Museum Challenge: The New York Transit Museum – Fun and Interesting

No pole dancing allowed

Of all the museums I’ve visited in New York City, the New York Transit Museum was the most fun, even though it’s also (so far) the smallest. The museum is designed in a way that allows for interaction with many of the exhibits. There was a whole class of children on a field trip playing with the turnstiles when I first got there. I think the museum staff was aiming for making the place a popular field-trip destination. Besides all of the interactive exhibits, there is also a cafeteria/classroom area.Just because it was set up for kids doesn’t mean it can’t be fun for adults too, though.

Students on a field trip trying out old subway turnstiles.
Students on a field trip trying out old subway turnstiles.

Just because it was set up for kids doesn’t mean it can’t be fun for adults too, though. On the first floor or first basement level, depending on how you look at it, there are old buses or portions of buses that you can walk into and sit in. The driver’s seats are accessible and you can have a friend take your photo through the windshield. The newer buses are definitely designed better. The driver’s seat and the angle of the pedals were much more comfortable than an older model I tried out, which required me to keep my leg elevated all the time to press the pedals. I have no idea how people actually drove those older buses all day. Their right legs must have been twice the size of their left legs.

The bottom floor of the basement is where all of the old train cars are. They had everything from A trains, supposedly mid-90s to 2010 (some of which I still see on the A line, not sure why it’s in the museum), to trains from the early 1900s. A lot of the train cars looked similar inside. Even some of the same advertisements spanned decades. It was interesting to see how the seat configurations changed over time. I also thought it was interesting to see ceiling or rotating fans in some of the older train cars. Once a year, New York City runs some of these older trains on the 7 line (I think).

Vintage train advertisement.
Vintage train advertisement.

What really interested me, though, were the old advertisements. I’d like to go back and just spend a few hours studying them. You can tell a lot about people during a certain time period based on the products they were buying and how the appeals made by advertisers were framed. It’s also just neat to see the artwork styles.

Signage meant to regulate passenger behavior.
Signage meant to regulate passenger behavior.

 

More signage meant to regular passenger behavior.
More signage meant to regular passenger behavior.

Another awesome exhibit in the museum is of signs meant to regulate the behavior of passengers. The signs are from multiple transit systems around the world. Some of them are hilarious; all of them are necessary. Or at least, the ones for the New York transit system are necessary. I remember being shocked by how clean the trains and buses in Singapore were when I first moved there. The trains were so clean that sometimes people would sit on the floor, something that is totally out of the question in New York City trains. The buses in New York City are usually just as filthy as the trains. People litter everywhere here; they spit everywhere here. It’s a shame. The city would be so much nicer if people would take care of it, but they don’t. They just complain about how dirty the city is while contributing to the problem.

Anyhow, the New York Transit Museum is pretty awesome and I’ll definitely be going back at least one more time in the future. Take a look through the photo gallery below for more images of exhibits in the museum:

 

The New York Transit Museum//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Museum Challenge: The Museum of the City of New York (Feb 2017)

City of New York Quote - New York Evening Post

A few weeks ago I was standing in Barnes & Noble, looking around to see if anything would catch my eye. I didn’t really want to buy anything because I have plenty of books that I haven’t read yet, but sometimes I go to B&N just to look around and get an idea of what’s popular or new. Sometimes I can’t resist and still walk out with a few new books to add to my collection.Anyway, I saw a section for books on New York City and I realized that despite majoring in History and working on an MA in history, I haven’t read or learned much about the history of New York City.

Anyway, I saw a section for books on New York City and I realized that despite majoring in History and working on an MA in history, I haven’t read or learned much about the history of New York City. The only two books that I know I’ve read are City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, by Christine Stansell and City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920, by Timothy J. Gilfoyle. I think I read them as part of an American economic history master’s course that was masquerading as a course on historiography and historical methodology. They were both excellent books, by the way.

Not knowing too much of anything about New York’s history struck me as odd since I live in New York City and half of my family has lived in New York City for multiple generations. At some point, I’m going to have to sit down and plow through a few good books on the subject, but my ignorance of the topic was the inspiration for my decision to visit the Museum of the City of New York on 5th Avenue.

