Perceived silence in the Turkish archives: From the Ottoman Empire to modern republic

Lale Özdemir and Oguz Icimsoy


This chapter examines what the concept of silence in the archives means within a Turkish archival context. It is argued that silence in the archives is far more complicated than modern usage, which sees it in terms of a lack of transparency and accountability, and that an analysis of archival silences should be balanced against any achievements in the archival sector. An archival silence can result from an array of reasons, and should be viewed within the context of the historical, political and social driving forces of the period(s) in question. This chapter defines a ‘perceived’ silence as one that is unintended, and devoid of any ill intent. Natural disasters fall within this category, whereas limiting access to records that do not contain sensitive content does not. It is always easy to judge the past based on the standards of the present. This can lead to a lack of appreciation of historical social, cultural and political dynamics, and can form an unnecessary layer of contemporary bias or prejudice that does not diminish the bias or prejudice exercised by governments and social actors in the first instance, while creating archival silences. For example, criticising the generic 75 or 100-year closure periods applied to archival records in a pre-Freedom of Information era warrants an examination of what the concept of access meant decades ago. While fear of being held to account in a court of law, or a desire to ‘eradicate’ the national memory with regard to the past, may account for why administrations may choose to deny access to records, or to ensure they do not survive to make it to the archives, other less sinister considerations also have currency in this debate. In the case of the Turkish Republic, the infrastructure required for the effective recordkeeping and long-term preservation of records of the new republic wasn’t put into place as quickly as desired, following the transition from an empire. The archival silence that ensued in the early years of the republic will be discussed within the context of a lack of appropriate infrastructure. There is a thin line between a silence that is perceived, and one that is not. Damage caused to state records by floods five hundred years ago, can be treated as a perceived silence; however, the lack of infrastructure for the long-term preservation of born-digital material today, could be classed as a clear silence, especially if the planning for such an infrastructure is not underway.The lack of a public records act, even though records management regulations are in existence, coupled with the fact that the infrastructure for the transfer of born-digital records to the archives is yet to be established, are examples of modern-day archival silences. Another category of perceived/archi-val silence, relates to the incorrect or inadequate cataloguing of Ottoman archival records, which hinders the user’s access to the record they are seeking.

The newly founded Ottoman state: War, fires and floods

The Ottoman emirate founded at the end of the thirteenth century bordered the Byzantine empire and quickly embarked on capturing neighbouring lands, primarily using the approach of istimdlet, a practice of being favourably disposed towards the non-Muslim people in territories that were captured. The practice of acting favourably towards the Christian subjects of a particular region can be said to have played a vital role in the success of the early Ottomans,1 and was a win-win approach as non-Muslims paid taxes that were used in the expansion of the Ottoman state. It is thought that the founder of the Ottoman state, Osman Ghazi (r. 1299-1326), was illiterate, although it is believed that diplomatic relations commenced between the Ottomans and the Byzantines, as well as with other Turkish Muslim emirates in his reign,2 thus signalling the beginning of record-keeping in the Ottoman state. The trouble is that official records of the early Ottomans have not survived, thereby creating an archival silence. Imber argues that the early Ottoman period should be viewed as a ‘black hole’ because this era of Ottoman history cannot be fully researched because of the lack of indigenous sources dating from the fourteenth century.3 The lack of a centralised bureaucracy and statecraft may have played a role in records not being created, but the universal themes of war and natural disasters certainly played a significant role in this archival silence. The battles and skirmishes between the early Ottomans and their adversaries can be said to have also contributed to the lack of official state records and thus caused a dent in the archival memory ofTurkey today. It is plausible that the destruction and havoc caused by the armies of the Turco-Mongolian conqueror Timur included the destruction of any records created by the early Ottomans. Prior to Timur inflicting a crushing defeat on the Ottoman ruler Bayezid the Thunderbolt at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, it is known that the two rulers corresponded diplomatically.4 The Ottoman ruler couldn’t bear the humiliation of being held captive and paraded around in a cage by Timur, and subsequently committed suicide? Following the death of Bayezid, there was a civil war between his sons and a period of interregnum (1402-1413). Official records were either not created in this period or have not survived. Such archival silences are indeed silences but are not born out of ill intent or an intention to erase the evidence of state business, and can therefore be categorised as perceived silences.

Natural disasters also led to gaps in recordkeeping. It is believed that the Ottomans preserved state records created in the royal court of the Edirne Palace, although none of these survive.6 The fact that state records were preserved in a palace environment demonstrates the high esteem in which records were held. However, the second Ottoman capital, Edirne, was an unlucky place for records in the fourteenth century. The palace was submerged under water due to flooding from the Meric and Tuna rivers, which was not uncommon during the Ottoman period.7 Acts of God continued, and in 1571, another palace in the reign of Selim II was flooded.8 A fire that broke out at the top of a Registry building (Defterhane) in 1665 near the Justice Square (Kubbealti) in the second courtyard of theTopkapi Palace where state administration was carried out, resulted in registers being destroyed.9 The user guide written by the Turkish State Archives on Ottoman records makes direct reference to the archival silence caused by natural disasters and wars:

The total number of records created in the Ottoman period is colossal, if we take into account the records that have not survived until today, or have been lost, due to war, fire, natural disaster, or other related reasons, along with other Ottoman records that are yet to be transferred to the archives, including records still in the possession of nations newly founded upon the dissolution of the empire.10

The above quote provides an insight into archival silences that are difficult to prevent, and that are not created out of any wilfulness, such as fire, natural disasters and damage caused by war. However, the fact that there are Ottoman records that are yet to be transferred to the archives, and there may be custodial issues with regard to Ottoman records abroad, indicates an archival silence that could be prevented, especially with regard to the transfer of paper files to the archives. It is also worthwhile to note that natural disasters that led to archival silences because official records were destroyed, was not solely a predicament of pre-modern times. Fires in the main court house in Istanbul, and in the ministerial building of the Ministry of National Education, in 1934 and 1947 respectively, destroyed a considerable number of records. Another perceived archival silence was caused by devastating earthquakes in Erzincan in the east of Turkey. One of the earthquakes hit the province in 1939, and it is believed that all local records previously created were destroyed. Another earthquake struck the province again in 1992, and approximately 10 per cent of records held by public bodies were destroyed." Natural disasters have clearly paid a role in ensuring that archival silences have become a reality, and such examples have hitherto been discussed within the framework of perceived silences - those that are not caused consciously. However, even though natural disasters cannot be prevented, the failure to establish adequate repositories for records is preventable, and has compounded the loss of records caused by natural disasters in Turkey historically.

The only surviving Ottoman records that predate the capture of Constantinople in 1453, are a few imperial decrees (fermaii), deeds of trusts (vakfiye) and title deeds (ntiilkndme). Whereas a few hundred registers (defter), dating from 1453 to 1520, have survived and have been transferred to the archives.12 It is likely that the number of records created far surpassed the number transferred to the archives in this period, although no data is available that would enable an accurate estimation of the number of records that haven’t survived.

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