Book Review: Ottoman perspectives

This original and brilliant book describes how Western archaeology and archaeologists appeared to Turkish eyes.


This book was published in conjunction with the recent exhibition of the same name at the newly established cultural institution Salt (“simple” or “pure” in Turkish), within the Ottoman Bank building (Garanti Bank), Galata, Istanbul. It essentially rewrites the history of archaeology of the east Mediterranean in the 19th century by including previously under-represented material from Ottoman elites and indigenous peoples within Ottoman lands. These are presented alongside the well-documented perspectives of northern Europeans who travelled extensively and who sought antiquities and archaeological sites. The period begins and ends with two symbolic milestones: the founding of the British Museum in 1753 (the birth of a national institution with imperial ambitions) and the founding of the Istanbul Evkaf Museum of Islamic Art in 1914 (the culmination of Ottoman cultural enlightenment). A wide geographical scope encompasses present-day Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and the collection hubs of northern Europe.

This collection of 16 essays is punctuated by “interludes” serving as a partial catalogue of objects and documents in the exhibition. The content stems largely from collections in Istanbul, including “a late 19th-century Ottoman painting [of the ruins of Baalbek] and Novella” and a document entitled “An Egyptian historian observes British archaeologists”. Together, they provide a rich and engaging tapestry of untold stories, viewpoints and diverse cultural attitudes expressed through texts, images and objects.

This original and brilliant book bridges the gulf between East and West in so many ways. First, it incorporates Ottoman perspectives into what have traditionally been presented as Western narratives. Second, it enables the disciplines of art history, archaeology and cultural heritage, and the study of museums and collections, to co-exist and cross-pollenate across the great classical/Near Eastern divide. An important aspect is the incorporation of previously unpublished Ottoman archival documents, photographs, drawings and prints. Zainab Bahrani notes, with respect to the history of Mesopotamian archaeology in Mesopotamia during the 19th century: “[T]here has been virtually no consultation of the Ottoman documents and publications.”

There is a rejection of the celebratory tone of traditional biographical histories within archaeology. For example, Shawn Malley’s essay “The Layard Enterprise” draws imperialistic parallels between the 19th-century “Father of Assyriology” (Austen Henry Layard, the excavator of Nimrud and Nineveh in Mesopotamia) and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—a big stretch, given that the settings and outcomes were vastly different. The controversial acquisition of the Elgin Marbles is examined in separate essays by George Tolias and Zeynep Çelik, who both shed new light on Ottoman viewpoints and situate the removal of the marbles within a wider social, cultural and historical perspective. Both authors discuss the challenges of interpreting the controversial firman that permitted Elgin to remove the sculptures from the acropolis at Athens (the original Ottoman document is still missing). They question the portrayal of the Ottoman authorities as an entirely uninterested party. Hamilakis inserts the voices of local inhabitants into narratives of acquisition in “Indigenous Archaeologies in Ottoman Greece”. He documents local attempts to resist the purchase and removal of antiquities by northern Europeans. There is the poignant case study of the Ceres of Eleusis, a Roman period caryatid now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which was once revered and defended by locals as a fertility symbol, buried up to its neck “in the midst of a heap of dung”.

The Ottoman authorities have been consciously and unconsciously portrayed as decadent and corrupt in relation to antiquities, a legacy seen within the context of European imperial ambitions that helped to justify claims of legitimacy over an ancient past, and, by extension, modern political claims also. As Edhem Eldem reflects, “modern” archaeology in the Ottoman empire was not established until the first bylaw of 1869, which aimed to prevent the loss of antiquities at the hands of “European travellers, diplomats and self-styled diplomats”. The great irony of the Imperial Museum in Istanbul and the establishment of Ottoman antiquities laws was the intention to prevent the removal of antiquities from Ottoman lands by Europeans, while at the same time emulating similar acquisition practices that led to the damage of archaeological sites. Wendy Shaw’s essay contributes a useful narrative history of the Imperial Museum. She highlights the activities of Osman Hamdi, its first Ottoman director (1881-1910), who promoted the institution and helped foster a modern Ottoman cultural identity closely intertwined with Western ideals. This included the establishment of modern “scientific” excavations in Ottoman lands.

What is missing? There is a surprising lack of discussion of Palestine, especially Jerusalem—surprising considering the prolific activities of the Palestine Exploration Fund (and others) from the 1860s, and the many Biblical artefacts that ended up in Istanbul. Nevertheless, this book will inspire many documentary and art historians, curators and archaeologists.

Scramble for the Past: a Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914

Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik and Edhem Eldem, eds

Salt Galata, 520 pp, £55 (hb)