Introduction: What does being an Empire Mean?

In the late nineteenth century being a modern empire meant demonstrating your power not only through your political and material possessions but also through cultural and social representations so that it could be acknowledged and legitimized by other world powers. Being an empire meant many different things to different people throughout the centuries, but starting with the eighteenth century the meaning and legitimacy of this concept had started to be confronted and even condemned, similar to the discussions of imperialism in the late twentieth century. An example of this can be found in Dominic Lieven’s book that examines the development of the word ‘empire’ and the values and judgements it conjures in everyday life. He focuses his work on the Tsarist and Soviet empires of Russia and compares it with other imperial states from ancient China and Rome to the present-day United States. He argues that how you use this concept should be based on the associations it brings to mind culturally, politically, and ideologically.1 Likewise, when examining the context in which the term ‘empire’ (or its absence) is used to define the Ottoman government, we can acknowledge the different values and judgments that this government brought to bear in both official and public discourse.

The print media and other popular forms of communication should also be considered when examining how empires were represented both within their territories as well as abroad. With the popularization of and advancements in print media beyond Europe and increase in public readership of newspapers and books (especially with the rising rate of literacy) the self-perception of empires in comparison with other governments gained significance. International expositions and fairs further provided venues for governments to represent themselves and gain international recognition for either political or economic gain.2 However, mass media had also spread political and religious ideologies and movements such as nationalism, capitalism, and imperialism beyond the national borders where they were born.3 This greatly impacted multi-ethnic and national empires, especially those who had lost political and military power, such as the Ottoman Empire, as their territorial unity was threatened by the spread of liberal and democratic ideas that were gaining support among their ethnic minorities. Furthermore, the three imperial powers England, France, and Russia were instigating these ideologies among the Christian religious minorities of the Ottoman Empire (e.g. the Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, etc.) whose economic, legal, and religious rights they supported and advanced through diplomatic treaties they won against the Ottoman Empire.4

Anthony Pagden notes when examining Napoleon’s success in the early nineteenth century that the ‘civilizing mission’ of the European powers had become an integral part of European culture. ‘It had, after all, been the one aspect of the Roman world that the modern imperialist could adopt with pride’.5 Pagden mentions in his book that empires in the nineteenth century had universalistic goals; they had taken it upon themselves to civilize the rest of the world and liberate these newly discovered lands from their despotic rulers. Both France and Britain (and later the United States) had used universalism as an ideology to justify their territorial advancements in the new world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A.P. Thornton in his analysis of the doctrines of imperialism also indicates a change in the understanding of modern empires with the principles brought forth by the American and French revolutions. Now empires took on a moral obligation to defend the rights of individuals and minorities in the lands they conquered ‘to seek justification both for the presence and the use of their imperial mastery.’6 Thornton deconstructs the idea that the twentieth century is less imperialist than the subsequent age before it; what makes imperialism different today is our ability to publically scrutinize its impact on the welfare of the people. He believes that we can better understand imperialism, and the failure or successes of former empires, by understanding the principles which have upheld them, such as the doctrine of power, profit, and civilization.

Fredrick Cooper similarly examines the tensions that existed between multi-ethnic empires and modern nation states in his book Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. He states,

We need to take seriously what it meant for a polity to think like an empire, to conjure incorporation and differentiation, to confront problems of long-distance extension and recognize limits of control over large and diverse populations. Thinking like an empire was not the same as thinking like a nation-state, and while territorial and cultural conceptions of ‘the nation’ were in some situations more powerful than in others -and at times it had devastating effects- the imperatives of acting like an empire-state within a system of empire-states was a compelling constraint on the range of action.7

Cooper here delineates that empires had to balance tensions of incorporation (the empire’s claims that its subjects belonged within the empire) and differentiation (the empire’s claim that different subjects should be governed differently) and acknowledge that ‘they constituted a system in which any serious competitor for geopolitical influence had to think and act like an empire.’8 Cooper makes an interesting point here that Britain, Spain, and France despite welcoming democracies had nevertheless never stopped acting like old empires in their differential treatment of the people in their colonial states, an example of this being the statuses of ‘citizen’ and ‘subject’ in different parts of Greater France.9 He further points out how nationalism was only one of the oppositional movements that were directed against empires in this period and that there was a range of alternative political forms and imaginations available in different situations in history.10

The Ottoman Empire also had to balance incorporation and differentiation when governing its people, with some variations from other Western empires. The Ottoman state had given relative autonomy to its multi-ethnic polity through its recognition of a millet system where different religious and ethnic groups were recognized as collectivities within an empire. Despite the equal treatment of non-Muslim minorities in the Ottoman legal system, especially with the 1856 Tanzimat reforms, Muslims had regarded Christians and Jews as ‘inherently different from and inferior to Muslims’ as they were ‘ “the People of the book” (dhimmi), who received God’s revelation before Muhammad and therefore obtained only an incomplete message.’11 In many ways the religious and ethnic minorities of the Empire had also considered the Muslim Turks as ‘other’, either as barbarians and infidels or as good neighbours. Starting with the late nineteenth century, especially during Abdulhamid II’s reign, Islamism had become a central ideology that came closer to differentiation rather than incorporation of the empire’s diverse populations. It is important to note that prior to the nationalist movement that initiated the formation of the Turkish Republic, the peoples of the Ottoman Empire enjoyed multiple ethnic and religious identities along with maintaining a symbolic identification with an imperial culture and dynasty.12

In this article, I examine how three predominant socio-cultural themes – Ottomanism, Islamism, and Turkism- existed and sometimes challenged each other in the popular literature and media that covered the preparation and events at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. My analysis includes primary sources on the fair from primarily American popular sources found in newspapers and periodicals published from the years that encompass 1891 to 1894 as well as more contemporary critical theories on cultural representation and orientalism in the Ottoman and American cultural contexts. It is important to note that the multiple cultural and religious representations of the Ottoman Empire at the World’s Fair had challenged the traditionally accepted colonial and oriental discourses of the Middle East that dominated the exhibits at the Fair. At the same time, the Ottoman officials that had attended the fair could not avoid using the very same Orientalist discourses to make Ottoman culture more palatable to the Western markets and to counter the already present negative propaganda propagated by the Western nations.

