Emrah Safa Gürkan: Spies for the Sultan

May 30, 2024 / 5 mins read

Translated from Turkish into English, Spies for the Sultan is a fascinating history of intelligence practices and their impact on great power rivalries in the early modern era. Read on for a Q&A with the author to learn more about the research for this book, why this history is important, and how this book fits with the Georgetown Studies in Intelligence series.

Why is it important to tell the story of Ottoman spies?

Spies for the Sultan is the first book systematically dealing with the Ottoman intelligence mechanism in the early modern era. Although a few articles appeared dealing with the issue, they are all succinct and descriptive, limiting themselves to the story of one particular spy, or to reproducing a couple of spy reports extracted from the archives. None of them engaged in a thorough study of Ottoman intelligence in its entirety, drawing comparisons with other contemporary institutions. Neither did they try to shed light on the Ottoman spies as a topic per se.

The time period covered is also of cardinal importance as the sixteenth-century witnessed a number of important developments that defined the characteristics of early modern intelligence until the late 19th century. First, throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, bureaucratic-administrative structures started to appear. These nascent central governments created professional chanceries, archives and standardized techniques of cryptography and steganography. Secondly, modern diplomacy that emerged in fifteenth-century Italy expanded to other states that started to employ resident ambassadors in each other’s capitals. These diplomats, once dubbed as “honorable spies,” became instrumental in defining the métier of early modern espionage. Thirdly, geographical explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries not only created an interest in events happening in faraway lands, but also gave rise to the forerunner of newspapers. These handwritten bulletins, such as the avvisi or the Fuggerzeitung, frequently changed hands, uniting Europe and the Mediterranean into a single world of information. Finally, the rivalry between the Spanish Habsburgs and the Turkish Ottomans in the Mediterranean resulted in a fierce military struggle in Europe and the Mediterranean. As a result of this struggle, in which all major powers in Europe and the Middle East took part, intelligence gained immense value to decision-makers who were ready to spend large sums for intelligence activities.

What was the research process like for this book?

The book is the result of archival research conducted in Istanbul (Turkey), Simancas (Spain), Venice (Italy), Florence (Italy), Genoa (Italy), Vienna (Austria) and Dubrovnik (Croatia). I consulted spy reports, hand-written bulletins, diplomatic correspondence, interrogation transcripts, intelligence reports, budgets, senate proceedings, and other types of chancery documents, penned in Ottoman Turkish, Spanish, Italian, French, Latin, German and Persian. I also studied other early modern intelligence mechanisms, mainly those of the Spanish Habsburgs and the Venetians, in order to draw comparisons between them and the Ottoman intelligence service.

What does Spies for the Sultan add to the Georgetown Studies in Intelligence History series? Why is it important to put your book in conversation with the other books in the series?

Intelligence studies deal mostly with the 19th and 20th centuries and there are few monographs covering early modern examples. Even more importantly, these few mostly concentrate on European examples.

Spies for the Sultan is the first systematic analysis of early modern intelligence in the Ottoman Empire, the major military power in the Middle East, Europe and the Mediterranean. Thus Spies for the Sultan makes a number of contributions to intelligence studies: 1. It highlights the intricacies of early modern espionage, drawing attention to its ad hoc nature, based more on trial-and-error rather than well-established bureaucratic practices. 2. It concentrates on the sixteenth century, a time when the methods and characteristics of the métier of early modern espionage was about to be defined. 3. It extends the geographical scope of early modern intelligence studies, hitherto restricted to European examples, by including a Muslim empire whose borders extended from Hungary to Persia and from Morocco to Crimea. It thus seeks to reintegrate Ottoman Empire into European and Mediterranean historiography. 4. Finally, by a meticulous cross-examination of archival documents, penned in several different languages and spread throughout the Mediterranean, it manages to bring the “human element” to the fore. Ottoman archives rarely allow researchers to shed light on small-scale actors and on daily-life activities in the empire. By supplementing Ottoman documents with those extant in the European archives, the book succeeds in capturing how go-betweens and cultural brokers operated across religious and linguistic barriers between the two halves of the Mediterranean borderlands.