Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire.

Author:Watenpaugh, Heghnar
Position:Book review
 
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Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914. Edited by Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Celik, and Edhem Eldem. Istanbul: SALT, 2011. Pp. 520, illus. TRL 80, $41.60.

The history of European scholars, amateurs, and adventurers who made their way to the Middle East from the eighteenth century onward, to explore and survey the ruins of antiquity, is familiar. Their cultural worldview rested on a historical grand narrative that gave pride of place to Europe as the inheritor of antiquity's noblest traditions. They proceeded to excavate (informally or formally) in the lands where classical civilization once thrived, and to take home valuable finds, with (and sometimes without) the permission of local powers. The study of orientalist discourse has analyzed the negative judgment that many of these scholars reserved for the contemporary inhabitants of the former classical world, and their sense of entitlement to political and economic superiority. This sense of dominance extended as well to the possession and display of the art and material culture of antiquity in a new kind of European institution for the production of knowledge and power: the museum. Scramble for the Past offers a productive way to re-examine this narrative by reframing it as a history of interaction between Europe and the Ottoman empire, through the lens of archaeology. Through the materials presented, one understands better how the ruling elites of the Ottoman empire played an active role in engaging with the rising discipline of archaeology, and eventually appropriated it for their own. The Ottoman elite created laws, institutions, and practices to catalog and manage the material remains of past historical periods within their territory. In so doing they reproduced aspects of the European imperial cultural program, but also adapted them to suit their own imperatives for knowing and interpreting the past. The essays in this volume explore the many aspects of this complex and multilayered process, along themes such as the relationship of archaeology to politics, art objects to empire, and cultural heritage to popular culture and national identity.

Scramble for the Past, which also exists in a Turkish translation, was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title at the innovative Istanbul cultural center, SALT. The volume's sixteen essays are punctuated by "interludes" that present close readings of particularly revealing objects and...

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