The Chicago World’s Fair: the West’s Encounter with the East

The Chicago World’s Fair, like other international expositions before it (France’s Exposition Universelle in 1889 and 1867; the Vienna International Fair in 1873; and London’s Great Exposition of the Works of Art and Industry in 1851), was a popular site for cultural and commercial exchange among nations in the nineteenth century. It also was an opportunity for various world empires to showcase and demonstrate their imperial power, through the display of artefacts and people acquired from their colonies. By displaying the colonized aboriginals in dehumanizing conditions, with a lack of clothes (or no clothes at all) and in rural/natural settings like ethnic villages or human zoos, these nations enabled the consumption of imperialism by the general public.13 Jill Jones in her book Eiffel’s Tower points out how the French with their Exposition Universelle wanted to present ‘two faces to the world: one as educator, benefactor, and distributor of light and bread; the other as champion of France’s imperial mission purveying the same benefits abroad through the division of Africa and the conquest of Indochina.’14

Similarly, the United States, as a rising industrial and military power and an independent Republic, also wanted to prove its economic, intellectual, and political power to Europe at its own Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. We can see American imperialism at the World’s Fair’s ordering of world civilizations in terms of their racial, scientific, industrial, and artistic development. The White City15 with its colossal Greek style architectural buildings, and the richly designed official buildings of the participating nations, were separated from the amusements and sideshows of the Orientals at the Midway Plaisance. Here American or European concessionaires constructed ethnic or native villages that contained primitive and exotic representations of nations that foreigners were curious about. Some of these ethnic villages had also recreated national landmarks and foreign streets, like the Moorish Palace, the Chinese Opera House, Old Vienna, and the Street of Old Cairo.16 One of the most popular villages was the Street of Cairo where Americans could experience riding a camel (Figure 1). These ethnic and native villages were, in a way, microcosms of the world, with the country who held it, representing the macrocosm; that is holding the power to possess all of it. Raymond Corbey, in his comparative study of the ethnographic showcases in the era of colonialism rightly points out how the bourgeoisie celebrated progress, the attainment of world power, and the creation of Western middle-class culture in the world fairs’ contrast of the modern and civil world with the traditional and primitive colonial natives.17

Figure 1 

Cairo Street at the Chicago World’s Fair (Picture from The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views from the World’s Columbian Exposition. Vol. 1 (Chicago, 1893). Cited in UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982–2004, accessed December 13, 2013).

What we encounter in these international exhibitions held in Western nations is what Timothy Mitchell calls ‘The World as Exhibition’ that was arranged to offer the visitors the experience of an ‘object world’ (a world that was displayed as an object to be viewed, investigated, and experienced). These exhibits were contradictory, as the experience of the world was not simply divided into ‘the representation and the original, the exhibit and the external reality, the text and the world’ as the colonial intellectuals hoped to see, but rather it also was ‘a series of further representations, an extended exhibition.’18 Visitors from Europe who travelled to the East had either found the real life there impossible to represent (due to a lack of organization that they were familiar with), or as a reiteration of an earlier description or picture one had in his or her mind.

In his book Colonizing Egypt Mitchell aims to understand the ‘modern experience of meaning as a process of representation’ and the power and limits of such a binary ontological understanding of the world as seen in the nineteenth-century world exhibitions.19 The author problematizes the orientalising efforts of exhibitions and other forms of cultural representation of the colonizing western world through the accounts of Egyptian and other Arab travellers who had visited world exhibitions in nineteenth-century Europe as well as through the European travellers’ accounts of Egypt. Not only were these native visitors from the Orient objectified in these exhibitions, but they also became aware of other forms of objective representations and structuring present in the cities these exhibitions were held in (museums, theatres, parks, zoos, schools and department stores). Disciplinary methods of power -whether they were derived from an exterior power that was above and outside society or an internal local power that was more productive than restrictive- both were present in the organizational structures of the colonial state.

Furthermore, the late nineteenth-century Orientalism20 allowed the U.S. to come to terms with its own internal colonialism; it was a tool to distinguish the dominant culture (white, middle class, ethnically European) from its minority cultures (the frontier hero, blacks, immigrants, religiously orthodox, etc.). That is why Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, depicting shooting acts between cowboys and Indians, a very popular act among the general public (as well as abroad, in the 1889 French Exposition), was not permitted to perform on the fair grounds. The major reason for this was that ‘the Orient was constructed not as potentially like America but rather as demonstrably and thankfully different…this Orient was belittled and demeaned by anthropologists, fair organizers, and ultimately, the American public.’21 Holly Edwards explains that in the United States era of transformation,

the Orient was a useful construct that enabled people both to revisit the past and to envision the future. It allowed people to declare their convictions and affirm their values. It also offered opportunities to imagine, vicariously experience, and ultimately incorporate new options into their lives. Thus, the Orient was both a tool for self-scrutiny and a foil for social change.22

In the nineteenth century, the Americans were primary interested in the Middle East both literally and politically for its ‘Holy Land’ (Palestine) and most people had distinguished it from the other Oriental nations, such as China and Japan. This region ‘was understood as inferior and backward, but also as old, exotic, and connected to the West through Jewish and Christian history.’23 The Orient, according to the Americans, was ‘a traditional and monolithic culture in an unadulterated natural setting…it was a distant screen upon which the Protestant narrative could be re-enacted, American values could be projected, and nostalgia could be expressed.’24 We can vividly see this in this picture of Cairo Street at the World’s Fair where fairgoers could ride camels and thereby experience the Middle East. This strategic choice of the fair organizers and commissioners to include animals (and even human carriage carriers) in the Fair to showcase the transportation devices used in Egypt and in the other parts of the Middle East had greatly contributed to the separation of the Western world from the Eastern one.

