Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire

Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, Edhem Eldem (eds) "Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire" - reviewed by William Armstrong 

 Nineteenth century archaeology and artefact hunting were often used by different European powers for colonialist purposes instituting expeditions in the Ottoman Empire. Concerned to sustain diplomatic relations, the Ottoman governments supported these efforts, rather than preserving the remains of the ancient past of their territory.
"The object of this beautifully illustrated volume of scholarly essays is to explore the archeological enterprise in Ottoman lands from the mid-18th to the early 20th century, with diverse contributions from a range of foreign and local voices. [...] The Ottomans were slow to realize the political significance of archeology and the potential value of the antiquities held within their empire, despite the fact that acquisitive Westerners had been pilfering them for many years. Actually, it was this lack of understanding that allowed the Europeans to get away with it for so long, and helped give credence to their claims that they were the true stewards of such important historical items. However, the Ottoman perception of archaeology underwent a slow transformation over the course of its 19th century modernization process. After a period of “blissful ignorance,” the Ottoman authorities took concrete steps to prevent the removal of artifacts from their territory in a series of decrees starting in 1869 [...] Such was the spirit behind the opening of Istanbul’s Archeology Museum in 1891, intended as the Ottoman answer to the British Museum and the Louvre. Thus, one of this book’s central points is that integrating into the wider world of western archeology and belatedly joining the “scramble for the past” was a crucial indicator of Turkey’s modernization throughout the 19th century. The Culture Ministry’s recent campaign shows us that national assertion through antiquities is still alive and well, which makes this book not only an enjoyable read, but also a very relevant one".
Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914’ edited by Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, Edhem Eldem (SALT, 2011, 80TL, pp 520)

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