Saturday, September 24, 2016

How preserving cultural heritage sites can help to combat ignorance and fight biased politics

Did you know that one of the oldest sites of human settlement in the Americas, from 15,000 years ago, Cactus Hill, is in Virginia?

The world these days seems to be in a state of constant chaos, with pain and suffering everywhere we turn. Instead of coming together to ease the suffering of those in need, we seem to be more divided than ever.  A big part of the problem is the manipulation of people with half-truths or flat-out lies by the so-called leaders of their own countries. If there is a population of ignorant or even disenfranchised people, those who want to get elected or stay in power are ready with their divisive politics to "divide and conquer." People are fed biased, skewed narratives according to the ideology of those in or near power. While in America, the narrative of America is for Americans can be heard in half the political arenas across the country, half way across the world, in Turkey, politicians appropriating the Ottoman culture in accordance with their vision, are misleading an ignorant populace towards an imported religious ideology that wants to curtail women's rights and impose archaic bans on people's social lives. Although this type of Islam is not the culture of Anatolia, it is being sold as such to the uneducated, the gullible and the innocent believer. Looking at the disheartening political debates taking place all around us, some might ask "Is it possible to combat ignorance and racism?" I argue it is...  by preserving, sharing and respecting cultural heritage.

Abdulmecid Efendi, Last Capliph and 37th Head of the Ottoman Dynasty, Beethoven in the Harem
(Istanbul Resim ve Heykel Muzesi)
(Istanbul Museum of Art and Sculpture) 
In a world full of so many urgent problems, people sometimes have a hard time understanding the emphasis we put on privileging cultural heritage preservation. But the relevance and importance of cultural heritage can be observed all around us, in the daily newspapers, on social media, in what is happening around the world everyday.
I was inspired to write this post after reading numerous articles in the Turkish newspapers about a Symposium being organized at the Parliament, to honor the 34th Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II. Now, some might say, that is a Turkish issue... It has nothing to do with us... Why should we care about this? The specific case is such a great example of guiding the ignorant and the disenfranchised towards a certain ideology, that I think it is relevant to all of us around the world, no matter what religion, nationality or culture we may come from.

Label for Elif Raki produced without anise and referred to as "Plain Raki"
The current speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Ismail Kahraman, during his announcement about the Symposium organized for the occasion of Sultan Abdulhamid II's birthday, is reported as saying:
Unfortunately, history and cultural heritage is not known, especially the youth do not know it, they have been deliberately made to forget, we have a debt to our Sultan Abdulhamid.
To the outsider, this may seem an innocuous statement, but anyone who is familiar with Turkish politics will know the real meaning behind the statement. Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909) is a controversial figure in Turkish politics, being revered as Abdulhamid Han, due to his pan-Islamic ideologies for the Ottoman empire by the conservative Islamists in power today, and remembered for his one-man, autocratic rule, severe paranoia, extensive network of spies who reported and persecuted many innocents by everyone else. This, of course is not the correct way of examining a historical figure but it summarizes the two points of view and strengthens my argument towards the importance of cultural heritage.

Label for "Üzüm Kizi" Raki, produced in Istanbul, 1880s
by the Head Chamberlain of Sultan Abdulhamid II, Ragip Pasha

While the current ruling party, AKP is busy with the apotheosis of Abdulhamid II, they are concurrently trying to smirch the reputation and erase the memory of Ataturk, the founding father of modern, secular Turkey. Although Ataturk's habit of imbibing and entertaining regularly, where issues regarding the new Republic were discussed, are known by all and do not cast a flicker of a shadow on his character or deeds, AKP has been focusing on this as the evidence of the corruption of the foundation of the Republic. They have been calling him a drunk to insult not only Ataturk but everything that he represents. The sweet irony in all this is, that the first raki, beer and champagne production started in the Ottoman empire with the seal and approval of Abdulhamid know the "orthodox" Sultan as opposed to the "drunk" general who had dinner parties every night. It was the Head Chamberlain and one of the ministers of finance in Abdulhamid's court, Ragip Pasha, who opened the first raki production facility in the Ottoman empire. According to his grandson, Abdulhamid was known to prefer rum since it was made from sugar and not specifically prohibited in the Q'uran. Hypocrite or not, this only shows that the Ottoman Sultan was just like any other powerful man of his time... drinking, dancing, watching the performance of European opera companies and even frolicking with cabaret dancers... While one cannot help but be amused by the irony, none of these facts change Abdulhamid's deeds, the good along with the evil; however this post is not about Abdulhamid, but combating ignorance and manipulation of those who deify him, through the preservation of cultural heritage.

Bomonti Brewery, opened 1888-1890, Istanbul

So, what does cultural heritage have to do with this, some might ask. It has everything to do with it.

Those who blindly believe in the rhetoric of populist politicians may disbelieve the facts that are presented to them as newspaper articles or scholarly papers but as they say, seeing is believing. The beauty and significance of material culture is that they stand before us as irrefutable facts. We had such a great opportunity with the Bomonti Brewery in Istanbul, the first modern brewery that opened in 1890 and continued to be in production until 1991. The site was recently renovated as an art, culture and entertainment space. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit it but from the promotion material and the media write ups I have read, it looks to be a carefully planned out space with everything in one complex, from restaurants, exhibition spaces and a bookstore to even a jazz club that utilized the historic texture, merely, as an ornamental backdrop. In light of these latest events, I can't help but ruminate why they could not have preserved it as the very important industrial heritage site that it was.

Aluyulala Hususi Raki Label
The Bomonti Brewery could have been the perfect space to set up a museum on the social life of 19th century Istanbul, highlighting minority narratives, providing information about the neighborhoods and the people who lived in the area. It could have been a space to highlight Industrialization in 19th century Istanbul. It could have been many things but instead of preserving the Industrial Heritage and utilizing it as a space for the dissemination of knowledge about our common past as the descendants of the Ottomans, it was handed over to developers for a venue that will probably be accessible only by the rich, secular, "marginal" (as the President often refers to them) and the few.

Bomonti Beer Gardens
The above example can be adapted to any country with leaders using racist narratives to rally support for their outdated, 19th century political ideologies. We should not judge historical events or figures anachronistically but we should learn from and improve upon them.  By being aware of and understanding the past, we can protect ourselves from fallacy of politicians and engender a better future. That, is why we need to prioritize the preservation of cultural heritage in all of its forms.

1 comment:

  1. Λουζικον Ελιφ, even some Greek letters, interesting!


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