There were many facets of American Orientalism at the Chicago World’s Fair, aimed to consolidate and reaffirm American power over other countries that had participated in the fair. The American architectural, industrial, and cultural grandeur, that we see in the examples of the world’s largest Ferris Wheel in the Midway, the steamed engine trains, and inventions such as the camera and electric light bulb, were visually and ideologically juxtaposed with the Orient’s archaic, simple, and uncivil displays of people and lifestyles. For example, we see this when the Orient is represented as a rural scene with a tent and camel or when it is sexualized in harem pictures displayed at the fair’s numerous galleries or in the sideshows of belly dancers.25

Curtis Hinsley in his article ‘The World as Marketplace: Co-modification of the Exotic at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893’ reveals, ‘It seems clear that the central problem of the exposition as a psychological construction of white Americans was to determine distances and relative placement between peoples, physically and ideologically. Where the gaze can be returned, specular commerce becomes uneasy.’26 What Hinsley is pointing out is very true in the modern (as well as postmodern) era, where power is physically and ideologically seen; it is visually made distinct in relation to the cultural ‘others’ that are lacking power (either because of being from a different race, religion, class, or lifestyle). The privilege to see the other (by having sufficient funds to attend the fair and purchase a ticket) puts the Western fairgoers in a place of power, so long as those who are gazed upon do not return the gaze (both literally and metaphorically).27

Ellen Strain pointing to Christian Metz’s cinematic gaze also explains how spectators internalize their extended visual powers ‘with the advent of aerial photography, microscope technologies, and X-ray devices.’28 These scientific technologies of the modern age made it possible to copy objects, and this led to the commodification and replacement of the real with their mediation. And this was certainly true at the world fairs when representations of the Middle East in postcards, souvenirs, as well as the artificial display of camels, tents, mosques and fountains were seen as more real and desired than the actual experience of the place itself. Looking upon the ‘other’, even if this was but a representation, was a way for the Western world to maintain their physical, psychological, and ideological separation from the East; and this was made possible by displaying the other as a spectacle.29

Another argument that connects the spectacle in relations of power is found in Walter Benjamin’s detailed description of the flȃneur, a nineteenth-century Parisian shopper in the arcades. The flȃneur is someone who has the material means and the time to stroll in the arcades without necessarily buying anything, but who finds pleasure in the mere act of observing objects and people there. By examining the flȃneur Benjamin was criticizing the Western capitalist societies’ obsession with and desire to possess material objects, especially from the Orient. Hinsley makes an insightful connection between the flȃneur and the nineteenth-century fairgoer who saw the ethnic villages in the Midway, and the people and objects in them, as texts for his own pleasure. For the flȃneurthe effect is linear parity, as a successive image-experiences move like a film past the stroller. The observer does not stop to learn; rather, he or she strolls, window-shopping in the department store of exotic cultures.’30 The term flȃneur would very well describe the attitudes of American fairgoers, who possessed power over the Orient on display, by the very act of gazing upon the colonized who were exhibited in artificial settings dancing, playing instruments, or practicing their customs and ways of life. Their placement next to, or even alongside, animal zoos shows the hierarchy of human civilizations organized on the basis of racial or ethnic differences.

Likewise, naming a nation and its people as a multi-ethnic empire, an oriental/Islamic nation, or a nation-state derived by one unified ethnicity or culture, e.g. the Turkish nation, also may have served to more easily categorize, so as to economically and politically control, the weaker nations in the East. As Mitchell indicates, proclamations of the British Empire as an Oriental Empire during the opening session of the Orientalist Congress in 1894 was yet another spectacle of the ‘world as exhibition’, demonstrated not only by the certainty of this representation, but also by the objective forms that these imperial truths and cultural differences took.31

Representing the Ottoman Empire as ‘Turkey’ at the World’s Fair

Turkish identity and national consciousness was not formed until much later, in the 1890’s, and only popularized among the general public after the Young Turk revolution, Ittihat ve Terraki Hareketi, in 1908.32 In fact, Muslim Turks had identified with their regional identities, where they were from (e.g. Konyali, Istanbullu, etc.), rather than with a unified national identity. The term ‘Osmanli’, which later took on national meaning, was exclusively used to refer to the sultan’s ruling elite,33 and the use of the term ‘Turk’ had derogatory connotations. As a British traveller had pointed out in 1897:

At the present day the name ‘Turk’ is rarely used and I have heard it employed only in two ways, either as a distinguishing term of race (for example, you ask whether a village is a ‘Turk’ or ‘Turkmen’) and as a term of contempt (for example, you mutter ‘Turk Kafa’ where in English you would say ‘blockhead’)34

Identification with the name ‘Turk’ had negative connotations, at least among the elite during the 1890s. It should also be noted that one ethnic group, the Turks, did not exclusively populate the Ottoman Empire. Despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire had lost many of its lands in the Balkans and Europe after the Russian War, with the Berlin Agreement in 1878, it still possessed Macedonia, parts of Bulgaria and Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina (ruled temporarily by Austria), Albania, and Crete in Europe; and Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya in the Middle East. It had recently lost Egypt to the English (1882) and Tunisia to the French (1881) and Cyprus had been given to the protector ship of the English (1878). In addition, many Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Jewish, and Assyrian communities were living in Anatolia. All of these diverse cultural elements had made up the Ottoman identity.

