History of Ottoman History: A Master Class

August 05, 2020

On August 4th, 2020, Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul, Columbia Global Centers | Tunis and the Sakıp Sabancı Center for Turkish Studies hosted a live webinar titled “History of Ottoman History: A Master Class.” The event was led by Zeynep Çelik, distinguished professor of Ottoman and Middle Eastern history and architecture at New Jersey Institute of Technology, the Federated Department of History at the NJIT and Rutgers-Newark, and professor at Columbia University, and A. Tunç Şen, Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University and historian of the Ottoman Empire.

The event was a follow up to a Fall 2019 seminar taught by Prof. Çelik and Prof. Şen, which was designed to familiarize students with scholarship on Ottoman history produced in the late Ottoman and early Republican Turkey. During the master class, Prof. Çelik and Prof. Şen discussed their goals, inspiration, and sources for the seminar, along with the significance of Ottoman-Turkish historiography. Some of the seminar students also attended the event and shared their reflections on the course and the impact it has had on them. Following the discussion, there was a live Q&A session where master class participants asked questions about reading the Ottoman language, accessing the Ottoman archives, and finding sources relating to this area of scholarship. 

Prof. Şen explained how there was a significant body of work on Ottoman history produced in Turkish during the first half of the 20th century. The goal of the seminar was to see what knowledge was generated by these early scholars on a wide range of topics, from economics to art history. Further, Prof. Şen explained how within the study of Ottoman history in the United States, there is a lack of engagement with Turkish scholarship, and rather a tendency to focus on literature written in English. Thus, it was important for the seminar to challenge certain assumptions about the late Ottoman and early Republican periods. For example, there is the inaccurate belief that early Ottoman scholars weren’t engaged in the theoretical debates and intellectual exchanges taking place in contemporary Europe. However, as Prof. Şen noted, there are many pieces of evidence to counter this claim. Some scholars published works that were direct responses to these European ideas, which were criticized for their cultural and racial biases. 

Prof. Çelik also explained how the seminar chose sources across different academic disciplines to provide an interdisciplinary and interconnected view of history, allowing for many connections to be established. Some recurring themes of the seminar were outlined by Prof. Çelik, including Orientalism, historian subjectivity and imagination, identity, different ideologies, race and ethnicity, and Istanbul centrism, among others. 

Following Prof. Şen and Prof. Çelik’s discussion, several students shared their experiences in the seminar course. Yasemin Akçagüner is a 3rd year PhD student in the History Department at Columbia. Yasemin shared that while she was introduced to Ottoman historiography at her high school in Turkey, the seminar allowed her to further study early debates in historical journals and learn about figures who challenged the gatekeeping of scholarship in this subject. Nancy Ko, a 2nd year PhD student in the History Department at Columbia, shared insights on how historians can also be considered historical subjects, and how there is a dialectic between the writing of history and the occurrence of history. Azat Bilalutdinov, a 3rd year PhD in the History Department at Columbia, appreciated the opportunity to explore different formats for the seminar’s final exam, as he was able to personally interview a senior Ottomanist on their specific influences, reflections, and inspirations for their research. Other Columbia students who shared their reflections included Erik Blackthorne-O’Barr, a 3rd year PhD in the MESAAS Department, Ali Ugurlu, a PhD student in the MESAAS Department, and Jordan Cannon, a recent graduate with a dual degree in history and Middle Eastern studies. 

The seminar also included students from different universities. Johanna Rozakis-Siu, a 2nd year PhD student in History at Princeton, discussed how she learned about the Ottoman archives, specifically the process of cataloguing and appraising materials. Zavier Wingham, a PhD student in History and Middle East and Islamic studies at NYU, discussed his own academic research about the Ottoman Empire in the context of global slavery, and thinking about how sources published at different times are in conversation with one another.