History professor’s book gains following in telling borderland stories (2024)

A groundbreaking book by history professor MuratYaşar in the emerging field of borderland studies has visited the top of the Amazon sales charts in recent weeks.

“The North Caucasus Borderland Between Muscovy and the Ottoman Empire, 1555-1605,” part of the Edinburgh University Press Studies on the Ottoman Empire series, was first published in 2022, but the May 2024 paperback edition has really taken off, Yaşar noted.

“One reason this is doing so well, I think, is because there isn’t much early modern history written in the area I’m studying, the North Caucasus region of Eastern Europe,” Yaşar said. “In addition, borderland studies in general are on the rise.”

The mountainous North Caucasus region in what is now Russia was a contested borderland during that time, encroached by the Ottoman Empire and Russian Empire, with contested ownership sometimes changing from year to year.

“We’re used to reading about empires and states and history usually ignores people living in between empires,” Yaşar explained. “Historians like me who look at people between empires try to understand the assortment of people living in such borderlands and their perspectives, in this case, in the North Caucasus.”

The challenge has been that people in these regions were marginalized and unable to tell their stories as they did leave any written records of their own. Yaşar turned to a different methodology to get a bigger picture.

“I studied the archives and narrative sources from the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire to try to understand these people from those two perspectives,” Yaşar noted. “By comparing and analyzing those histories, I was able to get a better picture of who these people were, what they did, what they wanted in the North Caucasus borderland.”

Yaşar thinks this methodology can help drive the field of borderland studies to become more inclusive in telling stories –- both in modern contexts and those dating back centuries.

“I’m hoping this methodology can be used by other historians studying other frontiers and borderlands,” Yaşar said. “Most of the time, people in borderlands couldn’t write their own histories. This methodology helps put them in a more objective context.”

A story worth telling

Yaşar had found some potential interest from Edinburgh University Press in publishing this installment, and he wrote and submitted a proposal just before the COVID pandemic brought the world to a near standstill in spring 2020.

“You could say it was a COVID project,” Yaşar said. “It became a blessing in a way because it gave me something to do when I couldn’t leave the house. I was able to sit down and work on it for about a year and a half.”

The deeper he delved into research, the more he saw a story that really needed to be told.

“There are a lot of North Caucasus peoples who were forcefully expelled from the Russian Empire,” Yaşar said. “Many migrated to the Ottoman Empire, some throughout Europe and others to the United States. Many millions of people have never seen their history written, let alone in a language and way that they can read. The North Caucasus peoples in different parts of the world constitute a diaspora in a way. But people really want to read their own history. This book filled a gap in explaining the history of the North Caucasus region to the world.”

It was a difficult time in history for a fascinating region that Yaşar called “the most diverse region in the world in terms of language, as there are hundreds of languages spoken in this area.”

The geography contributed to its cultural and historical development, as its high mountains and deep valleys meant the area became a refuge for those trying to escape persecution or ruling empires.

“Sometimes groups of people would go into the North Caucasus region to get out of the reach of armies and empires,” Yaşar said. “The downside was that the geography and presence of so many different cultures prevented the local people from uniting and working together to defend their lands against the empires encroaching upon them.”

Shifting borders

With the Ottoman and Russian empires constantly trying to expand their borders, this meant constant change and sometimes danger for inhabitants of the North Caucasus region.

“Borders changed, sometimes yearly,” Yaşar said. “People living in this borderland could find themselves suddenly in a different imperial system and in precarious situations. They could be persecuted, they could be abducted, they could be expelled or they could be accepted.”

Resistance was common among the North Caucasus peoples, although sometimes empires tried to co-opt inhabitants by paying salaries to various leaders, whether chiefs or princes, to try to bring their followers into their imperial systems and provide loyalty. The motivations of these leaders have sometimes been misunderstood by historians, he noted.

“Some chiefs accepted appropriations from both sides,” Yaşar explained. “But they didn’t do it to maximize their benefits, they were doing it to survive. To reject these offers could have far worse consequences. Rulers and officials from the Russian Empire or Ottoman Empire and modern day historians writing on these leaders today based on Ottoman or Russian sources might have seen them as disloyal, but they were just trying to survive as empires were encroaching on their land and demanding loyalty.”

This expanded view of the region has found a willing audience. As of presstime, the book -–retailing at an accessible $29.95 in paperback and Kindle–- had reached #1 on Amazon among new Turkish history books, #3 in Middle Eastern history and entered the top 50 in European history.

And its readership might continue growing with new publishing avenues. Yaşar has discussed opportunities to translate the book into Turkish and into Adyghe, a North Caucasus language spoken by modern day Circassians..

Ultimately, finding a methodology that can help tell the story of people in borderlands and sharing the history of the North Caucasus area made the effort worth it.

“History was mostly likely written by the conquerors. I’m hoping this is a methodology other historians can use, whatever borderlands and time period they might be studying,” he said. “I was able to give a voice to the voiceless, to people who haven’t been able to tell their stories, which is very gratifying.”

History professor’s book gains following in telling borderland stories (2024)

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