As Bernard Lewis rightly points out, ‘Ottoman Turks had identified themselves with Islam…to a greater extent than perhaps any other Islamic people’; and in the West ‘Turk’ had come to be a synonym for Muslim, even to an extent that converts to Islam were said to have ‘turned Turk.’35 And David Kushner defining the use of the term ‘Ottoman’ explains that it ‘had long been in use by Europeans as a synonym for “Turk” and as such never comprised all inhabitants of the Empire, but rather the dominant Muslims, and especially, the Ottoman Turks.36 Thus, both the words ‘Turk’ and ‘Ottoman’ were used interchangeably by the West to refer to Muslims in general, rather than to define an ethnicity or race. At the same time, the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire also preferred to be identified as Muslims, rather than with an ethnicity or race, especially since the sultan, through the Caliphate, was also the leader of the Muslim world.

The above statements demonstrate the challenges of defining a unified Ottoman national identity from the various multi-ethnic and religious communities that wanted to retain their autonomy. Erik-Jan Zürcher describes three competing ideologies during this time: ‘Ottomanism, the old Young Ottoman ideal of a union of the different communities around the Ottoman throne; (Pan)Islamism, which sought to regenerate the empire on the basis of Islamic practices and of solidarity within the Islamic Ummet (Community); and (Pan)Turkism, which sought the union of the Turkic peoples under the Ottoman flag.’37 Ottomanism was a reformist movement that was advocated with the Tanzimat reforms and was adopted together with Islamism by Abdulhamid. As Karpat puts it,

The Tanzimat Ottomanists had tied to transform the state from a small, narrowly based, and segregated administrative apparatus into a broad political association based on a new popular foundation. Sultan Abdulhamid broadened and infused the Ottomanism he inherited from the Tanzimatists with the cultural and psychological ingredients of Islamism.38

As we can see here these ideologies were not mutually exclusive. Many Tanzimat reformers while rationally supporting the idea of Ottomanism were at the same time emotionally attached to a romantic Pan-Turkish nationalism (although this appeared later) and were also devout Muslims.39 According to Karpat, Islamism had helped integrate the local religious communities into a larger political unit, the Ottoman proto-nation, however, these political movements had to compete with local, ethnic, and other sub-identities.40

Findley also articulates Tanzimat officials’ efforts to create an Ottoman solidarity by redefining the meaning of political concepts such as vatan, millet, and Ottomanism. Vatan, originally used in a localized sense, was now readapted to mean ‘fatherland’ and defending the fatherland regardless of your religious or ethnic belonging. Similarly, millet, which initially was used to define religious communities, more and more came to be associated with the French nation and ‘nationality’, while Ottomanism, once used only to refer to the ruling elite, now came to be identified as ‘vantandas’ (which meant citizenship).41 Through various educational and legal reforms during the Tanzimat period, the initiation, although short lived, of the first parliament and constitution, Kanun-i Esasi, on March 19, 1877 was one of them, the Ottoman government had sought to modernize and westernize its legal and political system in parallel with its multicultural and religious makeup.42 It had also initiated the seeds of liberalism and introduced a parliamentary system that would be put into effect in the Second Constitution in 1908, with the Young Turk revolution. In addition, the new liberal reforms that the sultan implemented granted equal rights to Christian subjects, which led them to exploit the administrative and governmental positions in the Empire.43

As Karpat points out, ‘Islamism was designed to prevent the Arabs from breaking away, and it invoked the threat of cihad to prevent further interference in Ottoman domestic affairs on the pretext of protecting the “rights” of the other groups.’44 Karpat argues that the Ottoman Empire was not a national state. Rather it was a multinational state where various ethnic and religious and social groups co-existed. However, it was threatened by the ‘ideas of nationalism and liberalism based on ethnicity, class differentiation and economic motivation as developed by the French Revolution and the Russians’ sense of nationality based on religion successfully borrowed by the Christian intelligentsia.’45 Both Karpat and Findley emphasize how the various dynastic and religious rituals, such as the implementation of a coat of arms, military marches, medals, and tribal schools were used as a means to unify the nation from possible treats from the outside.

So, it is surprising to come across an identification of the Ottoman Empire with a Turkish state rather than an Ottoman one at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. While association with Islam is expected, the United States officials and the mass media had also represented the Ottoman Empire as a Turkish state, thereby disregarding her multi-religious and multi-ethnic makeup. In the Special Reports upon Special Subjects or Groups, published by the Committee on Awards of the World’s Columbian Commission, the Ottoman Empire is referred to as ‘Turkey.’ This government document describes the contributions of the Ottoman Empire at the Fair:

Turkey reproduced the fountain of the Sultan Ahmed III in a pavilion whose widespreading flat roof, with carved eaves, overhung walls encased with square panels of dark wood, sculptured curiously, and inlaid with devices of ivory, and mother-of-pearl. The door, exquisitely fretted with open arabesques and with texts from the Koran, stood wide to welcome the infidel hosts of America.46

Here we can see that the award committee saw the Ottoman Empire as a Turkish and Muslim state and found Ottoman architecture to be unique compared to the architecture known to the Western and Christian world. The author was aware that Americans (and Christians in general) would be considered as ‘infidels’ in the eyes of the Ottomans who were Muslim, yet, they also acknowledged that the Ottomans were welcoming foreigners who were curious to enter the pavilion.

