Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2017
Ahmet A. Ersoy Architecture and the Late Ottoman Historical Imaginary: Reconfiguring the Architectural Past in a Modernizing Empire Studies in Art Historiography. New York: Routledge, 2016. 334 pp.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $127.00 (9781472431394)

In his long-awaited book, Architecture and the Late Ottoman Historical Imaginary: Reconfiguring the Architectural Past in a Modernizing Empire, Ahmet A. Ersoy provides an in-depth analysis of Usul-i Mi’mari-i Osmani (The Fundamentals of Ottoman Architecture, hereafter the Usul), a crucial initial scholarly volume about the history, theory, and compositional principles of Ottoman architecture, prepared as part of the exhibition representing the empire at the 1873 World Exhibition held in Vienna. Ersoy astutely uses the Usul to embark on a meticulous exploration of the various contexts of which it formed a part. In the process, he reconstructs the social and cultural world its authors inhabited, the complexities and contradictions of their formative experiences, and their pervasive anxieties about the Ottoman Empire’s predicament—its place in the world and its ability to preserve its integrity. To this end, he uses a wide body of evidence drawn from materials written in multiple languages (Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, German, French and English) and collected from archives in different countries. Concomitantly, he supplements a select sampling of images from the Usul with other archival visuals (maps, postcards, and photographs) and personal photographs that serve as references to the reader and evidence for his argument. Last but not least, relying on an ample reservoir of theoretical references and secondary literature, Ersoy establishes a nuanced analytical framework that illuminates heretofore overlooked agencies of Ottoman elites without losing sight of the asymmetrical relations that underpinned their exchanges with their European counterparts at this critical juncture in Ottoman history.

In his introduction, Ersoy calls for recognizing the historiographic significance of the Late Tanzimat, long overlooked as merely a prelude to the empire’s (only retrospectively predictable) demise. Spanning between 1839–76, the Tanzimat (Reorganization) was a period of intense—if not concerted—top-down European-inspired reforms intended to modernize the empire’s institutional and administrative structures, counteract the centrifugal forces undermining its territorial integrity, and consolidate its central authority. Steeped in these ideas and practices, a second generation of Tanzimat elites forged, by the late 1860s, a pan-Ottomanist identity narrative to maintain stability, drawing simultaneously from the pluralistic traditions of the empire’s formative years (in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) and Europe’s rationalist post-Enlightenment practices. Commendably, Ersoy does not get bogged down in fruitless questions of authenticity. Instead, he examines this seemingly disconcerting intertwinement of nostalgia and modernization encapsulated in the Usul as a manifestation of the untidy, syncretic, and often ambivalent processes of cultural contact and transformation. Moving beyond essentializing oppositional constructions of the East and West as fixed and conflicted entities, he aligns himself with a growing number of post-Saidian scholars, such as Ussama Makdisi and Selim Deringil. True to his premise, Ersoy locates modernization at the mutually transformative interface of these geographies and cultures, eschewing a monolithic approach to either. In the four chapters that follow, he first examines the physical and geopolitical context provided by the 1873 exhibition; second, the authors of the book; third its contents; and, finally, its relationship with the architectural projects realized in this period.

Chapter 1 considers the Ottoman display at the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna—a location outside the more extensively studied nineteenth-century exhibitions in Paris and London, wherein the two dominant colonial powers sought to outdo one another—to probe how other players, despite the obvious power differentials, appropriated some of the same verbal, visual, and spatial tropes to advance their own agendas. Ersoy portrays the exhibition as a site for geopolitical self-representation: The Austro-Hungarian hosts used it as a platform to assert their key position connecting Western Europe with the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, and to reclaim their fading global status. Meanwhile, the Ottomans tried to project an image of stable sovereignty over contested territories and to preserve their role as leaders of the Islamic World. This projection was far from smooth, however. Having experienced a major financial crisis, the Ottomans had limited funds to stage their exhibition. Moreover, Egypt, by then a practically self-ruling Ottoman province, was openly competing for the position of “Oriental prominence” long held by the empire. These considerations made a scholarly project like the Usul all the more central to Ottoman claims of cultural superiority. Notably, the Usul was accompanied by the Elbise-i Osmaniye (Popular Costumes of the Ottoman Empire, hereafter Elbise), an exhaustive ethnographic project undertaken by the same authors, photographically documenting the empire’s diverse ethnic and religious groups and tradespeople. Displayed together, the Usul and the Elbise worked in tandem, the former showcasing the “elite and exclusively dynastic architectural tradition of the Ottoman center into the collective patrimony of the entire Ottoman nation” and the latter attempting to align “the diverse and disappearing cultures of the provinces with the center, thereby reinscribing central authority by means of a new rhetoric of inclusion, plurality and continuity” (70). The two were complementary pieces of a single narrative construction by an Istanbul-based elite who sought to discursively forge a collective identity, even if on the ground its contents were beginning to unravel.