A 1985 map of Manhattan, by The Manhattan Map Company Inc.
A 1985 map of Manhattan, by The Manhattan Map Company Inc.

The museum is not exceptionally large. I took the time to look at the special exhibit and read quite a few of the information placards in the galleries and still saw everything in about 3.5 hours, so it’s a great way to spend an afternoon without feeling rushed or having to go back again to see what you missed the first time through. Another bonus is that admission is free if you have a City University of New York student ID card.

A selection of artwork by students of varying ages in New York City schools.
A selection of artwork by students of varying ages in New York City schools.

The building’s collection has a mix of art and artifacts. In some galleries, there are old maps of the city, detailed information on how zoning works, and models to show how buildings were designed to fit the space limitations created by whatever the current zoning laws were. Other galleries have artifacts from the early colonial period, including Native American artifacts. There are galleries describing protest movements and fashion trends. There is a small hall dedicated to Tiffany’s. There is a gallery of contemporary children’s art from city schools. The special exhibit when I visited was on gay New York and the history of the gay rights movement and gay lifestyle in the city.

A selection of Tiffany's fans.
A selection of Tiffany’s fans.

The galleries cover a lot of ground. Some exhibits felt out of place, like the Tiffany’s gallery and the Stettheimer Doll House, for example. The special exhibit on gay New York felt empty. There wasn’t enough on display to make the exhibit interesting. The children’s art exhibit was really fun but also really small. The museum should dedicate more space to current New York City art initiatives and to modern New York City. By that, I mean there should be something that showcases contemporary diversity beyond the scrolling Twitter feed display showing New Yorker’s criticizing Trump’s policies. It should be something positive, like an exhibit on interfaith initiatives, cultural festivals, street fairs, and festivals, for example. It would also be interesting to see an exhibit on historical landmarks in the city and the process for designating a site as a historic landmark.

A gallery of more photos from the museum:

The Museum of the City of New York//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsI probably won’t visit this museum again. It was definitely worth the trip, but I didn’t see anything there that spoke to me, in the way that art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art does. This museum is more informative than awe-inspiring or inspirational.

Book Review: Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, by Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny’s book, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, is part of a series of short introductions on a wide range of topics published by the Oxford University Press. As a very short introduction with just 109 pages of content, Kenny does his best to avoid becoming bogged down in historical details and instead focuses on elucidating the theoretical framework of diaspora itself. Kenny argues that the term diaspora has been used in so wide a variety of situations that it has begun to lose its utility as a tool of study. To combat this trend, Kenny tries to narrow the definition of diaspora by identifying three key attributes that diasporic groups possess: movement, connectivity, and return. He supports and expands on this framework for diaspora by analyzing a geographically diverse range of population movements.

Kenny’s conception of diaspora is heavily rooted in Jewish tradition. He traces the word diaspora back to its use in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures from approximately 250 BCE. He argues that the Jewish understanding of diaspora, which was originally meant to convey the idea of spiritual estrangement from God, became conflated with galut, a Hebrew word which means physical exile (Kenny, 4-5). So, the Jews saw physical and spiritual exile from the land as being part of the same experience or process. Kenny positions this process of catastrophe, forced movement and a hope for redemption through return as the most useful structure of diaspora as a concept.

Is Kenny’s understanding of diaspora sound? Does it make sense to only apply the term diaspora if a migratory group’s situation conforms to the Jewish experience of exile and a hoped for divine redemption, or does that privilege Western understandings of history unnecessarily? One could argue that a word must have a set meaning, but the meanings of words have always changed over time. Also, for an academic study, it might make more sense to define a term in a way that does not rely on a specific set of religious ideas, especially if the goal is to make it generally applicable for groups of differing religious and cultural backgrounds. Because of how Kenny positions the idea of diaspora, at times it feels as if he is stretching the experience of the immigrant groups he examines to push them into the box he has built. He also fails to examine in any meaningful way the experiences of groups that would challenge his construction of diaspora. That may not be a fair critique for a very short introduction, but considering his conjecture that there are many opposing viewpoints of what constitutes a diaspora, including an example could have benefitted readers. Also, if Kenny is committed to the idea of scholars having the obligation to create a specific definition of diaspora and maintain it, why does he backpedal in his closing chapter by asking, “But if a given group chooses to define itself as a diaspora for its own purposes, who is the author of a short introduction to disagree? (Kenny, 109).

