The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: The Rise of the Oazdaglis. – Review

The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: The Rise of the Oazdaglis. – Review – book review

Akram F. Khater

The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: The Rise of the Oazdaglis. By Jane Hathaway. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 198. $49.95.)

Studies of imperial and regional politics of the Ottoman Empire have tended to focus on the machinations of formal bureaucracies and personae ensconced in public institutions. Recently a few scholarly works have profoundly and convincingly challenged this view by shifting our attention to a previously neglected–and seemingly private–institution: the household. These studies have approached the household not simply as a kinship group but also as a network of military-political patrons and clients who ruled a particular area, and as a place where women could play central roles. Jane Hathaway’s book, The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt, is the latest addition to this revisionist history.

Hathaway looks at the household, which she defines as a “vehicle for the accumulation of manpower and revenue,” and a focal point in the politics of Ottoman Egypt during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (167). She contends that, contrary to what previous scholars have claimed, this household was not a holdover from the pre-Ottoman era of Mamluk rule that stood in stubborn opposition to a new type of Ottoman network of power. Rather, it was a hybrid that combined Mamluk and Ottoman features and which changed over time. This is the history that she seeks to elucidate.

Hathaway follows the rise of one household, the Oazdaglis, from Mamluk soldiers of mainly Anatolian origin to one of the most influential households in Ottoman Egypt during the eighteenth century. Through critical use of well-known chronicles, such as that of al-Jabarti, and exhaustive use of new primary sources, such as Ottoman military defter, she establishes that this household represents a transformation in provincial Ottoman military culture from beylicate to soldiery. In this sense, the household was a most flexible vehicle for this change because its role, she argues, was the same regardless of the time period. In other words, Hathaway shows how the household was a venue where new and old elites could come together through marriage and patronage to form a conglomerate of political and commercial interests. From her study she concludes that these households and their highly personalized politics are symptomatic of a “society at a certain stage of its development–or, alternatively, of its disintegration” (169). This contention is less convincing than the remainder of her study specifically because its subtext is a dramatic and clear-cut difference between household politics and those of “modern” state institutions. Two factors weaken this argument. First, Hathaway’s own study, which demonstrates a fluid integration of Mamluk and Ottoman types of military cultures into the same household, is a reminder of the uselessness of categorical division of history into phases defined by static words. Furthermore, many recent studies of politics show that family and household politics still play a role in even the most advanced of “modern” state institutions. Thus, the notion that household politics is a station along an evolutionary line of history is problematic to say the least.

Yet, despite this problem in Hathaway’s study and the complexity of her narrative, her book remains a very important contribution to our understanding of the history of political institutions in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the provinces. Furthermore, her critical evaluation of the texts, which represent the “historical memory” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is an excellent example of a process through which every historian of the Middle East must go in order better to “read” our sources. On the basis of these observations, this reviewer would recommend Hathaway’s book for specialists in the field.

Akram F. Khater

North Carolina State University

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