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What aspects of European Orientalism surprised you?

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Experienced London based activist, interested in history, philosophy, sufism and politics.
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I would say epidemiological Orientalism.

Alexander William Kinglake’s Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East became a classic in Oriental travel writings. Kinglake began his journey to the Ottoman empire in 1834 and his travelogue became an immediate success on publication going through numerous editions as well as translations. It is generally acknowledged that the book’s fame is owed not to the accuracy of Kinglake’s narrative but its ability to conjure up images of the Orient that confirmed the prejudices of its European readership. At the beginning of his travelogue, as he is about to cross the Ottoman border, he prepares his reader for the dramatic transition from Europe to the East. He chooses to draw the line with the following words: “It is the plague, and dread of the plague, that divide the one people from the other.”

In the 19th century, the plague had come to be imagined as something that divided Europe and the Ottoman territories despite the fact that the disease was notorious for spreading across continents and that it had first reached Anatolia centuries ago through the Middle East via Europe. This narrative has continued to influence the modern historical imagination. Kinglake’s account was a model that ignored the plague’s history in the Mediterranean world prior to the 19th century. This model reflected Europe’s anxieties about Islam and Muslims and postulated that the absence of plague in Europe was what differentiated the “civilised West” from the “sickly East.”

Kinglake was neither the first nor the last to paint a picture of a disease-ridden Ottoman empire, which in the 19th century was seen as the embodiment of illness. In the larger context of European history, this articulation came at a time when the Ottomans were no longer viewed as an immediate military threat to Europe. The empire was viewed as having lost the political and military supremacy it once enjoyed, and came to be regarded as a dead or dying body in broader European geopolitics. It did not take long for the empire to be labelled “the sick man of Europe.” This label, having gone unquestioned throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century, has now been successfully challenged. The Ottoman empire was “sick” based on the deliberate misdiagnosis of competing, racist powers rather than on a genuine assessment of a state that was still dynamic at the time. Such labels were nothing new as far as smearing the Ottoman empire was concerned. In Peter Lang’s European Images of Ottoman Empire and Society from the Sixteenth Century to the Nineteenth, we find that the Ottoman empire prior to being labelled the “Sick Man of Europe” was labelled, the “Terror of the World.”

In 19th century Europe, the new science of epidemiology was developing and informing border control policies which clashed sharply with mercantile and trade interests in an increasingly connected world. Epidemiology in the 19th century context in which it developed was heavily influenced by orientalism. This relationship was best encapsulated in the terminology (and nosology) of the era, as evidenced in the creation of a new disease category: “Oriental plague.” Ironically, the conviction and propaganda about the plague’s origin from the orient, despite contradictory opinions about the exact origin and cause of this disease, was only fully validated in the authority of the so-called Enlightenment authors. Louis de Jaucourt, a prolific writer on the Encyclopedie, wrote as follows in the entry on “Peste”: “Plague comes to us from Asia, and for two thousand years all the plagues that have appeared in Europe have been transmitted through the communication of the Saracens, Arabs, Moors or Turks with us, and none of our plagues had any other source.”

In the 19th century, plague was no longer an issue in Europe but was still a recurring phenomenon in the Ottoman territories. By this time, Europeans could only encounter the disease in the Orient. European tropes such as Turkish fatalism and their apathy with regard to taking precautions to prevent plagues abounded. The notion of epidemiological orientalism as coined by Nukhet Varlik imagined that the Ottoman landscape represented an area that had always been afflicted with disease and its past was represented as having a uniformly sick character. Historians of the Ottoman empire and later those of the Turkish Republic have drawn heavily from this mindset and narrative.

Accurate and objective explanations for the differences in the epidemiological experiences of Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean world has been one of the fundamental problems of the plague historiography since the 1970s. The body of scholarship from orientalists and secular, anti-Ottoman Turkish academics approached the post-Black Death Mediterranean with an assumed epidemiological division, in binary oppositions, such as “Christian” versus “Muslim” or “Oriental” versus “Occidental.” An example of how later and modern writings on the subject reinforced much older stereotypes and “civilizational/religious” differences is the 1976 Plagues and Peoples by the American historian William McNeill. For McNeill, religion was the single most dividing factor in the examination and maintained that Christian and Muslim responses to plague were fundamentally different. According to him, while the Christian attitude was an active combat with the disease, the Muslim response was (or had, by the 16th century, become) passive and fatalistic. This position became very influential and left its imprint on succeeding scholarship. This trend has prevailed until today. Even books published very recently continue to draw from these tropes.

A theme that underlies the studies of plague in Ottoman territories is a shared agreement about exceptionalism, as well as uncritical acceptance of accounts that represented the Oriental landscape as the hotbed of disease and the inability of the Ottoman government to deal with it effectively. For Muslim readers on the topic, it is only correct and fair that they look to other more credible and objective sources for how the Ottoman state dealt with plague.


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