chapter  2
18 Pages

The Ottoman urban governance of migrations and the stakes of modernity


Migration is a crucial topic for historians. Not only do its present echoes give it a specific contemporary relevance – but also what scholars of the reader-response literary theory called a wide horizon of expectation in society.1 The study of the impact of migration on past societies is a way to discuss the very nature of these societies in a dynamic perspective. The vast horizon of social expectation has some consequences on the work of the historian, however, and one has to be aware of the possible distortions in the perception of the hierarchy of values and priorities in past societies as we mirror them in our own society. The fact that we are invited by present times to put migration at the top of social priorities does not automatically imply that it was so in the past. There is no mechanical link between the contemporary importance of the governance of migrations and the importance this topic has had in the past. The nature of this link is precisely part of what the historian has to discuss. Not that migration was not important, just that it was not necessarily such a central topic in governance and social balance as today. And, from a methodological point of view, everything is in the ‘not necessarily’. One can also be convinced of the centrality of migration issues in many societies, but it was not central just because we think it is, in the light of what we know of today’s societies. Rather, it is because history as a method of investigation relies on the study of archives and material from the past, and this will eventually shed light on just how central migration is. I mention these methodological premises to recall the fact that the work of historians, though always involved in a critical dialogue with their own times, has to try and define an analytical framework that makes a nonanachronistic perception of the past possible. This does not impede reflection on the present in the light of the past. In the specific case of Ottoman migration into cities, the implicit social horizon of expectation pertaining to the present research is even wider: ‘how do we deal with populations of rural origins coming from the former Ottoman Empire and settling in European cities?’. From Istanbul to Berlin or from London to Paris, this is a question society poses with great force, and even maybe sometimes with some objective pertinence. The exploration of the specific Ottoman response to such demographic and social challenges might also be a

pertinent exploration of the question. What is important is to make implicit expectations explicit, and, in the practice of the historical profession, to be aware of the paradigmatic weight of present interrogations in order not to make improper transfers of anachronistic interrogations. A pertinent historical answer to a legitimate question can also be a complex elaboration of new perspectives and not a mere list of solutions.