Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2004, ISBN: 33397364; 288pp.; Price: £40.00
West Virginia University
Date accessed: 10 December, 2023
On the cover of Gerald MacLean’s engaging new study, The Rise of Oriental Travel: English Visitors to the Ottoman Empire, 1580-1720 is a ‘Portrait of a European Man’ by the Ottoman Artist Abdelcelil Celebi, known as Levni, and painted c.1720. MacLean does not discuss this portrait, but its selection as a cover image is calculated and significant. A strikingly similar image appears on the back book flap, portraying MacLean in a pose not unlike Levni’s anonymous traveller. Each stands against a backdrop of perfect blue sky, clothed in characteristically Western garments, and wearing an expression that appears to survey the scrub-speckled desert landscape which he foregrounds and dominates. Produced nearly four centuries apart and through distinctly different technologies of representation, these images juxtaposed on the dust jacket offer important insights into the critical and narrative composition of MacLean’s book. The author’s portrait, produced through photographic technology, offers sharper lines and what would seem to be a more trustworthy representation than Levni’s painted portrait of the sky, landscape and traveller. While the inert facial features of Levni’s European man conform to conventions of Ottoman court painting, the windblown, sunglasses-wearing MacLean would appear to be more authentic. Whereas Levni’s desert landscape is idealised with blooming flowers, MacLean stands on a more desolate scene, where unexceptional, pale green scrub pushes through rocky crevices. In other words, MacLean’s portrait seeks to revisit and demystify Levni’s, offering accuracy, truth, and perspective in place of Levni’s romanticised fiction.
Like the author’s photograph, The Rise of Oriental Travel revisits with a critical eye the stories of four journeys into the Ottoman Mediterranean undertaken by Englishmen in the century before there was a British Empire. By reading these narratives against each other, corroborating them with contemporaneous documents, and drawing on his own experiences of wandering ‘deliberately into and across the footsteps of these four travellers’ (p. xvii), MacLean seeks to highlight a range of early modern attitudes toward the Ottoman Empire that belie notions of uniform hostility and/or fearfulness. In other words, like the photograph that replaces Levni’s impressionistic portrait with an aura of crystalline authenticity, MacLean’s re-narration of four English travellers’ tales promises to reproduce their ‘narrative rhythms’ while stripping away and exposing the footing of their more fanciful elaborations. The point of these re-tellings – which MacLean characterises as biographies of books, more than authors – is threefold. First, they carefully set each narrative in an intertextual web to indicate how travellers’ accounts are variously inflected by the rank, profession, and ethnographic literacy of each author. Second, they seek to ‘open and add nuance to the continuing Orientalism debate’ (p. xv) by indicating where earlier visitors to the East ‘both did and did not conform to the attitudes and prejudices of later Orientalists.’(ibid.) By evidencing the admiration, envy, and fascination that the early modern English felt toward Ottoman culture, MacLean’s accounts join the research of Nabil Matar, Daniel Vitkus, Emily Bartels, Ania Loomba and others in arguing that for the English, ‘theological differences with Islam and the Ottomans were important, but nothing like the whole story.’(p. xiv) Third, presented as a study of English encounters with Islamic cultures, these narratives offer insights into ‘the global formations of Englishness’ whereas for each traveller, the experience of travel ‘changed what it meant to be English.’(ibid.)
The four books chosen for retelling suggest a cross-section of English culture as well as narrative styles. Thomas Dallam’s manuscript journal titled ‘A brefe Relation of my Travell from the Royall Cittie of London towards The Straite of mariemediteranum and what happened by the waye’ (1599), presents the observations of a ‘minimally prejudiced’ artisan who repeats hearsay and writes in predominantly secular terms. The Protestant chaplain William Biddulph’s The Travels of Certaine Englishmen (London, 1609) is instead a carefully edited epistolary narrative that seeks challenge previous accounts, but which sees the Ottoman world through a highly prejudicial lens of biblical knowledge. Where Biddulph’s text hopes to ‘set the record straight’ through piety, Sir Henry Blount’s A Voyage into the Levant (London, 1636) proposes a secular, rationalist, Baconian inquiry into the Islamic world by a wealthy, classically-educated, gentleman traveller. Finally, The Adventures of (Mr T.S.) An English Merchant Taken Prisoner by the Turks of Argiers (London, 1670) offers a proto-novelistic ‘concatenation of facts and fantasies’ (p. xiii) that anticipates Orientalist accounts of Levantine degeneracy, even as it reveals a continuing admiration for Ottoman imperialism.
