Nilay Özok-Gündoğan, The Kurdish Nobility in the Ottoman Empire: Loyalty, Autonomy and Privilege(Edinburgh University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nilay Özok-Gündoğan (NOG): The history of the Kurds and Kurdistan has been a marginalized field within Ottoman and Middle Eastern historiography. For generations, historians in the Middle East and Euro-American world have excluded Kurdistan as a spatial entity from their foundational arguments about the Ottoman state and society, across different time periods and contexts. In addition, scant historical reconstructions of the Kurds often reproduce essentializing, ahistorical, and teleological accounts of Kurdish history, influenced by nation-state nationalisms.
My book offers an alternative perspective to these historicist accounts of Kurdish history, considering it within larger imperial, regional, and global historical contexts. Instead of repeating the conventional state versus Kurds dichotomy, my book demonstrates the complexity of Kurdish society, the plurality of historical actors, and the contextuality of their actions and strategies within specific periods and junctures of the modern era.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NOG: This book questions the established assumption in Ottoman historiography that hereditary nobility was not a legal component of the Ottoman politico-administrative system. Seeing nobility as an ideal type rather than a variable historical phenomenon and focusing on the lack of an estate system in the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman historiography categorically rejected the concept’s relevance to understanding elite formation in the imperial domains. Using more recent comparative revisionist perspectives that have showed the protean character of nobility, my book treats it as a historical phenomenon instead of an ideal type defined solely by its legalistic and technical characteristics. Hereditary nobility in the Ottoman Empire represents one of the numerous modalities of elite formation in an early modern imperial context defined by flexible ruling strategies. Through the prism of a specific ruling household in Kurdistan, the Palu begs, my book shows that hereditary nobility was part of the Ottoman politico-administrative organization.
In the book, I trace the story of this Kurdish ruling family from the moment they came under Ottoman rule as a noble group with specific privileges and prerogatives within the context of the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry in the sixteenth century, through to the eventual disappearance of their privileged noble status in the nineteenth century. Through a long-durée analysis of the Kurdish nobility within the Ottoman realm, my book provides insights into the changing military, fiscal, and political processes through which the Kurdish nobility survived for several centuries as a privileged group within the Ottoman Empire, and sheds light on the processes that led to the end of nobility.
One of the most important questions that my book deals with is the question of Kurdish autonomy. My work provides a new perspective on this topic. Existing discussions on Kurdish autonomy have been shaped by a presentist agenda, which is derived from the current statelessness of the Kurdish population. However, I examine the changing degrees and forms of autonomy that the Kurdish nobility had in the Ottoman Empire from a historical perspective. I consider the autonomy that the Kurdish elites maintained as a factor of the changing permutations of service and privilege, as mutually defined by the Kurdish nobles and the Ottoman state in specific historical contexts.
Another key theme of the book concerns the abolishment of the Kurdish nobility’s de jure privileges by the Ottoman imperial state. According to established historical accounts, the Kurdish begs’ demise was the result of a linear (mostly military) push from the Ottoman state to centralize its governance and bring Kurdistan under its sway. However, the book argues that the abolishment of the privileged position of the Kurdish nobility was a negotiated process that involved multiple local and imperial actors and took shape over several centuries.
The book also revisits the dominant accounts of the repercussions of this process. Conventional historical accounts of the Kurdish emirates’ abolishment argue that a political vacuum emerged in Kurdistan that would be filled by newly powerful religious leaders (sheiks) who went on to lead the nationalist revolts at the end of the century. While the rise of religious leadership in Kurdistan is important for understanding the region’s modern history, this narrative obscures the multifaceted nature of the political scene that emerged in the aftermath of the emirates’ abolishment. Modern state-making entailed creating new posts in the provincial bureaucracy and co-opting the begs into this system by granting them positions. It is true that the Tanzimat was a huge blow to the begs’ leadership position, but they did not disappear overnight. Instead, they used their contacts with various echelons of the central and provincial Ottoman administration to vie for administrative positions, even when the system wanted to eject them.
The book also sheds light on the changing intercommunal relations within the locality as the hereditary positions of the Palu begs underwent significant transformations. The confiscation of the Kurdish nobility’s hereditary lands by the Ottoman state in the 1840s led to drastic alterations in land ownership patterns and power structures in the locality. The emergence of local Armenians as major purchasers of the confiscated land brought about a fierce and protracted conflict between the two groups. The Armenians worked to undermine the begs’ hereditary claims by insisting on their legal rights as the new owners of the land. The Palu begs’ status was challenged not only at the imperial level but also within the locality by local actors, primarily wealthy Armenians who became the primary advocates of modern property rights based on individual land ownership with title deeds, which were anathema to the noble privilege ardently defended by the begs.
