- The City's Pleasures: Istanbul in the Eighteenth Century
In 1703 Sultan Ahmed III transferred the imperial court from Edirne back to Istanbul after an absence of almost fifty years. What followed was a flurry of building activity in the forms of palaces, public gardens, fountains, and other structures. In The City's Pleasures, Shirine Hamadeh presents an engaging, beautifully written study of this architectural boom and its relationship to social, cultural, and political forces in the Ottoman capital. Hamadeh faced a daunting task in studying these works, especially the palaces, given the dearth of surviving eighteenth-century structures, unaltered spaces, or pictorial images that predate the nineteenth century. Despite such challenges, Hamadeh presents compelling evidence from manuscript illuminations, chronicles, travelers' accounts, inscriptions, and especially court poetry. Her discussion of these sources and their limits is thoughtful and illuminating. She notes, for example, the risks in taking court poems at face value, but her sensitive close readings of them shed light on not only the appearance of structures and spaces but the society that inhabited, enjoyed, and viewed them.
Eighteenth-century Istanbul has suffered from some broad generalizations, which Hamadeh sets out to correct. The most common misconception is that the beautification of Istanbul was a top-down process, as it had been in previous centuries, and that projects were largely funded by the sultan and his inner circle, who dictated styles and tastes. But Hamadeh demonstrates that the sultan was responsible for only some of the building projects. Court bureaucrats, women, and prosperous nonelite members of society began to build on a larger, more ostentatious scale in seeking to leave their mark on their surroundings in grand homes, parks, and fountains. Moreover, they sought not their own private enjoyment, but to create more spaces and structures for public use and appreciation—a striking shift from the closed-off quality of earlier Ottoman architecture.
Hamadeh's documentation of these shifts in patronage is an important contribution in and of itself, but the study goes much further, shedding light on the social forces that influenced and that were, in turn, influenced by these developments. Tastes, she argues, were not necessarily dictated from above by the Ottoman court; instead she posits a model of greater fluidity and interaction between social groups in which "court, elite, urban, and popular cultures continuously crisscrossed and intertwined" (244). She describes an intriguing process of opening up or "décloisonnement," in which the previously separated classes became more visible to one another and inhabited the same public spaces. Grand homes began to take stylistic cues from humbler, more graceful timber homes of the nonelite. Gardens were transformed from private, secluded havens for the elite to centers of public recreation and social mingling. The sexes were still segregated, and rules of conduct were enforced—often by gardeners who were housed in barracks and acted as a quasi-police force—but the general effect was still one of greater social freedom and intercourse. This air of change and innovation is mirrored in court poetry and other artistic productions, where classical norms were reworked and challenged.
A second assumption Hamadeh questions is the belief that the new style of architecture and park plans took direct inspiration from Western models, reflecting [End Page 328] the Ottomans' desire to "modernize" in the only way possible. This perception derives from two sources: attributes of structures and spaces that bear resemblance to Western forms and the pronouncements of Western travelers from the time. Hamadeh shows, however, that eighteenth-century Ottoman sources offer no evidence of deliberate attempts to co-opt Western models. While Hamadeh does not dismiss the likelihood of Western influences, she reminds readers that the Ottoman Empire encompassed several cultures and was in diplomatic contact with many more; if Ottomans adopted some Western motifs, it was probably not consciously done (as it was in the nineteenth century), much less with a view to "modernize" their society. Clearer examples of outside influence on architecture in Istanbul may be found in Eastern models, like Safavid structures, which are...