The Ottoman Empire: a complex anomaly

October 4, 2019

Brandeis welcomes a new class titled “The Ottoman Empire: From Principality to Republic by way of Empire” taught by Professor Amy Singer (HIST). This class explores the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire as it grows from a small kingdom to a large empire and will be offered every second year. 

Professor Singer joined Brandeis as the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Chair in Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies in summer 2019, according to a BrandeisNow article. Singer comes to Brandeis from Tel Aviv University, where she taught a similar subject. At Tel Aviv University, all the students knew the history of the Ottoman Empire as it is an important part of Israeli and Palestinian history. Most of the students’ families were connected to the Ottoman era and therefore students had many opinions on regional politics and connections to history. In contrast, most Brandeis students are less familiar with the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, Singer faces different challenges with the students.

In an email with The Brandeis Hoot, Singer explains that she is currently researching the city of Edirne, also known as Byzantine Adrianople, or the second capital of the Ottoman Empire. She is fascinated by the idea of a capital in the early fifteenth century. Since the Ottomans experienced a lot of movement during the Ottoman era, Edirne is a “wonderful location from which to observe a city, a capital and an empire in the making.”

The Ottoman Empire is a hard topic to study due to a variety of reasons. Specifically, the Ottoman Empire spans over six hundred years, making it difficult to understand and remember the chronology of events. In addition, the geography of the Ottoman Empire is challenging to remember, due to the fact that students at Brandeis are not as familiar with European geography. Lastly, there are a long list of people who played a part in the Ottoman Empire and remembering them will be difficult. 

Singer plans to highlight the formation of the Ottoman Empire and how the empire changed overtime through various changes and challenges. She specifically explains that she wants to emphasize “the way in which buildings can be read as documents” and “how foundations/endowments (waqf) configured economic and social relations, funding culture and infrastructure through charitable endeavors.” A “waqf” is defined as a donation made by a Muslim to a specific cause, whether it be religious or educational. In addition, Singer will call attention to how ethnic nationalism led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Republic of Turkey. 

The history of the Ottoman Empire is unique because there are few specific biographies of each ruler. Change in the Ottoman Empire was based on commanders, merchants, financiers, infantrymen, viziers, queens, princesses and many others. Therefore, this class will consist of exploring interactions between individuals based on economics, the balance of power or other factors.  

In terms of unique methods of conducting the class, Singer has added new materials that students can explore on Latte. These materials include images, maps, ways to learn the Turkish language, “A Magnificent Century” —a historical television drama about the Ottoman Empire, as well as selections from Ottoman literature, art and architecture. As part of their homework, students post questions before class and Singer answers to them. This allows students to spend more time on the class material than class time allows and work on their understanding of this complex empire. 

Overall, Singer hopes to persuade students that understanding history is important and makes their lives more interesting. Singer hopes that when students leave her class at the end of the semester, they gain an interest in the Ottomans or have an appeal to learn Turkish. She hopes that these students desire to study more history and learn more about how history allows the world to make sense.

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