After a sequence of brief introductory sections consisting of the Prologue (a translated Ottoman document, to which I will return), the Argument, and the Preface (treating methodology), The Rise of Oriental Travel is divided into four parts, each apportioned to a single text and subdivided into chapters reflecting episodes of particular interest within that text. Part 1, ‘Dallam’s Organ: By Sea to Istanbul, 1599’, turns to the manuscript journal of Thomas Dallam, narrating the English organ-maker’s journey to Istanbul where he was responsible for assembling and playing a highly crafted, musical clock of his own construction and which was to be presented as Queen Elizabeth’s accession gift to Sultan Mehmed III. In Dallam’s account, MacLean chooses one with more literary qualities than most. Dallam’s story is taut, episodic, and even funny, and MacLean’s rendering here is attuned to these qualities even as it contributes a wit all its own. Previous commentators have tended to focus on the ethnographic and intercultural aspects of Dallam’s journal and MacLean too indicates how Dallam’s account points toward instances of English deference and where instead it anticipates behaviours that would flourish in the age of British Empire. Yet what distinguishes MacLean’s re-telling is his attention to the journal’s treatment of relationships between English travellers. We see, as if with new eyes, how English registers of distinction might be undermined or re-configured in the Ottoman world. For instance, MacLean renders apparent the powerful anxieties of Henry Lello, England’s ambassador-to-be in Istanbul, whose career came to depend on the success of Dallam, a common craftsman. This begins MacLean’s emphasis, revisited throughout the text, on the tensions between and rivalries among English travellers of different stations and/or backgrounds. The unstated implication is that the self-fashioning of English travellers has as much to do with their representations of other Christians in an exotic and global register as it does with encounters with Jews and Muslims.
In Part 2, ‘Biddulph’s Ministry: Travels around Aleppo, 1600-12’, MacLean turns to an account often cited by critics interested in English representations of Levantine life. Yet for MacLean, what is most interesting is how deeply William Biddulph’s The Travels of Certain Englishmen is shaped by personal grudges and ‘thinly veiled accusations aimed at living Englishmen.’(p. 52) By puzzling together miscellaneous documentary evidence to fill in the gaps of Biddulph’s narrative, MacLean shows how the Protestant chaplain’s alleged efforts to ‘set the record straight’ in fact participate in an expatriate culture of gossip-mongering which would have consequences for the careers of English authors, ambassadors and clergymen. When Biddulph goes on to discuss aspects of Ottoman life, these observations too are used to draw lesson for English reform, whether in regards to marital practices, national loyalty, or (especially) attitudes toward the clergy. Although he is said to contribute to the ‘Orientalist pjroject of making the East knowable’ (p. 94), MacLean insists that Biddulph’s perspective remains ‘resolutely that of an English Protestant clergyman with little or no interest in the social, cultural, or political life of those around him.’(p. 101) More important was the task of setting the record straight in regards to heresy. Thus Biddulph’s observations of other nations ‘reinforced prejudices that he had brought with him, but at the same time they reflect the different degrees to which he felt foreign customs threatened Protestant belief.’(p. 96) Not surprisingly, Biddulph reserves his most trenchant scorn for Roman Catholicism, rather than the more alien but lesser known Christian sects of the Levant. (MacLean’s ample endnotes testify to the author’s own knowledge of the diversity and specific sects conflated or misrepresented by early modern travellers, as well as continuities with contemporary descendants of the peoples described.)
