Halil Inalcik, historian of Ottoman Empire and University Professor, 1916-2016

Mark Peters
News Director and Social Sciences SpecialistUniversity Communications

Prof. Halil Inalcik, a preeminent expert on the Ottoman Empire who trained two generations of scholars in the United States and Turkey, died on July 25. He was 100 years old.

Inalcik’s research was critical in elevating the Ottoman period to a leading role in the study of world history. His scholarly work was marked by rigorous research of source materials, and his writings, including The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300–1600, became critical texts for historians around the world.

“Without exaggeration one really has to say he not only created but actually built the study of things Ottoman and the Ottoman Empire in its many cultural, political and economic contexts. He was really and truly the master,” said Cornell Fleischer, the Kanuni Suleyman Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies.

Inalcik was born in Istanbul in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and received his formal education in Turkey, completing his PhD at the University of Ankara in 1942. He later wrote his childhood in Istanbul partly drew him to his field of study, but a bigger factor was the rich and expansive source materials from the Ottoman period.

Inalcik was recruited to UChicago in the early 1970s from the University of Ankara by Prof. William McNeill, a pioneer in the field of world history. Inalcik, who also taught at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, became one of UChicago’s early University Professors, an appointment reserved for scholars with internationally recognized eminence in their fields and potential for high impact across the University.

Inalcik held appointments in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

“Halil Inalcik was a scholar of international repute whose work was marked by high erudition, superb critical analysis and an extraordinary command of vast historical sources. We were greatly honored that he was a member of our faculty,” said John W. Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson Professor in History and dean of the College.

At the University, Inalcik trained a series of young historians who became top scholars, while continuing his own research, which spanned the history of Crimea, Albania and Anatolia in the 15th century to Bulgaria in the 19th century. His work encompassed social, political and economic history from peasants to sultans.

“Professor Inalcik transformed the field of Ottoman studies from an obscure and exotic sub-field into one of the leading historical disciplines. He has set the agenda for critical analysis and understanding of a crucial time period in world history,” said Fariba Zarinebaf, PhD’91, a former student of Inalcik and associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of California at Riverside.

Inalcik retired from the University in 1986 and became a professor emeritus. He returned to Turkey and founded the history department at Bilkent University in Ankara. Inalcik received numerous honors during his lifetime, including 23 honorary doctorates and awards in Turkey for his contributions to history and culture.

Inalcik wrote about his life and career in an essay published in 1993, including his time at the University. One of his favorite memories was a visit to campus by dervishes from Turkey who practice Islamic mysticism. He remembered being deeply moved as their cries reverberated off the ceiling of a University chapel.