Book Review: Ottomania: The Romantics and the Myth of the Islamic Orient
Since Edward Said’s Orientalism modern scholarship has developed an ever-intensifying awareness toward Eurocentric notions that have been long imbedded in the Western narrations of the East, or Orient.
BY YASIR YILMAZ | MAY 18, 2012
Though one may still frequently come across intentional or unintentional orientalisms in the American (and, in general, Western) media and popular culture, most specialists of area studies such as Near Eastern or Asian Studies have now become more perceptive and insightful, and try to avoid all forms of Eurocentrism in their research, at least in theoretical level. As a recently growing field, global history, for instance, prioritizes inter-civilizational historical comparisons from a new unbiased perspective. In the last decade or two, global historians have revised some of the generally accepted historical arguments on the political, economic, and cultural backwardness of the non-Western world. Studies on the Ottoman Empire have also benefited from this trend, and it is now common knowledge that the so-called backwardness of the non-Western world was reverberation of the myths that the book under review here examines.
Within this regard, Roderick Cavaliero breaks no new ground, but makes some wise remarks on some of the well-known issues. The sources he analyzes are the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century European authors, travelers, diplomats and adventurers, some of whom had never been to the Orient, and almost all of whose thinking about the east was typically given shape by an imaginative romanticism. In the preface and the first chapter, he traces the earliest creation of the myths back to Lepanto and the 1570s, when the once formidable and terrible Ottoman forces took their first major defeat by the Europeans. From then on, as the defeats the Europeans inflicted upon the Ottoman armies grew in size and number, the mighty Ottoman image in European eyes would gradually be replaced by one that is first disdained, and then ridiculed. Though not new in content, the rest of Cavaliero’s narration illustrates successfully how the Romantics textually reconstructed the various geographical and cultural domains of the Ottoman world which would then serve as the antithesis of Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. The second and third chapters survey the images of the most misinterpreted individual and institution by the Europeans: the Ottoman Sultan and Harem. For Europeans, the former was capricious and unpredictable, whose ruling style was for long defined as ‘oriental despotism’ by the modern scholarship, while the latter “spelled sexual slavery and intimidation” (p. 39). It is difficult to dispute Cavaliero’s statement that the concept of Harem has thus become “a major obstacle to East-West understanding” (p. 34). In an intelligent remark, Cavaliero reminds that the Harem within the Sultan’s court was needed to avoid childlessness and inheritance crisis. In addition, harems of the wealthy individuals had a contemporary and contextual logic in a society characterized by love of offspring where women feared not being married, and indeed, even women of lower status who lived in a segregated haremlik enjoyed their lives as much as the wealthy. Cavaliero notes often that this was what Lady Montagu and Pierre Loti observed, at two distant times. Another undisputable remark is that The Arabian Nights Entertainments, the major source of the myths about oriental exoticism and eroticism, is “the oriental fantasy par excellence” (p. 40). The author states that the stories of captivity in the East would always be ornamented with barbarity “to keep public interest alive” (p. 73), or with homosexuality, purportedly a “universal practice in Arab and Ottoman lands” (p. 77). There is no doubt that Lord Byron was writing with the same motives when he introduced the East as “where the virgins are soft as roses they twine.” In chapters seven through ten, Cavaliero successfully depicts the gradual transformation in the attitude of the Europeans from this imaginative and fictitious otherization of the East to a domineering feel of contempt. In accordance, while Napoleon Bonaparte was landing at Alexandria with an army of scientists to become the master of the Orient in the fashion of Alexander of Macedon, Greek revolution would be glorified by Delacroix in his paintings. Likewise, Persia, which couldn’t escape mythical imaginations in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, was believed to be an unexplored equivalent of the Ottoman Empire and no more than a potential buffer against the Russian threat.