The Ottoman Age of exploration

Giancarlo L.Casale, The Ottoman Age of exploration: Spices, Maps and conquest in the Sixteenth century Indian Ocean, PhD Dissertation, Harvard University, 2004.

            In this seminal work, Giancarlo Casale deals with the fundamental question: “Did the Ottoman participate in the 16th century Age of Exploration?”. In searching for an authentic answer, the author, basing on plentiful of reliable sources, reconstructs comprehensively a novel picture of Ottoman history throughout the 16th century in the context of Indian Ocean, especially in competing with Portugal Empire in Indian Ocean. Furthermore, by examining the cross-cultural interaction on a massive geographical area, this dissertation contributes significantly to the field of world history.

1.“The Age of Exploration” is generally attributed to the expansion of European, Portuguese and Spanish in particular, during the 16th century. Due to the development of political ideology, technological advance and increasing demand for luxury goods originated in Asia (India and China), the Europeans carried out lot of expeditions, searching for new ways to reach India and China. Portuguese and Spanish played a leading role in the process of exploring the “new world” in the “Age of exploration”. Casale, however, challenges this conventional view and affirms that “the Ottoman expansion in the 16th century shared, to varying degree, all of the essential traits of European exploration during the same period” (p.8), and this becomes the central argument in his influential thesis.

To support his argument persuasively, Casale organizes his dissertation chronologically, examines the development of Ottoman Empire from the early to the end of 16th century by investigating major historical events. In Chapter 1, the author reexamines the significant role of Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 in term of ideology, geo-politics and economy. He argues that the spice trade and controlling major mercantile ports were among the principal economic motivation for this conquest. After the triumph over Egypt of Selim the Navigator, a direct connection between Ottoman Empire and Indian Ocean was established. This event marked a crucial change in Ottoman Empire’s perspective towards the outside world. In the chapter 2, Casale describes the continuing establishment of Ottoman power in the Indian Ocean by expeditions, gathering the various intelligence reports, and especially constructing an enormous alliance in the Indian Ocean. Chapter 3 examines the formation of “Indian Ocean Faction” that helped to deepen and expand the Ottoman Empire’s connection with the trading world of Indian Ocean. The Apogee of Ottoman power in the Indian Ocean is studied in chapter 4. According to the author, in the period from 1560s to 1570s, under the reign of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, Ottoman Empire constructed a grand strategy to build a global empire or “universal sovereignty”, and Indian Ocean became an integral part of this master plan. After the unexpected death of Sokollu and other major political figures, the Ottoman Empire’s master plan came to an end unsuccessfully and led to the withdrawal of Ottoman from the Indian Ocean

Thus, Casale convincingly proves that in the 16th century, Ottoman Empire was indeed an active player in the “Age of Exploration” in Indian Ocean, and the term “Age of Exploration” is no longer attributed merely to European powers. Interestingly, the author defines the term “age of exploration” in Ottoman history not only the expansion of military and geography but also in term of the intellectual and knowledge developments.

2.In his book, Casale also makes a significant contribution to the intellectual and cultural history of the Ottoman Empire. In chapter 6 – “The golden age of Ottoman discovery”, the author challenges the conventional thought that Ottoman Empire, unlike its European contemporaries, lack of curiosity about the outside world. He argues that, before establishing the direct connection with Indian Ocean, Ottoman scholars relied heavily on the European sources, the situation, however, shift dramatically since 1550s. After establishing the direct connection with the Indian Ocean and particularly Islamic communities in Asia, the Ottoman scholars received a huge amount of new informations, especially the firsthand accounts on previously unknown regions of the world. This fact led the Ottoman scholars began to reexamine and reevaluate the traditional and textual knowledge about the world, in order to meet the demands of new intellectual generations. A number of new productions were introduced, including “new world” maps, travel accounts, historical narratives, diplomatic correspondences, and most importantly cartography. These new knowledge of Ottoman scholars would be considered as a substantial contribution to the understanding the Globe in the 16th century as a whole.

3. By examining the cross-cultural interaction in a huge region, stretch from Mediterranean to East Africa, Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Casale’s dissertation contributes considerably to the field of world history. The author uses a massive amount of sources from a half dozen of languages (including the Ottoman chronicles and archival documents; Turkish language works: maps, travel narratives; Portuguese and European accounts; Arabian and Persian sources) to reinvestigating the active role of Ottoman Empire in the “Age of Exploration” in the Indian Ocean. His brilliant ability of managing the original sources makes his argument be stronger and more persuasive. Writing the history of Ottoman Empire and its connection to the Indian Ocean from Ottoman perspective, using the Ottoman and other local sources help this seminal work avoid radically the Eurocentric bias. Through this work, Casale also provides us a comprehensive picture about the encounter and the competition among major powers in the Indian Ocean during the 16th century, one of the first encounters between the West and the East in the world history.

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