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The End of an Era: The Less than Grand Opening of the New Ottoman Archives

[Main gate of the old Ottoman Archive, 11 March 2013. Photo by Michael Christopher Low.] [Main gate of the old Ottoman Archive, 11 March 2013. Photo by Michael Christopher Low.]

[The following status update on the new Ottoman Archive Center in Kağıthane was written by Patrick Adamiak, Jeffery Dyer, and Michael Christopher Low.]

For generations, historians of the Ottoman Empire and its former territories in the Balkans and the Arab Middle East participated in a rite of passage linking them to the Ottoman bureaucrats they studied. Going to work at the Ottoman Archives (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi) entailed the humbling experience of passing through the famous gates at Bab-ı Ali, or as it came to be known in the West, the Sublime Porte. During Ottoman times, Bab-ı Ali housed the offices of the Grand Vizier and the heart of the Ottoman bureaucracy. Indeed, the term Bab-ı Ali came to be synonymous with the state itself. With their location just steps from Topkapı Palace and the imperial gardens that now make up Gülhane Park, one’s daily commute to the Ottoman archives, housed in a cluster of nineteenth-century buildings just inside the confines of the Sublime Porte, often felt like stepping into the shoes of one’s historical subjects. Naturally, the decision to move Ottoman archival collections to a new location was met with considerable feelings of melancholy and disappointment. Both the archive’s physical location in Sultanahmet, at the heart of Ottoman Istanbul, and the dimly lit confines of the archive’s domed reading room evoked a romantic link to the past, appreciated by Turkish and foreign researchers alike. Alas, Turkey is not a museum to be preserved for the pleasure of the historians who study it. Change is inevitable. And there are, of course, compelling reasons for the construction of modern archival facilities. The buildings of Bab-ı Ali were never intended to accommodate the number of researchers that now utilize the archives each year. Small rooms strained to hold the crush of scholars that gathered during busy summer months and afternoon rushes. The new facilities offer expanded research space and the opportunity to house the documents at an on-site depot, with climate control to protect documents from decay caused by humidity. The site is also purported to include architectural features to protect against natural disasters such as flooding or earthquakes.

For several years the construction of a gigantic new campus located in a suburban setting past the end of the Golden Horn in Kağıthane had been reported. However, the timing of the move remained the stuff of rumor and speculation throughout 2012 and early 2013. Even the archive employees were not completely apprised of the timing of the move until last February. At that time warnings were posted at the archive that the old site would close on 18 March. The uncertainty surrounding the move culminated in frantic weeks leading up to the closure of the old archives. The reading rooms were packed and the staff struggled to keep up with the demand. Doctoral students and professors alike nervously photographed as many documents as possible to avoid wasting their year’s funding. Despite the uncertainty, researchers were assured that access to documents would resume in mid April. As it turns out, that was true, but only partially.


[Reading room at the old Ottoman Archive.  Photo by Michael Christopher Low, 9 March 2013.]

On Monday 22 April the new home to the Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi in Kağıthane was officially opened to the public. We arrived in the morning for the archive’s opening day and were relieved to find out that the facility had indeed opened as promised. The familiar staff from the old archives warmly greeted us as the first researchers to make the trip. However, we quickly learned of some serious issues that we felt researchers should be made aware of before planning their visits over the coming months. The reading room is open for digital document services, providing access to a fraction of the total documents available. However, we were told that the paper documents themselves had not even begun to be moved from the old depot. The employees at the archive were clearly frustrated and embarrassed by this outcome and complained of being left with neither documents to organize nor researchers to serve. As we dug deeper for the staff’s predictions for the resumption of normal service, we were met with extremely pessimistic prognoses. Two months was the most optimistic estimate, but this was offered with a shake of the head and a warning to brace for a wait of as long as six months before normal services were restored. Thus, it is probable that research plans for spring or early summer are essentially ruined. This will likely leave most of the archive’s collection inaccessible perhaps even into the fall, leaving doctoral students and professors scrambling to adjust their research plans and renegotiate fellowships and grants.

As for the facility itself, we were pleasantly surprised. While it is clearly still a work in progress, it is reminiscent of Sabancı University's campus, with neo-Ottoman rooflines, Islamic architectural sensibilities such as honey-combed shaped muqarnas designs, and multiple levels of grass covered gardens with fountains. One cannot help but note the AK Party’s influence in the promotion of piety throughout the site. New visitors will find prominent prayer rooms in the main entrance hall and first-floor bathrooms, dominated by sleek ablution stations (şadırvan). The entrance hall and new cafe are oppressive and dark, but ultra modern. The ceilings are low, and appear lower because everything is painted black. The cafe is on a mezzanine level overlooking the cavernous conference center, exhibition facilities, and museum. It is a three-story system, with the entrance on the first floor, document room on the second floor, and computer room on the third. The actual researching rooms are well lit and bright in stark contrast to the first level. Both levels have easily two to three times the seating capacity of the old rooms at Bab-ı Ali and reading desks and computers should be in abundant supply. The employees' desk in the reading room stretches across much of one wall, which should relieve some of the crowding that was a familiar sight at the old location. Once the kinks have been worked out, there is much to recommend the archive’s new interior as a functional workspace. 

[Café/Exhibition space and entrance of the new archive center. Photo by Michael Christopher Low, 9 March 2013.]

The campus’s physical location, however, is an unmitigated disaster. The facility overlooks green space surrounding Kağıthane Creek, which is pleasant enough. However, the complex is marooned on the side of a busy four-lane divided road. While there is a bus stop immediately in front of the facility, there are no cross walks to reach the other side. As a result, catching the bus or a taxi (roughly fifteen to twenty Turkish lira from the archive to Şişhane or Galata) on the opposite side of the road entails a harrowing scramble across four lanes of high-speed traffic. Here, we do not wish to be overly alarmist, but for such a high profile facility this lack of planning for pedestrian traffic presents a serious danger. Likewise, there are currently no sidewalks immediately in front of the campus. Thus, while there is a winding ramp for handicap access and multiple elevators inside the campus, making one’s way to and from a city bus would be problematic even for a healthy elderly person. There is a cafeteria on site serving hot meals for five Turkish lira, but there are no restaurants or cafes near the building, nor even space for them to be built because of the location between a steep hill, a highway, and the creek.  

Information about the new site and transportation options for reaching it has been scarce. When planning our first visit, we relied on a map made available by Emily Neumeier (University of Pennsylvania) and Christopher Markiewicz (University of Chicago) on Dissertation Reviews. While there are a number of bus, dolmuş, and ferry options, the Kağıthane campus is not served by the metro system. While we knew that the new location would be inconvenient, its location is in fact even bleaker than we had initially expected. 

While we are certain that the facility will come into its own over the coming years, for now it is hard not to lament the loss of Bab-ı Ali. For veteran researchers the move will be hard to accept. You will be torn from your old haunts and routines. Being an Ottomanist will never be quite the same. And for those who never got the opportunity to work in the old archive, we suspect that it will signal a generational marker putting us just a bit further from our Ottoman subjects. We can only wonder if the freeways and overpasses of Kağıthane will affect how we imagine the Ottoman Empire!

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