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A Moveable Past? Social Uses of the Ottoman Past in the Post-Ottoman World

Panel XIII-3, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel brings together researchers focusing on retrospective articulations about the Ottoman past, in post-Ottoman contexts. While scholars from various disciplines have discussed the social, political, and cultural uses of the past through scattered signifiers, our take on the Ottoman past is that competing and fluctuating narrations have organized their uses, in ways that have been differing from one place to the next, and from one period to the other. We explore the idea that the past can be moveable in space and time, i.e. as both a piece of heritage that can be moved from one place to another (Espagne & Werner 1988), or that has a different shape in various moments of history. In this sense, we consider uses of the past as mnemonic practices, in constant movement and redefinition (Olick 2003; Khalili 2007). The social and political uses of changing narrations about the Ottoman past have been much in evidence over the last couple of decades. The meaning of imperial turning points, such as 1908-1909 or 1915-1916, has been interpreted according to competing teleologies. In this centennial year of the Lausanne Treaty and the Republic of Turkey, none has been more so than the succession of events of 1923. Yet beyond the significance of dates, narrations and chronologies produce senses of expectation and originality, landmarks according to which a sense of the typical or of the new can be figured. Alternative histories not only displace or reverse perceptions of historical trends; they alter the everyday, aesthetics and material culture within time frames, much as if a period room were refurbished. The Ottoman past and its reconstructions give food for thought about the entanglements between individual and collective experiences, about when things change, how and for whom, within an imperial framework. In other words, writing about all things Ottoman is often a strategic or counter-hegemonic activity (Haugbolle 2010; Philliou 2013). In this panel, contributions explore contexts in which traces and chronologies of the Ottoman period were compiled, recorded, written and transmitted orally, in various formats: memoirs, academic writings, oral accounts, and archeological artefacts, and in different post-Ottoman spaces: Republican Turkey, Hashemite Iraq and Jordan. Contributors are interested in the circulation of legacies or narratives on the Ottoman past, before or precisely when they materialize into a commonly accepted pattern. By doing this, this panel aims to reflect on the Empire after the Empire beyond the trope of neo-Ottomanism (Yavuz 2020).
  • For long, studies on social or collective memory in the Middle East have tended to focus on national memory. With regards to the Ottoman period in particular, the overall consensus was that post-Ottoman state ruling elites either intentionally forgot, or actively rejected, the Ottoman legacy on their societies. However, an increasing number of studies have emphasized the multifaceted and malleable nature of memory production on the Ottomans. With the imperial collapse, many were deprived of their businesses, professional networks, or sources of income. As a result, a multiplicity of counterhegemonic memory cultures about the Empire centered around the idea of crisis, has developed parallel to official representations. Since the mid-19th century, Iraqi provinces were particularly affected by the complex processes of re-Ottomanisation of the structures of power. In the print industry and education sectors in particular, the Tanzimat and the 1908 Young Turk revolution created new opportunities in a flourishing print market and administration, thus affecting the many professionals active in these sectors. In this contribution, I am interested in the historical profession as it developed in Iraq in the first decades after the end of the Ottoman Empire, with a focus on the historians’ representations of the Empire. I examine the writings and career paths taken by professional historians trained in Iraq or abroad, and active in Iraq after graduation: ‘Abbas al-‘Azzawi and ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani, who graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Baghdad in the 1920s, as well as ‘Abd al-Wahhab ‘Abbas al-Qaysi and Yasin ‘Abd al-Karim ‘Abbas, who obtained their Ph.D. at the Universities of Minnesota and Michigan in the 1950s. Using historical writings they produced about the empire, institutional archives (The American University of Beirut and Rockefeller Foundation archives) and interviews, I discuss the links between the Ottoman legacy in modern education and press, and their various modes of representation of the Ottoman past in general. By looking at these historians as memory makers who, like any other social group, inherit, participate in, shape and transform collective memories about the past of their own milieu, I contend that historians in Iraq have consolidated their own genres and modes of historical memory about the Ottomans, often in stark contrast to the official or national memory.