A section of the report indicated how the selected representatives promoted the World’s Fair to their nations. Again, the Ottoman Empire is referred to as ‘Turkey’, and the author includes a quote from Z.T. Sweeney, ‘formerly United States consul-general to Turkey and Honorary Imperial Ottoman Commissioner to the Chicago Exposition.’47 Here the word ‘Turkey’ and ‘Ottoman’ are used in the same sentence. The reason for this could be that the American officials preferred to use the word ‘Turkey’ when referring to the Ottoman Empire as a government or nation state; on the other hand, the Ottoman government officials preferred to be addressed as ‘Ottoman’ (Osmanli). This report also reveals that the Ottoman sultan sent a former United States consul general to Turkey to represent himself, however, there is no mention whether Ottoman Turks were present at the Fair.

In the weekly newsletter of the World’s Fair, Campbell’s Illustrated Weekly, published approximately two months before the opening of the Exposition, the authors listed the various departments that were established at the exposition and the countries that planned to participate in them. The newsletter also documented the Ottoman Empire’s official acceptance of the invitation from the United States government and explained how the empire had planned to take part in a majority of the departments at the exposition; Ottoman representatives had even reserved a site at the exposition.48 Despite the multiple use of the terms, ‘Ottoman Empire’ and ‘Ottoman’ in this weekly, the authors used the subtitle ‘Turkey at the Fair.’ The authors ranked the Ottoman Empire among the powers of Europe at the World’s Fair, and trusted that her exhibits would be praised for their quality rather than quantity. The ‘Turkish Building’ in the Foreign Building’s department was also praised for its uniqueness, and the interior wood designing and carving were perceived as ‘masterpieces of art.’49 This was one of the few sources that referred to the Ottoman Empire with its official name, but it was done interchangeably with ‘Turkey.’ This weekly also did not dismiss the imperial power of the Ottoman Empire by detailing the medals and rankings of the two Ottoman commissioners who had been appointed to represent the Ottoman Empire at the Fair, Ibrahim Hakki and Ahmed Fahri Bey.50

In addition to the political motives for labelling the Ottoman Empire as ‘Turkey’, there were also economic reasons behind this labelling. In Shepp’s World’s Fair Photographs products from, or known to have been from the Ottoman Empire, were mentioned as being ‘Turkish’, or from ‘Turkey.’ Some of the Turkish products that were listed in this book are: Turkish rugs, the Turkish Building (noted for its exceptional wood carved exterior panels), Turkish towels (found in Philadelphia’s exhibit of cotton wares), Turkish tobacco (sold in the Egyptian exhibit).51 In this case, the label ‘Turkish’ could have served as a promotional tool to indicate good quality for certain commercial products. The authors of this book also referred to the Ottoman Empire as ‘Turkey’ and mentioned how it was a ‘semi-oriental nation’, perhaps due to its possession of European lands. They were surprised that Turkey participated at the fair, as Turkey at this time was known as the ‘sick man of Europe’, yet they also expressed that Turkey had not shown any evidence of its weakness at the fair.52 Oleg Graber also pointed out the use of the label ‘Turkey’, ‘Orient’, or ‘Middle East’ to promote and sell products at the Fair. Both American as well as Ottoman commissioners had intentionally, or not, used ‘Turkey’ and ‘Orient’, e.g. ‘Turkish Building’, ‘Turkish Theatre’, ‘Turkish cigarettes’, and ‘Turkish drinks’ etc. to attract fairgoers to their concessions at the Fair.53

Representing Islam as an Ottoman Identity at the World’s Fair

The Ottoman Empire was also seen as an Islamic state in a column titled ‘Mohammedan Mosque at the Fair’ in Campbell’s Illustrated Weekly. The weekly describes the Ottoman sultan’s proposal to build a mosque at the Fair so that Muslims (referred to as Mohamedians in the article) could pray freely ‘without molestation’, no matter where they came from. The sultan had made sure that his commissioner oversaw the construction of the mosque that would be in Midway Plaisance in connection to the Turkish exhibit.54 Here we see the Ottoman sultan’s concern over the representation of Islam and Muslims as evident from his Islamic policies discussed earlier.

In a New York Times article dated November 24, 1892 the Ottoman Empire is once again represented as a Muslim state and her subjects are referred to as sons of Mohammed. The article gave a detailed description of a religious ceremony, which the ‘Turkish government’ had put on to celebrate the construction of the Turkish Pavilion at the World’s Fair approximately five months before the start of the fair.55

And a most unique ceremony it was. The most solemn rites of the Moslem faith were performed by the Turks. A snow-white lamb, perfect and without blemish, the pick of a flock of 5000 was led to the sacrifice. Referentially stood the sad-eyed sons of Mohammed, with arms in praying position and eyes turned skyward. Thus they stood, all save one, and in his hand gleamed a keen-edged cimiter.56

The author later described in detail how the Turks sacrificed this snow-white lamb. Such a detailed description of this Islamic ritual points to the fact that this practice was very foreign to journalists in the United States, let alone to the American people in general. Never before was a lamb sacrificed in front of a general public within the United States.

The New York Times article then explained in detail that with this opening ceremony, the Ottoman sultan, had ‘formally announced himself a patron of the World’s Fair, and his faithful citizens pledged allegiance to him in this distant land with shouts of “Vive le Sultan! Vive le President!” ’57 This in a way indicated the sultan’s wish to command his citizens and reinstate his power even abroad; and his citizens were showing that they were still subject to him and not to the United States government. Here the Ottoman sultan is seen as both a political leader of the Ottoman state and as a religious leader of the recognized Muslim world. Here we can see both Ottomanism and Islamism being represented at the fair.

