the fact that there has been a long tradition of biographical dictionaries and obituary notices (tabakat and tercüme-i hal) in Islamic and Ottoman history. Starting with the interest among Muslim scholars in the life of Prophet Muhammad and his companions, a tradition of biography gradually matured through centuries following the advent of Islam.3 More recently, Ottoman historians began to look into the lives of Sufis, religious scholars, heretics, bandits, travelers, members of ethnic and religious minorities, and women.4 Following recent developments and trends, this review situates three new books within the two broader trajectories of scholarship on global microhistory and Ottoman history.
Biographical studies are a part of microhistory. They delve deeper into the life of a person. Greater questions about the social change and cultural similarities in a particular period emerge upon a closer look into such lives. All three works under review build upon the biography of an individual. A bottom up approach with emphasis on human agency reveals the singularity of the person by focusing on the minute analysis of archival documents and ego-documents such as memoirs, diaries, letters, travel accounts, and autobiographies. The collection of systematic data allows these works to examine an individual's actions and beliefs in relation to their family, friends, acquaintances, and other [End Page 439] contemporaries. It helps contextualize the metanarrative of their subject by basing historical analysis on the small units. In Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon's words, this approach helps "bring actors and agency back into the analysis", "examine individuals who lived 'global lives' in olden times, moving from one continent to another and recounting their experiences." Furthermore, biographical microhistory leads to the "opening the opportunity to zoom in and out 'from grand and large-scale questions to microanalysis, case studies...