Friday, December 13, 2013

From Dönme to Biennale: The "New Mosque" in Thessaloniki

[1] Gal Weinstein's installation Fire Tire (2010) for the Thessaloniki Biennale. 
The piece to the right is over 4 meters tall. Exhibited in the Yeni Camii (New Mosque), 
constructed 1902 in Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo by author.

[2] Yeni Camii. Early 20th-century postcard.
Whether it's Sydney or Singapore, it seems like almost every major city in the world is now staging its own biennale, and Greece is no exception. This autumn, Thessaloniki celebrates its 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art, and, besides featuring the work of a wide group of international artists, the Biennale committee has also opened the doors of several historical monuments in the city that are not always accessible to visitors. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I recently headed out to the Yeni Camii (English: New Mosque,  Greek: Γενί Τζαμί), one of the main exhibition spaces for the festival and also one of the most interesting monuments in Ottoman Thessaloniki, a bustling port city with a long past of Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities living together. [1, 2] In this post, we take you on a tour of the building, and explain how the Yeni Camii remains a place where the politics of these different communities continues to play out until the present.

[3] The Yeni Camii under construction, with scaffolding
 around the minaret that was eventually torn
down. 1902. Photo from the site of Baki Sarısakal.
The Yeni Camii (New Mosque) was built in 1902--hardly "new" by today's standards--one of the last major additions to the urban fabric before Thessaloniki was incorporated into the Greek state in 1912. [3] Scholars claim that the mosque was specifically built for the so-called Dönme community of Thessaloniki, Muslims of Sephardic Jewish origin that had converted to Islam by the 17th-18th centuries (Baer 157).  According to the Ottoman newspaper Sabah, on a fine autumn morning early in September 1902--at 8:30 am sharp--a crowd of thousands gathered to watch the opening ceremony for the mosque, a grand affair complete with a military band playing the "Hamidiye March" and speeches from the governor of the province and one Haci Mehmed Hayri Pasha, a field marshal in the Third Army who is named as the mosque's primary patron in the original foundation inscription.

[4] Maps illustrating the expansion of Ottoman Thessaloniki beyond the walled city, from 1850 to 1809. The Yeni Camii lies at the center of the new Hamidiye neighborhood, which appears in the right-hand map as the large area south-east of the city center, next to the shore of the bay. The Salname (Yearbook) of Thessaloniki in 1907 CE (1325 H) refers to the Yeni Camii as the "recently constructed Hamidiye Mosque." [p.565, available through ISAM]

[5] Yeni Camii (New Mosque). Photo from
the Vakıf Genel 
Müdürlüğü (Ankara),
Defter No. 2219. Courtesy of Sotiris Dimitriadis. 
The mosque was not constructed in the city center, but rather in a new neighborhood--the Hamidiye district--which, in the 1880s, was the first major suburb to develop beyond the ancient city walls. [4]  Photographs of the building under construction [3] or early postcards reveal how the mosque--which is today completely hemmed in by apartment buildings--once stood isolated in an airy square, surrounded by trees. The Hamidiye neighborhood was located south-east of the city along the shore of the bay. There many of Salonica’s wealthiest families built themselves magnificent homes with names like Chateau Mon Bonheur, or Villa Bianca, featuring views over the water to Mt. Olympos. Indeed, an old photograph from an album dated 1924, now in the Pious Endowment Directorate in Ankara, labels the building as the "Mosque of the Villas" (Yalilar Cami Şerifi). [5] Such a well-heeled community would naturally clamor for their own congregational mosque, designed in line with the latest architectural trends and fashions.

[5] Plaque located on the facade of the Yeni Camii, naming
Vitaliano Poselli as the architect in both Ottoman Turkish
and Italian, with the year 1319 AH (1902 CE). Author's Photo.
According to a plaque fixed to the outer facade, the architect of the mosque was Vitaliano Poselli, a Sicilian trained in Istanbul. [5] Poselli had been working in Thessaloniki since 1885, successful in his own private practice as well as in public contracts. He seems to have been responsible for the majority of the large fin-di-siecle behemoths that punctuate Thessaloniki's urban landscape: the Banque de Salonique (1906-8), the local Ottoman administration building (Hükümet Konağı, 1891), the Church of the Virgin Mary (1902-3) and the Villa Alatini (the residence of Sultan Abdülhamid II when he was in exile to Salonica 1909-12). Following the trend of the period, Poselli designed the mosque in what could be called an "eclectic" style, mixing together different structural elements that could be identified as Gothic (pointed arches), Renaissance/Neo-Classical (rounded arches, Corinthian capitals) and what at the time would be called "Moorish" or "Turkish" (horse-shoe arches, muqarnas, arabesque pattern-work). [6]

