Enlightenment Dawns from Ottoman Bender

In: Enlightening Europe on Islam and the Ottomans
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After battling Russian Tsar Peter the Great at Poltava, Swedish King Charles XII withdrew to Bender, on the River Dnyestr in Ottoman Bessarabia (now Moldova). What followed, from 1709 to 1714, was unique in the annals of the European states’ relations with the Ottoman Empire. The reigning monarch of a European power resided in the empire for five years, before conditions changed enough to permit his return to his kingdom. Among his large entourage, the experience ignited interest in all things Ottoman. These Swedes’ prolonged sojourn as the sultan’s guests aroused curiosity not only about esthetic and antiquarian matters but also—most especially—about the practicalities of understanding the great Islamic empire. Seventy-five years later, after many incomplete attempts had obscured the path tracing back to Bender, the interest that dawned there led to publication of the most authoritative, most profusely illustrated work of the Enlightenment on Islam and the Ottoman Empire: the Tableau général de l’Empire othoman, the masterpiece of Ignatius Mouradgea d’Ohsson (1740–1807).

Not quite so long was the path leading from my discovery of d’Ohsson’s Tableau to completion of this study. My curiosity dawned long ago during my dissertation research on Ottoman administrative reform. One of the most helpful published sources looked like a misnamed book by a misnamed author. The book was too informative to lay aside. The fact that well-known Turkish historian İsmail Hakkı Uzunçarşılı relied on it emboldened me to do likewise. But what sort of creature was this “M. de M*** d’Ohsson” named on the title page as author? Did that have fins, or feathers? And what about the book’s title? If it was only a “General Picture of the Ottoman Empire,” why did it fill multiple volumes? The long title added that the work was divided into two parts, of which the one contained the “Mahometan Legislation”, the other, “the History of the Ottoman Empire.” The latter was the part I needed for my research, but it was not a history. It was a topical account of the structure and functioning of the Ottoman government in the late 1700s. That was exactly what made the work so valuable for me. I could not find such a reference in any other single place for that period.

For me as for the Swedes at Bender, the path from dawning curiosity to enlightening answers to my questions proved long and roundabout. One of the questions that runs throughout my book is that of the relation between the author’s work and his life. As an undergraduate, I worked for four years as the student assistant of literary critic Cleanth Brooks, a champion of analyzing literary texts in their own terms, without reference to the author’s life or other external factors. Whatever the merits or demerits of this method, it disciplines one in close textual analysis, a technique never yet applied to d’Ohsson’s Tableau. As much as the work needs that kind of analysis, the following chapters will show that d’Ohsson’s work cannot be isolated from his life and circumstances. To make matters worse, his increasingly erratic behavior in his later years, which may have had an underlying physiological cause, complicates the task of understanding him, despite the prolific correspondence that seems to document his life. In historical scholarship, biography has been an unfailingly popular genre, no doubt thanks to its inherent human interest. Perhaps the tireless writers of biographies have never paused to consider what hardihood it takes to suppose that they can “write a life” by studying the subject’s written remains. Part of the cognitive dissonance surrounding d’Ohsson was his own creation, and it is enough to make us appreciate that his gift to posterity was—as a purist text critic might prefer—not his life but his masterpiece.

Others have created cognitive confusion by assigning d’Ohsson to preconceived categories as either an “orientalist” or a “traveler.” He was born in the Ottoman Empire and lived fifty of his sixty-seven years there. He could not have written about Islam and the Ottomans as he did if he had been either a “traveler” or an “orientalist.” Rather, as a half-French Armenian Catholic oriental who made his official career at the Swedish diplomatic mission in Istanbul and who acquired both intellectual and financial capital, he traveled to Europe in order to give the reading public of the Enlightenment what no one else could give: its most authoritative work on Islam and the Ottoman Empire, a work designed especially to satisfy the practical needs of rulers and statesmen.

Another detour in my long path led, after long years, to my discovery that d’Ohsson’s Tableau is also the most profusely illustrated book of its century on Islam and the Ottomans. Incredible as it seems today, the work was published simultaneously in two different formats, a smaller cheaper edition with few illustrations and a large, illustrated folio edition. Purely by chance, when the volume I needed was not available in one library, I went to another library. When huge volumes were brought on a wheeled cart, I thought it was a mistake. But I looked and saw the author’s name and the book’s title. Opening the volumes, I discovered their pictorial riches, recognizing some images used by other historians without attribution.

Years passed after my first discovery of d’Ohsson before I could return to the subject (1992). Fortunately my education had provided me with the research skills in both Ottoman Turkish and French that this research required, along with ancillary skills as documented in the notes. As I set to work, many challenges awaited. There was very little published scholarship. It was not even clear where to start looking for archival documents, whether in Turkey, France, or Sweden. I could not have surmounted such challenges without the help of others.