Kenny’s book is arranged thematically, rather than by group. He defines how he understands diaspora in chapter one and then spends the next three chapters expanding on the experiences of a handful of groups to elaborate on that definition. On the one hand, arranging his book this way makes it difficult to follow the individual experiences of the groups he reviews. In most cases, there are no chapter subheadings to orient the reader if they were interested in just one group’s experiences, making the reading experience potentially more laborious. Arranging his book thematically also leads to the repetition of information in some cases, which is space that could have been used for opposing views or the analysis of additional groups. On the other hand, organizing the book thematically allows the reader to clearly see the similarities between the experiences of the different groups, which better suits the author’s purpose of attempting to define diaspora.

Kenny’s first qualifier for a group to be a diaspora is an initial movement from a homeland. This movement must have a catastrophic element that creates a sense of imposed exile. Because of his concern for overextending the use of the word diaspora, Kenny is careful when discussing the history of the migration of different groups to differentiate between normal migration and a forced migration that creates a diaspora. His best example to support this idea is his discussion of the continuous migration of Irish to other countries over a period of hundreds of years, beginning in the 1700s. He points out that it was the potato blight in 1841to1855, which caused massive famine and a sudden, massive increase in the number of people migrating out of Ireland that was the defining moment in the creation of an Irish diaspora. The Irish who went abroad blamed England for their circumstances and for the deaths caused by the famine. They felt that England engineered the blight to eradicate them. This feeling of oppression created a sense of exile that reinforced their identity as a diasporic community. He also shows how the Jewish diasporic community suffered a catastrophic event that began a period of diaspora, though he oddly positions the beginning of diaspora in 586 BCE with the Babylonian exile. While historically accurate, Jews see exile and return as cyclical and the most recent exile, imposed by the Romans in 70 CE after they destroyed the Second Temple was the defining event for the majority of diasporic Jews. It marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for approximately two-thousand years and, unlike the Babylonian exile, removed almost the entirety of the population from the area.

Kenny’s second qualifier is connectivity. This is an interesting idea, but it does not seem as well-developed as Kenny’s explanations of either the initial migration or of the desire for return. Or rather, it seems that in each category a different group fits more neatly into Kenny’s definition of diaspora. For the initial migration, Irish and Jews clearly fit into the model of catastrophe leading to diaspora. For Africans, there was certainly a catastrophic event, but Kenny points out that Africans were victims of being sold into slavery in other parts of the world as well. Kenny attempts to downplay the experiences of African slaves in other areas of the world to bolster his claim that Atlantic slavery was definitive in creating an African diaspora. It seems more likely, however, that rather than the initial experience of being sold into slavery, it was racialization that created a feeling of commonality between Africans, which is something that Kenny brings up, but only in the sense that it created a sense of connectivity among Africans in the Atlantic world. This brings up another point. What is connectivity? Did Africans in South America actively communicate with Africans in the southeast United States or the Caribbean? Or is Kenny simply referring to a feeling of solidarity and common experience?

The third qualifier, which focuses on the idea of return, is the most interesting. Kenny focuses on the fact that many members of diasporic communities may not choose to return, even when given the opportunity. He oddly situates a discussion of this regarding Indians in South America in the chapter dealing with connectivity, but it is relevant here as well. This speaks to Kenny’s definition of the desire to return as being a desire to return a homeland that may be more imagined than real. His explanation of return focuses most heavily on the Jewish experience and the Rastafari movement. The Jewish experience was extremely informative because it shows what can happen when a diasporic group attempts to become a singular nation. The differences between the waves of immigrants that arrived in Israel shows that life in the diaspora has an effect on migrant groups. They become partially assimilated the cultures they live in. One could almost say that they stop being part of the same group in almost every sense of the word, becoming something in-between, rather like the Japanese experience in the American west. This is something that Kenny touches on when discussing the reasons why diasporic groups may choose to remain outside of their homeland. His discussion of the Rastafari movement was fascinating, though it seemed out of place. Kenny attempted to present the entire African diaspora in the Atlantic as connected, but used the experience of one group to show a general desire for return to Africa.

