Introduction: Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space

Dimiter Angelov, Yota Batsaki, Sahar Bazzaz

Map 1: The Contraction of the Byzantine Empire in: 565, 1025, 1143, 1330.


Map 2: The Expansion of the Ottoman Empire in: 1300, 1481, 1512, 1683.

The dialectical relationship between empire and geography has long been recognized. Empires are beneficiaries or prisoners of their geography, while specific imperial projects have shaped the content and effects of geographical knowledge across different periods. The essays in this volume represent a collaboration between historians and literary critics with intersecting interests in the imperial geographies of the medieval and modern eastern Mediterranean. These geographies are set within the extensive imperial and post-imperial space of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, two political and cultural formations which themselves contributed to perceptions of local and world geography. Although the comparative study of empire has received much impetus in recent years, it remains to a large extent focused on examples from the classical world or the modern European era. [1] This volume’s attention to the space of the eastern Mediterranean centers instead on two empires that do not fit this chronological scheme, and whose contribution to the construction of imperial space has been relatively neglected, even though in terms of duration and territorial extension they are both remarkable.
The volume approaches geography, or rather the multiple geographies of the area (the plural is necessitated by the divergent geographical notions and experiences), as a socially constructed body of knowledge. This means that the volume will largely leave aside problems of Mediterranean environmental history and historical ecology that have recently attracted considerable attention. [2] Nor is cartography of central concern to this volume, even though some of the papers engage with questions of maps and mapping. The focus lies instead on the strategies, ideological contexts, and effects of the production of geographical knowledge, both material and imaginary. Through texts as diverse as Ottoman kadı court records and chancery manuals, imperial treatises on administration and works of fiction, travel literature, and dramatic adaptations, the essays explore ways in which the production of geographical knowledge supported imperial authority or revealed its precarious mastery of geography. Our interest lies mainly in the discursive construction of imperial space, and we bring to it a variety of methodologies: historical and literary, textual and theoretical, but in all cases explicitly “spatial.”
The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires succeeded each other and came to view themselves, and to be viewed, as oppositional, yet they share a number of distinctive characteristics. They both exercised their rule on what came to be near-identical geographical space, namely Asia Minor and the Balkans, and from the vantage point of the same city: Constantinople/Istanbul. As several of the essays discuss, they both saw themselves poised between East and West, while their notions of imperial geography to a certain extent shaped those very categories. They both created narratives of imperial legitimacy in which they presented themselves as the heirs of the region’s classical empires, especially Rome. And they both had to negotiate the significant challenges of Mediterranean geography. Because these distinctive and shared characteristics have been relatively neglected in the comparative study of imperial geographies, the following section provides a brief historical and geographical overview of the region from the medieval to the modern period.

Historical and Geographical Specificity: The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires

The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires dominated the politics of the eastern Mediterranean throughout its late antique, medieval, and modern history until 1922. The two empires shared profound similarities and common traditions. Both were highly centralized multiethnic polities. Both were governed from Constantinople/Istanbul and maintained imperial ambitions for most of their histories. Some essential differences must also be noted at the outset. Byzantium after the seventh century was a medieval state, whose history was closely entwined with the politics and culture of the Middle Ages: for example, the crusades and the transmission of ancient Greek philosophy to the Muslims and the West. By contrast, the history of the Ottoman Empire spans the early modern and modern periods after a brief late medieval phase, a circumstance that makes issues of modernity directly relevant to the Ottomans in ways that do not apply to Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire was, and certainly saw itself as, a thoroughly Christian polity. While being the direct continuator of the Roman Empire in the East, Byzantium underwent a period of transformation between the fourth and the seventh centuries that turned it into a thoroughly Christian and medieval society. One of the principal turning points was the foundation of Constantinople in 330, accompanied by the introduction of Christianity as the official religion. Byzantium was to foster continually the spread of the Christian religion beyond its borders through state-sponsored missionary activities, notably in central and eastern Europe. By contrast, the Ottoman Empire—which was formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Seljukid sultanate of Rum in Asia Minor in the second half of the thirteenth century under the twin pressure of Mongol invasions and Turcoman migration—was a state with an ethnically mixed but primarily Muslim elite. While both empires were ethnically and culturally diverse, their diversity manifested itself in different ways. The Byzantine Empire wove together in a unique way the Judeo-Christian religious tradition with elements of classical culture, such as: the ancient Greek literature and philosophy; Roman law and institutions; and the revived ideological tradition of Hellenistic kingship. The Ottoman Empire was constructed mostly by adapting preexistent cultural and political practices in Islamic states in the Near East and Asia Minor, notably those of the Seljuks of Rum. A larger proportion of the population of the Ottoman Empire were religious minorities, towards whom the Ottomans followed a general policy of tolerance in accordance with the Islamic tradition. The incorporation of massive religious minorities and the permission granted to these minorities to practice their own laws distinguishes the cultural hybridity of the Ottoman Empire from the Byzantine case.
The Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires, like most imperial formations in history, adopted and adapted political and cultural traditions of preceding civilizations. By virtue of chronology and conquest, Ottoman state-builders had Byzantine, Seljuk, and Near Eastern models of administration and imperialism from which to pick and choose, while the subject Christian population inherited directly its church institutions and elements of its literary culture from Byzantium. Continuity in imperial administration has been identified in the fiscal institutions of pronoia and timar, while Byzantine borrowing from the Ottoman taxation practices during the early fifteenth century has also been observed. [3] Studying the continuities between the two empires is neither easy nor unproblematic. Christians and Muslims had a long history of contacts in the eastern Mediterranean before the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which raises numerous possibilities for intermediate stages of influence. [4] The concept of influence itself is a loaded one, and is sometimes seen to carry connotations of cultural superiority and agency. [5] At the level of ideological claims of universality constructed through spatial language, the similarities between the two empires were mostly a function of their common geographical location and the role of Constantinople/Istanbul, rather than of direct influence from one empire on the other, as shown by several essays in this volume (Angelov, Magdalino, Kastritsis, Khuri-Makdisi).
The geography of the eastern Mediterranean has traditionally been seen both as conducive to the formation of imperial networks and as a limit to further imperial expansion. In the case of Byzantium, parallels have been drawn with its immediate ancestor, imperial Rome. The expansion of the Roman Empire is thought to have reached its natural geographical boundaries with the Sahara desert to the south or the Rhine-Danube frontier to the north. Seen from the viewpoint of Rome, the Mediterranean served as a highway of communication and trade (“the Roman Lake”) rather than a barrier. Similar kinds of geographical boundaries, this time of contraction and defense rather than of expansion, have also been noted for Byzantium. Thus, after the collapse of the Rhine frontier in the fourth century, the Danube formed the boundary between the eastern Roman Empire and its tribal neighbors in the north. Medieval historians have studied the Mediterranean both for the opportunities for travel, commerce, and communications it continually presented, as well as for the challenges posed by sea currents, wind patterns, and a winter season hostile to navigation. [6] Increasingly after the seventh century, Byzantium was confined to the Balkans in the west and Asia Minor in the east, whose mountainous landscapes posed natural barriers. It has been estimated that around two-thirds of the Balkans are mountains. When, in the seventh century, the Bulgars settled south of the Danube, the Haimos, or Balkan, Mountains became a natural frontier. The estimate for Asia Minor is that nine-tenths consist of a large elevated plateau and mountains lying mostly to the east and the south. Coastal plains, of which the largest ones are in the west, and punctuating river valleys, amount to about one-tenth of the territory of Asia Minor. [7] The geographical relief of Asia Minor influenced patterns of invasion and settlement. The Taurus and the Anti-Taurus Mountains were natural barriers to the expansion of the Arabs from the south and the southeast during the seventh and eighth centuries—the same period when Byzantium lost forever its territories in the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa. [8] The one major exception is the strategic city of Antioch, the seat of one of the five patriarchs, which the Byzantines recaptured in 969 and held until 1084 when it fell to the Seljuks. Once the Seljuk Turks migrated into Asia Minor during the eleventh century, the large mountainous plateau provided the nomadic Turkmen with the necessary environment for raising livestock. [9] Notably, this is an area that the Byzantines, with a traditionally sedentary lifestyle, did not succeed in recovering in the twelfth century. Their reconquest was confined mostly to the plains in western Asia Minor and some of the river valleys extending inland.
The territories of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires fluctuated throughout the centuries (see Figure 1 and Figure 2). The Byzantine Empire generally tended to defend and gradually lose the lands it inherited from imperial Rome except for limited periods of reconquest. The loss of massive territories to the Arabs, Slavs, and Bulgars in the seventh century was followed by imperial expansion between the ninth and the early eleventh centuries, culminating in the annexation of Bulgaria during the reign of Basil II (976–1025) and the restoration of the Danube as the Balkan frontier. The settlement of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor deprived the empire of much of its remaining eastern territory. In the year 1071, Byzantium suffered a heavy double-blow: a spectacular defeat by the Seljuks at Manzikert and the loss of its last territorial possession in southern Italy. The reassertion of Byzantine authority in western Asia Minor during the twelfth century was mostly successful, but nothing more could be achieved. The empire disintegrated under internal pressures in the late twelfth century and collapsed with the crusader conquest of Constantinople in 1204. The restored Byzantine Empire, after the recapture of Constantinople in 1261, was a fragmented, smaller, and less resourceful state. By contrast, the Ottoman Empire rose from a frontier principality, first attested in about 1300, to an empire encompassing by the late sixteenth century the entire eastern Mediterranean, parts of central Europe, Arabia, Iraq, and North Africa. The core land of the two empires, territorial changes notwithstanding, remained generally the same and was centered on the Balkans and Asia Minor. It has been pointed out that the territorial extent of the Byzantine Empire at the time of the death of Basil II roughly coincided with the empire of Mehmed the Conqueror and included most of the Balkans and Anatolia. [10] Constantinople was always the capital city of both the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires, with the notable exceptions of the period 1204–1261, when a Latin power held the city, and the early period of Ottoman history until 1453, when Constantinople was still Byzantine.
