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The catalogue Ottoman Arcadia: The Hamidian Expedition to the Land of Tribal Roots (1886) accompanied its namesake exhibition in Istanbul curated by Bahattin Öztuncay, Ahmet Ersoy, and Deniz Türker. The exhibition displayed the Bismarck Gift Albums, three photographic albums prepared by the court of Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) as an official gift for Otto von Bismarck (d. 1890), Germany’s long-term legendary chancellor. These albums (acquired by the Omer M. Koç Collection in May 2017) document the Söğüt Photographic Expedition, which was a trip ordered in 1886 by Abdülhamid II’s imperial decree to the then newly established Ertuğrul Sancak in the Hüdavendigar Province, a western frontier during the establishment of the Ottoman Empire. Ertuğrul refers to the father of Osman I, the first Ottoman sultan, and this province included the empire’s first capital, Bursa. The collection brings together works that explore Abdulhamid II’s use of visual propaganda by means of photographic albums: a strategy employed to remake the image of the then-crumbling Ottoman Empire as a sovereign, imperial power in control of its remaining territories. The albums, composed for predominantly Western audiences, showcased a range of imagery, from modern buildings and infrastructure in cities, like hospitals, to smaller towns and their inhabitants. The latter includes photos of picturesque fields and medieval relics, which were instrumentalized by the Ottoman state for visualizing its “dynastic myths.” The exhibition’s catalogue, edited by Öztuncay and Özge Ertem, includes a selection of plates from the three albums that were on display (fig. 1), in addition to black-and-white prints from the expedition team’s collection of panoramas and photographs.
In the catalogue’s introductory chapter, Selim Deringil locates these Bismarck albums within the colonial practices of governance (borrowed from those of European powers), which extended to the use of photography, painting, and maps for documenting local populations. For instance, the albums featured photographs of the Karakeçili tribe, who claimed to be descendants of the Ottoman founding fathers, alongside old mosques and tombs in towns like Söğüt that marked the landscape of the empire’s earliest territories. Deringil argues that since the seminomadic Karakeçili tribe actually moved to the region long after the first Ottomans settled there, the former group’s origin narrative was “invented tradition at its best” (11). Deringil extends this discussion of the Ottoman origin myth to early republican Turkey (established in 1923), explaining that a similar set of endeavors was pursued during the 1930s. More importantly, Deringil’s emphasis on “reading a building as a document” (11) sets the tone for the rest of the catalogue’s contributions, which consider architectural monuments and layouts as historical documents, instead of passive backdrops, within which significant events may have taken place.
Following the introduction, the reader finds herself on a journey that begins with Bismarck, the protagonist on the receiving end of the three albums. T. G. Otte’s essay provides an excellent portrayal of the “Iron Chancellor’s” political career and personal life, while Sinan Kuneralp’s brief essay brings us to a discussion of the complicated affairs between the Ottoman Empire and Germany, raising questions about how the two imperial powers viewed one another. Specifically, how did Bismarck and Abdulhamid II maneuver within the uneven terrain of Europe’s ever-shifting borders and the perpetual possibility (and reality) of wars? While Otte’s portrait of Bismarck takes less notice of the Ottoman connection by focusing on the internal politics of Germany and its relationship with neighbors, Kuneralp’s captivating account moves the reader, eager to learn more about the entanglements between these two powerful figures, too swiftly to the end of this turn-of-the-century narrative. With the first essays establishing the sociopolitical framework of these albums, the book’s remaining contributions then take us on a journey that unravels their diverse aspects, rich content, and dynamic structure.
The catalogue’s most extensive contribution, Ahmet Ersoy’s “The Sultan and His Tribe,” dovetails well with the texts preceding it. In this essay, Ersoy examines the use of emergent media technologies like photography, specifically pertaining to the Bismarck gift albums, in the production of the empire’s origin myths where “indigenous” groups—the seminomadic Turkmen tribes that migrated to Anatolia from Central Asia—served as living proof of this distant past. The albums portrayed members of the Karakeçili tribe as “remnants of a primeval past transfixed in time” posing in their “natural state” dressed in “authentic” costumes (52, 53). The Karakeçili were photographed purportedly reenacting premodern tribal rituals like worshipping at the mausoleum of Ertuğrul Gazi, a somewhat mythical figure himself. Ersoy explains that while the practice of visiting the shrine had long since disappeared as the Karakeçili gradually transitioned to sedentary life, the Ottoman state intentionally turned this monument (restored in the 1890s) into a memorial site. As staged as these performances were, they successfully created illusions of encounters between contemporary and antiquated landscapes inhabited by living members of the “ancestors.” After delving into the “uneven” and “fragmentary,” yet “flexible” and “mobile,” character of the image archive located at Istanbul’s Yıldız Palace (the imperial residence at this time), Ersoy gives the reader a detailed account of the expedition’s team members: ten military officers and bureaucrats who specialized in photography and painting, headed by Mehmed Emin Bey (d. 1925), a member of the sultan’s inner circle who served as his chamberlain and librarian. His role here is another indicator of this mission’s scale and the albums’ imperial importance.