There were other odd additions to Kenny’s narrative that seemed out of place. One was the long discussion of the Palestinians in the chapter on return. Why add in a new group of people but only discuss them in a specific chapter, rather than as a part of the whole narrative? This may have been a limitation of the decision he made to structure his book thematically, but if that were the case, it may have presented a cleaner narrative if the Palestinians had not been included. However, since they were included in the narrative, the way they were approached feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than describing in excessive detail the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, Kenny could have examined the Palestinians as a diaspora. Even more, he could have looked at the dynamics between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas and discussed how they affect, or possibly reinforce each other. Another odd inclusion was the discussion of ancient human migrations out of Africa. Was this necessary for a discussion on diaspora?

Despite any problems that Kenny’s book may have, he is tackling a topic that is hard to define and hard to discuss, especially in a very short introduction. With a book this short, Kenny necessarily must take a certain point of view and stay with it. His desire to give the term diaspora a set meaning is reasonable, especially if we want the term to be useful as a tool for studying migration, and he presents a definition that seems to fit the groups he chooses for analysis reasonably well. Kenny spent time on subjects that were not necessary to his topic, but they do not detract from the book in a serious way. He also seems to broaden and bend his definition based on the group he is analyzing. As an introduction to diaspora, this book is well worth the time it takes to read and, if the reader has more questions, Kenny provides a list for further reading based on chapter.

 

References

Kenny, Kevin. 2013. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Universy Press.

“Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last Saturday, I went over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue to conduct a scavenger hunt for certain types of items in this exhibit and then drafted up an essay response, but I thought it might be useful to people thinking about going to see the exhibit itself, so I’m posting it here as well.


The exhibit, “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven,” is being shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017. Like the title of the exhibit implies, the selection of art being displayed includes pieces that are representative of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “People Under Heaven” in the Abrahamic tradition.

Jerusalem 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js 

One of the displays contains a set of astrolabes, which, according to the description, were devices that were “used to answer questions related to time, geography, and the position of the stars.” The three astrolabes on display were all created in Andalusia and include the city of Jerusalem. The text on the astrolabes were written in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. Another interesting item with text in multiple languages is “Slaughter of the Amalekites and Saul’s Last Stand,” which contains marginal notes in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian, written by subsequent owners of the book.

Most of the items were in pretty common languages used in the area, like those mentioned above, though there were exceptions. There is a text called “The Book of Kings” which I assume is written in an Ethiopian language, but I cannot be sure because the language used is not included in the description. More clearly labeled is a Copto-Arabic Book of Prayers, written in the Bohairic dialect of Coptic Egyptian. There is also a Book of Saints’ Lives written in what I can only assume is Georgian, again because the description is not clear.

There is a very large variety of items on display. There were at least three different versions of the Bible: a Samaritan Bible from 1232 CE in Yavneh, a Bible from northern Europe, ca. 1300, and a Bible from 13th century Rome or Bologna. There are also Jewish liturgical books like “Opening Prayer for Shabbat Parah” from 1257-58 CE, “The Catalan Mahzor” from 1280 CE, and “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a Haggadah from 1360-1370 CE. There were also choir books, swords, vases, amazing Jewish wedding rings, pillar capitals and reliquaries.

Two items that really caught my attention were the “A Knight of the d’Aluye Family” and the “’Umra Certificate.” The “Knight” sculpture was the covering of a burial place for a Crusader, dated to between 1248-1267 CE. What piqued my interest was the sword depicted in the sculpture, which is Chinese in appearance. It was fascinating to see actual proof of the exchange of items between Europe and Asia during that period. The ‘umra certificate from 1433 CE, which belonged to Sayyid Yusuf bin Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mawara al-Nahri, fascinated me because it emphasized just how important pilgrimage was and perhaps continues to be in the Islamic tradition. Going on the Hajj to Mecca had a direct impact on a Muslim’s social standing and warranted adding the honorific al-Hajj or al-Hajjah to one’s name. The ‘umra scroll shows that pilgrimage to areas in and around Jerusalem were nearly as important and warranted their being added to a certificate that could be displayed when the pilgrim returned home.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is definitely worth attending. It shows the central importance that Jerusalem played to a huge range of areas between 1000 and 1400, with items on display from Africa, Europe, Persia, and various places in the Middle East. It would be nice if there were translations of the texts on display, or if the languages being shown were at least clearly labeled. The grouping of the items could have been somewhat clearer as well, either chronologically or thematically. On the other hand, the items were displayed in a way that made them easy to view and appreciate. It is definitely a worthwhile way to spend an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.

