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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter I. Historicizing the Nation: Images of the Past, Continuity into the Present

Ottoman history

Namik Kemal
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Osmanlı Tarihi (Ottoman History)

2Originally published: Istanbul, Mahmud Bey Press, 1910

3Language: Ottoman Turkish

4The original Ottoman text was used for the translation provided in this volume (pp. 1–49). Osmanlı Tarihi was republished in modernized Turkish form in 1971 by Hürriyet Yayınları, Istanbul.

About the author

5Namık Kemal [1840, Tekirdağ (Rumelia) – 1888, Chios (Tur. Sakız)]: journalist, writer and bureaucrat. The son of the court astrologist, Namık Kemal received a thorough education in traditional Islamic studies and was exposed to Islamic mysticism as well as popular poetry. He also travelled extensively in the early years of his life. In 1858, he joined the Translation Bureau of the foreign ministry, a seedbed of the most progressive minds of the Tanzimat, where he learned French. At this period, he also came into contact with romantic French literature, Enlightenment political philosophy and social sciences. In 1862, Namık Kemal started writing in the Tasvir-i Efkar (Account of Opinions), which was among the earliest non-official Turkish newspapers published by the eminent intellectual İbrahim Şinasi. He soon became the intellectual figurehead of the first (yet loosely organized) modern political opposition, the Young Ottoman movement in the 1860s. He fled to Europe in 1867, where he edited the newspaper entitled Hürriyet (Liberty) which acted as an organ of the Young Ottoman opposition. Namık Kemal returned to Istanbul in 1870, but was exiled to Cyprus in 1873. In 1876, following the deposition of Sultan Abdülaziz by a military coup, he was recalled to help draw up the first Ottoman constitution. Yet, shortly after the promulgation of the 1876 constitution, the new sultan, Abdülhamid II, banished him again, this time to the island of Lesbos. He served as governor in Lesbos, Rhodes and Chios until his death in 1888. Namık Kemal’s career reflects the transformation of a believer in Enlightenment political ideals into a fiery romantic nationalist. While his initial orientation was towards grounding a theory of natural rights and representative political institutions in Islam, through the 1870s and 1880s he was fully engaged in forging a Muslim Ottoman identity through works of history and biographies of old heroes. A prolific writer, Kemal produced works in almost all genres of literature, including novels and plays that were amongst the first of their kind in Turkish. He was a revolutionary figure in the development of Turkish prose, going far beyond his precursors in using the vernacular language, and writing with a powerful style devoid of the circumlocutions of nineteenth-century written Turkish.

6Main works: Devr-i İstila [Age of Invasion] (1867); İntibah [Awakening] (1873); Vatan yahud Silistre [Fatherland, or Silistra] (1873); Kanije (1874); Gülnihal (1875); Cezmi (1880); Celaleddin Harzemşah (1881); Tahrib-i Harabat [Destruction of de-bris] (1886); Osmanlı Tarihi [Ottoman history] (1910); Renan Müdafaanamesi [Reply to Renan] (1910).


7While drafting his major work on Ottoman history, the Osmanlı Tarihi, the Young Ottoman apostle Namık Kemal revealed in a letter to one of his friends that his current intellectual preoccupation was “not literature itself but investigation,” through which, he claimed, he was “reconstituting Ottoman history.” Indeed the period known as the Tanzimat witnessed a gradual transformation in the Ottoman practice of history writing whereby the novel standards of ‘objectivity’ and documentary accuracy were eagerly espoused by a new generation of Ottoman authors. In fact, the task of “reconstituting” Ottoman history to which Namık Kemal alluded not only pertained to the novel investigative procedures he claimed to have observed himself, but also to an altogether new role assigned to the discipline of history. With the advent of modern historiography, the predominantly dynastic framework of Ottoman history was expanded to fit the new demands of the Tanzimat’s peculiar ideology of ‘dynastic nationalism.’ The new historical narrative, nurtured above all by the proliferation of textbooks prepared for the new secular institutions of learning, helped define and legitimize the idea of a continuous and progressive Ottoman nationhood in history whose terms of collective identity were, nevertheless, generated and safeguarded under the infallible dominance of the dynastic entity.

