Imagining Histories


Postcard from Tarihi Hayallemek exhibit at Koç University RCAC; all photos taken by Bruno Vandermeulen and Danny Veys, who constitute (in)site photography
There's an interesting exhibit up at the Koç University Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations on Istiklal Caddesi titled Tarihi Hayallemek. (Though odd that rather than translate that title into English as "Imagining History", the curators decided to title the exhibit (In)site.) I found it striking for a couple of reasons. First, they're a beautiful set of photographs, printed in large format and mounted about the room.

In many ways, I think the exhibit is not so much about the site itself as it is about the representation of that site, about the kinds of conventions that accompany the practice of archaeology. Whether by choosing to display objects not customarily associated with the practice of archaeological photography––natural rock formations, the people working on the site, the kinds of tools and various mechanical assemblages that helped to delimit the site as a site––or by choosing to consciously manipulate the photographs––especially through the selective blurring of the images––the photographers have compiled a visually compelling and thought-provoking set of images.

There's an added layer: The exhibit was accompanied by a set of postcards which reproduced several of the images from the exhibit. It's from those postcards that I scanned these images.

First and foremost, it's a lovely gesture––to take these images and make them mobile in a new way. I suppose one might have simply digitized the whole set of photos, but I rather appreciated the material quality of the postcards––at once tangible and portable. Second, it also raises this question about audience: Who these photographs are for, the kinds of projects they're supposed to be enrolled into, and so forth.

E. was down in Izmir a few weekends back for the Theoretical Archaeology Group–Turkey's first meeting (relevant sites here and here) and nothing but glowing things to say about the optimism and energy of the conference. I can't help but wonder about the kinds of relationships there between that group and this photography project––and how that might (or might not) be tied into the way that we think about Turkey's past, the kinds of history-objects that linger in the soil.


I was having a shave and a haircut today––I'd asked my barber a question about the Prime Minister and the local mayor, my own halting Turkish trying to spell out a question about which of the two was more important in his daily life (if either). He then turned around and asked me, "What do you think about the Aya Sofya? Does it mean something for you?" The television above us was tuned to Samanyolu, and some interview program had just begun, the presenter directing a set of questions about the secrets of the Aya Sofya to a historian. "Well," I said, "I think for me the Aya Sofya is a reminder of what people can do, it's an example of what people can build." "Yeah," he responded, "but that's abstract, does it mean anything for you?"

I thought for a moment––I knew something of the background to his question. Over the past year, there has been a growing chorus of voices calling for the Aya Sofya to be opened to worship once more. Groups like the Anadolu Youth [the Anadolu Gençliği, themselves loosely associated with the political movements of Necmettin Erbakan] have staged public prayers in the square in front of the building and a number of media figures have taken increasingly vocal positions on the issue. So I knew something of this background as I was pausing to answer. "You know," I said, "I suppose it doesn't."

We continued to talk about the building––in his estimation, it will almost certainly be opened again to worship in the near future. Such a change would, of course, raise a host of challenges for the government [not least of which would be the question of income generated by the masses of tourists who visit the site, but also the status of the restored mosaics adorning several walls and the apse]. Our––and I use that word advisedly, because I think it gets precisely to this problem of defining the audience for 'heritage'––usual response to any discussion of turning the building back into a mosque is, "That's ridiculous, it's a World Heritage Site." No, he countered, it's something important to us.

And as we were talking, I thought about whether or not I (taking myself as some representative of something of the 'West') would respond in the same way to a proposal to emphasize the religious nature of the multiple churches found on the list of World Heritage Sites. There may be, but I doubt it. And if the root of my (even 'our') discomfort is the transformation of a museum 'back into' a mosque is related to its status as a mosque, what issues does that raise for how we think about heritage in general, and World Heritage in particular?

"For us," he continued, "the Aya Sofya is a symbol of triumph, of victory, of the victory of Islam. And it's for that reason that it needs to be turned back into a mosque––as a symbol of the strength of Turkey as a Muslim nation, of Turkey taking its place at the table." I understand––at least I think I do––what he was telling me today, and it's a story I've heard from others as well over the past year.

But in many ways I think our conversation today helped me sharpen what worries me most about the discussions swirling in Turkey right now (and what I'd give to be able to articulate this in clearer Turkish): In claiming the Aya Sofya as a marker of our history (in explicit contrast to the dictates of a world heritage and history), I worry that many people are giving up on the possibility of thinking about a world heritage in terms other than ours and yours. Do we need to be suspicious and critical of the kinds of projects (human rights, world peace, free trade) that are enabled and reproduced by being worldly? Absolutely. But for me, to be suspicious of those projects should not entail turning our backs––and here I mean 'our' in the widest possible sense––on the possibility of a world. It's to imagine the world differently; and it's to imagine difference as something that constitutes the integrity of the world rather than threatening it. If the rationale for turning the Aya Sofya back into a mosque rests upon a certain historical narrative about the triumph of Islam––and the future fact that everyone will become Muslim before the Apocalypse––the root of my worry is precisely about ways of imagining the world that foreclose the possibility of belief in something other.

It's easy to write this, of course, as someone who's been able to live in Istanbul for most of the past two years. It's easy to write about difference when one's passport lets one pass easily through different places. It's easy to talk about different imaginaries of the world when one's own world rests upon a particularly favorable imaginary. But I think one of the truths that's emerged over my time here––one of the partial truths I've come to while living in Istanbul––is this: That everything I worry about in Turkey ought to be worried about in the United States as well; indeed, it's because our way of imagining the world from the United States has become so deeply ingrained that it's difficult to see clearly. Using my work here not just as an opportunity for critique of life here, but also as an incitement for critique there, in that place I once called home.

As ever––and in words not my own––ethnography is good to think with.


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