Ottoman History and the Red Sea

by Alexis Wick

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Boston. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference themes. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and November 13th.

The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space book coverOttoman history has exploded out of its well-protected niche, and begun sustained dialogues with historians of various stripes on questions of global import. This is not to say that Ottomanists had not previously been posing relevant questions, or conducting meaningful conversations with colleagues in other fields until recently (Ranke read Hammer-Purgstall, Barkan influenced Braudel)—but the sheer intensity of the debates involving Ottomanist historians, and the attention devoted to the Ottoman past by non-specialists is without a doubt unprecedented. Ottomanists are putting their stamp on the imperial turn, the cultural turn, the linguistic turn, the back-to-the-social turn, and now, the oceanic and the spatial turn. This is the biblioscape in which my book wanders.

Sitting on the shoulders of giants (Orhonlu, Özbaran, Bostan, Hess, Tuchscherer, Brummett, among many others, and behind them all, of course, the ubiquitous Halil Inalcik, now sadly departed), I set out to research the history of the Red Sea after the fashion of Braudel’s famous Mediterranean: a coherent vessel, moored in a specific era (in my case, the late 18th, early 19th c.) and anchored to the very long term, the longue durée. Hence the work’s pertinence,  since it fills an obvious gap in the literature: there has been no such book devoted to the Red Sea, despite the obvious coherence of the space, and the increasing publicity of sea-centered historical narratives. But I quickly realized that the Ottomans did not call that area the Red Sea, nor did they, in fact, conceive of it as an integral whole—until the second half of the 19th century, that is, and the expansion of European global power. My book thus also proposes answers to other questions as well: why had the history of the Ottoman Red Sea not been written? Is it meaningful that the Ottomans did not always call it the red sea? How did they conceive of the area? And what does all this tell us about the historian’s craft more generally?

Alexis Wick is Assistant Professor of History at the American University of Beirut. The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space is available now. Listen to his interview on the Ottoman History Podcast.

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