To Steward Unruly Imperial Pasts

On Ambivalent Legacies: Political Cultures of Memory and Amnesia in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Lands, special issue of History & Anthropology, Volume 30, No. 4, October 2019.

By Jeremy F. Walton

The current special exhibition at the Zagreb Ethnographic Museum, “Hats Off! The Story of (Un)Covered Heads” (Kapa dolje! Priča o (ne)pokrivanju glave), presents a cornucopia of headgear to the curious visitor, ranging from haute couture millinery to pancaked fishermen’s chapeaus. Bridal headdresses, which often doubled as dowries, are especially prominent in the display. As was traditionally the case in much of the Balkans, many of these headdresses consist of coins affixed to a delicate mesh of silver-chain thread. They are bewitching objects, even when admired from several metres away. A closer inspection reveals an enigma, a clue to the curious past in which these relics took shape: The money that they contain is politically promiscuous. Side-by-side, these matrimonial ornaments feature both Habsburg thalers embossed with the profile of Empress Maria Theresa and Ottoman lira displaying the Sultan’s tughra.

A 19th-century Bosnian bridal headdress, featuring Habsburg and Ottoman coins, on display at the Zagreb Ethnographic Museum (photograph by author, 2020).

Bridal headdresses such as these are a lustrous metaphor for the themes and research that inspired Ambivalent Legacies: Political Cultures of Memory and Amnesia in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Lands, a recent special issue of the journal History and Anthropology (Volume 30, Number 4, October 2019). Across the variegated political geography of central and eastern Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Levant, collective memories of bygone empires are not only vividly present today, they also intersect and reconfigure one another. Habsburgs and Ottomans—not to mention Romans and Romanovs, Macedonians and Byzantines, French and British—provide a lexicon and a repository of images for thinking through vexed contemporary questions of identity and difference, selfhood and otherness. Like the bulky busts of Count Zrínyi Miklós (Nikola Šubić Zrinski) and Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent that stand side-by-side in the Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Park of Szigetvár, Hungary—an image of which graces the cover of Ambivalent Legacies—former empires are especially impactful when their legacies and memories achieve juxtaposition in the present.

Antagonists in the 16th century, Zrínyi Miklós (Nikola Šubić Zrinski) and Süleyman the Magnificent now stand beside each other in the Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Park in Szigetvár, Hungary (photo by author, 2016).

 “Inter-imperiality”—to borrow a concept from Laura Doyle (2014)—and its articulation in post-imperial legacies are the direct focus of several of the contributions to Ambivalent Legacies. Gruia Bădescu’s intervention, “Traces of Empire: Architectural Heritage, Imperial Memory and Post-War Reconstruction in Sarajevo and Beirut,” conveys the stirring continuities between two cities where both multiple imperial projects and more recent histories of wartime violence have reshaped the urban built environment. In Sarajevo, Habsburg and Ottoman heritage has attained new visibility in the wake of the war of the 1990s, while in Beirut, the revival of Ottoman-era architectural styles—most notably, the Neo-Ottoman Mohammed al-Amin Mosque—contrasts sharply with nostalgia for “belle époque” French Mandate heritage. In his essay, “Imperial Inventories, ‘Illegal Mosques,’ and Institutionalized Islam: Coloniality and the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Piro Rexhepi also meditates on inter-imperial forms in Bosnia. As he shows, the Islamic Community (Islamska Zajednica), the official body responsible for governing Islam throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, is “a site at which the tensions of postcolonial and (post)socialist histories are continuously contested” (p. 486) in relation to the precedents and pressures of the Ottomans, the Habsburgs and the European Union. Finally, my own addition to the volume, “Sanitizing Szigetvár: On the Post-Imperial Fashioning of Nationalist Memory,” examines how one episode from the inter-imperial, borderland rivalry of the Habsburgs and Ottomans—the Battle of Szigetvár (1566)—has stoked nationalist historiographies and mythologies in Hungary, Croatia, and Turkey alike.