Hubert Howe Bancroft’s The Book of the Fair also associated the Ottoman Empire with Islam and the Muslim world. The author in this book described the Turkish village and the mosque that was erected within it at the Midway Plaisance. This mosque had a sixty-foot high gilded dome and a slender minaret rising to an equivalent height. The mosque ‘was erected by a special permission of the Ottoman government and dedicated with much pomp and ceremony, as well it might be; for this was the first time that a Mohammedan temple had been consecrated outside the limits of the Mohammedan world.’58 Here the mosque is called as a ‘Mohammedan temple’ and the Muslims are referred to as ‘Mohammedians.’ The author also included a picture of the mosque in the book.59 In Figure 2 we see the interior of the mosque; it has a high ceiling held by multiple columns and many chandeliers hanging from its walls. There are only five men in the picture who are kneeling on carpets and facing the centre of the room. From this picture we may infer that there were a few Muslims who were actually present at the fair; thus rather than being a prayer area, this mosque was most likely built to attract American fairgoers as a cultural or religious curiosity. However, Bancroft, as well as a couple of sources, did mention that an imam from the Ottoman Empire was sent to perform daily prayers at the Fair. In fact, the imam had conducted prayers during the opening ceremony.60 Here again we see that the Ottoman Empire cared greatly and had emphasized a correct representation of Islam despite the difficulties of overseeing its representation by other countries and exhibits at the fair.

Figure 2 

Inside the Turkish mosque at the Turkish Village, Chicago World’s Fair (From: Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World’s Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 (Chicago & San Francisco, 1893), accessed April 10, 2014.

Selim Deringil in his book The Well Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876–1909 dedicated a chapter on the Ottoman Empire’s participation in international events as a way to legitimize its power as a civilized and modern empire, but also to repel any slight or insult to its prestige. The Ottoman Empire had foreseen every aspect of the fair’s preparation from where its buildings were constructed in the fair site to their provisions that proper Muslim etiquette be observed during the fair. For example, certain conditions were laid out for the performances at the Turkish Theatre: ‘no plays injurious to the honour and modesty of Muslim women or damaging to national honour and prestige are to be performed in close proximity to a mosque.’ Deringil argues that the Ottoman Empire’s attempts at being ‘modern’ or even ‘normal’ had clashed with the West’s quest for the ‘unchanging Orient.’ The sultan had commissioned his own photographic albums to be displayed at the fair, to prevent any vulgar and demeaning representation of his people.61

However, not all representations were authentic. Bancroft detailed a ceremony that was held for the opening of the mosque. The ceremony was accompanied by a long procession of 3000 people, which was headed by a military band that was made up of ‘native musicians’62 wearing ‘gorgeous uniforms’ and carrying a crimson banner (most probably the Ottoman coat of arms). The author indicated that the participants of this procession ‘were of Caucasian race’ and they wore scarlet fezzes embroidered with the crescent. He mentioned that the majority of the participants at this ceremony ‘were popularly known as Shriners, and officially as the “Ancient Arabic order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine”, an organization which, according to the author had flourished in Turkey many years before it gained a foothold in the United States, the majority of those who took part in the exercises being members of the Medina temple in Chicago.’63 The author, purposefully or not, had misrepresented the Ottoman people here, as this organization was actually a branch of freemasons that was founded in the 1870s by two Americans who used rituals, emblems, and costumes from the Middle East to entertain their members.64 By 1888, there were 7210 members in forty-eight temples in the United States and Canada.65 Rather than being Muslims, Turks, or even Arabs, these men were European Americans pretending to be Turks. By attending the opening ceremony they probably wanted to gain some publicity for their fraternal organization. Or, perhaps, due to a lack of actual Ottomans or Muslims at the fair, the commissioner of the Turkish Village could also have requested their presence. Interestingly, most authors who had covered the fair wrongfully represented the participants at the Turkish Village as Turks, while a majority were non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire: Assyrian, Egyptian, Armenian, and Jewish, who had more commercial connections with the Western world. This demonstrates that fair organizers and officials at times resorted to orientalist discourse as they had found it to be more entertaining and this superseded the correct representation of Islam.

Representing the Multi-Ethnic and Religious Identities of the Ottoman Empire

Both the participants at the fair from the Ottoman Empire as well the attractions, structures, and objects from the Ottoman Empire pointed to the multi-ethnic and cultural makeup of the Ottoman Empire. A New York Times article, dated January 7, 1893 mentioned that a Syrian company known as Peter Antonius & Co. had begun to work on the Turkish theatre on the World’s Fair grounds. The theatre, which was going to look like the Orient, was going to be constructed in the Turkish village; and would cost $10,000 to $25,000.66 In fact, a majority of the people who had worked at the fair, as construction workers, commissioners, concessionaires, or performers were ethnic and religious minorities of the Ottoman Empire. Robert Levy’s name is mentioned in many of these sources as the concessionaire of the Turkish Village. He was a Jewish businessman from Constantinople (now Istanbul).67

In the Joint Committee on Ceremonies of the World’s Columbian Commission and the World’s Columbian Exposition, the report described a dinner that was hosted to initiate the World’s Exposition a year prior to its opening. Mavroyeni Bey, a state diplomat from the Ottoman Empire had attended the dinner as a representative from the Ottoman Empire. It should be noted, however, that Mavroyeni is in actuality an Armenian name and not Turkish. This report also included a directory of the foreign commissioners that would be representing the foreign nations at the fair. Here, we see the names that were sent from the Ottoman Empire: Mr Hohannes J. Pushman, Mr Z.J. Sweeny, and Mr F.D. Thompson. None of these are Turkish names; rather they seem to be English names.68 On the other hand, the two commissioners who were appointed to the World’s Fair by the sultan were Ottoman Turks: Hakki Bey and Fahri Bey,69 and the company that was going to commission the Turkish village and building was a Ottoman firm: Saadullah, Suhami, and company, from Constantinople.70 However, besides these three names I did not come across any other Turkish names associated with that particular project.