[6] Facade of the Yeni Camii. Photo by Author.
There is no question that at the turn of the century the Dönme of Thessaloniki promoted a vibrant culture with cosmopolitan tastes, as evidenced in the several literary and scientific journals being published by members of this community. However, the same scholars who have worked to document the role of this community in late Ottoman Salonica have, in my opinion, tended to over-stress the history of the Dönme to explain the eclectic style of the Yeni Camii. Marc Baer writes: "[The mosque's] Corinthian columns, referring to the Greco-Byzantine locality, hold up Alhambric-style Andalusian arches, referencing Islam, above which prominent bands of six-pointed stars in marble wrapping are inscribed on the building's interior and exterior, which conjures comparisons with Italian synagogues. Above the entrance, a large six-pointed star is embedded within an ornate arabesque...Because it is a fascinating melange, the distinctive mosque serves as a metaphor for the cosmopolitanism promoted by the Dönme." Looking at the Yeni Camii from the stand-point of a modern aesthetic, its combination of historical styles may strike a 21st-century viewer as unusual, or even unique. Yet the fact is that, within the context of the late 19th century, this mosque was hardly extraordinary. Eclecticism was the style of the day, and it took hold in almost every continent and translated to many different kinds of buildings: museums (PAFA, Philadelphia), churches (Immaculate Conception, New Orleans), synagogues (New Synagogue, Berlin), theaters, and yes, mosques as well. The Yeni Camii in Thessaloniki actually bears an uncanny resemblance to the Yıldız Mosque in Istanbul, the imperial foundation of Sultan Abdülhamid II. [7]

[7] Close-up view of the facade of the Yıldız Mosque in Istanbul (1884-86),
 the imperial mosque of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Photo by author.

[8] Original mechanism for the double-clock
towers. Photo by author.

A brief glance at the facade shows that the Yıldız Mosque also features a six-pointed star embedded in the center of the upper decorative crest, as well as on the marble bands wrapping around the building (to the right of the crest)--this all suggests that the same craft specialists who worked on the mosque at Yıldız may very well have been brought in to decorate the facade of the Yeni Camii in Thessaloniki. In short, if stars of David prominently feature on the imperial mosque in Istanbul (as well as in many mosques throughout the world), it becomes tricky to ascribe their appearance in the Yeni Camii to the mosque's particular relationship with the Dönme community. Suffice to say that the wealthy and influential residents of the new Hamidiye neighborhood preferred to construct their new mosque in an eclectic style because they wanted to access the latest fashions in architecture. The Yeni Camii also reflected in many ways the aggressive push toward modernization that at the time affected almost every aspect of urban life in Thessaloniki. The mosque not only included a sundial fixed to the outside of the building with Ottoman Turkish instructions on setting personal pocket-watches according to the markings ("Saatlerinizi on dakika'ya geri olarak dönleriniz," "Turn back your watch 10 minutes [from the indicated time on the dial]"), but also a double-clock tower that was operated by a complex mechanism that is still in situ, and, even in a state of disrepair, still a work of fine craftsmanship. [8]

[9] One of the double-clock towers of the
Yeni Camii, with Greek soldiers
billeted on the top of the roof, 1915.
The Yeni Camii was only in service as a mosque for a decade before the city became part of Greece in 1912. After this, the building has gone on to serve a wide variety of functions: a lookout post for Greek soldiers in 1915 [9], then for a short while a place to house refugees from the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in 1922, and from 1925 to 1963 home to Thessaloniki's archaeological museum (hence the "Archaeological Museum" sign in Greek above the doorway [6]). Today, the courtyard of the Yeni Camii still belongs to the museum, with ancient tombstones and columns littering the garden surrounding the building, while the structure itself belongs to the municipal government, a complicated bureaucratic arrangement that I am sure is a constant source of amusement to both parties. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, although the Yeni Camii is not always open to the public, it is today frequently being used as an exhibition space for art festivals as well as avant-garde theater productions. In a country that has often struggled to come to terms with its Ottoman past, it is gratifying to see such a prominent historical monument from that time period being preserved and serving a role in the city's growing art scene. What's more, under the initiative of Thessaloniki's new--and very popular--mayor Yiannis Boutaris, the Yeni Camii was opened for prayer as a mosque for the first time in 90 years in March of this year (you can watch it on youtube). Turkish diplomats commended this step, but stated that they were waiting for Athens to be next, a veiled reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan's assertion that he would only consider re-instituting the Greek Orthodox seminary in Istanbul if the Greek government consented to opening a mosque in Athens to prayer.

If you get the chance to visit Thessaloniki, don't miss the Yeni Camii--a fin-de-siecle gem that speaks to the urban transformation of the late Ottoman port city, and continues to play center stage as an arts venue as well as a bargaining chip in international relations. 

The 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art is on view until January 31, 2014. 

BAER, Marc. "Globalization, Cosmopolitanism, and the Dönme in Ottoman Salonica and Turkish Istanbul." Journal of World History 18/2 (June 2007): pp 141-170.
MAZOWER, Mark. Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950. London: HarperCollins, 2004.
Sabah 4616 (7 Eylül 1902). Found in SAKAL, Baki Sarı, "Selanik'te Yaptırılan Son Cami Hamidiye Camisi (Yeni Cami)."

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Life and death in an Ottoman Desert Hospital in WWI

guest contribution by MICHAEL TALBOT, University of St. Andrews

[8] The Red Crescent medical camp at Hafir, 1916.
Library of Congress: American Colony Photograph Department.
A couple of years ago, I found myself seeking a “provincial” Ottoman experience after some time researching in the archives at the Bab-ı Ali. So naturally, I journeyed to the Negev Desert with my long-suffering better-half and her parents to take in the sites under the scorching July heat. Mad dogs and Englishmen, as they say. The trip, however, was worth the sunburn, as one place in particular proved to be quite spectacular: the ruins of a military hospital, a relic from the final days of Ottoman rule in Palestine,  now straddles the modern border between Israel and Egypt. Today called by its Hebrew name Nitzana, this settlement was known in 1916 as Hafir (or Hafirülavce / Hafir al-‘Awja). Through archival photographs as well as my own holiday snaps and observations, this post aims to highlight one of the last major construction efforts of the Ottomans in Palestine, and to provide a glimpse into military and medical life on the edge of empire in World War One. 

