Search for a Cultural Image
Many scholars, rejecting the definition of culture as the fixed attributes of a particular society, now focus instead on the dynamics through which cultures are "constructed" by those who define them. For example, in 1986 James
Clifford argued that cultures do not have a "scientific" objectivity; they are "produced historically." Several years earlier, Roy Wagner, analyzing the position of the anthropologist vis-à-vis his research topic, claimed that the anthropologist "invented" the culture he studied on the basis of his own culture: "enveloped in his own world of meanings," he made analogies or "translations" from one culture to the other. In the early 1970s, John Berger elaborated a similar point, applying the idea of studying "culture through culture" to the way we see things: "We never look at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves."
Accepting Wagner's broad definition of culture as a term that "attempts to bring men's actions and meanings down to the most basic level of significance, to examine them in universal terms in an attempt to understand them," I will survey the dynamic reformulation of Islamic culture by discussing late nineteenth-century Muslim thought in relation to the representations at the world's fairs. Even as many Muslim nations accepted European supremacy and attempted to remodel their institutions according to Western precedents, they were also searching for cultural identity under the strong impact of European paradigms. Because Europe represented the technologically advanced, "scientific" world, its "record" of another culture carried authority. It is not surprising, therefore, that the European cultural image of Islam formed an important element, and often the foundation, of the new self-definition.
Europe's own norms and values had determined the image of an "Orient" in response to the European agenda, and the Orient had become the negative image of post-Enlightenment Europe. In European discourse Islam was repeatedly characterized according to the preoccupations of Europe (or of anywhere else, for that matter): power, sex, and religion, linked by violence and tyranny. European and Islamic cultural systems were juxtaposed and described as diametrically opposed to each other in these areas. Islamic countries in turn focused on the same attributes in their self-definitions: when invited to represent themselves through architecture in the universal expositions, they repeatedly depicted the mosque and the sultan or bey's residence as prototypical. The mosque was the setting for religious practices and the residence displayed the realm of the political ruler, his power, his lifestyle, and, perhaps most intriguingly, his subordination of women.
Yet European paradigms were not simplistically appropriated; they were often filtered through a corrective process, which reshaped them according to self-visions and aspirations. Another reference to architectural representations in the world's fairs may help to explain: the Ottoman pavilions in the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris highlighted the rationalist principles of composition in Ottoman monuments rather than their decorative programs—the obsessive focus of European interest. Aside from illustrating the continuous redefinition of cultures, such specific cases suggest that different Islamic societies need to be considered, "each within its particular agendas and pace of development, its own formations, its internal coherence and its system of external relations." At the same time, applying a "contrapuntal perspective" to such specific experiences yields a better understanding of their "overlapping and interconnected" histories.
World's fairs were idealized platforms where cultures could be encapsulated visually—through artifacts and arts but also, more prominently, through architecture. The debates on architectural imagery thus became closely intertwined with redefinitions of local cultures. I will look briefly at the dominant trends among the Muslim intelligentsia in the 1860s, when Islamic nations first participated on a large scale in the world's fairs, beginning with the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris. The colonial discourse associated with the cultural representation of the occupied territories is not included here, however, because its subject was the consolidation of foreign control and its arguments were embedded in the culture of the "mother country," in this case, France.
I will attempt to correlate nineteenth-century thought in the Middle East and North Africa with the architectural imagery of the universal expositions with reference to the writings of three leading intellectuals from three different regions: Ibrahim Sinasi (1826–1871) of Istanbul, Rifa 'a al-Tahtawi (1801–1873) of Cairo, and Khayr al-Din of Tunis (1820/30–1889). All had lived in Paris for extended periods, and each one had been exposed to French intellectual and political life, which became a key factor in the evolution of his thought.
The historian Albert Hourani argues that the Young Ottomans in the 1860s used Islamic ideas to explain and legitimize the modernization of Ottoman institutions along European models by emphasizing the high morality of Islam and by claiming that progress meant a "return to the true spirit of Islam."
