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Adam Mestyan, Modern Kingship: Remaking the Ottoman Political Order in the Interwar Middle East, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023, 322 p.

Philippe Pétriat
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Princeton: Princeton University Press, 322 p.

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1Adam Mestyan’s book is no easy read. It immerses the reader in the history of law as much as in the political history of the Arab Middle East. It unearths the intellectual and human networks that linked the history of the modern Ottoman Empire to that of the “successor” states, and the history of Syria to that of the Saudi kingdom, via Cairo and Istanbul. Modern Arab Kingship is a book that pursues a trend now well established thanks to the work of Michael Provence, while at the same time challenging the categories of empires and nation-states and the still dominant prisms of Middle Eastern history in the inter-war period.

2Adam Mestyan describes the forms taken by the “recycling of empire” in the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire following the First World War. For each of these territories and for the region as a whole, the book’s nine chapters and the afterword review the “modular” reemployment of Islamic concepts, legal codes, administrative structures, economic resources, dynastic genealogies and even political debates that had been institutionalised within the Empire. The author prefers to study the formation of the new political orders from the angle of a scale which he defines as “local,” so as not to confine himself to the already much-told history of nationalism or colonialism.

3This focus enables Adam Mestyan to highlight the general attachment to the form of the Muslim monarchy in societies faced with the succession of the Empire and the occupations of the Allies. For the author, this regime, in the different variants he describes in Egypt, Syria and the Hedjaz, was not an ex-nihilo creation of British or French imperialism. It was first and foremost “an imperial method of organizing subjugated people and regions” (p. 28), the evolution of which A. Mestyan explores in the Empire of Abdülhamid II and in Khedivial Egypt at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. This political regime also enabled the elites of post-Ottoman societies to revive debates in which they had taken part before the Great War and to re-use the institutions inherited from the Ottoman Empire in order to manage inequalities of status and ethnic and religious diversity, while resisting the plans of foreign occupiers. The model of the “post-Ottoman Muslim monarchy” was also accepted as a “constituent fiction” by European administrators, who had also been shaped by the imperial model and, after the war, had to comply with the standards imposed by the League of Nations. They saw it as a way of maintaining a control inherited from their military occupation and transcribed into administrative (rather than constitutional) law, over “local” monarchies that were nonetheless recognised as sovereign.

4This argumentative framework enables Adam Mestyan to shed new light on the debates stirred by decentralisation in the Ottoman Empire, the succession to the Caliphate and the plans for a Muslim federation or Arab kingdom, and more generally on the place of Islam in the new states of the Middle East. The historian brings to light the competing projects that shaped the succession to the Ottoman Empire, all of which, he shows, were aimed primarily at the “modular” (i.e. imperial) construction of non-national, even cosmopolitan, political formations, in which Islam and genealogy remained the decisive, albeit debated, sources of authority (chapter 5). In a particularly original chapter 8, A. Mestyan shows how the construction of the Saudi kingdom participated in the same “recycling of the Ottoman Empire at the time of the League of Nations” (p. 174) as the monarchical projects debated in the other Arab states (Egypt, chapter 7, and Syria, chapter 9). The story of the Hijaz kingdom’s skilfully incorporated heritage and the meticulous exhumation of the networks of Syrian Hizb al-Istiqlal activists surrounding the Saudi dynasty are both fascinating and convincing. After all, aren’t these transnational networks of activists, intellectuals and members of dynasties established in the Ottoman era the concrete infrastructure of the post-Ottoman Middle East?

5Adam Mestyan’s conceptual and factual arguments are not always easy to follow. He does not hide behind a big and dazzling argument, but regularly lends himself to discussion. Like the actors whose ideas he precisely follows, like the states whose constitutional debates he reconstructs, A. Mestyan favours the history of the “superstructure” (concepts and ideas) rather than that of the economic and geographical practices that shaped the post-Ottoman Middle East. He does so sometimes at the risk of over-valuing the novelty of Hamidian “genealogical politics” in the Hijaz (chapter 4) or the importance of infrastructure such as the Damascus-Medina railway. He draws on a bibliography that is not confined to English and Arabic, with an uncommon number of American, European, Turkish, Jordanian and Saudi sources. As much as its subject and its arguments, the breadth of its treatment is what makes this book so original, providing a masterly history of the post-Ottoman Arab societies.

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Philippe Pétriat, « Adam Mestyan, Modern Kingship: Remaking the Ottoman Political Order in the Interwar Middle East, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023, 322 p. », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/11275 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.11275

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Philippe Pétriat

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