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Empire, Architecture, and the City: French-Ottoman Encounters, 1830-1914.

Empire, Architecture, and the City: French-Ottoman Encounters, 1830-1914. By ZEYNEP CELIK. Studies in Modernity and National Identity. Seattle: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, 2008. Pp. xiii + 368, color illus. $60.

Zeynep Celik's new book masterfully weaves together urban and architectural studies with cultural and intellectual history in what will stand as a key contribution to the study of imperialism and modernity. Taking a cross-cultural and comparative approach, the book analyzes how the French and Ottoman states staged their respective visions of empire through the construction of public space. From France's conquest of Algeria in 1830 and the Ottoman empire's promulgation of the Reform Edict (Tanzimat) in 1839 to the end of World War I, the two empires' interests were particularly entwined. Celik unpacks their complex interactions over a territory that includes France's colonies in North Africa--Algeria and Tunisia, both former Ottoman provinces--and the Ottoman empire's Arab provinces (excluding Egypt). The book centers on urban and architectural transformations, and is informed by the development of visual culture, especially photography, and discursive culture, in particular debates about urbanism, civilization, modernization, and the imperial project. As an architectural historian whose previous publications have made important contributions to the history of modern Istanbul and Algiers, the representation of Islam at world's fairs, and the gendered underpinnings of colonial architecture and Orientalist discourse, Zeynep Celik is uniquely positioned to undertake a study of this scope and conceptual ambition.

The book is not structured chronologically but on the basis of thematic chapters that focus on specific aspects of empire-building, revisiting some of the same places and projects from different points of view. The themes include the importance of infrastructure in the project of modernization and the making of empire, such as roads, railroads, and telegraph lines: major urban transformation projects; the creation of new types of public spaces and administrative buildings in cities: constructions that promoted modernization agendas, such as barracks, schools, and hospitals; the development of official architectural styles and memorials; and public ceremonies that animated the new constructions and sought to amplify and reiterate their messages.

One of the must important achievements of this book is that it de-centers the traditional primacy of European colonialism, and brings nuance to the received notion that the Ottomans emulated the imperial practices of France and other European states. Instead, the book views French and Ottoman imperial ambitions as being comparable, if not wholly symmetrical, and as being in dialogue with each other (p. 5). And unlike many studies of colonialism, the present work considers how empire was staged at the margins rather than at the imperial capital (p. 4). This lens shows more complicated notions of empire and colonialism; at the same time, it underscores how modular and pervasive certain technologies and forms of empire-building were in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the French and the Ottomans similarly deployed railroads, telegraphs, public education, urban renewal, historic preservation, and urban ceremonies, as well as their depiction in newly emerging print media such as newspapers, postcards, photography albums, and popular books. Celik is attuned to these similarities as well as to critical differences. Ottoman practices did not merely reproduce European imperial technologies, but transformed them, as in the case of the Hijaz Railroad, meant to facilitate the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. At once modernization project and religious monument, it symbolizes the uniqueness of Ottoman nineteenth-century reform, allying the prestige of modern technology with the authority of Islamic piety and the sovereign's prerogative of patronage, in a formula that "combin[ed] Islam with modernization in the public realm" (p. 226).

In addition to broad insights, Celik's writing brings to light numerous significant vignettes of empire-building. A wonderfully evocative photograph (p. 20)--eerily reminiscent of photographs of French explorers and bledards--shows the journalist Mehmed Tevfik traveling by boat in Iraq, in his modern Ottoman urban dress, surrounded by locals in picturesque costumes. One meets the energetic and enterprising Ali Riza Pasha, who as governor of Tripoli (Libya) oversaw some of the earliest Ottoman urban modernization projects. He embodied the dynamic circulation of ideas that is at the heart of the book: born in Algiers to an Ottoman family, he fled to Istanbul following the French takeover, later obtained a military education in France, and, during his tenure in Libya, employed French engineers from Algeria to implement the Ottoman vision of modern empire (pp. 103, 113). Alongside this lesser known exemplar of Ottoman reform are the stories of the more familiar Midhat Pasha and Cemal Pasha. The latter, particularly reviled in modern Arab nationalist narratives (where he is known as al-Saffah, the Bloodletter), is revealed to be an urban planner (pp. 81, 99). The city of Const amine, with its dramatic topography, forced French colonial officials to mobilize all the resources of modern technology and urban stagecraft--e.g., bridges and railroad stations, piercing through the urban fabric to create exurbs, spectacular military parades--to reformulate the existing town and to "etch" on it the mark of empire, as Celik eloquently puts it (pp. 75-78).

