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OTTOMAN CARTOGRAPHY: مختصر تاريخى عمومى وعثماني اطلسى [Standard Atlas of Global and Ottoman History]



Ottoman Historical Atlas

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This rare historical Ottoman atlas includes maps, showcasing the Ottoman Empire, Europe and the colonies in the North America and India.

While the atlas shows the influence of German works, it adds a novel invaluable perspective on the Islamic world and its borderlands, often overlooked in western works. In this respect it makes an important and unique contribution to historical geography.

The atlas was published a year after the first portable printed administrative atlas of the Ottoman Empire titled Memalik’i Mahruse Şahane’ye Mahsus Mukemmel ve Mufassal Atlas (Special Imperial Complete and Detailed Atlas of the Protected Countries), which was used during the rule of the ‘Young Turks’ as they led the empire into World War I.

Politics and Cartography during the Reign of Abdul Hamid II and the Rise of the ‘Young Turks’

From the mid-19th Century onwards, the Ottoman Empire was described as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ and seemed to be in inexorable decline.  Indeed, during this period the empire lost much territory to internal rebellions and wars with its rivals, while foreign powers assumed tremendous control over the country’s economy and political affairs.  However, while this is all true, it masks that fact that during the same period the Empire made dramatic advances in economic development, education, science, infrastructure creation and military training.  Istanbul, became one of the world’s great economic centres, fuelled by international trade and foreign-financed mega-projects.

The reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876 – 1909) marked a period of radical social and economic change.  Shortly after the sultan assumed power, he approved the Constitution of 1876 that promised to make the Ottoman Empire a constitutional democracy.  However, the Empire’s defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, which resulted in the loss of territory in the Balkans and the Caucuses, soured the mood.  In 1878, Abdul Hamid II rescinded the Constitution and ruled as an autocrat.

The Ottoman government went bankrupt in 1881, and much of its public finances and industry were taken over by the Anglo-French Ottoman Debt Commission and the Banque Imperial Ottomane.  While the quasi-colonial foreign control of the country’s economy was much resented, it nevertheless financed a boom of construction of railways, factories, telegraph lines, roads and educational facilities that allowed the Ottomans to enter the Industrial Revolution.  It also paid for the Empire to reform and modernize its military, although the fruits of these reforms would not be redeemed until World War I.

While the Ottoman hierarchy was controlled by a corrupt and bloated elite of largely elderly, hereditary figures, Abdul Hamid II improved the administration of the empire, such that historians have remarked that it “reached a new degree of organizational elaboration and articulation.”

The economic development and infrastructure projects sparked an urgent need for advanced cartography.  While some fine original Ottoman maps and had been created during the Tanzimat Era (1839-76), it was only during Abdul Hamid II’s time that Ottoman cartography saw its first popular boom.  Numerous Ottoman printing houses, both state and privately owned, proliferated throughout the city.  Western printers and mapmakers permitted technology transfer that allowed the Ottoman houses to move up the curve to produce printed works of great diversity and sophistication, applying the exquisite Ottoman traditions of artistic design and calligraphy.  There was also an interface between Turkish military engineers and civilian cartographers.  This alt being said, there was little coordination between the various Ottoman cartographers and works thus tended to serve only the episodic interests of those that commissioned the maps.  There was a noticeable lack of maps that could serve broad administrative and thematic utility.

Around 1905, the Ottoman government desired a portable set of maps that could be used by officials to administer taxes, social programmes and infrastructure development.  The atlas was titled Memalik’i Mahruse Şahane’ye Mahsus Mukemmel ve Mufassal Atlas (Special Imperial Complete and Detailed Atlas of the Protected Countries) and was followed a year later by this historical atlas.

In July 1908, a coalition of Turkish nationalists rose up in rebellion to Abdul Hamid II’s autocratic rule.  They resented the sultan’s corrupt, elderly cadre of ministers and the Anglo-French domination of the national economy.  Known as the ‘Young Turks’, the coalition was led by the ‘Three Pashas’: Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Ismail Enver Pasha and Ahmet Djemla Pasha, and their movement was so named as they were all under the age of 40.  The Young Turks re-instated the 1876 Constitution, yet allowed Abdul Hamid II to remain in power as a figurehead.  Proof copies of the present atlas were used to plan the Young Turks administrative reforms and to set the constituency boundaries for the November-December 1908 elections, the first democratic vote ever held in the Ottoman Empire.

In April 1909, Abdul Hamid II’s conservative allies mounted an unsuccessful coup against the ‘Young Turks’.  This resulted in sultan’s ouster in favour of his malleable younger brother, Mehmed V, who became the figurehead sultan.

The Young Turk regime embarked on ambitious reforms to taxation during which examples of the present atlas would most certainly have been employed in planning.  In particular, the new administration was eager to efficiently extract more revenue, in order to maintain the empire’s debts and to fund military and infrastructure projects. The compact atlas had had the benefit in that it could be easily carried by officials as they travelled the country, visiting various administrative bureaus and worksites, in sharp contact to the cumbersome wall maps upon which Ottoman bureaucrats had hitherto relied.

The Young Turks also realigned the empire away from its traditional French and British allies (and pseudo-colonial masters) and sought closer ties with Germany.  This resulted in many joint Ottoman-German projects, such as the continued construction of the Bagdadbahn (the Berlin to Baghdad Railway) and the Hejaz Railway (which was to run from Damascus to Mecca), during which the present atlas would have presented a useful overview.

The Ottoman-German alliance led the empire into World War I on the side of the Central Powers.  While the Ottomans managed to hold their own in Anatolia, notably winning the epic Battle of Gallipoli (1915), the empire disintegrated due to Allied pressure and Arab and Armenian revolts.

In the wake of the empire’s defeat at the end of World War I, the Young Turks were deposed and the Republic of Turkey (established 1923) was formed by a new nationalist movement under the legendary President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

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