Monday, April 6, 2015

Making Fun of Ismet Pasha

Im taking advantage of one of the all too rare occasions Ismet Inonu is in the news to publish some of my favorite pictures of him from the 1950s. The picture of Mermaid Inonu, complete with Ecevit and a Recep Peker puffer fish, is from Cumhuriyet (home to many equally amazing cartoons). My favorite Akbaba cartoon (here), from 1953, shows  Inonu breastfeeding a bearded baby symbolizing religious reaction and the Nation Party. The two pictures below were published in Zafer, the Democratic Party paper, from the era purporting to show Inonu's reaction to his defeat in the 1957 election. The Democratic Party pioneered the strategy of lionizing Ataturk while condemning Inonu for all the things they hated about the one-party era, and even went as far as to routinely compare him to Hitler for his dictatorial policies in the 1940s. Inonu's decision to cede power via elections in 1950, however, remains an unprecedented act of democratic statesmanship: declassified documents make it increasingly clear he made this decision of his own accord, with every reason to believe that America would continue to fully support him and his country were he to stay in power through authoritarian means.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Uncharted New Guinea

One of my favorite maps ever, showing New Guinea at the turn of the century, complete with Cannibal Point, Alligator Point, Attack Island, Pandora Passage and Deception Bay. Read more, and see more maps, in our article on Slate.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Note on the Brahooees from the Royal Asiatic Reader

Today we're posting another excerpt from the Royal Asiatic Reader, an affiliated blog devoted to Orientalist scholarship and geography from Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mapping Ottoman Decline

The Ottoman State's Era of Stagnation and Retreat
For quite some time now historians have been problematizing the idea of Ottoman Decline. It's an important point, but one that can only be taken so far: I'm waiting for the revisionist work that declares the Ottomans not only won the First World War but the Second as well, driving the Germans back at Stalingrad with their Janissaries only to be denied credit by a generation of Orientalist scholars.

Of course the critique of Ottoman decline is motivated by the fact that there really were generations of Orientalist scholars writing some ridiculous things. That the Ottoman Empire declined because it could no longer bear the weight of its religious fanaticism, because it was not quick enough to recognize the superiority of European civilization or because its nomadic Turkish rulers could never learn the civilized art of administration. The religious explanation of Ottoman decline has been perhaps the most enduring. Particularly when people like Paul Kennedy sought to explain "the rise and fall of great powers" the Ottoman Empire always appears as the Muslim / Middle Eastern country that almost made it, an approach which inevitably tends to cast the reason it didn't make it in a religious or civilizational light. The religious explanation of Ottoman decline also served quite nicely as a justification for Kemalist reforms, which supposedly sought to recreate the secular mentality that characterized the Empire in its golden age.

Against the simple narrative that the Ottoman Empire reached its peak in the 16th century, perhaps under Suleiman the Magnificent, then slowly declined over the next few centuries into a state of tottering sick-man obsolescence, historians have offered a number of corrections ranging from the somewhat obvious to the profound.

The most straightforward might be that even as the Ottoman Empire declined relative to its European rivals, it continued to advance technologically, militarily and economically in absolute terms. I think people generally realize this is what's implied by decline, but in case anyone doesn't let's be clear: if, through the vagaries of time travel, the 18th century Ottoman army went up against the Ottoman army that conquered Constantinople in the 15th century, the 18th century Ottomans would totally win.

[Sorry, my real goal in writing this post wasn't to just ramble about narratives of Ottoman decline, but to share a few graphics that offer interesting visualizations of the expansion and collapse of Ottoman power. This one, from a Republican Era history about the siege of Vienna, offers a two dimensional view of Ottoman power measured by kilometers of territory controlled per year.]

Some scholars have questioned the tendency to judge decline purely in terms of the ability to win wars. Which is fair up to a point, but distracts from some of the more interesting work that's been done on why the Ottomans stopped winning wars when they did. Gabor Agoston, for example, has made the case that, contrary to what many assumed, technology actually had little bearing on military power up until the 19th century, and that even in some realms where the Ottomans seemed to fall behind technologically, such as gunpowder production, their problems had more to do with economics and manufacturing than the quality of their military technology per se.