The closing chapter of the book focuses on the 1895 massacres in Palu. By presenting an in-depth analysis of Palu’s socio-economic and political panorama on the eve of the massacres, I argue that the internationalization of the Armenian Question, the politicization of the Palu Armenians, and the ongoing socio-economic tensions set the stage for violent attacks on the Armenians in the fall of 1895. This analysis shows that this violence occurred in a context defined by the deterioration of the military and symbolic authority of the begs, and increasing tensions in the rural setting over land.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NOG: The Kurdish Nobility is my first book, which is a product of my broader scholarly agenda to provide an alternative historical approach to the teleological, essentialist, and ahistorical accounts of the Kurdish past. In this book, as well as in my previous work, I aim to situate the history of Kurdistan within Ottoman imperial history on the one hand, and comparative histories of imperial borderlands, state-formation, and the emergence of private landownership, on the other.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NOG: My book stands at the juncture of interrelated Ottoman, Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian studies. It addresses fundamental historiographical questions of these fields while offering an imperial history perspective, instead of isolated area studies methodologies. I hope that the book will appeal to multiple audiences interested in these fields, as it presents an empirically rich and analytically rigorous case study for the growing field of comparative empires, borderlands, and colonialism. I also hope that it will be of interest to scholars and students working on Eurasian empires and interested in these questions.
As mentioned at the beginning, Kurdish history is one of the least studied aspects of Middle Eastern history. The Kurdish Nobility expands our understanding of the Kurdish population. With a population of approximately thirty-five million, the Kurds are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Kurdish political groups are among the key actors shaping Middle Eastern politics. As such, it will appeal to a large audience interested in understanding the history of Kurds and Kurdistan.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NOG: Currently, I am working on my second monograph, tentatively titled Mineral Extraction, State-making, and Colonialism: The History of the Keban-Ergani Mines in the Ottoman Empire, 1720-1870. It is a socio-economic, political, and environmental history of the largest mining area located in Kurdistan. These mines became the lifeblood for two of the most critical sectors of the Ottoman imperial state—the mint and the military—for over a century. Through the prism of the Keban-Ergani mines, this new project uncovers various ways in which precapitalist forms of mineral extraction for the needs of a warring imperial state transformed the lives of the local population, regional economies, and the environment. It shows that through economic exploitation, increased political control, and frequent use of military force to suppress the disgruntled local population, the Ottoman state took a monumental step towards the colonization of Kurdistan mainly through mining operations.
In addition to my research on the Ottoman Empire, I also write about the question of methodology in Kurdish studies and the position of Kurdish studies within the larger field of Middle East area studies. I approach these questions from the perspective of coloniality and epistemic decolonization. In a forthcoming article, I discuss the question of how to decolonize historical discourses in a field like Kurdish studies, which barely has an institutional infrastructure, operates with nearly zero financial backing, and continues to produce scholarly work amidst ongoing military hostility from the colonial states that are still occupying the land under question.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-27)
In the last days of August 1848, the inhabitants of Weşin, a village nestled in a secluded valley on the banks of the eastern Euphrates, woke early. The men met at the village mosque to perform the pre-sunrise prayer marking the beginning of a three-day Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. Just before the prayer began, they heard the sound of distant gunfire. As the noise approached, the prayer-goers saw that it was being made by Abdullah Beg, the hâkim (ruler) of the Palu emirate and at least six hundred armed men. They were coming to collect 1.5 tons of clarified butter from the villagers in payment for four years of back taxes owed to Abdullah Beg. The villagers responded by opening fire. Eid turned bloody, with three villagers dead and four wounded. The despairing villagers then fled to the surrounding hills. The next day Abdullah Beg came back with his men and set the village on fire, burning sixty-five houses and buildings to the ground, along with stored grain, animals and their fodder, poplar trees and vineyards.
On the surface, this event seems like just one among many conflicts about agrarian surplus extraction the world over. What neither Abdullah Beg nor the villagers knew was that the incident would trigger a series of events that would break up the Kurdish begs’ hereditary rule. Abdullah Beg was a descendant of the Palu ûmera (pl. of emîr – alternatively begs/beys or mîrs) that had ruled the emirate for more than three centuries. Successive Ottoman sultans recognised the Palu begs’ hereditary rulership over the emirate from the 1500s – the time when it came under Ottoman suzerainty – onward. Within a year, this violent encounter would cost Abdullah Beg his position as hâkim, his landholdings and, when the Ottoman state exiled him to Tekfurdağı in Rumelia, 900 miles away from the lands that his ancestors had ruled for centuries, his bond with his homeland. And with the end of Abdullah Beg’s career came the end of the begs’ hereditary rule in Palu.
Abdullah Beg, who wreaked havoc on Weşin village on that hot August day, was also a member of an elite Kurdish family, the leaders of the Palu (Palo in Kurdish; Balu in Armenian) emirate. This emirate was geographically smaller and politically less significant in the nineteenth century than the previously-mentioned emirates. The Palu begs did not respond to the Ottoman state’s mid-nineteenth-century centralisation policies with large- scale uprisings. It is true that Abdullah Beg, like the emîrs of the three formidable emirates, was exiled by the Ottoman imperial state at around the same time period. The rest of the family, however, stayed in their historic homeland and continued to claim rulership of the emirate for several decades after Abdullah Beg’s exile. Thus, the Palu begs’ modern history does not fit with the nationalist interpretations of the Kurdish past in which the Kurdish ruling families represent heroic resistance to the Ottoman state’s military and political encroachments during the long nineteenth century.