The importance of Constantinople, the city of “New Rome,” can hardly be overestimated. The ruler of Constantinople, whether Byzantine or Ottoman, was set in a continuum leading back to imperial Rome. The city played a crucial administrative role as the seat of the civil and military bureaucracies, and as the permanent residence of the Byzantine emperors and the Ottoman sultans. The geographical location of Constantinople itself was capable of influencing the military history of the two empires. The patterns of involvement of Ottoman armies in Europe and Asia, for instance, have been seen as depending to a large extent on distances from Constantinople. [11] The Byzantine road networks leading from Constantinople to the frontier and the logistics of army movement have also drawn heightened attention. [12] The Byzantine emperors and the Ottoman sultans coopted outlying areas, which were far from Constantinople and therefore difficult to administer directly, as client states and tributary vassals. Such was the case in the Ottoman period with the Crimean Khanate; the territories north of the Danube including Moldavia, Transylvania, and Wallachia; Georgia; and the Sharifate of Mecca. The role of the metropolis in setting the parameters of imperial geography is a reason why several papers in the volume deal with the imperial center and discuss its spatial and geographical perspectives. The thematic focus on the center rather than the periphery is naturally not intended to challenge the recent and profitable upsurge of interest among Byzantinists in provincial areas and perspectives. For instance, historians of the twenty-first century have examined Byzantium’s Balkan frontier during the middle Byzantine period and the reception of the Christian Parthenon in medieval Athens until 1204. [13] The archaeology of Byzantine urban centers, such as Ephesos and Pergamon, to mention only two, has produced, and doubtless will continue to produce, fruitful and illuminating results. [14] Much scope remains for the study of material culture and the mental outlooks, spatial attitudes in particular, of people living in the provinces and along the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire.
By contrast to the shrinking trajectory of the Byzantine Empire, from their emergence at the turn of the fourteenth century the Ottomans succeeded almost continually in bringing new territories under their domain. Despite intermittent (and during the Ottoman Civil War in the early fifteenth century near-catastrophic) setbacks, the Ottoman state evolved from a small principality (beylik) in northwestern Asia Minor (Bithynia) to a state straddling large parts of the Balkans and western Asia Minor, with Constantinople as its capital. In its written form, the Ottomans knew the city as “Istanbul” and in its spoken form as “Stambol,” both of which are derived from the Greek εἰς τὴν πόλιν. Sultan Mehmed II, who captured Constantinople for the Ottomans in 1453, is known to have called the city “Islam-bol,” that is, “where Islam abounds.” In later centuries, Ottoman literate society viewed “Islam-bol” as the proper Ottoman name for the city. Despite these various usages, the Ottomans continued to refer to Constantinople as “Ḳonsṭantiniyya”—an Arabized/Persianized version of the Greek original—in chancery and other official documents, in deeds for pious endowments issued by the kadı courts, and on coins. [15]
Following the conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed II took the titles “sultan of the two lands” (Anatolia and the Balkans) and “emperor of the two seas” (Black and Aegean Seas), thereby indicating his desire to revive the legacy of Byzantium. [16] These geographical titles (i.e. “sultan of the two lands and emperor of the two seas”) were inscribed on the Imperial Gate of Mehmed’s newly commissioned Topkapı palace, which was built on a hill chosen for its “omnivoyant, spectacular site as a metaphor for world dominion.” [17] By the mid-sixteenth century, the Ottomans had become a world power, dominating the Mediterranean and Black Seas and demonstrating their capacity to wage war on numerous fronts simultaneously. They challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and the Straits of Hormuz; battled Safavid Shi’ite co-religionists and their Turkmen supporters in eastern Anatolia and Iran; faced the Habsburgs over the imperial domination of central Europe and the Balkans on the western frontier; and, finally, defeated Spain, whose incursions in North Africa since the early fifteenth century had stood in the way of Ottoman naval hegemony in the Mediterranean. [18]
Until the early sixteenth century, Ottoman political military ambitions were directed both eastward into what is today western Iran and westward into the lands of the former Roman Empire. Evidence suggests that Mehmed II intended to launch a campaign against Rome following the landing of Ottoman troops in Otranto on the southeastern shore of the Italian Peninsula in 1480. From 1516 until the mid-sixteenth century, conquests in the “Arab Lands” introduced into the Ottoman dominions a massive region roughly half the size of the continental United States. [19] The Ottomans now controlled the Muslim holy cities of Mecca (Mekka) and Medina in the western Arabian Peninsula, the pilgrimage city of Jerusalem sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews and, intermittently, the two most important Shi’ite pilgrimage sites, Najaf and Karbala in modern day Iraq. These conquests “thrust [the Ottomans] into an entirely different symbolic universe.” They were now overlords of large populations of Muslims and, moreover, they could legitimately claim the title Khādim al-Ḥaramayn or protector of the two holiest sites of Islam, Mecca, and Medina. [20] As the major Muslim power in the region, the Ottomans were poised to assume the role of defenders of Sunni Orthodoxy against enemy Christian powers and the Safavid Shi’ites, whom the Ottomans viewed as heterodox Muslims and therefore as enemies.
