Self-Narratives as Sources for the History of the Late Ottoman Empire

Supervised by: Dr. Richard Wittmann

Main collaborator: Prof. Dr. Christoph Herzog (University of Bamberg)

Duration: Since 2010

Previous historiography of the late Ottoman Empire relies heavily on documents in the Ottoman language and records from public archives, most of which were written by state officials. In contrast, in this field of research special attention is paid to self-written autobiographical texts from the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population of Istanbul in languages such as Ottoman Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Arabic, Ladino, and a number of others that were in use in the Ottoman capital. The focus of the field of research on the late Ottoman self-narratives are diaries, memoirs, letters and other “ego-documents” (Jacques Presser) or “life narratives” (Sidonie Smith/Julia Watson) of the inhabitants of the Ottoman capital Istanbul in the second half of 19th century through the early years of the Republic of Turkey. By examining texts of this genre, this research aims to contribute to the study of the social history of Istanbul in the late phase of the Ottoman Empire, also in the context of current research on empires and global empires. Through the inclusion of Ottoman primary sources, it hopes to stimulate the hitherto heavily Western-dominated or Eurocentric self-narrative research. The processing of this material, especially the non-Turkish language part, promises to be a significant contribution to overcoming the predominant (if not in the area of theory, then in the research practice) national historical bias and linguistic-disciplinary narrowness of Ottoman Studies. The research field includes individual research at the Orient-Institut Istanbul, an interdisciplinary and international research context within the scope of the “Istanbul Memories” project (, the expansion of a collection emphasis on this topic at the library of the Orient-Institut Istanbul, the organization of scholarly events, and the publication of relevant texts.

(1) Istanbul Memories

Supervised by: Dr. Richard Wittmann

Duration: Since 2010

Main collaborator: Prof. Dr. Christoph Herzog (University of Bamberg)

The “Istanbul Memories” project is an interdisciplinary and international research program. It enables and encourages the study of self-narratives as sources for the history of Istanbul in its complexity as a multi-ethnic and multilingual imperial capital through its own publication series, the promotion of young researchers, and organizing scholarly events (workshops, conferences, and lecture series)

Research network: To facilitate cooperation and scholarly exchange, a network of researchers from different disciplines has been steadily developed since 2008 that deals with self-narratives in the various common languages of the Ottoman Empire.

Publication series: The project has three publication series for identifying sources, publishing scholarly editions, and offering analyses in the form of monographs and anthologies:

Memoria. Fontes minores ad Historiam Imperii Ottomanici pertinentes: Edited by Richard Wittmann, this publication series aims to make available largely unknown or not publicly unavailable self-narratives in English translation. It is published using the open-access process and made available online by the Max Weber Foundation at: Previously published: Klara Volarić (ed.), The Istanbul Letters of Alka Nestoroff. Bonn: Max Weber Foundation, 2015. (Memoria. Fontes minores ad Historiam Imperii Ottomanici pertinentes, 1) ISSN: 2364-5997.

Self-Narratives of the Ottoman Realm: Individual and Empire in the Near East: Under joint editorship with Christoph Herzog, this new series from Routledge focuses on publishing monographs and conference proceedings concerning self-narratives from the Ottoman Empire. The first of several volumes in preparation will be published in 2016. (

Occasional Papers in Ottoman Biographies: An open-access Internet publication, the series edited by Christoph Herzog has enabled the publication of (auto-) biographical research since 2012. (

Young-researcher development: Around a dozen doctoral and postdoctoral research projects on self-narratives have been sponsored by the Orient-Institut Istanbul through fellowships within the scope of the project.

Scholarly events: Since 2010, numerous academic conferences and workshops have been held in Turkey, Germany, and Israel as part of the “Istanbul Memories” project. In 2015 and 2016, the lecture series “Remembering the Ottoman Past in the Eastern Mediterranean” was held in collaboration with research partners in Istanbul.