Journal 1955~1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War, by Mouloud Feraoun – Reaction Essay

Journal, 1955-1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War Book Cover

Journal 1955~1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War (2000), contains the collected and translated notes of Mouloud Feraoun, an Algerian Kabyle who lived through most of the French-Algerian war and was ultimately assassinated by the OAS, an extremist group composed of French residents of Algeria that were attempting to prevent Algerian independence. Feraoun was born during the colonial period, educated in the French system and worked as an educator himself. He was intelligent, complex, and saw the conflict in a nuanced way that he feared would make him a target as the forces arrayed against each other in the country began to view the world as wholly divided between good and evil. He was especially conflicted about the education strike, because he believed that not everything inherited from the French was inherently evil, a position that was at odds with the FLN’s idolization of Islam as the native answer to French cultural domination.

The most prominent part of Feraoun’s recollections is the constant violence that he reports. The deaths become routine and he records them in a way that becomes standardized, because the killing had become standardized. Violence gripped the entire country and became a tool used both by the French and the FLN. Some violence is to be expected, but the level of violence escalated to a point that defied logic. Feraoun accuses the FLN of creating an atmosphere that will make people long for French rule, and as his memoir nears its end, that very thing begins to happen. Summary executions, rapes, round-ups, identity checks and oppressive home searches became the norm for people on both sides of the fight. Those caught in the middle tried to live their lives as best they could, but they were forced into a position where they were bound to be killed by one side or the other because there was no ideological room left to be neutral.

The French military’s use of violent tactics is more questionable than those of the “rebel” groups, not simply because one expects a rebel group to use terrorism and guerilla tactics, but because of France’s claim that Algeria is France. If Algeria is France, why were these “French” Algerians in “France” subjected to violence that a nation normally reserved for enemy nations? Feraoun compares French tactics in the villages and outlying areas to those used by Russia against Hungary. Even in a situation of martial law, would those actions be permitted in Paris? This shows that there was a distinct disconnect between rhetoric and actual policy that made clear Algeria’s place not as an integral part of France, but rather as a colony under another name, full of dangerous locals, none of whom were above suspicion. As Feraoun mentioned when trying to return to his village on the occasion of his father’s death, without the telegram from the French military official, he was a rebel commander and his cousin was a fighter as well. There was a presumption of guilt that placed all natives outside of the French nation and, as a result, outside of the state and the state’s protection.

The Merchant’s House Museum

There’s a building on 4th Street in Lower Manhattan that is a museum. It doesn’t really look like a museum. Not when you’re standing there in front of it and mentally comparing it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Guggenheim, but it was well worth the time I spent inside looking around. It takes about an hour and a half or two hours to look at everything. Maybe a bit longer if you want to just hang out and soak up the atmosphere. It’s not pricey either. 10 bucks for adults, 5 bucks if you have a student ID.

The building was built in the early 1800s and the furnishings and personal effects in the home were the property of the original owner, who bought the place in 1835. There have been a few modifications, like the addition of a fire escape for safety, bars on a few windows for security, and the removal of the outdoor latrine for sanitary purposes. Part of the garden was paved over with additional marble paving stones. Two indoor toilets were added for museum visitors. But, most everything else is authentic, like the cooking implements, clothing, hats, wash basins, and furniture. There’s even a pail of coal in the kitchen that one can pick up to experience the carrying load of a household servant or slave.

It’s a cool place and I’m looking forward to going again with my wife. I went by myself on a weekday afternoon. We’re particularly interested in attending one of the summer evening lectures in the outdoor private garden.

Visiting Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island

Guyon-Lake-Tysen House c. 1740 with kitchen addition in 1820s.