The Ottomans provide a rare example of an imperial formation that evolved from a premodern and preindustrial to a modern state. In order to remain viable in the context of an emerging international state system in the early to mid-nineteenth century, on the one hand, and an increasingly globalized, capitalist economy, on the other, Ottoman society experienced important socioeconomic, political, military, and cultural transformations. [21] Responding to internal and external political and intellectual challenges, the Ottomans embarked on modernization and reform (Tanzimat). This set in motion a drive toward state centralization, implementation of a new secular law code, reform of the tax system to eliminate rapacious tax-farming practices, creation of an Ottoman citizenship that removed legal distinctions separating Muslims from non-Muslims, and urban renewal and provincial administrative reform, to name only a few. These reforms, in turn, shaped the experience of modernity in the Ottoman Empire and, later, in the nation-states that emerged out of its disintegration and dismemberment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Turkey, the Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq), Greece, the other Balkan states, and the Palestine mandate/Israel. [22]
Broadly speaking, these transformations occurred against the backdrop of, and in conversation with, the shifting balance of power between the Ottomans and European states such as Russia and Austria (and later, Great Britain and France) during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which challenged the Ottoman “Great Power” status. Territorial losses to Russia in the eighteenth century set in motion the first decisive effort on the part of the Ottoman officialdom to examine and reconsider foundational Ottoman institutions of governance, administration, and warfare which had endured even as they evolved and changed over time since the early Ottoman period (known in Ottoman historiography as the “Classical Age”). [23] Meanwhile, Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of the Ottoman province of Egypt in 1798 brought France, and soon after Great Britain, into the Ottoman lands of the eastern Mediterranean—a new arena for their competing national and imperial ambitions to conquer territory and expand their spheres of influence on the European continent and in Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century. [24] In 1830, Ottoman Algeria fell to the French followed by the fall of Tunis in 1881. Great Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, effectively ending its already greatly diminished allegiance to the imperial center, Istanbul. By the end of the nineteenth century, the European powers referred to the Ottoman state as the “Sick Man of Europe.” European commitments to preservation of the territorial integrity of the empire had given way to a virtual land-grab, with individual powers vying for control of the already greatly reduced Ottoman territory.
Threats to Ottoman authority also came from within the realm. In 1803, supporters of the religiopolitical movement led by the Saud family and their Wahhabi allies occupied the holy sites of Mecca and Medina after launching attacks several years earlier against Ottoman towns in Iraq and the Hijaz (the region along the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula where Medina and Mecca are located). In so doing, the Wahhabis challenged Ottoman claims of authority and legitimacy that, since the early sixteenth century, had been linked to the dynasty’s commitment to protect the pilgrimage routes and ensure the smooth running of the annual pilgrimage to the holy cities. [25]
Finally, increased trade and circulation of people and ideas associated with the French Revolution provided new opportunities for dhimmis (protected non-Muslim subjects of the empire) to renegotiate their status within and commitments to the Ottoman imperial order, where they had traditionally occupied a second-class legal status vis-à-vis their Muslim counterparts. [26] For some, like the Phanariots—Greeks who occupied positions in Ottoman government whether in the capital, Istanbul, or in provinces such as Wallachia—these changes did not necessarily weaken their commitment to the empire, while for others, such as leaders of the Greek Philikē Hetaireia, revolutionary ideas emanating from France and other centers of Enlightenment led to a complete rejection of Ottoman suzerainty over Greek lands and helped fuel calls for Greek independence. [27] The nineteenth century brought heightened mobility due to steamship transportation and broader circulation of information through printing and the telegraph. Reformist ideas found expression throughout the Ottoman realms in the form of news journals and, in the Levant and Egypt, in the rise of an Arabic-language literary movement known as the Nahḍa, or “Arab Awakening.” [28] Meanwhile, western-oriented intellectuals, reform-minded administrators and bureaucrats, and Islamic legal scholars (ulama), military men, and laborers debated the pressing issues of the day: What was the secret of European economic and political power? How should Ottoman society evolve while staying true to its essence? What was the role of religion in the reformed Ottoman state and society? Did language and ethnicity form the basis for a new kind of polity—a national one? How could the poor of society be raised out of their misery? What role should women play in a reformed society? [29]
