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East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century Review


The Ottoman Empire, and its principal descendent state of Turkey, was positioned on the crossroads of civilization. A Muslim empire - and probably the greatest in the world, with only the Mughal Empire being able to claim rivalry with its sheer scope, size, and sophistication - its core was in Turkey, set between Europe and Asia, while its religion was Muslim but it was filled with a headily cosmopolitan mix of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and it engaged as a key player in the European balance of power. The 18th century was a period of great change for the Ottomans as it faced more and more towards Europe, as the European powers developed, reformed, and modernized, their economies and militaries increasing by leaps and bounds, and forcing the Ottomans to seek to develop in lock step to keep up. This is the ostensible subject of Fatma Müge Göçek's book East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century. Unfortunately, for such a rich subject, Göçek's book runs into a fair number of problems, as it quickly loses the thread of Franco-Ottoman relations and switches to a general European-Ottoman format, looks only at a narrow milieu of Ottoman and French society focused on the upper class, promotes a simplistic model of Ottoman modernization and one which only looks at a few elements, and has discordant elements which are not well integrated.

Franco-Ottoman relations beyond just opposition had been important since the 16th century, when the two de-facto allied to resist Hapsburg dominance.

Franco-Ottoman relations beyond just opposition had been important since the 16th century, when the two de-facto allied to resist Hapsburg dominance.

There are three main parts to the book. The first one looks at the Ottoman embassy to France in 1721, discussing the reasons why it was sent - principally that the Ottomans were concerned of falling behind European powers militarily, in the wake of having lost wars to the Russians and Austrians, which motivated them to learn from European countries. It goes into great detail about differences between French and Ottoman cultural customs as exposed by the trip, and its progress, and the observations made.

The second part compares the French embassy with a number of other embassies which the Ottomans undertook at the same time, to Austria and Sweden. These again discuss why they were undertaken, both in the tactical sense and broader long term objectives.

In the third book section, the topic moves to various Western impacts on Ottoman society, such as commerce (discussing Western attempts to facilitate trade in the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman Empire's policy of trade concessions), the importation of Western technology, how this was filtered by various religious and ethnic groups, as well as structures in Ottoman society such as the massive households of the elites, and with a brief conclusion to recap these themes.

The biggest flaw in the book is a simple one: that after initially introducing the Ottoman 1721 embassy to France, there is actually exceedingly little about Franco-Ottoman relations. Quickly, the book morphs into being a general categorization of European-Ottoman relations, and this of a very simplistic level: that of the European influence on the Ottoman Empire, fated to achieve a "modernization" of the Ottomans that would bring them into being more akin to Europe, in a teleological and one way process. It is very shallow, and focuses excessively on a small pool of material changes in the Ottoman Empire, such as clocks, textiles, and printing presses, seen through a small number of groups that filtered Western technology through - minorities in the Ottoman Empire and Ottoman elites - while ignoring how much of the population of the empire responded.

The title of the book makes it seem like it is a much more encompassing and broad history than the book is. In fact, the centerstone of the book is based entirely around the 1721 Ottoman embassy in France: there is next to nothing about Franco-Ottoman relations in the rest of the 18th century. The French and Ottomans had a rich history of economic, military, and diplomatic ties, and yet this is mostly ignored. There are all too many books on relationships between states that become too dry, boring, and niche: this book is not like those, because it simply doesn't cover anything at all.

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This also makes for simplistic ideas concerning conservatives and modernizers, and a dichotomy drawn between the two, ignoring conservative reformism - for while conservatives have often opposed change, in fact their own efforts to revive tradition and reinvigorate existing social structures are hardly conservative at all. The Meiji Revolution was led by "conservatives" who sought to buttress traditional Japanese society - but who led to a massive cultural transformation even as they pursued these "conservative" lines. The nature of Ottoman political reform and its objectives is not addressed at sufficient length, but the very nature of how it is discussed is unfortunately narrow and stilted.

What is worse, the book largely fails to look at how the Ottoman Empire impacted France, this in a book supposedly about France and the Ottoman Empire. There is the briefest mention of the Turkish fashion craze in France, but nothing about how the French perceived the Ottoman Empire, how the Ottomans were thought of in France. At this time during the enlightenment, Sinophilia was all the rage in Europe, with a portrayal of a rational, enlightened, logical Chinese Empire, one which Europe might do very well to ape: what sort of views existed on the Ottoman Empire? Not long before there were calls for Europe to unite against the Turkish menace and to liberate the oppressed Christians from Ottoman barbarism: were these still à la mode in the 18th century or were there different views of the Ottoman Empire? We are treated to a massive amount of enthusiasm, with the Ottoman embassy being mobbed with people coming to watch it pass by, and even Frenchmen attempting to impersonate Ottomans to go to France: there was a huge amount of curiosity in France about the Ottomans! But at the same time, there must have been almost no Ottomans in France, or they would not have been a novelty. The book does not explore why there was this tremendous curiosity and interest. Nor are comparisons between the Ottomans and French discussed: Louis XIV, absolutist and aspiring to unchallenged power, received comparisons to oriental despots and sultans: this could have been a rich theme to be analyzed to understand how the Ottoman Empire was understood in France and Europe as a political metaphor.

The one redeeming area of the book is in the comparison of French and Ottoman cultural practices, although this is itself undermined by the lack of broader social perspective. In discussing the Ottoman embassy to France, there is great detail about how eating habits, the participation of women in society, music and festivals, and ceremonies differed between the Ottoman Empire (at least in Istanbul) and France. Unfortunately, this is restricted almost entirely to the upper class: there is no comparison of this to the Ottoman and French lower classes, who could have been very different indeed. It was unlikely after all, that the French lower classes would have had the time, nor the money, for hours long dinners with extensive entertainment and waiting staff like the upper classes did! And what about the Ottoman Empire, did the lower classes engage in similar customs to the upper class? This book is almost entirely the story of the upper classes in the Ottoman Empire and France, and the discussion of the latter's customs to the former, and ignores greater nuance and other actors (other than minority groups in the Ottoman Empire).

East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century has one principal advantage, in providing an effective primary source comparison of social manners and practices in the French and Ottoman upper classes at the beginning of the 18th century. Other than that, it is generally overly general and fails to provide much of interest to the history of the Ottoman relationship to France or indeed to the West in general.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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