Maydan editors asked former students of the late Ottoman historian, Cornell Fleischer to reflect on his scholarship, personality, and impact. We remember Prof. Fleischer and his contributions fondly.
Evrim Binbaş, University of Bonn
What can I say about Professor Cornell H. Fleischer that one cannot easily find out by reading his published works? I met him for the first time in the Summer of 1998, he was a member of my dissertation committee, and we maintained a close, collegial, and friendly relationship until his untimely passing. Yes, he was a brilliant scholar; yes, he was a polyglot and fluent in several Middle Eastern languages – he loved speaking in Turkish and in our twenty-five year long relationship we never ever had a private conversation in English; yes, he was one of the best historians of the Ottoman Empire – the best as far as I am concerned, but I am biased, of course; and yes, he was a recipient of numerous awards and distinctions.
But his readers will probably not realize that Cornell was in fact more than a historian of the Ottoman Empire, but he was first and foremost an Islamicist and a Mediterranean historian. He was also in love with the Safavid history. His trademark “Süleyman Seminar” included long discussions and sessions on the Safavids and their significance for early modern history. He was interested in early modern Spanish and Italian history, and he stayed abreast of the latest developments in Central Asian and South Asian studies. When I asked him to write a paper for the festschrift of his old friend İsenbike Togan, he sent me a paper on the career of Babur. During his seminars, he would abruptly ask a student about the dates of the First and Second Fitna in Islamic history, or the death dates of Firdawsi or al-Ghazali (we used to love that final question, because that’s the easiest one.), or the names of the imams in Twelver-Shiʿism in correct order. My favorite memory in this regard is the moment when he asked us about the death date of the Seljuk sultan Malikshah. 1092, we said; and he immediately lined up the second question: what about Nizam al-Mulk? Oh, these are easy, we thought, because both of them died in 1092. Everybody knows this! And the third question quickly killed our festive mood: Which one died first? … He himself had to fill in the blanks: Nizam al-Mulk was killed a month before Malikshah. His love for his mentor Martin Dickson, a scholar with a broad vision with unparalleled grasp on the history of those who are outside of the mainstream historical narrative, was not just a result of personal affection, I think, it was the result of a feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we realize that we are fully understood.
“His love for his mentor Martin Dickson, a scholar with a broad vision with unparalleled grasp on the history of those who are outside of the mainstream historical narrative, was not just a result of personal affection, I think, it was the result of a feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we realize that we are fully understood.“
Cornell embraced my work on the Timurids and supported me throughout my career. At some point in the mid-2000s (I believe it was in 2007), he spent a term at the University of Kansas and in the middle of the infinite boredom of Lawrence, Kansas, away from his busy schedule at the University of Chicago, he took refuge in the small Islamic manuscript collection at that university. Among all the manuscripts that he found there, he decided to read a manuscript copy of the Timurid historian Sharaf al-Din ʿAli Yazdi’s Zafarnama. At that point, my dissertation had not yet evolved into the form of Yazdi’s intellectual biography; I was still working on the Oghuz Khan narratives, and Yazdi was just going to be the second chapter of my dissertation. The Kansas manuscript of the Zafarnama includes the rare Prologue that is missing in many manuscript copies of the Zafarnama on the history of the prophets and the Chinggisid family. Cornell was so excited about the Prologue that he invited me to his house and we had a long conversation on the text. In hindsight, I realize that that conversation gave me the courage to go to my supervisor John E. Woods to ask him if I could write my dissertation on Yazdi, instead of Oghuz Khan narratives.
Cornell the Ottomanist will be sorely missed. But the one I will miss the most is my teacher, the Islamicist whose scholarly vision and intellectual courage recognized no boundaries. He nurtured his vision and courage not by jumping on every trendy topic in historical studies, but by respecting and emulating the two-centuries of Islamicist and Orientalist scholarship that he engaged with. His passing has left a hole in both Ottomanist and Islamicist scholarship that will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill.
Dr. Evrim Binbaş (PhD, 2009, The University of Chicago) teaches Islamic history at the University of Bonn. He studies early modern Islamic history with a particular focus on the Timurid and Turkmen dynasties in the fifteenth century. His award winning first book on the Timurid historian Sharaf al-Din ‘Ali Yazdi (d. 1454) was published by Cambridge University Press (Intellectual Networks in Timurid Iran: Sharaf al-Dīn ‘Alī Yazdī and the Islamicate Republic of Letters) in 2016. Currently he is preparing a monograph on the modalities of sovereignty in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Abdurrahman Atçıl, Sabancı University
With deep sadness, I am writing to pay tribute to Professor Cornell H. Fleischer—a distinguished scholar, compassionate supervisor, and cherished friend. I first met Professor Fleisher in Chicago in early 2003. He was a famous professor at the top of his field, and I but a lowly, prospective student. Yet he cleared his entire day just for the chance to talk and get to know me a little better.
