In this contribution to Bulletin 27, Styliani Lepida discusses the affordances and challenges that digital technologies represent for the study of Ottoman History.
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
Original image by Styliani Lepida.
The ever-evolving field of Digital Humanities, a field that is representative of the much-desired ideal of interdisciplinarity, has set the variable of “the digital” as one of the absolute conditions for a scientific re-evaluation of the once classical and theoretical humanities.
But even apart from that, it is a fact that the digital condition is now firmly embedded in most aspects of the Humanities, even when they do not fall under the Digital Humanities umbrella.
This article addresses the field of Ottoman History, aiming to identify the space belonging to digitality (or digitalism), to capture the current state of the field, to seek new perspectives, and to express concerns, focusing mainly on the relationship between historical research and digitality.
Digitality and Historical Archives
In recent years, the coexistence and collaboration of digital sciences and humanities, made possible by new technological conditions and prompted by emerging academic needs, seems to have been achieved to some extent and keeps bearing fruit.
In the context of this digital age, Ottoman History gradually began to exploit and integrate some of the benefits of digital technology and acquire part of the digital know-how required to cover new research needs. In doing so it gradually entered a digital environment, or what we may call “digitality”. This, at least, is what historians have been striving to do, increasingly intensively in recent years, as they seek to embed digital technologies in various aspects of their discipline and especially in the heart of their science, that is, historical research.
One could say that the contribution of digital technology to the research process in the field of History, and in this case of Ottoman History, is decisive in all three of its main stages: in the identification and extraction of archival material, in the processing of archival data, and finally in their dissemination first to the scientific community and then to a wider public.
At the same time, the use of digital technology raises issues in terms of its purpose and limits, the place it occupies in the research process, the researcher’s own position in relation to it, and, most importantly, the scientific mindset and methodology that it appears to represent.
This convergence between historical records and digital technology has facilitated and enhanced the research process (especially when it comes to archives or even archive catalogues organised on an online basis). It has allowed the individual researcher to have in their possession digital copies that enhance analysis and processing and, in some cases, even facilitate remote research.
In the case of the Ottoman archives, the necessity of digitising historical records, raised as an imperative in previous decades, began to be seriously considered only at the dawn of the 21st century. Indicative here is the case of Ottoman Archives of the State Archives of the Presidency of Turkey (T.C. Cumhurbaşkanlığı Devlet Arşivleri Başkanlığı, Osmanlı Arşivi, formerly the archive of the Prime Minister’s Office), the largest archival base for research on Ottoman history, the gradual digitisation of which greatly paved the way for Ottomanists throughout the world.
As far as Greece is concerned, remarkable efforts have been made in recent years, based on both state and non-state initiatives, to preserve and digitise existing Ottoman archives. However, an online portal focused solely on the preservation and availability of the Ottoman archives as well as the framework that would support such an initiative is still absent. Fragmentation of Ottoman historical records is a well-known issue that remains unresolved, as a multitude of records, both public and private (such as personal collections, monastic archives) as well as other types of historical evidence, remain far from any contact with digital technology and are exposed to the decay of time, poor maintenance conditions, or even at time mistreatment, but mostly away from their natural beneficiary, the researcher.
The digitisation of historical documents, which undoubtedly brought about a huge change in the way archival research is conducted, marked the beginning of a new era, making once hard to access archives accessible under certain conditions, while simultaneously fulfilling multiple purposes both for the research process and for the researcher. What has been left in limbo, however, are the next steps, such as that of creating integrated and functional online archives.
As exciting as it is when a researcher comes into contact with the physical or digital version of their archival material located in a sheltered archive, this encounter is usually accompanied by various dysfunctions or constraints, such as limited access to the material, limited research time, time-consuming procedures determining access to archives, the fragile condition of documents themselves (when these are available for study), and other similar issues, which rather make research more difficult than easier.
Although it has been achieved to some extent, the availability of historical records on the Internet is still promoted rather cautiously, as there are many cases where historical documents, in this case Ottoman ones, are either completely missing from the online archives or are selectively and fragmentarily available from the respective digital collection.
Organisation, Processing, and Dissemination of Research Data
As far as the organisation, study, and processing of archival material is concerned, the role of digital media is equally decisive. Archival data entry in online or non-online digital databases gives the researcher access to organised data entry, complex search methods, and different uses of their archival material in less time and with greater accuracy, especially when these databases are constantly updated. In addition, interactive databases favour collaboration and facilitate group research, as they allow data processing by more than one user in parallel and remote interaction with each other.
