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Monday, August 23, 1993

Origins of the Ottoman Empire

M Fuad Koprulu (trans., ed. Gary Leiser),
(1933/4 original in French; trans. 1992)

{p. 5} It is clear that he tried to explain the establishment of the Ottoman state only by religion, and believed that the newly adapted religion created a new race, an Ottoman race. Before criticizing his evidence, it is necessary to state that an attempt to explain such a great and important historical event solely by a religious factor, that is, "by a one-sided explanation", even it if does contain some degree of truth, is contrary to the complexity of historical reality and is always inadequate.'

{p. 6} …Gibbons relies on two legends found in the old Ottoman chronicles as his strongest evidence in this matter. He knew of course that these were legends, but believed that such legends could be used, albeit with care and caution, for periods for which the historical documents were lost, because he believed that they contained the reflections of certain historical events altered in the collective imagination. ...

As Giese {German historian} stated when he criticized Gibbons, it would be extremely rash to attempt to reach any conclusions about "Osman's conversion" from these legends. At the very most, one could see in them "a desire to give a divine legitimacy to the Ottoman family for the establishment of hegemony over the other Turkish tribes in Asia Minor".

Although Giese's observation is undoubtedly correct, I would like to examine this question a little more closely and show the kind of mistaken deductions that can be reached in this respect if "internal criticism" of the old chronicles is neglected.

In the tabaqat-i nasiri by the thirteenth century historian Juzjani, we find a tale which is similar to the legend according to which a tree sprang from Osman's navel in a dream and spread its shadow over the whole earth. Sebuk-Tegin, the father of Mahmud of Ghazna, the conqueror of India, had a dream an hour before the birth of his son. In this dream, a tree grew from a brazier in his house and cast its shadow over the entire world. An interpreter of dreams explained this to mean that "he would have a conqueror for a son".

We find another version of this legend of the tree which appears in a dream in the section containing the traditions of the Oghuz in the great work of Rashid al-Din, namely his Jami' al-tawarikh the first universal history, which he wrote at the beginning of the fourteenth century at the court of the Ilkhanids. Here a certain Toghril and his two brothers are mentioned among the legendary rulers of the Oghuz. Before they founded a state, their father had a dream in which three large trees sprang from his navel. The trees grew and grew. They cast a shadow in every direction and their tops reached to the sky. He described this dream to the tribal soothsayer and asked him to explain it. The soothsayer, who had already announced that a great ruler would appear from within the tribe, warned the man saying "your children will become rulers, but you must not reveal this secret to anyone". ...

One frequently comes across such dream stories in both ancient and medieval {European} chronicles, beginning with Herodotus. The prototype of Osman's dream is clearly seen in the above legends. The Oghuz tradition recorded by Rashid a-Din had either existed as an oral tale among the Anatolian Turks and then passed from this popular form to the Ottoman chronicles, or perhaps with greater likelihood because of the considerable importance given to Rashid al-Din's work at the Ottoman court in the fifteenth century, this tradition was taken directly from it and ascribed to the Ottoman family....

{p. 9} Gibbons states that there was absolutely no historical record of the tribe to which Osman belonged—and other tribes like it which fled before the Mongol invasion and came to Anatolia—being Muslim. ... The small tribe to which Osman belonged had only given up its old paganism and adopted Islam after moving to the Muslim Turkish environment of western Anatolia. These opinions of Gibbons, who had no information at all on the religious conditions in Anatolia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, are in numerous respects, as unfounded as his claims based on the aforesaid dream.

...But there is a more fundamental mistake here ... which must be clearly described in order to demonstrate in particular how indefensible is Gibbons' explanation of the establishment of the Ottoman state.

First it can by no means be considered as an historical axiom that the tribe to which Osman belonged was one of those which fled before the initial Mongol invasion and came to Anatolia in the thirteenth century and established itself there. The information given in this regard in the early Ottoman chronicles, the oldest of which has been shown to date from the last part of the fourteenth century, are totally unworthy of belief. And Gibbons, by the way, who was no Turkologist, had absolutely no knowledge of the oldest and most important of these chronicles. In the sources for the Seljuk period, there is no record whatsoever that such migrations to the western regions of Anatolia took place at that time. ... in light of our present knowledge, it is much easier to conclude that the tribe to which Osman belonged was one of those which had come to Anatolia during the very first Seljuk invasion. Gibbons' great error has been embedded for centuries in the old Ottoman chronicles and in the old European works based on them. It was usually accepted as a fact by all Eastern and Western authors who discussed Ottoman history... . It would there fore be unfair to attribute the responsibility for it to Gibbons. he saw no need, however, to criticize this tale, which had been created by the mentality of the medieval annalists, and wanted to use it to prove his own theory.