How did you come to study Crete?
At the most general level, I’m interested in the conduct of business and the place of economies in pre-modern societies. I focused on Crete because I was interested in how the merchant class there would change with a change in political sovereignty. In 1669 Crete became Ottoman after a long war between the Ottoman Empire and Venice; prior to that it had been controlled by the Venetians since 1204. This was a very late Ottoman conquest -- the golden age of Ottoman conquest had already come to an end -- and as I researched the book I came to realize that there were many peculiarities about the Cretan conquest that had never been addressed. As a result I ended up writing a more general book about the transition from Venetian to Ottoman rule, although I did still address commerce and merchants.
In part I was responding to a common conception that there were two Mediterraneans, one Christian, the other Muslim, as if the two worlds were separated by a kind of Iron Curtain, despite high levels of trade . I wanted to show that the departure of the Venetians and the arrival of the Ottomans was not a shift from night to day"that a Muslim “Iron Curtain” did not descend. Commerce did not cease, Christians did not flee, civilization did not disappear. In fact, I wanted to show that the Ottoman conquest of the island was just the final step in a long process whereby Crete had already been drawn into the orbit of the eastern Mediterranean and into the Ottoman world. Even before the Ottomans arrived, many Cretans lived in Istanbul and many of the trade routes were oriented toward Istanbul. Economies do not follow political sovereignty. This idea of a sharp divide between the Muslim and Christian Mediterranean just does not hold up.
How did life on Crete change after the Ottomans took over?
The Ottoman conquest of Crete must be seen as a gain for Orthodox Christianity. Ever since the Fourth Crusade (1204) the relationship between Latin Christianity (Catholicism) and the Eastern Orthodox had been very hostile. Under Venetian rule there had been active religious persecution on Crete for half a millennium. This all came to a halt when the Ottomans took over. The Ottomans, like all Muslim regimes, had a specified place in society for Christians and Jews under their rule, and there was no policy of persecution. Christians and Jews were certainly second-class citizens, but as long as they paid extra taxes they were free to practice their religions. The Ottomans restored ties between the Orthodox Cretans and the Orthodox hierarchy in Istanbul that the Venetians had severed. The conquest of Crete, then, can be seen as the final step in pushing the Latin Christians out of the eastern Mediterranean, where they had been since the Crusades. As the Muslims gradually re-conquered the eastern Mediterranean, they handed over control over Orthodox Christian life to the Orthodox authorities.
Your current book project concerns Catholic piracy in the Mediterranean. Who were these pirates?
The most famous and powerful Catholic pirates were the Knights of St. John, an order of knights founded during the First Crusade and originally based in Jerusalem. After Saladin retook Jerusalem from the Christians in the late 12th century, the Knights ended up on the island of Rhodes, in the eastern Mediterranean, where they engaged in a combination of trade and crusading. Officially they were still fighting the Muslims, but half the time they were actually trading with them. In 1522 the Ottomans conquered Rhodes and the Knights were evicted again. This time they ended up on the central Mediterranean island of Malta, where they stayed until Napoleon put an end to the Order. This is why they are sometimes known as the Knights of Malta. The lawlessness of the Knights is often stressed, but in fact there were rules about what was proper and not proper to seize, and a prize court where controversies were decided. At the most general level I am interested in how business is conducted in situations of legal uncertainty and weak state sovereignty. By studying these rules and, more importantly, the cases that were argued before the Tribunale (as the prize court was known), I am discovering a fascinating ambiguity in the legal regime underpinning the competing claims of peaceful trade and religious crusade in the 17th-century Mediterranean. The Knights tried to balance these two claims by dividing the world into Christian, Muslim, and Jewish commerce and declaring that the latter two were fair game for them. But in fact it was not at all clear what defined Muslim commerce, for example, as opposed to Christian commerce. It is the Greek Orthodox who bring out this ambiguity the most, because they were both Christians and Ottoman subjects. For that reason the heart of my book consists of a number of court cases that Greek merchants brought before the Tribunale in Malta. In short, my entire book project has developed out of the simple desire of some anonymous merchants to get their stuff back.
What do you want students to appreciate about the region you study?
Students who take my classes are often interested in conflict. For instance, I’ve recently taught courses on Jerusalem and the Balkans. It’s an interesting mix, because I am very much a historian of the day-to-day and the ordinary. I teach the conflicts, of course, but I try to impress upon students the fact that there is more to Middle Eastern and Islamic history than war, religion, and struggle. There is ordinary life -- music, the family, the life of the village -- and some of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Conflict in this part of the world has been so intense lately, and has been covered in the media so extensively, that one could easily conclude that violence is endemic to the region. This has the effect of taking current political problems out of history. I try to put the history back in.