[1] The military hospital, view of the main east
entrance. This and the rest of the photographs,
unlessotherwise noted, were taken by the author. 
The site itself is impressive in terms of its size and its remains. The stone hospital is situated on the hill (now called Tel Nitzana), [1] with a sweeping view over the surrounding region. A series of complexes comprising of several buildings in various states of survival--including administrative buildings, barracks, a water tower, and a railway station--lie to the south-east of the hospital in the valley below. [2] The faint outline of the old railway tracks can be seen just north of the modern road that now connects the hill to the railway complex. A large wadi that fills with water in the winter flows directly through the site from north to south, and the hospital also took advantage of underground water sources as well. A  hospital camp run by the Red Crescent--a charity organization founded in the late Ottoman period, based on the model of the Red Cross--was also erected directly behind the hospital to the north-west. Today no visible evidence of the camp remains.

[2] Map of the Hafir complex. Satellite Image by Google Maps, Map by the author.

[3] Interior of a building from Hafir's train station.
Situated on the border established in 1906 between Ottoman Palestine and British Sinai, Hafir became an administrative centre (nahiye) of Beersheba (Birüssebi) only two years later in 1908. Upon the Ottoman entry into WWI in November 1914, the site became a major forward base of the Ottoman army for its operations in the Sinai and Suez regions. By the end of 1916, Hafir boasted its own station on the railway line from Beersheba as well as an extensive military base. The buildings from the train station are still largely intact [3], all typical in style to other such structures on the greater Hejaz Railway network. Hafir's impressive water tower and simple, squat station buildings are comparable to those found at a number of other intermediate railway stations, from Mismiya in Syria to Abu al-Na'am in Hijaz. 

[4] View from the hospital looking south,
 towards the railway complex.
The administrative buildings and military barracks, however, have barely survived. A view from the hill [4] shows the columns of an excavated Byzantine church in the foreground, with the water tower and ruins of the railway buildings further off in the distance. The administrative buildings once occupied the space directly above and around what is now this Byzantine archaeological site, but today little of the Ottoman military complex is visible even at the level of rubble.

Luckily, archival photographs give us a sense of what would have been a bustling military hub. One panoramic image taken in 1916 from almost the same vantage point on top of the hill reveals what the barracks and military base would have looked like almost a century earlier. [5] There are plots for growing food in the foreground, three large administrative buildings to the right, including one (the furthest away from the camera) flying the flag of the Red Crescent Society (Hilal-ı Ahmer Cemiyeti/ Kızılay Derneği), long barrack buildings to the left, watering holes, and numerous encampments in the surrounding desert. There is also an enclosed garden surrounding a ceremonial column, and later photographs reveal that this was used as a camp cemetery. In short, the construction of this settlement--in the middle of a war, thirty-five miles (55 kilometres) from the nearest urban centre, in the middle of the desert–is an impressive achievement indeed. And a photograph taken later in the same year (1916) demonstrates just how rapidly the site was being developed, with the buildings of the railway station in the distance having sprung up in the interim. 

[5] View of Hafir from the hospital hill looking over the military base with the railway complex under construction in the distance, 1916. Library of Congress: American Colony Photograph Department.
[6] View of the hospital from the military complex,
south and east faces, 1916. Library of Congress.

The star of this complex, however, was the hospital. [6] A joint effort between the Red Crescent and the Ottomans’ German and Austrian allies, the building was simple and functional in design, with a main level of nine rooms accessed by a cross-shaped entrance hall, and a basement for stores. [7] As can be seen from the contemporary photograph, the hospital had plenty of windows to let in fresh air, but the archival photograph shows us that these windows also would have been equipped with covers or shades that kept out the blinding sunlight and choking dust.

[7] Detail of the west face. The entrance to the storage basement is visible on the bottom left.
Yet the hospital proved to be insufficient to deal with the casualties streaming back from the Ottoman assaults on the Suez Canal and brutal fighting in the desert in 1915. As a result, the Red Crescent, along with volunteers from the American Red Cross, established a large medical camp with some eighty-five beds and room for more on the floor on the plain to the north-west immediately behind the hill. Although there are almost no traces of the camp today, I think I have managed to locate its position in the landscape by looking at the archival photograph above [8], which shows the extent of the encampment with the hospital roof jutting out in the background.

[10] Ottoman soldiers in the dining tent, 1916.
Library of Congress.
We must turn again to archival photographs to give us an idea of the harsh realities of the hospital and medical camp at Hafir. Ottoman and German soldiers arrived with horrific injuries from the fighting, [9] and many must have died at the hospital camp. One photograph shows the funeral of a German soldier who succumbed to his wounds--the burial with full military honours perhaps providing an occasion for joint Ottoman-German expression of grief and unity in trying times. Soldiers were tended to by staff of the Hilal-ı Ahmer and German nuns, most likely belonging to an order such as the Borromäerinnen, who had a large convent in Jerusalem. In addition to being confronted with the grim images of the effects of conflict in these photographs, it is quite striking to see the German nuns with crucifixes on their chests and the Red Crescent on their arms. [10] 

[10] Staff of the Hilal-ı Ahmer and German nurses, 1916. Library of Congress.