  • This contribution explores how extended families that claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad and were based in the Ottoman-Arab provinces have navigated the transformation processes brought about by the end of the Ottoman Empire. The investigation draws on genealogical records kept today in the state archives in Istanbul and Amman and cross-reads these documents with memoirs, correspondences and other self-narratives of descendants of these families in the Ottoman and post-imperial period. This material helps to illustrate how information about kinship and genealogical origins was compiled, stored and activated while also inquiring about the connections which were assumed between genealogical claims and other collective resources, including property, economic and political opportunities, transregional networks and access to education in the late-Ottoman context. In a second step, the paper then introduces the notion of “genealogical capital” (Morgan 2010; Leykin 2021) to trace how historical actors made use of genealogical evidence in post-Ottoman contexts to (re-)claim these resources, to position themselves in newly-emerging social, political and economic competitions and to make statements about alternative historiographies. The investigation foregrounds the material dimension of these genealogical claims: It emerges that the genealogical records themselves, either in their original or as copies, transcripts, translations or even paraphrases, continued to have a consequential material presence in post-imperial times. Memoirs and oral history interviews illustrate how historical actors interacted with and later remembered these documents as they were being displayed, repeatedly interpreted and eventually passed on to younger generations. The genealogical records in question have a strong visual component which can transcend the epistemological ruptures and changes in language, scripture and archival cultures that have accompanied the end of the Ottoman Empire. Combining text and various graphic elements reaching from simple lines, circles and tables to intricate tree-shaped arrangements set in multiple colors and elaborate calligraphy into meaningful ensembles that remained legible even in post-Ottoman settings, these multilayered documents represent collective identities along with their diachronic dimension. As these records are also both portable and, at least in part, reproducible, they have the potential to outlast processes of migration, displacement and upheaval. Therefore, they come to stand in as references and substitutes for claims to other resources that proved either less mobile, like real estate or landed property, or are less swiftly translated into post-Ottoman epistemologies.
  • Writing the history of missionary institutions was a common feature of Catholic (especially Jesuit) and Protestant (e.g. ABCFM) missions in the Islamic world. But how can we account for the intent to control historical writing, underlined by historians of these missions? Alongside their official, published histories, the Columbia University-based archives of the two American Protestant institutions of higher education in late Ottoman and Republican Istanbul, Robert College and Constantinople Woman’s College, present us with a host of manuscripts and typewritten narratives of the history of both colleges. The authors of these histories connect the history of both colleges with the history of the shift from the Ottoman Empire to Republican Turkey and of education in the country. Three dominant motives stood out in these narratives. One was influence, such as the colleges’ claim of being incubators of educational and civic transformation: American college education was assumed to have provided models of Ottoman, then Turkish citizenship. A second motive was conflict management. Inter-communal relations were taken to be primarily conflictual and to have caused the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Taking these relational patterns into account was strategic for the colleges to survive and thrive in a Republican, supposedly homogeneous, Turkey. One last motive was boosting the public space. Colleges aimed to norm and arbiter conflicts, inter-communal or else, while consolidating spaces of dialogue. Yet history was a contested field where rival political movements competed for legitimacy. Historical writing often worked to preclude public debate by entrenching oppostions formulated in historical terms. Against this trend, orienting historical narrative was a way for historians from both colleges of consolidating and regulating the public space. These hypotheses were not mutually exclusive, but they entailed diverging teleologies. Stories of the colleges’s influence tended to be stories of growing acceptance of the colleges and the pluralistic principles they stood for by the state. Stories of conflict management could be accompanied with a sense of the inevitability of persecution and primordial confrontation. Stories of colleges as fostering an opening of the public space often told stories of democratization through critical debate, but also through the development of informed debate nurtured by specialists. These diverging narratives stressed different periodizations. Examining periodizations and narrative constructions sheds light on how the Ottoman past was perceived within those institutions in Republican times. It also enables us to understand how both colleges understood their position within the Republican régime.