8Namık Kemal’s Ottoman History reveals the genuine concern of Late Ottoman historians with the novel comparative and analytical perspectives developed by their European counterparts. Kemal’s original plan was to supplement his major historical work with a prolegomena that would stand as a separate volume, entitled Roma Tarihi (Roman history). This study was intended to pro-vide the Ottoman readers with an extensive overview of Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. What the author aimed at, in starting with such a broad and universal framework, was to situate the fourteenth-century beginnings of Ottoman civilization within its larger late medieval seedbed, delineating its cultural and political links with the Islamic and the Roman civilizations.

9The publishing of Kemal’s Roman History was interrupted on the orders of Sultan Abdülhamid II soon after the appearance of the first fascicule in 1887. The use of expressions such as “the enlightenment of opinions” by an author who was already in exile constituted sufficient cause for the severe Hamidian regime to confiscate the published fragment. Leaving the pre-Ottoman prolegomena project dormant, Namık Kemal spent the last months of his life revising the main body of his history which was to be published only after the deposition of Abdülhamid. Had his notes for the initial volume been published, it would have been fascinating to read Namık Kemal’s rendition of classical and early medieval history as a backdrop to the advent of the Ottoman state. Nevertheless, the introduction to the published version of ‘Ottoman history,’ taken from the initial publication of the prolegomena, pro-vides a general sense about the author’s original intentions. It appears, from what Kemal had initially proposed, that a significant portion of the prolegomena would have been devoted to medieval Islamic states. This is hardly surprising, for Namık Kemal and other members of the nebulous Young Ottoman movement hoped to reinterpret the cultural content of Islam as a major component of national/dynastic identity in the Ottoman realm. For them, the Ottoman Empire was the major inheritor of the great Islamic civilization, the essential qualities of which, they believed, were fully compatible with the liberal norms of the modern world. Hence, a modern re-assessment of Islamic history was essential to Namık Kemal’s project for unearthing the very roots of Ottoman culture and for re-examining the essential constituents of Ottoman identity in its distant origins. Still, notwithstanding the proposed emphasis on Islamic history, Kemal’s agenda of contextualizing the medieval roots of Ottoman civilization with an articulate view of the classical past is noteworthy, as it carries an understanding of a shared historical setting for the entire Euro-Mediterranean world.

10In its published form, Namık Kemal’s ‘Ottoman history’ covers a period extending from the emergence of the Ottoman state to the reign of Mehmed II. Kemal’s treatment of the formative stages of the Ottoman state articulates the proto-nationalistic myth of “creating an empire out of a clan,” which was to become a dominant trope in late Ottoman history writing. In the initial chapter, the story of the Kayı tribe, a branch of the Turkmen Oghuz people that constituted the kernel of the Ottoman dynasty, is traced back to its obscure origins in Central Asia. Yet, it is clear from the brevity of the section on the pre-Anatolian past that Kemal’s vision of national origins is indexed firmly to the advent of the Ottoman dynasty. Certainly recognized to be Turkish, the Asian Oghuz tribes are still not portrayed as comprising a national entity in Kemal’s work, since in his mind it was essentially the dynasty, and not ethnicity, that constituted the legitimate basis of national cohesion. Thus, in tandem with the rising tenor of “Ottomanist” ideology, the early rulers of the Ottoman state are cherished in the first chapters as the founders and the archetypal heroes of the Ottoman nation. The making of the Ottoman fatherland out of meagre beginnings is glorified by Kemal as an extraordinary feat attributable only to the military might, the political prowess, and high moral fibre of the founding fathers.