One outcome of these multiple social and political developments was the creation of an Ottoman nationality based on the modern principle of equality before the law. Hoping to reduce the threat of nationalist break-away movements within the empire and demonstrate to increasingly meddlesome European powers their commitment to reform, the Ottomans issued the 1839 Imperial Edict of the Rose Garden (and renewed the principles embodied therein in another decree issued in 1856), which expressed the state’s commitment to level the playing field among its “citizens.” This was a seemingly paradoxical notion for a society historically structured in part by legal distinctions between the Ottoman non-taxpaying military-bureaucratic elite (askeri) and the largely tax-paying peasantry (reaya); between Muslims and non-Muslims; between slaves and slave-owners; and between men and women. [30] Although ultimately unsuccessful at preventing the loss of most Ottoman territory in the Balkans to nationalist movements and their Great Power backers, short-lived experiments with parliamentary governance between 1876 and 1878 and briefly again in 1908 (after the Young Turk Revolution) fueled enthusiasm for the Ottoman polity among its remaining minority citizenry, including Ottoman Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs. [31] Meanwhile, Sultan Abdülhamid’s (r. 1876–1909) calls for unity under an Ottoman Caliphate among Muslims worldwide highlighted the numerous and sometimes competing and contradictory strands of prevailing thought about the future of the Ottoman Empire, the form it would take, and who would be included in it.
The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in World War I, and as a consequence, was made to pay the price of defeat. This meant the loss of its remaining territories in the Middle East to France and Britain, who then proceeded to create the boundaries that formed the basis for the modern nation-states of the region.

Academic and Imaginary Geographies

Ottoman modernization and European imperial expansion in the nineteenth century coincided with the rise of academic geography. The progress and content of this new discipline reflects some of the historiographical assumptions about modernity and empire that have drawn attention away from developments in the eastern Mediterranean. Often viewed as a predominantly European or even Eurocentric enterprise, the rise of academic geography in the nineteenth century is also regarded as largely complicit with European colonial expansion, to which it contributed through the production of cartographic knowledge, but also by generating “imagined geographies” that mediated the spatial appropriation and colonial subjection of other cultures. An example of the first form are the often state-sponsored nineteenth-century projects of exploration and mapping of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; an example of the second are the geographical theories about the impact of environment and climate on racial difference that provided an ideological underpinning for colonialism as a “civilizing mission.” This instrumental and situated character of the discipline has been widely explored in recent scholarship, [32] which in turn has been influenced by developments in postcolonial theory.
The work of Edward Said marked a turning point in the understanding of how “imagined geographies” served to essentialize difference by establishing binary oppositions (self/other, rational/irrational, progressive/backward, normative/perverse, etc.) at the service of colonial domination. [33] Said also emphasized the extent to which imperialism is defined by a “struggle over geography” and probed the ideological representations of this struggle in the sphere of culture, opening up the geographical imagination to the fields of cultural studies and literary criticism. [34] Geographers have responded by exploring the multiple ways in which their discipline can engage with postcolonial questions of identity, legitimation, and resistance. [35] However, despite its seminal impact, the contribution of Said (and of historians such as Eric Hobsbawm) [36] has had the effect of pinning the “age of empire” to the nineteenth century, as well as conceiving the European imperial project as a relatively monolithic enterprise. In order to provide a corrective to this narrow conceptualization of geography as a discourse and discipline of modern empire, scholars have been concentrating on a wider chronological range as well as differentiating between colonial enterprises in terms of their attitudes to space, culture, race, etc. [37] This shift can nuance the idea of empire as “the creation of sharp alterity” [38] by showing that imperial space is a varied and fluid site of contestation and by incorporating alternative models of—and resistances to—imperial sovereignty.
This collection takes up these questions of longue durée and difference in order to contribute to the novel interrogation of empire, which has traditionally been seen as a western project associated with modernity. This does not mean forgetting about European imperialism and its aftermath; rather, it entails freeing the discussion of empire and geography from its Eurocentric focus in order to consider other spaces and practices. Several of the contributions to this volume engage with the ways in which both Orientalist and counter-Orientalist discourses have failed to provide a nuanced account of imperial formations and experiences in the eastern Mediterranean. One side effect of Said’s powerful binaries in Orientalism has been to downplay the ways in which the Orient was also a vocal and internally differentiated participant in empire. Paying attention to Ottoman representations of the West, for instance, untethers the “Muslim discovery of Europe” from narratives of belatedness and decline, while showing that relationships to the other can be marked by ambivalence but also partial or shifting identification, and that they have to be understood across a spectrum that changes with political and historical circumstances.
