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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 139-163

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Western Influences on the Ottoman Empire and Occidentalism in the Architecture of Istanbul

Ali Uzay Peker
Middle East Technical University, Turkey


This article portrays the initial century of Westernization in Ottoman culture by studying the architectural developments of the eighteenth century. The political and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire was the ancient city of Istanbul, located between two continents. Because of Istanbul's location, the study of its culture and architecture sheds light on how the Islamic world took over ideas from the Christian West. Much research has been done on Orientalism, but the material culture of the Ottoman response to Europe during the eighteenth century has not yet been the topic of a comprehensive study, in spite of some important preliminary studies.

Relevant background research on social evolution and institutions in Turkey and its Arab provinces in the eighteenth century has been done by Hamilton A. R. Gibb and Harold Bowen; Dogan Kuban's work, the first extensive study of an architectural style that is best described as Ottoman baroque, catalogs Ottoman buildings with baroque and rococo elements; Ayda Arel examines texts written by Western travelers about Ottoman Turkey and its architecture; Bernard Lewis offers a general survey of the contact between the Muslims and the West from the earliest Islamic age to the twentieth century, touching upon many aspects of cultural life; Serim Denel contextualizes the urban characteristics of Istanbul in the eighteenth and, primarily, the nineteenth century by discussing building [End Page 139] codes and regulations. A different approach is adopted by Fatma M. Göcek, who describes the Ottoman French relations by contrasting Ottoman and French cultures in the eighteenth century; Maurice Cerasi's visual perceptiveness enables him to point to the distinctive stylistic characteristics of the architecture of Ottoman buildings and towns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 1 Nevertheless, what is yet lacking is a comprehensive study of eighteenth-century developments and the reasons for the later restrained reception of Western modes. This essay will approach that task by demonstrating how material objects reflect the dynamics of the first remarkable encounter between the Islamic East and the West.

Mercantile Business Ventures and the Traditional Ottoman Social System

The defeat of the Ottoman army before the gates of Vienna in 1683 signaled the beginning of the Ottoman retrogression: a series of defeats and peace treaties disadvantageous for the empire followed, and Turkey gradually retreated from Eastern Europe. European economic rivalry ensued. The Treaty of Pasarowitz (1718) strengthened the political power of the Habsburg Empire in Central and Eastern Europe, and the inauguration of the Trieste port in 1719 by Charles VI heralded Austria's economic ascendancy in the Mediterranean. 2 That, in turn, gave an impetus to Ottoman-French diplomatic and economic relations, so that France became the foremost trade partner of the Ottoman state in the eighteenth century, and until the nineteenth century French capital dominated Oriental markets. 3 Though prohibited by law, merchandise from Austria—especially porcelain, tile, and textiles—nevertheless penetrated Ottoman bazaars, and Ottomans became the principal consumers of Bohemian porcelain. 4 In 1784, Austrian trade vessels were given the right to sail freely among Ottoman harbors. After 1765 the Venetian Republic controlled some twenty trade companies located in Istanbul, Izmir, Aleppo, Alexandria, and Cairo, and the commercial leaders were Jews and Christians living in the harbors of the Levant and North Africa. The eighteenth century is the period, then, when the economic dominancy of Western Europe was felt in the intercontinental trading activity of the Ottoman Empire (Mantran, XVII , 164-65, 168).

European commercial ascendancy in the Middle East brought about political and social changes. Western governments started to back their [End Page 140] respective companies in order to maintain economic dependencies in the Ottoman lands, and because political power was dependent on economic power, the delegates of trade companies acquired a great deal of power and became the official representatives of their countries. The Ottoman government (Sublime Port) acknowledged their new status and started...


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