(2) Book project: “Istanbul Jews in Court – the Hasköy District from the 17th to the 20th Century” (with Yaron Ben Naeh, Jerusalem)

Supervised by: Dr. Richard Wittmann

Duration: Since 2008

The Islamic legal system in the Ottoman Empire was characterized by the far-reaching legal autonomy of non-Muslims (zimmi). Nonetheless, non-Muslims often preferred to voluntarily turn to the Islamic court, even in legal matters with members of their own religion. In a joint book project with Prof. Yaron Ben-Naeh, Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Sharia court records of the mostly Jewish Hasköy district of Istanbul are being published in an annotated and English-language version. The aim is to make a contribution to the research on the daily lives of Jews in Istanbul from the 17th to20th centuries and to illuminate the coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups in the Ottoman capital.

(3) Levantines and Italians in Istanbul in the 19th Century: Italian Ego-Documents and Narrative Sources

Supervised by: Dr. Marie Bossaert

Duration: 2016

Sponsored by: Orient-Institut Istanbul the German Historical Institute in Rome

The research project deals with the Levantines and Italians living in Istanbul in the 19th century. To date, Italian-language sources—letters, diaries, and memoirs—have not yet been studied in the context of late Ottoman social history and self-narrative research. Three aspects are paramount. The first concerns the exiled Italians from the 1850s, who wound up in Constantinople after the partial suppression of the Risorgimento movement. In this context, the relationships of Italians with the Levantines, the exiles from other states, and Ottoman society are to be analyzed. The second aspect focuses on the “second generation,” i.e. the children of Italian immigrants born in the Ottoman Empire. Here, their sense of belonging will be examined, along with their life experiences and their loyalties. The third aspect relates to the Italian language, which gives way in the 19th century to the French language, especially in its forms, areas of application, and the views it shaped. Finally, the connections between the Levantine, Italian, and Ottoman identities and the role of perceptions in the social-interaction framework will be examined. The project thus attempts to contribute to a social history of the Italian community in Istanbul and the Levantines in the Mediterranean region.

(4) The Late Ottoman Diary of Abdallah Dabbous

Responsible: Dr. Malek Sharif (University of Münster and Orient-Institut Istanbul)

Supported by: Orient-Institut Istanbul

Duration: 2015–2017

The project reveals the previously unknown memoirs of a young Arab officer who served in the Ottoman Army during the First World War. The memoirs, which remain part of the family estate in Lebanon, consist of 152 pages of text and are written in modern scriptural Arabic with Ottoman inscriptions and occasional expressions from Beirut dialect. Describing various experiences in war and as a cadet at the Istanbul Academy of War from 1916–17, the memoirs are a rare testimony of the life of an “ordinary” soldier. The text is critically edited in English translation and accompanied by an in-depth introduction.

Paulina D. Dominik (Ed.): The Istanbul Memories in Salomea Pilsztynowa’s Diary »Echo of the Journey and Adventures of My Life« (1760). With an introduction by Stanisław Roszak. (Memoria. Fontes minores ad Historiam Imperii Ottomanici pertinentes, 2). Bonn, 2017.

Philipp Wirtz: Depicting the Late Ottoman Empire in Turkish Autobiographies. Images of a Past World (Life Narratives of the Ottoman Realm 1). Abingdon: Routledge, 2017.

Wittmann, Richard; Fuhrmann, Malte. “Papierblumen, Seide und Thermen am Fuße des Olymps. Bursa in deutschsprachigen Reiseberichten von der Renaissance bis zur Romantik.” In: Malte Fuhrmann and Raoul Motika (eds.): Deutsche in Bursa. Bursa: Belediye Yayınları, 2016. 42–67.

Volarić, Klara (ed.). The Istanbul Letters of Alka Nestoroff. Bonn: Max Weber Foundation, 2015.

Wittmann, Richard; Ulbrich, Claudia (ed.). Fashioning the Self in Transcultural Settings: The Uses and Significance of Dress in Self-Narratives (Istanbuler Texte und Studien 17). Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2015.

