Writing About Istanbul: The Historical Capital in the History Documents of the Republic

The history of historiographical works on Istanbul can be analyzed under two main periods. Contrary to the almost common belief, the beginning of the Republican era is not a turning point. The first period begins with the Ottoman conquest, and ends in the late 18th century with a monumental work, “Hadikatü’l-Cevami,” a historical encyclopedia of Istanbul mosques. What characterizes this first period is the lack of a narrative on the history of Istanbul independent from the political history of the Ottoman state. The history of its capital city was discussed in nearly identical terms with the history of the Empire. The first “autonomous” histories of Istanbul began to be written sporadically in the early 19th century, and the pace of history writing reached a climax at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest historical studies concerning Istanbul’s Byzantine and Ottoman periods as a whole began to be written in the mid-19th century. They were, however, mere compilations which were not grounded on personal observations about the actual urban historical texture. The majority, especially those on the history of the Byzantine city, were composed with information derived from the European books, and for the Ottoman period, they mainly relied on data easily accessible from the classical Ottoman political histories. Until the middle of the 20th century, Istanbul did not constitute a subject of study for historians due to ideological reasons. Instead, the founding of the Turkish nation-state, with its ideals of geographical and social homogeneity, caused a shift in its historiographical focus from the multi-ethnical former capital towards Anatolia, the newly declared homeland of the Turks. The year 1953, which marked the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest, defined a new opportunity for writing histories of Istanbul. The most important historiographical works, however, were to be written in the two decades after 1990, which can be defined as the beginning of a new era for the emerging global city.


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