Habsburg-Ottoman Espionage


A review of Espionage in the 16th Century Mediterranean: Secret Diplomacy, Mediterranean Go-betweens and the Ottoman-Habsburg Rivalry, by Emrah Safa Gürkan.

Emrah Gürkan’s dissertation deals with the Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry during the 16th century. The author offers therein an original analysis of imperial intelligence and “secret diplomacy” based on varied and rich primary sources from Istanbul, Spain (Papeles de Estado at Simancas) and Italy, with an emphasis on Venetian documentation, concerning the Ottoman Empire.

The 480-page dissertation is divided into seven chapters, of which the first serves as an introduction and the last as a general conclusion. Apart from a bibliography, the end matter includes two detailed glossaries of terms and persons. This not only facilitates the reading but, in the case of the second, may also be considered as an invitation to start an international collaborative prosopography of informants in early modern Europe and the Mediterranean.

As stated in the introduction, the dissertation pursues three distinct objectives. First, it examines and contrasts the various imperial secret services under consideration. Second, it contributes to the social-cultural history of “trans-imperial subjects” (see E. Natalie Rothman, Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), in this case brokers and go-betweens, particularly investigating the identity, profiles and background of “information traders” (p. 435)—an investigation that seeks to challenge the traditional views of the region and the Ottoman-Habsburg conflict. Third, it interrogates the recently “re-thought” (e.g. by Filippo De Vivo, Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Modern Politics, New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), complex, fruitful and, as demonstrated in the core of the study, “multi-layered” relation between information and politics by way of a “deconstruction” (p. 1) of the decision-making processes. This approach permits Gürkan to evaluate their “efficiency” (pp. 414-22), on the one hand, and, on the other, to re-evaluate the role of back-channel diplomacy in the specific context of imperial competition, conflicts and wars in southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean during the last decades of the 16th century.

At its most basic level, this study seeks to draw a compelling picture of the early modern world of both Habsburg and Ottoman spies, analysing their sociology, culture and practices not only in gathering and communicating intelligence but also in opening negotiations. In the second place, it interrogates the empires’ cross-cultural borders and civilizational frontiers through an analysis of intelligence, networks, and the informants’ social-cultural profiles. Finally, it also proposes to exploit information policies and practices to rethink early modern decision-making processes, on the one hand, and, on the other, to reinterpret secret diplomacy within the framework of state-building.

Contrasting the Habsburg intelligence system with its Ottoman counterpart, the author argues that the difference between the two lies in the fact that the second was less “institutionalized” than the first. Grafted onto personal relationships and networks though it was, the Ottoman intelligence system was able to satisfy its government’s needs and produce reliable and effective intelligence.

After having delimited in the first chapter the purview of his dissertation and justified his empirical approach, in the second chapter Gürkan identifies and then cross-examines the various levels of decision and the different types of information that the Habsburgs had to process in times of peace and war, interpreting international crises as decisive moments in the related phenomenon of the “institutionalization” of secret diplomacy.

The third chapter introduces a general sociological dimension to the question, providing a detailed typology of early modern go-betweens with trans-imperial life trajectories. Seeking to decide whether early modern espionage can be considered a “profession,” the exposition partially withdraws from a stricto sensu social analysis to interrogate the various skills of the pure type of early modern spy, and appropriately emphasizes the role of rewards in both the practices and definitions.

The next two chapters are devoted to Habsburg intelligence networking in the Levant (chapter 4) and in Istanbul (chapter 5) and to the identification of the major agents and their areas of operation, mostly frontier regions and pluristratified third spaces like Ragusa or the Ionian Islands. Building on this exploration of the structures and architecture of Habsburg Euro-Mediterranean intelligence, imperial governmentality is examined in turn: an analysis of secret diplomacy, intelligence and agents reveals a high level of centralization of the system. Then follows an exhaustive scrutiny of the Habsburg networks in Istanbul that could be misread at first sight as a simple appendix to the previous one. This chapter, however, puts forward one of the most important theses of the dissertation: the close relationship of the intelligence world and its codes, skills and practices to those of trade and entrepreneurship.

The sixth chapter, “Tongues for the Sultan”, examines the Ottoman side of the equation. Detailing the many actors, networks, types and efficiency levels of Ottoman intelligence in the Mediterranean, it highlights the influential role of the personal networks of Ottoman grandees, great actors in official and secret diplomatic missions (such as Ibrahim and Sokollu Mehmed Pashas) and powerful brokers (such as Nasi and Mendes). Moreover, it delineates other sources of information such as tributary states, allies of the sultans, and important international communities (Moriscos, Jews and Italian fuoriusciti in exile). The chapter goes on to discuss the “efficency” of Ottoman intelligence. Assuming that this very polynuclear and combined system is in fact peculiar to Ottoman intelligence, this arrangement could be interpreted either as a response to the low level of institutional integration or, contrariwise, as another, equally efficient way of thinking about intelligence services and design information policy. Moreover, this chapter, and more generally the whole of the second part of the dissertation, helps to reconfigure our understanding of early modern southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean by advancing a more multipolar representation of intelligence in the region.

Gürkan’s study tackles an evocative topic—here we cannot fail to recall Paolo Preto’s Italian best-seller about the Serenissima’s secret service (I servizi secreti di Venezia. Spionaggio e controspionaggio ai tempi della Serenissima, Milano: il Saggiatore, 1994)—, and in so doing sheds light on varied, complex and hotly-debated matters which should equally please non-specialists and specialists interested in Ottoman and/or Mediterranean history, intelligence studies and state-building in early modern Europe. Connecting the sources, practices and main actors of Mediterranean intelligence to the history of diplomacy, war and state-building, Gürkan suggests that we adopt new perspectives on both intelligence studies and Ottoman history that will help to de-exoticize them.

Johann Petitjean
University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne / European Research Council ConfigMed

Primary sources

Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivleri, Mühimme Defterleri and Mühimme Zeyli Defterleri
Archivo General de Simancas, Papeles de Estado
Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Capi del Consiglio dei Dieci, Parti Segreti; Inquisitori di Stato and Senato, Dispacci

Dissertation information

Georgetown University. 2012. 480 pp. Primary Advisor: Gábor Ágoston.


Image: Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy who Lived Five and Forty Years, Undiscover’d, at Paris, 5th ed. (London: H. Rodes, 1702), vol. VII, cover page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like