11Inspired by the writings of the European Romantics (in particular, Victor Hugo), Namık Kemal’s style is charged by a heavy dose of sentimentalism. His saga of national/dynastic achievement revolves around fervent narratives of military success and territorial expansion. As such, Kemal’s treatment of ‘millet,’ the Ottoman nation, quite openly privileges the dominant Muslim element, and his standard rendition of ‘vatan’ (fatherland) is unmistakably colored by a strong Islamic sentiment. Two keywords, hürriyet (liberty) and vatan (fatherland), are generally considered to be his contributions to the Turkish political vocabulary. Both words were used earlier with a growing sense of their novel implications by certain Ottoman officials and intellectuals. Yet, Namık Kemal should be given credit in vastly popularizing these terms and investing them with their full range of modern connotations. In parallel with his immensely popular historical biographies, plays and novels, Namık Kemal adamantly portrays the Ottoman fatherland as a sacred domain that was won in the battlefield by a dynasty which safeguarded it under the banner of Islam. Unwilling to negotiate his dynastic-nationalist fervor and religious sentimentalism, the fiery leader of the Young Ottoman movement confronts the endemic dilemma faced by many Late Ottoman intellectuals who struggled to reconcile the dynastic-Islamic and secular-cosmopolitan definitions of Ottoman identity.


Ottoman History

[from the Introduction]


14I found it necessary to write a prolegomena before starting this history. The first section, therefore, constitutes an historical outline of the Roman Empire up to the emergence of Islam. Perhaps some readers will be wearied by the length of this introductory draft, but there was no way of condensing it any further. Firstly, without the background of Roman history, it was impossible to expound upon the Eastern [Byzantine] Empire, which was constantly in touch and at war with Islamic states till its demise, as well as upon the Islamic state that was annihilated in Andalusia, and the force that blocked the routes of Islamic conquest in the West. Secondly, I wanted to provide the reader with a sound basis for comparing the Roman Empire, the greatest political entity before the advent of Islam, with the Arab empire. Unfortunately, a comprehensive study of the Roman Empire that would serve as a reference in this regard has never been published in our language. […]

15The prolegomena also includes lengthy sections on [medieval] Islamic states. This was necessary too, since there are very few translations in Turkish regarding the affairs of the Islamic states […] [The existing literature] constitutes no more than a cursory overview of this period. The accounts these sources provide regarding Europe are either inadequate or entirely flawed. It would also be quite misleading to rely on information derived from this literature concerning the affairs of the sublime [Ottoman] state. […]

16In terms of our main area of interest, I dwelled extensively on Ottoman history whenever the sources were available. In each section, I tried to pro-vide a brief overview on the history of other Islamic states so as to provide useful comparative insights. In terms of the particulars of non-Muslim states, I deemed it sufficient to recount the matters that were directly related to the Ottoman world.

17I carried out extensive research on several Islamic sources and European histories. My humble investigations revealed that some of the most important facts about Ottoman history contradicted the fabricated accounts that enjoy popular acclaim. […] I also included some personal considerations based on critical deliberation. I took utmost care, however, to withhold my personal point of view in the recounting of historical events. […]

[from The Advent of the Ottoman Dynasty]

  • 1 Saladin. Medieval Islamic hero of Kurdish origin (d. 1193) who fought against the Crusaders and es (...)
  • 2 Established in Granada, the Nasrids (1230–1492) were the last Islamic dynasty in Spain.

18The seventh century of the Hegira [thirteenth century AD] started out as an ominous period of bloodshed for the Islamic world. The Crusades, which started in the sixth century, flowing south and destroying the fruits of civilization like a raucous flood […] were crushed by the iron chest of Salah-aldin al-Ayyubi,1 renowned as one of the great statesmen of human history. […] [On the other hand] Islamic Spain was tormented for centuries by the hellish flames of brutality. With great tact, only the Nasrid dynasty2 was able to withstand these threats at a corner of Andalusia.

