Book Review: Guarding the Frontier: Ottoman Border Forts and Garrisons in Europe

Mark L. Stein


I made a military historian laugh in a bar . . . so many stories start that way (in fact that may be the title of my autobiography), and I spent the next four hours listening to her attempts to define the Ottoman Empire as a military-patronage state and a gunpowder empire where the institution of the military played a dominant role and the development of gunpowder technology transformed the state and set it apart from other Muslim states (the gin was flowing rather well). Subsequently, I then had a number of recent studies recommended to me which have 'made an attempt to move away from a military-oriented paradigm of the Ottoman state and emphasize the role of the bureaucracy and other social forces' and that I should read all of them. For once, breaking my usual trend of not reading what people tell me to, one of these titles stuck in my head and, in the course of compiling my previous post on the fall of the Ottoman Empire, I was lucky enough to stumble upon it a few days later and thought this would be an opportune moment to write a review given this blogs current Ottoman Empire theme.

Buy this book
Price: £65.00
Publication Date: 2007
ISBN: 978-1845113018
Classification: Noodle Scratcher

Mark Stein’s monographic study attempts to close the gap between the military and bureaucratic history by focusing on two fortress garrisons on the Ottoman-Habsburg frontier in Hungary, Kanije and Uyvar, in the second half of the seventeenth century, a period which witnessed several major wars on this front. Challenging the idea of a slow Ottoman decline in power and prestige, which still dominates the historiography of the Ottomans this period, Stein argues that, despite financial difficulties, the Ottoman central government managed to finance, provision and rebuild these two garrisons and recruit soldiers at times of military confrontation. He emphasizes the transformation of the Ottoman military administration in response to the changing local dynamics on the Habsburg frontier.
The book is divided into five chapters. In chapter 1, the author argues that the Ottoman-Habsburg frontier in Hungary was a markedly transitional zone of interaction through trade, taxation and raiding. Military activity was only one aspect of life in these frontier regions, where raids for the collection of booty were sometimes more important than ideological considerations. The population on each side of the frontier had a lot more in common with each other than with those in the core areas of the empire. Guarding and raiding attracted marginal men to the frontier and gave them a common purpose. They sometimes even shared the same language and religion across the divided Hungarian frontier. Troops increasingly got involved in raids to supplement their shrinking stipends and pension. Booty included horses, livestock, grain, weapons and captives, both male and female. chapter 2 focuses on the role of fortresses in siege warfare in the seventeenth century. The role of artillery in siege warfare, mine attacks and defensive walls and trenches made fortresses the focal point of military activity. The Ottoman construction, supply and maintenance of fortresses occupied an important task in the administration of frontier areas. They mustered large armies (65,000–70,000 men) drawn from various sources, the janissaries, the irregulars, the cavalry, the Tatars, etc.
chapters 3 and 4 focus on Ottoman troops in the seventeenth century in the two fortresses of Uyvar and Kanije. Using pay registers and other sources, the author discusses various divisions within the Ottoman army (cavalry and infantry), their size, recruitment, training, and pay. He shows that the number of troops in Kanije garrison (1700 men) grew during and after the siege of Vienna in July 1683 and were overwhelmingly non-janissary. Both fortresses held a variety of infantry and cavalry, regular and irregular troops whose functions were very similar. Gradually, the number of janissaries dropped in these fortresses, which may have been due to different military needs and greater reliance on local recruits. Chapter 5, on the administration of these fortresses, sheds light on their relationship with the central administration in Istanbul. The chapter is largely based on a report by the accountant of the fortress of Uyvar, Mehmed, who was sent from Istanbul, and on imperial orders contained in the mu¨himme registers. Provincial officials inspected troops, prepared the payroll registers and sent copies to Istanbul.
The primary concern of the central government was to maintain its military presence on the frontier, cut costs, pay the garrison troops, supply and repair the garrison, and ensure the collection of taxes. Stein’s book makes an important contribution to the history of the long extinct Ottoman military and the Habsburg frontier. While the author resists applying the gradual Ottoman decline concept to the Ottoman military during the seventeenth century, he argues that its effectiveness dropped in the eighteenth century, which I have to say I found very refreshing. Clearly, important changes had already taken place that continued into the eighteenth century. This is a must for every military historians shelf, I got my copy form a university library but had I been a academic military historian I probably would have purchased it regardless of the hefty price tag as it'd an excellent reference guide. Otherwise I found it a continual pleasant distraction from all the material I am supposed to be reading for my current projects.