At the stage where a researcher is asked to process their archival data, the application of digital technology, although not yet fully exploited by historians, can contribute in a particularly innovative way, as it allow them to identify options, pose complex research questions, analyse specific issues, and attempt new interpretive approaches that often extend the research in diverse directions.
Especially in recent years, scholars of Ottoman History have mostly focused on the organisation, visualisation, and dissemination of archival and research data. A quick glance suggests that digital applications that have consistently attracted the interest of Ottoman historical research are such technologies as databases, mapping, 3D visualisation, and text processing. For example, through the widespread use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which provide not only the possibility of categorisation and visualisation but also the possibility of spatial, topographical, and social analysis of data, which may come from a combination of different types of archival sources (maps, registers, etc.), one can study a variety of topics such as networks of movement of people and goods, the evolution and dispersion of agricultural crops, or the spread and extent of landholdings in the Ottoman periphery, as well as many other themes such as population, habitation, taxation, hydrographic networks, various institutions, and so on. 3D technology is also used to depict and reconstruct historical aspects of the Ottoman historical landscape (for example, the urban or rural landscape, the architectural evolution of buildings, etc.). More recently, the digital dimension, further enhanced by the use of Artificial Intelligence, has been extended to other fields of the research process such as text processing or Optical Character Recognition methods (for instance identifying and transcribing Ottoman writing through specific sources).
As regards the promotion of research findings or the dissemination of research results, this process is facilitated through their posting in digital environments (websites which promote academic collaboration, electronic journals, online platforms, websites of institutions and funding bodies, etc.), online meetings, podcasts, and various other digital means through which a researcher can get immediate feedback on their work. In particular, in terms of digital Ottoman history and the use of alternative digital media methods for conducting research and extracting and disseminating knowledge (e.g. crowdsourcing), we are still at the beginning, but the steps being taken are very fast.
Criticism, Reflection and Revision Points of View
Digitality in historical research is accompanied at the same time both by new perspectives and points of criticism or concern, which have been raised from time to time even by researchers themselves. These considerations focus on several points such as the nature of digital culture but also the researcher’s position towards the digital medium. Other concerns include the speed with which historical evidence is entered and dispersed into the public sphere, the copyright of digital properties, the limits and jurisdiction of digital media and their users, the potential distortion of historical archival data by their uncritical or simplistic visualisation, the distance of the researcher from contact with the original, even insufficiency of digital literacy on the part of researchers, in our case historians.
This last point, i.e. the unfamiliarity of historians with the use of specialised digital applications, entails its own risks as it possibly traps a researcher in a static situation in terms of the scientific means they use. However, so far it has led, if only out of necessity, to the path of interdisciplinarity, which is, after all, the main objective of modern science. In this case, the gap becomes an occasion for convergence and cooperation between various scientific disciplines, as a result of which more and more frequent steps are taken in the direction of the holistic approach of scientific research not only in History but in every scientific discipline.
Beyond the practical issues of digitality, what is also troubling is its very identity. Does the penetration of the digital condition in almost all aspects of historical research bring with it a substantial change to research mentality and methodology?
A characteristic point of criticism surrounding the role of digitality in History is that the gains made by manipulating the archival material may be achieved to the detriment of its analysis and interpretation. The process of researching and organising archival material and presenting it is better, easier, and faster today, but is this all at the expense of interpretation, analysis, and synthesis? In short, are the humanities, like History, gradually losing their structural features just to gain ground in practical matters? Are the Humanities undergoing an identity crisis through digitality?
It is this sense of ease that often alienates a “classical” historian, who is accustomed to the painstaking search and fascinating obstacles that used to surrounded their practice and that to some extent still surround it, who has learned to focus on the interpretation of historical concepts and issues and not so much on their visualisation, who has accepted the lonely and standardised path of a researcher and finds it difficult to accept alternative approaches to research methodology, data processing, and knowledge in general. As a result, they often face this presumed digital “Janus” with a sense of confusion or even suspicion–although Ottomanists to a lesser extent–that contrasts the meaning of the term “classic”, as a means of defense or to give a sense of reliability, conventionality, and timelessness to the non-digital and sometimes even to juxtapose it as an allusion or demonisation against anything new and therefore unknown.