Our focus on geography as a vehicle for understanding empire is partly informed by the “spatial turn” in the humanities and the social sciences. Here, too, the discipline of geography has become an arena of heated debate about the methods of inquiry into political and social experience. Drawing on Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja has provocatively argued that spatiality since the nineteenth century has been repressed in favor of the historicist narratives favored by modernity. [39] Spatiality, according to Soja and other theorists, needs to be recovered as an important third term that mediates the dialectic between historicity and sociality. From this perspective, “Reflecting the uneven development of historical versus spatial discourse, the Spatial Turn is fundamentally an attempt to develop a more creative and critically effective balancing of the spatial/geographical and the temporal/historical imaginations.” [40]
A helpful distinction emerging from these theoretical debates is one between material geographies (amenable to quantitative and mathematical methodologies), imagined or mental geographies (that invite discursive and ideological analysis), and the harder to define category of “lived space” that is the hybrid product of social, intellectual, and bodily experiences. Although the boundaries among these spatial categories and definitions are permeable, they provide a helpful way of organizing and balancing alternative approaches to space. Nevertheless, and by contrast to the trend towards socioeconomic methodologies in the comparative study of empires, this volume is predominantly interested in the narrative and representational aspects of imperial geographies. Their implications for this volume are thought-provoking, given that the contributors are predominantly historians and literary critics whose disciplinary parameters sometimes tolerate a relative neglect of the spatial dimension. At the same time, our focus on the eastern Mediterranean immediately entails a different chronological and cultural perspective, which is particularly important given that the application of spatial thinking to questions of colonialism has largely focused on the modern European powers. The nineteenth-century triumph of historicism has often been considered as instrumental to imperialism by generating teleological narratives of Western progress, supported by advances in transportation and communication, that “robbed the understanding of social change of any sense of contingency.” [41] This volume’s attention to the often recalcitrant, contested, or indeterminate nature of geographical space can enhance our understanding of how historical narratives of empire are themselves dynamic, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting.

Description of Contents

The critical focus on space as a key analytical category has promoted interdisciplinary inquiry across the fields of cultural studies, geography, political science, history, and art history, to name but a few. [42] Still, the collaboration between historians and literary critics is an unusual feature of this collection. Methodologically, it has generated substantial debate among the contributors about what the two approaches can say to one another, and how they can jointly contribute to an understanding of imperial geographies. Given the focus on narrative and representation as legitimizing or subversive practices of empire, contributors have had to think hard about what narrative means across their different disciplines. While for the historians, for example, narrative needs to be set as concretely as possible in the contemporary historical context, for the literary critics narrative entails metaphor—literally a process of semantic transfer—that encourages substitution, displacement, and a degree of indeterminacy. Translated into a reading of geographical space, this combination of approaches has encouraged both a grounding of representations in their institutional and political matrices (Magdalino, Angelov, Kastritsis, Bazzaz), and an awareness that spatial practices and experiences are often provisional, precarious, or subject to conflicting jurisdictions (Zandi-Sayek, Güthenke, Batsaki). The metaphor of translation as cultural transfer of meaning across space is driven home in the essay by Stavrakopoulou, which analyzes theatrical translations/adaptations of Molière across the Greek diasporic communities of Izmir and Istanbul.
The essays examine specific phenomena associated with empire (such as travel; social, commercial, and cultural exchange and conflict; and processes of identity formation) through an interdisciplinary approach that is both synchronic and diachronic. One important aim of the volume is to elucidate the ways in which different groups or individuals (for example, sovereigns, intellectuals, political and financial élites, or travelers from the imperial “periphery”) imagined and articulated their relationship to empire through spatial and geographical language and metaphors. One of the organizing polarities of any understanding of empire is the center-periphery relation. Several essays in this volume are in dialogue with one another to show that this model varies according to the specific historical, political, and geographical contexts. Dimiter Angelov and Paul Magdalino discuss the Byzantine Empire as predominantly centered in Constantinople, the imperial metropolis. Angelov shows that Constantinople served as a Greenwich zone and determined the spatiality of the East and West, which were identified with the continents of Asia and Europe. The imagined geography, according to which the imperial metropolis dominated over Europe and Asia, prevented the continents from becoming oppositional cultural categories as occurred in Renaissance Italy. Magdalino’s detective-like reading of Constantine VII’s On the Themes and On the Administration of the Empire reveals an “optic of power” through which Constantine conceived the geographical dimension of his empire and sought to share his vision with his successor. This power perspective on geography accounts, Magdalino suggests, for the highly selective and strategic nature of Constantine’s narrative, focusing, for example, on naptha-producing regions important to military strategy, or on areas with significant potential for dynastic intervention.
