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New book spotlights Ottoman expansion in Africa

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Melissa Osgood


For more than six centuries, the Ottoman Empire ruled a vast area of the world, from Central Europe to the Persian Gulf. “The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz,” a new book by Mostafa Minawi, tells the story of the Ottoman Empire’s expansionist efforts during the age of high imperialism at the end of the 19th century.

Minawi, assistant professor of history and the Himan Brown Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, follows key representatives of the sultan on their travels across Europe, Africa and Arabia at the close of the 19th century, turning the spotlight on the Ottoman Empire’s strategies in Africa and its increasingly vulnerable African and Arabian frontiers.

Drawing on previously untapped archival evidence, Minawi examines how the Ottoman participation in the Conference of Berlin (1884-85) and involvement in an aggressive competition for colonial possessions in Africa were part of a self-reimagining of the once-powerful empire. Minawi offers a radical revision of 19th-century Middle East history, turning the typical framework of a European colonizer and a non-European colonized on its head and challenging the idea the Ottomans were passive observers of the great European powers’ negotiations over solutions to the so-called Eastern question.

“’The Ottoman Scramble for Africa’ successfully demonstrates the value of a transcontinental approach to the history of empire,” says Judith Byfield, associate professor of history. “Mostafa Minawi has crafted a well-written and richly textured narrative that invites deeper engagement and conversations among scholars of Africa, Europe and the Middle East.”

For example, Minawi argues military and economic might took precedence over international agreements as the British and French empires moved into previously declared Ottoman spheres of influence.

Minawi is the founder and director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative, which aims to establish Cornell University as a hub of Ottoman and Turkish studies. It focuses on academic and cultural production about the Turkic world, the Ottoman Empire, and its successor nation-states, including the Middle East, the Balkans, Turkey and Central Asia.

Minawi’s new research project focuses on the life and work of a Victorian-era Arab-Ottoman officer and diplomat who lived in Istanbul but travelled extensively in Africa and Europe. The projected three-part project will include an annotated translation of one of the diplomat’s travelogues, a contextualized biography of his life and times, and an in-depth exploration of Ottoman-Ethiopian relations as the two empires faced looming European colonialism during the age of high imperialism.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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