Throughout history, great empires have harnessed the forces of science and engineering to fuel their expansion and ensure their survival. The realm of medicine has advanced significantly, sustaining armies in a constant state of preparedness. Innovations in the field of navigation have secured supremacy on the high seas. The possession of superior weaponry, or the looming threat of it, has consistently bestowed an advantageous position upon individual powers during confrontations of hostility.
Numerous chroniclers of scientific progress have chronicled the intricate relationship between scientific ingenuity and geopolitical supremacy. An exemplar in this context is the monumental literary work, “Science and Civilisation in China.” This magnum opus was initiated by Joseph Needham, a British biochemist, historian, diplomat, and aficionado of Chinese culture, in 1954. Astonishingly, this series of volumes is still in production today. Its overarching themes encompass China’s early technological superiority vis-à-vis the Western world. It also delves into the enduring enigma known as the “Needham Question,” which ponders why Europe ultimately overtook China in scientific and technological advancement.
Priya Satia, an eminent historian hailing from Stanford University in California, has delved into the role of military technology in consolidating British imperial rule in India, as documented in her 2018 opus, “Empire of Guns.”
Science in the Service of Empires
Remarkably, there exists a dearth of scholarly discourse on the Ottoman Empire. Established around the year 1300, with the city of Constantinople, officially renamed Istanbul only in 1930, as its capital since 1453, the Ottoman Empire once held sway over vast territories encompassing northern Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe. Its dominion included several major centers of Arabic scholarship. These included Cairo, home to the venerable Al-Azhar University, founded in the tenth century, and Damascus. In the fourteenth century, Ibn al-Shatir, an astronomer residing in Damascus, employed data collected from the city’s illustrious Great Mosque to formulate planetary models akin to those developed by Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer who lived nearly two centuries later in what is now Poland.
The Ottoman Empire’s dominance over six centuries eventually gave way to the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic, a century ago, on October 29, 1923. A comprehensive understanding of Ottoman science largely derives from the tireless efforts of a dedicated team of historians and archivists, led by the erudite Turkish scholar-diplomat Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. İhsanoğlu, the founding director of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture based in Istanbul, along with colleagues from the Turkish Society for the History of Science and the University of Istanbul, has spent nearly four decades meticulously scouring archives and libraries. Their collective endeavors have culminated in an evolving, foundational resource for scholars exploring the realm of Ottoman science.
Eclipsing the Shadows
In the annals of history, Europe’s imperial zenith, spanning from the late seventeenth century to the twentieth century, is well-documented. This period benefits from an abundance of official records pertaining to prominent individuals, accessible through the archives of learned societies and universities. Such records shed light on the pivotal role played by scientists in shaping government policies, as evidenced by government archives and other public documents. Unfortunately, similar sources are far less accessible when it comes to empires that flourished in earlier epochs. Manuscripts and commentaries that serve as authenticators of discoveries and innovations, crucial for establishing the identities of historical figures and constructing records of decision-making, are likewise scarce.
The culmination of İhsanoğlu and his team’s scholarly pursuit is encapsulated in 18 voluminous works, originally published in Turkish. Recently, a condensed three-volume summary, “The Ottoman Scientific Heritage,” has been made available to English-speaking readers, thanks to the translation efforts of Maryam Patton, a historian affiliated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The comprehensive compilation identifies a staggering 4,897 scholars and 20,154 manuscripts, sourced from 527 collections scattered across 52 countries. This achievement is nothing short of extraordinary.
In the inaugural volume, İhsanoğlu reflects on the project’s genesis, which was inspired by a visit to Joseph Needham and his collaborators in Cambridge, UK, in 1984. Incidentally, these two scholars share striking resemblances. Both were trained as chemists and occupied positions of national and international significance. Needham, a British diplomat, focused on Chinese scientific endeavors during and immediately following World War II. He played a pivotal role in the establishment of UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational, scientific, and cultural agency. İhsanoğlu, on the other hand, assumed leadership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, comprising 57 nations with substantial Muslim populations, in 2004, a post he held until 2014. Although unsuccessful in his bid for the Turkish presidency in 2014, he later secured a seat in the country’s Grand National Assembly.
The Epoch of the Ottoman Sultans was marked by a close intertwining of science and faith, a phenomenon not unique to their dominion but rather characteristic of the era. The empire boasted 350 institutions of higher learning, known as medreses, akin to academies for the intellectual elite. These institutions imparted training to religious leaders as well as imperial administrators. Despite objections from some theologians, many medreses offered courses in science alongside jurisprudence and theology. During the reign of Sultan Suleyman, from 1520 to 1566, one such medrese was exclusively devoted to medical education.
İhsanoğlu’s own research predominantly centers on the later Ottoman era, specifically the mid-to-late nineteenth century, commonly referred to as the Tanzimat period (Reorganization). This epoch witnessed the empire’s transition to a more secular system of governance, accompanied by modernization efforts targeting educational and scientific institutions. Concurrently, the empire assimilated technology from Europe, leading to the development of distinctively Ottoman military technology, encompassing firearms, clockmaking, compasses, cartography, modern medicine, the telegraph, and railways. Notably, the iconic Hejaz railway, connecting Damascus with Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia, was among these innovations.
The Imperial School of Naval Engineering was established in 1793, followed by the War Academy in 1834, the Imperial Medical School in 1827, and an aviation school in 1912. These institutions were undeniably intended to serve the empire’s interests. However, by that juncture, the Ottoman Empire found itself pulled in conflicting directions. Its constituent states were clamoring for independence, and its leadership ultimately aligned with the Central Powers, comprising Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria, during the First World War—an ill-fated decision that precipitated the empire’s disintegration.
The Ottoman Scientific Heritage unearths a multitude of intriguing inquiries, paralleling the intellectual inquiries sparked by “Science and Civilisation in China.” Notably, it prompts reflection on the role of science and technology in the empire’s ascent and poses İhsanoğlu’s version of the Needham question: why did the empire’s initial scientific advantage fail to blossom? In essence