19At the beginning of the seventh century, leading his army of terror, Chingiz Khan was wreaking havoc in Asia. […] The holiest places of Islam and its luminous centers of learning vanished underneath towers of human bones and amidst the wooden icons of pagans. […] The conversion of the Mongols to Islam at the end of the century was not enough to the reverse the state of decline that befell the realm of Islam. […] As this century of evil cast one fifth of the world into flames and drowned it in its bloodbath, the crescent and star of the felicitous Ottoman state rose from the western bounds of Asia; this was a resplendent dawning that was to flood the Islamic world and the rest of humanity with the radiance of its blessings for many centuries to come. […]

[from Osman Bey]

20A number of historians trace Sultan Osman’s lineage to Isaac, while others take it all the way back to Japheth, son of Noah. I see no point in elaborating such genealogies as they are entirely fictitious. Indeed, why would a sovereign figure like Osman require the pride and glory of the past, while his house formed one of the most superb and glorious dynasties of the world, secured the Caliphate and abounded with victors such as Mehmed the Conqueror, Selim and Süleyman. […]

21We can only attribute the astonishing success of the Ottoman state to the extraordinary virtues, the unwavering personal integrity and relentless labor of its founder Osman. Starting with a clan of four hundred that came from a distant corner of the world, the Ottoman Empire was thus able to turn into a formidable world power with a hundred million people; all in a matter of two centuries. … Building his state in a land that has been inhabited by all the world-dominating nations witnessed by history, Sultan Osman displayed and benefited from all the merits bequeathed to him by the progeny of these nations. […]

22Illuminating his realm with the radiance of his justice […] Sultan Osman secured the lives, property and dignity of his people against internal and external threats, and sought ways to clear a path of prosperity and progress for his nation. […]

  • 3 The first Islamic dynasty (seventh to eighth century), with its capital in Damascus.
  • 4 The early Islamic dynasty following the Umayyads (eighth to thirteenth century), established in Ba (...)
  • 5 A Turkic dynasty (962–1168) established in western Afghanistan which later expanded into Eastern I (...)
  • 6 The Great Saljuks (1037–1157), a Turkic dynasty, originated in Northeast Iran. In 1055 they conque (...)
  • 7 A Mongol dynasty founded by Chingiz (Genghis) Khan (r. 1206–1227) that ruled over Central Asia and (...)
  • 8 A Turco-Mongol dynasty founded by Timur (Tamerlane) (r. 1370–1405) that originated in Central Asia (...)

23Among great empires, such as the Umayyads,3 the Abbasids4, Ghaznavids,5 Saljuks,6 Chingizids7 and Timurids,8 there is not one that has not fallen or been completely disarrayed in two hundred years. In stark contrast, alone the rise of the state founded by Osman lasted more than three hundred years. Considering his majestic virtues and feats, Sultan Osman must have been the only person in the entire history of humanity that possessed the capacity to undertake such a magnificent task.


1 Saladin. Medieval Islamic hero of Kurdish origin (d. 1193) who fought against the Crusaders and established the Ayyubid dynasty.

2 Established in Granada, the Nasrids (1230–1492) were the last Islamic dynasty in Spain.

3 The first Islamic dynasty (seventh to eighth century), with its capital in Damascus.

4 The early Islamic dynasty following the Umayyads (eighth to thirteenth century), established in Baghdad.

5 A Turkic dynasty (962–1168) established in western Afghanistan which later expanded into Eastern Iran and Northwest India.

6 The Great Saljuks (1037–1157), a Turkic dynasty, originated in Northeast Iran. In 1055 they conquered the caliphal city of Baghdad. The Saljuks of Rum ruled from the Anatolian city of Konya between the early eleventh and the thirteenth centuries.

7 A Mongol dynasty founded by Chingiz (Genghis) Khan (r. 1206–1227) that ruled over Central Asia and parts of China.

8 A Turco-Mongol dynasty founded by Timur (Tamerlane) (r. 1370–1405) that originated in Central Asia and later ruled over Anatolia and Mesopotamia.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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