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Following the first European voyages of exploration to the New World, several Ottoman authors debated whether Alexander the Great may have already known of the American continent in classical antiquity. By exploring the contours of this previously unstudied intra-Ottoman debate, the present article challenges the prevailing scholarly view that sixteenth-century Ottoman writings about the Americas were at best frivolous and at worst incoherent. Instead, these texts engaged with many of the same questions provoked by the discoveries in contemporary Europe, while at the same time intersecting with the most profound and contested concerns of Ottoman statecraft.
Undeclared ambitions for the future notwithstanding, my current research profile is one that could qualify me as an “environmental historian” by only the most indulgent of standards. My contribution to this roundtable will thus be written less in the mode of a practicing researcher in the field and more from the perspective of a teacher (at a U.S. public land-grant university) currently in the process of trying to “environmentalize” two large survey courses in history.
The middle decades of the sixteenth century witnessed one of the most dramatic and unexpected transformations in the history of long-distance intercontinental commerce: the revival of the transit spice trade through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, following a period of nearly fifty years during which it had been redirected almost in its entirety through the Portuguese-controlled route around the Cape of Good Hope. And yet, while modern scholars have been aware of this sea change in global commerce for generations, the reasons behind it still remain a subject of debate. Numerous explanations have been proposed, ranging from changes in the international demand for spices to corruption within the Portuguese administration. Until now, however, none has taken into account what may be the most important factor of all: the rising power of Ottoman corsairs, whose predatory raids against Portuguese targets were instrumental in subverting the Estado da India's system for controlling trade in the western Indian Ocean.
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