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date: 18 July 2018

The Ottomans in Northeast Africa

Summary and Keywords

In the mid-16th century, the Ottoman empire expanded to encompass parts of the modern Sudan, Eritrea, and the Ethiopian borderlands, forming the Ottoman province of Habeş. The Ottomans also provided aid to their ally Ahmad Grañ in his jihad against Ethiopia and fought with the Funj sultanate of Sinnar for control of the Nile valley, where Ottoman territories briefly extended south as far as the Third Cataract. After 1579, Ottoman control was limited to the Red Sea coast, in particular the ports of Massawa and Suakin, which remained loosely under Ottoman rule until the 19th century, when they were transferred to Egypt, nominally an Ottoman vassal but effectively independent. Politically, Ottoman influence was felt much more broadly in northeast Africa in places as distant as Mogadishu, at least nominally recognized Ottoman suzerainty.

Keywords: Ottomans, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Funj, Red Sea

The Beginnings of the Ottoman Presence in Northeast Africa

It is unlikely that the Ottoman dynasty (r. c. 1300–1923), which until the beginning of the 16th century was based in the Balkans and Anatolia, had any prior awareness of northeast Africa before Sultan Selim I’s conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1516–1517. Its acquisition of its first territory in the region, the Red Sea port of Suakin, was therefore less the result of a planned offensive than a gradual expansion of Ottoman authority into areas that had previously been subject to the Mamluks. The Mamluks had controlled most of the Red Sea littoral as far south as Suakin, but it seems these regions were not immediately inherited by the Ottomans, as a report probably written by an Ottoman commander in Jeddah, Selman Reis, dated 1525 indicates that Suakin was not under Ottoman control at this date and was offering a haven to ships that were fleeing excessive taxation in Ottoman-controlled Jeddah.1 According to a report submitted to Istanbul by another Ottoman agent, when the Ottoman officials tried to collect revenue from Suakin, the local population claimed that Selim had issued a decree on his conquest of Egypt requiring the khutba (sermon at Friday prayers) and sikka (striking of coins) be done in his name, the two traditional signs of recognition of sovereignty in the Islamic world, but he had not required taxes. On this basis they claimed a tax exemption, and although the khutba was indeed being said in the Ottoman sultan’s name, Ottoman forces in the region were too few to collect revenue.2 Even though a contribution from Suakin is noted in the Ottoman budget of Egypt for 1527, it does not necessary mean that there was any actual Ottoman presence on the ground. Mamluk control over Suakin had been essentially a condominium arrangement, with profits from the spice trade being shared between the local Beja ruler and the Mamluk treasury. It seems likely that a similar arrangement was implemented in Ottoman times; in other words, the presence of Suakin in the Egyptian budget need not imply an extensive Ottoman presence, or indeed necessarily any at all.

Selman Reis’s report of 1525 advocated an ambitious programme of conquest of both sides of the Red Sea to consolidate Ottoman authority in the region, which was challenged not just by local actors, but also by the Portuguese, who repeatedly penetrated the Red Sea seeking to enforce a monopoly on the lucrative spice trade. Thus Selman advocated that Yemen, Aden, Suakin, and Dahlak should be seized. Although Dahlak is described as a an empty port that does not function, albeit with rich potential for pearl fishing, Selman had heard rumors of Portuguese intentions to build a fort there, while Suakin was important not merely for the revenue that was failing to accrue to the Ottomans but because it was an entrepot for the import of horses to Ethiopia. These horses were then being used by the Ethiopians against the Muslims of the northeast African coast, especially Zayla‘, whom Selman evidently envisaged as allies. Selman goes on to describe “a province which is three months’ journey, ruled by a black slave named ‘Amarah,” which is evidently a reference to ‘Amara Dunqas (r. c. 1504–1533), the ruler of the Funj kingdom of Sinnar, recent converts to Islam who had established themselves in the Gezira region of the modern Sudan around the beginning of the 16th century. Selman argued that the Ottomans could easily seize not just Sinnar with a thousand men but the entirety of Ethiopia, to which he claims the Funj were vassals.

