Career of a Document: Ahdname and the Politics of Archives in Ottoman Bosnia
By Ana Sekulić:
In the most recent case of Balkan “archive fever,” Croatian Parliament discussed whether or not to unseal the archives as a step towards “overcoming the national divide.” Aside from being a populist move, the underlying assumption is clear: archival records are transparent, mirroring the truth and reality. Around the same time, another discussion of Bosnian post-WWII archives took place, in which Max Bergholz shared his experience in navigating archives (and basements) in search for highly sensitive material. Between lustration and politicized, bureaucratized, or outright neglected archival practices, however, there is little or no discussion on what archives mean for historians and public, how they change, and what narratives they tell.
In order to tackle these questions, however briefly, there are few better examples than another Bosnian archive – a document, to be precise, the ahdname housed in the Franciscan monastery of the Holy Spirit in Fojnica. What follows is a reflection based on my larger doctoral dissertation project that explores Bosnian Franciscan monasteries in the local and larger Ottoman imperial context during the early modern period.
Known as the foundation document of the Franciscan order in Bosnia, ahdname was given to the Franciscan friar Andjeo Zvizdović by Mehmed II (r. 1444–46; 1451–81) upon his conquest of Bosnia around 1463. Ahdname – or ahdnama in Bosnian parlance – is a type of document, a treaty of sorts, by which Muslim rulers, and Ottomans in particular, granted non-Muslim groups certain privileges. In the 15th century Bosnia, the Sultan guaranteed the Franciscans the freedom to practice their faith and thus ensured the preservation of the order in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Here, I sketch a brief history of the ahdname and its long career, including its changing uses and appropriation over the course of five and a half centuries. Scholars have long observed that archives are processes rather than “things”nd once in them, it is more fruitful to be exploring a “sociology of a copy,” rather than searching for an “exemplary document” (Stoler, 90). In other words, to ask ourselves, who used the document, how, when, and why.
Early modern trajectories
Over the course of the 20th century, it was the very authenticity of the ahdname that was at stake. Hazim Šabanović and afterwards Vančo Boškov, two prominent Ottomanists, undertook the most thorough historical examination of the document and settled the debate with the conclusion that the ahdname as we know it today is not what Mehmed II issued in the mid 15th century. Rather, it is a copy based on the lost original produced sometime between the 16th and mid-17th century.
Although invaluable, these contributions confined the debate about the ahdname to its authenticity, while marginalizing equally, if not more, important concerns about ahdname’s use and circulation. Indeed, the importance and power of the document in the Franciscan archives and various Ottoman legal and administrative forums were closely related to ways in which the Franciscans used it. My own work in the Franciscan archives suggests that over the centuries, references of ahdname slipped in and out of numerous petitions, sultanic decrees, and court documents, creating rich paper trail of the document as well as winning Franciscans increasing number of privileges that were not mentioned in the ahdname itself.
In the 19th century, the ahdname begins to be referred to as the main Franciscan document by people other than friars themselves, including numerous travelers and even a prominent Ottoman reformer and statesman, Cevdet Pasha (d. 1895), who in his famous Tezakir quotes the entire text of this document (Cevdet Pasha, 84 – 85).
These developments are by no means unique in the Ottoman Empire. Different ahdnames and privileges were given to groups within the Empire, and monasteries in particular were prime sites in which these privileges were accumulated, reproduced, and deployed. Copies of charters and treaties from powerful Muslim rulers circulated across monasteries from Sinai and Jerusalem, Istanbul, Greece, and all the way to Bosnia. In the archive of the monastery of Fojnica, I found copies of a number of other privileges, including the beautiful copy of the Hatt-ı Şerif from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine on Sinai, that was allegedly given to the monks by the Prophet, and that had been spotted in numerous other monasteries in the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, there are copies of other ahdnames given to Habsburg and Venetian ambassadors that friars collected and subscribed to. This signals that many other subject groups shared similar language and methods in legitimizing their status and maximizing their privileges within the Ottoman Empire’s fabric, and that Franciscans were not exceptional.
Ahdname and the Modern Bosnian Identity Politics
The ahdname’s story does not end in the 19th century, assuming in fact new urgency with the beginning of Habsburg rule. Whereas the document was once deployed in various legal struggles among Ottomans, Franciscans and occasionally other parties, the battle moved from strictly legal to narrative and historiographical domains, which were by no means less political. It kept playing an important role in the ways in which the Franciscans defined their own place within Bosnian history, in a political space increasingly shaped by ethnicity and religion. Numerous historical accounts were published over the course of the late 19th and 20th century in which ahdname features as the main anchor of Franciscans in Bosnia, thus effectively transforming the archive into a reservoir of Franciscan identity, legitimacy and survival.
Ahdname also played an important role in internal debates on Franciscan self-understanding. In 1933, Fojnica friar Leonardo Čuturić wrote a fascinating play about the encounter between Zvizdović and Mehmed II, in which Catholic faith and Franciscan leadership win over the powerful sultan. In 1964, Franciscans organized a celebration to mark the fifth centennial of this truly auspicious event. Moreover, ahdname assumed a symbolic role also in the debates between friars and secular clergy (which have a long-standing rivalry), in which some theologians branded ahdname as a sign of betrayal and weakness, rather than triumph, thus challenging the special role of the Franciscans among Bosnian Catholics.
Nowadays, the ahdname is exhibited in the museum of Fojnica monastery, together with the robe given to friar Andjeo by Mehmed II and many other valuable objects that depict the strong connection between the monastery and its surrounding community, bolstering monastery’s claim to be one of the main sites of cultural heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the ahdname as a form of cultural capital gained prominence even outside the Franciscan or Catholic circles in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of the Bosnian scholars and public figures see the ahdname as an embodiment of “Bosnian statehood” and an effective way to incorporate Ottoman past into precarious ethno-politics of post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Documents and archives that house them have constantly gained new importance in different and ever-changing social and political contexts, and ahdname is no exception. What is more, ahdname’s career nowadays has not been so radically different from its long past, pointing to important narrative continuities and the role that documents as cultural assets play in them.
- Ahmed Cevdet Paşa. “Tezakir 21 – 39.” Edited by Cavid Baysun. Türk Tarih Kurumu: Ankara, 1986.
- Boškov, Vančo. “Pitanje autentičnosti Fojničke ahd-name Mehmeda II iz 1463. Godine.” Godišnjak Društva istoričara Bosne i Hercegovine 28-30 (1977 – 1979): 87 – 105.
- Stoler, Ann. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 87 – 109.
- Šabanović, Hazim, “Turski dokumenti u Bosni iz druge polovine XV stoljeća.” Istorisko-pravni zbornk Pravnog fakulteta u Sarajevu 1 / 2 (1949): 175 – 208.
Ana Sekulić is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Princeton University, working on early modern Ottoman Empire. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for South-East European Studies at the University of Graz.