Dr Jay Prosser, University of Leeds

Co-investigator: Dr Gabriel Koureas, Birkbeck


The context of this research is a contemporary climate (in media, culture and much scholarship) that emphasises conflict: Muslims versus Jews; Christians versus Muslims — above all East versus West.   The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are shaped by religious, regional and cultural nationalisms, competing claims that hinge on difference. Our network intervenes in contemporary tensions by looking at what the past can teach the present about exchanges and connections between cultural groups. Our subject of the Ottoman Empire, at once one of largest and longest empires and yet still relatively understudied, is rich in such exchanges; its multiethnic cities, including Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Gaza, Sarajevo and Belgrade, have given way to many recent conflicts . The historical period of the 1780s to the present is especially productive for cultural exchange, as the Ottoman Empire encountered different colonialisms, namely British and French, and then transitioned into postcolonial nationalisms and sectarianisms which are our heritage.


Aims and Objectives

The key aim of the research is to question received ideas about the Ottoman Empire, in particular that it has a single past and that it was an Islamic Empire. Our focus on Ottoman cities discovers the cultural exchanges (which we call ‘transcultural’) between groups, including non-Muslims and multiple ethnicities.   Using a term more intimate than history, our attention to memories traces how experiences, objects, texts, stories, images and practices are passed down. We show the city as not simply an arrangement of buildings but as biographically, poetically, familiarly alive, often bearing the marks of fusion; it is no coincidence that the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ suggests both urbanity and cultural extroversion. To recover Ottoman transcultural memories, our method juxtaposes different disciplines – history, the literary, the visual. We also foster creative work — photography, music, performance, life writing, fiction – as forms that do more allusive and imaginative memory work. Photography has a key role to play in restoring an Ottoman city archive because of its associations with what’s lost and what’s preserved – with nostalgia and memory itself – and with the urban. A photographic exhibition is the main public dissemination and culmination of the research.


Applications and benefits

The key benefit of the research for a general public is educational, social and cultural. Cosmopolitanism teaches us about what is lacking in multiculturalism; examples from the Ottoman past provide a flipside to present divisions, and memories of urban exchanges might go some way towards healing the wounds of identity politics. Our exhibition aimed at the general public uses artwork to show points of conjuncture between East and West. The research benefits to various communities, for example Jewish, Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, Palestinian, Iraqi, comprise principally promoting awareness of each other’s cultural histories and prompting exchange.   A participatory element to the exhibition –to be extended via a website — stimulates the sharing of memories. Organisations specialising in dialoguing between groups will be engaged with a view to the research being applied to underpin their own transcultural work. The network will work with refugee Arts groups and the Arab Image Foundation in order to produce new resources for further study (a photography archive and artwork available via the website). The scholarly outputs (particularly an edition of critical essays) will revitalise the study of the Ottoman Empire by juxtaposing Ottoman cities and showing the vitality of a ‘transdiscplinary’ approach.   In its public forms of dissemination, the research will challenge how Ottoman memories overturn the ideology of a ‘clash of civilisations.’


Project team: Dr Leslie Hakim-Dowek (visual advisor); Dr Colette Wilson (project advisor); Dr Henghameh Saroukhani (Research Assistant)

Project website

RCUK Gateway to Research