In “Every Image Is a Thought,” Deniz Türker walks us further into the “mind” of the archive. The architectural plans of the Yıldız Palace Photography Studio (located with the imperial archives) that accompany the essay hint at the role that architecture may have played in the organization of the archive’s diverse collections. The archive was an unremittingly expanding master library, which provided images, maps, layouts, catalogues, manuals, and handwritten notes to be patched together at will and reused according to the preferences of the intended recipient. Despite the inclusion of the building’s plans, Türker does not dwell on the spatial organization of this imperial studio. Instead, the author skillfully delves into the “architecture” of the albums themselves by investigating the ways in which individual pages were bound together as well as the “scopic regimes” through which they were imagined. This included how the sequence of the photographed sites in each album overlapped with the Ottoman Empire’s geographic expansion and progress across time. As new territories were procured, nomadic life styles made way for modern urban life. To this end, the albums showcased new buildings alongside the restored monuments of a reinvented past.
While Türker’s essay situates the neo-Ottoman imagination of the foundation myth in an international context by linking it to the undercurrents of identity politics prevalent in the nineteenth century, Reşat Kasaba’s “Why So Many Yürüks?” focuses on this myth’s main performers: the seminomadic tribes that migrated seasonally during the year. What the Ottoman state machinery saw in these tribes was the potential for “asserting the rootedness of the legitimacy of the Ottoman Empire” (89) by referring to their role in past military successes in frontier regions. At the same time, the state sought to ensure these tribes’ place in the imperial economic system, since the Yürüks provided most of the animal stock critical for maintaining trade routes. As a result, the Ottoman officials looked for a balance between ongoing modernization attempts, which included the enforcement of sedentary life styles, and maintaining the tribes’ livelihoods. Beatrice St. Laurent’s contribution, “Reflections in Images of the Hüdavendigar Province,” also parallels Türker’s analysis in its focus on the frameworks of these three albums. First, the author explores how the history of the modernizing Ottoman Empire was written by employing the revolutionary medium of photography. To that end, the piece zooms in on the albums themselves: their content and visual arrangement and, hence the ways in which official theses were envisaged. The author is also interested in where the narrative was given concrete form, an inquiry that responds to Deringil’s aforementioned call for “reading” the physical environment: mapping the empire’s domains and its people, restoring early royal monuments, and erecting new public buildings in the “neo-Ottoman” style became three interrelated projects through which the empire’s contemporary accomplishments (present) and glorified history (past) were publicized.
In the final chapter, Berin Gölönü presents a complex interplay between photography and painting, both of which were mobilized during the Söğüt expedition. As Gölönü proficiently demonstrates, the Hamidian regime did not prioritize one medium over another. Landscape paintings (like photographs) were employed, in the same way as technical drawings or maps, as scientific tools for visual documentation. Carefully framed photographs of the Hüdavendigar Province that included its historical artifacts, idyllic townscapes, and local inhabitants, found their way into numerous gift albums and were duplicated in oil on canvas by a number of Ottoman military artists. Images romanticizing the natural and built heritage of the empire helped to further “naturalize” the link between the land and its people, juxtaposing the heartland of modern Ottoman statehood with “a very selective Turkic cultural lineage” (108). The paintings also featured early Ottoman monuments shown before and after restoration. According to the author, for the Hamidian regime, this rigorous restoration program was a marker of its “state patrimony.” Here, paintings went beyond documenting the actual buildings, some of which were in a state of ruin, and depicted these edifices as restored structures in their ideal forms.
Ottoman Arcadia speaks to broad audiences and offers the reader a well-illustrated voyage through different worlds, mediums, and the immensely varied content of the Hamidian gift albums. It begins by highlighting the use of photography and other visual media for the production, dissemination, and representation of official narratives, such as how the modernizing Ottoman Empire imagined its landscapes, people, and history. The book’s contributions then weigh the “imaginative involvement,” in Ersoy’s words (51), of various entities that planned, executed, or tweaked this agenda. What was largely overlooked in the catalogue, although several chapters briefly dwell on it, was whether or not (and to what extent) the early republican regime adopted these practices, especially in the case of Ottoman imperial heritage. Indeed, a similar endeavor covering related practices in modern Turkey would be a welcome extension of this project.
Associate Professor, Department of Architecture and Design, American University of Beirut