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  • Istanbul – Kushta – Constantinople: Narratives of Identity in the Ottoman Capital, 1830–1930 ed. by Christoph Herzog and Richard Wittmann
  • A. Ebru Akcasu (bio)
Istanbul – Kushta – Constantinople: Narratives of Identity in the Ottoman Capital, 1830–1930
Christoph Herzog and Richard Wittmann, editors
Routledge, 2019, 324 pp. ISBN 9781138631311, $160.00 hardcover.

Foreigner accounts of nineteenth-century Ottoman Istanbul invariably have a passage, if not a whole page or more, devoted exclusively to the city’s diversity. One of the most iconic of these is the “The Bridge” section in Edmondo de Amicis’s 1877 travelogue Constantinople, in which the author illustrates a “changing mosaic of races and religions that is composed and scattered continually with a rapidity that the eye can scarcely follow” (25). This “mosaic” that was such a prevalent feature of Orientalist accounts was carried into the historiography as a prop that escaped scrutiny until Ottoman studies followed the current of a more social, urban, and biographical turn, and Ottomanists began to engage more deeply with alternative sources, such as self-narratives. Istanbul – Kushta – Constantinople: Narratives of Identity in the Ottoman Capital, 1830–1930, edited by Christoph Herzog and Richard Wittmann, is a new addition to a growing body of literature that aims to shed light on the identities of individuals who no doubt also crossed the Galata Bridge in anonymity. Part of the series “Life Narratives in the Ottoman Realm: Individual and Empire in the Near East,” Istanbul – Kushta – Constantinople offers twelve glimpses into life in late Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul. The contributions are distributed across four sections: “European and Ottoman women in the empire,” “Outside observers of Istanbul,” “Jewish communities,” and “Armenian and Bulgarian Christian communities.” As the headings suggest, the work addresses several registers of identity and contributes to the editors’ stated aims, which include complicating the puzzle of imperial realities, and “help[ing] to understand better the defining role that ethnic diversity played in shaping the city” (1)—a city of one hundred and thirty-five appellations, as they point out.

In its effort to capture the city’s diversity, the volume gives voice to Ottomans and non-Ottomans alike. Among the latter, Kent Schull’s and Pablo Martín Asureo’s studies of American and Hispanic observations expand foreigner accounts of the imperial city, which have hitherto privileged great power representations, mostly of educated elites whose impressions had more or less been in harmony [End Page 855] with their home states’ interest-driven objectives and essentialist rhetoric with respect to the sultan’s dominions. Asureo’s account of Hispanics who journeyed to the Ottoman domains in official and unofficial capacities carves a place for figures that have mostly been ignored in late Ottoman historiography and is mindful in demonstrating the transatlantic reach of the accounts they produced. Also reaching across the Atlantic, Schull’s critique of Edward Said’s identity hierarchy particularizes the American gaze that is too often conflated with (some of) Europe, despite being quite distinct. A significant body of shared intertexts across the broader imaginary “West” granted, this difference is accentuated by Schull’s reflection that the “self-doubt, sense of national anxiety and humility [of the Americans] translates into contempt for European views of the Orient” (65).

The remainder of the contributions that work with foreigner narratives highlight the Constantinople episodes of the lives of individuals from “German-speaking countries” (9), as Gudrun Wedel phrases it. These diverge from the more traditionally dominant voices speaking on the Ottoman capital, in terms of gender, class, or religion, and allow the reader to see that a common regional origin or linguistic culture did not anticipate similar experiences of the city. Although one observes foreigners and the other Ottomans, Wedel’s prosopography and Börge Sagaster’s study of “The Imperial Harem Network” share the approach of studying a set of women the authors each define through shared experiences in space and time. More specifically, Sagaster analyzes autobiographical works by those who are referred to as “former inmates” (44) of the harem to demonstrate how the institution’s culture changed from the era of Sultan Abdülmecid I (r. 1839–1861) through the reign of Sultan Mehmed Vahdeddin (r. 1918...