The comparison between French and Ottoman imperialism prompts a key debate running through the book--one that echoes recent historiography on the late Ottoman empire--namely, can one characterize Ottoman reform as "colonialism"? Celik considers the question thoughtfully and answers no. This will certainly prompt further debate, both on the nature of colonialism itself and on the Ottoman iteration of modernization and empire. Celik's book provides materials to think through this issue. It shows with great depth and sensitivity how similar Ottoman reform came to European-style colonialism in its ideology, forms, and discourses. The book in general is sharper in its critique of France's colonial project in North Africa than of the Ottoman Empire's reform/modernization/(colonial?) project in the Arab provinces. It provides new arguments and evidence about how systematically and rapaciously the French colonial enterprise exploited North Africa and weakened the local social infrastructure in both overt and subtle ways. This took place, for example, through the destruction of vast urban areas, the appropriation of historical mosques and other buildings for the exclusive use of the French military, and also through the widespread appropriation of habous (waqf, or religious endowment) properties by the French military, which resulted in the dramatic reduction of the number of Islamic schools dependent on endowment income, thus depriving the local population of an important institution (p. 270). The Ottoman assertion of a modern, enlightened empire in the Arab provinces did not rely on such blatantly aggressive methods of subjugation, partly because the provinces were already subjugated; they had been Ottoman since 1517. In effect, Ottoman reform meant to colonize its own premodern past. Yet, as outlined in the epilogue, the modern Ottoman imperial vision was similar to that of the French in its goal of economic development and exploitation (Syria could be turned into another Egypt in terms of revenues, opined reformer Ahmed Cevdet Pasha in 1878 [p. I7]), in the Ottoman version of the "civilizing mission," and in their political ambitions in the context of a global order. In some instances, Celik's prose seems to mirror the official Ottoman discourse about the generous motivations of the center in bringing the benefits of civilization to its subjects, for example, in her discussion of the creation of the Hijaz Railroad (p. 70). Yet a few pages earlier the author had discussed the intriguing episode of the Bedouin's violent opposition to that railroad (in 1905 and 1908), which threatened their traditional livelihood based on serving the pilgrim traffic (p. 39). Elsewhere, Celik's subtle analysis of the Ottoman imperial vision shows how uneven and contradictory this discourse could be (pp. 249-57). Her comparison in the epilogue of European and Ottoman "race-thinking" and its relationship to visual culture is among the most absorbing and thought-provoking in the book, and could easily have taken up a chapter of its own.

Another of the book's major achievements is to bring to the fore the forgotten history of modern architecture in the provinces under Ottoman rule. The vagaries of the twentieth century, as the Ottoman empire gave way to French and British colonialism (in the form of Mandates) and eventually to independent nation-states, have meant that the legacy of Ottoman modernity in the Arab provinces has been either ignored or misattributed to European initiative. Both twentieth-century European colonialist discourse and Arab nationalist discourse cast the late Ottoman empire in the role of rapacious and depraved despot, minimizing its considerable achievements and their lasting impact, including the reshaping of the major Arab cities. This book sets the record straight by providing an overview of the vast reach of Ottoman intervention on the landscape of the Arab provinces in a comparative framework, which displaces many tropes of the nationalist historiography that imbues studies of the urban environment up to today.

A book of this great scope necessarily relies on previous micro-studies of specific regions and phenomena, including Celik's own earlier work. This makes apparent the highly uneven state of the archives on French and Ottoman nineteenth-century history (pp. 18-22). The French archives appear extraordinarily rich, while the Ottoman archival materials--some exploited here for the first time--are less systematic. Modern historiography is also uneven: while some regions have received scholarly attention of a high caliber, others are barely known. For example, the availability of sources and recent studies on Beirut and Damascus allows for a very line reading of the changes in these areas. By contrast, there is no readily available modern urban history of Aleppo or Baghdad, and places like Yemen and parts of Iraq remain even less known. Until recently, scholarship in general has adhered to the borders of modern nation-states, and few scholars have used central Ottoman sources to study the Arab provinces (and vice versa). Celik deploys a wide range of visual and discursive sources: travelogues by Ottoman intellectuals, richly illustrated Istanbul journals such as Servet-i Funun, the Salname or provincial almanacs, and central Ottoman archival materials. However, the author's reliance on sources in French and Turkish also means that some materials available in Arabic are untapped. In addition, the author uses to great effect visual materials, such as maps, photographs, and city plans, from French and Ottoman archives. The plates and figures are judiciously selected and referred to in the text, making them highly effective supports for the author's arguments. Indeed, the wealth of visual materials alone makes this book an invaluable source and guide for any future study.

