Nukhet Varlik

Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellow (2010-2011)
Ph.D. Candidate, Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University
Ph.D. Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago, USA (2008)
Current Position: Assistant Professor Department of History, James Madison University, USA

The interplay between plague-spread and imperial expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth century Ottoman Empire is fascinating for the rich and varied forms it assumed. During this time, plague attained new networks through which it could spread, reaching areas that had not yet been struck and entering areas commonly afflicted by new means. Using archival sources, I have found it possible to trace the development of this phenomenon alongside the territorial growth of the empire through conquests and the subsequent establishment of networks of communication, trade, and information between the newly conquered territories, and eventually the growth of new urban centers. Ultimately, it has been possible to show how the interplay between plague-spread and imperial expansion assumed certain forms by examining regions where these processes were most intensified.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ottoman power increased and refined itself through geographic expansion, the conquest of key points for international trade, and the flourishing of new urban centers. As a result of conquests and vassalage relationships established through military superiority, the Ottomans began to exert control over international trade as early as the fifteenth century. In addition to maritime routes, overland routes began to revive, especially in the sixteenth century. In Anatolia and the Balkans, smaller towns along the trade routes under Ottoman protection emerged as thriving urban centers, where new industry developed apace alongside trade. As this new urbanization took hold, cities began to be the recipients of civic and charitable enterprises, with mosques, schools, hospitals, bathhouses, and hospices being constructed at rapid pace. This urban development made cities into magnets for migration from the hinterlands, creating the densely populated environment where plague would be most deadly. Trade and communication fostered accelerated urban growth, and new pathways for plague, and the resulting dense populations were fertile ground for outbreaks of plague.

The plague outbreaks of this era demonstrate different features in terms of their spread patterns, area of diffusion, and frequency of recurrence. My research has broken these down into three distinct phases: the first phase lasting from 1453 to 1517, the second from 1517 to 1570, and the last from 1570 to 1600.

In the first phase (1453-1517), outbreaks of plagues almost always spread to Ottoman lands from European port cities, such as Venice or Ragusa (Dubrovnik), through commercial contact with eastern Mediterranean port cities. They generally proceeded from the coasts to inland regions. A typical itinerary of an outbreak was to follow the sea route from Venice to Ragusa, and from there either travel eastward through the overland routes of the Balkans (through Novi Brdu, Sofia, Plovdiv, Edirne, Istanbul and perhaps to Gallipoli and Bursa) or follow the sea route and infect coastal towns and islands in the Adriatic and Aegean Seas to reach Istanbul. However, the infection did not spread much further from Istanbul to central or eastern Anatolia, or further east or southward, for instance, to Syria or Iraq. This was because during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the networks through which plague spread to Ottoman cities operated within the main east-west axis in the Mediterranean world. In the cities that were located along the main trade routes, outbreaks occurred with an average interval of 10 to 15 years.

During the second phase (1517-1570), plague outbreaks spread to a wider Ottoman territory with increased contacts and mobility. The intervals between outbreaks diminished to the extent that they came to be seen as a seasonal phenomenon recurring almost every year, especially in big cities. The main characteristic of this period was the emergence of new networks of trade and communication in Ottoman lands, or the revival of those that had lost their activity in the preceding centuries. For example, a north-south connection in the Mediterranean emerged in this period. Likewise, a tri-partite channel for the spread of plague took shape in this period, connecting the Persian Gulf to Istanbul. This trajectory connected the overland road systems of Anatolia, Iraq, and the eastern Mediterranean ports to each other. All of these networks were swiftly integrated into each other, resulting in a wide scale distribution of disease in the old world of the Mediterranean.

The third phase (1570-1600) reveals important enduring changes in the scope and distribution of plague outbreaks. The year 1570 was the beginning of what became the most terrible outbreak of the sixteenth century, which continued with minor pauses until the early decades of the seventeenth century. It was in this phase that Istanbul fully emerged as the intersection between these multiple channels of communication, facilitating and perhaps even accelerating the exchange of infection among the remotest corners of a centralized colossal empire.

Istanbul's experience of the plague deserves a more thorough consideration, not only because it was exposed to constant plague activity, but also because it was this experience that simultaneously reflected, as well as shaped, the Ottoman perception of, attitudes towards, and response to this most terrible disease. According to a wide array of archival and narrative texts, it has been possible to trace the multifaceted changes in popular and scholarly perception of plagues, as well as the various ways in which early modern Ottoman society responded to them. These social and administrative responses -along with the medical and legal rationale used for their justification- simultaneously represented new powers of government in a process of early modern state-formation.

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