Monday, 14 July 2014

Ottoman Pasts, Present Cities: Cosmopolitanism and Transcultural Memories

Ottoman Pasts, Present Cities: Cosmopolitanism and Transcultural Memories

AHRC Research Network International Two-Day Conference, 26- 27 June 2014, Birkbeck College, University of London

Gönül Bozoğlu recently co-presented a paper at the ‘Ottoman Pasts, Present Cities: Cosmopolitanism and Transcultural Memories’ conference at Birckbeck College, University of London.

As the conference organisers note, the Ottoman Empire is still relatively understudied although it was one of the largest and longest.  Running from the early 1300s to 1922 and stretching East to West, it included key sites of present or recent conflict, such as Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Gaza, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Nicosia, Sarajevo and Belgrade.  Yet for centuries these cities were largely characterised by dynamics mostly forgotten: cultural exchange, ethnic cohabitation, and religious tolerance.  These transcultural exchanges manifested themselves in fusion and cross-pollination in architecture, art, food, music, literature, language, family stories, memories and lives.  Ottoman scholarship has so far largely been organised by the historical, political, philosophical, archaeological and linguistic, often concentrating on Edward Said’s ‘orientalist’ representations of the Ottoman Empire.  The conference aimed to further the revaluation of orientalism by engaging different disciplines to read the legacies of Ottoman cities.

One of the most fascinating things about the Ottoman past is its apparently multicultural and cosmopolitan nature, for within the Empire different ethnic and religious groups co-habited within the same spaces. For this reason, the Empire is often held up as a precursor of contemporary multicultural states. It becomes a historical emblem of contemporary cosmopolitan attitudes such as cultural mobility, openness to and toleration of Others, multilingualism, tendencies towards cultural exchanges and celebrations of hybridity. However, a strong focus of the conference was a critical analysis of the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ itself, illuminated by theorists from Immanuel Kant to Ulrich Beck, and compared to other concepts such as  ‘con vivenza’ and ‘conviviality’. For me, the clearest insights came from the conference highlight of Edhem Eldem’s keynote, which looked at micro-historical sources such as the records of the Ottoman bank that show how many languages its employees spoke (many!), as well as people’s signatures and costumes, criminal records and even tattoos. He concluded that the Ottoman Empire involved a cosmopolitanism that was not egalitarian because it depended on difference and the maintenance of exclusionary barriers between Muslims and others (e.g. Jews, Armenians, Greeks etc.). He also asked whether non-elite but wordly and multilingual people such as sailors and criminals could be classed as cosmopolitan. One of the undertones of the conference was the contemporary relevance of Ottoman cospomolitanism. Does cosmopolitanism today also relate mostly to social elites, and does it also depend upon barriers and exclusion?  

The conference is documented at, and podcasts will soon be available at

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