The distance from new technologies, the sight of what is unknown but inevitable that constantly surrounds the science of History (and the Ηumanities as a whole) has provided the ground for an informal discussion on issues raised by digitality, such as whether the Digital Humanities is a discipline or just a way to fill the gap in computer-based research methods in the Humanities, whether digitality is here to stay or not, and why a historian must be the bearer of many other skills beyond their basic—that is to say classical—training. This last question can lead to an especially fatal dilemma, one that pitches “classical” research against research that is more comfortable using more modern techniques, including those built around digital technologies. History, and especially Ottoman history, is particularly prone to this dilemma, which is probably a false one.
What historians should perhaps ask themselves is whether digitality is an end in itself or a means?
There are undoubtedly many questions surrounding the digital condition. Some of these will be answered as this field evolves, some may remain unanswered, and some may not need to be answered. For now, it is certain that digital technology provides tools and possibilities that at least a large portion of historians, especially younger ones, find attractive and useful. It remains to be seen whether fears that the nature of digital media will affect the analytical work of historians will be confirmed or turn into mere phobias.
Digitality, precisely because of its many faces, seems to have arisen naturally—at least in Ottoman History—as a product of the evolution of the science of History itself and of historians themselves. The narration of History acquires a digital identity on the basis of continuous conciliation and seems to speak the language of the time, and this is perhaps unprecedented. Whether History joined Digital Science, or Digital Science entered the discipline of History, seems at the moment to be a matter of rather secondary importance. Digitality has arguably replaced older methods of research and possibly part of the research mindset. What is difficult to replace, however, is the spirit and personality of each historian, transferred both to practical and theoretical and intellectual issues of a piece of research, and it is the one that colours and differentiates each of its stages.
Concluding, I would suggest that historical research should—not so much out of a need to uncritically comply with the technological imperatives of the Digital Age, but more out of a debt to itself and its people—constantly update and upgrade its methodology, preserve its precious raw material, i.e. the archival sources, and limit scientific elitism by turning the archives into an open and functional field of research and knowledge, so as to finally make sustainable the very science of History.
 Thucydides, Historiae [Θουκιδίδη, Ιστορίαι], 2.87.4.
 For more information on the Ottoman Archives of the State Archives of the Presidency of Turkey (T.C. Cumhurbaşkanlığı Devlet Arşivleri Başkanlığı Osmanlı Arşivi), based in Istanbul, one may visit the relevant website: https://www.devletarsivleri.gov.tr. As for the main Ottoman Archives located in Ankara, equipped with digital facilities, see: The Republic Archives (Cumhuriyet Arşivi), https://www.devletarsivleri.gov.tr/, the Tapu ve Kadastro Archive (Tapu ve Kadastro Arşivi), https://www.tkgm.gov.tr/ or the Turkish Historical Society Archive (Türk Tarih Kurumu Arşivi) https://kutuphane.ttk.gov.tr/. One example beyond Turkey is the Aga Khan Library in London, equipped with research material on Islamic studies, in which a digitised Ottoman collection is included: https://www.agakhanlibrary.digital/ottoman-collection. For digital Ottoman archives and collections, see: https://libguides.ku.edu.tr/ottomanstudies/archives-digitalcollections, https://www.digitalottomanstudies.com/archive, https://www.digitalottomanstudies.com/manuscript-collections, https://www.digitalottomanstudies.com/map-collections.
 On digital collections of the Greek State Archives, one may visit the website: http://arxeiomnimon.gak.gr/index.html. Some of the local state archives also contain Ottoman documents. In some cases, Ottoman documents, although they exist in the physical archive, are not available in digital form. In addition to the state archives, one can visit the following websites that host other efforts of digitised Ottoman archives, such as that of the Ottoman documents of Andros: http://androsdocs.ims.forth.gr/. For more information on the research project entitled as “The Island of Andros under Ottoman Rule”, concerning the study and digitisation of Ottoman documents of the Andros Island, see: https://www.ims.forth.gr/en/project/view?id=8. See also the interesting effort to create a refugee digital historical archive made by the Society of Historical Research “Lycia”, https://lycia.gr/en/3706-2/ or the Digital Library of the Greek Communities of Constantinople “Anthemousa”, http://anthemion.phs.uoa.gr/index.php/en/. Both of these Greek digital archives do not consist purely of Ottoman archival material, however they contain some Ottoman documents as well.
 Concerning the types of Ottoman archival material in Greece and its path before digitization, see: Ευαγγελία Μπαλτά, «Οθωμανικάαρχεία στην Ελλάδα: προοπτικές έρευνας», Μνήμων 12 (1989): 241-252 [Evangelia Balta, “Ottoman archives in Greece: research perspectives,” Mnemon 12 (1989)], https://doi.org/10.12681/mnimon.440. On the evolution of Ottoman Studies in Greece and the Greek Ottomanists’ research mentality, see: Marinos Sariyannis, Eleni Gara, and Phokion Kotzageorgis, “Ottoman studies in Greece: a reflective gaze,” Bulletin de correspondance hellénique moderne et contemporain 5 (2021), http://journals.openedition.org/bchmc/957.