Before this month I’d never heard of Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island. The place isn’t heavily advertised and the carpenter in the recreated shop there told us that he wasn’t surprised, because a lot of people that live there in Staten Island have never heard of the place either. You almost wouldn’t know it was there if you rode by on the bus or in in a car. Maybe that says more about the quality of buildings on Staten Island in general than it does about the site, though, that it’s hard to tell buildings that are almost 300 years old apart from the rest of what Staten Island has to offer.

Getting to Richmond Town from Upper Manhattan was a little bit of a struggle. The A train kept stopping in the tunnel and then went local below 59th Street. I know they’ve been doing some construction on the tunnels during the week, at night, but it would be nice if the city could keep the trains running on time when they’re not doing work on the tracks, otherwise what’s the point of the new construction schedule the city pushed? The ferry ride was nice, at least. I always enjoy the views of the city from the boat. The bus ride from the ferry to the town was about 25 minutes, which isn’t too bad.

When we got to Richmond Town we were afraid it was closed because the place was so quiet and empty. I guessed that it was because this is Memorial Day weekend and most people probably stayed home to relax or went out of town for barbecues. When we got to the ticket counter in the gift shop, the clerk there said that Memorial Day weekend is usually really quiet and cited the same reasons I suggested. I didn’t really care that the place was empty of people. Getting away from the crowds in New York City, seeing some trees, grass, fresh air and open spaces was just fine with me.

The fact that most of the buildings were closed was a problem, though. No one there was in costume. When we went on the 3:30 tour, our guide used a set of keys to open up each building we went into and had to take time to open the shutters so there would be light inside. She kept mentioning that the buildings saw regular, period-style use during the week. I wonder who has time to go out there during the week? I’m going to have to do some research and make some phone calls to find out if we can go back on another weekend and see the place completely up and running.

That being said, the tour was really good and our guide knew quite a bit about the houses she was showing us. She was also ready to answer random questions about the facilities and other buildings we were walking by. I was not disappointed at all. It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the place:

Better quality images and more details can be found in my Historic Richmond Town Flickr gallery.

Response: Donald Quataert’s “The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922”

Donald Quataert’s book, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 (New Approaches to European History), is an engaging overview that challenges popular (mis)conceptions about internal dynamics of the empire in regards to inter-communal relations and the role it played internationally. Throughout the text, Quataert takes care to place the Ottoman Empire in context, something which he seems to believe has been rarely done in past historical works, resulting in inflated claims of both power and weakness, as well as claims of undue cruelty both to its own citizens and its enemies. In short, while providing a good overview of the empire, Quataert also does an effective job in leveling the playing field so that the reader is able to understand that both the perceived negative and positive actions of the empire are not unique to the Ottoman Empire, cutting through caricatures to present a balanced view of history.

Having never read anything regarding the Ottoman Empire before, the text was very instructional. I was previously under the impression that the Ottoman Empire was a primarily Middle Eastern, Muslim empire that was organized along monarchical and religious lines. The information presented about the gradual shift in power from the sultan to the viziers/pashas and then to the Jannisaries was interesting. What sort of authority did the office of sultan still hold that it was maintained for the purposes of political legitimation? Why was there never an attempt to restructure the central government? Or was the sultan a political figurehead in a similar way to modern Prime Ministers and Presidents?

I was also very interested to find out that for a large portion of the empire’s existence, the vast majority of the population resided in the European provinces, making the empire more European than Middle Eastern. The fact that the Ottoman Empire expanded so far into southeastern Europe helps to explain the modern mistrust and fear of Turkey and, as the author says, the hesitance the European Union is displaying regarding Turkey’s application for membership. It’s a hesitancy and fear that’s a legacy of the Ottoman Empire’s initial military successes, but why does Turkey bear the legacy of that fear? Is there something about Turkey that makes it different from the other former Ottoman lands? The Ottoman’s central administration was located in Turkey, but in the formation of the modern Republic of Turkey, the Ottoman legacy was almost completely abolished. Is there some fear that Turkey might use the European Union to ascend economically and politically and once again pose a political threat to the European nations?

