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SoSGlobal Report Summary

Project ID: 638578
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SoSGlobal (Stories of Survival: Recovering the Connected Histories of Eastern Christianity in the Early Modern World)

Reporting period: 2015-07-01 to 2016-12-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Stories of Survival is a five-year research project funded by an ERC Starting Grant (2015-20), directed by Dr John-Paul Ghobrial, and based at the University of Oxford. The project investigates the history of Eastern Christianity from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. From Lebanese immigrants in Argentina to Iraqi refugees in Sweden, Eastern Christians can be found today scattered across the entire world. Too often, however, this global migration has been seen purely as a modern development, one arising from contemporary political and confessional events in the Middle East, while in fact this phenomenon had its roots in the early modern period. From the sixteenth century onwards, Christians from the Ottoman Empire set out for distant worlds and foreign lands, travelling as far as Europe, India, Russia, and even the Americas and leaving traces of themselves in countless European and Middle Eastern archives, chanceries, and libraries. This transnational project gathers all of these disparate sources into a single analytical frame to uncover, for the first time, the global and connected histories of Eastern Christianity in the early modern world.

In spite of the existence of a vast, global archive of sources, our knowledge of Eastern Christianity in the early modern period remains in fact surprisingly limited. In part, this is a reflection of the fact that most scholars who command the requisite philological skills have tended to focus on the early medieval period or on the contemporary situation of Christians in the Middle East. What little work has been done on the early modern period remains problematic and limited in several ways. Firstly, scholars have tended to restrict themselves to local and nationally-oriented studies of particular Eastern Christian communities such as the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Lebanon, or the Assyrians of Iraq. While undoubtedly an important contribution to our knowledge of the period, these studies are imperfect in as much as they ignore interactions taking place between specific communities as well as between these communities and the wider world. Indeed, much of the existing scholarship emphasises the doctrinal differences that separated particular Eastern Christian churches from each other, while ignoring the fact that many of these communities shared a common vernacular in the language of Arabic and, for some, the historical and liturgical use of Syriac. Secondly, our knowledge has been misguided by an outmoded conception of Christians as a ‘second-class’, minority population in the Islamic world. This idea is more a reflection of twentieth-century realities than early modern ones, and the consequence is that Eastern Christianity has been relegated to the margins of Ottoman history. When approached at all, Eastern Christians are too often studied through the prism of ‘Islamic’ history, almost as if they made no history of their own.

This state-of-the-art is unjustifiable, not least considering that the study of Eastern Christianity has been the subject of scholarly interest since at least the eighteenth century. Even so, the resources available to scholars today are in complete disarray. We still lack critical editions of most works written in this period: histories, travelogues, saints’ lives, translations of European works, and much more. Catalogues of manuscript collections date back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and they are unscientific, incomplete, and those that have been printed (many still circulate only in handwritten lists) were only printed in small runs, which makes it impossible for scholars to use them in a critical fashion. Moreover, the collections described in these catalogues have since been dispersed and, in some cases, destroyed as a consequence of the long history of war, turmoil, and political change in the Middle East. Faced with the tragic disappearance of this literary and cultural heritage, several digitization projects have recently sought to recover and preserve these collections in digital formats. As a result, we now possess a more complete picture of the sources than ever available to earlier generations of scholars.

Stories of Survival will produce a new religious and social history of Eastern Christianity in a global context. In doing so, it seeks to recover the role of Christians at the heart of Middle Eastern history. Through the work of a team of researchers under the close supervision of Dr Ghobrial, the project is reconstituting and analysing a ‘lost archive’ of literary, documentary, and printed sources in three continents, ten languages, and dozens of archives. Drawing on this vast record of sources, the research team will write a truly ‘connected history’ of Eastern Christianity, one that seeks to explore Eastern Christianity ‘from within and without’ in this period. The questions driving the team’s research range from issues related to communal identity, memory and belonging in Eastern Christianity, to modes of exchange and communication between Eastern Christian communities and their counterparts in the West, to central questions about the place of Eastern Christianity in the major religious, political and historical developments of the early modern world.

The project employs a team of researchers based in Oxford who are working on Arabic, Syriac, and European-language sources related to Eastern Christianity. The team will target the findings of its research in articles that reach three main audiences: specialists in Eastern Christianity, scholars in Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies, and ‘mainstream’ history journals aimed at wider circles of early modern historians. In this way, the Stories of Survival project seeks to place Eastern Christianity at the forefront of European, Islamic, and global history in the early modern period, as much for scholars as for a wider segment of society interested in these issues in a contemporary context.