In next examining Henry Blount’s A Voyage into the Levant (1636), MacLean chooses a text that suggests for travellers a program ‘involving a complete personal, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual makeover [that] would have shocked the pious Biddulph.’(p. 130) Whereas Biddulph concerns himself with the increasing danger of spiritual contagion the further one finds oneself from England, Blount prefers to avoid his fellow countrymen, don local garb, and suspend customary expectations. He describes his preparations for travel as ‘putting off the old man’, a Baconian rather than Pauline rebirth involving an abandonment of English predispositions with the goal of testing tradition and authority. For Blount, Turkey is the most apt scene in which to ‘behold these times in their greatest glory’, and so he casts his narrative as an empirical study of the roots of Ottoman imperial might. In Blount’s rationalist inquiry, MacLean finds cause to argue that ‘Christian supernaturalism may not have dominated discourse about the East before the French Enlightenment as Edward Said has suggested.’(p. 123) Nevertheless, he also finds conclusions that anticipate Orientalist arguments regarding primitivism and degeneration.
In the fourth text under study, The Adventures of (Mr T.S.) An English Merchant Taken Prisoner by the Turks of Argiers, MacLean finds a great many more proto-Orientalist tropes. He recounts with equal parts gusto and curiosity T.S.’s lurid sexual adventures among Maghrebian women, his encounters with bizarre and unusual creatures, and his discovery of a ‘glorious and all but forgotten past encrusted within a degenerate living present.’(p. 214) While this is convincing material for his argument that by the end of the seventeenth century travel writing contained some of ‘the founding impulses of Orientalism and imperialism’, the chapter is most interesting in its consideration of the proto-novelistic qualities found in The Adventures. Indeed, MacLean indicates here that ‘the rise of Oriental travel’ occurred in conjunction with the rise of the English novel. Thus while Dallam, Biddulph and even Baconian Blount may have reproduced myths and inaccuracies, it is with T.S. that we find the ‘murky mix of fact and fiction’ (p. 179), as well as various structural tropes which would ultimately coalesce as the novel.
MacLean’s re-told tales are engaging, thought-provoking, and witty. Drawn together in The Rise of Oriental Travel, they gesture toward an anatomy of seventeenth-century English responses to the Ottoman world. Although MacLean is often more interested in the ways in which these texts register rivalries among English or European subjects than in issues of ethnography or transculturation, he nevertheless provides us with a useful archive for broader inquiries. Still, in the place of its slender epilogue that testifies to a dearth of records of English women visitors to the Ottoman Empire (and which seems more like an appendix), this reader would have liked to have seen a deeper engagement with the implications of this material for the historiography of British travel and empire. Suggestions regarding the relationship between travel writing and empire might be more fully developed. And it remains unclear why we should we read these documents in terms of a ‘rise of Oriental travel’ when there are ample accounts of earlier eastern travel from the likes of Margery Kempe, John Mandeville, or any number of English crusaders (not to mention continental travellers such as Marco Polo or Johannes Schilteberger)? For that matter, why is ‘Oriental’ travel limited to English visits to the Ottoman Empire?
As entertaining and illuminating as they can be, MacLean’s re-tellings are no less selective than the texts they revisit and amplify. Like the author’s dust jacket photo that seems to sharpen and demystify the cover image, MacLean’s renderings are in fact just as framed and subject to the pose of the renderer. They focus on narrative frames, ways of seeing, and the experience of the traveller at the expense of the ‘Oriental’ landscapes and peoples described. What we are brought closer to, that is, is something other than the traveller’s experience. While MacLean never claims to present an absolute reproduction of the traveller’s experience, one implication of his supplementing the four texts under study with corroborating documents is that a fuller, more accurate history of English travel will emerge. This would also seem to be the point of his promise to consider ‘the contemporary historical setting of these visits as seen from the Ottoman side.’(p. xvii) Unfortunately, this is a promise that goes largely unfulfilled. The book opens with an absolutely fascinating prologue consisting of a translated Ottoman account of the reception of Dallam’s fabulous clock and which would seem to promise a contrapuntal analysis. Rather mysteriously, MacLean chooses not to comment on this document at all. Likewise Ottoman portraits, including the cover image, are included among the 36 plates, but these too garner no commentary. At the same time, MacLean does (of course) discuss at great length Dallam’s account, as well as several of the European images reproduced in the book. In other words, in the same way that the author’s photograph effectively supplants the Ottoman portrait of a European traveller on the book’s cover, an aggregation of English voices is made to stand in for what was an intercultural experience. What remains unclear – particularly where MacLean focuses on rivalries among the English themselves – is the extent to which the English experience is inflected by others. In its decision not to fully integrate Ottoman accounts with their English counterparts, The Rise of English Travel runs the risk of presenting a study on Orientalism that reproduces its unilateral practices of exclusion. Still, by making available to readers contending Ottoman representations, MacLean provides us with the means by which we might ourselves provincialise European histories and particularly the germinating Orientalism of early modern English travellers.
