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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

c) Political medievalisms 1

3) Medieval monuments and modern nations in the Mediterranean

Heather E. Grossman

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1This paper examines the reception of Late Antique, Byzantine, and early modern Ottoman architecture in Istanbul, Turkey, in both the later nineteenth and twenty-first centuries as examples of the use of the past in nation building. In the later years of the Ottoman Empire and also now in contemporary Turkey, the architecture of past imperial states was and is invoked by the ruling political group to bolster the image of the contemporary government and to provide legitimizing foundations upon which to build national identity. This practice mirrors trends in other Mediterranean and European countries (both in the nineteenth century and today) of using the medieval past in support of current political and societal goals. Both historic monuments and photographs of Istanbul, particularly those of the Sébah photographic firm (active through the latter half of the nineteenth century), are examined in this talk.

2In the nineteenth century, ancient, Byzantine, and classical Ottoman monuments in the heart of Istanbul’s historic peninsula were conjoined both physically and in images to modern buildings and new infrastructure, making a connection between past and present governments and their states. The empire faced geopolitical challenges in the Mediterranean sphere from France, Germany, and Russia. The Ottoman Porte sought not only to modernize itself in contemporary political and social modes, but also to strengthen the modern memory of its historic territorial and cultural domination. Monuments were selectively restored or destroyed to suit governmental authority, and photographs of these monuments and their newly enhanced environments explicitly visualized the linkage of past to present.

3In twenty-first-century Turkey, a similar effort to deploy past architectural forms and their cultural connections has been undertaken by the ruling, religiously affiliated Justice and Development Party (the AKP) and its figurehead, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan. Historic monuments of both Byzantine and early-modern Ottoman Istanbul have been selectively restored (or in the case of the former, purposefully neglected). Erdoğan and the AKP also have commissioned massive building projects, such as the presidential mansion, the Ak Saray (“White Palace”), at the outskirts of the Turkish capital, Ankara. These projects have consciously revived and abstracted distinctive medieval Seljuk and early Ottoman architectural motifs and forms in order to reinforce the AKP’s alignment with the religiously sanctioned leadership at the core of those past empires, countering the secularist foundation of the modern Turkish republic in the early twentieth century. In both instances, the architecture of medieval and early modern imperial states was invoked by the ruling political group to bolster the contemporary government and its vision for a national identity.


University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

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