The author acknowledges that the book is written from the position of the imperial center (p. 6). Celik's approach to dominant views is critical and subtle, and often points to fissures and contradictions within this discourse. For example, her analysis of Napoleon III's idea of the royaume arabe probes both the limits of his policy of association with the indigenous population and its lasting impact on architecture (as in pp. 12-13, 174-75). She shows how the "neo-Mauresque" buildings in Algiers of 1908-1913 signified a new stage of the colonization process, one that appropriated and manipulated local visual culture (p. 175). Celik's fascinating reconstruction of the restoration, under the patronage of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, of the Great Mosque of Damascus, severely damaged by fire in 1893, shows the keen awareness of the importance of history and of historic monuments in the staging of modernity under a sultan who capitalized upon his Islamic legitimacy: "This was an imperial endeavor that incorporated the 'Arab' past into present-day Ottoman identity, capitalizing on the visibility of a major monument" (p. 209). However, as the author acknowledges (p. 6), the viewpoint of the center leaves out the reconstruction of subaltern perspectives, local agency, and the process of negotiation between center and periphery. Thus, one does not hear North African debates or responses to French policies (except in works in French by contemporary Maghribi scholars) or local Ottoman debates. The available secondary sources and some of the primary sources suggest that Ottoman reforms were both resented and resisted (as in the case of the Bedouin attacks on the Hijaz railroad) and embraced, appropriated, and subverted (as in the case of the local petty Ottoman bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, and the emerging urban middle classes who made the new imperial urban spaces their own). Even for a region as seemingly remote and "uncivilized" as rural 'Akkar in the hinterland of Tripoli (in Lebanon today), Michael Gilsenan's 1996 ethnography was able to show a "constantly renegotiated interplay between local and state forces" (Lords of the Lebanese Marches, 76).

One can also think about the framing of the book. While the choice of France's North African colonies is justified, the choice of the Arab provinces except Egypt prompts some questions. True, without the overwhelming presence of Egypt the less-known modern architectural history of the Arab provinces emerges with greater clarity. Yet, one wonders, did Ottoman reform conceive of a unified cultural area known as the "Arab provinces'"? The political consciousness of an entity called "the Arab world" is an artifact of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a fascinating passage, Celik details the very ambiguity of the central Ottoman discourse regarding Arabs, one that sometimes collapsed Bedouin and urban dwellers into the notion of "Arab," and sometimes differentiated them (pp. 248-72). Her discussion, in fact, complicates the nineteenth-century Ottoman notion of 'Arab" and raises many questions beyond the scope of the book. Does the prevalence of the local use of Arabic justify framing a study in this region, even though viewed from the center? Is it possible to argue that it may have been Islam that distinguished this region in the mind of Istanbul reformers, given the fact that the majority of the inhabitants of this region were Muslims, and that the region included the oldest and most established institutions of Islamic learning and mysticism? How comparable was the process of modernization in the Ottoman Anatolian provinces and their major urban centers and transportation hubs? How did Ottoman "race thinking" (p. 252) about Arabs and Bedouin compare in their conceptualization of that other Muslim, tribal, semi-nomadic, and ethnically distinct group, the Kurds? And, indeed, of the many other groups that composed the Ottoman social space? In addition, Celik's book raises tantalizing conceptual possibilities and new ways of thinking about Egypt. The modernizing Egyptian state of the nineteenth century looked both to its former metropole of Istanbul and to European colonial powers with substantial interests in Egypt as exemplars of modernizing empires. Furthermore, nineteenth-century Egypt conducted its own European-style colonial adventure in the Sudan. What kinds of circulations of influences could such a comparison unearth? A testament to the merit of this book is the range of questions it provokes and will likely continue to provoke for some time.


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Title Annotation:Studies in Modernity and National Identity
Author:Watenpaugh, Heghnar
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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