Past: Earlier Works

Although it aims to become the most exhaustive and up-to-date work of its type, Historians of the Ottoman Empire is by no means without precedents. Ottoman writers have since the sixteenth century produced tezkires (bio-bibliographical dictionaries) devoted to the great figures in a given field. The genre evolved towards modern scholarship largely thanks to the works of Bursalı Mehmed Tahir and Franz Babinger. Here is a tribute to these two important scholars who inspired the project Historians of the Ottoman Empire.

Bursalı Mehmed Tahir (1861-1925)

Born in Bursa, Mehmed Tahir spent his professional life in the Ottoman army, working mostly as a geography teacher and administrator in various military schools, but also acting as a commanding officer and in the judiciary branch of the army. Like many of his military colleagues at the time, he held strong nationalist views as can be seen in his first publication, The Contributions of the Turks to the Sciences and the Arts [Türklerin Ulum ve Fünuna Hizmetleri, 1897]. From 1906 onwards he joined several organizations that were to become the Unity and Progress Party [İttihat ve Terakkî Cemiyeti], and served as deputy for Bursa in the Ottoman parliament from 1908 to 1911. He retired from military service, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, in 1914.

Bursalı Mehmed Tahir was a member of the Melami sufi order. This interest in mystical Islam is easily observable in most of his published works. Thus in 1898 he published a biography of the great mystical figure Muhyi al-Din al-‘Arabi, and most of his later publications focus on Islamic scholarship and the lives of its protagonists in Anatolia.

Nevertheless, Mehmed Tahir is mostly remembered for his bio-bibliographical encyclopedia entitled Osmanlı Müellifleri, published in three volumes between 1915 and 1924. The product of almost thirty years of research, this work contains the biographies of 1,691 of the most prominent Ottoman sheykhs, legal scholars, poets, historians, medical doctors, mathematicians, and geographers. By organizing these individuals according to their field of activity rather than listing them in alphabetical order, the author persuasively illustrated the rich diversity of intellectual activity in the Ottoman Empire. Besides mentioning more than 9,000 works by these authors, Mehmed Tahir also provided bibliographical charts and lists on specific topics such as “fetva collections”, “medical text”and “geology.”

Osmanlı Müellifleri is not without defects. For example the bibliographical information it provides is often incomplete, and its emphasis on sufism and poetry, at the expense of medicine or mathematics, might very well derive from the author’s personal interests rather than scholarly consideration. Furthermore its third volume, written during a period of physical and financial hardships for Mehmed Tahir, is much less reliable than the first two. Nevertheless, by the scope of its ambitions and the enormous amount of research it contains, this masterpiece of Bursalı Mehmed Tahir remains a landmark work in its tradition, and an inspiration for those working on the project Historians of the Ottoman Empire.

Franz Babinger (1891-1967)

Born in Weiden (Bavaria), Franz Babinger showed his deep interest in the Middle East early on: by the time he finished high school he had learned Persian and Hebrew, begun a correspondence with Ignaz Goldziher, and published three academic articles. He then went on to study at Munich University and, in 1914, submitted his doctoral dissertation entitled Gottlieb Siegfried Bauer (1694-1738): Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Morgenländischen Studien im 18. Jahrhundert.

After serving in the German army in the Middle East during World War I, he went back to his studies at Berlin’s Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität, and in 1921 submitted his second dissertation (“Habilitation”) on the topic of Sheykh Bedr ed-Din of Simavna. His subsequent career was extremely productive, although the rise of the Nazis to power forced him to retire from his professorship at Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in 1933. At the invitation of the historian Nicolae Iorga, he went on to teach in Romania until 1943. At this point he was ordered back to Berlin and it is not until 1948 that he was able to resume his academic activities. He retired from the University of Munich in 1958, and died by drowning on June 23rd, 1967, in Albania.

With the possible exception of his biography of Mehmed the Conqueror (published in 1953), Geschichtsschreiber der Osmanen und ihre Werke (“GOW”, 1927) is certainly the most important entry on the long list of Franz Babinger’s publications. GOW was based on Bursalı Mehmed Tahir’s Osmanlı Müellifleri as well as extensive research in most of Western and Central Europe’s manuscript collections and in the printed catalogues from libraries located in Istanbul, Cairo, and the Indian sub-continent. While important manuscript collections could not be included in Babinger’s work -those of the royal palace in Istanbul, of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia-GOW managed to overcome many of Mehmed Tahir’s shortcomings in terms of accuracy, number of authors included, and user-friendliness. This success explains why GOW almost instantly became the key reference work on historical writing in the Ottoman Empire, and is still extensively used more than 75 years after its publication. The Historians of the Ottoman Empire project intends to carry on the work where Franz Babinger left it.