—-, Ulbrich, Claudia. “Introduction – Fashioning the Self in Transcultural Settings: The Appreciation of Dress in the Historical and Cultural Sciences.” In: Claudia Ulbrich and Richard Wittmann (eds.): Fashioning the Self in Transcultural Settings: The Uses and Significance of Dress in Self-Narratives. (Istanbuler Texte und Studien 17). Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2015. 9–24.

—-. “Französische Hemden, österreichische Dampfschiffe und deutsche Lokomotiven: Fremde Dinge in der Selbstverortung des islamischen Mystikers Aşçı Dede İbrahim. In: H. Medick, A. Schaser, C. Ulbrich (ed.): Selbstzeugnis und Person. Transkulturelle Perspektiven (Selbstzeugnisse der Neuzeit, Vol. 20). Cologne, Weimar, Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2012. 243–261.

—-. (ed.). Gürler, Tülay. Jude sein in der Türkei. Erinnerungen des Ehrenvorsitzenden der Jüdischen Gemeinde der Türkei Bensiyon Pinto (Istanbuler Texte und Studien 23). Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2010.

Lecture series: Exile, Political and Economic Migration in the Ottoman Empire

Responsible: Dr. Richard Wittmann, Prof. Dr. Evangelia Balta, Prof. Dr. Johan Martelius

Date of event: April/May 2017

Main cooperation partners: Svenska Forskningsinstitutet i Istanbul, Anadolu Kültür

Jointly organized by Prof. Dr. Evangelia Balta (Programme of Ottoman Studies, National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens), Prof. Dr. Johan Mårtelius (Swedish Research Institute, Istanbul), and Dr. Richard Wittmann (Orient-Institut Istanbul), the series of eight evening lectures in spring 2017 will be devoted to the opportunities, special demands, and obstacles that newcomers faced who came to the Ottoman Empire as refugees, economic migrants, or immigrants from the 18th to 20th centuries. The lectures are each assigned to four thematic sub-aspects of the topic: “Muslim and Christian Refugees in the Balkans and Anatolia,” “Immigrants and Intercultural Transfer,” “European Refugees in the Ottoman Empire,” and “Choosing a New Homeland.”



Lecture series: Remembering the Ottoman Past in the Eastern Mediterranean

Supervised by: Dr. Richard Wittmann and Prof. Dr. Evangelia Balta

Event date: Oct. 2015 ̶ May 2016

Main collaborator: Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens

Sponsored by: Bodossaki Foundation, Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Greek Consulate General in Istanbul

In a total of 16 lectures on eight evenings, with two presenters usually coming from different countries and scholarly cultures, this series examines various forms of memory of the Ottoman past based on a broad understanding of the self-narrative genre (film, photography, food, etc.). All lectures will be made accessible as video podcasts by the Bodossaki Foundation on their website and via a link from the website of the Orient-Institut.

Workshop: Fashioning the Self in Transcultural Settings: The Uses and Significance of Dress in Self-Narratives

Supervised by: Dr. Richard Wittmann

Event date: 29 Sept.–2 Oct. 2009

Main collaborator: DFG Research Group 530 “Self-Narratives in Transcultural Perspective”

Sponsored by: DFG

One research volume was published with the financial support of the DFG Research Group entitled “Fashioning the Self in Transcultural Settings: The Uses and Significance of Dress in Self-Narratives” as part of the Institute series “Istanbuler Texte und Studien “.

Workshop: The Politics of Memoirs: Turkish and Ottoman

Supervised by: Prof. Christoph Herzog and Dr. Richard Wittmann

Event date: 6 Dec. 2014

Organizer: University of Bamberg, Turkology, and the Orient-Institut Istanbul

The workshop was expressly devoted to the memoir genre, which is especially central to Turkish-language self-narratives. The timeline spanned by the twelve participants in their presentations included not only Ottoman sources, the “Istanbul Memories” project’s actual period of investigation, but also Turkish-language memoirs from the period of the Republic of Turkey. It was thus possible to undertake a comparative analysis of the genre over the period of political and systemic change that coincided with the Ottoman Empire’s demise.

