"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, February 1, 2013

Anatolian Christians and Muslims in the Twilight of the Ottoman Empire

Just before Christmas I mentioned the impending publication of a book I have since received and been reading: Nicholas Doumanis, Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford UP, 2012). 

Even before finishing the book, I wanted to make a note of it as being a completely fascinating work. It is cogently written and smartly overturns a lot of received stereotypes by and about both Muslims and Christians in the area at that time. His approach is neither to romanticize the past nor to demonize it. It is a remarkably open examination of what the sources reveal in all their messiness and complexity. If you have any interest at all in these issues, I heartily recommend this book to you.

Doumanis, through careful research into various archives and other often overlooked sources, has demonstrated the extent to which Muslims and Orthodox Christians in Anatolia, at the end of the Ottoman Empire, lived side-by-side in often amicable and co-operative ways. Often times Muslims and Christians in the same area would attend each other's weddings and communal festivals, pray at each other's shrines, trade with each other, and have very similar general political worldviews conditioned, however, by different religious ones at the same time--people had, in other words, multiple "identities" and these were not always tightly cordoned off but in fact overlapped within the same people and communities, and between communities.

He is at pains to stress the complexity of these relationships, noting that while we have many examples of considerable co-operation and friendship, often motivated by shared economic concerns, there was as well a good deal of often bloody antagonism, especially (as we know) towards Armenians from the 1890s until  the 1915 genocide--during, that is, the most acute years of Ottoman turmoil and collapse when Armenian and other Christians often became scapegoats for the declining imperial fortunes and for their desire for "national" independence, free from the millet system and the rules of dhimmitude--a system, let it be noted, that he says was very restrictive in law, but often very loose in practice and very inconsistently applied. Ottoman governance, he says, has often been viewed as "one of exceptions."

I will have more to say as I finish the book, and I hope also to arrange an interview with the author, who teaches history at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

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