Some three decades before the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, an unknown photographer captured a black-and-white image of a packed street in the city then known as Constantinople. The 1890 shot paints a picture of a thriving metropolis: men in fezzes and bowler hats make their way through the crowd, horses wait patiently on the sidelines, a woman in a gauzy veil strides toward the camera and the empire’s flag hangs proudly from the buildings that line the street.
This photo is among 6,000 images from the Ottoman Empire that were recently digitized by the Getty Research Institute, as Deena ElGenaidi of Hyperallergic reports. Encompassing such diverse mediums as albumen prints, glass negatives and lantern slides, the vast collection was amassed in the 1980s by the French businessman Pierre de Gigord, who traveled to Turkey to scout out photographs from the fallen empire. The collection is housed at the Getty Research Institute, which noted in a blog post that the images “are difficult to find, as they are preserved in the vaults with limited circulation.” Now that the collection been digitized, however, it is easily accessible to anyone who wants to be transported back in time to the days of the Ottomans.
The images date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the sprawling 600-year empire's power waned as it moved further from its peak in the 16th century. The collection centers on cultural and urban images, primarily taken in Constantinople, and includes the work of more than 165 photographers, studios and publishers.
One of the more stunning images in the collection is a sweeping, 10-part panorama of the Constantinople skyline, which was pieced together from different photographs. Thanks to the digitization project, you can now see the panorama in its entirety. Also available to view are 50 hand-colored slides, depicting such subjects as a group of Turkish falconers, a fountain in Constantinople and a chandelier in a mosque. “At the turn of the century, people would project these slides on a screen in educational settings or in private homes for personal entertainment, allowing them to become armchair travelers,” the Getty writes in its blog post. “Through these images they learned about Turkish women and men, crafts and trades, the landmark architecture of the Ottoman capital, government functionaries, and the geopolitics of the region.”
Also included in the newly digitized collection are 60 photo albums from travelers to the empire. One of these albums was assembled between 1917 and 1918 by an unidentified German military officer, who dedicated his pictures to his “beloved Pauline.” The album’s pages are adorned with images of everyday life: market vendors, peaceful city streets, a woman who stares into the camera with a smile. But the photos also bear witness to a dark chapter in world history. The Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany during the First World War, and thousands of German soldiers were sent to Ottoman territory during the conflict. They were present when, in 1915, Muslim Turks launched a genocide against Christian Armenians, massacring up to 1.5 million people. One of the photos in the officer’s album, in fact, depicts Enver Pasha, a primary instigator of the genocide.
Many images in the Gigord collection were taken by photographers of European origin. But photographers of Armenian, Syrian and Greek descent are also represented, reflecting the Ottoman Empire’s vast reach and attesting to the communities that lived within its borders before they broke away or were decimated by persecution. The collection thus offers a glimpse into a number of worlds.
According to the Getty, the collection doesn’t just shed light on the past, but also gives viewers perspective on the present, allowing them to observe “how certain sites and people, as well as social or political issues, have evolved yet still remain the same.”