Istanbul–Kushta–Constantinople. Diversity of Identities and Personal Narratives in the Ottoman Capital (1830–1900)

Supervised by: Dr. Richard Wittmann

Event date: 14–15 Oct. 2010

Main collaborator: University of Bamberg, Turkology

Sponsored by: Fritz Thyssen Foundation

The symposium “Istanbul–Kushta–Constantinople. Diversity of Identities and Personal Narratives in the Ottoman Capital (1830_1900)” was organized by Dr. Richard Wittmann (Orient-Institut Istanbul) in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Christoph Herzog (Chair of Turkology at the University of Bamberg) from 14–15 Oct. 2010 and held in the historic rooms of the German Consulate General in Istanbul. The goal of the meeting was to further Ottoman biographical research vis-a-vis the critical perspectives of non-Muslim, non-Turkish language biographies and their written expression and to consequently promote an overdue paradigm shift in the research.

Bureaucratic Writing as Autobiographical Practice: Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha as Ottoman Extraordinary Commissioner in Egypt, 1885–1908

Supervised by: Prof. Dr. Maurus Reinkowski, Universität Basel

Duration (visiting scholar at the Institute): September-December 2015

Maurus Reinkowski explores in his research project the self-understanding of the late Ottoman state on the example of Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, who worked as an Ottoman High Commissioner in Egypt from 1885 to 1908. The Ottoman Empire, which had been thrust by the European imperialist powers into semi-colonial status, insisted until the beginning of the First World War on its suzerainty over Egypt, even though it had been under de facto British rule since 1882. The project deals with the question of how Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, who had no real means of power in Egypt, expressed and defended the imperial self-representation of the Ottoman Empire. Ahmed Muhtar, who lived in a kind of exile and whose return to Istanbul was barred for more than twenty years, combined the role of an ambassador and expatriate with that of an unemployed bureaucrat and, in some way, that of a phantom. During his long stay Egypt, he produced a vast amount of official correspondence. After many years of fruitless diplomatic and political endeavor, it increasingly became a means of not just imperial, but also personal self-assurance.

 “Turks” of Crete and “Hellenes” of Smyrna: A Comparative Analysis of the 1923 Greco-Turkish Population Exchange (1860–1960)

Aytek Alpan (University of California, San Diego)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, 1 Oct. 2013–31 Mar. 2014)

Through a consideration of Karamanlı sources previously neglected in Ottoman historiography, the dissertation by Aytek Alpan attempts to reevaluate the history of Istanbul in the late 19th century, specifically from the perspective of the Karamanlis, the Turkophone Greek Orthodox population. The investigation of the Karamanlı newspaper Anatoli in the 1880s and 1890s, one of the oldest newspapers in Istanbul, not only provides a basis for assessing the Karamanlı community as an important population group in the Empire’s capital. It is also possible to determine the relations between the different social identities of the city from the perspective of the Karamanlis. Since there is no extant memoir literature of the Karamanlıs, Anatoli, the most enduring Karamanlı newspaper will be used instead within the context of the larger “Istanbul Memories” project. Critical factors here include not only its long survival and its rich context, but also the role of Evangelinos Misailidis, who with his personal commitment and dedication was the driving force behind the newspaper.

Transforming Erzurum/Karin: The Social and Economic History of a Multi-Ethnic Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century

Yaşar Tolga Cora (University of Chicago)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, 17 Oct. 2013–17 Apr. 2014)

In this work, the social and economic history of the 19th century in the province of Erzurum is analyzed, especially in its central district. Not least because of its geographical location on the border with Russia and Iran, Erzurum was the most important Ottoman province in the east. The aim of this study is to illuminate the links between political change, social and economic development, and escalating ethnic conflict in this region, above all in the last quarter of the 19th century. The project is a regional historical study. At same time, it seeks to understand the relationships between regional, trans-regional, and pan-Ottoman developments, as well as the connections and interactions between the relevant stakeholders. As a result, the present research on the Tanzimat period will be expanded to include a local perspective. A contribution will be made to recent historiography of the east of the Ottoman Empire, which integrates Kurds and Armenians into Ottoman history. Besides Ottoman documents and sources from libraries and archives, Armenian diaries, travel reports, newspapers, and similar primary sources will also be evaluated.