Ibrahim Sinasi, the founder of this movement, was one of the champions of Westernization among the Ottoman intelligentsia. Reversing the Islamic concept of moving from faith to reason, he argued that the "soul . . . was chiefly guided by reason" and that religion was achieved through reason. But reason was not an end in itself for Sinasi; it was a means to civilization, which he described in religious terms. For example, he referred to Mustafa Resit Pasa, a leading reformer, as the "prophet of civilization" (medeniyet resulu ), his time as "the time of felicity" (asr-i saadet ), and his physical existence, his body, as a "miracle" (mucize ).
Civilization, the religion of the new age, also had its scripture—the book of laws in which its values, such as justice, rights, and ethics, were registered—and its promise of redemption: it would free mankind from oppression, slavery, and ignorance. Sinasi talked about a "new man," a man of the age of reason, characterized more by universal attributes than by national ones. Indeed, Sinasi's goal was a worldwide civilization whose nations would serve and enlighten humankind and therefore contribute to "progress." Ottoman society would form a bridge between Europe and Asia, where "Asia's wise (old) reason (Asya'nin akl-i piranesi ) would meet with "Europe's young ideas" (Avrupa'nin bikr-i fikri ).
The Ottoman intelligentsia derived their concept of a universal civilization centered in Europe (and, for many, in Paris) from the French social philosopher Saint-Simon and his followers. Many Ottoman displays in the world's fairs underlined the participation of Ottoman culture in world civilization: the universal qualities of Ottoman architecture were emphasized to show how these might be incorporated into the repertoire of a contemporary architecture; artistic and industrial products were often presented with a similar intent: to link the empire to the European community.
Al-Tahtawi, one of the most influential figures in the cultural reformation of Egypt under both Muhammad 'Ali and Isma'il Pasha (he was directly involved in educational reform and in the translation of major French texts into Arabic), focused at length on a cultural definition of Egypt within a broader framework of world civilizations and history. In an early work, Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Bariz (The refinement of gold—summary of Paris), published in 1834 by order of Muhammad 'Ali, al-Tahtawi divided humanity hierarchically into savages, barbarians, and the civilized. Like Europeans, many Muslims belonged to the
third group, defined as "the people of morality, refinement, sedentary life, life in towns and great cities." If Europeans in this group were more advanced in science and technology, Muslims had the shari'a (divine law), the source of wisdom and social order; by studying European achievements, Muslims would overcome their inequality. Thus Egypt would become more civilized as a result of frequent contact with Europe—a notion that Muhammad 'Ali and Isma'il Pasha fully accepted. Al-Tahtawi's concept of civilization was broad based, ranging from infrastructure (roads, modern ports, canals, railroads, etc.) to administrative and political institutions to education. Isma'il Pasha, satisfied with the progress registered in these areas, declared during his visit to Paris in 1867: "For thirty years, the European influence has transformed Egypt; now . . . we are civilized."
This rapprochement with Europe did not mean a loss of cultural identity, however. On the contrary, the notion of watan (fatherland, patrie ), as opposed to the concept of umma (the large body of believers), appeared in political and intellectual discourse around this time, contributing to the Egyptian struggle for autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. Curiously enough, Egypt's new rulers were dusting off Napoleon's goal of returning Egypt to civilization and endowing it with its own cultural identity by dissociating it from the Ottoman system. For al-Tahtawi, watan was a place with a glorious history, a place he was proud to be associated with. In his concern to create a distinct national history, al-Tahtawi became the first Egyptian historian to embrace Egyptian antiquity as a glorious part of the country's past, when Egypt was the "mother" of civilization.
Al-Tahtawi's first volume on the history of Egypt, Anwar Tawfiq al-jalil fi akhbar Misr wa tawthiq bani Isma'il (The radiance of the sublime Tawfiq in the history of Egypt and the descendants of Isma'il), published in 1865, dealt with the period from the ancient kingdoms to the Arab conquest, reflecting the work of Egyptologists—among them Jean-François Champollion and Auguste Mariette, the first considered the father of Egyptology, the latter a main actor in determining Egyptian representations in the universal expositions in 1867 and 1878.