 Aleksandra Fostikov and Neven Isailovic, “Digital Humanities or Digital versus Humanities,” Pregled NCD 24 (2014): 19–23.
 Some indicative references to digital-based studies on Ottoman History: Antonis Hadjikyriacou, “Çevre Tarihi, İktisat Tarihi ve Coğrafi Bilgi Sistemleri: Kıbrıs’ın 1572 Yılı Mufassal Defterinin Analizi,” [Environmental history, Economic history, and Geographic Information Systems: An analysis of the 1572 Cyprus detailed fiscal survey], Toplumsal Tarih 312 (December 2019): 44-49; Antonis Hadjikyriacou, Evangelos Papadias, Christoforos Vradis, and Christos Chalkias, “Combining historical maps and censuses of Cyprus from the sixteenth to the twentieth century: A geospatial approach,” 8th International Symposium of the International Cartographic Association on the History of Cartography (21-21 April 2020), https://www.proc-int-cartogr-assoc.net/3/7/2021/ica-proc-3-7-2021.pdf; Ahmet Yaşar, “1766 Tarihli Bir Hamam Defterine Göre İstanbul Vakıf Hamamları,” [Istanbul Waqf Hammams according to a Hammam Survey Dated 1766], Vakıflar Dergisi 53 (June 2020): 67-99; Daniel Ohanian, Z. Mehmet Başkurt, and M. Erdem Kabadayı, “An Historical Geographic Information System For Ottoman Studies: The C. 1907 Ottoman Census and Armenian Settlement in Istanbul,” Turcica 51 (2020): 255-283; Jilian Ma, Akın Sefer, and M. Erdem Kabadayı, “Geolocating Ottoman Settlements: The Use of Historical Maps for Digital Humanities,” 8th International Symposium of the International Cartographic Association on the History of Cartography (21-21 April 2020); M. Erdem Kabadayı, Piet Gerrits, and Grigor Boykov, “Geospatial mapping of a 16th century transport corridor for Southeast Europe,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 37/3 (2022): 788-812; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeog.2022.102672.; Motti Zohar, “A land without people? The GIScience approach to estimating the population of Ottoman Palestine towards the end of the 19th-century” Applied Geography 141/3 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeog.2022.102672; Nina Ergin and Yasemin Özarslan, “Mapping Istanbul’s Hammams of 1752 and Their Employees,” in Bread from the Lion’s Mouth: Artisans Struggling for a Livelihood in Ottoman Cities, ed. Suraiya Faroqhi (New York 2015: Berghahn): 108-135; Mustafa Erdem Kabadayı, Piet Gerrits, Osman Özkan, and Turgay Koçak, “A Preliminary Attempt to Construct a Geospatial, Multimodal Ottoman Transport Network for 1899,” in Spatial Webs: Mapping Anatolian Pasts for Research and the Public, ed. Christopher H. Roosevelt, 12th International ANAMED Annual Symposium, 137-150; H. Murat Güvenç and Ayşe Nur Akdal, “Mapping the Bostancıbaşı (Chief Gardener) Registers (1800-1803): An explanatory Study of Socio-Spatial Differentiation on the Shorelines of Early Modern Istanbul,” in Spatial Webs: Mapping Anatolian Pasts for Research and the Public, ed. Christopher H. Roosevelt, 12th International ANAMED Annual Symposium, 151-177; Noam Levin, Ruth Kark, and Emir Galilee, “Maps and the settlement of southern Palestine, 1799–1948: an historical/GIS analysis,” Journal of Historical Geography 36 (2010): 1-18; Dino Mujadzevic (ed.), Digital Historical Research on Southeast Europe and the Ottoman Space, Studies on Language and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe, 35 (Berlin 2021: Peter Lang); Yunus Uğur, “Making a Socio-Spatial Analysis in a Balkan City: Edirne in the 1700s,” in Turkey and Bulgaria: A Contribution to Balkan Heritage, ed. Özgür Kolçak, International Balkan Annual Conference (IBAC) 5 (Istanbul: Yeni Anadolu Yayıncılık, 2017), 193-216; Yunus Uğur, “Mapping Ottoman Cities: Socio-Spatial Definitions and Groupings (1450–1700),” The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 18/3 (Summer 2018): 16-65; Yunus Uğur, “Big Data in Ottoman Urban Studies: A Relational Approach to the Archival Data and to Socio-Spatial Analyses of an Early Modern Ottoman City,” Social Sciences, MDPI 7/4 (April 2018): 1-12; Yuval Ben-Bassat, Johann Buessow, “Applying Digital Methods to the Study of a Late Ottoman City: A