Between White Eagle and Crescent—Polish Narratives of the Late Ottoman Empire (1830–1918)

Paulina Dominik (University of Oxford)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, 1 Sept. 2013–31 Aug. 2014)

With the partition of Poland in 1795, the Ottoman Empire became one of the most important places of refuge for Polish emigrants. Thousands of Poles fled to Istanbul, hoping for Ottoman support in their struggle for independence. Nevertheless, the presence of the Polish minority is often neglected in discussions about the multicultural and multiethnic character of Istanbul. The names of some streets in Beyoğlu attest to the rich Polish heritage of the 19th century, however. Indeed, still in existence today is the emigrant-founded Polish village Adampol/Polonezköy, some of whose current inhabitants even speak Polish. The research project takes a holistic approach to understanding the participation of the Polish political emigrants in the public sphere of the late Ottoman Empire. The political aspirations of the emigrants were not only oriented toward the independence of Poland, but in many cases also the modernization projects of the Ottoman state. The focus of the research is to trace and disentangle the diverse personal and communal narratives of the Polish-Ottoman past. This approach will offer insight into aspects such as the “dual national interest,” overlapping senses of belonging and loyalties, religious conversions, and identity problems. Overall, the research project attempts to classify the Polish emigrants and their activities in the multicultural and multi-ethnic mosaic of the late Ottoman Empire.

Publication: Paulina Dominik: “A Young Turk from Lehistan: Tadeusz Gasztowtt aka Seyfeddin Bey (1881–1936) and his Activities during the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1918),” in: Occasional Papers in Ottoman Biographies (ed. Christoph Herzog/University of Bamberg), Vol. 2, 2014.

Ahmet Rasim’s Şehir Mektupları and Fin-de-Siècle Istanbul

Melih Egemen (Harvard University)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, 1 Sept. 2013–28 Feb. 2014)

This dissertation examines cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in the late Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul. Three interconnected themes are emphasized: 1. Literary and everyday metaphors for describing Istanbul and its multiculturalism; 2. Ottoman, Islamist and Turkic discourses; 3. the capital Istanbul as a lens for examining the transition from an imperial to a national political system and the impact of this transition on a multicultural society.

This threefold approach to the reconstruction of the everyday life of Istanbul in an unusually turbulent period—almost a half century of autocratic rule under Abdul Hamid II, the authoritarian quasi-modernism of the Unionists, a world war followed by foreign occupation, and, finally, the creation of an anti-imperial Republican regime—will not only help to reconstruct fin-de-siècle Istanbul, but also to deal with the impact of policy changes on an individual and everyday level.

Ottoman Diplomats and the Culture of Diplomacy (1761–1821): Ottoman Ambassadors, Chargés d’affairs and Dragomans Between the Ottoman Empire and Prussia

Irina Fliter, MA (Tel Aviv University)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, 15 June–15 Dec. 2013)

Diplomacy brought together Ottoman citizens of different religions, educational backgrounds, and social backgrounds. Ottoman envoys that were sent to the European capitals, however, were exclusively educated Muslims from the central administration; chargés d’affaires or ministers, on the other hand, could be Muslim but also Christian. Dragomen or translators, finally, were almost exclusively Christian, with strong links to the Phanariot networks (Istanbul Greeks) from the second half of the 18th century. In this dissertation, this division of labor between Christian and Muslim diplomats is not the point of departure, but rather the Ottoman culture of diplomacy as a whole. The case of the Ottoman diplomats who traveled to Prussia from 1761 to 1821 or worked for the Prussian Embassy in Istanbul demonstrates both the networks where the diplomats operated and the intellectual tensions that existed with enlightened Europe. Unlike traditional diplomatic history, which only considers diplomats in their role as political mediators, the lives of Ottoman diplomats and their relationship towards the Sublime Porte will be treated with particular emphasis on the cultural-historical point of view.