  • Great interest in public memory and remembrance in modern Turkey has resulted in an impressive number of works studying autobiographies, public celebrations, and monuments in early republican Turkey. While making important contributions to the field, most of these works are limited to the perspective of the center and members of the – both imperial and national – elites. In this presentation, I shall provide a different perspective by studying the politics of remembrance of the Ottoman past surrounding the “Kuvayi Milliye,” (“national forces”), the guerrilla units active in occupied Anatolia in 1918–1922. These units were often commanded by locals who, born around the turn of the century, had received some formal education (either in medreses or idadi high-schools) and served as Ottoman reserve officers in the Great War before joining the guerrillas. These men were twenty years younger than the “Last Ottoman Generation” (Michael Provence 2017) – but, judging from their memoirs, just as Ottoman as them. By the 1950s, these last Ottoman reserve officers started to organize as veterans of the Kuvayi Milliye. In my presentation, I shall study the magazine Kuvayi Milliye, published by the veterans’ organization Türkiye Kuvayi Milliye Mücahit ve Gaziler Cemiyeti. The magazine, which was published first in Adana (1951–52, 1958–1961) and later in Mersin (1961–1975), serialized numerous memoirs of kuvayi milliye veterans, who often cited and sometimes criticized the works of more prominent memoir writers: The veterans stressed the voluntary and spontaneous character of their struggle – implicitly crititizing military service and centralization – and insisted that their local and provincial perspective ought to be considered in the writing of official historiography. In my presentation, I shall utilize Jan and Aleida Assmann’s concepts of collective vs. communicative memory: communicative memory is conceptualized as the active, living work of remembering by people who have witnessed certain events. Communicative memory plays a part in the shaping of collective memory, which usually is far less detailed and more standardized, and eventually replaces communicative memory (Assmann and Frevert 1999). I will study how the veterans tried to shape, correct and influence the emerging collective memory of the importance of guerrilla war in the Turkish War of Independence by publishing their own, communicative memory of it.
  • The Ottoman period occupies an important place in the work of Jordanian historians since the 1970s. While the Kingdom’s official history narrative builds upon the legacy of the Great Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule, narratives that have emerged in the work of Jordanian historians are much more complex. Focusing on the local scale, this historiographic production simultaneously points to the horizon of the Bilad al-Sham as an indispensable context. An analysis of the publications of the Committee for the History of the Bilad al-Sham (uniting the University of Jordan, the University of Yarmouk and the University of Damascus) reveals an implicit challenge to “methodological nationalism” (Gary Wilder 2015) as the committee’s scope of work itself defies national borders. It also speaks to the larger political context of this scholarship in the aftermath of the 1967 war. In this presentation I will compare this historiography with oral history narratives collected by a group of Jordanian students in various parts of the country between 2018 and 2020, many of which concern the final decade of Ottoman rule in Jordan. They reveal important differences in the way the populations of various regions experienced that tumultuous period. What can we learn about Jordanian society when we approach historiographic works and oral history narratives together as ways of situating oneself in time, in the spirit of François Hartog’s regimes of historicity (articulations of past, present and future), and what does this add to our understanding of the legacy of the Ottoman empire?
  • The scientific excavations in the ancient city of Pergamon, today in western Turkey, were initiated by Carl Humann (1839-1896) a German engineer who was employed as a surveyor to scout potential railway routes throughout the Ottoman Empire. A considerable amount of fragments from the ancient city Pergamon were shipped to Germany, a special museum was built in 1899 on Berlin’s Museumsinsel and Humann became known as the “discoverer” of the Pergamon Altar (180–160 BC), which is considered today as the “main attraction” of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. From 2013 onwards, the Turkish government has demanded the restitution of several artefacts that are acquired by the West European countries during the late Ottoman times, including the Pergamon Altar. While the Turkish Ministry of Culture declared the will to exhibit “the power to call on the wide landscape of heritage” through the restituted artefacts in the recently restored Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (Ankara), the Municipality of Izmir has been pushing for the Pergamon Altar coming back to its “original place”, to the Pergamon Museum in Bergama. While the competition continues about the “next” place of the Pergamon Altar, Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin has refused to return fragments from Pergamon excavation by mobilizing a clear-cut dichotomy between a “West” that is capable to preserve and be in charge of the common good, and “an East” that possess a ‘gold mine’ (of cultural assets) but not the capabilities to operationalize it in service of the world. Against the backdrop of the debates on restitution and decolonializing the museums, this presentation focuses on the regimes of remembrance of the Ottoman excavations that are forged by the three museums involved in the restitution debate of the Pergamon Altar. Firstly, it examines the legal basis of “moving” archeological remains from the Ottoman Empire to Imperial Germany. Secondly, it co-reads the ways in which the legal frameworks of the excavations conducted in the Ottoman lands have been narrated in the Pergamon Museum in Bergama, the Museum of Anatolian Civilisation in Ankara and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Taking museums as sites of knowledge production, it presents multiple constructions of legality of “moving” and restituting archeological objects. It argues that orientalism and civilizational discourses are not matters of the past, are constantly reiterated in contemporary knowledge production on heritage, especially when it comes to notions of legitimate possession.