Selman’s report emphasizes the wealth of Ethiopia and Sinnar, their military weakness, and the threat Ethiopia posed to the Muslims on the coast as reasons for invasion. Although it was many years until the Ottomans did actually attempt to penetrate northeast Africa beyond the coast, all these factors would play a part their calculations. But for the moment Ottoman presence was restricted to Suakin; on the Nile their presence south of Cairo was also limited, and Upper Egypt south of Asyut remained under the control of Bedouin groups who paid nominal homage to the Ottomans. Even in Suakin, which seems to have had the status of a sanjaq (subprovince), the Ottoman presence was probably extremely limited, and an appointee who was given it as a tax farm in 1554 complained bitterly of its poverty.3 One reason may have been continuing Portuguese raids on the Red Sea, one of which sacked the port in 1541. Portuguese activity also encouraged the Ottomans to give support to Ahmad Grañ, the ruler of the Adal sultanate, who was engaged in a jihad against both Ethiopia and their Portuguese allies. Nonetheless, Grañ was cautious of these Ottoman-supplied troops, fearing that they would ultimately serve to support not his but Ottoman aspirations in the region.4 In the end, Ahmad Grañ suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Ethiopian emperor Gelawdewos in 1543.

It was possibly as a response to this development that from the middle of the 16th century, on both the Nile and the Red Sea, that the Ottomans started to adopt a much more aggressive policy. This seems to have been the result of the enthusiasms of local commanders more than a coordinated campaign of expansion. Özdemir Pasha, the former Ottoman governor of Yemen, initiated the establishment of the province (eyalet) of Habeş, which came to encompass much of the Red Sea littoral of Sudan and Eritrea (see figure 1).

The Ottomans in Northeast AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Northeast Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Permission was granted at an audience in which Özdemir Pasha persuaded Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566) to launch a jihad against Ethiopia. The plan was motivated by both the desire to thwart the activities of the Portuguese, who were allied with Ethiopia, and a desire for the unbounded wealth that the interior of Africa was believed to contain. Yet as soon as the province was established, even before any basic institutions of government such as a mint or a qadi existed, the Sublime Porte was being urged, probably by Özdemir, to launch a campaign against the Funj sultanate. Provinces in the Arab lands were intended to be self-financing (although in practice this never happened with Habeş, which always had to be subsidized by the neighboring provinces of Egypt or Yemen), and in part the campaign seems to have been intended to provide a solid tax base for Habeş, by selling off the Funj lands to tax farmers. Thus, even before establishing himself in Habeş, Özdemir Pasa led an expedition from Egypt down the Nile with the intention of conquering the Funj; however, a mutiny of his troops by the First Cataract forced him to abandon this plan and instead proceed to Suakin.5

The Eyalet of Habeş and Wars Against Ethiopia and the Funj

The Eyalet of Habeş was thus founded to support the broader Ottoman war effort in northeast Africa against the Funj, and above all the Ethiopians.6 The first target for expansion, however, was the Muslim littoral to the south of Suakin, and in 1557, the port of Massawa‘ and the Dahlak islands were captured. Soon, however, military operations turned inland against Ethiopia, capturing Debaroa in 1559, where Özdemir Pasa established a garrison and built a castle, a congregational mosque and several small mosques. Debaroa thus seems to have been intended to act as something more than just a forward base in the interior, perhaps as a possible alternative to Suakin as capital. However, the Ottoman position in Debaroa remained extremely precarious, and the town was recaptured by the Ethiopians on Özdemir Pasha’s death in 1560. Debaroa would change hands several times over the next two decades.

Özdemir Pasha was replaced as beylerbeyi of Habeş by his son Özdemiroğlu Osman Pasha, who continued to prosecute the war against Ethiopia but was also faced by Funj attacks on Suakin which cut off the town’s water supply. In response to this, Istanbul authorized the building of a new fortress at Suakin. The problems faced by Özdemiroğlu Pasha also confronted his successors—the difficulty of prosecuting a war on two fronts, against the threat of the Funj (probably in reality Funj-allied Beja tribes) near Suakin while prosecuting a war in the unfamiliar highlands of Ethiopia. The war dragged on with scant success for the Ottomans, who suffered a major defeat by Emperor Serse Dingil at the Battle of Addi Qarro in 1579, and after the final recapture of Debaroa by the Ethiopians in 1588–1589, the Ottomans abandoned any attempt at expanding Habeş beyond the coastal strip.

