Why redo Babinger’s work?
The scope of the project
As this project intends to create a reference work that will constitute an updated and improved version of Franz Babinger’s Die Geschichtsschreiber der Osmanen und ihre Werke (GOW, published in 1927), singling out its deficiencies and inadequacies might be a useful way to explain this project’s methodology.
The main weakness in Babinger’s work was, as its reviewers noted, that he could not make use of the Istanbul manuscript libraries adequately simply because, although he had access to the printed catalogues of the libraries, he did not have the opportunity to see the manuscripts.
Few of such manuscript catalogues existed: in the case of Istanbul’s Süleymaniye Library (the largest Turkish manuscript collection in the world), printed catalogues existed for only 52 of its 106 collections, the remainder being covered either by handwritten catalogues or non-detailed lists. Even when libraries did have printed catalogues, these tend to contain a considerable number of mistakes, and to cover only a fraction of the manuscripts. Furthermore, in the case of the Süleymaniye Library, manuscript acquisitions since the 1920s contribute to the outdated character of GOW.
Fuat Sezgin wrote that Carl Brockelmann’s inability to make sufficient use of the Istanbul Libraries for his Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur had been the greatest motivation to prepare his own, more complete and updated version of this reference work. A similar albeit worse situation prevails in the case of Ottoman historiography, especially if one considers that Babinger’s book was published long before Brockelmann’s work, and that many manuscripts he mentions have since 1927 been relocated or lost during wars.
Naturally a reference book that comprises immense amounts of data is never completely free of errors. It may indeed not be realistic to expect absolute accuracy from a bio-bibliographical reference book of this size. It is thus incumbent upon today’s scholars to participate in the continuous updating of their forerunners’ work; this is what Historians of the Ottoman Empire sets out to do.
Babinger was also criticized for the method he used in selecting the authors. Although the title of his book refers to “Ottoman History Writers” (Geschichtsschreiber der Osmanen), he added to the mix geographers, compilers of biographical dictionaries and others who did not compose a historical work in the strictest sense.
An important methodological problem is the question of how to establish the criteria for choosing the historians to be included in the book. In our case, the problem is further complicated by the subsequent evolution of historiography, from the École des Annales to this day, as the scope of the material used by today’s historians would have been unimaginable in the 1920s. After much debate and discussion we decided that some works besides histories in the strictest sense had their place here, insofar as the Historians of the Ottoman Empire project intends to stand as a comprehensive reference work that will make sense to today’s historians. However practical considerations had to be taken in account, as we could not afford to let the size of the project grow so much as to become unmanageable.
Covered here will thus be individuals having lived in the Ottoman Empire and having written narrative works that consciously include a significant “historical” content. This includes chroniclers, of course, but also the authors of such works as biographical material (literary, hagiographic, etc.), geographies, military narratives (gazavatnames,fethnames) etc. We are, however, considering having essays written, for example on the şuara tezkiresi writers rather than having individual entries on each one of them.
On the other hand this excludes the reports of non-Ottomans (travelers, historians, etc.), intellectual works that reflect rather than express historical events or phenomena, and any form of archival material.
Language is also a major issue in such a project, in several ways. Many earlier authors have limited their coverage to specific literary languages, i.e. Arabic (Brockelmann and Sezgin) or Persian (Storey). In the case of Ottoman historical writing, such an approach is particularly problematic, not only because all three classical languages of Western Islam (Arabic, Persian, Turkish) were widely (and sometimes interchangeably) used by people at the court, but also because limiting ourselves to these three languages would have meant falling into the old trap of approaching Ottoman history strictly through Muslim learned circles. In order to avoid this problem Historians of the Ottoman Empire will include all Ottoman authors, regardless of the language they used. In other words, a geographical boundary, rather than a linguistic one, will be used here.