Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

The Architects of Ottoman Constantinople: The Balyan Family and the History of Ottoman Architecture

Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

The Architects of Ottoman Constantinople: The Balyan Family and the History of Ottoman Architecture

Article excerpt

ALYSON WHARTON, The Architects of Ottoman Constantinople: The Balyan Family and the History of Ottoman Architecture (I.B. Tauris & Co., 2015). Pp. 336. $ 99.00 cloth.

Alyson Wharton's The Architects of Ottoman Constantinople: The Balyan Family and the History of Ottoman Architecture examines a critical period in the history of Ottoman architecture, a time marked by structural transformations. Based on her doctoral dissertation, Wharton's book focuses on the Balyan family, an Armenian family of architects that held a crucial position in Ottoman imperial architecture for three generations. Considering the number and the significance of the works attributed to them, the Balyan family has always had an important place in surveys of late Ottoman architecture. In recent years, studies focusing on the building milieu of the nineteenth century indirectly shed new light on the family's working conditions as well. Their professional background, their status, and the works attributed to them, however, are still subjects of discussion, partly due to limited documentation and partly as a consequence of nationalist tones that still exist in the literature. In this context, Wharton's study, based on a large body of Ottoman, Armenian, and European sources, promises to provide a clearer and more comprehensive perspective.

After an introduction to the context and literature, the book's first two chapters are devoted to understanding the Balyans' status. Within this framework, the author traces information in the Ottoman registers concerning their salaries in order to reveal their bureaucratic position. She tries to discern the way their role in the architectural production process is described, and she contrasts it with that of the chief imperial architect of the earlier centuries. To fill the substantial gaps in the Ottoman documentation about their creative role, the author relies on the drawings of Sarkis Balyan in Nubarian Library and uses his proposal for the establishment of a School of Arts and Industry as evidence of his knowledge of architecture. Throughout the chapter, the family's position is described as a hybrid one that combined creative and practical types of work, with a status equivalent to that of the position of chief imperial architect abolished in 1831.

The following chapter discusses the amira position of Garabet Balyan, the eldest member of the family, as a factor that helped to build this special status. Amiras were wealthy Armenians who became prominent figures in their communities and were known for their benevolent activities and their close relationship with the sultan. Wharton asserts that by prioritizing his benevolent activities in areas linked to the promotion of arts, backing the Armenian guilds that supplied the goods necessary for building works, and taking the primary role in rebuilding many churches in areas inhabited by the workers and suppliers, Garabet Balyan created an image of generous leader and gathered support for his professional activities among the members of the Armenian community. In addition, according to Wharton, the rebuilding of these churches gave Garabet and his team the opportunity to develop their own approach to design which would be transferred to the Ottoman imperial projects and would form the core of the "official style" discussed in the fifth chapter.

Having defined the Balyans' role as architects, in the fourth chapter Wharton tries to portray their educational background, one of the main subjects of discussion in the previous literature. …

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