Some record of life in the field hospital can also be found in the accounts of two American volunteers, Dr Ward and Mr Doolittle, found in Mabel T. Boardman’s Under the Red Cross Flag at Home and Abroad (1915). One of their reports describes the arrival of a caravan of wounded at Hafir at night:
Never will these scenes be forgotten. The hurried call for duty that quickly emptied the dining tent, each seizing a lantern as he left; the gruff growling of a hundred camels as they unwillingly knelt and discharged their loads; the wounded, tired, hungry and thirsty soldiers, so glad to have come to the end of the long journey over the sands.[…]There were many difficulties to be faced in this desert hospital. One of the chief was sand storms. These came invariably at nine or ten in the morning and lasted until the late afternoon. The sand drifted under the tents, through the doors and covered everything, tables, boxes, and beds. This was particularly serious in the operating tent. Naturally one of the problems was water. From the one large, deep well of Hafir, a quarter of a mile away, it had to be carried in oil tins on mules, or by the soldiers. The thirsty, feverish patients kept crying for “Water, only a little water,” with which it was hard to keep them supplied.
Having sprung up almost overnight, the desert complex at Hafir was just as quickly abandoned. The hospital, barracks, and station were evacuated in the Spring of 1917 as the Ottoman forces concentrated further north to face off the British assault on the Gaza-Beersheba line, and the buildings gradually crumbled. Modern Nitzana tends to be more associated with the ancient Nabataean and Byzantine ruins, with the ‘Turkish hospital’ an afterthought, and the medical camp and military base almost entirely forgotten. Yet this is clearly a site of some significance for understanding the Ottoman-German alliance in action, and the ambitions and capabilities of the Ottoman Empire in its final period of rule in Palestine. 

More than this, as we edge further towards an extended period of historical reflection on the horrors of the First World War, the ruins and visual records of the Ottoman hospital and military complex at Hafir enable us to focus on the traumatic experiences of soldiers and, importantly, those who cared for them.  With so much focus on big campaigns and mind-boggling death tolls, we should not understate the huge numbers of wounded, the lifelong repercussions of their mental and physical injuries, and the extensive medical infrastructure developed to treat them. To use the words of the American writer Mary Borden, who ran a field hospital on the Western Front and wrote of her experiences of caring for the wounded in The Forbidden Zone (1929): "I thought, 'This is the second battlefield. The battle now is going on over the helpless bodies of these men. It is we who are doing the fighting now, with their real enemies'."

**This piece complements a post on the Red Crescent Archive in Ankara that recently appeared on our partner site, HAZINE, a blog on conducting research in the Middle East. Both Stambouline and HAZINE are part of a new online project called MENAlab. To learn more about MENAlab, click here.

BOARDMAN, Mabel T. Under the Red Cross Flag at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia & London: 1915), pp. 313-14.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The House of the Turk, Part Deux

[1] Elevation of the Le Pretre Mansion at 716 Dauphine, New Orleans. Historic American Building Survey, 1940.
The Historic New Orleans Collection
A quick update on the "House of the Turk" in New Orleans. As planned, during the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, some friends and I headed into the French Quarter to pay a visit to 716 Dauphine, the historic Gardette-Le Pretre House. The mansion is also known as the "House of the Turk" because of its connection to a sensational story about a mysterious relative of the sultan and his alleged murder in the 1860s-70s. 

[2] Visiting the "House of the Turk," New Orleans.
October 2013. Photo by Ashley Dimming. 
Although the house is now privately owned, by chance during our visit we met someone who knew a great deal about the history of the house and was willing to give us a glimpse of the courtyard, where the Turkish gentleman supposedly met his end--the legend being that he was buried alive under a date tree in the side courtyard of the building. [2] Well, there was no date tree, and the house is currently undergoing renovation, but the most interesting piece of information that we learned on our trip was that the ghost story connected to this house predates the construction of the current building (1836) by almost a century. In his book History of Louisiana (first published in French, 1846-47), Charles Gayarre shares a legend of "traditionary lore" that had been related to him thirty years before by an 80-year-old man, who had in turn received the story from his father. The tale reads thus:

