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Ottoman Social and Environmental Engineering in the Long Nineteenth Century

Panel I-18, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • The early nineteenth century has long been framed by historians as the beginning of an Age of Reform throughout Ottoman territories. The New Order (Nezam-i Cedid), commenced in 1792 and the Tanzimat (the “rearrangements”) which rebooted reform efforts in 1839, have usually been understood as two cumulative waves of state-led social reorganisation and administrative centralisation. These same decades marked a period, globally, in which a re-emergent knowledge-object of “population” came to dominate debates about state and society. In a variety of settings across the globe, these population debates were increasingly articulated with reference to Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, and republished in various revisions up to 1826. This paper considers how the recasting of “population” as the basis for a distinct demographic science and set of administrative practices was deployed and instrumentalised in the Ottoman Empire, within the context of these successive waves of social restructuring. To what extent does a “Malthusian” framework – of positive and preventative “checks” to population growth – make sense when mapped upon the discursive mobilisations of population in the Middle East during this period?
  • During the diverse Ottoman intellectual life in the Second Constitutional era (1908-1918), discussions on science have intensified in the form of different writings such as translations, adaptations and rewritings. Those scientific productions which could be considered as one of the aspects of late Ottoman modernization were carried out by Ottoman intellectuals from different political and religious backgrounds, such as progressivism, Islamism, materialism, and spiritualism. Among them, one intellectual community, a publishing house named as Teceddüd-i İlmî ve Felsefî Kütüphanesi (The Library of Scientific and Philosophical Renovation), whose founding and acting members are considered as materialists, had fruitfully contributed to the debates on different realms of knowledge production such as natural science, religion, psychology, sociology, and literature. As Ottoman intellectuals in this circle envisioned a comprehensive social transformation and discussed the limits of modernization within the context of novel science of the 19th century, specific focus was given to three main subjects: law of matter (madde kanunu), evolution (tekâmül) and theory of cell (hücre nazariyesi). This paper is concerned with one of the books published by the Library of Scientific and Philosophical Renovation on cell biology Hüceyre: Hayatın Esası (Cell: The Essence of Life) by Fikri Tevfik in 1911. Fikri Tevfik was the brother of Baha Tevfik, the founder of the above-mentioned publishing house. At the time of the publication of this book, Fikri Tevfik was a young graduate of the natural sciences department at the Darülfünûn (an Ottoman University founded in 1900 in Istanbul) and in preparation of continuing his education in Europe. Together with the knowledge he gathered from Darülfünûn lecturers, especially from Esad Şerafeddin Bey, Fikri Tevfik mostly benefited from the works of French botanists of the 19th century such as Gaston Bonnier, Georges Colomb and Édouard Lefèvre. Along with these influences, other intrinsic characters of the book encourage one to categorize it somewhere between a translation and an original writing. Broadly, present paper aims to contextualize this neglected book in the context of late Ottoman scientific production, and also claims that its hybrid character tells about different aspects of Ottoman modernization. Additionally, it aims to challenge the unquestioned views on Ottoman materialism by comparing this book with the other publications of the above-mentioned publishing house. Finally, it searches for its importance and influence in the Ottoman scientific community.
  • "The exordium of Ottoman History has perished": The Bursa Earthquake of 1855 and Reconstruction of a Tanzimat City “MESA 2023 Annual Meeting” Conference Proposal, 23 Feb 2023 This paper explores the ways in which natural disasters affect an urban environment on physical and societal levels. Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, was rebuilt in the wake of two earthquakes in the nineteenth century. The paper investigates these earthquakes which took place in 1855 resulting in the deaths of 1,500 residents. The major damage to the physical environment was caused by a fire that began in the business quarter where all the khans and bazaars were accumulated. The estimated number of houses and shops burnt down in this fire was around 2,000. Following these calamitous events, the imperial administration initiated a reconstruction program as it identified Bursa as a pilot project for the second phase of the ongoing Tanzimat (the official name for the grand Ottoman modernization project) reforms. Bursa recovered from this ‘crisis’ through the reconstruction of its quake-ridden monuments executed according to a new city plan, which created a gentrified area now inhabited by silk merchants and factory owners in place of the former Armenian neighborhood. The recovery was made possible by the cooperation of central government bureaucrats and local elites but not always appreciated by common city dwellers. Using mainly the documents from the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives in addition to the UK National Archives and the Archives Diplomatiques of France, this paper tells the story of how these actors interacted during the post-disaster recovery. It argues that the case of Bursa in the second half of the nineteenth century shows that a crisis in the physical, demographic, and economic urban environment may determine the pace of reform, facilitate the implementation of novel ideas and projects, and mobilize local and central governmental actors to take advantage of an extraordinary moment of destruction. The responses to the earthquake of Bursa demonstrate that even supposedly standardized grand reform programs aiming at centralization are informed heavily by local conditions.