Review of The Ottoman Age of Exploration by Giancarlo Casale Oxford University Press

The Ottoman Age of Exploration. Giancarlo Casale. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780195377828

Enter the Ottomans: The Expansion of the Narrative of Exploration

It can be argued that the Age of Exploration’s narrative was shanghaied by Western Europe and their interactions in the Atlantic world.  It was nothing personal to the global community as Atlantic studies is still a relatively new and, understandably, Atlantic-centric field.  It seems to be exceptionally difficult to consider the Age of Exploration as something that occurred beyond the Americas’ shores.   This, as Giancarlo Casale explains within The Ottoman Age of Exploration, must be considered, as an apparent lacuna exists within the narrative of the Age of Exploration.  One that Casale very successfully fills.   Defining shared attributes between the global “empires” of the age, the author presents the scholar with a model of distinction, and the teacher a method to help explain the globally complex Age of Exploration.  While it is difficult to know the effects of this study in the future, it appears that it has the potential to have the same effect that Bernard Bailyn’s The Peopling of British North America, New York: Vintage Press 1986, and his four propositions had for the study of the migration to the Atlantic world.

Giancarlo Casale, currently a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, provides scholars with a new way of thinking about the Atlantic World.  This was done, most notably, through his identification of four common attributes shared by both the Western and Ottoman worlds during the Age of Exploration.  In fact, these four “key aspects,” is his work’s greatest asset. “These are the four characteristics of sixteenth century European expansion that constitute the basic definition of the term Age of Exploration in this book: a starting point of relative geographic and cultural isolation, the subsequent development of expansive political ideologies focused particularly on trade routes and maritime navigation, innovation in a few key areas of military and naval technology that made overseas expansion possible, and an unprecedented intensification of intellectual interest in the outside world” (6). While comparison and contrast are kept to a minimum, students of history can infer their own comparisons when they consider the Western countries in the greater Atlantic world.

Along with providing a working framework for understanding the Ottoman’s role within the Age of Exploration, Casale tackles the apparent elephant in the room answering the question as to why the Ottomans never attempt to colonize the New World.  The answer is quite obvious, yet it tends to be a misinterpreted conundrum for many.  Casale provides illuminating insight to this question: the Ottomans had no need to go to the New World, not during the early stages of exploration when the goal was to find a new route to India.  While necessity was the mother of invention for the European powers, it was seen as moot with the Ottomans who knew where India was and had prime access to it owing to their land conquests of Arabia and Egypt. (33,51-52)  After Selim the Navigator (r.1512-1520) conquered Egypt (1517) the Ottomans were in the best economic position to gain control of the Indian spice trade. Portugal was the only Western country that competed with the Ottomans for control within the Indian Ocean which would become, as Casale shows, a tug of war between the two superpowers.

The categorization of the Amerindian is another component of the Age of Exploration, which not only dominated the brilliant minds of the age, but the scholarship that followed as well.  Nothing was more Earth shattering to the Europeans than the discovery of the New World and the Amerindians that inhabited it.  Their entire worldview was shaken with the fantastic newness they had uncovered.  Amerindians were more problematic than new lands because there was nothing within Christian theology or Western understanding that explained the nature of their existence.  Were they members of the lost tribe of Israel?  Perhaps they were servants of Satan, or some other demonic being that existed on the edges of civilization.  Whatever they were, they were deemed uncivilized, either by the transference of the Reconquista by the conquistadores or because of various  philosophical inferences by the claims of great theological minds of the day.  As a result, the inexplicably new, and the unknown, became indicative of the New World and the Age of Exploration.  These were all things that the Ottoman East did not have to deal with.

As Casale explains in his text, India and the Indian Ocean were new to Ottomans, but not new in the way that the Americas, and the Amerindians, were to the Europeans.  They were aware of India’s existence, of the inhabitants there.  They shared the same faith as those they were trading with and building a “soft empire” around.  Soft empire, as the author explains, was the building of a global empire through mutual diplomacy towards a similar goal or alliance; working with the local governments to gain their support rather than through conquest. Reconstruction of the Islamic ethos was unnecessary as there was nothing fantastical or different in terms of Islamic theology and Ottoman understanding that they had to grapple with.  Since reconstruction was not an aspect of the Ottoman Age of Exploration, it may have been a reason as to why the Ottomans, and their growing empire, had been left to the wayside in Explorative studies.  Their Age of Exploration was missing a key component; an unknown other that they did not have to contend with or explain the existence of.

The rise of the Ottoman Empire led to something very crucial in the development of their “soft empire:” the revival of the Universal Caliphate, which had been “lost,” since the ninth/tenth centuries under the Abbasid Empire. (7)  The caliphate united all Muslims under the same religious authority, much as the Papacy did for Christendom, which was exemplified in the Age of Exploration and the New World by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494).  The Ottomans, protectors of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, the transcendent Muslim authority, utilized the “soft empire” to unite all Muslims  in order to force the Portuguese out of the Indian Ocean and solidify the Ottoman control.  While it was not as “crusader-esque” for the Ottomans as it was the Portuguese, it certainly sparked religious zeal among the locals in the Indian and Red Seas.  It was the first time in centuries that an Islamic power attempted to unite all followers to work towards a similar goal.

Bringing to light the Ottomans dependency on European sources and maps, the clear distinction between “Muslim” and “Ottoman” lands and scholarship, and the similar characteristics during the Age of Exploration Casale’s study is a true masterpiece in Early Modern European scholarship.  Introducing Ottoman sources while leading the reader through familiar European ones he utilizes  methods of presentation that allow for all students of history to gain a distinct understanding of the Ottoman world, its Age of Exploration and the Ottomans internal political composition.  This is a highly recommended read for anyone wanting to know more about the Ottoman Empire, the Early Modern World, and the Age of Exploration in order to understand  its effects on the global community at large for centuries to come.

