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Casale presents annual Lefler talk on Ottoman-European connections

<rian Giancarlo Casale framed his talk, entitled “What Did It Mean to Be European in the Sixteenth Century? A View from the Ottoman Empire,” around an Ottoman world map.

In front of a packed audience in Leighton on Oct. 20, he presented a map reportedly drawn by Tunisian cartographer Hajji Ahmed in the sixteenth century.  The heart-shaped map, carved from wood, depicts the four known continents of the world.  It is drawn in the European “mappa mundi” style and is surrounded by text in Ottoman Turkish. 

For this reason, Casale deemed the map a “hybrid work,” since it contains both European and Ottoman elements.  He further dubbed it a “superstar of maps,” the oldest known world map in Turkish and one of the earliest known printed works with Arabic script. 

Casale, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a specialist in Ottoman history, came to Carleton to discuss European identity in the sixteenth century Ottoman Empire. He used the map as a starting point, arguing that, beneath the surface, it is very revealing of the formation of distinct European and Turkish identities. 

The text surrounding the map details Europe’s rulers and kingdoms through astronomy.  Europe is depicted as the sun, the Ottoman sultan is said to be the sun’s supreme ruler, with France and Germany depicted as Jupiter and Mars.  Thus, the Ottoman Empire is Europe’s center, with the other countries as mere planets in its orbit. 

Casale contended that what it means to be European is quite unique; it is not cultural, intellectual or even religious.  Rather, it is political and based on two principles: the Greco-Roman legacy and a sense of dynamism and expansiveness in the contemporary world.  This not only qualifies the Ottoman Empire as part of Europe, but also renders it the most European nation.

The map raises a question of identity that is representative of the debate concerning what it meant to be an Ottoman during the sixteenth century.  At this time, the Ottoman Empire had stopped expanding.  This made many people reconsider their place as part of the empire, not least the map’s creator. 

In fact, based on mistakes in the text, many historians dispute the map’s authorship, arguing that the map was not drawn by Hajji Ahmed, but by an Italian living in the Ottoman Empire.  Indeed, there were many Europeans occupying high-ranking positions in the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century.  These Europeans, wanting to be considered Ottoman in order to secure their place in the empire, promoted the idea that the Ottoman Empire was part of Europe.  Native Ottoman Muslims disagreed, however.  They advanced a worldview based on a seven layers map projection, which did not divide the world into continents and which rendered Europe a mere black blob.  Casale closed his talk by concluding that this view of divided civilizations eventually won out, leading to divergent European and Turkish identities.

Casale’s talk was part of the Herbert P. Lefler Series in History, which brings notable and innovative historians in their fields to Carleton each year.  Lefler lecturers present talks on their research, conduct a seminar with history majors and meet with students enrolled in the junior year history colloquium. 

Casale holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and is the executive editor of the Journal of Early Modern History.  His book, “The Ottoman Age of Exploration,” discusses the Ottoman Empire’s competition with Portugal to expand its naval power in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century.  

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