Why Ottoman Algiers?
Updated: May 26, 2020
Charles Marlow, a recurring character in Joseph Conrad’s fiction, once referred to “the blank spaces on the map.” I have always been fascinated by and drawn to such places and, in my life, have been fortunate enough to visit and explore several of them. The Mediterranean, in the words of Fernand Braudel, that “complex of seas … broken up by islands interrupted by peninsulas, ringed by intricate coast lines,” has always called me.
The lure of the unknown is a powerful force. What wonders might one find on arriving at those blank spaces? There is no denying the appeal of a beautiful seascape, or a panoramic expanse of desert, or a majestic mountain peak. And what of the towns and cities, the like of Italo Calvino’s INVISIBLE CITIES? Those fabulous flights of imagination fueled by the creative impulse?
All of these were factors at work in my choice of a historical Algiers, especially one perhaps touched by Europe, but not yet corrupted by the European colonial excursions.
Everyone knows the Barbary Pirates. But few know the truth behind them. The Ottoman Regency of Algiers, Iyala al-Jazair fi’l-Gharb, like its sister city-states on the coast of North Africa, was above all else a competitor in the lucrative Mediterranean trade. History records for us, time and again, that economics drive politics and the relations between nations. To understand this simple truth is to understand why European nations and city states took stances varying from warily competitive, to antagonistic to openly hostile against their neighbors to the south. For centuries, the riches of Africa and Asia were accessible almost exclusively by means of the Mediterranean. Even after the circumnavigations by European explorers opened new trade routes and markets, the Mediterranean retained its place as the most important and profitable of all trade routes. Its potential as an economic conduit and cultural mediator, however, was never fully realized. Instead, the Mediterranean continued to be contested by competing powers that ebbed and flowed with the tide of history.
The Portuguese governor Alfonso de Albuquerque after conquering Goa and Malacca in 1511, wrote: If one takes this trade of Malacca out of their [Mamluks’] hands, Cairo and Mecca will be entirely ruined, and to Venice no spices will be conveyed, except what her merchants go to buy in Portugal.”
Then, each power wrote its history from its own, self-interested perspective. In the eyes of Europeans, their rivals for control of the lucrative Mediterranean trade routes were cast as pirates. Exploiting the Christian sentiments of their populaces, they magnified issues of religion which led, in their most virulent form, to inquisition and expulsion at home and to crusades abroad. Reciprocation on the part of the peoples of North Africa was unavoidable.
Dr. Fatima Maameri wrote: “The history of Algeria… is a history of a people, diverse as it was, that fought to counter European attacks and preserve its freedom and culture.”
When the Ottomans were invited, through the brothers Barbarosa, to expel the Spanish and protect Algiers from further Spanish attempts to subjugate it, the Spanish viewed north Africa as “an ancient but fragmented land incapable of defending itself” Adding that, “perhaps only the Aragonese preoccupation with the riches of Italy prevented Spain from moving in to capture the inland Maghreb.” But the lost opportunity never presented itself again. In 1516 the Barbarosas settled in Algiers. For the next three centuries, until the French invasion in 1830, Algiers and much of North Africa had the protection of the powerful Ottoman Empire. Then, with their natural resources, extended growing seasons, and industrious and innovative peoples, the city states of the Maghreb grew and prospered. By the 1790s, when Muhammad Amalfi is brought to it in chains, Algiers has reached the height of its prosperity.
I chose to set the series of mysteries in the Algiers that existed prior to the French colonial depredations for the reason that societies throughout the world at that time were undergoing revolution and change. In the Western Hemisphere, the American colonies had overthrown British royal sovereignty to become the United States. The same ideas and sentiments had been circulating in the nations of Europe and, in the 1790s, burst their intellectual bonds to become the French Revolution and the establishment of republican ideals and institutions across the continent. Yet, while all this was taking place, the city-states of North Africa were locked in a fight for survival against immensely more powerful European nations, constantly aligning and then realigning themselves with one European power after another. But I wondered, when thinking of this historical situation, what if! What if a city state in the Maghreb, like Algiers, had the opportunity and the will to transform itself into a diverse hub for trade, a free market and a safe harbor for all those willing to share in the wealth of the Mediterranean? A fulfilment aforetime of Camus’ dream of a City of Man? In the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, that may be the hope of some of the characters. But it is not their reality. For, in history, there are always forces and counter forces. Ideas, however wonderful and promising, always find opposition.
In the novels, the character known as Caid Muhammad Jafar, or simply as Caid Jafar, is a former British sea captain who, years prior to Muhammad Amalfi’s arrival, establishes himself as a successful trader and then an advisor to successive Deys of Algiers on Trade and Commerce. Caid Jafar envisions his adopted city of Algiers as an Amsterdam of the Mediterranean and attempts at every opportunity to convince the Deys he serves that corsairing, or privateering as it is otherwise known, is not sustainable and cannot be the future of a stable Algerian economy. Jafar argues that the successes of the corsairs, thought of as mujahideen by the Corsair Captains Guild and the Jihad Lobby within the Dey’s Diwan (Advisory Council), may yield results in the short term. But, eventually, the corsairs will prove such an irritant to the European powers that they will one day send their navies to obliterate the city.
Of course, this is fiction. But it underlies the action in many if not all of the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries. More importantly, it illustrates certain truths regarding the nature of the militancy exhibited by Algiers, both aggressive and defensive. By means of these threads throughout the novels, I hope to dispel some of the misconception regarding Algerian Muslims as pirates or, more specifically, as the Barbary Pirates.
Unfortunately, modern authors in the United States have fallen into the same trap of misconceived notions about that period by attempting to portray early forays by American naval military on the coast of North Africa as the first encounters with what they term Islamic Terrorism, Fundamentalism, or Extremism. Such erroneous and irresponsible characterizations serve only to promote misunderstanding and unwarranted antagonism. If the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries bring another side of the equation to the minds of readers in the United States and Europe, then I’ll account them a success.
So, why Ottoman Algiers? Because for most readers of English, Algiers is “a blank space on the map.” And because the times at the turn of the Eighteenth Century were so darned interesting. War and upheaval were in the air. Everything was possible until it proved impossible. The fantastic was ordinary and the ordinary was fantastic!
Writing on Pre-Industrialized Societies in 1989, Patricia Crone noted: “The civilized societies of the past resemble those of modern times, but in some ways the similarity is deceptive. One cannot come to grips with them without thinking away modernity and working out the consequences of its absence.”
In short, writing about Ottoman Algiers, the time and the place, is a challenge to the imagination and to the intellect. If anything answers the question: Why Ottoman Algiers? It is this.