Istanbul, also known as Der Saadet (Abode of Happiness), is a city unlike many others. Its very name evokes a mythical image of earthly paradise. And for those fortunate to have visited the Turkish cultural capital, whether for business (as I did during a book-buying trip) or pleasure, there are plenty of reasons why this is the case. Situated between the Black and Mediterranean seas, Istanbul has always been a picturesque city, brimming with diverse cultures, languages, ideas, and technologies. A collection of 174 Turkish postcards and photos from the late 1890s to the 1930s, recently digitized by Duke University Library, allows us to get a glimpse of this happy abode at the turn of the twentieth century, immediately before things went very badly.
Most of the images in the Istanbul postcards collection depict everyday life in Üsküdar, a historic neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul that was once home to thriving communities of Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and other ethnic groups. Considering Üsküdar’s cultural and linguistic diversity, it is not surprising that this neighborhood was also commonly known as Scutari (in English and Italian), likely a diminutive of the Greek Skoutàrion (Σκουτάριον), the original name of the area.
The Istanbul postcards collection contains striking images that document everyday life, historic buildings and ports, various architectural features, and other topics that may be of interest to students and researchers of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Istanbul.
Perhaps one of the more iconic landmarks in Istanbul is the Kız kulesi (Maiden’s Tower)–also known as Leander’s Tower (after the Greek myth of Hero and Leander)–a lighthouse situated in the Bosphorus straits, between the European and Asian sides of the city. There have been several towers over the centuries, with the original wood construction dating back to 1110 CE. The one depicted in this postcard was restored only in 1725. Here the Tower is festooned with lights to celebrate the ten-year anniversary since the founding of the Republic of Turkey (1923), a vivid example of the government’s attempt to appropriate historical sites of memory for contemporary political purposes.
On the banks of the Bosphorus lies the impressive Beylerbeyi Sarayı (Palace), the historic building depicted in the postcard below. Completed in 1865, the palace was the summer home of Sultan Abdülaziz (1830-1876), the first Ottoman Sultan to travel to Western Europe. After Greek nationalist forces defeated the Ottomans in Selanik in 1912, Sultan Abdülhamid (who had previously been confined to the Villa Allatini) would be forced to move to this palatial residence. The embossed stamp (reading “Constantinople,” rather than Istanbul) on the bottom left corner of the postcard suggests, however, that the creators of this souvenir sought to emphasize the building’s status as a European-style architectural landmark, rather than its role as a place of political exile.The influence of France, and in particular the French language, was pervasive throughout the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth-century, especially among the literary elite. That is why, for example, many Ottoman-language journals (like the ones included in the recently launched digital project on the French Press in the Ottoman Empire), would often include a French translation or sub-title. To meet this growing demand, French educational entrepreneurs began opening schools in Istanbul. One of these schools, the Fransız Sainte Marie Okulu, is pictured in the postcard below. Note that although the writing on the back of the postcard is from 1933, the image of the school itself likely dates to the late nineteenth-century . Today, the historic building in which the school was once housed is part of a larger restoration project (Bağlarbaşı ilköğretim ve İş Okulu Restorasyonu).Another historic building depicted in the Turkish postcard collection is the Üsküdar Haydarpaşa Sultan tıbbiye mektebi (Üsküdar Haydarpaşa Sultan neighbourhood and Medical School). Built in 1827 as a military academy for the study of modern medicine, the school employed European and Ottoman doctors, who taught their students in French. The field of medicine was yet another example of the wide circulation of French (and, more broadly, European) ideas and practices in late Ottoman culture. You can learn more about the school and its place in Ottoman and European intellectual history with this recent publication.Another postcard on the theme of medicine and society is the one that portrays the Üsküdar miskinler tekkesi ve sebili (Üsküdar Leprosy house and water kiosk), the public health institution to which individuals suffering from this stigmatized infectious disease were confined and where they received such medical care as was available at the time. Although the term for this institution could also be translated as “lodges for the poor, helpless, wretched”—in addition to leper, the word miskinler, which is of Arabic origin with a Turkish suffix, also means poor, helpless, wretched; while tekke, a word borrowed from Persian but of Arabic origin, means lodge) —the miskinler tekkesi were colloquially known as tembelhâne, meaning “lazy houses.” Indeed, it is fair to say that rather than being sent for professional medical treatment, lepers were banished from society to live in miskinler tekkesi. For further information on Ottoman laws and debates about such matters see Studies in old Ottoman criminal law. And for further information about Ottoman disability studies, see Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, 1500-1800.A few images in the newly-digitized Istanbul postcard collection depict a very dark period of Turkish history, known as İşgal (the period of foreign occupation). After its defeat in World War I (1918), the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by the victorious military powers. As a direct result, British, French, Italian, and Greek troops moved into the former Abode of Happiness and took over the administration of the city. Istanbul and its residents were kept under strict watch, not least by means of naval vessels, such as the two steamships depicted, in the postcard below, patrolling the waters off Ortaköy with Üsküdar in the foreground. This tumultuous period witnessed the rise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and ended only with the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 (a defining political event that was celebrated as a national holiday in the abovementioned postcard of the Maiden’s Tower, and that continues to be celebrated today).Finally, I will end this short blog entry on Duke’s newly-digitized collection of Istanbul postcards with this fantastic image of an old pier in the Kandilli neighbourhood of Üsküdar. The steamship and other boats (depicted on the left and center of the postcard) illustrate the importance that piers and the Bosphorus have played in Istanbul’s centuries-long history, while also giving us a glimpse (on the right-hand side of the image) of the traditional yalılar (waterfront residences and mansions), which dot the Bosphorus coast. This is a reassuring image, which suggests that whatever political and name changes the city may yet to undergo, the Abode of Happiness will remain, first and foremost, a strategically located sea port in the very heart of Eurasia.Like the previously digitized Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki postcard collection, the Istanbul postcards collection adds depth to Duke University Library’s holdings on the Middle East and offers yet another electronic resource for scholars of many disciplines to use for research and teaching.
Please feel free to explore the digitized Istanbul Photographs and Postcards Collection, 1890s-1930s, and see what you can discover for yourself. The images are free to download and use for research, but please cite Duke University Libraries.
Should you have questions, please contact Sean Swanick, Librarian for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Duke University.