Farewell Topkapi

The Ottoman empire began life as a frontier principality in northwestern Anatolia in the fourteenth century, on the fringes of the Christian Byzantine empire and the lands of Islam. It survived an early setback in 1402, when the extremely scary Timur defeated and captured the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I; by 1452, the Ottomans had conquered Byzantium and made it their own capital. For the next couple of hundred years the Osmanlı devlet was one of the most formidable states in Eurasia, and even after its military expansion ceased—towards the end of the seventeenth century—and the empire began to contract, it proved remarkably durable. The notion of Ottoman decline was an idée reçue with a pedigree long before it became a commonplace of European diplomacy in the nineteenth century: it had its roots, ironically, in the works of Ottoman historians, writing when the empire was approaching its zenith, who were uneasy with the inevitable shifting and settling of political institutions in an increasingly established and powerful state. The idea proved oddly resilient, and more recent historians have had a lot of fun in the last couple of decades pointing out that if a state in inevitable decline manages to stick it out for another three hundred years, we may need to revise our definition of ‘decline’. The empire lasted until the first world war and beyond, signing an armistice rather than collapsing in revolution and crashing out of the war (like its old rival to the north, the Romanov empire) and breaking up under pressure of foreign occupation—the Ottomans managed to outlast the Habsburgs too. What really finished the dynasty off was the rise of a Turkish nationalist movement that viewed their acceptance of Allied occupation as a betrayal; but the swiftness with which Mustafa Kemal chucked them overboard was, and still is, shocking. Here’s the last Sultan leaving the Dolmabahçe palace in 1922, a few days before he was deposed:

Sultan Vahideddin

I remember being told as an undergraduate that the Ottoman state archives contained riches of which Europeanists could only dream—except that Europeanists wouldn’t bother dreaming of them, because they were blithely ignorant of the history of the empire, repeating a few tired clichés of nineteenth-century historiography instead of learning something about the state which perhaps more than any other is responsible for ‘Europe’ actually being a thing.* (This still goes on: ‘Five centuries of Turkish wars against Europe’, yelled the cover story of a French popular history magazine I saw on newsstands in Paris a few years back.)

At that time, and until very recently, the Ottoman archives—inherited by the Turkish Republic that had abolished the Ottoman state—were housed inside the Topkapı palace in Istanbul, where the dynasty resided for much of the empire’s history. The internet provides this touristy picture of it, on the promontory overlooking the Golden Horn (foreground) and the Bosphorus (background):

Topkapı palace

Over the last twenty years or so, a combination of factors (among them the end of the cold war, political liberalization in Turkey, and the increasing ‘critical mass’ of Ottoman studies as a field both outside and to an extent inside Turkey) has meant that the riches of these archives have begun to be exploited. Historians working on parts of the world that were under Ottoman rule for centuries have started using the Ottoman archives to understand that period—heck, it only took about eighty years of crass nationalist historiography to make it seem worthwhile—and, perhaps because they got talking to each other in the reading rooms at the archives, started thinking about the Ottoman experience as a whole rather than as a series of unrelated regional histories. My own attempts to acquire some Turkish in recent years, stalled since I got a proper academic job, were intended to work up from modern Turkish to Ottoman so I could work my way back from 1919—my rough ‘starting point’ as a researcher—into the late Ottoman period, so I could get in on some of this action.

I still hope to get my Turkish up to scratch one day, modern and Ottoman. But I won’t be doing any research trips to the Topkapı palace grounds: as of last month, the Ottoman archives have been moved out to a charmless new facility next to a freeway in Kağıthane a few miles to the north beyond the head of the Golden Horn:

İmrahor Caddesi, 34400, Gürsel Mh., Kağıthane, Istanbul, Turkey

Kağıthane, incidentally, means ‘paperhouse’, which I’m sure is pure coincidence. Click on the image for the full google map, and zoom out to see where it is relative to the old city.

Although the new building is certainly bigger and more suitable for the increasingly heavy use the archives are getting, the move hasn’t been terribly well planned: it wasn’t until February that researchers in the archives—and for that matter the staff—were told the old reading room would close in mid-March, and while the new reading room is open, only material that had already been digitized is currently accessible there. It’ll be months before the physical archives are relocated and made available again. And the new reading rooms are hard to get to. This article on Jadaliyya gives a rundown of the pluses and minuses of the new site, along with a nostalgic look back at the old one—as well as links to some useful practical details that researchers have already assembled, including a google map showing where you can find public transport links. But don’t plan your trip anytime soon.

*I would have put in a prudent ‘arguably’ here, but I’ve just been telling my students to state an argument in their exam essays instead of hedging their bets, so.

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