the muslim age of discovery -- 5/2/23

Today's selection -- from The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs by Marc David Baer. The Muslim place in the European Age of Discovery:
"Both the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the defeat and conquest of the territories of the Mamluk Em­pire in 1516-1517, including the Middle East, by Selim I made the Ottomans into a naval power with a worldwide vision. Selim I's conquests doubled the size of the empire and set it on the path for having a Muslim majority in the following centuries. Selim I's successor, Suleiman I, proclaimed himself the caliph, the univer­sal protector of the entire Muslim-ruled world, the defender of Sunni Muslims from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Advances in military and naval technology -- firearms, artillery, and ocean-sailing vessels -- allowed the Ottomans to project their power and control oceangoing trade to Southeast Asia. All of this led to a cultural florescence, a rediscovery of overlooked ancient knowledge, the launching of curious Ottoman travellers, the translations of Western works, and the production of new Ottoman maps, atlases, and geographical treatises. If such devel­opments are the major determinants of whether an empire par­took in the Age of Discovery, then there was an Ottoman Age of Discovery.

"The Ottomans did not possess a land empire only. From the fifteenth century, theirs was also a seaborne empire. Thanks in part to the influx after 1492 of refugee European Jews and their knowledge of geography, technology, military developments, and politics, and because of the continued use of converts in key positions, the Ottoman maritime empire emerged in the same century as that of the Portuguese.  Beginning with the reign of Mehmed II, sultans referred to themselves as 'Lord of the two seas and two continents'. The sultans were the rulers of the Mediterra­nean and Black Seas, Europe and Asia. From Egypt to Indonesia, the Ottomans rivalled the Portuguese in the battle for the seas and played a major role in international trade. Why, then, are the Ottomans not included as major participants in the European Age of Discovery? Ottoman writers of the time confute such an exclusion.

"Sea captain (or reis) Seydi Ali -- the author of The Mirror of Countries (1560), which was based on his travels through India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran -- explains how in 1552 he was appointed Ottoman admiral of the Egyptian fleet. He had 'always been very fond of the sea, had taken part in the expedition against Rhodes under Sultan Suleiman I, and had since had a share in almost all engagements, both by land and by sea'. He had 'fought under Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, Sinan Pasha, and other cap­tains, and had cruised about on the Western [Mediterranean] sea' such that he 'knew every nook and corner of it'. Seydi Ali 'had written several books on astronomy, nautical science, and other matters bearing upon navigation'. His 'father and grandfather, since the conquest of Constantinople, had had charge of the arse­nal at Galata; they had both been eminent in their profession, and their skill had come down to me as an heirloom'. Seydi Ali was a typical explorer of that era.

Seydi Ali Reis

"The Age of Discovery is conventionally understood as the sixteenth-century European maritime exploration and mastery of the sea that served as the basis for the expansion of global Eu­ropean influence. In the accepted story, Muslim powers such as the Ottomans are depicted as obstacles to Western European domination, obstacles to the Europeans' 'natural path of expan­sion' into Africa and the Middle East. When we think of what immediately preceded the Age of Discovery, we imagine the Por­tuguese and Spanish -- and later the Dutch, English, and French­ not as being engaged in world trade, but as existing first in a period of relative geographic and intellectual isolation limited to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Incongruously, they possessed a decisively bold political and religious legitimating ideology that allowed them to imagine conquering the world. This boldness was manifested in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, in which the Spanish and Portuguese divided up the extra-European world between them, despite not even controlling one part of it. As they launched their voyages of discovery, there followed rapid and significant technological advances -- particularly in firearms and oceangoing vessels, which were combined into formidable warships as they put cannons onboard carracks. Curiosity gave rise to cultural and intellectual transformation, the blossoming of scholarly and artistic achievements -- especially in cartography, geography, and classical studies -- and an interest in the outside world and their ability to control it.

"One might be tempted to imagine the brief period of Ottoman control over Morocco and the entire North African littoral during the reign of Murad III as comparable to the European Age of Dis­covery. Had the Ottomans remained in power there, they might well have expanded down the west coast of Africa. This was un­charted territory for the Ottomans, in some ways as foreign to them as the New World was to the Western European powers. A better comparison, however, lies with the Ottomans' economic and naval expansion into the Indian Ocean basin. Given their lack of development of oceangoing vessels and the Europeans' comparative advantage, it is easy to disparage the idea that the Ottomans experienced maritime expansion in this age. But the Ottomans actively participated in the Age of Discovery in the six­teenth century."



Marc David Baer


The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs


Basic Books


Copyright 2021 by Marc David Baer


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