Al-Tahtawi analyzed both the great achievements and serious setbacks of Egypt after the Arab conquest. For example, although the first caliphs brought a renewal of civilization, the Mamluk beys impeded Egypt's development with
their "pagan furor," their "racial and clanish solidarity," and their disregard of "progress and civilization"; their defeat by Muhammad 'Ali finally opened the era of progress. Nevertheless, Arab culture played a great role in the history of "civilization," and Islam would continue to define nineteenth-century Egypt, which would be simultaneously Egyptian, Muslim, and modern (hence civilized according to European norms). As we will see in chapters 3 and 4, this tripartite definition informed the architectural representation of Egypt in the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris, where one pavilion was devoted to Egyptian antiquity, another to the Arab past, and a third to the modern era—clad in an Islamic image.
The Tunisian statesman Khayr al-Din's proposals for progress followed European models yet were justified and explained by Islam and exemplify the widespread struggle between modernity and tradition among Muslim intelligentsia in the late nineteenth century. Khayr al-Din's important book, Aqwam al-masalik li-ma'rifat ahwal al-mamalik (The surest path to knowledge concerning the conditions of countries) was published in Arabic in 1867; only one year later a French translation (done under the supervision of the author) appeared in Paris. The book thus addressed two major audiences: Muslim political and religious leaders who opposed changes according to European models and European statesmen who considered Islam an obstacle to progress. As a statement about the present condition of Muslim countries that explained their history and speculated on their potential, the French edition played a role similar to that of the exposition pavilions abroad.
In the introduction to his English translation of The Surest Path, the historian Carl Brown condensed Khayr al-Din's argument into three points: Europe's progress was not linked to Christianity, and hence Islam was not a hindrance to advancement; the reforms Khayr al-Din proposed were in accordance with Islam; and institutions and ideas similar to those in nineteenth-century Europe could be seen in Islamic countries in other periods. The book itself describes European technology and inventions at length, focusing on the knowledge that could be easily grasped and applied; it omits descriptions of wonders or accounts of daily life in Europe.
It is in this context that Khayr al-Din discussed universal expositions as platforms where "whoever invented[ed] something new or concern[ed] himself with any kind of beneficial work" got public attention; such exposure formed
"one of the reasons for [European] progress." The organization of the expositions into buildings designated for similar sorts of industries and merchandise, the prizes and decorations, and, ultimately, the attendance of kings and other "men of state" at these events promoted industrial and technological development. Khayr al-Din believed that by understanding and applying European mechanisms for rewarding individual initiative, the lands of Islam could achieve progress.
Khayr al-Din argued that Muslim nations could both accommodate modernization and maintain their cultural identity. Although he did not dwell on cultural issues, he based his plan for Islamic societies on historical continuity. Unlike al-Tahtawi, Khayr al-Din did not envision national cultures and civilizations, nor did he subscribe to the notion of watan . On the contrary, his propositions were never specific to a locale, and his emphasis was always on umma, most likely because of his concern for the integrity of the Ottoman Empire against European expansion.
The first three chapters of this book cover the Islamic displays at world's fairs in Europe and America. Chapter 1 discusses the presence of Muslims at the expositions in the ethnographic displays of indigenous peoples, in the official visits of Muslim rulers, and in the visits of individuals. Chapter 2 examines the site plans of the expositions as diagrams of the prevailing power relations and focuses on the grouping of Islamic pavilions. Chapter 3 surveys the main pavilions of Islamic nations, analyzing their stylistic qualities in the broader context of the nineteenth-century search for cultural self-definition.
Chapters 4 and 5 trace the impact of the architecture of these Islamic pavilions. Chapter 4 looks at two Ottoman expositions in Istanbul and at the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, all influenced by Western expositions. Chapter 5 relates exposition architecture to Islamic architectural theory and practice and discusses the interpretations of Islamic architecture by leading Western architects. Finally, the Epilogue brings the themes of the book to the present day.