Out of Rum: Ottoman Alchemical Tradition in its Trans-Imperial Context [ project summary ]
The European scientific revolution(s) cast a long shadow over the ways in which early modern production of knowledge in the Islamicate world has been studied. In the particular case of Ottoman science, this entailed the prioritization of intellectual links with Western Europe over those with Africa and Asia. My project is a natural continuation of my dissertation work, in which I had focused on a particular branch of knowledge, alchemy, and investigated the human and textual agents that enabled its transmission within the early modern Ottoman world. I was particularly interested in the production of “Arab alchemical knowledge” by Turkophone scholars and the resulting vernacularization of this genre by the seventeenth century. Arguably the most important body of works for the former development is a corpus of alchemical writings attributed to an enigmatic sixteenth-century Ottoman alchemist. My earlier research had uncovered, within the manuscript tradition of this corpus, competing and conflicting biographies for its author, which shed important light on the kinds of circles that read, copied, and commented on his writings.
It is also thanks to this same corpus that my attention was initially drawn to India. In 1932, H. E. Stapleton, a British historian of chemistry, wrote a short article on the Arabic manuscripts on alchemy in what was then the Asafiyah Library in Hyderabad. Although Stapleton was primarily interested in the earliest sources for Arab alchemy, the article nonetheless provides a list of later authors that he had encountered within the manuscripts. Among these names are two that are closely associated with the aforementioned corpus: Ali Beg al-Rumi and Muhammad al-Qamari. Thanks to SSRC, I was able to visit Hyderabad in late 2013 and started looking for these manuscripts with which I hoped to trace the story of Ottoman knowledge production beyond the confines of the Empire. My search concentrated on the Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Institute (OMLRI), which had inherited most of the manuscripts that were once part of the Asafiyah Library’s collection.
As is often the case in this line of research, I found what I was looking for, but not exactly what I was expecting to find. I had anticipated a gradual accumulation of Ottoman alchemical works in the Deccan that then ended up at the Asafiyah over a long period of time—and yet these Ottoman manuscripts, significantly more numerous than Stapleton had accounted for in his article, had been brought to Hyderabad from Najaf, Iraq by a single person in the closing years of the nineteenth century. I was able to piece together some details about the life of this individual and uncover his own writings. These findings, bolstered by new material I would later collect in Istanbul, significantly altered the chronological boundaries of my project and, more importantly, prompted new questions concerning the interaction of “traditional” and Western science in the Islamicate world through the long nineteenth-century.