This book is the first comprehensive account of the transformation and eventual disappearance of a Kurdish elite family’s hereditary privileges in the Ottoman Empire. It focuses on the Palu begs and examines their changing position in the locality and vis-à-vis the Ottoman imperial state from the eighteenth through the end of the nineteenth century. What attracted my interest in this family were the events of Weşin in 1848. As I read the archival documents, I was puzzled by the drastic consequences of this seemingly ordinary happening. Because the event resulted in the deaths of villagers and the destruction of the village, the villagers’ insistent appeals eventually brought about a criminal investigation that led to a court case and Abdullah Beg’s eventual exile. But how and why did this incident culminate in the abolishing of the Palu begs’ hereditary privileges, privileges that had existed in the Ottoman politico-economic system for over three centuries? The documents about the incident revealed a fierce underlying negotiation between local and imperial actors about the economic, political and military privileges of the Palu elites. For the begs, these privileges were legitimate hereditary rights bestowed upon them because of their noble position. From the Ottoman state’s perspective, however, these old claims were invalid, a remnant of the past.
On a hot summer day in 2013, I visited Palu in search of descendants of the Palu begs. My initial inquiry led me to a young man. Dressed in a suit, he pointed out of the window and said that he owned the quarry by the hill – his voice could not hide his pride. This was one of several references to his wealth. He was proud of his connection to the begs, but they were totally fabricated. The actual descendant of the begs, a retired teacher in his mid-fifties, came to meet me in a decrepit Renault 12, probably from the early 1990s. He seemed happy to have the attention of a historian interested in his ancestors, and mentioned that the quarry owner was a nouveau riche whose desire for a noble past had led him to the Palu begs. In Palu, a small district that is now an impoverished backwater, the title of beg had survived into the twenty-first century; the begs’ wealth, however, had not. I found it puzzling that the title persisted when its bearers had long since fallen from grace, that it was potent enough that a well-to-do person would claim it. The begs’ real descendants could prove their noble identity via a temlîknâme (alternatively temlîk or mülknâme) – a title deed from the Ottoman sultans that recognised their hereditary rulership over the Palu emirate – that they kept in a chest in their attic.
The absence of hereditary nobility in the Ottoman Empire is a foundational assumption in Ottoman historical writing. Generations of historians have based their theories, conceptualisations and narratives of the Ottoman administrative system on the idea that hereditary nobility had no legal place in the Ottoman politico-administrative order.
This thesis is based on the persistence of the assumption that the state meant the central administration at the capital, that it successfully abolished any rival dynastic claims with the policies mentioned above, and that it had absolute control over other elite groups at the centre and in the provinces. In a way, despite the revisionist accounts that have complicated the notion of the state, the idea of the all-powerful Ottoman state has remained intact in Ottoman historians’ unquestioned acceptance of the lack of a de jure nobility. Additionally, the field’s foundational works about the nature of the early Ottoman state and its approach to hereditary nobility were based on the early Ottoman conquests, mostly in the Balkans and Anatolia.
In light of the comparative revisionist perspectives, this book approaches the notion of nobility as a historical phenomenon – a type of elite formation found in the pre-capitalist imperial context and the flexible ruling strategies of early modern empire – as opposed to an ideal type defined solely by shared legal and technical characteristics. The differences between the Ottoman political system and the European cases do not mean the Ottoman Empire had no nobles. While lacking a European-style estate system that gave nobility political representation, the Ottoman politico-administrative system included provincial elites who had been granted hereditary economic and political privileges. By focusing on the Palu begs, this book provides the first systematic study of nobility and the hereditary privileges that came with it within the Ottoman imperial domains. From the sixteenth until the mid-nineteenth century, the rulership of the Palu emirate (hâkim) came from the descendants of the Palu begs by virtue of the temlîknâme granted to them in the sixteenth century and renewed by successive Ottoman sultans. With this temlîknâme, the position of the hâkim was attached to a family name for three centuries. The temlîknâme was renewed for the last time in 1841 by Sultan Abdülmecid I (r. 1839–61), and the census registers of 1841 specifically noted that the lands of Palu were under the hereditary ownership of the Palu begs. In addition to the imperial state’s recognition of the family’s rulership, the begs who ruled the Palu emirate in a hereditary fashion had all the characteristics of an elite group defined as hereditary nobility in an imperial setting: a sense of entitlement referring to noble pedigree; titles (beg/mîr/emîr) that distinguished them not only from commoners, but from other elite groups with no similar claims to noble ancestry; and a privileged position that accorded them inalienable authority over land, both as an economic resource (i.e. control over agrarian surplus) and a territorial entity (i.e. administrative authority), as well as tax exemptions – and all of this was hereditary.