That was the Cornell Fleischer I knew. He was gracious with his time, devoted to his students, and infectious in his enthusiasm for our work. Even when he was dealing with illness or personal issues, our problems, our goals, our needs always trumped his own, even long after we had graduated.
That was the Cornell Fleischer I turned to a decade later when I was struggling to write my first book. I had a bagful of archival documents I needed to go through, documents in a mix of languages and difficult scripts, and I was feeling more than a little overwhelmed. So Professor Fleischer told me to grab my bag and come over. He again cleared his entire day, and we spent it reading through those documents together; he parsed them effortlessly, coming up with fluent translations and spotting key words and phrases that would ultimately become cornerstones of my book.
“Professor Fleischer was an old-school Orientalist, a label he would often apply to himself with a smile. He could take a text he had never seen before and not just read it but also contextualize it, drawing connections and teasing out its significance in a way that was truly astonishing.“
Professor Fleischer was an old-school Orientalist, a label he would often apply to himself with a smile. He could take a text he had never seen before and not just read it but also contextualize it, drawing connections and teasing out its significance in a way that was truly astonishing. But what really set him apart was not his mastery of texts, languages, and history, but rather the spirit in which he approached those things, one of openness, humility, and curiosity. He was a perpetual student, as interested in hearing others’ insights as he was in offering his own, as eager to learn from us, his students, as we were to learn from him.
Professor Fleischer was a man of erudition and integrity whose contributions to the study of Ottoman and early modern Islamic, Mediterranean, and European history will continue to influence generations of historians to come. But he was also a man of boundless compassion and warmth. Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, he would open his home to us—his students, colleagues, and acquaintances, whom he affectionately referred to as his ihvânü’s-safâ, his “brethren of purity.” He always cooked the main dish of roasted turkey and pilaf himself, and we ihvân would eat and converse long into the night. He gave us a home, a sense of belonging, a community, one that over the years has helped see us through the many ups and downs of our professional and personal lives, one that endures even now that Professor Fleischer himself is with us no longer.
The loss of his guidance leaves a void that may never be filled, and his absence will be keenly felt by all who had the privilege of learning from him. Yet his legacy will live on through the profound impact he had on the minds of the students and colleagues fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him, and in the hearts of the ihvânü’s-safâ blessed to have shared in his days.
Abdurrahman Atçıl is an associate professor at Sabancı University specializing in law, religion, and politics in the early modern Ottoman Empire. He is currently leading a project on Ottoman law funded by the European Research Council and another on Ottoman ulema funded by the Center for Islamic Studies in Istanbul.
Zahit Atçıl, Istanbul Medeniyet University
Cornell Fleischer received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University in 1982. After teaching briefly at Ohio University and Washington University in St. Louis, he finally joined the faculty of the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and also the department of History at the University of Chicago in 1993, where he has been teaching and mentoring students since. In 1988, Cornell Fleischer received the most prestigious MacArthur Genious Award for his famous book Mustafa Ali. He holds the chair of The Kanuni Suleyman Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies, which is the chair endowed to Turkish studies at the University of Chicago, which was first introduced to him. While he received many awards and recognition thanks to his excellence in teaching and research, finally, in 2014, he was presented the Order of Merit by the Turkish President, Abdullah Gül.
Of course, he was well beyond these simple sentences. He was not only a sparkling star in the field of history, but he was also the sahib-qiran in Ottoman studies. He was perhaps the only person in front of whom one feels ignorant while testifying his vast knowledge of Ottoman history and being perplexed by seeing how he could discover historically unnoticed connections. He was an excellent researcher, outstanding teacher, exceptional advisor, and perfect historian. He looked at the past with a full vision and articulates its findings in a holistic way. While he primarily focused on sixteenth-century Ottoman history, he also had an exceptional command of the whole history of Islam as well as expertise in world history. This is not simply because he was eloquent in Turkish, Arabic, and Persian with diverse tongues and dialects, as well as almost all major European languages, including French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Latin. More importantly, he had a command of historical sources articulated by these languages. His publications revolve around Ottoman intellectual history, economic history, social and political history, and of course, apocalypticism and its historical reflections.
