What the Ottomans did for science — and science did for the Ottomans


The open court of the University Mosque of Al-Azhar, Cairo, Egypt, seen here in 1880.

The open court docket of the mosque of Al-Azhar College in Cairo, seen in 1880.Credit score: Alamy

The Ottoman Scientific Heritage Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu (trans. Maryam Patton) Al-Furqān (2023)

Empires have lengthy used science and engineering to energy their enlargement and survival. Advances in drugs have helped to maintain armies in a state of battle readiness. Improvements in navigation have ensured dominance over the seas. Superior weaponry — or the deterrent risk of it — has given and continues to present particular person powers the sting in hostile encounters.

Many historians of science have documented the connections between scientific innovation and geopolitical primacy. Maybe the perfect instance in English is the prodigious ebook collection Science and Civilisation in China, initiated by the UK biochemist, historian, diplomat and Sinophile Joseph Needham in 1954, and nonetheless being revealed right this moment. Its grand themes embody China’s early technological superiority in contrast with the West, and the conundrum, which has come to be often known as the Needham query, of why Europe overtook China in scientific and technological improvement.

Priya Satia, a historian at Stanford College in California, has additionally been inspecting the half that navy know-how performed in consolidating British imperial rule in India in Empire of Weapons (2018).

There’s been comparatively little written on the Ottoman Empire. It was based round 1300 with Constantinople — formally renamed Istanbul solely in 1930 — as its capital from 1453 till the empire’s demise after the First World Warfare. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire held sway over giant components of northern Africa, the Center East and southeast Europe, from present-day Algeria and Kuwait to the Balkans. This dominion included a few of the primary centres of Arabic studying. They included Cairo, house to Al-Azhar College, established within the tenth century, and Damascus. Ibn al-Shatir, an astronomer who lived in Damascus in the course of the fourteenth century, used knowledge collected from the town’s Nice Mosque to assemble planetary fashions just like these developed by Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer who lived almost 200 years later in what’s now Poland.

The Ottoman Empire’s six centuries of primacy was succeeded by the trendy Turkish republic, based 100 years in the past, on 29 October 1923. A lot of what we learn about Ottoman science has come from a big workforce of historians and archivists led by the Turkish scholar–diplomat Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, founding director of the Analysis Centre for Islamic Historical past, Artwork and Tradition, primarily based in Istanbul. For nearly 40 years, İhsanoğlu and his colleagues, some additionally from the Turkish Society for the Historical past of Science and the College of Istanbul, have been scouring archives and libraries to piece collectively a still-emerging foundational useful resource for historians of Ottoman science.

Historians know a lot concerning the position of science in Europe’s imperial heyday, from the late seventeenth century to the 20th century. It’s because they will discover official information of key people by archives of discovered societies and universities; after which grasp the scientists’ position in policymaking by authorities archives and different public information. Private papers and diaries, purchasing receipts, lease books, constructing ground plans — all assist in tracing folks again to their concepts and choices, however are a lot much less available for empires that flourished in earlier durations. Manuscripts and commentaries that may authenticate discoveries and innovations, which assist to confirm the identities of individuals and assemble information of decision-making, are equally exhausting to search out.

The outcomes of İhsanoğlu and his colleagues’ research are contained in 18 volumes, revealed initially in Turkish. Final month, a three-volume abstract, The Ottoman Scientific Heritage, rolled off the presses for readers of English, translated by Maryam Patton, a historian at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The entire works recognized 4,897 students and 20,154 manuscripts, accessed from 527 collections throughout 52 international locations. It’s, by any stretch, a rare achievement.

Historic similarities

As İhsanoğlu writes within the first quantity, the inspiration for the challenge got here from a go to to Needham and his collaborators in Cambridge, UK, in 1984. The 2 males, by the way, share many similarities. Each educated as chemists and frolicked in nationwide and worldwide public service. Needham was a British diplomat who targeted on science in China throughout and instantly after the Second World Warfare, and was a guiding mild within the improvement of the United Nations academic, scientific and cultural company UNESCO. İhsanoğlu was elected in 2004 to go the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, a type of UN for international locations with giant Muslim populations, a put up he held till 2014. That 12 months he ran for the Turkish presidency as a cross-party opposition candidate in opposition to the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was unsuccessful, however was later elected a member of the nation’s parliament, the Grand Nationwide Meeting.

The Hejaz Railway Hicaz Demiryolu, a narrow gauge railway that ran from Damascus to Medina.

The Hejaz railway ran from Damascus to Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia.Credit score: Alamy

The centuries when the Ottoman sultans held sway had been, of their dominions as elsewhere, a time when science and perception had been carefully related. The state had 350 establishments of upper studying, often known as medreses. They had been just like academies for the elite, offering coaching for spiritual leaders, in addition to imperial directors. Regardless of objections from some theologians, many medreses provided programs on science, alongside ones in jurisprudence and theology. One such medrese was devoted solely to medical schooling in the course of the reign of the sultan Suleyman, from 1520 to 1566.

A lot of İhsanoğlu’s personal analysis is on the later Ottoman interval of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, also called Tanzimat (Reorganization). This was a time wherein the empire adopted a extra secular system of governance, in addition to modernizing the establishments of schooling and science, amongst others. This era additionally noticed the adoption of know-how from Europe and the following improvement of particularly Ottoman navy know-how, within the type of firearms, in addition to clockmaking, compasses and cartography, trendy drugs, the telegraph and railways — together with the well-known Hejaz railway, which linked Damascus with Medina, in what’s now Saudi Arabia.

The Imperial Faculty of Naval Engineering was established in 1793, as was the Warfare Academy in 1834, the Imperial Medical Faculty in 1827 and an aviation college in 1912. These had been clearly supposed to serve the empire; besides that, by then, the Ottoman Empire was being pulled in several instructions. Its constituent states had been agitating for independence; its leaders in the end grew to become a part of the alliance with Germany, Austria–Hungary and Bulgaria that misplaced the First World Warfare — a miscalculation that led to the empire’s break-up.

The Ottoman Scientific Heritage throws up many intriguing questions of the type that additionally flowed from Science and Civilisation in China. For instance, what half did science and know-how play within the empire’s rise, and İhsanoğlu’s equal of the Needham query: why was its early scientific benefit not constructed on? Or, put one other method: why did the trendy scientific and industrial revolution happen within the age of the empires based additional west in Europe? By painstakingly confirming scientists’ identities and matching them to their revealed work, İhsanoğlu and his workforce have, within the 4 a long time it has taken to place collectively The Ottoman Scientific Heritage, taken the primary, and in some methods most tough, step in the direction of answering such questions. It’s as much as right this moment’s and future generations to make use of this data and additional assess the position of science within the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire itself.


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