The Ottoman Age of Exploration and Teaching- How to Incorporate it in the Classroom

One of my favorite courses to take in graduate school, and my second field of study is the Atlantic World.  As an Islamic historian I always strive for some way to present the connections between the Islamic World and the West through various secondary sources, as well as through my own scholarship.  Casale’s work provides myself, and any educator, with a way to explain the Age of Exploration in a new and richer light than ever before.  It covers not just Ottoman foreign policies but ways of understanding the society of the Empire, internally and externally.  On one level, students can take a closer look at the complexities of the Ottoman court which are distinct from the European counterparts.  For example, Casale notes that drastic changes in Indian Ocean foreign policy occurred when the office of grand vizier changed hands, not when a new Sultan took control.  Students realize that the Sultan did not possess totalitarian control within his Empire but ultimately shared it.  It is a new and unique concept for students and scholars of the Western world in which their rulers had complete control over their kingdoms.

As previously mentioned, this work also provides teachers and students with a framework for understanding the movements and developments of Empires in the Age of Exploration.  By utilizing the four characteristics that all nations shared during the Age of Exploration the educator can compare and contrast between individual governments to further understand their developments.  By utilizing these four aspects students realize that the Age of Exploration did not just worlds, literally, but also sparked intellectual and technological innovation.  Nations were no longer isolated or ego-centric; their focus, demographically or intellectually, was external.  These developments led to the shaping of the modern world, and academia owes Casale a great deal by providing a framework for understanding the Age of Exploration on a global scale.

Perhaps one of the greatest treasures, beyond the characteristics of the Age of Exploration, was Casale’s work bringing another discussion to the academic table in the classroom: the distinct differences of cosmologies between the “East” and “West.”  The debates over the natural man, the sheer befuddling abstracts that Europeans had to contend with in their discovery of the Amerindian left them scrambling for some sort of answer on the nature of humanity and God.  A reconstruction of their world view was necessary and it brought to light some of the most intriguing theories of understanding the nature of human existence.  This is already an excellent topic for discussion in any classroom, but what Casale’s work can add is the discussion of differences that are found between Christian and Muslim cosmologies. Speculations can occur about Islamic theology and students can attempt to discuss the ways in which the Ottomans may have dealt with the question of the Amerindians if they did colonize in the New World.  Since the Ottomans did not have to deal with any reconstruction of their ethos because the Muslim world had contact with the Indian region long before the Age of Exploration they did not have to grapple with the issues the Western powers had to.  Perhaps this could bear fruit to some of the richest classroom discussions available and lead to an understanding of the differences between Christian and Islamic cosmologies during the Age of Exploration.  I would find some way to incorporate Anthony Pagden’s The Fall of Natural Man:  The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology, London: Cambridge University Press 1982, to help further understand European cosmology and the process of reconstruction of one’s worldview.  Between the two I believe some excellent classroom discussions can ensue.

Casale’s study can also be used to further understand Portuguese and Ottoman relations during the Age of Exploration.  Both empires seemed to have been in constant contact with each other in their attempts to control the Indian Ocean region.  The diplomatic relations between these two countries were unique when compared to the Ottoman’s dealings with other Western kingdoms.  It also allows students to examine the nature of Portugal’s Empire during the Age of Exploration.  Remembering that the original goal of the explorers was to find a new route to India, Portuguese maritime navigators were working within the region to gain control of the pre-existing route while the rest of the world was  preoccupied with the New World.  Here discussions can ensue on the nature of the Portuguese Empire, their relations and close encounters with the yet “foreign” Ottoman East, and their understanding of Islam, Muslim traders and the significance of the holy cities to the newly formed Universal Caliphate.  They understood and witnessed the development of what Casale calls “soft empire” and noted the clever diplomacy that the Ottomans obtained during the sixteenth century, including becoming contenders in naval and marine-time politics.   All of this warrants discussion.

Finally, I would utilize this book to help understand the solidification of empires and the nature of the “frontier” in Early Modern Europe.  It seems that the entire world existed on some sort of frontier: the European superpowers with the New World, Portugal both in the New World and the East, and the Ottomans with the Balkans, Yemen, Arabia, the African Continent (West Coast) and the Indian Ocean.  All were stretched exceptionally thin and had to deal with the complications of incorporating foreign boarders into the political center of the Empire.  How did social norms change as a result?  How did they develop, incorporate, assimilate and understand one another?  Considerations on a global scale of the nature of the frontier and the changes of social norms and understanding can be debated, compared, and understood in greater contexts with the incorporation of this text in the classroom.

Arguably revolutionary like Bailyn’s The Peopling of British North America Giancarlo Casale’s The Ottoman Age of Exploration, presents academia with a newfound look at the Early Modern and Atlantic Worlds as well as the Age of Exploration.  The focus can be shifted from just the Atlantic to the Eastern corners of the globe.  Are the Ottomans and their empire as significant even though they did not have contact with the New World and its inhabitants?  I would argue yes, for the simple fact that the Ottoman Empire pioneers the practice of soft empire.  Casale’s work  further helps to bring to mind the nature of frontiers, the understanding of social reconstruction of cosmologies, and the distinct differences between Christian and Islamic world views.  Beautifully written and well researched it provides academia with a closer look at the Ottoman court, politics and the Empires difficulties during the sixteenth century.  For anyone looking to expand their Atlantic World courses, already richly littered, with something new but more Old World, this is a great start.  It also can be used to help those in Atlantic Studies examine the four characteristics that helped empires develop during the Age of Exploration.  No matter what way it is used or incorporated into scholarship, it is a multilayered masterpiece for academic expansion and global understanding.

Reviewed by Marianne Kupin, Community College of Allegheny County
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]