The Emerging Bourgeoisie of Istanbul at the Turn of the 20th Century: Memory and (Self-) Representation

Ece Zerman (Paris-Sorbonne)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, October 2009–March 2010)

This project examines the self-narratives and photos of an emerging bourgeoisie in Istanbul from the late Ottoman Empire to the early Turkish Republic. How did they represent themselves and their internal “others”? How did they construct their memories? The new elite created their own past; they constructed, collected, and preserved their memories. To some extent, this past is linked to the construction of national memory and national heritage. The main elements of this culture of remembrance were records in the form of diaries or memoirs, preserved family letters, family photos that were displayed at home, or collected memorabilia. The artifacts that people deemed worthy of being collected, recorded, preserved, and exhibited will be analyzed as primary sources in order to understand the changing and complex relationships between the bourgeoisie in Istanbul and the surrounding visual and material world.

Scholars’ Knowledge Traditions. The “Fabled Orient” in Travelogues of the Early Modern Period

Kornelia Kaschke-Kısaarslan (FU-Berlin)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, October 2009–March 2010)

Today’s Neighbor—Yesterday’s Subject. The Balkans as an Intersection between the Ottoman Empire and Europe from the Perspective of Ottoman Travelers, 1870–1918

Leyla von Mende (Freie Universität Berlin)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, 1 Oct.–23 Dec. 2010)

The dissertation was supervised by Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag.

Intellectual Trajectories From Ottomanism to Nationalism: The Cases of Mustafa Satı Bey, Tunalı Hilmi, and Abraham Galante

Kerem Tinaz, MA (University of Oxford, 15 June 2014–15 Sept. 2014)

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship)

The dissertation of Kerem Tınaz examines the views on the topics of education and language of Mustafa Satı Bey (1880–1968), Tunalı Hilmi (1871–1928) and Abraham Galante (1873–1961) in the context of their intellectual reorientation from Ottomanism to nationalism in the successor states of the Ottoman Empire. Here, the substance and motivation behind their ideas are comparatively analyzed, especially with regard to the ethnic, religious and socio-historical background and the intellectual milieu in which they moved. The dissertation aims to make a contribution to the revisionist direction in Ottoman historiography. It undertakes a comprehensive approach by including thinkers from different ethnic and religious backgrounds in order to investigate the pluralistic nature of the late Ottoman Empire and also to work out the intellectual continuities and discontinuities between the Ottoman Empire and its successor states.

Autobiography at the End of Empire: Modernity and Change in Self-Narratives during the Late Ottoman Empire, 1880s–1920s

Philip Wirtz, MA (SOAS, London).

Sponsored by: OII (doctoral scholarship, 16 Aug. 2010–10 Sept. 2010)

The dissertation examines the representation of the Ottoman Empire over the last fifty years in Turkish autobiographies. Autobiographies are read less here as literary works than as historical accounts of Ottoman cultural and social history from a personal point of view. This project explores the reasons for autobiographical writing, enquires into the treated themes, and tries to show how the authors assess historical change in the broadest sense and how newly developing national identities are articulated. The dissertation was supervised by Prof. Benjamin Fortna and is published in the project-based publication series “Individual and Empire in the Near East” (Routledge):

Philipp Wirtz: Depicting the Late Ottoman Empire in Turkish Autobiographies. Images of a Past World (Life Narratives of the Ottoman Realm 1). Abingdon: Routledge, 2017.

World War I and the Armenian Catastrophe: The Politics of the Archive, Fiction and Auto-/Biographies in Turkey

Dr. Hülya Adak (Sabanci University Istanbul)

Sponsored by: OII (postdoctoral fellowship, 1 Oct. 2011–30 May 2012)

As a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Hülya Adak (Sabancı University Istanbul) worked on the First World War and the genocide of the Armenians on the basis of Ottoman Turkish self-narratives.