Remodelling Turkish Modernity: Neo-Ottomanism, and Contested Manifestations of the Ottoman Past

Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting


Memories of the Ottoman past have become a site of contestation in Turkey today – as contextualized by articulations of memory, heritage, and nostalgia. They have been appropriated and employed by competing groups to advance their own agenda and version of modernity and Turkish national history. This paper examines the emergence and application of neo-Ottomanism as a political and social discourse that attempts to infuse/reconcile contemporary political and social discourses in Turkey with their Ottoman past. The basic question addressed is: how is the past (re)constructed, interpreted/contested, articulated, and manifested  in the present? The rise of Neo-Ottomanism is examined within a framework of the convergence of politics, tourism, and global economics/consumer culture. I link neo-Ottomanism with three distinct periods of the Ottoman Empire – the Golden Age, the reform periods (the Tulip Age and the Tanzimat), and the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II. I examine the application of neo-Ottomanism within the past two decades, specifically during the transformation of Istanbul into a global capitalist city. This is contextualized by discussing this transformation in relation to memories of the Empire as ‘multicultural’ and Islamic. Finally, I argue that the global identity of Istanbul is inextricably linked with the Ottoman past. I examine three events and site upon and within which manifestations of the articulations of memory, heritage, and nostalgia have become inscribed: 1) the 1996 United Nations Conference for Human Settlement, 2) the 1994 election of the Islamic Refah party to the Istanbul municipal government, and 3) the fate of the palaces as commodified and museumified for the tourist gaze. I attempt to illustrate the complex and overlapping processes occurring by which memories, heritage, and nostalgia become employed in contemporary Turkish discourse and inscribed, physically and symbolically, onto the Ottoman monuments in Istanbul.