Arguably, no other group of people was closer to producing this pan-Ottomanist discourse as the authors of the Usul and the Elbise—a cosmopolitan ensemble of Ottoman elites including scions of notable bureaucratic dynasties, learned men of Armenian, Jewish, and Turkish ancestry, as well as Levantines and European expatriates. A close study of these actors, who were members of privileged networks ensconced in Istanbul but whose personal and professional itineraries and connections embraced a much broader geography, particularly in Europe, constitutes the subject of chapter 2. Ersoy demonstrates that the collective expertise of these “hyphenated-Ottomans” (91), their ability to maintain long-term working relationships, and willingness to contribute to this project trumped their ethnic and religious affiliations. Importantly, Ersoy’s reconstruction provides a much-needed model for grounding and operationalizing Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, especially—but not exclusively—for the fields of art and architectural history.

Chapter 3 examines the Usul’s contents, which documented and analyzed Ottoman architecture as a rich and deeply rooted tradition that provided a large compositional and constructional vocabulary capable of evolving to integrate new ideas and respond to changing demands and challenges over time. The Usul also reveals the public status and function architecture assumed as an embodiment of Ottoman culture and imagination. Lavishly illustrated and published as a trilingual (French, German, and Ottoman) volume to address a broader audience, the book embodied its authors’ ambitions to situate Ottoman architectural heritage and traditions as a distinctly non-Western body of knowledge that was on a par with its European counterparts and that, consequently, belonged within mainstream art-historical scholarship. To make their case, they drew upon the format, argument, structure, and style of a wide range of European precedents including the likes of Owen Jones and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and his disciples. Notably, in this chapter Ersoy also uncovers a historiographic imagination yet unaffected by the ethno-religious nationalism that—especially in official circles—continues to edit out the composite heritage of Ottoman culture. To the contrary, the Usul’s authors were proud of the Ottoman role in synthesizing the region’s diverse traditions, be it Arab, Byzantine, or Persian-Central Asian (143).

The final chapter focuses on the emergence of an Ottoman revivalist discourse in Late Tanzimat—to which the Usul was integral—and its impact on architectural practice. Ersoy notes that unlike previous imperial projects, which displayed Ottoman architects’ engagement with Western forms, new buildings demonstrated a conscious effort to integrate ideas from local and Islamic traditions—a practice that lasted well into the early years of the Turkish Republic. As such, Ersoy argues that the Usul, beyond a work of historic scholarship, served as an architectural manifesto. Taken together, the book’s latter chapters reveal the lasting—if unsung—influence the Usul had on the periodization, compositional logic, and assessment of cross-cultural (East-West) interaction in the modern historiography of Ottoman architecture. It also unsettles pervasive misconceptions about the agency, knowledge, and imagination of Late Ottoman artists, architects, and intellectuals.

Architecture and the Late Ottoman Historical Imaginary is lucid, grounded, well-structured, and thoughtfully argued. Ersoy’s considered selection of time frame, site, and object allows him to delve systematically into broader questions about the dynamics of modernization, the tectonic shifts of mid-nineteenth century geopolitics, and the deployment of Orientalism as a method that could be appropriated and deployed in locations other than its original site of conception. Consequently, he offers a richly layered analysis that is expansive in its outlook, but remains anchored around the core investigation. Although the principle points, highlighted in every chapter, may seem repetitious, they make each chapter freestanding, which, in a teaching context, will allow them to be assigned individually as course readings.

What makes Ersoy’s contribution remarkable is his ability to discuss questions without reverting to simplistic binaries. This is a balancing act almost as difficult as the Ottoman elites’ own attempts at borrowing from the discursive practices of Orientalism, which inherently defined them as the lesser other, to assert the validity of their own cultural endeavors. As he uncovers the meandering movement of ideas across geographies, their adaptation and reinterpretation by unexpected actors, the contradictions that emerge in the process, and the inventive ways for reconciling them, Ersoy proves himself to be a perceptive historian who recognizes both the aspirations and ingenuity of his actors and the tenuousness of their political, economic, and cultural position on the world stage. On the whole, I would recommend this book as an invaluable addition to the libraries of not just those interested in the history of the Late Ottoman Empire, but to anyone who seeks a thoughtful reading of the polyvalent, multi-local, and mutually transformative aspects of modernization processes.

Zeynep Kezer
Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University

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