Ottoman History Podcast: Turning listeners into history buffs, one download at a time
After most expats visit Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace, they begin to develop an interest in Ottoman history. Some satisfy their curiosity through the steamy kitsch of “Muhteşem Yüzyıl,” a weekly soap opera that has come under fire from Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan for distorting süleyman the Magnificent’s life. But thanks to a joint creation by Georgetown University Ph.D. student Chris Gratien and current İstanbul Bahçeşehir University history professor Emrah Safa Gürkan, there is an interesting, in-depth and free way to learn more about Ottoman history.
Speaking with Gratien, I learned about the creation and development of the “Ottoman History Podcast,” a weekly podcast download available for free from the iTunes Store. The two men discussed working together while Gürkan was a post-doctorate student at Georgetown. They knew they wanted to do something on the Internet related to Ottoman history but initially had no set plans. At the time Gratien had been listening to other podcasts and noticed the dearth of ones focusing on the Ottoman Empire. As simple as that, the two began work collaborating on a podcast in the spring of 2011. Now, nearing their second year, the weekly podcast has featured topics ranging from a three-part series on malaria in the Ottoman Empire to slavery in the Mediterranean.
The first topics were ones that Gratien and Gürkan had studied and were therefore able to bring a detailed perspective to. They began by discussing early modern Mediterranean history and people who were able to flit between Muslim and Christian worlds. When asked about the specialized nature of the podcasts, Gratien said, “We didn’t necessarily go out of our way to choose a topic; we just went with ones that we and the guests found interesting.”
Despite creating the podcasts without a set list of topics or disciplines to cover, it is clear that they aren’t trying to lay out a clear, historical narrative for the entirety of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the initial criticisms from podcast listeners were the lack of timelines or development narratives, but Gratien and Gürkan eschewed traditional narratives to focus on what Gratien describes as “emerging areas of study… that people are newly investigating.”
Recruiting guests for the show
After covering their own fields of study, Gratien and Gürkan moved on to professors and fellow students at Georgetown University to draw on their expertise. In addition to engaging with the community at Georgetown, the two began to recruit new guests through academic conferences and contacts. Gratien describes the process of reaching out to new guests as informal: “Wherever we go, whomever we meet, we propose the idea [of being a guest on the show]. It’s mostly by personal connections.”
Taking a look at the podcast’s website is a good primer for what to expect. Each podcast’s title is highly specific and accompanied by historic documents. For example, in episode 82, titled “Zanzibar: Imperial visions and Ottoman connections,” the guest host was Jeffery Dyer, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College. Three historic photos of Zanzibar and a selected bibliography accompany the post, which includes a short description of the podcast. One of the best features of the podcast is its ability to pique your interest in unusual topics and at the same time, provide suggestions for further reading. Any dabbler in Ottoman history will appreciate way the podcasters facilitate listeners’ continued research.
At the end of last year, Gratien and Gürkan attempted to put together a “Best of 2012” list, but found it difficult to choose between the podcasts. When asked about his personal favorites, Gratien listed episode 81, “Osman Hamdi Bey and the Journey of an Ottoman Painting” with guest Emily Neumeier, episode 86, “Indian Soldiers and POWs in the Ottoman Empire during WWI” with guests Vedica Kant and Robert Upton, and episode 70, “Ecology and Empire in Ottoman Egypt” with guest Alan Mikhail.
While listening to the podcasts, not only is the level of expertise apparent, but so is the amount of work that goes into each one. Gratien estimates that each episode takes about five to 10 hours, with “the biggest variable being how long the recording is.” Recording may take from only 30 minutes to an hour, but then Gratien begins editing the audio. Hopefully in coming months, the Ottoman History Podcast will expand to include new hosts in different locations. When asked about the challenge of recording in different locations, Gratien emphasizes the mobile nature of the podcast, saying: “I have my own recording equipment. … We just go to the guests.” In fact, they have already recorded in 50 locations.
Podcasts in Turkish
A new feature of the podcasts is episodes recorded entirely in Turkish. Gürkan functions as the host for these episodes, which came about after seeing the large number of Facebook fans of the podcast who are Turkish speakers. So far there have only been three episodes produced in Turkish, but according to Gratien, the new format has been “very well received” and there are definitely more coming soon.
Although the existing partnership between Gratien and Gürkan will hopefully expand to include different scholars, the creators have no intention of changing the two key pillars of the podcast: its collaborative nature and free access. Gratien’s closing remark stressed that the podcast is “completely non-profit and not intended to make money.”
Tools for exploring Ottoman history
Almost all the podcasts are available for free from the podcast section of the iTunes Store and from the official Ottoman History Podcast website, www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com, where you can also find selected bibliographies and scans of historic documents.