Orientals and Orientalists

By Reade, Julian | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Orientals and Orientalists


Reade, Julian, Antiquity


WENDY M.K. SHAW. Possessors and possessed: museums, archaeology, and the visualization of history in the late Ottoman empire, xi+270 pages, 45 figures. 2003. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press; 0-520-23335-2 hardback $60 & 40 [pounds sterling].

FREDERICK N. BOHRER. Orientalism and visual culture: imagining Mesopotarmia in Nineteenth-Century Europe. xiv+384 pages, 79 figures. 2003. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 0-521-80657-7 hardback 65 [pounds sterling] & US$90.

LESLEY ADKINS. Empires of the plain: Henry Rawlinson and the lost languages of Babylon. xxiii+424 pages, 29 figures, 3 maps. 2003. London: Harper Collins; 0-00-712899-1 hardback 20 [pounds sterling].

During the nineteenth century, when theories of sovereignty defined much of eastern Europe and the Middle East as belonging to the Ottoman sultan, the ancient cultures of these areas were being studied and sometimes enthusiastically collected by scholars and other visitors from western Europe. The three books considered here deal, from entirely different angles, with aspects of this process and the questions it raised.

The Ottomans

Wendy Shaw addresses herself to two sets of readers, 'those familiar with Ottoman history and ... museum studies' (p. 1). There is a broader potential readership, as she relies heavily on archives and publications written in Ottoman Turkish. These sources, underused because few people can cope with them, offer alternative views on how members of the Ottoman elite regarded the past of their country and the activities of foreigners, which are matters known mainly from western records. Many non-western societies have experienced comparable outside interest in their past, and contemporary expressions of local opinion are scarce. It would have been helpful in this case to compare the views of all the communities of Istanbul, which would require an equal familiarity with other languages and scripts.

Shaw's presentation and interpretations are grouped around the evolution of the Ottoman state museums and the successively stricter Antiquities Laws of 1874, 1884 and 1906. The date when a museum was founded is arguable. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the church of Ayia Irene was transformed into an armoury; it also held captured treasures, effectively a trophy collection of a type going back thousands of years. From the 1720s on, Ayia Irene was sometimes open to visitors. By the 1840s, many of the weapons were antique, and there were other antiquities there too, but even in 1877 the church was still functioning as an armoury.

In 1869, after the sultan had visited museums in France, provincial governors were encouraged to send antiquities to the capital, and another building was adapted to serve as the Imperial Museum. While it was nominally built in emulation of western museums, Shaw suggests that it was intended to serve deeper political purposes. 'European archaeologists came to the empire to make their claim to Ottoman territories appear natural'(p. 105); by displaying Greco-Roman and Byzantine objects as part of the Ottoman heritage, the museum presented the empire as part of Europe, and 'through asserting its ownership of antiquities, the empire could reaffirm symbolically its control over its territories' (p. 87). Islamic antiquities only became prominent towards the end of the nineteenth century. Official Ottoman excavations demonstrated similar cultural interests to those of western governments. Osman Hamdi was an especially active director, during 1881-1910, and Shaw discusses some of the remarkable paintings that illustrate how eastern and western elements merged in his personality.

There is a wealth of information in this book, which many libraries should get, but not all readers will be satisfied with fashionably generalized interpretations of western and Ottoman motives. In fact, the sultan was entitled to overrule his own laws whenever he wished, and often allowed the export of antiquities for diplomatic reasons. …

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