Cornell Fleischer, historian who revolutionized study of Ottoman Empire, 1950-2023

Prof. Cornell H. Fleischer, a world-renowned expert of Ottoman history and scholar of the greater Islamic world, passed away in Chicago on April 21. He was 72.

Known for his prowess with languages and as an attentive mentor to his students, Fleischer was the Kanuni Süleyman Professor in the Departments of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and History. He was an expert in the Age of Süleyman the Lawgiver—the longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire—for which his professorship was named.

“Cornell showed us the life of the people who built the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century,” said Prof. Ahmed El Shamsy, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at UChicago. “His students have really mapped the history of the early modern Ottoman Empire. Of course, they have developed their own styles, but you can see central questions he formulated. This approach that he founded is one of the dominant schools in the Western world.”

In addition to Ottoman, Fleischer was fluent in modern Turkish, Arabic, and Persian. According to El Shamsy, he always modeled the importance of language immersion for his students.

“He emphasized that you can't just read the translation,” said El Shamsy, who also co-taught with Fleischer in the university’s study abroad program. “If you understand the language, then you will have a real window into a country and a culture.”

After attending Brown University for two years, Fleischer transferred to Princeton as a “critical language” undergraduate student to study Arabic. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department in 1982. While there he studied under Prof. Martin Dickson, continuing a direct line of famed Near Eastern scholars stretching back several generations.

His dissertation formed the basis of his highly influential book “Bureaucrat and Intellectual in the Ottoman Empire: The Historian Mustafa Âli” (1986), which many scholars credit for transforming the field of Ottoman studies.

“Ottoman history is characterized by abundant state archives,” said Prof. John Woods, a longtime friend, colleague and another student of Martin Dickson’s. “Most people who studied Ottoman history did archival research, and it was often, quite frankly, rather boring. Cornell took a different approach.”

Fleischer’s more humanistic approach used narrative sources, as well as archival materials, to understand the intellectual lives of people living in the Ottoman world. Following the book’s publication, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988.

“He explored narrative and normative materials in a way that had not been done,” Woods said. “And, in doing so, acted as a corrective in the study of Ottoman history, which also thereby influenced a lot of his students to move in other directions.”

Fleischer went on to hold positions at the Ohio State University and Washington University in St. Louis, joining the University of Chicago faculty in 1993.

According to friends and colleagues, however, Fleischer could not be pigeonholed into a single discipline or region. In more recent years, Fleischer was interested in Apocalypticism, messianism, and the connections between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

“Cornell loved learning and he loved life,” Woods said. “He was a true scholar. Of course, you can say that about a lot of people, but he was somebody special.”

'A great humanist'

Fleischer was born on Oct 23, 1950, in Berkeley, California to Hugh and Florence Fleischer. As the son of a U.S diplomat, Fleischer spent part of his childhood in Cairo and Baghdad—inspiring a lifelong love of and deep connection to the region. Later, as a graduate student he lived in Istanbul for many years.

As a master’s degree student in Turkey, A. Tunç Şen, AM’10, PhD’16, read an article written by Fleischer—one that would inspire him to apply to UChicago. The article explored dream narratives from people living in the 16th-century Ottoman world.

“It struck me,” said Şen, now an assistant professor in the department of history at Columbia University. “It was one of the first moments I came across an Ottoman historian dealing with such marginal, seemingly insignificant topics. Cornell was a great humanist in that sense. No matter how significant an individual or his textual artifact was, he was paying utmost attention to it.”

According to colleagues and former students, this focus on people was also essential to Fleischer’s teaching style. He was a great storyteller, often sharing memories of people he had met all around the world.

“Some people treat scholarship like it’s one aspect of one's life and then there is the rest,” Şen said. “For Cornell, that wasn't the case. People he met, learned from and worked with were part of his scholarship.”

Fleischer was also devoted to his students, both inside and outside the classroom. Şen recounted Fleischer’s famous three-hour seminars, most of which were spent giving the floor over to students’ thoughts and insights.

“​Cornell always treated his students as his colleagues,” Şen said. “He deeply respected their opinions, deeply respected their scholarship, even from the very first year in grad school.”

In the last 15 minutes of the seminar, Fleischer would bring it all together. “Those last 15 minutes were the most precious,” Şen said. “Each week, Cornell came up with the most enlightening contextualization of everything that was discussed. I still return to my notebooks, where I noted down some of those insights he shared with us.”

Fleischer is survived by his daughter, Daria, his godson, Christopher Markiewicz, AB'04, AM, '08, PhD’15, and many friends, colleagues and former students worldwide.

— This article contains material previously authored by Profs. Holly Shissler and John Woods.