- Visual Sources of Late Ottoman History
This collection of articles examines and problematizes the use of visual sources in writing histories of the of late Ottoman period. The time bracket defined by the mid-nineteenth century and World War I corresponds to an explosion of visual documentation, extending from cartography to, of course, photography. Developments in the print world increasingly capitalized on them. As images became more and more accessible, they were integrated in myriad ways into the historical narrative regardless of the subject—political, cultural, social, environmental, urban, artistic, architectural, and even economic. Nevertheless, the current interpretations often tend to ignore visual documents or reduce them to decorative backgrounds—as light distractions from the serious textual research, and as opposed to their central use in art and architectural history.
Based on the presentations at a conference under the same title we organized as part of the Columbia University Seminar in Ottoman and Turkish Studies in May 2017, a group of emerging historians discuss here their methodological experiments with visual documents. They investigate their potential to reveal historical information and insights hidden from or neglected by the textual ones, without merely replacing historians' notorious textual archival fetishism with one for visuals. They use the latest technological tools to scrutinize the representations in micro and macro scales, contributing to the emergent field of Ottoman digital humanities. To this end, they identify key methodological issues in the use of visual documents in an interdisciplinary, experimental, flexible, and open-ended manner. The questions the contributors raise include: How do academic disciplines interact with each other and learn from each other? How can a good balance be maintained in synthesizing seemingly incompatible sources? How elastic are the methodologies adopted, and how far can their elasticity be taken?
Several overarching themes emerge from the discussions, including reading the absences, understanding the urge to find effective ways of conveying [End Page 3] knowledge, and rebuilding the architectural past. Nevertheless, these are not rigid categories with fixed boundaries as there is a great deal of overlap and slippage between them.
The first two articles complicate their stories by reading the absences as they go back and forth between visual and written sources. Mehmet Kentel studies an album by caricaturist Yusuf Franko, who opens a surprising insider's perspective to the esteemed cosmopolitan milieu of late nineteenth-century Pera. In Franko's cartoons he discovers forms of self-criticism that written sources of the period would not expose. Furthermore, he complements Franko's stories by portraying this community from other sources to trace who and what are missing from the repertory of the drawings. Michael Talbot shows that sometimes visuals not only spotlight written sources' absentees, but question the original intensions. By zooming into photographs of late Ottoman Jerusalem and micro-reading the faces, bodies, and physical gestures of the individuals in the crowds depicted in the frames, he recovers the experience of watching and listening to a provincial Ottoman military band. He discovers through the photographs of independent studios that, contrary to reports in pro-government press of the period, street performances of the Ottoman military band were not the best show in town. However, Talbot's conclusions do translate to Ottoman state's failure to take advantage of the power of the visual media.
The other three articles shift the perspective from moveable objects, frozen by the painter's brush or camera lens to spaces. Burçak Özlüdil Altın and Dotan Halevy show different ways in which modern states shaped the late Ottoman landscape. They rebuild the architectural past. Özlüdil Altın traces the architectural transformation of an Ottoman külliye into an asylum for the mentally ill. By recovering the interventions through plans and photographs, she links architectural repurposing to the spatial embodiment of modern psychiatry in the late Ottoman Empire. Halevy probes the British manipulation of historical monuments in Mandatory Palestine. He investigates the Mandatory government's preservation of the "Tower of Ramleh" and the later reincarnations of its image in proposing an argument on British efforts to eliminate "Ottoman ruins" from the landscape of Palestine. Finally, Zeinab Azarbadegan investigates the production...