One thing that I wish had been better addressed in the text was the legal system in the Ottoman Empire. How heavily did it rely on religious law? How much was secular law? Was there a process where the ulema approved the laws, or was religious validation not required? Was religious law widely applied or was it limited to civil courts? Also, how heavily were communal religious courts used, and how often were there appeals to Islamic courts? What did sectarian (non-Muslim) courts use as a basis for law and are any of the law books they used still existent? Or were they more informal? The particulars of the law systems is probably a subject for a separate book, but the author didn’t seem to spend too much time discussing the court system in general, and the fact that non-Muslim citizens often appealed to the Islamic courts for ‘justice’ makes it a point of interest.

Overall, Donald Quataert’s book tackles a subject that, judging by his text, has often been unfairly maligned in popular media due to old biases and fears. His attempt to overcome those misconceptions are obvious throughout the text, where he constantly makes comparisons between the Ottoman Empire’s methods or actions and those of other contemporaneous political entities. The division of the book into sections that generally cover time periods, followed by chapters that address certain aspects of Ottoman society helps the reader to place the more detailed information into the greater framework of events. The Ottoman Empire: 1700-1922 is an excellent introduction to an important period of history.

Response: Cemal Kafadar’s “Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State”

Cemal Kafadar’s book, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State, is an attempt to find a middle-ground between existing theories that paints a more realistic picture of a dynamic and fluid process that didn’t exist in polar opposites, as presented in the theories put forward by Herbert Gibbons, Paul Wittek and M. F. Koprulu. By that, I mean their theories seem to be presenting history in a way that supports a contemporaneous need to justify the superior role of one group or another, or a particular aspect of a group, rather than in a way that produces a realistic and sufficiently complex set of events. Cemal Kafadar recognizes this and, rather than producing another theory and trying to prove it, he attempts to reconcile the theories presented by Gibbons, Wittek and Koprulu into something that might better approximate the truth of the origins of the Ottoman state.

Kafadar tells us that very little written documentation exists from the foundational period of the Ottoman state, and what does exist is only useful up to a certain point because of the possibility of the text being altered to fit the author’s needs. According to Kafadar, it’s possible that the Ottomans didn’t know where they came from. When attempting to establish an empire, however, it’s important to have political legitimacy and creating a new historical narrative is one way to establish the right to rule. Attempts to establish that right are obvious in the creation of false lineages that allowed the Ottomans to trace their descent to Noah (Islamic legitimacy) and to the Oghuz Turks through the Kayi tribe (ethnic legitimacy?). Regardless of whether or not these lineages are accurate, knowing that they were important at the time as symbols of political legitimacy can help explain the problems the Ottomans were facing at the time. Why did they feel that they needed to shore up their right to rule at those particular times?

It was especially interesting to see the changing role of Islam and the gradual shift from a localized version of Islam to a more orthodox Sunni version of Islam. How important was Islam in the beginning of the Ottoman’s attempt to found a state? Did they even conceive of it as ‘gaza’ at the time? Or was it later legitimated as gaza by historians seeking to shore up the Ottoman’s Islamic credentials? Kafadar mentioned that religious identities at the time were very fluid and often Muslims would ally with Christians for the sake of raiding and battling rivals. It’s likely that the Ottomans also engaged in that practice. And, it’s also likely that they didn’t feel any less Muslim for doing so, given that they had Islamic titles, like “Champion of the Faith.” What made a good Muslim in that period? It’s probably not even possible to make that distinction today, but it’s interesting to see how much more cavalier the reality was, compared to the supposed Islamic norms.

Kafadar made a brief mention of the similarity between events in Anatolia and the events in the Iberian peninsula, where the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty were slowly being whittled down by the Catholics in the Reconquista. In that conflict, there were also Muslim mini-states that would ally with Christians against a rival Muslim mini-state, with the end result being that Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the last Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in 1492. The rulers of the Muslim mini-states in the Iberian peninsula had to know what would eventually happen to them, so why did they continue to ally with Christians? How important was religion to them, compared to politics and political power? In the same way, modern thinkers were probably reading too much into the religious aspect of the frontier warfare in Anatolia.