In a lot situated at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets, in the city of New Orleans, there is a tree which nobody looks at without curiosity and without wondering how it came there. For a long time, it was the only one of its kind known in the state, and from its isolated position, it has always been cursed with sterility. It reminds one of the warm climes of Africa and Asia, and wears the aspect of a stranger of distinction driven from his native country. Indeed, with its sharp and thin foliage, sighing mournfully under the blast of one of our November northern winds, it looks as sorrowful as an exile...A sort of vague but impressive mystery is attached to it, and it is as superstitiously respected as one of the old oaks of Dodona...
[3] 716 Dauphine at night. Photo by Ashley Dimming.
In the beginning of 1727, a French vessel of war landed at New Orleans a man of haughty mien, who wore the Turkish dress and whose whole attendance was a single servant. He was received by the governor with the highest distinction, and was conducted by him to a small but comfortable house with a pretty garden, then existing at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets, and which, from the circumstance of its being so distant from other dwellings, might have been called a rural retreat, although situated in the limits of the city. There, the stranger, who was understood to be a prisoner of state, lived in the greatest seclusion; and although neither he nor his attendant could be guilty of indiscretion, because none understood their language, and although Governor Perier severely rebuked the slightest inquiry, yet it seemed to be the settled conviction in Louisiana, that the mysterious stranger was the brother of the Sultan, or some great personage of the Ottoman empire, who had fled from the anger of the vicegerent of Mohammed, and who had taken refuge in France. The Sultan had peremptorily demanded the fugitive, and the French government, thinking it deregatory to its dignity to comply with that request, but at the same time not wishing to expose its friendly relations with the Moslem monarch, and perhaps desiring, for political purposes, to keep in hostage the important guest it had in its hands, had recourse to the expedient of answering, that he had fled to Louisiana, which was so distant a country that it might be looked upon as the grave, where, as it was suggested, the fugitive might be suffered to wait in peace for actual death, without danger or offense to the Sultan. Whether this story be true or not is now a matter of so little consequence, that it would not repay the trouble of a strict historical investigation.  
The year of 1727 was drawing to its close, when on a dark, stormy night, the howling and barking of the numerous dogs in the streets of New Orleans were observed to be fiercer than usual, and some of that class of individuals who pretend to know every thing, declared that, by the vivid flashes of the lightning, they had seen, swiftly and stealthily gliding toward the residence of the unknown, a body of men who wore the scowling appearance of malefactors and ministers of blood. There afterward came also a report, that a piratical-looking Turkish vessel had been hovering a few days previous in the bay of Barataria. Be it as it may, on the next morning the house of the stranger was deserted. There were no traces of mortal struggle to be seen; but in the garden, the earth had been dug, and there was the unmistakable indication of a recent grave. Soon, however, all doubts were removed by the finding of an inscription in Arabic characters, engraved on a marble tablet, which was subsequently sent to France. It ran thus, "The Justice of heaven is satisfied, and the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's tomb. The sublime Emperor of the faithful, the supporter of the faith, the omnipotent master and Sultan of the world, has redeemed his vow. God is great, and Mohammed is his prophet. Allah!" Some time after this event, a foreign-looking tree was seen to peep out of the spot where a corpse must have been deposited in that stormy night, when the rage of the elements yielded to the pitiless fury of man, and it thus explained in some degree this part of the inscription, "the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's grave." 
Who was he, or what had he done, who had provoked such relentless and far-seeking revenge? Ask Nemesis, or--at that hour when evil spirits are allowed to roam over the earth, and magical invocations are made--go, and interrogate the tree of the dead. [p. 386-389]

Almost like an ancient Greek myth, this elaborate story of a secret assassination seems to have been created by the locals of New Orleans to explain a natural phenomenon: the unusual presence of a date tree (obviously not native to Louisiana) in the heart of the old city. Gayarre goes so far as to collapse the story of the exiled Ottoman with the tree itself, emphasizing that the plant was the only one of its kind in the region, and describing the tree as "foreign-looking" and appearing as "sorrowful as an exile." As the date-tree was said to have sprouted directly from the grave of the slain Turk, the author suggests that the exiled foreigner has become incarnate in the leaves and knots of the plant itself. 

[4] The house currently located at 716 Dauphine
labeled as "The House of Tragic Mystery."
 Legends of Louisiana (1922), p. 58. 
Although Gayarre's story is certainly dramatic and rife with all of the trappings of Orientalism--characterized by the conflated tropes of a vengeful Ottoman Sultan, the climes of Africa and Asia, and the trees of the ancient Greek Dodona--this legend could be considered rather conservative when compared to later versions of the story, which we laid out in our previous post. By the time Helen P. Schertz writes the short story "The Brother of the Sultan" in her book Legends of Lousiana (1922), it is clear that through the second half of the 19th and into the 20th century, the tale had been further embellished with all kinds of sordid details--the Turk was now accompanied by a bevy of women, elaborate parties, etc.--and the chronology had been amended to accommodate the construction of the Le Pretre House. While Gayarre's story is said to have taken place in 1727, in a house with a large garden that had formerly sat at the corner of Dauphine and Orleans streets, Schertz sets her story several decades later, in 1792. Confusingly, Schertz identifies the house where the sultan's brother takes up residence as the home of Jean Baptiste Le Pretre, the author seemingly unaware that the house now standing at 716 Dauphine was only built in 1836 for Joseph Gardette, then sold to Le Pretre in 1839. [4] Thus, it is clear that over time, the various details of the ghost story have been evolving and adapting to the layered history of the physical site itself, with the changes keeping the legend  relevant to its contemporary urban context. 

Our thanks to the kind people of New Orleans who were great hosts and willing to share their knowledge about one of their city's oldest legends. 

GAYARRE, Charles. History of Louisiana. 2nd edition. New York: J.W. Widdleton, 1866-67.
SCHERTZ, Helen Pitkin. Legends of Louisiana: The Romance of the Royal Oak and The Brother of the Sultan. New Orleans: The New Orleans Journal, 1922. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

American Obelisks and Ottoman Calligraphy

guest contribution by ZOE GRIFFITH, Brown University

[1] Commemorative Plaque commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid I, 1853
Washington Monument, Washington D.C. US National Parks Service.

[2] View of the Washington Monument (const. 1848-84),
with the White House in the background. US Navy
What better way to mark the recent re-opening of the U.S. government than with a blog post about the historic Ottoman stamp on that great nation’s capital? (Well, one could just squint into the mid-distance and shake one’s head slowly in wordless disbelief, but a blog post is a decent alternative.) The Washington Monument, the 555-ft. stone obelisk piercing the sky above the national mall in Washington, D.C., carries even from afar plenty of physical and symbolic heft. [2] Leaving aside the cheap phallus jokes for the moment, the monument channels the civilizational legacy of ancient Egypt—being deliberately designed to conform to the proportions of pharaonic obelisks --and stood as the tallest structure in the world at the time of its erection (sorry) in 1884; it remains to this day the world’s tallest stone structure. As such, the monument’s exterior form alone speaks to the larger-than-life stature of George Washington in mid-19th century American political discourse. Few people, however, are aware that the interior of the Washington Monument constitutes its own archive of mid-19th century political discourse and international diplomacy carved in New Hampshire  granite, Alaskan jade, and  Parthenon marble: the monument’s inner staircase is ringed with 198 commemorative stones solicited by Congress in the 1850s from local organizations, U.S. states, and foreign nations to help both defray the enormous construction costs and cement relations between the then-adolescent United States and powerful parties both at home and abroad. 

