Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2010
Zeynep Çelik Empire, Architecture, and the City: French-Ottoman Encounters, 1830–1914 Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. 368 pp.; 33 color ills.; 190 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780295987798)

In her new book, Empire, Architecture and the City: French-Ottoman Encounters, 1830–1914, Zeynep Çelik has taken on a complex and ambitious task: the comparative examination of empire building in two different contexts, the French colonies of North Africa and the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. This is a messy, even unruly comparison given the different political structures and geographies involved, complicated further by the uneven resources and disparate structures of the archives on which the project depends, as Çelik herself acknowledges (10). However, Çelik is uniquely positioned to write such a work, given her impressive earlier publications that have laid the foundation for this project, and her masterful skills in archival research. And indeed, she has produced a dazzling work, compiling into a well-ordered and thought-provoking presentation a wealth of detail about cities and towns rarely discussed together.

Given the book’s range, in terms of both geography and chronology, a clear structure is essential in ordering the vast amount of material that is presented, and Çelik has provided a logical and coherent framework for her study. At the same time, the way she moves through the material and the topics she has chosen to include is intriguing, even unexpected in places. I appreciated the way Çelik takes the reader through the cities she studies in a well-ordered progression from the macro scale, as she describes it (roads, railroads, ports and waterways), through a series of surveys of increasingly smaller components (urban fabric, public squares and parks, military and government buildings). In a sense, she takes the cities apart for the reader and then reassembles them via a well-illustrated and thorough analysis of their constituent elements. This structure means that we encounter the same universe of sites over and over throughout the book, seeing Algiers, Bône, Constantine, Tlemcen, Sfax, Bizerte, Tunis, Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, Baghdad, Jaffa, and others through a variety of lenses, an ordering decision that accommodates the uneven nature of the archival record but also provides a layered and nuanced understanding of the sites themselves.

Çelik’s discussion of architectural discourse in the late nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire in chapter 4 is particularly valuable. While Ottoman efforts at writing their own architectural history have been the subject of important scholarship (including Çelik’s own 1986 book, The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century, Seattle: University of Washington Press), here the subject is doubly complicated by embedding it in her consideration of empire building, in the first place, and by examining architecture built well outside the imperial capital, in the second. Drawing on a variety of contemporary writing and archival sources, and incorporating a discussion of Ottoman archaeological projects as well as the restoration of the Great Mosque of Damascus after the 1893 fire, Çelik presents a nuanced and compelling account of a debate that went on for several decades, paying particular attention to the issue of regional architectural forms in Ottoman architecture.

In the final chapter of the book, Çelik activates the public squares and official architecture considered in the previous chapters through an examination of some of the newly created public ceremonies that were enacted in these sites as a means of communicating and reinforcing specific messages concerning empire and power. While not the primary focus of the book (it is the shortest chapter by a significant percentage), it supplies an essential but often overlooked perspective on the architecture which is at the heart of the study, and its inclusion here is a testament to Çelik’s thoughtful and creative framing of her project. The author brings together an impressive range of source material: published illustrations of ceremonies, music, press descriptions, step-by-step accounts, and poetry composed for specific events to discuss a range of public ceremonies in the French and Ottoman contexts. The chapter provides an alluring introduction to a subject worthy of a much longer study, and one can only hope that Çelik (or another scholar) will turn her attention to this project next.

At this point in her scholarly career, Çelik has a control of this material that is unrivalled, and her familiarity with a range of archives is extraordinary. I wanted to hear more of her own voice in this book. I appreciated the careful and insightful introductions that she gave for each chapter, but I missed the summing up at the end of some chapters that could have provided a deeper level of interpretation of the material. For those chapters where there were conclusions, they were tantalizingly short, and I wanted to know more about what Çelik thought of the issues and material she had presented. I also wished for a fuller discussion of the archives upon which her outstanding scholarship rests. Where are the gaps? What surprises did she find? Similarly, the documents she includes in the book are intriguing, and I wanted to know more about their context. Who made those maps and plans and how did they circulate? Apart from a passing reference (250) to the “small number” of people who might have seen a particular watercolor, there is frustratingly little discussion of the administrative contexts for the archival materials Çelik mines so skillfully. Who published and funded the extraordinary journal Servet-i funun, and who were its subscribers?

Considering the central place that Çelik herself gives to photography in her study (10), I was a bit disappointed in the lack of sustained analysis of the extremely interesting photographs she included, and of wider issues around photography and communication. It is clear, for example, from some of the photographs illustrating the public ceremonies discussed in chapter 5, that taking formal photographs of dignitaries present at the ceremony was a part of the event. For whom were these intended and how did they circulate? Neither the fact of the photographs nor their subsequent use was addressed in the book, but would seem to be directly relevant to Çelik’s interest in these ceremonies as opportunities for communicating imperial messages, both locally and to a wider audience. The photographic documentation seems to be taken as given, rather than as a specific and calculated practice. I also missed some references in the bibliography, for example Ahmet Ersoy’s valuable work on the photograph album, Les costumes populaires de la Turquie en 1873, that is discussed in the epilogue, but this could well have been an oversight.

The production values of the book are high, and it has the elegant design one would expect from the University of Washington Press. There are 33 color illustrations (and 190 black-and-white illustrations); given the dismal economic state of art-history book publishing at present, it is perhaps unreasonable to wish for more color; but the city maps, building plans and elevations, many of which are published here for the first time, are visually intriguing documents in their own right, and much more legible in color than in black and white. It is a pity that more of them could not have been reproduced in color.

Empire, Architecture and the City: French-Ottoman Encounters, 1830–1914 belongs to a small but growing number of studies that situate the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire as an imperial power driven by political and economic concerns not unrelated to those of their European imperial counterparts. In setting up a comparison that considers Ottoman empire building in their Arab provinces together with French empire building in North Africa, Çelik has enriched and deepened this new body of scholarship by bringing in both a range of material on the built environment not generally included and an important comparative perspective. At the same time, her work calls into question the traditional model of one-way communication and influence (from Europe to the Ottomans) that has dominated much of mid-to-late twentieth-century scholarship. This too is part of a wider trend in contemporary studies of the region, but the author’s contribution in this regard is nonetheless a very important one. For a broad art-historical audience, in addition to the significance of Çelik’s analysis of newly presented documents covering an intriguing range of urban sites, her book presents a model for addressing a complex problem using diverse and uneven archival records to construct an elegant and compelling argument.

Nancy Micklewright
Research Associate, Smithsonian