Spies of the Sultan

Episode 334

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Along with new maritime networks, information stiched together the empires of the early modern period. One component of the growing networks of information in the increasingly connected space of the Mediterranean world was espionage. As we learn in our latest conversation with Emrah Safa Gürkan about his new book Sultanın Casusları (Spies of the Sultan), the Ottoman Empire was both party and subject to the fascinating exploits of early modern spies. In this episode, we learn about the lives of Ottoman spies profiled in Gürkan's book, and we consider how the transformation of espionage in the Mediterranean relates to the development of early modern empires.

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Contributor Bios

Emrah Safa Gürkan is a historian of the early modern Mediterranean focusing on themes such as espionage, privateering, religious conversion and slavery. He teaches at Istanbul 29 Mayis University. He is also co-creator of Ottoman History Podcast.
Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.

Bonus Segment

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Episode No. 334
Release Date: 25 September 2017
Recording Location: Şişhane, Istanbul
Audio editing by Chris Gratien
Music: Harmandali - Recep Efendi, Cemal Efendi
Special thanks to Kara Günes for permission to use the composition "Istanbul" and Muhtelif for "Bint El Shalabiya"
Images and bibliography courtesy of Emrah Safa Gürkan


Spia. Cesare Ripa, Iconologia di Cesare Ripa Perugino (Venedik: Christoforo Tomasini, 1645), s. 542.
Archivo General de Simancas, Papeles de Estado, busta 486, letter dated 9 November 1562. A spy letter in Ottoman. A letter written by Simon Massa the Genoese, a member of the Habsburg intelligence network in Istanbul, 9 November 1562. Although using the Arabic alphabet, the letter is in Italian. It starts in Ottoman: “Benim sa’âdetlü Sultânım hazretleri el-mükerrem hakpâ-yı şerîflerine eylece malûm-ı şerîf olsun kim ben bendenüz hazret-i Sultânımın bendesiyim.” It was signed as “servitor de vostra Altesa Simon Massa Ceneviz”
Archivo General de Simancas, Papeles de Estado, busta 1392, fol. 63 (18 February 1563). A spy letter written with invisible ink, presumably with lemon juice or some other ingredient. In other not to arise suspicion, the front page of such letters contained a letter written by a slave or a merchant to his family. A safeword, honorando, would help the recipient realize that this was a spy letter which should be “tormented” under fire so that the invisible writing appears in red.
Archivo General de Simancas, Papeles de Estado, busta 1127, fol. 13 (20 April 1537). A letter written in cipher. Notice that only important parts were ciphered. When those arrived in the chancery, expert scribes wrote the deciphered texts in the margins.

Select Bibliography

Emrah Safa Gürkan with his book Sultanın
(Kronik Kitap)
Photo credit: Chris Gratien
Ágoston, Gábor. “Birodalom és információ: Konstantinápoly, mint a koraújkori Európa infor-mációs központja,” Perjés Géza Emlékkönyv, eds. Gábor Hausner ve László Veszprémi (Budapeşte: Argumentum, 2005), pp. 31-60

Ágoston, Gábor. “Információszerzés és kémkedés az Oszmán Birodalomban a 15-17. század-ban,” Információármlás a magyar ès török végvári rendszerben, eds. Tivadar Petercsák ve Mátyás Berecz (Eger: Heves Megyei Múzeum, 1999), pp. 129-54.

Ágoston, Gábor. “Information, Ideology, and Limits of Imperial Policy: Ottoman Grand Strategy in the Context of Ottoman-Habsburg Rivalry,” in The Early Modern Ottomans: Remapping the Empire, eds. Virginia H. Aksan and Daniel Goffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 78-92.

Anhegger, Robert. Ein angeblicher schweizerischer Agent an der Hohen Pforte im Jahre 1581 (İstanbul: Marmara Basımevi, 1943).

Biegman, N.H. “Ragusan Spying for the Ottoman Empire: Some 16th-century Documents from the State Archive at Dubrovnik,” Belleten 26/106 (1963): 237-255.

Casale, Giancarlo. “An Ottoman Intelligence Report from the mid-sixteenth century Indian Ocean,” Journal of Turkish Studies 31 (2007): 181-188

Dávid, Géza and Pál Fodor. “Ottoman Spy Reports from Hungary,” in Turcica et Islamica. Studi in Memoria di Aldo Gallotta, I, ed. Ugo Marazzi (Napoli: Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” 2003), pp. 121-131

Eroğlu, Haldun. “Klasik Dönemde Osmanlı Devletinin İstihbarat Stratejileri,” Ankara Üniversitesi Tarih Araştırmaları Dergisi 34 (2003): 11-33.

Gürkan, Emrah Safa. “Fooling the Sultan: Information, Decision-Making and the ‘Mediterranean Faction’ (1585-1587),” Journal of Ottoman Studies 45 (2015): 57-96.

Gürkan, Emrah Safa. “L’idra del sultano: Lo spionaggio ottomano nel cinquecento,” Mediterranea. Richerche storiche 38 (2016): 447-476.

Gürkan, Emrah Safa. “My Money or Your Life: The Habsburg Hunt for Uluc Ali,” Studia Historica. Historia Moderna 36: Duelo entre colosos: el Imperio Otomano y los Habsburgos en el siglo XVI (2014): 121-145.

Gürkan, Emrah Safa. Sultanın Casusları: 16. Yüzyılda İstihbarat, Sabotaj ve Rüşvet Ağları (İstanbul: Kronik, 2017).

Gürkan, Emrah Safa. “The Efficacy of Ottoman-Counter-Intelligence in the Sixteenth Century,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricum 65/1 (2012): 1-38.

Gürkan, Emrah Safa. “Il bailaggio e la diplomazia d’informazione fra Venezia e Istanbul,” Θησαυρίσματα / Thesaurismata: Bollettino dell'Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini (forthcoming).

Isom-Verhaaren, Christine. “An Ottoman Report about Martin Luther and the Emperor: New Evidence of the Ottoman In¬terest in the Protestant Challenge to the Power of Charles V,” Turcica 28 (1996): 299-318

Kemp, Percy. “An Eighteenth-Century Turkish Intelligence Report,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16 (1984): 497-506

Ménage, Victor L. “The Mission of an Ottoman Secret Agent in France in 1486,” Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 97/2 (1965): 112-32.

Skilliter, S. A. “The Sultan’s Messenger, Gabriel Defrens; an Ottoman Master  Spy of the Sixteenth Century,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes LXVIII (1976): 47-59.S.

Woods, John E. “Turco-Iranica I: An Ottoman Intelligence Report on La¬te Fifteenth/Ninth Century Iranian Foreign Relations,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38-1 (1979): 1-9

Yüksel, Ahmet. II. Mahmud Devrinde Osmanlı İstihbaratı (İstanbul: Kitap Yayı¬nevi, 2013)

Yüksel, Ahmet. Rusların Kafkasya’yı İstilası ve Osmanlı İstihbarat Ağı (İstanbul: Dergah Yayınları, 2014)


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