Unsurprisingly, the Ottomans regarded the Funj and the Ethiopians as allies of one another, which indeed they were at times. The Funj were crucial intermediaries in the import of horses into Ethiopia, which formed a crucial component of their military, as well as camels. From the 1560s, then, as Özdemiroğlu Osman Pasha’s campaign against Ethiopia faltered, a decision was made to advance the Ottoman frontier southward from Egypt, no doubt with an aim to countering this threat. A frontier fortress was founded at Qasr Ibrim in Nubia, which first appears in the Ottoman archival record in 1570, and was attached for some years to the eyalet of Habeş. Yet Istanbul’s enthusiasm for the Funj venture seems to have rapidly cooled. In 1576, Ibrim was attached to the province of Upper Egypt again,7 and when, in 1577, news reached Istanbul that the Ottoman governor of Upper Egypt, Süleyman Pasha, was planning an attack on the Funj, he was rebuked. However, in 1583, an Ottoman expedition reached the Third cataract, and the sanjaq of Mahas, the Third Cataract area, was briefly established; it was also presumably around this date that the southernmost Ottoman fortification on the Nile, the fort of Say, was built, possibly along with a series of other fortifications further south, although these are only archaeologically attested.8 However, another expedition was sent south in 1585, which met a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Hannik by the Third Cataract.

In 1586, the Ottomans opened one further line of attack in their war against the Portuguese. A naval detachment commanded by the corsair Mir Ali sailed down the East African coast, stopping at Mogadishu and reaching as far as the Mombasa. The expedition was repeated in 1589, with the aim of finally removing the Portuguese presence from East Africa. Although it ended in disaster and Mir Ali’s capture by the Portuguese, it seems that in the course of these expeditions a number of local rulers recognized Ottoman suzerainty, in particular the sultans of Mogadishu.9 While most of these campaigns seem to have been influenced by the strategic requirements of war against the Portuguese, one should also not discount a sheer desire for expansion prompted by both the promise of wealth and an ideology of world empire. Certainly, the Ottomans’ deepest penetration into Africa in the 16th century was probably propelled by the latter motive: in 1576–1568, the ruler of Bornu petitioned Istanbul for the return of a fortress that seems to have been located roughly in the Fezzan to Lake Chad region.10

By the last decade of the 16th century, with their defeats at Hannik, Debaroa, and Mombasa, the Ottomans were forced to admit defeat on both the Funj and the Ethiopian front. A further sign of the Ottomans’ ebbing influence was their inability to control even their local Muslim allies. In 1582, for instance, a report from Habeş to Istanbul complained that the amir of the coastal town of Beylul was also supplying military equipment to the Ethiopians, and was no longer recognizing the Ottoman sultan as suzerain. Beylul thus represented the Ethiopians’ sole access to the sea, and the transshipment business must have been a lucrative source of income for the amir, but in another sign of the complexities on the ground and the unreliability of even the Ottomans’ own officials, it seems these imports, many of which came from Yemen where the Zaydi imam was fighting a war against the Ottomans in the highlands, were in fact facilitated by an Ottoman official in Mocha, who was of Shiite origin.11 The Ottoman war in East Africa thus took on a further international dimension, with not just the Portuguese but also the Zaydi imams seeking to arm the Ethiopians in order to weaken the Ottomans.

The Ottomans were also short of local allies. Beylul was unreliable ally, Ahmad Grañ of Harar had treated the Ottoman troops sent him with considerable suspicion, and the few references to his successors in the sources suggest they were actively hostile to the Ottomans.12 The one place we can detect enthusiasm for the Ottomans is in Mogadishu, whose rulers demonstrated their allegiance by striking a coin or commemorative medallion that incorporated a tughra, the Ottoman dynastic emblem. This was a complete break with local traditions of coinage, and these tughra-type coins continue to be issued under eleven rulers of Mogadishu into the 17th century. They may signify both sympathy with the Ottoman aim of attacking the Portuguese and an assertion of Mogadishu’s independence.13

The abandonment of the war against Ethiopia, despite the setbacks the Ottomans suffered in the 1580s, was probably determined by broader strategic considerations. As the Portuguese abandoned their policy of attempting to monopolize the spice trade in the 1580s, so too did the conflict with the Ottomans subside. Meanwhile, by the late 16th century, the Ottomans were involved in a long war in Iran and confronting a major series of revolts in Anatolia, as well as coming under increasing pressure from the Zaydi imams of Yemen. The resources were probably quite simply not there to prosecute these African wars, which never fulfilled their promise of enriching the Ottoman treasury—quite the contrary, they were a constant drain on the budgets of neighboring provinces. Henceforth Habeş was essentially restricted to the coastal strip, in particular Suakin and Massawa‘.