Undoubtedly, anyone who studies Ottoman history should encounter his magnum opus, Bureaucrat and Intellectual, Historian Mustafa Ali. This book, partly based on his Ph.D. thesis, is a perfect examination of the sixteenth-century historian Mustafa Ali’s life, career, works, thoughts, observations, criticisms, and hopes. Fleischer’s success does not simply come from his exhaustive use of historical sources and Mustafa Ali’s works, but also his contextualization of this educated, impatient, ambitious, and critical historian’s experience in an age when many Ottoman institutions were under construction and some of them were in the process of transformation. Fleischer’s novel approach to the works and ideas of Mustafa Ali comes from his pioneering discovery of the context that the Ottoman empire was still in the process of building rather than declining or devolving. As many students of Ottoman history confess, he had already expressed many ideas, even if briefly, that they were able to reach after a long process of research. His book became very early on the paragon of excellent research in Ottoman history, a model for studying an Ottoman biography. As you can easily notice, these sentences are not an exaggeration because the book brought him the MacArthur Genious Award.
“While he allowed his students to choose their own research topics without imposing any specific subjects, he never left them intellectually and emotionally helpless. One of the most remarkable aspects of his interactions with his students was that he formed genuine connections with them.”
Beyond all the words related to his career and works, I would like to share a few thoughts on his relationships with students. He advised numerous doctoral students who explored various subjects in early modern Ottoman history. While he allowed his students to choose their own research topics without imposing any specific subjects, he never left them intellectually and emotionally helpless. One of the most remarkable aspects of his interactions with his students was that he formed genuine connections with them. He always welcomed them into his personal life beyond the boundaries of a professional academic advisor-student relationship. This could be seen through potluck invitations to celebrate at his home, casual coffee meetings without any particular reason, or even traveling together. Perhaps because of these authentic relationships, his friends and students were deeply shocked by his death, and everyone felt a profound sense of loneliness, as if a close friend had been lost forever.
Zahit Atcil is an Associate Professor of History at Istanbul Medeniyet University. He received his PhD in History from the University of Chicago in 2015. His research interests span themes around Ottoman political and statecraft, Ottoman intellectual and diplomatic history, and warfare.
Hayrettin Yücesoy, Washington University in St. Louis
I had the privilege of meeting Cornell Hoca in 1995 when I was a fresh PhD student at the University of Chicago. Throughout my years as a student until my graduation in 2002, Cornell Hoca not only taught me in multiple classes but also served as a committee member during my dissertation defense. While my dissertation focused on political messianism in ninth-century Abbasid history, his valuable insights on messianism in Ottoman and world history greatly enriched my research. Attending his classes and receiving his feedback on my dissertation chapters were tremendous privileges, I will always treasure. Like his other students, I have always been deeply impressed by his erudition, linguistic proficiency, and inquisitive mind. His probing questions and distinct style of inquiry left a lasting impact on all of us.
As an aspiring Abbasid historian, I had a solid foundation in the narrative sources of my field when I began my studies at the University of Chicago. However, witnessing firsthand how Cornell Hoca discussed and evaluated narrative sources, as well as their advantages compared to archival materials, opened my eyes to a new level of understanding. In an era dominated by archival research, his groundbreaking contributions to Ottoman studies from the perspective of narrative sources were nothing short of transformative. It is not an over statement to say that this paradigm shift have shaped the landscape of Ottoman studies.
“He actively sought out fresh voices and arguments, particularly those articulated by students from the former “Ottoman world,” in order to challenge Eurocentric approaches that failed to critically question the prevailing theories of modernization at that time.”
What truly stands out to me is his unwavering dedication to his students, many of whom are now pushing the boundaries of Ottoman studies in exciting new directions. He actively sought out fresh voices and arguments, particularly those articulated by students from the former “Ottoman world,” in order to challenge Eurocentric approaches that failed to critically question the prevailing theories of modernization at that time. He taught them, supported them during and after their studies, and was proud of them. The last time I saw him was at the MESA conference few years ago in New Orleans, surrounded by several of his students charmingly happy and seemingly healthy chatting about life, work, and affairs. Like his mentors and students, Cornell Hoca devoted his entire life to the field of Islamic and, especially, Ottoman studies. To say his absence is deeply felt by all who knew him is an understatement. May you rest in peace Cornell Hocam. Nurlar içinde yat.
Hayrettin Yucesoy is Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, History, and Global Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Yucesoy is the author of multiple monographs, incouding most recently of Disenchanting the Caliphate: The Secular Discipline of Power in Abbasid Political Thought (Columbia, 2023). He received his PhD in history from the University of Chicago in 2002 and writes on themes spanning Abbasid political and intellectual history, and messianism.
*Slider image credit: Jason Smith, University of Chicago.