Whether in an old cupboard at home, on the dusty shelves of a secondhand bookstore, on the bookcase of a collector, or in the storerooms of an institute, manuscripts surviving from the Ottoman era still have many stories to tell.
It's been 100 years since the collapse of the empire, and almost 200 years since the spread of the printing press, but now a new exhibition at the Istanbul Research Institute shines a light on these old treasures.
Before the printing press became widespread in the 19th century, Ottoman manuscripts were part of a collaborative form of literacy, read and circulated in the multilingual society of the empire and the permeable regions of the early modern period. Texts changed in the hands of copyists and readers and these changes could be traced physically on paper, where readers and authors engaged in a dialogue between lines and in margins. Reading was as collective an act as writing; there were people who read popular stories aloud in coffeehouses, and some readers answered the notes of previous readers.
But in the 20th Century, Ottoman manuscript culture gradually ceased to be a source of information, stories, or spirituality for the masses, attracting the interest only of collectors. The culture of writing and reading changed – books came out of the printer in thousands of copies, all the same. Libraries began punishing members who wrote in books so marginalia written by readers became limited to their own copy. The text of the author became untouchable, unalterable. Literature came to be shaped by the quest for the “most accurate” text, the “most valuable” binding, and the “cleanest” copy. Modern historiography’s relationship with manuscripts had changed.
Recent studies of the old collective, collaborative culture are enabling us to better understand the multilayered world of manuscripts. By addressing the history of reading along with the history of manuscripts we can consider these texts as open-ended creations in motion.
Memories of Humankind: Stories from the Ottoman Manuscripts invites the visitor on a journey among texts, objects, and periods. It traces the multilingualism of Ottoman society, daily life, medicine, knowledge of the universe and time, gender and sexuality, while also showing how to recreate Istanbul’s historical landscape using manuscripts. It is alternatively worldly and otherworldly, unique and ordinary. Fragmentary, incomplete, and inspiring.
The exhibition will run until July 2020.