Ignorance is accumulated like knowledge

How knowledge becomes power

Knowledge is power, as an old proverb puts it in a nutshell. And when we go into the Augustinian reading room, the house, court and state archives or the world museum, it is difficult to think differently. In the past, knowledge was seen by many as the key to state control and government, and history knows innumerable examples of how the imperial state formations of this world in particular tried to understand cultural differences through the accumulation of information. From intelligence collections to statistical, ethnographic and literary production, the colonial empires shaped themselves and otherness, especially those from the Orient, by monopolizing the production and circulation of knowledge. This is what the students learn on day one of their history courses.

Insufficient knowledge

However, there are increasing numbers of scientists who dispute the quality of all this knowledge. In his latest work, which is devoted to the exploration of British and French imperialism in the early modern Levant, Cornel Zwierlein discusses, for example, the fact that "empires are built on ignorance", and by this expression he means "ignorance" as well as "willful ignorance" ". It is of course true that in the course of the old regime the Western knowledge of the "Oriental" was manifestly inadequate and characterized by glaring errors and blatant weaknesses. And if we look at this in the broader context of European colonialism in Asia, the cases of Great Britain and France are hardly an exception.

The recent tour de force book by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, "Europe’s India", has shown that the Portuguese Empire, for example, was racing blindly forwards in its imperial expansion in South Asia, not without a good dose of improvisation. One final eloquent example that can dismantle our common sense approach to knowledge comes from Ann Laura Stoler. In her work "Along the Archival Grain" she draws attention to the fact that "the colonial states were first and foremost information-hungry machines in which the increase in power came from the massive accumulation of quantitatively increasing knowledge rather than from its quality". She also warns us not to take the assumption at face value "that the art of colonial governance was motivated and pursued by a reductionist equation of knowledge with power and that the colonial states particularly strived for both".

Empathic approach to cultural differences

In this sense: acquisition of knowledge, yes, but cui bono? As soon as we have established that the exercise of state power does not depend on knowledge, or at least not on its quality, we now have to explain who would be interested in the accumulation of all the amounts of knowledge that we find in traditional archives and libraries could be. A possible approach to this problem will start from the observation that the accumulation of knowledge is more often due to individual initiatives than to state enterprises. Here we can ask ourselves what was the driving force behind the personal search for knowledge of and the corresponding interest in other cultures.

There are several possible answers to this question. But the one that I would like to investigate here is the possibility of "empathy". By that I mean the recognition of the intrinsic importance of the intellectual traditions that Western scholars found in Asia, even if they were not the same (or even remotely similar!) To those from their own "genuine" cultural context. A first example of such an empathic approach to cultural differences lies in the knowledge of the Ottoman Empire, which Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli (1658–1730) en masse was accumulated. This gigantic figure of early modern erudition has repeatedly attracted the interest of historians, in particular because of Marsigli's involvement in the negotiations between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires that led to the conclusion of the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) after the Great Turkish War.

Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli and the Ottomans

Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, born into an aristocratic family from Bologna, was only twenty-one when he made a trip to the Ottoman Empire in 1679. From the urge to learn more about the great invincible enemy of Christianity, he broke together with the new ambassador (Bailo) Pietro Civrani from Venice to Constantinople. Marsigli spent eleven months in the Ottoman capital, where he was able to create a network of informants that included both Venetian dragomaniacs and local translators (giovani di lingua) as well as Ottoman scholars, among whom we included the future judge (kadi) of Galata County, Husayin Efendi. These and other personalities helped Marsigli significantly advance an encyclopedic project related to the Ottoman Empire, namely an unprecedented collection of materials (most of them in Italian) kept in the University Library of Bologna.

Marsigli's encounter with the Ottomans was not just peaceful and intellectual. After joining the army of Leopold I von Habsburg, shortly before the siege of Vienna (1683), he was injured by the arrows of a Tatar squad. He managed to get away with his life by pretending to be a Venetian trader and was sold to Ahmed Pasha of Temesvar (Timişoara in modern-day Romania). As a slave, he was forced to take part in the siege of Vienna, but he spent most of the time in an Ottoman camp to prepare coffee for the soldiers. After the defeat of the Ottomans, he was transported to Buda, where he was taken over by two Bosnians who were seeking a ransom.

More than just a diplomat and general

All the filthy details about his captivity under the Ottomans can be found in a work entitled "Ragguaglio della schiavitù", which was only published in 1728. The original manuscript of his memoirs was, however, incorporated into the notarized property of a stately donation, which he made in Bologna in favor of furnishing a new chapel in the church of Santa Maria Annunziata, both as a votive offering and as a token of gratitude for his liberation. In the spring of 1684 Marsigli resumed his military service for Leopold I and fought for him until the end of the war against the Ottomans. He took part in various sieges, especially in Buda (1686), Transylvania (1687) and Belgrade (1688).

Marsigli, however, was more than just a diplomat and general. He was a polymath, collector, bibliophile. He created a massive corpus of texts (both published and unpublished) on an almost immeasurable number of topics: from the description of the fauna and flora of the Danube basin to a treatise on the currents of the Bosporus, and from one of the first studies on coffee to one Study devoted to mushrooms. In addition, Marsigli was a real orientalist. During the sieges of Buda and Belgrade, he collected an impressive amount of manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman-Turkish languages, which constituted one of the richest libraries of manuscripts from the Orient in early modern Europe.

The orientalist

For our purposes, however, Marsigli's personality is particularly noteworthy because he was one of the few Orientalists of his time who showed the will and ability to change one's mind about the Ottomans. In a letter, the Marsigli from Vienna to the former Venetian Bailo in Constantinople, Giovanni Battista Donà, had sent in 1688, the aristocrat from Bologna spoke highly of the Ottoman book culture. Marsigli also warned his addressee against misleading European representations that "never ceased to overemphasize the ignorance of the Turks".

This humanistic approach to Ottoman culture is all the more remarkable when one takes into account the fact that Marsigli did not send this letter until five years after his imprisonment ended. And it becomes even more important if you remember that Ludovico Marracci published his Latin translation of the Koran in Padua in 1698, just ten years later, for diametrically different reasons, namely to convict Islam as a deceptive religion.

If we wade through the Marsigli Collection, we find that he commissioned an enormous number of translations from Ottoman Turkish into Italian: war treaties, pedigrees of the khan of Crimea, tax registration cards of Hungary, Wallachia and the entire Balkans, and court records, to name but a few to name a few types of documents. This monumental collection of material reflects less a condescending attitude towards a culture that was viewed as inferior at the time than a sensitive, emphatic attempt to unravel and unlock the true meaning of Ottoman otherness. Even if we had to admit that the empires were largely built on ignorance, individual personalities of the respective time were surprised and moved by their cultural encounters. (Paolo Sartori, June 19, 2019)

Paolo Sartori has been a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Iranian Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences since 2011. In 2006 he completed his PhD in Islamic Studies at La Sapienza University, Rome. As a result, Sartori received two fellowships from the Volkswagen Foundation at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg for the period 2007–2011. In 2013, the Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research awarded him the Start Prize for his project "Seeing Like an Archive: Documents and Forms of Governance in Islamic Central Asia (18th – 19th Centuries)". In 2016 he was elected a member of the Young Academy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.