The diversity of the Ottoman Empire could further be seen in the performers who took part in the Turkish Theatre, the majority of whom were Syrian and Greek dancers. An Ottoman historian Cafer Sarikaya’s examination of the Ottoman Empire’s publication Servet-i Finun that had covered the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 demonstrates the large numbers of ethnic minorities from the Ottoman Empire that attended the fair. Sarikaya makes an interesting argument in his article by claiming that the majority of the sixty-five actors at the Turkish Theatre were in fact Christian Arabs from Syria or Greek Christians from Salonika and Istanbul (Constantinople). The names of the dancers listed in the Program of the Turkish theatre were: Tayra and Zeybek from Syria; Simon and Ageney from Istanbul; Rosa from Salonika; and Gezayiri from Mesopotamia.71 Sarikaya also states that neither the plays that were performed nor the players at the fair had anything to do with the Turkish culture, despite the fact that it wrote ‘Turkish Theatre’ on the cover of the programme. He adds that if one were to look at the programme’s magazine, none of the people in it ‘looked’ ethnically Turkish either.72 The diverse ethnic and religious background of the theatre performers from the Ottoman Empire demonstrated that the Ottoman Empire was much more diverse than the American officials and media perceived it to be. Likewise, calling the people from here to be ‘Orientals’ also did not correctly represent the multiple socio-cultural and ethnic identities that made up the Ottoman identity at that time.

In the photographs displayed in Sarikaya’s article, which were from the souvenir programme booklet distributed at the fair, we see that the three women and men who are displayed are wearing traditional costumes from the lifestyles and regions they depict, yet none actually have Muslim names and were most likely members of ethnic minorities from within the Ottoman Empire. In Figure 3 the banner of the Turkish Theatre is being advertised as the “only Turkish Theatre” and information on the performers as “dancing girls”. The plays performed demonstrated the collective diversity of the Ottoman culture: ‘The Kurdish Drama’, ‘An Oriental Wedding from Syria’, ‘The Drama of Antar the Son of Sheddad’ (a Middle Eastern tribal story), ‘The Drama of Haroun Al-Rashid’ (war story of the Arabian Empire), and ‘The Turkish Bride.’ Here, only the latter play has a Turkish theme, displaying a traditional wedding in the Ottoman Empire, yet again an ethnic-religious minority most likely performed this act.73

Figure 3 

The Turkish Village at the Chicago World’s Fair (This picture is owned by Father Peter Engel OSB, Fourth Abbot and can be found online at, accessed March 30, 2013).

The characters in the plays were devoid of a classical urban Ottoman lifestyle; this was also seen in the omission of words like ‘bey’, ‘hanim’, and ‘efendi’; those were used in everyday greeting by the Ottoman to indicate respect for the opposite gender. Another reason why this theatre reflected a multi-cultural and ethnic Ottoman culture rather than a solely Turkish one was evident in the language used in the play, which was Arabic and not Ottoman Turkish, the official language of the Ottoman Empire. A major reason for this was due to the director of this theatre being a Syrian Arab as the majority of the non-Muslim minorities chose to use their own ethnic languages, even if they did know Turkish as a second language. It is important to note that even among the Muslim Turkish populations, Ottoman Turkish was unintelligible to the less-educated, lower-class rural Turks who spoke a kaba Turkce (‘raw Turkish’) that used fewer foreign loan words.74 In addition, there were certain rules that were put in the content of the performances that indicated a respect for the Islamic traditions of the Ottoman Empire. For example, there could be no performance near a mosque that would harm the honour and chastity of the Muslim women or come against the nation’s honour and respectability.75

The multiple ethnic and cultural identities of the Ottoman Empire were also seen in the attractions, structures, and objects found in the Turkish Village at the Chicago World’s Fair. Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing provided a description of the Turkish Village.

Sixty-five men, women, and children from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Damascus, Beirut, Lebanon, Aleppo, Constantinople, and Smyrna performed a variety of plays. Also featured was a Turkish encampment consisting of mosques, kiosks, and thirteen houses. Interesting displays included a 160-year-old Persian tent and a Bedouin tribe presenting all of the features of desert life, dromedaries, Arabian steeds, swords, spears and foods. In the ‘Wild East Show’, Bedouins, outfitted with lancers and swords and riding handsome steeds, portrayed the wild life of the desert nomad in mock battles. Near one of the mosques was a refreshment pavilion serving all kinds of Turkish drinks made of lemons, rose violets, bananas, tamarind raisins, licorice, oranges, pomegranates, mulberries, and syrups. In a nearby café visitors could sample Turkish Mecca coffee and smoke Turkish tobacco in waterpipes. The 3000 pound solid silver bed of the daughter of a Turkish sultan was a popular attraction.76

From this quote it could be seen that the Ottoman Empire did not consist of only one ethnic population, Turkish, and geography, Anatolia. The performers in the Turkish Village had come from various cities within the geographic areas of the Middle East, Anatolia, and Europe. That Bedouin, Assyrian, and Lebanese minority cultures, who were represented as part of the Ottoman Empire, further demonstrated that the Ottoman Empire during that time was very multicultural. The fair concessioners might have also displayed these more exotic and rural cultures to attract a larger audience and to sell more tickets. We can see here that the Ottoman commissioners and concessioners themselves were using the very same stock of orientalist images and texts used by the American fair organizers and the mass media, when they separated themselves as ‘other’ and different and co-modified their own culture. They had judged correctly that the American fairgoers wanted to see the historic, rural, touristic, and commercial Middle East one that included a 400-year-old Persian tent, wild life of the dessert, the sword fights of the Bedouins, and valuable imperial objects. However, these Ottoman representatives (some of which might have been American citizens), by representing the Ottoman Empire as ‘the Wild East’ – as historic, rural, nomadic, and culturally different- had unintentionally (or not) supported the United States in becoming an economic and political power over the Middle East.

