The Ottoman Experience

Molly Greene, Princeton Univ. 

Daedalus 134:2 Spring 2005
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When those states which have been acquired are accustomed to live at liberty under their own laws, there are three ways of holding them. The first is to despoil them; the second is to go and live there in person; the third is to allow them to live under their own laws, taking tribute of them and creating within the country a government composed of a few who will keep it friendly to you. –Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532
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Toward the end of the fifteenth century, an Ottoman scribe named Bali was charged with surveying the newly acquired island of Limnos in the northern Aegean. The Ottoman treasury needed to know what sorts of revenues the island could be expected to provide. Bali went out of his way to explain the animal husbandry practices of the peasants so that the treasury would understand his calculation of the sheep tax:
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because the climate of the island is temperate and is not excessively cold, they apparently are not accustomed to separating their rams from their ewes. For this reason their lambs are not particular to one season. Were they to be counted along with the sheep it would cause the peasants some distress; because they were desirous of and agreed to give 1 akçe per head of sheep, their lambs were not counted with them. It was recorded that only their sheep be counted, and that 1 akçe be given per head of sheep.(1)
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It is an arresting image: an Ottoman scribe, pen in hand, listens patiently to the inhabitants’ explanations and then copies their words into the imperial survey that will find its way to the palace in Istanbul. But it is more than an image. This detail from the 1490 survey of the island of Limnos is an early example of what would prove to be an enduring imperial style that had two essential, and closely related, features.
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First, the empire possessed an extraordinary ability to find those few local residents who were willing and able to keep vast territories friendly to the House of Osman. Second, the Ottoman imperial administration had an uncanny knack for going into a newly conquered area and figuring out how things were done there. Having read the local landscape, it would adjust imperial rule accordingly.
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In short, the extraordinary sensitivity of the Ottoman elite to local conditions allowed them to build an empire across three continents that endured for many centuries…
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