Back to Main Entry

Reviews of The Ottoman Balkans, 1750–1830

“The Ottoman Empire occupies a prominent place in many world history courses and rightly so. Unfortunately, it attracts far fewer scholars and students than other more ‘glamorous’ epochs or civilizations such as Rome, China, India, and so forth. Therefore new studies on it are always welcome. The book under review is a collection of articles that examine in great detail the period of the Ottoman Empire’s so-called decline during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I use the term ‘so-called decline’ deliberately because the theme that unites the various essays is the question of exactly how much the empire’s control and legitimacy was weakened in the Balkans during this era. Not surprisingly, the individual authors have slightly different perspectives on this issue, but the overall picture is less dismal and clear-cut than is often portrayed in most survey texts. Each of the articles here argues that many groups in the Balkans supported the Ottoman state in the 1700s, albeit for different reasons and with different levels of commitment, and that at least until the early 1800s very few people rejected the empire in toto for nationalistic reasons.

“One of the major [functions] of any pre-modern state, including the Ottoman, was to provide justice for its subjects, and the first two articles by [Antonis Anastasopoulos] and Michael Hickok deal specifically with the judicial system and the application of law. Both authors describe a complex system in which local and provincial authorities were expected to deal with most cases and that was quite flexible … (13–14, 47–48). While this complexity could create disputes and conflicts among the different types of officials that could be exploited by transgressors, Hickok argues it worked well enough to provide some kind of justice to Bosnia (56). [Anastasopoulos’] article points out that when local authorities failed to resolve cases, people not only routinely appealed to the central authorities for redress, indicating they continued to see it as the ultimate source of justice, but also that the state sought to respond to such appeals and thus reaffirm its ties to its subjects and their concerns (26).

“Virginia Aksan, Frederick Anscombe, and Rossitsa Graveda … present a less rosy picture. Askan’s article examines illegal usurpation of farmland in the ‘frontier’ region of Wallachia in the mid-1700s and the Ottoman government’s response to this problem as revealed in the reports by a special investigating commission. She argues that while the Ottomans did make a concerted effort to restore order and legitimacy in the region, employing a variety of contractual practices, the efforts failed and conditions worsened, ultimately leading to the rise of powerful local warlords in the late 1700s. In the process of discussing these points, though, she makes a number of points important to keep in mind not only about the Ottomans but [about] many empires. First, she stresses the porosity of the frontier and complexity of people’s identity in such areas. Second, she highlights the importance of military considerations in shaping the government’s response to reports of lawlessness on the frontier.

“One of the most famous warlords to rise in the Balkans in the late 1700s was Osman Pazvantoğlu, and he is the focus of the article by Rossitsa Gradeva. She argues that Pazvantoğlu did not simply exploit the turmoil of the 1790s for his own aggrandizement. Instead she portrays him as a ‘conservative reformer’ who sought to restore the glory of the classical Ottoman state. His efforts to introduce reforms in his own territories and to court the support of various European powers were in some ways a precursor of those of the more well-known Muhammad Ali in Egypt. Gradeva also points out that Pazvantoğlu often received support from various non-Muslim groups and individuals. Although such support was guided primarily by pragmatic considerations about his ability to provide security and reduce taxes, it again highlights the fact that people’s loyalties in unsettled border areas frequently shifted and were not always dictated by simply their religious or ethnic identity, although these began to become more common with the rise of ‘nationalist’ sentiment among the Serbs in the early 1800s (130–31, 134).

“The unstable and tumultuous nature of life in the provinces also features prominently in Anscombe’s article on the rise and fall of ‘banditry’ in the Albanian regions of the Balkans in the late 1700s. He emphasizes how this was the result of several underlying economic, social, and political problems and how the Ottoman state had only limited control over some of them. Although the Ottomans made repeated efforts to curtail such lawlessness, he argues the state lacked the military and fiscal resources to eliminate it completely or to solve the underlying problems (106). As in Aksan’s article on Wallachia, one of the key factors limiting the Ottoman’s efforts to restore stability and justice in the region was their preoccupation with military threats posed by neighboring states, which provided both bandits and local notables numerous opportunities to enrich themselves (89).

“The overriding impression one gains from these articles is that while the Ottoman [Empire was] still capable of providing a modicum of security and justice in parts of the empire, it was hard pressed to do so in border regions, especially during a time of nearly constant warfare with increasingly powerful neighbors. This may be the most significant feature of the book for teachers and students of world history. It provides detailed examples of the difficulties that imperial states have in controlling and administering territories that are geographically and culturally removed from the center.

“While most of these articles are probably too detailed to be assigned in high school or even introductory college world history classes, they offer a rich source of information for instructors to use in developing their own lectures or assignments. For example, many of the problems facing the Ottomans, such as geographic obstacles, recalcitrant nobles, military and fiscal pressures, popular rebellion, banditry, and so forth were hardly unique and the information provided here could fruitfully be used in comparisons with many other pre-modern states, especially those in Europe or Asia, The articles also highlight the complexity, fluidity, and innovativeness often found in such border areas, and it is not hard to imagine a comparison of the Balkans with other regions at different periods of time. Similarly, since most empires are first acquired and then maintained, at least in part, by force, the way in which military factors constrained the ability of the Ottomans to halt decentralization and instability could easily be compared with similar problems faced by other empires, from ancient ones [like] the Assyrians up to very recent ones [like] the Soviet Union.” — World History Bulletin