Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
The Sign of Empire: Imperial Diplomatics, Practices of Reception and Symbolic Communication in the Early Modern Ottoman Periphery
(New Europe College)
Abstract: Throughout the early modern period, the Ottoman chancellery dispatched an enormous amount of fermans and berats to far-flung provinces of the empire, providing a crucial circuit that held the “well-protected domains” together. The role of these documents went beyond merely conveying the sultan’s will; they were also an important locus of interaction between the imperial center and provincial communities, and at the same time they constituted the primary channel through which an Ottoman legitimizing discourse was upheld and conveyed to the subjects. Most scholars of diplomatics have adopted an approach that privileges the textual contents of chancellery production, while relegating the documents’ role as material objects and visual media to the background. Underpinning this text-oriented focus is a tacit assumption that reading constituted the primary mode by which the intended audience would interact with the document. However, such an approach is problematic in the early modern Ottoman context. First, the subjects of the empire, including local powerholders, were frequently illiterate in the Arabic script and lacked sufficient knowledge of Ottoman Turkish to access the text directly; second, the act of presenting and reading an imperial ferman was frequently a carefully staged ceremony whose significance went beyond the contents of the document; and third, due to their lavish ornament, elaborate calligraphy and striking appearance, imperial documents cannot be treated merely as a means to convey textual information.
The presentation seeks to explore the extratextual aspects of sultanic writs and their reception in the imperial periphery, setting out from the process of reception and appropriation of tuğras in the principality of Moldavia and the Crimean Khanate in the seventeenth century. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, both chancelleries made a deliberate effort to appropriate the form of the sultanic tuğra and integrate it into their own diplomatic traditions. At the textual level, both the Crimean and Moldavian derivatives went back to local, non-Ottoman models. However, their conscious efforts to emulate the morphology of the sultan’s cipher demonstrate the role that the visual and material aspects of Ottoman documents played as an index of the sultan and his polity. These documents also illustrate the integration of peripheral elites into what may be termed as an early modern Ottoman “graphosphere” and their willingness to negotiate their identity and relationship with the imperial center by means of diplomatics and chancellery models.
Bio: Michał Wasiucionek holds a PhD in History and Civilization from the European University Institute (2016) and is currently a Post-Doctoral Researcher on the ERC Project “Luxury, Fashion and Social Status in Early Modern South-Eastern Europe” at the New Europe College – Institute for Advanced Study in Bucharest, while also affiliated with the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History. He works on the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in the early modern Ottoman Empire, focusing on their place within the wider framework of imperial politics. He recently published his first book, Ottomans and Eastern Europe: Borders and Political Patronage in the Early Modern World (I.B. Tauris, 2019).