Underlying the project is also a set of deeper questions related to the practice and future of early modern global history, itself a subject of current and controversial debate. As a field, ‘global history’ is now at more risk than ever of becoming a catch-all phrase for several highly divergent types of history, ranging from micro histories of objects to so-called ‘big’ or ‘deep’ history written at the level of planetary change. The intellectual incoherence of the field has been a subject of great concern for practitioners and critics alike, and these debates revolve around significant differences in opinion over the appropriate methods, sources, and goals of global history. The project responds directly to one of the most pressing conceptual challenges facing global history today: that is, how is it possible to link the study of the micro-scale level of everyday life to the macro-narratives of global change. At the heart of this project, therefore, is an attempt to contribute to a more rigorous form of global history, and one which preserves philology and source criticism at the heart of its methodology.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

From July 2015 to December 2016, the PI spent 100% of his time on the project. The first year of the project involved the PI’s focusing on laying the groundwork for the project research while ensuring dissemination of the project and its objectives to the widest possible audience. From September 2015 to June 2016, the PI was a Visiting Fellow at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Kolleg at the University of Konstanz, which proved the ideal setting in which to accomplish the first phase of the project’s research. During this period, he collaborated intellectually with a circle of scholars working on Eastern Christianity gathered together under the remit of the ‘Religious Minorities’ group organised by Professor Dorothea Weltecke. Konstanz also proved the ideal setting for a rigorous programme of dissemination with the PI making over a dozen presentations across eight countries in a single year (France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States). These presentations enabled the PI to (1) refine the methodology of the project, (2) acquaint himself with other scholars working on related topics, (3) discover previously unknown sources, and (4) engage with a wide pool of potential researchers on the project. Indeed, two of the three researchers who were ultimately hired to work on Stories of Survival were first met by the PI during presentations he gave during this period (Germany and Switzerland). During this period, the PI also drew on the rich resources in German libraries and archives to identify the full range of sources relevant to the project and to plan the preliminary categories needed for the establishment of the bibliographical database (in consultation with IT specialists at Oxford). A Project Administrator was enlisted in March 2016 to provide administrative support for the project.

In June 2016, the PI’s return to Oxford was followed immediately by the recruitment and search for three post-doctoral researchers to work on the project. A wide and competitive field of some 33 people applied for the three posts. In a process that involved an interview by a committee composed of the PI and several members of the Faculty of History at Oxford and a language test (Arabic and Syriac), three individuals were offered positions on the project. In August 2016, one of these three researchers (Dr Cecilia Tarruell) declined the offer of a post in order to take up another prestigious international fellowship. In her place, the third post was offered to the reserve candidate (Dr Tobias Graf). As he had already accepted another post in the meantime, it was agreed that Dr Graf’s post at Oxford would begin as a two-year post with effect from October 2017.

From October to December 2016, the research team carried out an exhaustive survey of all extant sources relevant to the project, which has been gathered together in detailed bibliographical catalogues of Arabic, Syriac, and European collections. This initial period also saw the continuation of discussions with IT specialists to refine the workings of the database in order to ensure its usability and suitability for the research questions and objectives of the project. During this period, the PI also worked closely with the researchers to identify goals, timelines and specific publications envisioned for completion during the tenure of their work for Stories of Survival. This included planning for research trips, conference presentations and the organisation of workshops for the period running from January 2017 to September 2019. Special attention has been given to identifying and approaching relevant publishers now to ensure that momentum continues in support of the researchers’ and the project’s objectives for outputs across Islamic, European and global history. Finally, a website was set up for the project, which can be consulted at

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

Stories of Survival has become the hub for a constellation of global interests in the past, present and future of Middle Eastern Christians. The project has already attracted the interest of scholars working in several centres of excellence across the United States, Great Britain, and Europe, which is reflected in a constant run of invitations to present at a wide range of scientific gatherings in Islamic, European, and global history. Moreover, the success of the PI’s dissemination in year 1 of the project has provided momentum for a series of successful ancillary applications for funding for research projects emanating from the main objectives of the Stories of Survival project, including a Newton Fellowship, AHRC Research Networking Grant, a Fritz Thyssen Conference Grant, and several internal Oxford awards from the History Faculty and the Humanities Division for events related to the study of the Mediterranean more generally. Taken together, the combined energy of the ERC project and related research initiatives has had the effect of creating a wide-reaching and international community of scholars whose legacy will continue beyond the initial duration of the ERC project to 2020.

