Hollanda Araştırma Enstitüsü  -  Nederlands Instituut in Turkije

Fragmentation & cultural identity: The historical erasure of Ottoman – Greek heritage

Stefania Stouri (University of Amsterdam Humanities)

Following my research during my MA into decolonial practices in museology, their limitations, and opportunities, I was very interested in exploring what a decolonized understanding of the Greek cultural identity would entail. Greece’s link to the European colonial legacies is not readily available or apparent in the dominant narrative. However, after one considers the circumstances of the creation of the nation during the Greek revolution of 1821, it becomes more intriguing to revisit the glorified ancient past, so inherently connected with the Greek as well as the European cultural identity, in search of alternative genealogies.

Even though Greece has not been directly colonized ever since the Ottoman period, it can be claimed that the inception of the independent Greek nation in 1827, was created as a result of power relations and under the control of institutions belonging to Europe, more in particular royal colonial powers. One condition which has been crucial to the creation of the Greek state, and which survives today, is the intractable conflict between Greece and Turkey. The construction of the imagined “other” was central in the development of both the Greek and later the Turkish national identity, as well as the erasure of Greek-Ottoman heritage. For each one this othering is signified in different ways but always in opposition to either the “arrogant” Turk or the “ungrateful” Greek. As a result in Greece, the focus is still very much on the glorified ancient past of Greece, erasing Ottoman understandings of antiquities, along with the Greek-Ottoman heritage, and more than 400 years of history and traditions. Inevitably this loss of historicity was manifested through material erasures as well, with the destruction of most Ottoman structures as in the case of the Ottoman Acropolis.

In order to maintain a reparative approach during my research, I focused on tracing the historical erasure in two cities, Athens and Istanbul, approaching them as contact zones, where conflict and trauma can be renegotiated. This is addressed through the institutionalization of antiquities in the late – Ottoman period, through the example of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Both museums are connected with the start of modernity and are understood as institutions of power, instrumental in constructing narratives of national identity. My research at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum has improved immensely the gaps in the Ottoman understanding of antiquity, which are far more complex than in the “barbaric” oversimplified context of dominant historiography. The museum’s biography as well as its current exhibition design are very telling in reference to the change from Ottoman to nationalistic and to Neo-Ottoman policies and ideologies. The museological approach is also an indicator of the territorial understanding of archaeology as opposed to the art- historical discourse present in Western museums, thus creating a new understanding of the artefacts as indigenous antiquities, part of the Ottoman or in the present case Neo-Ottoman heritage. The Istanbul Archaeological Museum will be juxtaposed to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens, where self-colonizing practices have shaped the Museum’s museological approach, shaping an entire national identity through a fragmented understanding of the past. Both Archaeological museums are still very much involved in self-colonizing, albeit through a different gaze; namely, Athens embraces the German understanding of the previous centuries, where classicism was considered the apogee, whereas the Istanbul Archaeological Museum presents artefacts as ruins among lush vegetation in its garden, reiterating the highly orientalizing approach of romanticism and antiquity.

In order to employ this notion of “repair” into something more tangible, I was initially interested in tracing surviving connections between Greece and Turkey in Museums and other institutions. This also comes at a time when relations between Athens and Istanbul are being renegotiated, with the municipalities discussing bridge-building policies and cooperation agreements in culture and tourism. Although in Athens the Ottoman Acropolis has been gaining traction through initiatives such as the “anti-tour” of the Acropolis, organized by decolonize hellas, it remains very much excluded from the main narrative. Similarly, these discussions were not present in large state-run institutions in Istanbul either. Both Archaeological museums are still very much involved in self-colonizing themselves, albeit through a different gaze as Athens embraces the German understanding of the previous centuries of classicism as the apogee, whereas the Istanbul Archaeological Museum presents artefacts and lush vegetation, reiterating the highly orientalizing approach of romanticism and antiquity. With the growing discourse in Museums, repair, and decolonization, it remains to be seen whether institutions in Greece and Turkey will eventually engage with this approach in order to revisit and renegotiate trauma and conflict of the past, thus embracing a more cohesive understanding of their shared heritage, or simply move beyond self-colonizing practices and into a more caring future.

I am very grateful for the opportunity that the RMO and the NIT provided to explore the city and research something I am very passionate about. I would personally like to thank Fokke Gerritsen for being encouraging and supportive, and Aysel Arslan for always helping me with anything and everything. It was a heartwarming experience to see the city through their eyes. Other than exploring the palimpsest that is the city of Istanbul, what struck me the most was the uncanny feeling of several landscapes, streets, and smells. My experiences exist in between memory and dream, substantiating in a more effective way this understanding of a shared heritage.