Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee
The Construction of Saadabad Revisited Yet Again
Given that this is my first “real” blog-post on wordpress, I thought it wise to comment on something I came across on the interwebz – namely, a critique of an article of mine. But rather than just barging right into it, I will give a bit of background so that the casual blog-reader who happens to stumble across this entry has an idea about what I am talking about.
The above-pictured book edited by Dana Sajdi[i] is the outcome of the symposium “Rethinking culture in the Ottoman eighteenth century” that took place in Princeton early in 2005. In Princeton a great many ‘young scholars’ contributed to a lively discussion on the state of the Ottoman eighteenth century in contemporary Ottomanist thinking. A number of these contributors were selected to transform their presentations into articles to be published in a book of proceedings. On Amazon, the book is described as follows: ‘Tulips and coffee are defining cultural products of the Ottoman eighteenth century, along with their related institutions of palace and coffeehouse. These cultural products hold multiple meanings in the history and historiography of the period. They are associated with the daily life of common people and their sociabilities, on the one hand, and with the Ottoman court and imperial legitimacy, on the other. Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee offers a critical exploration of definitive cultural phenomena of the Ottoman eighteenth century, such as, the coffee house, the printing press, imperial architecture and royal pageantry and festivals. Chapters explore subjects ranging from the changing forms of imperial ritual in Ottoman circumcision celebrations, to the history of the construction of the famed palace of Saadabad, to the reputedly failed project of the first Ottoman printing press’. While, Madeline Zilfi, Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland, had this to say about the volume: “’Insightful engagement with the byways of Ottoman sociability and aesthetics, will amply reward the attention of a broad readership of cultural and gender historians as well as area specialists . . . The collection is a rarity in Ottoman studies thanks to its relatively tight temporal focus and the fresh methodologies and perspectives that it advances”. And we owe it all to Professor Dana Sajdi, who painstakingly edited the contributions transforming them into well-oiled pieces effortlessly fitting into the hinges of the metaphorical door to new sights and interpretations that is the book Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee.
And I was one of those whose contribution to the symposium was deemed worthy for publication. As indicated higher, my piece deals with “the history of the construction of the famed palace of Saadabad”: “The Perception of Saadabad: The ‘Tulip Age’ and the Ottoman-Safavid Rivalry”. Dr. Astrid Meier[ii] posted this insightful piece of criticism on the highly popular academic website H-Net: “Can Erimtan’s article opens the volume with an appeal to rethink the characterization of the so-called Tulip Age (1718–1730) as “a short-lived but highly productive era of Westernization during Damad Ibrahim Paşa’s tenure as … grand vizier” (pp. 42–43). Erimtan explores the contested perceptions of the Saadabad summer palace, situated outside the city walls of Istanbul, a building which has long vanished without leaving a trace. The void can be filled with descriptions from various perspectives. Erimtan posits that whereas former scholarship saw the construction as influenced by recent views of Versailles and Fontainebleau, “the Ottoman empire had at the time not necessarily been looking westward for inspiration” (p. 43), that, on the contrary, the palace is following models from Safavid Iran, Mughal India or other regions of the Islamic world. A meticulous investigation of the meta-narratives of writing Ottoman history leads to the not altogether surprising result that early 18th-century Istanbul presents a much more complex culturescape than the simplistic notion of Westernization implies. In replacing one exclusivist way of thinking by another, however, Erimtan exposes himself to the question of what we gain by describing modes and articulations of cultural life in the Ottoman capital in terms of an either/or of Western vs. Safavid/Islamic influences instead of a lieu of encounters of various kinds and directions”.[iii]
Is my article guilty of “replacing one exclusivist way of thinking by another”??? Arguably, it is. In order to explain my stance, I will have to revisit some of the arguments I developed in my piece. I won’t go deeply into the narrativistic aspect of history-writing here, as the art of story-telling will be something I will deal with below in the further course of this blog post. But did my contribution really attempt to bring a resolution to the “either/or of Western vs. Safavid/Islamic influences” conundrum??? Let me quote the piece in question: “Rather than claiming a Safavid inspiration for Saadabad, it is my belief that Damad İbrahim and Ahmed III were cultivated Ottomans who were consciously reaffirming their allegiance to the cultural world of the early modern Islamic world by creating [a] kasır that functioned as a visual reminder of the Ottomans designs on the lands of Iran” (62). At the time, the Ottomans’ arch-enemies, the Safavids, were in dire straits and the Ottomans tried to capitilise on that. And thus, I argue that the architectural patronage of the Sultan and his retinue somehow reflected that political decision – a political decision that redirected the Ottomans’ attention to the east, to the Safavid Empire, to their religious, political and cultural rival whose outstanding achievements in terms of architecture and cultural refinement were well-known all over the contemporary Islamic world. So, in a way, one could indeed say that my contribution to Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee appears to be espousing an “exclusivist way of thinking”. In my story of Saadabad, I do not assign a lot of credibility to the Yirmisekiz Çelebi narrative that sees his Takrir (his little report on his trip that later received such lofty names like Sefâretname) assume the form of a manifesto in favour of Westernisation. This view of the little book was arguably first put forward by none other than the famous writer and intellectual Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-62):
No other book occupies such an important place in our history of Westernisation. In this work, almost every line of which is accompanied by a hidden idea of comparison, and entire programme is concealed.