One of the highlights of this architectural archive is a 5 ft. x 3 ft. slab of carved marble donated to the United States in 1853 by the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I (r. 1839-61). [1] This intricate and striking composition bears the work of two of the most important Ottoman calligraphers of the mid-19th century, in the form of the tuğra (official monogram) of Abdülmecid and an inscription in the celi ta’lik style, attesting to the amity between the two states:

            Devam-i hulleti te’yid içün Abdülmecid
            Han’ın yazıldı nam-ı paki seng-i balaya Vaşinkton’da

In support of eternal friendship, Abdülmecid
Han allowed his honorable name to be written in the tall stone [memorial] in Washington

As the American recipients and subsequent viewers of Abdülmecid’s marmoreal gesture could not have been expected to read and understand the text of the calligraphic inscription, we have to ask what message the Ottomans intended to communicate through the impressive form and design of this commemorative stone. Reading into the context and visual cues of the Ottoman contribution to the Washington monument speaks to a fascinating moment in the history of Ottoman diplomacy,  imperial identity, and  the role of art and artists in the service of the late Ottoman state.

[3] Commemorative Stone from the town of Salem,
Massachusetts. US National Park Service.
While most of the commemorative stones lining the monument’s interior staircase are 2 ft. x 4 ft rectangles with relatively simple, sometimes austere designs, [3]  the Ottoman contribution is larger and striking in its triptych composition, architectural theme and lavish yet tasteful decoration. Even for an audience of non-Ottomans, the message communicated by Abdülmecid’s stone would have resonated clearly: this calligraphic offering, etched in white marble and originally gilded in gold leaf, was intended to emphasize the sultan’s prestige, generosity, and ability to mobilize resources in the form of precious metal and stone, human skill, and cultural heritage. For the “sick man of Europe,” an invitation to send a chunk of rock to the struggling United States was an opportunity to carve out an enduring image of continued wealth, power, and relevance. At the same time, the fact that they chose to represent themselves in a monumental work of classical Ottoman calligraphy is significant. As Selim Deringil has shown for the Hamidian period, Tanzimat-era statesmen boldly asserted the empire’s presence on the mid-19th century political stage even as they made sure to emphasize the empire’s distinctive Islamic identity. In this way, they insisted that the empire’s greatness lay not only in its engagement with modern technology and diplomacy, but also in its own traditions and innovative power.

[4] Tuğra (imperial seal) of Sultan Abdülmecid I
found in the Kadiköy Iskele Mosque of Mustafa
III.  Modified by Stambouline in order to better see
the full title of the sultan (
Abdülmecid Han
 bin Mahmud el-muzaffer daima). Original image
om the websıte Kitabeler
At the center of the Ottoman commemorative stone is the official tuğra, or royal insignia, of Sultan Abdülmecid. [4] The imperial tuğra, used consistently by Ottoman sultans since Orhan I, consists of the name of the reigning sultan surrounded by a fixed set of decorative and honorific accoutrements. As part of the centralization efforts of Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1809-1839), the master calligrapher Mustafa Rakım had articulated a standard form for the tuğra which would be used as the template for all subsequent sultans. The commemorative stone sent to the United States bears the tuğra of Abdülmecid as executed by Haşim Efendi, a highly-regarded student of Mustafa Rakım.

The inscription at the bottom of the piece was written by Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi, one of the most highly regarded calligraphers of the mid-19th century. Clearly, the Ottomans wanted to bring their best to bear on the inscription they sent to Washington. Mustafa İzzet Efendi was no stranger to high-profile, monumental works of calligraphy, having also executed the the massive medallions that ring the dome of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in the late-1840s. [5]

[5] Roundel featuring the name of 'Ali,
designed by Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi
in the late 1840s. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
Photo by Emily Neumeier.
Since the emergence of distinctly Ottoman scripts and genealogies of master calligraphers with the school of Şeyh Hamdullah in the late-15th century, calligraphy had occupied a place of unparalleled prestige in the Ottoman artistic environment. Artistic standards and genealogical chains endured and flourished in the 19th century, a period which also saw the rising prestige of art forms originating in Western Europe and what some viewed as the “deterioration” or disappearance of more traditional art forms. Up until the present day, master calligraphers continue to train their successors through a rigorous but ultimately informal (non-institutional) process of personalized instruction, with an emphasis on perfect imitation of the works of other masters. Most master calligraphers in the Ottoman empire had traditionally led double lives, drawing a regular salary from state service as scribes, teachers, or judges in the imperial bureaucracy or judiciary, and practicing and teaching their art in its spiritual and aesthetic dimensions as a higher calling. Thus, with the fateful exception of the Ottoman Calligraphers’ College (Medrese-tül Hattatin), which opened its doors in 1914, the state had no direct role to play in the training or certification of Ottoman calligraphers. At the same time that the Ottoman state drew heavily on the skills of master calligraphers in the mundane running of imperial affairs, however, it also relied on the enduring prestige and standards of calligraphy in an effort to communicate a symbolic program of imperial grandeur, continuity, and piety at home and abroad through the 19th century.

