Espionage in the 16th century Mediterranean: Secret Diplomacy, Mediterranean Go-betweens and the Ottoman-Habsburg Rivalry

Ottoman espionage

Espionage in the 16th century Mediterranean: Secret Diplomacy, Mediterranean Go-betweens and the Ottoman-Habsburg Rivalry

By Emrah Safa Gürkan

PhD Dissertation, Georgetown University, 2012

Ottoman espionage

Abstract: Spies played a crucial role in early modern imperial rivalries. While past scholars have emphasized the Islam/Christendom divide in the Mediterranean, these go-betweens, who mastered the codes of both cultures, easily crossed invisible boundaries between civilizations and connected the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, two imperial powers at each other’s throat. Apart from providing both empires with regular information on political and military developments, these entrepreneur information brokers played an active diplomatic role between two capitals and even participated in Ottoman factional politics.

This dissertation compares both empires’ secret services and explains the differences between the two systems of information gathering based on these empires’ differing organizational structures. It argues that the Habsburgs tried to institutionalize and standardize their secret services in accordance with their general efforts of bureaucratization and centralization, even though the effect of such efforts remained rather limited in the Levant. The Ottomans, on the other hand, maintained their longstanding decentralized approach and delegated the responsibility of gathering information to pashas and court favourites who established their own intelligence networks. This created a rather different situation whereby these networks served their masters’s interests rather than that of the state, thus giving the historian ample information on Ottoman factional politics. In relying on oral communication and not following the recent developments in steganography and cryptography, the Ottoman secret service was more personal than institutional.

Still, the Ottoman secret service produced good results. In spite of these differences that could have been otherwise considered shortcomings and contrary to the unwarranted assumptions that prevailed in Western historiography, the Ottomans successfully developed a functional information gathering mechanism which in itself was coherent. The real factor that negatively affected the efficiency of both empires was the lack of direct diplomacy between two capitals. While both empires kept themselves informed of political developments and military preparations, they failed to develop an awareness of each other’s legal, political and economic systems as well as cultural, linguistic and religious particularities.

Click here to read this thesis from Georgetown University

Click here to read this thesis from

Emrah Safa Gürkan is also one of the hosts of the Ottoman History Podcast

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