Tanpınar’s words have left their mark on the thinking and writing of countless historians, intellectuals, and other writers, and thinkers. Subsequent narratives of Ahmed III, Damad Ibrahim, and Saadabad have always stayed close to his value-judgement, as if Istanbul in the 1720s was somehow disconnected from the rest of Ottoman life and death happening at the time. Even Robert Olson, in his book dealing with the Ottoman invasion of Iran [The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman-Persian Relations 1718-1743] was unable to resist the lure of Tanpınar’s seductive phrases, as he talks about “the westernizing reforms of the Tulip Period”, arguably manifested in the construction of Saadabad as a copy of Versailles, taking place while Ottoman armies were fighting against Ashraf Shah and later Tahmasp Kuli Khan (Nadir Shah) in the east. Instead of regarding the ‘Tulip Age’ as the temporal locus for Westernising reforms manifested in samples of architectural patronage, my story takes account of descriptions of the political and military events taking place in Istanbul and the Ottoman borderlands of the 1720s. At the time, the Ottoman authorities were looking for new ways to replenish the treasury. The power-vacuum in Iran, caused by the Afghan insurrection that brought an end to the life of Shah Sultan Husayn in 1722, appeared to offer the possibility of adding new taxable lands to the Ottoman Dominions. In order to get hold of these new sources of income, the Ottomans concluded a treaty with the Russians. Together they invaded the former Safavid lands and divided the territorial spoils between them. Prior to these military actions, the Sultan’s private kasır of Saadabad was erected on the plains next to the river of Kâğıdhane: “My story of the construction of Saadabad holds that it was conceived as a[n Ottoman] building containing conscious allusions to the Safavid architectural image” (61-2), as enclosed in the city of Isfahan established by Shah Abbas the Great (1587–1629) and restored by Sultan Husayn (1694-1722) in the 1710s. Or, more preciselys: “Damad İbrahim and Ahmed III ensured that the Ottoman Saadabad contained apparently readily intelligible references to Safavid Isfahan” (, 187). The operations of my narrative allow for the development of an internal Ottoman rationale behind the refurbishment of the Kâğıdhane area. As such, my piece does not portray the “construction of the famed palace of Saadabad” as a centre for a fertile interaction between civilisational modes or any kind of cross-cultural activity. As a result, I am guilty of favouring “one exclusivist way of thinking”, in that I am not claiming that Saadabad was the first physical manifestation of Westernisation, nor do I argue that Ottoman patrons looked towards their arch-enemies for inspiration. Instead, I am putting forward the proposition that the construction of Saadabad took place in a specific socio-political context, and that our stories of its building should take account of representations of that context. Does “early 18th-century Istanbul present a much more complex culturescape”??? Indubitably so, but . . .
But that “culturescape” was a living thing carried by living men and women, and as such, the textual representations of the “history of the construction of the famed palace of Saadabad” do not point in the direction of any traces of that “complexity” in the textual remains of the material culture of the 1720s as lived in Istanbul.