The Eyalet of Habeş: Structures and Life in the 16th to 17th Centuries

The eyalet was headed by a beylerbeyi (governor-general) who was responsible overall for all aspects of administration and reported back to Istanbul; the beylerbeyis in the 16th century had generally previously served in senior positions in Egypt or Yemen, giving them some knowledge of the region.14 Theoretically, the eyalet was meant to be financially self-sufficient—the salyane model that applied in most of the Empire’s Arab provinces. Istanbul had to be consulted on any project that required additional revenue, and most of the documentation relating to Habeş consists of Istanbul’s responses to these requests for more men, material, and munitions. Clearly, however, Habeş’s distance from Istanbul must have meant that in practice the beylerbeyi enjoyed wide autonomy. Instructions from Istanbul could take five or six months to come but even within the province communications were poor: it could take around a month to reach either Debaroa or Massawa‘ from Suakin in unfavorable conditions.15 The precariousness of the Ottoman position must have been exacerbated by the small size of the garrisons: a document dated 1580 states that the Ottoman garrison in Massawa’ and Suakin consisted of 100 men in each.16

Other positions in Habeş appointed from Istanbul were a qadi (judge) and defterdar (financial administrator), as in other provinces. The eyalet was divided into a number of sanjaqs (subprovinces), each headed by a sanjaqbey: Suakin itself; ‘Aqiq and Arqiqo (Harqiqo), all on the Red Sea coast; and, between 1573 and 1576, Ibrim on the Nile, which was subsequently reattached to Egypt. In the interior of Tigre was a sanjaq of Sarawa (Seraye).17 We know others existed but not their names. Most of these sanjaqs are attested in single fleeting references and most likely did not survive beyond the 16th century. Unfortunately, the administrative structures of Habeş in general are exceedingly poorly documented.

The overwhelming preoccupation of the governors of Habeş was prosecuting war against Ethiopia and the Funj and securing the precarious position of Suakin. The beylerbeyi acted as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in the region and in the 16th century personally led campaigns. Soldiers for these campaigns were allotted out of the Ottoman military contingents in Egypt or Yemen, but the pay was meant to come from the budget of Habeş. Frequently, however, it had to be sought from other sources, even being borrowed from the pearl divers of Suakin by the provincial administration on occasion.

Whereas in most Ottoman provinces agriculture formed the basis of provincial revenue, in Habeş it was trade, the taxes levied on the import of firearms, cloth, and horses into the African interior, and the export of African slaves as well as luxury products such as ivory. However, the complaints of lack of cash suggest that in the 16th century this trade was limited. It is interesting to note that in contrast to the complaints of the poverty of Suakin in the 16th century, in the 17th it seems to have been a prosperous city with even a community of Indian merchants (banyans) resident there and trade links stretching as far as Southeast Asia. This suggests that the 16th-century geopolitical situation was responsible for the economic situation: the frequent Portuguese presence in the Red Sea must have had a severe impact on revenue, and only with the end of the Ottoman-Portuguese conflict could revenues rise. However, Habeş appears in very few Ottoman documents of the 17th century. In Massawa‘ and Arqiqo, their authority was delegated to a member of the Beja tribe, who acted as na’ib or deputy, while in Suakin the senior Ottoman official was now a ka’immakam; it seems that the appointed governors often delegated their functions to others. This all suggests a degree of administrative reorganization, perhaps in response to the diminution of importance of the province. Yet despite the end of the war on Ethiopia, tensions remained. Possession of Massawa‘ and Suakin gave the Ottomans control over imports to Ethiopia, with Beylul the only possible alternative—and as in the 16th century, Beylul’s loyalties seem to have undecided; embassies exchanged between Ethiopia and Yemen in the 1650s sought to make common cause against the Turks. Equally the Funj may have been involved in killing a governor of Suakin, calling on the Ethiopians for aid.18 Nonetheless, the Ottomans rarely seem to have impeded Ethiopian commerce in practice.

Despite the comparative lack of official records, we do have some important evidence for the Ottoman presence in northeast Africa in the form of the testimony of Evliya C̹elebi, the Ottoman traveler who claims to have visited both Habeş province and to have traveled down the Nile past the southernmost Ottoman garrisons to the Funj capital of Sinnar itself in 1672–1673, aiming to see the source of the Nile.19 The credibility of Evliya’s testimony has been debated, as certainly some parts of his description of Africa owe more to mirabilia than to reality, with descriptions of a “land of monkeys.”20 However, it seems likely that Evliya traveled at least as far south as Say on the Nile, while he or a close associate also produced a map of the Nile that reflects both information from classical Arabic geographies for its southernmost portions as well as Evliya’s own experiences.21 The descriptions of Suakin and Massawa are more convincing and detailed and portray towns that are prosperous but possess few amenities such as hammams, or imarets, which the Ottomans traditionally provided. Evliya only mentions palaces at Massawa‘ and Suakin built by Özdemir Pasha, presumably the residence of the beylerbeyi, while he also attributes a mosque at Suakin to Özdemir. Even in Suakin, there seems to have been little effort to construct the mosques or imarets that were often a hallmark of Ottoman power elsewhere in the empire, doubtless reflecting the weak financial position of the province as well as the tenuous nature of the Ottoman presence. Evliya also provides descriptions of other ports, including Zayla‘, Arqiqo, and Mogadishu, where he states the khutba was still being said in the name of the Ottoman sultan.22