Other scholars have argued that maybe the Ottomans just didn't want to win wars, or control more territory anymore.

On the political side, scholars such as Virginia Aksan have argued that the decentralization that occurred in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century was not simply a sign of encroaching decline, but rather a conscious strategy that served to preserve Ottoman power. Perhaps. But as wise or effective as this strategy may have been at the time, it seems like there's no escaping the fact that by the 18th century it left the Ottomans at a military disadvantage in conflicts with European powers who had been able to more effectively centralize state control during this period. When faced with loss of territories like Egypt and later Bulgaria in the 19th century, the Ottoman government made a conscious effort to preserve some kind of nominal authority over breakaway regions, going to sometimes elaborate lengths to display symbolic sovereignty over the Egyptian Khedive or Eastern Rumelia. After World War One, the Turkish Republic took the opposite tactic, embracing the rhetoric of the nation state in asserting full sovereignty over all the territory within its borders and no sovereignty over any territory outside of them. Given the realities of late 19th and early 20th century statecraft, this proved to be a better approach. The result was that by the end of the 20th century, the trajectory of Ottoman/Turkish state's military and economic fortunes actually looked quite similar to that of other Mediterranean states.

Another neat visualization of the Ottoman Empire's territorial rise and fall showing geographic conquests schematically as width per year. This map comes from a book in the ARIT library whose title proved a victim of my shoddy note-taking.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Fort McHenry - America's Gallipoli

On the hundredth Anniversary of the British attack on the Dardanelles, we have John Bower's print (courtesy of the New York Public Library) showing the 1814 naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, in Maryland, during the War of 1812. I was lucky enought to find myself in Baltimore on the Canakkale anniversary, and only belatedly realized that the attack on Fort McHenry was, of course, America's Gallipoli: the two battles are enshrined in national myth, separated by almost exactly a century but united by a shared commitment to defend our countries against British seaborne invasion.

This print, in particular, reminded me of a fantastic commemorative map of the Dardanelles attack provided by Kerim Bayer.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Strategic Depth: The Brilliance in the Bullshit

With his giant book and academic credentials, Ahmet Davutoglu has always generously fulfilled an odd and insatiable collective desire for ideology and history in foreign policy discussions. Everyone wanted theoretical window dressing when talking about Turkey and Davutoglu ladled it on (this is not a mixed metaphor. I pour soup on my windows).

The map above is from a Milliyet article about Davutoglu's Strategic Depth Doctrine. The Green and Yellow regions correspond to Turkey's strategic "basins." Yellow is Turkey's "close territorial basin" and Green is its "close continental basin." The dotted red line meanwhile, show's the extent of Turkey's "close maritime basin." In short, the map conveys the essence of the Davutoglu's belief that Turkey is "a country with a close land basin, the epicentre of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, the centre of Eurasia in general and is in the middle of the Rimland belt cutting across the Mediterranean to the Pacific"

It also looks suspiciously like what you'd get if you took a world map and colored in all the countries  near Turkey. The point is Davutoglu knows how to make this kind of bullshit sound like it means something.

Thisis all to say that in my fixation with how terrible neo-Ottomanism was as an analytical approach to Turkish foreign policy I never gave it enough credit as a rhetorical success. Davutoglu's implausible zero-problems with neighbors policy seemed a lot more plausible because of the neo-Ottoman crate it came dressed up in (also not a mixed metaphor if you've ever gone as a crate for Halloween). For people who embraced or feared Davutoglu's "neo-Ottoman" policies, the historical language really did seem to make it all more realistic.

Looking back now, it's sad to think that if any concrete belief about the Ottoman Empire actually influenced Davutoglu, it was probably his  misguided faith in Ottoman tolerance, rather than a commitment to  Ottoman piety or Ottoman martial valor. Anyways, much more on this courtesy of Foreign Affairs and the Suleyman Shah tomb raid

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Make Your Own Middle East: The King-Crane PickaPath

Check out Make Your Own Middle East, the King-Crane PickaPath adventure that everyone is talking about. Play as King or play as Crane in the game of state-building, border-drawing fun that has already been hailed as a groundbreaking fusion of Digital History and Edutainment!