“Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire” by Alev Scott

Mostar (via Wikimedia Commons) Mostar (via Wikimedia Commons)

Much of early-modern history, up until the early 20th century, was characterized by empire—not just or even particularly the colonial projects of Britain and Spain, but contiguous empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, China and the Ottomans. These latter were multi-ethnic and—using modern sensibilities—in some ways multinational edifices. They all came to an end around the time of the First World War: China and Russia morphed into republics and largely kept their territories; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were replaced by a welter of new countries.

Despite long-term decline, the Ottoman Empire maintained its multinational character until the very end. The Arab Near East remained Ottoman through the First World War; the southern Balkans were still part of the empire in the 20th century.

 

Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire, Alev Scott (Pegasus, May 2019; Quercus, October 2018)
Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire, Alev Scott (Pegasus, May 2019; Quercus, October 2018)

A century on, Turkish leaders have begun making explicit Ottoman references in discussing Turkey’s future regional and global role. Anglo-Turkish writer and journalist Alev Scott opens Ottoman Odyssey (the alliterative title itself a multi-cultural assemblage) with a scene of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sitting on a “gilt throne” in a “palace with one thousand rooms.” She quotes Ahmet Davutoğlu who, as Foreign Minister in 2013, said:

 

The last century was only a parenthesis for us. We will close that parenthesis… We will again tie Sarajevo to Damascus, Benghazi to Erzurum to Batumi. This is the core of our power. These may look like different countries to you, but Yemen and Skopje were part of the same country a hundred and ten years ago…

 

Scott refers to this as a “fantasy”—one which has since foundered on the shoals of the Syrian civil war and economic reality.

She intended to write a book about the “social legacy” of the Ottoman Empire but after having stopped by Thessaloniki—birthplace of Kemal Atatürk and within the empire until 1912—she found herself denied entry into Turkey, where she had previously lived and recently visited. This did not come as a complete surprise, given some of what she had previously written, but

 

the news transformed an experience which should have been a straightforward research trip into a kind of odyssey of lament.

 

While the book does contain sections about Turkey, presumably dating from before this visa incident—the chronology of her various travels isn’t always immediately evident—she found herself forced to concentrate on legacy of the empire that lay outside Turkey’s current borders: Cyprus (whence her family hails), Bosnia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Greece, Armenia. A product herself of this complicated history, her travels are also a personal voyage of, if not discovery, then self-interrogation on identity and belonging.

The death throes of the Ottoman Empire were for multitudes literally that.

Although shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book award, Ottoman Odyssey is travel-writing only in the sense that Scott does indeed travel, but travel isn’t really the point. Instead, Scott constructs her book as a series of discussions, some formal and journalistic, others more off the cuff. These include ethnic and religious minorities within Turkey: various denominations of Christians, Muslims and Jews (some which still speak Ladino, an ancient dialect of Spanish from before the expulsion from al-Andalus), Muslims with a couple of fascinating sections on the dönme, or crypto-Jews, and “Afro-Turks”:

 

Until the late 19th century, around 16,000-18,000 African slaves were taken every year by Ottoman traders from Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.

 

One was in fact Puskhin’s grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, as he came to be known. Existing slaves were only freed in 1924 with the incoming Republic. Scott’s discussions with their descendants might resonate elsewhere: never entirely accepted by their fellow citizens as fully Turkish, the Afro Turks are nationally and linguistically nothing but. One tells her

 

Every minority in Turkey has its language — the Kurds, the Zaza, even the Laz. But we have only Turkish, and we don’t know anything about our ancestors.

Scott uncovers a considerable amount of what can seem bemusing nostalgia for the Ottoman period.

The death throes of the Ottoman Empire were for multitudes literally that. Armenians were massacred, and the population exchange of Greeks and Turks—or perhaps, suggests Scott, it was more Christians and Muslims—was traumatic for millions. Cyprus, whose mixed Greek and Turkish population was one of the surviving legacies of the empire, experienced a belated reprise in 1974; the Turkish side of Scott’s family—her mother and grandmother—were from Cyprus and lived through it; they ultimately emigrated to London.

However, except for the unquenchable rage she finds in the Genocide Museum in Yerevan, and some hostility in Greece, Scott uncovers a considerable amount of what can seem bemusing nostalgia for the Ottoman period. An Armenian in Jerusalem talks Turkish to himself so as not to forget the language. The numerous remnants of empire are physical (mosques and bridges), consumable (coffee, pastries, sausage) and intangible (vocabulary and music). Some nostalgia may admittedly be feigned so as not to discourage lavish Turkish spending or to play one regional power off another. But nevertheless: some villages in Cyprus remain resolutely and steadfastly mixed, echoing the coexistence portrayed in Louis de Bernières’s fictional town of Eskibahçe, the setting for his novel Birds Without Wings, that Scott uses as a touchstone.

The Ottomans rarely got much good press in the West; it may come as a surprise that anyone in the now independent post-Ottoman nations would hold any affection at all for the one-time imperial power’s language or culture. Yet despite the trauma of the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was a time of relative (especially to many parts of the region today) religious, ethnic and communal comity. Many non-Turks and even non-Muslims advanced through the Ottoman bureaucracy. Istanbul was, for a long while, the most prosperous, cultured and cosmopolitan city in Europe.

But of course, a similar phenomenon can be observed, perhaps even more strongly, in many corners of the once British Empire.

Scott is at her best when she turns inward and makes herself part of the story.

Scott is evidently a sympathetic interviewer; her subjects, ranging from ethnic Roma Jehovah’s Witnesses to the one-time Lebanese leader Druze leader Walid Jumblatt open up to her. But, her skills in reportage notwithstanding, Scott is at her best when she turns inward and makes herself part of the story: the discovery of shared Greek and Turkish vocabulary, the emotion at crossing the border across divided Cyprus, the view of now-denied Turkey from across the water at Lesbos, the discussion of her own great-great grandfather, a black doctor from Egypt brough to Cyprus in the 19th century to fight malaria, the dried leaves of olive trees her grandmother had brought with her from Cyprus, periodically burned one at a time to ward off evil spirits.

Ottoman Odyssey can be read as empathic ramble through places which will for many readers be rather off the beaten track. But for those of us farther East than the Levant, it is also an illuminating view of post-imperial attitudes and relationships from a very different empire.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.