The Ottomans in Northeast Africa in the 18th to 19th Centuries

In 1701, Habeş lost its status as a province and was attached to the sanjaq of Jeddah. By now relations between the Ottomans and the Funj were on a friendly basis, and Suakin was a major entrepot through which camels, slaves, and pilgrims from the Funj lands passed to the Hijaz.23 The same commodities were also exported to Ottoman Egypt, which also enjoyed a close commercial relationship with the Darfur sultanate that became its major source of black slaves.24 Although the adoption of Ottoman-style titles by sultan ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid of Darfur (r. 1787–1801),25 who sent an embassy to Istanbul, suggests the continuing prestige of the Ottomans in the region, in reality their grip on their northeast African territories was loosening. There is some evidence of a decline in the commercial importance of the Red Sea in this period, although our reliance on accounts of Europeans such the explorers Bruce and Burkhardt means our view is perhaps skewed to their prejudices, which overemphasize the nominal nature of Ottoman suzerainty. An archival document shows that as late as 1784, the Treasury Office in Istanbul was recording the income from Suakin and Massawa‘.26 Visiting in Suakin in 1814, Burckhardt makes clear that there was an Ottoman governor who was able to collect taxes and an Ottoman garrison that was descended from soldiers from the core Ottoman lands—Diyarbakir and Mosul are mentioned. However, by Burkhardt’s time these had assimilated with the local population.27 A similar process can be observed at Qasr Ibrim in Nubia, where the predominantly Bosnian garrison gradually assimilated with the local population.28

Nonetheless, even if some revenue was occasionally reaching the Ottoman treasury from their northeast African outposts, it is fairly clear the region was a neglected backwater. However, it gained an increasing importance with increasing European interest in the commercial opportunities of the region and the activities of Muhammad ‘Ali, the Ottomans’ viceroy of Egypt, who was to all intents and purposes an independent ruler. Suakin and Massawa‘ had caught Muhammad ‘Ali’s attention during his campaign against the Wahhabis in Arabia in support of Ottoman authority there. The Ottoman government appointed his son, Ahmad Tusun Pasha, as governor of Jeddah and Habeş in 1811; later, however, in 1827, Suakin and Massawa‘ reverted from Egyptian to Ottoman rule. Egyptian expansion in the Sudan, above all the conquest of Taka (Kassala), encouraged them to seek control of the neighboring Red Sea coastal region. In 1846, the two ports seem to have been informally ceded by Istanbul to Muhammad ‘Ali to administer during his lifetime, and on his death in 1849 they reverted to direct Ottoman rule.29 It was not until 1865 that the Ottomans formally ceded Suakin to Egypt,30 which of course itself remained nominally part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914. Egyptian rule is credited with introducing radical administrative changes into Suakin (figure 2), whereby a degree of participatory government was introduced through the introduction of a representative assembly responsible for dealing with civil legal cases, especially commercial ones.31

The Ottomans in Northeast AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Suakin, remains of Egyptian period buildings.

Photo by Betramz, Creative Commons License (CC BY 3.0).

Nonetheless, such changes may have been introduced before the port was formally ceded to Egypt as part of the wider Tanzimat reform movement in the Ottoman empire, for the council was regularly consulted by the governor (muhafiz) of Suakin in the 1850s, one Nur al-Din Pasha, said to have been “a man schooled at the Porte, where he had become imbued with the spirit of the tanzimat reforms.”32 Despite the undoubted achievements of the early years of Egyptian government, it was never fully successful in developing Suakin, largely down to its own indecision as to whether the Red Sea or Nile routes should be used to link Sudan to Egypt. This indecision was also reflected in the constant changes in Suakin’s administrative status, sometimes forming part of the same governorate as Massawa‘, sometimes separate from it, but always detached from the rest of Egypt’s Sudanese territories, perhaps unsurprisingly in view of its separate history, and indeed the separate Ottoman firmans granting it to Egypt.33 With the First World War, the final vestiges of nominal Ottoman suzerainty over the region disappeared.

