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Early Modern Armageddon

Posted On June 23, 2020 | 15:01 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
W. Sasson Chahanovich explains how the conquest of Constantinople kickstarted Ottoman enthusiasm for the end-times

W. Sasson Chahanovich, a PhD candidate in Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Harvard University, is a William R. Tyler fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “Ottoman Eschatological Enthusiasm: Ps.-Ibn al-‘Arabī and Predicting the End of the World,” reviewed Islamic apocalyptic narratives and his work on a Dumbarton Oaks research tool.


Q&A with W. Sasson Chahanovich 

How have you enhanced our Middle East Garden Traditions tool?

I expanded Arabic entries in the Multilingual Glossary. I combed through works like Mammati’s Book of Farming, al-Dinawari's Book of Plants, and the Nabateen Agriculture by Ibn Wahshiyyah—referring not to the Nabataean civilization at Petra but the Chaldean-Syriac population living in Mesopotamia before and just after the Islamic conquest—and pulled sources. From my previous life as a freelance translator, I know one has to be careful. Terminology can be historically, geographically, and culturally specific. You have to ask, is the technical definition in a modern dictionary the same plant referenced in these works? Could the same name be used for a different plant in a different region at a different time? Sometimes my entries had to be more literal and descriptive: “a Mesopotamian plant known to have red leaves.”

I also systematized bibliographical citations and the transliteration standard for Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Ottoman according to the International Journal of Middle East Studies. I worked with [Digital Content Manager] Lain Wilson to add tabs to the alphabetical search process. Instead of just a, b, c, d, e, f, g, now we have several “sh” letters: although there is a “sh” sound in Ottoman, it’s ş, whereas the “sh” in Arabic is just sh. It will be clearer and easier for scholars who are aware of different alphabetic possibilities to search the resource, as well as more user-friendly for scholars who come across unfamiliar transliterated technical terms in their research.


Moving to your own research, what is Ottoman eschatological enthusiasm?

The Ottoman Empire was the largest and longest-ruling Muslim dynasty, from ca. 1299 up to the abolishment of the sultan in 1922 and the caliphate in 1924. “Eschatological” refers to the science of the end-times. In monotheistic religions (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) there is an understanding of cosmic history as a more or less straight line from creation to salvation. In Christianity and Islam, Judgment Day usually coincides with the dissolution of all material creation.

Ottoman enthusiasm for the end-times comes about for several reasons. From the advent of Islam, people construed Muhammad’s prophetic sayings to mean that the conquest of Constantinople would kickstart the final stage of universal history. It so happens the Ottomans did what no other Muslim empire had: conquer Constantinople in 1453. That year was approximately a century before the conclusion of the first Muslim millennium. To many, including Muslims, millennial cycles are extremely appealing (everybody will remember Y2K, for instance).

The Ottomans saw this as fulfillment of prophecy, a divine sign they were God’s chosen empire—which is significant because they weren’t an Arab empire, so they needed legitimacy to make claims to being the supreme Muslim sovereigns—and eschatological enthusiasm grew. Other Muslim empires also exhibited eschatological enthusiasm, but the Ottomans embodied the concept in the eastern Mediterranean.


How did this enthusiasm engage with other religious traditions?

It’s almost an axiom in the history of religion: religions are syncretic. For example, at a conference I attended thanks to Dumbarton Oaks, a scholar commented that the “crawling creature” or Dabbet al-ard in Islamic eschatological tradition might approximate the leviathan. Islam grew out of late antique monotheistic traditions; several centuries later the Ottomans not only had this robust heritage, they also got exposed to the Byzantine eschatological tradition. Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan who took Constantinople, had the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius in his library of Greek texts.

I’m working on a point of syncretism yet to be explored: the role of Egypt in Islamic eschatological tradition. In the Qur’ān, Egypt is negatively associated with pharaoh, the tyrannical polytheist. In later tradition, it does not play a critical role in the end-times. However, in the pseudepigraphic apocalypse I am studying, written after the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, Egypt figures as a linchpin for interpreting and predicting God’s divine plan for the ultimate dissolution of the cosmos and, consequently, salvation. The treatise identifies the Ottoman sultan as God’s divine king who will prepare the world for the end-times, beginning with his conquest of by Egypt. Afterward key events overwhelmingly play out in Egypt as well. My work proposes a date of composition, discusses pseudepigraphy, explains the esoteric codes the prophecy is conveyed in, and tries to understand how Egypt became the new site of Islamic Armageddon. My current hypothesis is the author may himself have been Egyptian and, more tentatively, local Coptic traditions may have influenced his restaging of the geography of Islamic eschatology.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.