But this centripetal model of empire is also modified and challenged by perspectives on the metropolis from other regions, as demonstrated by recent scholarship on the relationship between the Ottoman imperial center and its provinces. [43] In her account of writings about Istanbul by journalists (both travelers and residents) hailing from Egypt and the Levant (modern day Syria and Lebanon), Ilham Khuri-Makdisi complicates the notion of the “periphery” within the Ottoman Empire. She shows that encounters with the metropolis were often informed assessments of modernization and urban reform, enriched by comparative perspectives from European centers such as London and Paris. Devoid of provincialism, such accounts suggest instead a critique and even a “banalization of Istanbul.” In conjunction with the essays by Sibel Zandi-Sayek and Anna Stavrakopoulou, Khuri-Makdisi’s contribution paints a picture of a multi-centered empire where processes of modernization occurred at different paces and across crisscrossing trade, diplomatic, and travel networks.
The collective preoccupation with strategies of representation is fuelled by a common interest in questions of imperial self-legitimation. How are imperial ambitions inscribed in the texts and practices treated in this volume? A recurrent strategy is based on the universalist claims of empire. Usual examples of such claims include the “White Man’s Burden” and the mission civilisatrice—concepts grounded in the Enlightenment ideal of the “triumph and development of reason” in all realms of public and private life—and are most often associated with late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and French imperialism in Asia and Africa. [44] However, the Byzantines and Ottomans also developed and then sought to project their own notions of imperial universalist claims. The Byzantines enriched the tradition of imperial self-presentation inherited from Rome and were receptive to Hellenistic and ancient Near Eastern ideas and historical memories of rulership. Old ideas of empire were adapted to a new context and enhanced by Christian interpretations. [45] For example, the early Byzantine emperors followed their Roman predecessors in placing an orb on their coins symbolizing their global dominion, though with a Christian cross added on top of the orb (globus cruciger). [46] Byzantium was imagined to be the last in a series of four world empires referred to in the Book of Daniel. [47] The actual capacity of Byzantium to carry out imperial policies on a large scale, in the sense of ambitious military campaigns and massive public works, varied through the centuries and diminished dramatically in 1204. Yet the fantasy of imperialism and world rule persisted in oratorical performances at the court well into the late Byzantine period, largely in contradiction to the political realities. [48]
For the Ottomans, imperialist universalist claims were based on the appropriation and synthesis of three traditions of universal sovereignty: the Islamic, the Turko-Mongol (Central Asian), and that of Byzantium. [49] These claims could take nonviolent forms, such as the “soft empire” strategies of trade and diplomacy. [50] Dimitris Kastritsis’s essay in this volume examines Ottoman imperial ideology as expressed in a late-sixteenth-century chancery manual designed to represent the history of Ottoman diplomacy at the highest level. His analysis reveals that “soft power” strategies were articulated in the hierarchy of titulature and honorific titles meant for use in epistolary exchange between the Ottomans and the wider world. Universalist claims could also be expressed through expansionism and, therefore, war. Indeed, in the early Ottoman period, the Ottomans advanced the boundaries of their territory along the western coast of Asia Minor and in the Balkans by drawing on the gazi “ ethos as warriors for the faith (Islam). By the sixteenth century, Ottoman universalist claims had evolved to reflect territorial expansion. Focusing on a rich body of sixteenth-century portolan charts, atlases, and isolaria in Ottoman-Turkish, Pinar Emiralioğlu demonstrates how the development of a heightened Ottoman sensitivity to geographical knowledge about the Mediterranean (following the conquest of lands in the eastern Mediterranean, the North African littoral, and the territories bordering the Red Sea) reflected the importance of the Roman Mare Nostrum as a model to be emulated by the Ottomans in the quest for imperial domination. Despite strategies of “soft power,” war remained the preeminent resource for imperial expansion. Antonis Anastasopoulos shows how geographical constraints become particularly prominent, and affect imperial authority and policy, when considering the movement of troops or the difficulties of imperial tax collecting.