Professor Burton’s review of my recent book is both perceptive and shrewd; how can I be anything other than delighted and flattered? His masterful semiotic analysis of the cover brilliantly captures the design of the book’s project, though in its very ingenuity perhaps misses a crucial set of contingent factors: those of marketing and the nitty-gritty of publishing, pricing and packaging. In these respects, too, as Noel Malcolm observed in reviewing the book for the Sunday Telegraph (25 April 2004), the title itself owes rather more to the demands of publishers for ‘aggrandizing titles’ than to the possible achievement of any single book. The choice of the Levni portrait for the front cover was indeed ‘calculated’ since it represents the earliest instance I have found of an Ottoman artist portraying a Western European without obvious distortion or bias, unlike the vilified, demonized or simply comic figures that appear, for example, in illustrations to Fuzuli’s Hadikat al-Suada (British Library, MS. Or 7301 fos. 15v, 40v), or in the often reproduced battle scenes found in the Suleymanname and Hunername held in the library of the Topkapi Palace. Timing, chance and length were also significant factors in deciding what could be included, what had to go, and what might never be achieved.
Most of Burton’s minor cavils about what is not in the book, which I readily acknowledge, result not only from such exigencies, but also from the plan to maintain a clear focus and style that would appeal to a broad readership. My own desire was to bring academic scholarship into the public arena. I wanted to write a book that would not only provide scholars with ‘a useful archive for broader inquiries’, as Burton elegantly puts it, but would also be legible to non-specialists. For my own part, my major concerns are the price, which all but puts the book out of the reach of general readers and undergraduates alike: I continue to hope an affordable paperback will appear in due course.
When beginning research for the book, I aimed to fulfil Burton’s major concern and to examine in detail the interactive and transcultural nature of the Anglo-Ottoman encounter during the early modern period before the British Empire arose to face that of the Ottomans. Very quickly I learned that, while such ambitions were certainly beyond me, they may well be beyond the scope of any historian working in our times. After learning sufficient modern Turkish to be able to scan some of the historical scholarship in that language, after attending seminars and symposia on Ottoman historiography, and after talking with specialists, I also discovered some of the considerable problems endemic to the field. Anyone hoping to cover the vastness of the Ottoman borders with Europe comprehensively would need easy familiarity not only with Ottoman and modern Turkish, but also with Greek, Italian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, German, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, and Arabic and Persian languages and archives. Restricting my focus to the Ottoman Mediterranean was an early strategic decision since, for the most part, that is where the English were interested in going.
Even so, my book does not attempt to ‘integrate Ottoman accounts with their English counterparts’ because, for the early modern period, there are no such ‘Ottoman accounts’: or so I have been reliably informed. The work of scholars blessed with the necessary language skills. who have overcome the difficulties of gaining access to Ottoman archives. shows us that there simply is no analogous body of writing upon which to draw. Ottoman and Muslim travel writers never made it to England; even the renowned traveller Evliya Chelebi, who was no Ottoman, never came to England. The exchange of letters between Queen Elizabeth and various members of the Ottoman Porte – magisterially examined by Susan Skilliter and J. M. Stein – deserve much fuller treatment than I could possibly have given them in this book. As for attitudes towards the early modern English among those living within the Ottoman Empire, none of the great recorders of their own times, such as Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali, Selaniki Mustafa Efendi or Katip Chelebi, provides any useful clues: the English were simply not that important or interesting. These days, the situation seems to have reversed itself. The most distressing aspect of teaching university students in Istanbul has been answering the regular question ‘What do your students in America think of us in Turkey?’, to which I have yet to find a better answer than ‘For the most part, hardly anything at all’.