One has to wonder if the Ottomans were aware that this marble masterpiece now located in Washington D.C. would wind up largely hidden from public view, visible to only a handful of intrepid visitors. Nevertheless, opulent materials and Islamic scripts were easily recognizable markers of the identity that late-Ottoman statesmen wanted to convey to high-profile onlookers. Asked to contribute a stone in commemoration of the founder of the United States, the Ottomans simply rocked it.

View all the Commemorative Stones at the Washington Monument at the website of the US National Parks Service.

DERMAN, M. Uğur.An Ottoman Gift to America.” Trans. by Mohamed Zakariya. Seasons (Spring-Summer 2005): 112-116.
SCHICK, Irvin Cemil. “The Iconicity of Islamic Calligraphy in Turkey.” Res 53 – 54
(2008): 220 – 21.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

A Harem of Horror?: The "Sultan's Palace," New Orleans

[1] "House of the Turk." Francis Benjamin Johnston. 1937-38.
Library of Congress
A quick confession: I kind of have a thing for haunted houses. All of those cheesy television programs on ghost hunters, or the world's most haunted hotels-theaters-mansions? Love 'em.  And, now that the time is approaching for the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, this year to be held in beautiful New Orleans, October 10-13, I am thinking to myself: what would a visit to New Orleans be without checking out some of the fun, kitschy sites that the city is famous for? That's when I learned about the "House of the Turk." While at MESA, you might also want to stop by what is touted as one of New Orleans' oldest haunted mansions with a dramatic--if somewhat implausible--story about a brother of the Ottoman sultan meeting his grisly death in the house's courtyard. 

The stately two-story building stands on the corner of Dauphine and Orleans streets (716 Dauphine), just two blocks away from the raucous Bourbon Street. The house, with the wrought-iron balcony supported by slender posts, seems like a typical home of the old French Quarter. It was built in 1836 by a dentist from Philadelphia named Gardette, and only three years later purchased by the wealthy plantation owner Jean Baptiste Le Prete who held the property until 1873. Naturally, the building is commonly referred to as the "Gardette-La Prete House," but over the years has earned more theatrical monikers such as the "Sultan's Palace" or the "House of the Turk."

These sensational names recall a moment in the 1860s or early 70s when this house supposedly became, as one enthusiastic website writes, a "harem of horror"! Here is my own rather tongue-in-cheek rendition of the story: 

[2] Modern View of the "House of the Turk,"
716 Dauphine St., New Orelans
La Prete, once a powerful business man but finding himself down on his luck after the Civil War, was approached one day by a mysterious man from Turkey who said he was looking to rent a house for his brother the sultan. Le Prete thought to himself, "Sure, why not? that sounds totally reasonable," and immediately leased his large mansion over to the Ottoman gentleman. But, even before the ink dried on the contract, the house began to fill up with a bevy of beautiful women and oh-so-many exotic textiles. A padlock appeared on the door, and, just for good measure, large-muscled men stood guard on the balconies, their scimitars glistening in the moonlight. Neighbors began to complain about the oppressive smell of incense wafting from the windows and the music of unusual instruments playing late into the night. Rumors immediately began to spread about the large parties--replete with unspeakable orgies and dancing on top of large piles of gold that this renegade Ottoman prince had stolen from the sultan. Unfortunately, the revelry eventually came to an end, when a passerby noticed that blood was oozing out from under the front door. "Well, you don't see that every day," he thought, and ran to go find a police officer. I guess the scimitar-wielding watchmen were on holiday, because the detectives quickly gained entrance to the house. What they found was a scene of abject horror: blood, arms, legs, blood, organs, and more blood (I am telling you, this place made all seven seasons of Dexter combined look like nothing.) The worst part was when they found the mysterious Turk himself in the courtyard, who had died trying to claw his way out from an earthen grave in which he had been buried alive. No one knows who committed this heinous crime...was it one of the jealous harem women, out for revenge? Or pirates, who had given passage to the Turk to New Orleans and were lusting after his treasure. Or maybe even the sultan himself, out to exterminate any potential rivals to the throne? (My vote, as always, is for the pirates.) Of course, later residents of the house have seen a fair young man wander the hallways at night in his silk caftan, only to disappear once spoken to...

[3] View of 716 Dauphine from Google Street View. 
It's a really fun story, but I remain very skeptical as to any part of its veracity, as the earliest reference in print I could find was only from the 1930s. I figured that a multiple-homicide of this magnitude, with the involvement of a "mysterious Turk" no less, would be the scandal of the decade for the fair people of 19th-century New Orleans. So I decided to actually give the story due diligence and try to see if I could find any mention of the incident by searching through contemporary newspapers from the 1860s-70s (using great resources like the Chronicling America project at the Library of Congress). Unsurprisingly, with access to over 20 daily periodicals from the period, I could not find one mention of the crime in question. Also, the sultan at the time of the event in question would have been Abdülaziz, and I cannot recall any stories about a brother absconding to the US with a harem and gold, but I would be happy to stand corrected. So, for now, I would say that this legend simply remains an example of the role New Orleans and Louisiana has played (and continues to play, see: True Blood) in the American imagination as a place of fantasy and exoticism. 

In the 20th century, the house at 716 Dauphine unfortunately became derelict, with a very brief stint as the school of fine arts for the WPA. In the 1960s, it was bought by realtors who divided the property into multiple private apartments, which is the state in which the house stands now. And, perhaps the best news is that the "House of the Turk" is for sale, available for a cool $2.65 million! Whether or not you have that kind of cash, I would say that it is still worth it to include the "Sultan's Palace" in your walking tour of old New Orleans.