Several essays address the issue of the transition from empire to nation-state in terms of a model of space as contested or subject to overlapping jurisdictions (Sayek, Güthenke, Batsaki). Subjects within that space are shown to have similarly malleable identities. Focusing on two spatial practices where imperial and foreign sovereignties conflicted and overlapped in the urban environment of Izmir/Smyrna, (foreign) property ownership and diplomatic protocol, Zandi-Sayek shows that during the Tanzimat, the Ottoman state was working to strengthen its control of property and diplomatic transactions that had traditionally enabled foreign states to exercise privileges and secure exemptions in Ottoman territory. Changing the scene to a former Ottoman dominion negotiating its new identity as nascent nation-state in the 1830s, Constanze Güthenke notes how the choice of Athens over Nafplio for the capital of the Greek state stumbled against the vague legal status of public land. Examining space through the peregrinations of two literary characters, Güthenke stresses “the indeterminacy and the volatile locations of identity that attach to a Greek territory that is to a large extent first realized in writing.” Focusing on a literary depiction of Egypt and Crete as “third spaces” between the nascent Greek state and the Ottoman Empire, Yota Batsaki shows how strategies of triangulation in a late-twentieth-century Modern Greek novel revisit the question of national identity against the background of the region’s colonial legacies.
The current vogue of empire in cultural studies is related to the contemporary world of transnational economic networks, political alliances, and military interventions. A substantial literature addresses the lingering sense that global relations are still structured by imperial dynamics, for better or worse. [51] The concluding essay, by Sahar Bazzaz, on the “Sunni Triangle” and the surprising persistence of Orientalist rhetoric in the coverage of the Iraq War in The New York Times, moves us forward to the present, to ponder the continuing hold of imagined geographies and their real-life political implications.

A Note on Transliterations

The transcription of Greek words adheres to the style guide of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC. The transcription of Arabic, Persian, Ottoman and Turkish words follows the normal practices.

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[ back ] 1. Two recent exceptions are: Bang and Bayly 2011; Bang and Kolodziejczyk 2012.
[ back ] 2. McNeill 1992; Horden and Purcell 2000:45–49.
[ back ] 3. Vryonis 1969/70:273–275; Oikonomides 1985.
[ back ] 4. Vryonis 1969/70:254–255.
[ back ] 5. Kafadar 1995:24–25.
[ back ] 6. Pryor 1988; McCormick 2001.
[ back ] 7. Hendy 1985:26; Geyer 2002:32–33.
[ back ] 8. Whittow 2008:223.
[ back ] 9. Vryonis 1976.
[ back ] 10. Kafadar, 2007:8.
[ back ] 11. Murphey 1999:xiv, 20–25.
[ back ] 12. Haldon 1999:51–60; Belke 2002; Haldon 2006.
[ back ] 13. Stephenson 2000; Kaldellis 2009.
[ back ] 14. Foss 1979; Rheidt 1991, 2002.
[ back ] 15. Inalcik 2010.
[ back ] 16. Inalcik 1994:274–275; Karateke 2005:24.
[ back ] 17. Necipoğlu 1991:13.
[ back ] 18. Hess 1978; Casale 2010.
[ back ] 19. Hathaway 2008:23.
[ back ] 20. Karateke 2005:25.
[ back ] 21. Aydin 2006; Inalcik 1994:777; Owen 1993.
[ back ] 22. Hanioğlu 2008.
[ back ] 23. For an overview of the historiography of the “decline paradigm” in Ottoman Studies, see Sajdi 2007.
[ back ] 24. Jasanoff 2005.
[ back ] 25. Hanioğlu 2008:12.
[ back ] 26. Göçek 1996; on the millet system and its transformation, see Karpat 1982.
[ back ] 27. On the Greek Enlightenment, see Kitromilides 1992; Philliou 2010; on Ottoman Jews, see Mazower 2005.
[ back ] 28. Ayalon 1995; Khuri-Makdisi 2010.
[ back ] 29. Hourani 1983.
[ back ] 30. Philliou 2010
[ back ] 31. Hanioğlu 2008; Kayali 1997.
[ back ] 32. Gregory 1994; Bell, Butlin and Heffernan 1995; Godlewska and Smith, 1994; Driver 1992; Harley 2001; Edney 1997; Lewis and Wigen 1997.
[ back ] 33. Said 1978.
[ back ] 34. Said 1993.
[ back ] 35. Blunt and McEwan 2000.
[ back ] 36. Hobsbawm 1989.
[ back ] 37. Pagden 1995; McKee 2000; Kamen 2002; Lieven 2002.
[ back ] 38. Cooper 2004:269n33.
[ back ] 39. Soja 1996.
[ back ] 40. Soja 2009:12.
[ back ] 41. Warf 2008:129.
[ back ] 42. Warf and Arias 2008:2.
[ back ] 43. Mikhail 2011:24–25.
[ back ] 44. Conklin 1997:2.
[ back ] 45. Dvornik 1966.
[ back ] 46. Papamastorakis 2005.
[ back ] 47. Podskalsky 1972.
[ back ] 48. Angelov 2007.
[ back ] 49. Göçek 1993.
[ back ] 50. Casale 2010.
[ back ] 51. Ferguson 2004; Harvey 2005; Hardt and Negri 2000.