Discussion of the Literature

The basis for all studies of the Ottoman presence in northeast Africa is the work by the Turkish scholar Cengiz Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti: Habeş Eyaleti (The Southern Policy of the Ottoman Empire: The Province of Habeş).34 Drawing primarily on Ottoman archival documents, many of which he also published in transcription in an appendix to his book, Orhonlu paints a portrait of Ottoman activities in the region from the 16th to 19th centuries, both the internal administration of Habeş province and relations with Ethiopia. Since Orhonlu’s book, the topic has attracted little attention from Ottomanists. Exceptions are the short studies of the administration of Habeş by Salih Özbaran, A. C. S. Peacock’s articles on Suakin and Ottoman relations with the Funj, and the travels of Evliya Çelebi in the region, which have been examined by Robert Dankoff. The na’ibs of Massawa‘ have been discussed by Jonathan Miran.35 Much more work has been devoted to the archaeology of the Ottoman presence in northeast Africa, which has concentrated on the remains at Qasr Ibrim, Say, and Suakin, although other sites further on the Nile have been associated with the Ottomans; this is in need of further research.36 The Sudanese background is covered in R. S. O’Fahey and Jay Spalding, Kingdoms of the Sudan.37

Possibly because Orhonlu’s book and Turkish-language sources are inaccessible to most scholars of African history, there has been relatively little scholarly debate over the Ottoman presence in the region. The main study of the context of Portuguese-Ottoman rivalry and its effect on Ethiopia is Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia and the Red Sea: The Rise and Decline of the Solomonic Dynasty and Muslim European Rivalry in the Region, which draws primarily on European and Arabic sources.38 An important problem that is difficult to address is the significance of the relative lack of Ottoman archival sources, especially for the 17th and 18th centuries. It is unclear whether this reflects a lack of interest in the region or the vagaries of survival, for it is known that many documents have been lost.39 The occasional references in documents of the later period do at least indicate that Habeş had not completely fallen off the radar of the Ottoman government in Istanbul, but it must be said that reconstructing even an outline of the administrative organization of the province is fraught with difficulties. However, more information is available regarding commerce. The studies of Terence Walz have shown the potential of the Egyptian archives of the Ottoman period for examining commercial networks that bound the Funj lands and Darfur to Ottoman Egypt, while the work of Ehud Toledano, drawing primarily on Ottoman archives in Istanbul, has illustrated the importance of the 19th-century slave trade, in which northeast Africa played an important role.40

Primary Sources

As mentioned above, the Ottoman archival documents pertaining to northeast Africa in the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archive Istanbul are scant, especially for the 17th and 18th centuries. The most important ones are published in Orhonlu’s book and more, especially pertaining to the 19th century, have been made available in S. Sa‘dawi, al-Sudan fi l-‘Ahd al-‘Uthmani min khilal watha’iq al-Arshif al-‘Uthmani.41 References to Habeş in the 16th-century Ottoman chronicles are exceedingly rare, but some contemporary Ethiopian sources such as the Chronicle of Sarsa Dengel provide information about the Ottoman war with Ethiopia.42 Unfortunately, there is a lack of contemporary written sources from the Funj sultanate. In the 17th century, Ottoman accounts of northeast Africa are recorded by Evliya Çelebi in his book of travels (Seyahatname) and its accompanying map, as well as by the geographer Behram el-Dimaşki.43 A rebellion by the Janissary garrison in Suakin in 1655 is one of the rare occasions when the affairs of Habeş attract the attention of the Ottoman chroniclers, being mentioned by Naima, Silahdar, and Abdurrahman Abdi Paşa.44 Otherwise, we have an early 19th-century Turkish travelogue concerning the Sudan, which has been translated into French, although its authenticity has been seriously questioned.45 For the 19th century, extensive archival material exists in Istanbul and Cairo; the latter was used by Talhami in her study of Suakin and Massawa‘ under Egyptian rule, and some of the Istanbul materials have been published in Sa‘dawi, al-Sudan fi l-‘Ahd al-‘Uthmani. Given this comparative dearth of Ottoman or local sources, the accounts of European travelers have played a disproportionately important role in understanding the Ottoman Red Sea. Portuguese accounts of the 16th century provide some information about Suakin, Massawa, and other ports.46 Some information regarding Ottoman possessions in the region can be found in the account by Charles Poncet of his journey to Ethiopia from Cairo in 1698–1701.47 The accounts of James Bruce and J. L. Burkhardt provide valuable testimony regarding the late Ottoman Red Sea. On the whole, though, the understanding of the Ottoman role in northeast Africa is inhibited by a source-base that is much sparser than that for most Ottoman provinces.

