In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Ottoman Empire and International Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Early Modern Ottoman Empire
  • The Ottoman Legacy

International Law The Ottoman Empire and International Law
Nobuyoshi Fujinami
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0227


The Ottoman Empire has long been a marginal subject in both the history and theory of international law. With the imperial turn in historiography and the postcolonial turn to history in legal studies, researchers challenge the stereotype of “the Sick Man of Europe,” paying due attention to the Ottomans’ own understanding of international law and society. Most importantly, throughout its centuries-long existence, the Ottoman Empire did not find itself vis-à-vis a monolithic, stable, and ready-made set of rules and ideas we today refer to as international law. On the contrary, interactions with the Ottomans—the Other par excellence for Christian Europe—helped transform droit public européen into modern international law. Neither the Islamic nor the Christian precepts predetermined this course of events. “Islamic” explanation was of little help in understanding the Ottomans’ relationship with the European powers. Notwithstanding the Islamic ideal of Holy War, the Ottoman Empire was among the key actors in the European balance of power. In the 19th century, however, Europeans increasingly established discrimination against Muslim Ottomans as a rule in international law, rarely perceiving their desire to be a full member of international society. Overall, the Ottoman Empire offers a fresh perspective for a truly universal history of international law.

General Overviews

In the Eurocentric history of international law, the Ottoman Empire has long been a marginal subject, but more recent works exemplify how promising the studies in Ottoman international law are. Two trends are pivotal for this shift: first, criticizing the cliché of Islamic particularism, a new generation of Ottomanist historians examines the empire as an essentially ordinary state, a trend that parallels the imperial turn in historiography. Burbank and Cooper 2010 represents the efforts to contextualize Eurasian empires, including the Ottomans. Given the Ottoman respect for the Persianate order of things, the empire’s diplomatic relationship with its eastern neighbors, as studied in Tucker 1996, encourages legal historians to provincialize Europe (see also Smiley 2018 under the Modern Ottoman Empire). Second, as Kévonian and Rygiel 2020 discusses, a postcolonial turn to history in international law problematizes the Eurocentrism prominent in law (see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “The Turn to History in International Law”). Anghie 2005 denounces international law’s dark side, while Koskenniemi, et al. 2017 demonstrates the significance of the Christian empire in the European theory of jus gentium and just war—an ideology comparable to the Ottoman belief in Islamic holy war—despite the secularist myth of Westphalia. Özsu 2016 draws attention to the Ottoman precedent for the legal institutions later imposed in other regions, especially the extraterritoriality in China and Japan. The stereotype of “the Sick Man of Europe” notwithstanding, Ottomans’ own attitude toward international law and society offers a fresh perspective for revisiting what law meant in a world increasingly dominated by the West. Can, et al. 2020 is the first collective attempt to explore the subjects of Ottoman international law. Language barriers have perhaps hindered legal scholars from examining the Ottoman cases––one may need to know Arabic, Persian, Greek, Italian, and preferably Russian, in addition to Ottoman Turkish––but no small number of source materials are available in Western languages, especially French, the lingua franca in European diplomacy. Noradounghian 1897–1903 and Kuneralp 2000 are the obvious starting points for any study of the Ottoman relations with European states, while Kuneralp and Öktem 2012 provides an invaluable source for grasping the Ottoman legal mind.

  • Anghie, Antony. Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511614262

    The standard-bearer of the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) reveals and criticizes the Eurocentrism in international law, the most unredeemed victims of which are probably the post-Ottoman Arab countries.

  • Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    A reader that reconstructs world history from the viewpoint of empires, providing a Eurasian context to provincialize Europe.

  • Can, Lale, Michael Christopher Low, Kent F. Schull, and Robert Zens, eds. The Subjects of Ottoman International Law. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.

    Bringing together the leading scholars on the subjects, this volume represents the latest state of research on the Ottomans’ ideas and performances pertaining to international law.

  • Kévonian, Dzovinar, and Philippe Rygiel. “Archives of International Lawyers: Towards a Social History of International Legal Practice.” Jus Gentium: Journal of International Legal History 5.2 (2020): 453–466.

    A symposium report reviewing recent trends in international legal studies, which juxtaposes historians’ history with lawyers’ history.

  • Koskenniemi, Martti, Walter Rech, and Manuel Jiménez Fonseca, eds. International Law and Empire: Historical Explorations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    An encounter between international legal studies and the studies in the empire. To provincialize Europe and Eurocentric international law, this volume focuses on the early modern interactions between Western and indigenous laws outside of Europe.

  • Kuneralp, Sinan, ed. Recueil des traités, conventions, protocoles, arrangements et déclarations signés entre l’Empire Ottoman et les puissances étrangères, 1903–1922. 2 vols. Istanbul: Les Editions Isis, 2000.

    A continuation of Noradoughian’s Recueil, compiling major treaties the Porte concluded after 1903.

  • Kuneralp, Sinan, and Emre Öktem, eds. Chambre des conseillers légistes de la Sublime Porte: Rapports, avis et consultations sur la condition juridique des ressortissants étrangers, le statut des communautés non musulmanes et les relations internationales de l’Empire ottoman (1864–1912). Istanbul: Les Editions Isis, 2012.

    A collection of documents emanating from the office of legal counsel—one of the ideal places of employment for the young Ottoman jurists. Reflecting the perceptions of modern Ottoman diplomats and decision makers, this volume provides useful source materials regarding the Ottoman diplomatic and legal history.

  • Noradounghian, Gabriel Effendi. Recueil d’actes internationaux de l’Empire ottoman: Traités, conventions, arrangements, déclarations, protocoles, procès-verbaux, firmans, bérats, lettres patentes et autres documents relatifs au droit public extérieur de la Turquie. 4 vols. Paris: F. Pichon, 1897–1903.

    Magnus opus of an Ottoman Armenian politician who became the empire’s minister of foreign affairs in 1912–1913, compiling the French texts of the treaties the Ottomans had concluded. The importance and utility of this work is beyond doubt, but a careful reading is necessary as some of the texts included were not the original French but later translations.

  • Özsu, Umut. “The Ottoman Empire, the Origins of Extraterritoriality, and International Legal Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law. Edited by Florian Hoffmann and Anne Orford, 123–137. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    The Ottoman Empire was a typical semi-periphery in 19th-century international law. Özsu takes extraterritoriality as the key institution in the global expansion of European international law, as the Ottoman experience offered a precedent for the unequal treaties imposed on China and Japan.

  • Tucker, Ernest. “The Peace Negotiations of 1736: A Conceptual Turning Point in Ottoman-Iranian Relations.” Turkish Studies Association Bulletin 20.1 (1996): 16–37.

    In the abortive negotiations between the Ottomans and the new ruler of Persia after the fall of the Safavids, Nader Shah Afshar, at stake was the recognition of the Jafari school––to which the Shi’i Iranians were attached––as the fifth official school of Islamic jurisprudence by the Ottoman Sunni authority; a good piece for understanding what law and religion meant in the Persianate world.

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