In addition to the article that was published in November 2016 (‘The Archives of Orientalism and its Keepers’), during this initial reporting period, the PI also completed the writing and submission of three further single-authored articles and one review essay, all of which will be published in 2017. Moreover, plans are already under way for two major publications that are scheduled to appear in 2018 and 2019. The first is a volume of collected essays on Christians and Jews in Ottoman Society, which arises from a workshop organised to take place at Oxford in July 2017. A testament to current interest in the subject, the Call for Papers received proposals from 21 countries (Albania, Armenia, Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kashmir, Montenegro, Netherlands, Serbia, Singapore, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States). The workshop is set to be the most important gathering of Ottoman historians working on Christians and Jews since the publication over thirty years ago of the classic work by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis on Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society (1982) [CJOE]. Despite its enduring popularity and influence, CJOE remains severely outdated and it ignores several critical developments of the past decades in Ottoman history, Islamic history, and Eastern Christian and Jewish studies, all of which have radically transformed our understanding of the mechanics of communal identity in the Middle East. The PI’s volume on Christians and Jews in Ottoman Society will offer a new, three-dimensional study of Christians and Jews in Ottoman society, one that cuts across social, intellectual, economic, cultural, legal and religious history and that reflects the collaboration of specialists working on different parts of the empire. In keeping with the project’s objectives to transform the fields of both Ottoman and Eastern Christian Studies, the edited volume will be a book aimed at a wide readership, which promises to shape the research agenda for the future while also offering non-specialists a vision of Ottoman society that better reflects the developments of the past thirty years. The work aspires to become the standard work on the subject.

The second major publication underway is a collection of articles to be published as a supplement to Past and Present, one of the most prestigious historical journals in the UK. The collection arises from a workshop the PI organised in Venice in February 2016 (in collaboration with Professor Maxine Berg, FBA of the University of Warwick), and it is called The Space Between: Microhistory, Global History, and the Question of Scale. The volume brings microhistorians and global historians together to consider the recent methodological and theoretical interest of scholars working on different scales of analysis. With contributions from Jan de Vries, Giovanni Levi, Hans Medick, Patricia Hudson, Maxine Berg, and Filippo De Vivo among others, the collection is set to make a major contribution towards the linking of micro and macro scales of history. The proposal has been accepted enthusiastically by the Editorial Board of Past and Present, and pending review of the full collection it will be published as a supplement to Past and Present in 2019 (only one volume is published each year, and another title is already in place for 2018).

In relation to the project’s methodological interests in global microhistory, it is important to mention here that the project’s objectives are also being supported by an outward-looking initiative that seeks to make the methodological questions of the project relevant and intelligible to a wider segment of the public. In March 2017, the PI was included as a co-investigator on a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Research Grant that will enable the PI to arrange a set of public events about microhistory and global history at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. This is a reflection of the PI’s interest in ensuring that the ripples caused by the Stories of Survival extend beyond academia to society more generally.

One unexpected but important accomplishment of the project during this initial period is the impact it has had in terms of enriching the research environment of the Faculty of History at Oxford. The nature of the questions under study by the Stories of Survival project has encouraged the Faculty to commit its own resources to developing a Programme in Eastern Mediterranean Studies, which involves a regular programme of seminars, reading groups and lectures connected to the study of the Mediterranean past. Moreover, the project has provided much-needed momentum for collaboration between History and Oriental Studies, for example in a joint seminar convened by the PI and Dr Joanna Weinberg on ‘Traditions in Motion’. Recent appointments in History such as that of Dr Giuseppe Marcocci will complement the project’s focus on global history, as will the recent appointment in Oriental Studies of Dr Christian Sahner, a late antique historian of Islam with particular interests in Eastern Christianity. At the time of submission of this report, a new appointment in Ottoman history is also in the process of being established in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. All of this bodes well for the wider environment surrounding the project in the coming years. It is also a testament to the PI’s endeavour to ensure that Stories of Survival leaves a particular imprint on the academic culture of Oxford’s Faculty of History at a critical moment during which global history has become a strategic priority across the University.

Looking forward, the RAs have started to review in detail the extant manuscripts in Arabic and Syriac for the early modern period. Short-term research assistants will be enlisted to support their work of populating the database. In addition, the RAs have already identified a core set of publications on which they will be focusing their research from December 2016 until the end of their posts in September 2019. The PI is in regular and constant discussion with them about these publications, and he has made special efforts to advise and ensure that they are published in the most suitable forums. That the RAs’ research is already having an impact beyond the realm of Eastern Christian Studies is clear from the fact that one has already been invited to contribute to a workshop (and publication) on ‘minorities in early modern Rome’ (June 2017) while another has a contribution under consideration for a special issue of the Journal Islamic Studies. As such, the success of the project so far has really drawn on the particular talents and excellence of the researchers, and the PI is especially pleased and honoured to have found such an impressive community of researchers to work with at Oxford.

The momentum and excitement created around the project has been the occasion for several expressions of interest in the project’s research from prestigious and well-regarded presses including Princeton University Press, Oxford University Press, Routledge, and Brill. Looking forward, the research team is thinking purposefully about shifting resources in the budget in order to ensure that we can most effectively carry out the open-access requirements of Horizon 2020. This is as important for making our research available to the wider public as it is for ensuring that the communities at the heart of our research—societies living in the modern Middle East today—can also access the fruits of our research.
Record Number: 198377 / Last updated on: 2017-05-18