In the end, my “exclusivist way of thinking”, as expressed in my contribution to Dana Sajdi’s Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee, does not really deal with the “complex culturescape” of Istanbul as “a lieu of encounters of various kinds and directions” – East, West, North, or South, arguably . . . Instead, I am simply taking account of the representation of the contemporary context to compose a “cautionary tale” of Ottoman patrons trying to employ the cultural vehicles at their disposal as a way of conveying their policy decisions to the population of Istanbul, while undoubtedly rejoicing in recreating a small aspect of Shah Abbas the Great’s Safavid image contained in the city of Isfahan, nısf-ı cihan . . . Having said that now, I have to admit that it sounds somewhat disingenuous on my part, after all, the “Saadabad topos . . . symbolizes vital issues in Ottoman-Turkish history and historiography, particularly the double concept of modernization and Westernization” (50). Hence, my foray into narratological explanations. Again, quoting from my piece: “[t]he publication 30 years ago of Hayden White’s article, ‘The historical text as a literary artefact’, stimulated a debate on the extent to which history as a discipline can accurately recover a representation of the content of the past” (50). Or, how do Ottoman historians and other specialists writing about the reign of Ahmed III and his palace of Saadabad represent these “historical events”??? Are their writings supposed to be accurate textual photographs of the valley of Kâğıdhane in the 1720s??? Continuing along: “Hayden White’s narratological model of historical understanding would have it that historians select and impose a story, or an emplotment as he calls it, derived from the present to write about the past” (50). In other words, here we have two clashing emplotments: the first one sees Saadabad as a building erected upon reading the “vivid descriptions” of Versailles and its fountains as an Ottoman response to Bourbon splendour. The latter, takes the building as a vehicle of cultural propaganda, aimed at a domestic audience as well as at foreign legations, which incorporates architectural elements of the Safavid image. Can either of these emplotments claim to represent the content of the past??? Again, quoting freely: “[t]he past is something that does not exist apart from a few traces and the historian’s imagination, an imagination that is subject to his or her rhetorical, metaphorical and ideological strategies of explanation” (50-1).
But, what does this mean??? In my article I argued that the “danger in accepting the validity of this narratological model is that historical texts in the end become totally ‘self-referential’ and detached from the ‘real past’” (51). Somebody like Frank Ankersmit takes this stance to its logical conclusion and claims that historical texts are merely texts talking about other texts. Far, but not too far, from espousing such a stance, I hope that my piece about Saadabad primarily dealt with the building set up in 1722 through the medium of other texts, referring to actual people and their actions. The traditional emplotment of the Saadabad episode talked about an Ottoman official traveling to Paris and bringing back tidings of “beautiful things”, which were subsequently applied in Istanbul. The emplotment offered in my piece shows how a precarious situation in Iran was employed to further the Ottomans’ goals, with as a side-effect, how the well-known cultural achievements of the Safavids were emulated as a way of broadcasting a political and military message to a domestic audience: as a result, my emplotment “will necessarily also be an interpretation that cannot claim to be a truthful reflection of the past but that should be understood as an equally plausible rendering of the narrative of the building of Saadabad in 1722” (51).
Rather than taking issue with the whole Westernisation template, my article merely tries to place the early 18th-century Ottoman Empire in context, as belonging to the early modern Islamic world prior to the onset of wholesale Westernisation and modernisation: “the Ottoman state was [after all] built on Islamic foundations . . . As [Ahmet] Yaşar Ocak recently states, in Ottoman studies scholars have traditionally focused on ‘political-legal structures and institutions [of Islam], rather that on the ideology, beliefs and practical dimensions of Islam in the Ottoman context’” (52). In the mid-eighteenth century, Ottoman patrons do start building structures displaying European forms of decoration (‘rococo’). But, Saadabad was an Ottoman building that did not display any rococo shapes or forms. In fact, the tradition of rocaille decoration did not emerge until the 1730s in France . . . The by now well-known tome the Usûl-i Mimari-i Osmanî (1873) talks about “le temps des pompons, des chicorées et des rocailles”, an era which the 19th-century Ottoman book starts at the reign of Mahmud I (1730-54). Contextualising the early 18th-century Ottoman state in this way “implies that Ottoman culture was not just steeped in the cultural idiom of Islam, but was rather part and parcel of the wider culture of Islam” (52). As for Ottoman-Safavid interplay on a cultural-architectural level: “Gülru Necipoğlu has convincingly demonstrated in one of her articles that symbolic interactions on an architectural [plane] were not unheard of in an Ottoman context” (53-4).
To my mind, the traditional emplotment of the Saadabad episode perpetuates long-held “Orientalists” beliefs about Ottoman backwardness and Western (or rather to use a contextually more correct term, Christian) progress and power, able to enthrall and seduce hapless Ottomans. I am planning to write a book that will explain how the trope of Versailles in Istanbul emerged in 18th-century writing and later became a staple in the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. So far, so good . . .