The continuities, contradictions, and transmogrifications that define the relationship between empires and nation-states occupy many of the articles in Ambivalent Legacies. In “From Three Ottoman Gates to Three Serbian Sites of Memory: The Performative Rewriting of Belgrade from 1878 to Today,” Dunja Resanovic traces the gradual refashioning of the Ottoman-era city to express the imperatives and presuppositions of Serbian collective memory. Similar concerns animate “Mediating Legacies of Empire in the Post-Imperial Museum,” Emily Neumeier’s visual ethnography of two museums in Greece: Athens’ National Historic Museum and the Museum of Ali Pasha and the Period of Revolution in Ioannina. While nationalist historiography subtends both museums, it does so in strikingly different ways, taking on eccentric, less hegemonic forms in the peripheral museum space of Ioannina. Peripheries may also serve as the platforms for dominant nationalist appropriations of imperial pasts, as Behar Sadriu shows in “Shrine Diplomacy: Turkey’s Quest for a Post-Kemalist Identity.” Sadriu argues that the Murad I tomb complex outside of Pristina, Kosovo, which commemorates the death of the Ottoman sultan at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, dovetails with contemporary Turkish nationalism by allowing Turkish state actors to present Turkey as “a defender of communities left behind with the retreat of empire” (p. 424).

Finally, Ambivalent Legacies resolutely interrogates the silences, erasures, and effects of amnesia that accompany and constitute imperial legacies across the erstwhile lands of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. Giulia Carabelli’s cartography of cafés in Trieste, “Habsburg Coffeehouses in the Shadow of the Empire: Revisiting Nostalgia in Trieste,” reads nostalgic discourse for the ostensible cosmopolitanism of Mitteleuropa against the grain. As she argues, there is a latent contradiction between the Habsburg aesthetics of Triestine cafes and “their history (which) often suggests their incompatibility with repressive imperial rules” (p. 390). In “Whitewashed Empire: Historical Narrative and Place Marketing in Vienna,” Miloš Jovanović forwards a stirring critique of the politically-vested silencing of violent Habsburg pasts that has accompanied urban transformation in the city. He theorizes this “whitewashing” of the Austro-Hungarian past as a “redeployment of imperial structures through preservation, renovation and assemblage of material heritage” (p. 472). For her part, Kimberly Hart illuminates an underappreciated Ottoman legacy. In “Istanbul’s Intangible Cultural Heritage as Embodied by Street Animals,” she illustrates how the forms of caregiving that Istanbul’s human residents proffer to their non-human counterparts draw on genealogies of long-standing Ottoman practices, which, in certain respects, are more durable than the brick and mortar of monumental architecture.

Throughout our peregrinations and meditations, a common sensibility and shared commitment unite our particular projects and perspectives. In our confrontation with what Ann Laura Stoler calls “imperial duress” (2016), we take on the role of stewards for the effects of imperial pasts that continue to reverberate in the present, and will continue to do so in the future. This stewardship is necessarily critical: We refuse to allow nostalgia or amnesia to acquit or indemnify the empires of the past and their inheritors. With our focus on inter-imperial histories and memories, our stewardship is equally committed to a transregional, comparative vantage. Finally, it relies on the capacious method of what I call, in the introduction to the volume, “textured historicity”: “the distinctive, embodied encountere between the subject in the present and the objects that convey the past in the present” (p. 357). Our essays dramatically attest to power of textured historicity in relation to post-imperial subjects and objects today. The project of enunciating the cacophonous voices with which these post-imperial formations might speak, and that might speak to them, has only just begun.

Works Cited

Doyle, Laura. 2014. “Inter-imperiality. Dialectics in a Post-Colonial World History.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. Volume 16, Issue 2: 159-196.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Jeremy F. Walton is leader of the research group, “Empires of Memory: The Cultural Politics of Historicity in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Cities,” at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. “Empires of Memory” is an interdisciplinary, multi-sited project on the cultural politics of post-imperial memory in eight former Habsburg and Ottoman cities: Vienna, Istanbul, Budapest, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Belgrade, Trieste, and Thessaloniki. Prior to his current position, he held research and teaching fellowships at the Center for Advanced Studies of Southeastern Europe at the University of Rijeka (2015-2016), the CETREN Transregional Research Network at Georg August University of Göttingen (2013-2015), Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (2012-2013), and New York University’s Religious Studies Program (2009-2012).


Citation: Jeremy F. Walton, To Steward Unruly Imperial Pasts, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23098.


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