Social and Spatial Analysis of Political Partisanship in Gaza,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 63 (2020): 505-554; Giorgos Vidras, Christos Kyriakopoulos, and Elias Kolovos, “The Rural Economy of Ottoman Crete (1650-1670): A Spatial Approach,” Etudes Balkaniques 4 (2019): 801-830. See also some indicative Ottoman History research projects based on the use of digital technology and specifically GIS: “Economy, environment, and landscape in the Cypriot longue durée”, https://ecoland.hua.gr/en/about/; https://ecoland.hua.gr/en/outcomes/geospatial/analysis, “The Rural Economy of Crete in the Early Modern Period: A GIS Approach”, https://www.ims.forth.gr/en/project/view?id=87; “Mapping Ottoman Epirus: Region, Power and Empire” by Ali Yaycioğlu and Antonis Hadjikyriacou, “Spatialization of the 19th Century Istanbul Dervish Lodges: Maps of Settlement and Networks”, “Mapping ottoman Cities: Socio-Spatial Conjunctions and Distinctiveness (1520-1540)” and “Typologies and Atlas of the Ottoman Cities (1450-1700)” by Yunus Uğur, “Industrialisation and Urban Growth from the mid-Nineteenth Century Ottoman Empire to Contemporary Turkey in a Comparative Perspective, 1850-2000” supervised by Mustafa Erdem Kabadayı, “Istanbul Urban Database” by Nil Tuzcu, “Mapping Ottoman Provinces and Cities (1500-1550)” by Fatma Aladağ, “Ottoman Population Atlas” by Tufan Kaya, “Kültür Envantleri Atlası” by Caner Cangül, and many other interesting projects based on the GIS applications which one may find through the Digital Ottoman Studies website, https://www.digitalottomanstudies.com/gis.
 For example, see: “HTR Applications for Ottoman Turkish in Transkribus” by Süphan Kırmızıaltın and David J. Wrisley. See also a commercial application that is currently under construction, “osmanlica.com” (https://www.digitalottomanstudies.com/post/ottoman-turkish-and-ai-applications-the-example-of-osmanlica-com).
 For example: the “Digital Ottoman Studies website”, created by Fatma Aladağ and supervised by Yunus Uğur, https://www.digitalottomanstudies.com/, the “Open Ottoman” created by Amy Singer, https://epublications.marquette.edu/ottoman/ or the “Ottoman History Podcast”, https://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/p/about-us.html.
 A recent attempt—probably the first one—to utilize the crowdsourcing method in Ottoman studies, which is still ongoing, is that of “The Ottoman Turkish Crowdsourcing Project” carried out by Süphan Kırmızıaltın, https://digitalorientalist.com/2021/11/05/crowdsourcing-for-ottoman-studies-zooniverse/.
 Chris Gratien, Michael Polczynski, and Nir Shafir, “Digital Frontiers of Ottoman Studies,” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association 1/1-2 (2014): 37-51.
 Fostikov and Isailovic, “Digital Humanities or Digital versus Humanities,” 21–22; Alexandra Fostikov and Nenad Milenovic, “Problems regarding the application of Internet in the Historical Research,” Pregled 5 (2004): 67-73.
 Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, “Humanities Computing and Digital Humanities,” South Atlantic Review 73/4 (2008), 50-66.
 Amy Singer, “Creating a Digital Ottoman Platform (DOP),” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association 2/2 (November 2015): 451-456.
Styliani Lepida is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of History and Archaeology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where she also completed her undergraduate (BA, History, 2008) and postgraduate studies (MA, Turkology, 2011). In 2019 she defended her doctoral dissertation under the title: Aspects of the Ottoman Provincial Administration in the 17th century. The case-study of Cyprus, when she received her doctorate in Ottoman History. Her current research focuses on the monastic economy and land ownership (late 16th-17th c.) of the Great Meteoron monastery based on monastic Ottoman archival sources. Her research interests include the study of economic and social history of the Ottoman period (with emphasis on the 17th century), issues of the provincial administration, environmental history and others.