In addition to the absence of evidence, there remains the thorny problem of translating and interpreting the Ottoman archives of the period in question. For these matters I can refer readers to Gabriel Piterberg’s recent and lively study, An Ottoman Tragedy: History and Historiography at Play (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003) as well as to important (often incompatible and hotly contested) studies by scholars writing in, or translated into, English that I have found most useful: these include works by Ottomanists such as Omer Lutfi Barkan, Karen Barkey, Linda Darling, Edhem Eldem, Suraiya Faroqhi, Cornell Fleischer, Daniel Goffman, Jane Hathaway, Colin Imber, Halil Inalcik, Cemal Kafadar, Fuad Koprulu, Carl Kortepeter, Metin Kunt, Bruce Masters, Bruce McGowan, Victor Menage, Rhoads Murphey, Victor Ostapchuk, Sevket Pamuk, Leslie Peirce, Ariel Salzman, Stanford Shaw, Amy Singer, Andreas Tietze, Christine Woodhead and Dror Ze’evi, not to forget earlier archivally-based studies by H. A. Gibbons, Paul Wittek and Bernard Lewis, or the labours of contributors to the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. This is, of course, a slightly quirky list that reflects only my own reading rather than a comprehensive catalogue. Meanwhile the world awaits Dr Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream: the Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923 (forthcoming, 2005), which will be the first full narrative account of the Ottoman Empire by an Ottomanist versed in the archives.
At the risk of contradicting myself, there are a few scattered references to the English in early Ottoman works. There is the account by Mustapha Safi of Ahmed I destroying Thomas Dallam’s clockwork organ – not a clock – which Queen Elizabeth sent as an accession present to Mehmed III. Following leads from Gulru Necipoglu’s brilliant study, Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: the Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1991), and M. Halim Spatar’s annotated translation into Turkish of Stanley Mayes’s 1956 book on Dallam, I set about finding this account. Relying on a network of friends and contacts in Istanbul, I was delighted when Dr. Idris Bostan of Istanbul University agreed to supply a transcription of the relevant passage from the copy in the Beyazit Library. Rather than being a mystery, my lack of direct comment on the passage arose from a simple logistical matter: the transcription arrived when the book was already in press and it was only the unbounded generosity of Professor Geoffrey Lewis that enabled me to include his elegant translation at all.
Burton perhaps not unreasonably observes that my claim to consider the ‘contemporary historical setting of these visits as seen from the Ottoman side’ goes ‘largely unfulfilled’. It was clearly unwise of me not to qualify this claim in respect of the near impossibility of knowing what Ottoman views – for surely there were many different ones – of the English were. Here my only defence is that I hope to have done a better job of keeping what was going on inside the Ottoman Empire rather more clearly in mind than earlier studies by Samuel Chew, Boies Penrose or Brandon Beck. Of broader scope, Andrew Wheatcroft’s recent Infidels: the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, 638-2002 (London: Viking, 2003) seems to me, at least, to have done an excellent job of keeping both sides fully in focus while writing for general readers as well as for undergraduates, teachers and scholars. While it is regrettable enough that it has taken recent world events to stir up undergraduate interest in matters Middle Eastern, it is also unfortunate that as a result of this new interest we are likely to see even more unreliable and sensationalizing works, such as those by Giles Milton and Jason Goodwin, being published and taken seriously.
As Burton points out, the key focus of my book is the English experience of the Ottoman Empire and its effect upon Englishness at a crucial period when the vernacular language was transforming itself into literature. I am delighted that he found ‘convincing’ the section on the captivity narrative of ‘T. S.’ as a contribution to our understanding of the early emergence of the novel, since I was specially pressed by limitations of the allocated word limit and had to omit a good deal of material here (and in the section on Blount) concerning what was otherwise knowable to contemporary readers of English concerning Ottoman North Africa. I also agree with Burton that Dallam’s journal displays ‘more literary qualities than most’ accounts, and continue to wonder why no publisher has yet agreed to take on a modernized and annotated edition to replace the scarce and unreliable edition published long ago by the Hakluyt Society.
I would also like, if I may, to take this opportunity to correct two substantial errors in the book: Lokman was not an ‘Ottoman artist’ as captions to three of the illustrations claim, but the author of the work being illustrated. And the scholar Susan Skilliter has only one ‘e’ in her second name.
With Professor Nabil Matar I am currently working on a study of the nature, range and extent to which English culture during the early modern period was influenced by contact with the Ottoman world and welcome any suggestions or correctives to my book or this response.