Further Reading

Dankoff, Robert, Nuran Tezcan, and Michael D. Sheridan. Ottoman Explorations of the Nile. Evliya Çelebi’s Map of the Nile and The Nile Journeys in the Book of Travels. London: Gingko Library, 2018.Find this resource:

Orhonlu, Cengiz. Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti: Habeş Eyaleti. Istanbul: Edebiyat fakültesi matbaası, 1974.Find this resource:

Özbaran, Salih. The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman-Portuguese Relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman Administration in the Arab Lands During the Sixteenth Century. Istanbul: Isis Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Özbaran, Salih. Ottoman Expansion Towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century. Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Peacock, A. C. S. “Suakin: A northeast African port in the Ottoman empire.” Northeast African Studies 12 (2012): 29–50.Find this resource:

Peacock, A. C. S. “The Ottomans and the Funj sultanate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 75 (2012): 87–111.Find this resource:

Sa‘dawi, S. al-Sudan fi l-‘Ahd al-‘Uthmani min khilal watha’iq al-Arshif al-‘Uthmani. Istanbul: IRCICA, 2007.Find this resource:

Walz, Terence. Trade Between Egypt and Bilad as-Sudan 1700–1820. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1978.Find this resource:


(1.) Salih Özbaran, “A Turkish Report on the Red Sea and the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean (1525),” in The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman-Portuguese Relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman Administration in the Arab Lands During the Sixteenth Century, ed. Salih Özbaran (Istanbul: Isis Press, 1994), 99–110.

(2.) Uğur Demir, “Haremeyn, Şam, Cidde, Habeş, Yemen, Hindistan ve Mısır ile İlgili bir Takrir,” Osmanlı Araştırmaları/The Journal of Ottoman Studies 43 (2014): 332; A. C. S. Peacock, “Jeddah and the India Trade in the Sixteenth Century: Arabian Contexts and Imperial Policy,” in Human Interaction with the Environment in the Red Sea, eds. Dionysius Agius et al. (Leiden, The Netherlands, 2017), 311.

(3.) On Suakin, see A. C. S. Peacock, “Suakin: A northeast African port in the Ottoman empire,” Northeast African Studies 12 (2012): 29–50.

(4.) Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia and the Red Sea: The Rise and Decline of the Somolonic Dynasty and Muslim European Rivalry in the Region (London: Routledge, 1980), 90, 99; and Cengiz Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti: Habeş Eyaleti (Istanbul: Edebiyat fakültesi matbaası, 1974), 27–29.

(5.) See A. C. S. Peacock, “The Ottomans and the Funj sultanate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 75 (2012): 87–111.

(6.) In general on the province see Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti.

(7.) Victor Ménage, “The Ottomans and Nubia in the sixteenth century,” Annales Islamologiques 24 (1988): 145–149.

(8.) Ali Osman and David N. Edwards, The Archaeology of a Nubian Frontier: Survey on the Nile Third Cataract, Sudan (The Mahas Survey, 2011), 193–194.

(9.) Giancarlo Casale, “Global politics in the 1580s: One canal, twenty thousand cannibals, and an Ottoman plot to rule the world,” Journal of World History 18 (2007): 267–296.

(10.) B. G. Martin, “Mai Idris of Bornu and the Ottoman Turks, 1576–78,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 3, no. 4 (1972): 470–490.

(11.) Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti, 78–79, 215–218, 227.

(12.) Orhonlu, 71.

(13.) G. P. S. Freeman-Grenville, “East African coin finds and their historical significance,” The Journal of African History 1, no. 1 (1960): 38–39; and G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, “Coins from Mogadishu, c.1300–c.1700,” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, Seventh Series 3 (1963): 192–193.

(14.) For studies of the administration of Habeş, see Salih Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion Towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century (Istanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2009), 203–212; see also Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti.

(15.) For these, see Peacock, “Suakin,” 37; and Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti, 122.

(16.) Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti, 212.

(17.) Orhonlu, 107–110, 112–114.

(18.) Emeri van Donzel, “The Turks of Habes Eyaleti in a Yemenite Source, 1650,” CIÉPO Osmanlı Öncesi ve Osmanlı Araştırmaları Uluslararası Komitesi: VII. Sempozyumu Bildirileri (Ankara, Turkey: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1994), 309–315; and Peacock, “The Ottomans and the Funj Sultanate,” 102–103.

