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News 07 Nov 17

New Exhibition Explores Balkans’ Post-Ottoman Heritage

This travelling show explores how Ankara, Istanbul, Belgrade and Sarajevo changed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

David Galic

Many aspects of everyday life in the cities went on undisturbed, following the same cultural and sociological patterns that could be seen while under Turkish rule.  Photo:  Courtesy of the Historical Museum of Serbia

Cities are living, fluid organisms that never cease to transform, and transformation is governed as much by the practical needs of its residents as by geopolitical and historical circumstances. 

Historically, the Balkans went through a series of transformations that changed the region culturally, politically and sociologically.

A large portion of the Balkans was ruled for centuries by the Ottoman Empire and this left a strong mark on the urban geography of its cities. A brand new exhibition opening soon at the Historical Museum of Serbia explores the ways in which four cities in Turkey and the former Yugoslavia changed in the early 1900s and how this change was tracked and documented by early photojournalists and reporters. 

Cities in Motion – Post-Ottoman Heritage brings 200 digitally-processed photographs submitted by Turkish and Yugoslav reporters from the 1920s and 1930s who worked for major regional newspapers such as Cumhuriyet, Aksam, Politika and Vreme

These reporters roamed their hometowns – Ankara, Istanbul, Belgrade and Sarajevo - on a mission to document how the central urban areas changed to reflect new times, new politics and new cultural trends. 

The Ottoman Empire had its administrative and political centre in Turkey but its cultural and political influence was very much present and quite strong in all territories under its rule. Major cities of the Balkans, parts of the territory that would later become Yugoslavia, carried strong traits of this dominance. 

This was, and to an extent still is, evident in the urban planning and architecture, but also in the everyday lives of the people living in those cities. When the Ottoman Empire fell, things started to change, slowly but steadily and thankfully, these and many other reporters were there to document the changes. On one hand, the new governments that took over from the old Ottoman apparatus had one goal in mind: to make the cities reflect a new man, a new, modern citizen.

They modernised the urban core and introduced innovations on all levels of everyday life. On the other hand, many aspects of everyday life in these cities went on undisturbed, following the same cultural and sociological patterns that could be seen while under Turkish rule. This contrast is evident in many of the photographs that will be displayed as part of the exhibition. 

As a travelling exhibition, Cities in Motion has one important purpose. It aims to deconstruct the bias and prejudice against large immigrant groups from the post-Ottoman territories in today’s increasingly xenophobic climate. 

Another important goal is to pay due homage to the common heritage and the common historical paths, which persisted despite the inherent differences between the people who may have experienced them a little differently. The exhibition is also set out as a puzzle of sorts. It asks the audience to guess in which of the four cities a particular photo was taken. 

This exercise clearly underlines the fact that the cultures of these four cities are much more similar than people realise or want to admit. The audience will also have a chance to have their photos taken in front of large photos of urban landscapes and to try out authentic costumes from the 1920s and 1930s. 

The curator of Cities in Motion – Post-Ottoman Heritage is Natasa Mijuskovic, who teaches Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Basel. The exhibition is the result of international cooperation as part of the scientific research project SIBA - A Visual Approach to Everyday Life in Turkish and Yugoslav Cities in 1920s and 1930s, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. 

The exhibition at the Historical Museum of Serbia will run from November 7 to January 28, after which it will move to Istanbul, Sarajevo, Graz and finally Cambridge.

 This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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