Michael E. Meeker. A Nation of Empire: The Ottoman Legacy of Turkish Modernity. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2002. xxviii + 420 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-23482-6; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-22526-8.
Reviewed by Wayne Bowen (Department of History, Ouachita Baptist University)
Published on H-Levant (March, 2003)
Ottomans into Turks: The Creation of a People on the Black Sea
Ottomans into Turks: The Creation of a People on the Black Sea
The author of this interesting book successfully argues that significant continuities from the Ottoman Empire remained important aspects of the Turkish Republic after the First World War. Using a study of local elites in Trabzon, in the Black Sea region of Eastern Turkey, Meeker examines the transition from Ottoman Empire to the revolutionary state of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) in the 1920s and 1930s. The 700-year history of rule by the Sublime Porte did not disappear overnight with the creation of the secular and nationalist Turkish state, but instead converted the traditional elites, of mixed ethnicity, from Ottomans to Turks. Trabzon was a diverse city and province, home not just to Turks, but also to Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, Lazis, and other ethnicities.
This book is both history and anthropology, and the author divides his work into four parts, two from each discipline. In the first section, he examines the adaptability of local elites who, through their membership in the largest family and clan groups in the region, not only dominated political offices and public life in the Ottoman Empire but recovered this power after the creation of the Turkish Republic. In this regard, "a traditional social system and a modern state system" coexisted decades after the collapse of the original state which brought these local leaders into positions of influence (p. 6).
Although the Kemalist Republic was a centralizing force, one way the new state after 1923 encouraged loyalty was through the incorporation of local leaders into elected positions within municipal governments, business organizations, agricultural cooperatives, local branches of national organizations, and political parties. In the town of Of, in the province of Trabzon, all of these organizations had democratic constitutions and held elections for their important offices under the supervision of the national state. Despite the apparent republican forms, which should have allowed for free competition for these elected positions, in practice one family, the Selimoglus, and its allied clans dominated all offices for many decades, basing its strength on its numbers and historical prominence. Since the majority of townspeople shared the same surname, it is not surprising that this family should hold most of the positions, but what is surprising is that the important offices went almost entirely to the descendants of one branch of the prominent family: sons and grandsons of Ferhat Agha Selimoglu, the most important local leader in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. However, this dominance did not arise from mere familial association, but derived instead from a "discipline of Islamic sociability" within clans. Prominent men shared economic, religious and political sentiments, and were mutually supportive in their efforts to gain local office and status (p. 50).
Even after the suppression of many of the outward forms of traditional Islam in the Turkish Republic of the 1920s, Of retained its reputation as a historic training ground for hodja, Muslim religious teachers. Indeed, the description of a teacher as a "hodja from Of" carried with it the connotation of a traditionalist and rural imam (p. 67), promoting official Sunni Islam, out of favor with the state but nonetheless respected by local communities. At least until the 1970s, when the secular Turkish Republic allowed the revival of Islamic education and religious training, these traditional hodjas were one of the few repositories of Muslim teaching and practice to which the population could turn.
Because of the agricultural prosperity and temperate climate, men from mountainous Trabzon were often able to be absent from their homes for extended periods of time, seeking out opportunities as itinerant merchants, soldiers, laborers, and even religious teachers. Unlike other regions, where all able-bodied men had to remain year round to avoid the failure of subsistence agriculture, the rich soil in this region meant that women and remaining men could farm without a significant decline in living standards. Serving in the Ottoman Army or taking positions as hodja were the most popular forms of service elsewhere, and had the added benefit of integrating individuals into the imperial system.
As the Ottoman Empire decentralized in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, local elites increasingly became dominant over the officials sent from Istanbul. Familiar with the area, having a strong base of clan support, and even controlling their own private militias, local elders were indispensable to provincial governors and military commanders in their efforts to recruit soldiers, collect taxes, and maintain peace. As such, those in Trabzon gradually transformed from Ottoman subjects to participants in the imperial effort, at least at the lower levels of power. Over this time period, as well, there was a massive conversion from Christianity to Islam in the region, as religious status was a key prerequisite for holding public office or serving in the military. With the further breakdown of the centralized Ottoman system during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, previously term-limited provincial officials, and their descendants, achieved permanent status and began integrating with local elites who had previously served them as subordinates. Even the rural homes of local elders, small mansions which imitated the imperial palace of the Sultan in Istanbul, became centers of power, rather than the local government buildings in town.
With the coming of the Turkish Republic after the First World War, the Ottoman state and its ideology collapsed. Instead of Islam, Kemal Ataturk promoted a clearly secular state, making a concerted effort to Westernize and modernize Turkey. A new, Western alphabet, Western clothing, Western law, and the Western concept of the nation replaced the Ottoman traditions and cultural norms. Forged in the bitter resistance to Greek, Russian, British, and French incursions into their territory, a new and strong sense of Turkish nationalism emerged throughout Anatolia, including in Trabzon and Of. Even though this new summons to service was a secular and nationalistic one, rather than the religious and imperial vision of the Ottomans, it nonetheless resonated in the population, especially in regions directly threatened by foreign invasion. Resistance to the Russian occupation of Trabzon, 1916-1918, was particularly bitter. Still, after the end of the foreign threats, in the mid 1920s the new Kemalist state was able to govern without the cooperation of local elites, even replacing important provincial leaders and imposing governors from elsewhere in Turkey. In Of in 1926, the governor deposed Mayor Ferhat Agha Selimoglu, who had dominated the city since 1910.
Beginning in the 1940s, however, especially after the death of Ataturk in 1938 and the democratic reforms of 1945-46, the Selimoglu family began to reemerge as an important political force, at the expense of central officials. In June and July 1946, sons of Ferhat Agha Selimoglu won local offices. By the 1950s, the old elite family who had dominated in the later Ottoman years had taken over nearly every elected position in Trabzon. The two largest family groups in Trabzon, the Selimoglu and the Muradoglu, aligned themselves with the two largest national political parties, the Republican People's Party and the Democratic Party, with the former monopolizing at the local level but failing to do so nationally.
By the 1960s, the system stabilized, with public life in offices and coffee houses dominated by the Selimoglu clan. Elders held court in cafes, echoing previous centuries when they gathered their supporters and allies in their mansions. Prominent members of families represented their clan in this new public forum, where debate and discussions ranged from politics to market prices to arranging marriages. So dominant were the leaders of clans that often, when an elder entered a coffee house, younger members of the same family or household left the building to allow the elder to serve as the unquestioned spokesman for the group. Women were not permitted in the coffee house, as their role was subordinate in all things, and they had no public role, staying away from discussions, office, and Friday prayers at the mosque. A closed culture, dominated by one family for most of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, was remarkable even in Turkey.
This is an interesting and provocative book, which challenges traditional views of Ottoman centralization, the transformations that accompanied the creation of the Turkish Republic, and the role of Islam in politics and social life, and ethnicity in Turkey. Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and modern nationalism will find it engaging and well-written.
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Wayne Bowen. Review of Meeker, Michael E., A Nation of Empire: The Ottoman Legacy of Turkish Modernity.
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