Living History Halil İNANVCIK

Halil İnalcık is a man who has devoted himself to scholarship. The valuable contributions he has made to history in an academic career spanning seventy years are expanding the horizons of young researchers and historians today.

more apt title for this distinguished scholar is probably ‘şeyhülmüverrihin’ or ‘master historian’. It was therefore a great pleasure to interview this eminent teacher for Skylife.

As a historian you are known by titles such as ‘world-renowned’ and ‘one of the most prominent living historians’. How did this come about?
I thank you from the bottom of my heart, because nobody has ever asked me that question before. I truly am an international historian, known from the U.S. to Japan. Everyone knows this but no one asks how and why it happened. Close to half of my more than thirty published works are in English. My book, An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, was published by Cambridge University Press. It is known and recognized all the way from England and the U.S. to India and Japan. The Indians, for example, were so impressed by the book that the Indian Medieval History Journal invited me to join their editorial board.

In Japan they also chose Halil İnalcık to represent the Middle East in the lectures and other activities of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. In the Balkans, the Serbian and Albanian academies elected me a member and included me among their own scholars. They translated my book, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600, into their own languages and published it in Serbian, Croatian, Albanian and Greek. It is especially gratifying that the Greeks recognize a Turkish historian and value his works in academic circles. The Greeks also translated my book, Studies in Ottoman Social and Economic History, upon which my books were translated in the Ukraine as well and sent to libraries and universities there. My book has gone through four printings in England.

The fourth time they incorporated it into the History of Civilization series, of which it now makes up one volume. When I went to the U.S. I was also made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), which brings together prominent scholars from almost every part of the world. What’s more, the American Historical Association made me an honorary member. It is all those developments that have over time made me a world-renowned historian.

How did you decide to become an Ottoman historian?
When I enrolled in the School of Language, History and Geography of Ankara University, it was fashionable to study Sumerian, Hittite and Assyrian history. These were also the fields in which Ataturk took a close interest. An atmosphere of bad-mouthing and marginalizing the Ottomans was prevalent at the time. The Ottoman sultans were regarded as despots who shed Turkish blood around the world. Despite all that I said to myself, the Ottoman Empire made inroads halfway into Europe and ruled the Middle East for six hundred years. Europe could never swallow that, and branded the Ottomans as a wild, bloodthirsty empire. Almost all historians have written in this vein. There is a terrible fear of the Ottomans, particularly among the Germans. During the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, church bells were rung specially in Germany and called the ‘fear of the Turk’ bell. Martin Luther told the Germans, “God has sent the Turks down on you because of your sins!” Unfortunately this mentality has become ingrained in Europe and remains so even today. The Europeans do not like us and we have a bad image in their eyes. For that reason I didn’t take up subjects like Sumerology and Hittitology that were fashionable at the time. Instead I told myself that I was going to explain the concept, organization and achievement of Ottoman civilization to the whole world, starting with Europe, and prove how superior it was.

How would you define the place of the Ottomans among world civilizations?
There are two major strains in world civilizations. The first is Greek Civilization, which is mercantile, in other words, logically thinking, rationalistic and utilitarian. This civilization gave rise to the rationalist civilizations of the West.  The second is Scythian Civilization, which evolved from the Sumerians and the ancient Iranians. With its poetry, literature and philosophy, Iranian Civilization is one of great civilizations of the world. The West, which adopted the Greco-Roman concept developed by the rationalist Greeks and legalist Romans, eventually became predominant. We, however, both as Ottomans and as a modern society today, are still eastern, mystical by nature. The reason for the Ottoman success in the face of the West’s rationalist-utilitarian structure is due to their military power, in other words, to the Janissaries. Among the Ottomans, however, to conquer does not mean to destroy or annihilate. The Ottoman sultan took under his protection everyone who acknowledged his supreme rule. Consequently, the Ottomans preserved the religious communities and allowed them to exist. If they had wanted to, they had the power to destroy them completely. The Ottomans’ only condition was that the sultan’s absolute power to be recognized. I define the general picture of the Ottomans as an umbrella of hegemony over a vast array of religions and cultures.

How did you arrive at that picture?
The most important source is the archives. The Ottoman empire was a state based on documents and archives. Around twenty different scripts were used in the archives. Siyakat, Divan and Riqa, for example.  First I learned those scripts. After that I had to study languages like Ottoman, Arabic and Farsi (Persian). I learned them well and published my first book, an examination of the ‘timar’ (Ottoman for military fief) records of the Arvanid province register of 1430 in the period of Murad II. It had a great impact. It was very difficult to read, understand and explicate such a document. The document itself was very worn, and the script extremely scrawling and irregular. I struggled with that document for ten months and researched all the villages of Albania. It is my most important work: Sûreti Defter-i Sancak-i Arvanid, Timar Kayıtları (The Fief Records of the Register for Arvanid Province).

It is said of you that you don’t think much of historians who were not your students. Is that true?
Yes, in fact it is true in part! In my view, a historian should know economic, cultural and political as well as general history. At the same time a historian should also know languages and the law. He must be able to use the primary sources. For this he must patiently study the difficult texts to be read. He must train himself in depth.

Why do you go out into the field and travel to the places that relate to your subject?
I like to go and see the areas whose place names appear in the sources. I have been traveling for twenty years. I do topographical research. If I can go and find any place name at all that appears in a source, then that narrative acquires far more value and immediacy. That is my method.

Have you ever regretted anything in your life?
No, thank goodness I have not. God granted me a very good wife who always supported and encouraged me. Thanks to her I was able to become a world-renowned academic. Not everyone is so fortunate. I have had very good friends. I am very happy.


I have researched the positive aspects of Ottoman civilization. Its organizational structure, and its economic, social and political structure and cultural life have formed the main axis of my research. The ‘kadı sicilleri’ (judicial records) are the most important indicators of social life. I examined them in Bursa for a long time.

I proved the great importance of the Ottoman Empire in the world economy. The main roads that fed and breathed life into the European economy passed through the Ottoman lands. Were it not for the Ottomans, capitalism would never have arisen in Europe.

The Ottoman Empire played an enormous role in the formation of Europe’s political geography. One should consider, for example, the development of 16th century France under the aegis of the Ottomans.

We must protect our national values, identity and language. I find it wrong to use the word ‘intellectual’ when we already have ‘fikrî’, or to say ‘bye bye’ on parting. Our own culture and values are very good and adequate.

Ben Dil Tarih ve Coğrafya Fakültesi’ne yazıldığım zaman moda Sümer, Hitit ve Asur tarihçiliğiydi.

“I like to go and see the areas whose place names appear in the sources.”