(19.) Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnamesi, 10. Kitap, eds. S. A. Kahraman, Y. Dağlı, and R. Dankoff (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2007), 459–499.

(20.) See the discussion in Peacock, “The Ottomans and the Funj Sultanate,” 103–105; and Nuran Tezcan, “Evlya Çelebi’s ‘White Man’s’ View of the People in Africa in the Seventeenth Century,” in Turkish Language, Literature and History: Travelers’ Tales, Sultans, and Scholars Since the Eighth Century, eds. Bill Hickman and Gary Leiser (London: Routledge, 2016), 323–342.

(21.) Robert Dankoff, “Evliya Celebi’s Expeditions on the Nile,” in Turks in the Indian Subcontinent, Central and West Asia: The Turkish Presence in the Islamic World, ed. Ismail K. Poonawala (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017), 302–333; the map is published in Robert Dankoff and Nuran Tezcan, Evliya Çelebi’nin Nil Haritası: “Dürr-i bî-misîl în ahbâr-ı Nîl” (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2011); see also the updated edition and English translation in Robert Dankoff, Nuran Tezcan and Michael D. Sheridan, Ottoman Explorations of the Nile. Evliya Çelebi’s Map of the Nile and The Nile Journeys in the Book of Travels (London: Gingko Library, 2018).

(22.) Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnamesi, 10. Kitap, 493.

(23.) Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti, 247–249.

(24.) See Terence Walz, Trade Between Egypt and Bilad as-Sudan 1700–1820 (Cairo: IFAO, 1978).

(25.) Peacock, “The Ottomans and the Funj,” 110.

(26.) Alexis Wick, The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 107.

(27.) J. L. Burkhardt, Travels in Nubia (London: John Murray, 1822), 392–394.

(28.) Martin Hinds, Arabic Documents from Ottoman Period Qasr Ibrim (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1986).

(29.) R. Hill, Egypt in the Sudan, 1820–1881 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 74, 83–84, 89; and G. H. Talhami, Suakin and Massawa Under Egyptian Rule, 1865–1885 (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979), vii–viii.

(30.) Hill, Egypt in the Sudan, 114; and Talhami, Suakin and Massawa, 41–42.

(31.) Talhami, Suakin and Massawa, 67–96.

(32.) Hill, Egypt in the Sudan, 99.

(33.) Talhami, Suakin and Massawa, 69–75; see Hill, Egypt in the Sudan, 75.

(34.) Orhonlu, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti.

(35.) Jonathan Miran, Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 33–64.

(36.) See the various essays on northeast Africa included in A. C. S. Peacock, ed., The Frontiers of the Ottoman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), for a guide to the state of research.

(37.) R. S. O’Fahey and Jay Spalding, Kingdoms of the Sudan (London: Methuen, 1974).

(38.) Abir, Ethiopia and the Red Sea.

(39.) See the comments in Wick, The Red Sea, 107.

(40.) Ehud R. Toledano, The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression, 1840–1890 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982).

(41.) S. Sa‘dawi, al-Sudan fi l-‘Ahd al-‘Uthmani min khilal watha’iq al-Arshif al-‘Uthmani (Istanbul: IRCICA, 2007).

(42.) Paolo Marrassini, “‘I possenti di Rom’: I Turchi ottomanni nella letteratura etiopica,” in Turcica et Islamica: Studi in memoria di Aldo Gallotta, ed. Ugo Marazzi, Vol. 2 (Naples: Istituto orientale, 2003), 593–622.

(43.) For discussion and references, see Peacock, “The Ottomans and the Funj Sultanate,” 103–108.

(44.) For details, see Peacock, “Suakin,” 38–39.

(45.) Marcel Grisard and Jean-Louis Bacqué-Grammont, trans., Le livre du Soudan, ecrit par le cheykh Muhammed ibn ‘Ali ibn Zayn al-’Abidin (Paris: Société d’ethnographie, 1981); see the review by P. M. Holt in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 45 (1982): 582–583.

(46.) A. Kammerer, trans., Le Routier de Dom Joam de Castro. L’Exploration de la Mer Rouge par les Portugais en 1541 (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1936); for other accounts see Andreu Martinez d’Alos-Moner “Conquistadores, Mercenaries and Missionaries: The Failed Portuguese Dominion of the Red Sea,” Northeast African Studies 12 (2012): 1–19.

(47.) William Foster, ed., The Red Sea and Adjacent Countries at the Close of the Seventeenth Century (London: Hakluyt Society, 1949), 93–172.