Nov 8, 2011

Ottoman Archives as a tourist destination

Visitors to Istanbul beware! You are into visiting the Topkapı Palace, Blue Mosque, St. Sophia and the Hypodrome. All that is fine but you are probably walking by a building everyday without even noticing its importance. Located in the heart of the Old City, in an unassuming building behind the cistern, lies a great treasure that only few know about. This is the Ottoman archives building that hosts over 150 million documents.

Renovation section at Ottoman Archives in Istanbul
is busy reparing damaged documents.

The building is not open to the public for visits but available for scholars who can master the old Ottoman Turkish written with Arabic alphabet. This language, a mix of Persian, Arabic and Turkish was used in the official correspondence of the Ottoman Empire. Gaining access through a special project of an architectural magazine, I decided to use this post to show some of the documents in the building as I was amazed myself by the work being done.
A Sultan Mahmud II issued document at
Ottoman archives in Istanbul.

The document on the left hand corner
has the handwriting of Sultan Mahmud II: "carry it out".

Some documents awaiting classification in the
Ottoman Archives in Istanbul.

Our very knowledgeable guide explains us how to tell what the document is at Ottoman Archives in Istanbul.

When we entered the building, we first went to the renovation section. This is where they are renovating documents that have been damaged by flood, fire and worms. We then went to the classification section. Here documents are being classified as either a document of merit or document of numbers. As the expert explained, documents had initials, symbols and signs indicating what they were. As he put it: “nothing is for no reason, everything is in the system”, showing a long running state tradition. For instance, the top of every document was reserved for God. However, if the document was a circulating one, it might fall to floor. Therefore, god’s name was written inconspicuously. However, in a document that was to remain with the owner such as a license, god’s name was written openly. The reason for the archives to have these documents was that the license was valid through the rein of the Sultan. When a new Sultan came to power, the old was taken into the archive.

This is a document of numbers,
relating to bookkeeping at Ottoman Archives.

This is a license, written with gold because it
pertains to cleaning in holy territories.

And this is from Sultan Selim III, notice the
Islamic art tezhib (decoration) next to signature.

Those making wishes to the authority figures wrote on the bottom of the document. The higher up one went, the higher the hierarchy on the paper became. The language used on the documents was also different according to the person signing it. If it is the Sultan, he says: “carry it out”. If it’s the sadrazam (his representative), it says “it has been ordered”. The signature of the sultan is called “tugra” and says: always victorious while symbolizing the Ottoman territory and the world.  

It is this unassuming building in the Old City
that hosts these pieces of treasure from the Ottoman
Archives  in Istanbul.

Access to some of the archives are also through this
marvellous gate in Sultanahmet in Istanbul.
It is sad that all these documents and information are inaccessible to the public. At the same time, even if they were, the documents would still be incomprehensible given Turkey's adoption of the Latin alphabet in 1928.  Yes, we Turks today are unable to read these documents. All the more reason for introduction of guided tours of Ottoman Archives, perhaps?