Bancroft in his book also described the various attractions found in the Turkish Village, including the Persian tent, the sultan’s silver bed, the refreshment pavilion, and the café that sold ‘genuine Mocha coffee’ and Turkish tobacco in water pipes. He also mentioned that the Turkish Village included a grand bazaar with forty booths that sold ‘tapestries, embroideries, rugs, carpets, silverware, filigree work peculiar to the orient, brass-ware, precious stones and jewellery, ancient arms and relics, and in a word whatever is produced and found throughout the broad empire of the porte.’77 From this quote it could be determined that certain commercial products from the Ottoman Empire such as carpets, rugs, tobacco, silverware, etc., were valued by the American consumers and labelling them as ‘Turkish’ rather than ‘Ottoman’ had helped brand these products as unique and special and therefore substantially increased their market value. In addition, replicas of two ancient monuments found in Istanbul were placed in the Turkish Village: Cleopatra’s needle and the Serpentine column, the latter was originally erected in Delphi to commemorate the Greeks who defeated the Persian Empire.78 By constructing these popular historic and touristic sites at the fairgrounds, the fair organizers had made it possible for the American fairgoers to ‘consume’ the Orient by the mere act of gazing upon its historic artefacts and goods without having to physically travel there. This brings into mind what Mitchell referred to as the ‘object world’ where the fairgoer prefers to see an organized and well-structured representation of the real rather than the reality itself.

As noted by Deringil, the government officials and the sultan were self-conscious of their portrayal among the powerful empires like the United States, England, and France at the World’s Fair. They had put a lot of effort into minimizing what were considered as ‘exotic’ representations of their customs and people by the Western world that they believed were insulting and dishonouring to their culture and religion. An example of this was when a British company proposed gypsy and Armenian women to be displayed as Oriental people at the fair. The sultan had quickly turned this company down as it was seen as demeaning and uncalled for.79 In order to avoid this, the Ottoman state had emphasized symbols that had come to denote modernity to increase its legitimacy as a modern nation. Another attempt to keep an orderly and impressive image of its cultural displays was seen in the Ottoman Hippodrome proposal that one of the government officials proposed to the sultan. There would be forty horses of fine breed and the Arab riders would also be handsome and skilled in horsemanship. Here, the Ottomans themselves were following oriental discourses of representation being better than the authentic culture.

This was also apparent in the Ottoman state’s choice of literary and artistic works. Abdul Hamid II’s (the Ottoman sultan during this time) collection of photography albums and the literary works of an Ottoman female writer, Fatma Aliye Hanim, had shown a different view of the Orient: one that was much more modern and intellectual.80 The modernization that was presented in these exhibits had covered many areas, ‘extending from military reforms to education to artistic production. It introduced, for example, a new architecture based on European models.’81 Three of Aliye Hanim’s books that were sent to the art exhibit at the library of the Woman’s Building, although written in a language (Ottoman Turkish) that was inaccessible to a majority of the audiences, nevertheless had made a statement about Ottoman women, declaring that they were well educated, literate, and creative, and had defied the popular image of women from the Orient who were often passively posed in harem or Turkish bath-themed paintings.

However, as Eldem Edhem points out, the Ottomans had also resorted to orientalism by categorizing their own ethnic minorities, the Bedouins and the Kurds, as ‘Oriental.’ By juxtaposing a civilized Ottoman against a savage Oriental, the Ottoman elites had sought to detract the orientalism that was directed against them, however, by doing so they were alienating their Muslim populations and upholding the Western cliché of the ‘unspeakable Turk.’82


The often conflicting visual and textual representations of the Ottoman imperial culture and people at the World’s Fair by diverse commercial, artistic, and governmental interests suggests that the multiple identities of the Ottoman Empire could not be easily subsumed into a single, national identity despite the multiple attempts by American Orientalists to display a very stereotypical and homogenous image of Islam and the Ottoman Turk. Ottoman government officials on the other hand were not passively watching the unrealistic and degrading portrayals of their culture. They were highly critical of the meaning and impact such public representation in the West could have and wanted to limit representations that objectified Islam and their cultural and religious traditions. From the artists and performers, to the commissioners and government officials who attended or wrote about the fair, along with the produce and artefacts that were displayed there, we see facets of the Ottoman’s diverse cultures and communities.

Of course, not all aspects of Ottoman culture had found a place in the exhibitions at the fair as the sultan and the ruling elite strategically made choices on cultural representation based on their ruling ideologies, whether this is Islamism or Ottomanism and this had often clashed with the Western world’s representations of an unchanging, historical, and stereotypical orient that could be commercially consumed by an audience that would rather see a representation than the authentic orient. In order to market and promote Ottoman/Turkish culture at the World’s Fair representatives from the Ottoman Empire also had to (re)orientalize and historicize their own minority populations as traditional and uncivilized others so as to join the ranks of the Great Western Powers whose modern technological, scientific, and military advancements it sought to promote. Yet as Deringil puts it, the Ottoman self-image adopted much the same value system as that of the West. Looking at these visual and textual representations in the past, Turkish diplomats and businesses that represent the Turkish nation today could re-examine their very territorial and nationalistic stance and can avoid producing a retroactive and oriental representation of Turkey.