The literature concerning the frontier area is especially interesting in how it depicts the role of women. If Islam were a driving force in Turkish expansion in the area, then why were women depicted in roles that supposedly broke Islamic norms? Efromiya is depicted as a woman convert to Islam that battled alongside men she wasn’t related to, kept their company at night, and didn’t cover herself, and likely had a lover for a while before being married to him (Artuhi). Similarly, in the Book of Dede Korkut, Kan Turali sets out to look for a woman that is good at cutting the heads off of infidels, which isn’t a role traditionally filled by a Muslim woman, or at least not the way we think of a Muslim woman today. He eventually marries a Christian woman, Princess Saljan, who is presented as strong-willed and highly sexual (“she went weak at the knees, her cat miaowed, she slavered like a sick calf…[ and] said, ‘If only God Most High would put mercy into my father’s heart, if only he would fix a bride-price and give me to this man!’”, p 69). How do these stories fit into the actual history of the region? Are they complete fictions that only represent the general fantasies of men at the time for foreign women? Was this considered legitimate behavior in that time and place?

The only thing that could have made reading his book clearer and more readily understood would have been an introduction that spelled out their theories before Kafadar launched into his own interpretation of them and the events that surround the founding of the Ottoman state. Since there is as yet very little existing documentation from that period, the best we can do is make conjectures about the period and Kafadar does a good job in reducing Wittek, Gibbons, and Koprulu’s one dimensional theories into something more life-like and believable.

Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee…

So, down in Georgia, there’s a river called the Chattahoochee. According to Alan Jackson, it gets hotter than a hoochee coochee and it’s a great place to learn to swim, love, and live.

Back in the 70’s, which is when I assume he’s talking about, that might have been true, but these days there’s so much industrial pollution and waste water run-off in the Chattahoochee that if it’s hot, it’s because it’s burning your skin. Atlanta pumps a lot of waste into the river, ruining it for all of the cities downstream.

Chattahoochee River, River Walk, Phenix City side.
Chattahoochee River, River Walk, Phenix City side.

That hasn’t stopped both Columbus (on the Georgia side of the river) and Phenix City (on the Alabama side of the river) from both trying to develop the area. One of their projects is a river walk. I remember when the Columbus government first started building the river walk back in the mid 90’s. If I remember right, I did a March of Dimes event there when I was a sophomore in high school. It was pretty nice. The view was good. Even going back there now, after having seen the skylines of so many cities in and outside the US, it’s still good, though that may be partly the nostalgia.

Blown dam on the Chattahoochee River
Blown dam on the Chattahoochee River

The other project that Columbus is working on is something to do with white water rafting. The city government has this idea in their head that if they build it, ‘they’ will come, in the hundreds of thousands, so, sure enough, several historic dams that were built to power factories that used to operate along the waterfront were blown open to create a ‘white water’ effect in the river. Personally, I think it looks more like a ‘lazy river’ ride at a theme park, way too tame for someone seeking a real white water thrill, but maybe they haven’t opened up all the dams yet.

My wife and I went down the Phenix City riverwalk with my dad and he was telling us about how the city made a big deal out of blowing the dam we happened to be looking at, at the time. It was televised and people were expecting a large explosion, but it wasn’t really anything special. I still wish I’d been there to see it, but mostly because I’d have been interested to see what was at the bottom of the river. I bet they pulled a lot of neat stuff out of there.

Covered over square tunnels visible in far walls.
Covered over square tunnels visible in far walls.

Across the river from where we were, for example, there was a wall built of large square stones that was previously submerged. In the side of that wall there were square tunnels running back into the bank. I wonder what’s in there? Was it used fro waste run-off or sewage? The way it was built, with two walls in terraced set-up, it seemed like there used to be a road down there.

Old factories and a power station (small building 1/4 from the right)
Old factories and a power station (small building 1/4 from the right)

Anyway, there’s a lot of history in that area. One of the last major wars of the Civil War was fought in Phenix City. Columbus used to produce most of the boots and swords for the Confederate Army. Columbus was also the end of the line for river cargo from the Gulf of Mexico, since it sits on the fall line. Now, those old factories are being converted into expensive lofts and the river is being turned into a commercialized tourist attraction (which will probably fail due to health concerns), but at least the river has a bit more character now. I wish I could get down in there with a metal detector…