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This Is How I Spent the Summer

Instead of exploring more lost civilizations and sampling the foods and drinks of offbeat destinations, I spent the summer, here, in my home office, writing my Master’s thesis.   Of course, I occasionally made trips to the library and to meet with my advisor, but it was all for the thesis.  Although I didn’t leave the city of Ankara, Turkey, I did learn a whole lot about the predecessors of this country, the Ottomans, the old-fashioned way – reading.

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where I spent my summer

My thesis attempts to answer this question: Why did the Ottoman Navy wait more than a hundred years to develop and implement advanced technology, like sailing ships, during the sixteenth century age of exploration? Unfortunately the thesis is written in Turkish, and this blog is in English, so I won’t just paste the 100 pages in here – consider yourselves lucky! If anybody wants to read it in Turkish, please contact me, and I’ll happily forward it to you. For the rest of you, here’s a quick summary.

Basically, the Ottomans didn’t need to develop sailing ships or the accompanying technology.  The major development impetus for the Atlantic fleets was their desire to bypass Ottoman lands on the spice route.  Exploration came later, after they bumped into the “New World” on their quest to find a better way to India and realized the world of wealth it offered.  For the Ottomans, India and its spices could easily be reached via the ancient caravan routes – they weren’t trying to bypass themselves, obviously.  Furthermore, in terms of expansion of the empire, the Ottomans were always more concerned with gaining more land territory, while their major European competitors worked toward maritime domination.  In terms of military competition, the Ottoman Army almost always got priority over the Navy, including allocation of resources and attention.  And in their primary waters, the Mediterranean Sea, the Ottoman’s enemies were also using oar-powered vessels, so there was no drive for technology improvements fueled by competition there.  In the frontier, the Indian Ocean region, the Ottomans managed to compete with the Portuguese by controlling the routes close to the land while the Portuguese stayed in the open oceans.  Although they had several skirmishes and port attacks, neither ever gained much ground from the other during the sixteenth century.

Somewhere in these reasons fits the Ottoman practice of hiring corsairs to run the Navy, which can be considered either encouraging technological innovation or retarding it, depending on the individual and the day.  Even when they were running the fleet, the corsairs continued to operate like pirates on their off-time, and possibly even when they were on the Ottoman’s clock.  I didn’t delve too deeply into the Ottoman psychology as I think it would take way more than six month’s study to apply any understanding of it to an argument like mine.  So, although the Ottomans didn’t need to adapt to sailing ships in the sixteenth century, eventually they did, and by the time they realized it, it was too late, as England and Holland had already established their Indian trading companies and gradually dominated the entire trade.

If you find any of this interesting, I recommend reading The Ottoman Age of Exploration, by Giancarlo Casale. Although it doesn’t answer the question I researched, the book explains how the Ottomans managed to hold their own against the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean for the better part of the sixteenth century while relying on older, out-dated technology, and tells great stories of the palace intrigue and political manipulations by every side while trying to gain or hold on to positions.


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Earlier this week I defended my thesis. It was mostly successful, although I have to make a few additions and revisions in order for my university to finally accept it.  Like me, the professors were all impressed with the fact that I wrote it in Turkish!  I have to admit, however, that it wasn’t my first choice to write it in Turkish, as I thought that a thesis in English would be more helpful if I chose to pursue an academic career in the future.  When I picked up the bound work at the print shop and held a fat 110 page document in my hands, I almost couldn’t believe that I had made this thing. I was so proud that I temporarily forgot about all of the run-on sentences and not-quite complete arguments that I knew it contained.  Still, I’m happy with the final results, and making the required corrections won’t be a major effort.
So, this Olmsted project of learning a new language and then completing a graduate program in that language is nearly complete. I started learning Turkish in November of 2011, and here I am in September of 2014, weeks away from getting my degree!  Honestly, when I started the program I wasn’t really sure I could get to this point.

Of course, now that I’m almost done, this traveling girl is aching to get back on the road.  We have a huge trip planned for next month, and I’m thinking we may take some short trips around Turkey between now and then.  In the meantime, I plan on writing about observations of daily life in Turkey and catching up on some of the trips that didn’t make it into the blog.  Stay tuned!

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