Ottoman Methods of Conquest: Legal Imperialism and the City of Aleppo 1480-1570

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This thesis examines the methods by which the Ottoman Empire conquered and endeavored to control the city of Aleppo—a cosmopolitan urban center now in northern Syria. It employs a broad understanding of conquest, one that considers engagements and orientations stretching far around the event of Aleppo's military surrender in 1516. This understanding, moreover, involves legal culture in ways not typically fronted in studies of imperial conquest. The thesis contends that the Ottomans—who after displacing the Mamluk Empire governed the core of the Islamic world—maintained an especially robust conception of their rule as a law-giving enterprise, which characterized their attention to everything from the details of judicial administration to the rhetoric of imperial self-justification. Using various sources, including legal codes and local law court records, this thesis describes an Ottoman project to solicit, nurture, and if necessary, impose a new legal order. Far from suggesting perfect coherence in practice, the combinative and experimental qualities of Ottoman involvement are thrown into relief. This dynamic process and the priorities it engendered are grouped under the rubric legal imperialism.

The thesis undertakes a detailed survey of the late Mamluk legal system, introducing the persons, institutions, and ideas that the Ottomans would inherit. The role of judges, law courts, legal documents, and legal identities receives special treatment, and the diffuse yet functional nature of the Mamluk arrangement is emphasized. A brief survey of Mamluk-Ottoman relations reveals that the conquerors could not have stepped into an unfamiliar world.

An overview of the Ottomans' conquering past and the sources, jurisdictions, and hierarchies of Ottoman law give historical shape to legal imperialism. The thesis then explores Ottoman Aleppo's early history using contemporary cadastral surveys, law codes, court records, and biographical literature. The spectacular killing of a centrally-appointed surveyor is used to demonstrate the protracted and complex nature of Ottomanization for a city long presumed to have succumbed easily. The construction of a judicial archive, the inspection of legal records (especially those pertaining to religious endowments), and the elevation of the Hanafi legal community—all developments with Mamluk antecedents—reveal Istanbul's concern to concentrate judicial practice.

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