**For an update following our visit to the site, see The House of the Turk: Part Deux

BEAR, Rob. "The Strange, Sordid Story of NOLA's Sultan Massacre House," Curbed (April 4, 2013). 
DUREAU, Lorena. "Life with an Exotic Ghost," The Times-Picayune (February 11, 1979)

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Fondaco dei Turchi, Venice

[1] Facade of the Fondaco dei Turchi on the Grand Canal.
Many people coming to Venice make a point of visiting the Jewish quarter of the city (the original "ghetto"), where diverse communities were compelled to live together in a tightly-controlled enclave. But the idea of having foreigners or a minority religious group reside in a separate area  was not exclusive to the Jewish population; Ottoman Muslims also experienced similar treatment in the city. While the Jewish Ghetto was located on the ruins of an old industrial zone, however, the Ottomans were living in style in a former palace located directly on the Grand Canal: the Fondaco dei Turchi. [1] Their German counterparts were also housed within a restricted area in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a Renaissance-style palace also on the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge. In general, a fondaco (Ven. fontego) was a place where foreign groups, in most cases merchants or bankers, lived together and plied their trade. Thus the fondaco would not only serve as a residence, but also a warehouse for goods or a market for conducting business. In the case of the Fondaco dei Turchi, there is no doubt that there also would have been some kind of mescid for prayer on the premises, and would have been the only mosque in Venice. For our blog readers who focus more on the Middle East, this type of institution might sound very similar to a khan or caravanserai; and, as Olivia Constanble argues, it is no wonder that such establishments commonly found in the Islamic lands would be integrated into the urban life of Venice, which was an important connecting point between Europe and the Dar al-Islam. The Italian word "fondaco" itself is clearly related to the Arabic "funduq," a word that in the Maghreb or Levant referred to hostels for foreign merchants (usually Venetian or Genoese). In short, for the medieval and early modern periods, putting up foreign traders in their own digs was a shared practice throughout the Mediterranean.

[2] Engraving of the Fondaco dei Turchi, from the
Natural History Museum, Venice. Date unknown. 
The Fondaco dei Turchi was established in the early 17th century, and was in active service for about two hundred years, until 1838. Even by the 1620s, however, the building allocated to the Ottoman merchants already had a long history. It was first built as a palazzo for Giacomo Palmier of Pesaro in the 13th century--hence the fancy facade, with marble paneling and rows of columns stacked on top of each other. In 1381, the Venetian Republic bought the palace for the residence of Niccolo d'Este, the Marquess of Ferrara, as well as visiting dignitaries. By the 17th century, Venice decided to transform the palace into what was essentially a one-building ghetto for the Ottoman merchants. The layout of the palace--a large, rectangular building looking onto an inner, central courtyard--was suited to its new function. Efforts to control this foreign minority, whether for reasons of security or propriety--were reflected in the management and organization of the physical space itself. Like the Jewish Ghetto and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the Fondaco dei Turchi had a curfew at night, requiring the foreign traders to be inside and accounted for by evening. There was also a stipulation that the courtyard of the fondaco should not be overlooked by another building, and at no times were weapons or women permitted within the walls. All of these policies limited both physical and visual access to the building, allowing these merchants to carry out their trading conveniently located in the heart of Venice, while at the same time carving out and "containing" this community of foreigners in the city. (It is not quite correct to say that the Fondaco dei Turchi was for all "Ottoman" merchants; Jewish and Greek traders, while technically being subjects of the Ottoman Empire, lived in other parts of Venice.) 

[3] Interior courtyard of the Fondaco dei
Turchi, now the Museo Correr, or the Natural
 Based on the present appearance of the Fondaco dei Turchi, with its grand facade and dozens of windows, it is hard to imagine this location as a closed enclave. But it should be kept in mind that what visitors see today is largely the result of a major renovation/reconstruction in the mid-19th century, after the fondaco had fallen into disuse. Even though the building is often cited as representative of early medieval palaces, Juergen Schulz has demonstrated that only the facade on the canal is from the 14th century, with over two-thirds of the structure being demolished and rebuilt. An engraving showing the building presumably during its time as the fondaco (indicated by, if nothing else, the turbaned gentleman in the bottom-left corner) conveys a space that is much more closed off from the city around it. [2] According to the image, the prominent entrance colonnade appears to have been blocked off from the canal by a low brick wall, and the side windows on the second level were also walled up. 

[4] Musicanti di Brema, Maurizio Cattelan,
Installation in the Natural History Museum
as part of the 55th Venice Biennale, June 2013.
After the Fondaco dei Turchi closed in the 1830s, and the extensive renovations of the mid-19th century, the building became the Museo Correr in 1865, and subsequently has come down to the present day as the Natural History Museum of Venice. The interior courtyard of the palazzo [3], while largely a 19th-century reconstruction, still evokes a sense of how closed-off the building could have felt during its days as the fondaco. Now, as contemporary visitors wander around the galleries of the Natural History Museum, even taking in some of the more light-hearted installations in conjunction with the Venice Biennale [4], they will hopefully also come to know how this place once served as an important point of connection--and separation--between Ottomans and Venetians in the heart of the city. 

CONSTABLE, Olivia Remie. Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
SCHULZ, Juergen. "Early Plans of the Fondaco dei Turchi." In Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997), 149-159.

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