Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean

By Malte Fuhrmann

Most authors know what goes into the struggle for a book’s title. While we usually either prefer metaphorical titles with a nice ring to them or timidly cling to an exact description of the book’s contents as one would for an MA or PhD thesis, fearful of being called out for not delivering on the title’s promise, publishing houses want something straight-forward that will show up immediately on a key term search in libraries, search engines, or on bookseller websites. In my case, my metaphorical original title was snubbed and replaced with Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Just as years ago, when I had suggested my original complicated title for the book based on my PhD to another publisher and had it simplified, I ended up being grateful. A good editor understands the gist of what a book is about and by ordaining a straightforward title pushes the author to take that one extra step into the ring to more offensively set forth his or her claims.

So do I suggest that this is the first or ultimate book about nineteenth century port cities in the former Ottoman territories? Of course not. Far from it, modern port cities have been a favorite for historians of this region for at least 25 years. While other historians of the nineteenth century still limited their perspectives to studying the words and actions of politicians and political associations in order to ponder the nature of the emerging modern state or mused about the effect of center-periphery relations on the cohesion of Ottoman society, researchers focusing on cities bypassed these stale discussions by discarding big theory for the sake of rigorous source-based local studies and at the same time experimented freely with new approaches to questions of identity, space, and culture. Moreover, unlike the sometimes dated and hierarchical social norms among mainstream historians, urban historians of the nineteenth century Mediterranean by and large demonstrate an honest passion for interaction, debate, and mutual encouragement. My own writing process has very much profited from this. It began years ago as a research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, where I was part of the research group “Migration and Urban Institutions in the late Ottoman Reform Period”, together with Nora Lafi, Florian Riedler, and Ulrike Freitag. While we all came from very different academic trajectories, we learned from each other’s approaches. Moreover, the guests Nora and Ulrike invited to the Ottoman Urban Studies Seminar provided different insights into our common field, as did the fellows of the “Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe” (EUME) program and its precursors, such as Dana Sajdi, Marc Aymes, Zafer Yenal and others whom I will mention in the course of these deliberations. Later, at the Orient Institut Istanbul, I also profited from Istanbul’s lively pre-2013 intellectual atmosphere. Sad to say, the one person whom I probably learned from most during our collaboration, Vangelis Kechriotis, passed away much too early. I hope my book does justice to the inspirations I received from him.

Porters and pedestrians outside the Smyrna Customs House on the Quays, ca. 1890. Source: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Istanbul.

While the advances in our knowledge about nineteenth century port cities of the Eastern Mediterranean are overall very much a collective success, I intend to take our area of specialty one step further. Port city studies have developed many radical reinterpretations of the Middle East or Southeast Europe, but these have made little inroads into the mainstream, as standard text books still revolve around questions of state building. This is in part because of long-established paradigms claiming “Asiatic” cities to be irrelevant to history. For example, Max Weber had stated that only West and Central European towns had spawned self-conscious and active burghers, and even 1980s Marxists, by focusing on the discussion about the feudal or Asiatic nature of Ottoman land property relations, neglected the study of urban society. But more importantly, as Meltem Toksöz and Biray Kolluoğlu already pointed out ten years ago, we as urban historians ourselves have refrained from presenting our work in a more synthetic, accessible way. We have too often remained within our comfort zone of extensive microstudies, even though we have important contributions that challenge conventional assumptions on nation building, culture, and modernity in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

With my book, I aim to rise to that challenge by readdressing an issue of classic political and social history of the nineteenth century – that is, the issue of Europeanization. As someone with an urban and cultural studies background and having dealt with global perspectives for some time, my approach to such a topic is somewhat different. First, rather than studying communities of Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians and their proclaimed political representatives, I study cities as spaces inhabited by these and other peoples. The city thus becomes an arena or stage upon which residents, be they Ottoman or non-Ottoman, Muslim or non-Muslim, left their mark. Such an approach is useful, as the experience of the urban space was not exclusively determined by one’s ethnicity and we have thus often overlooked common ground, but also frictions, which arise within the sphere these people inhabited.

The Istanbul commercial district of Eminönü, ca. 1910. Source: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Istanbul.

Second, rather than seeing the Eastern Mediterranean shores as the antithesis to Europe, as many writers as diverse as Karl Marx and Bernard Lewis have, I approach these shores – in the words of a contemporary writer, Refik Halid Karay – as “a corner of Europe”, a perspective many port city residents shared. Just as with the non-sectarian approach to the urban space I mention above, this is not an exercise in political correctness. Of course one can find many differences between the Ottoman lands and its western neighbors, but such differences are also valid for Ireland or Portugal. Instead, I see nineteenth century social phenomena in the port cities not as the result of a clash with an intrinsically different civilization, but rather as part of trans-European continuities. In this way, we can reach a clearer understanding of the challenges the port city residents faced in the modern era by comparing them with predicaments in other localities. For example, we can understand social processes in late Ottoman cities better if we do not restrict ourselves to observations by local intellectuals, but also draw upon Robert Musil’s, Friedrich Nietzsche’s, or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s views about their respective societies.

Third, while the Ottoman setting does receive appropriate attention, I take special care to also situate the port cities in their Mediterranean environment, as their relationship to Europe was in no small part framed by their unmitigated contacts via the navy, commercial, and passenger ships arriving from across this sea.

A newly developed neighborhood in Salonica with street café and a waiter in modern fashion on the right, ca. 1914. Source: Malte Fuhrmann.

Fourth, the sources I use are of an unreservedly eclectic nature, mixing foreign and domestic, upper class and lower class, actions and words. In this way, I give voice to long forgotten port city residents as well as some well-known historical agents. An opera critic, frustrated young middle-class men and women lamenting about contemporary gender restraints, and a deported sex worker are all seen as equally important in giving testimony of the so-called European culture of the port cities. In doing so, I aim to create a more stringent narrative of what urban culture meant and what role the impact of “Europe” played in pre-World War I port cities. What people in Smyrna, Salonica, or Constantinople considered European often followed ostensible forms from elsewhere on the continent, but these forms became suffused with meanings the local residents projected onto them. I investigate nineteenth century interpretations of Europeanness through a focus on changes in the urban texture, such as the construction of modern quays and representative buildings; leisure practices such as balls, operas, and beer drinking; class, gender, and identity discourses; as well as campaigns targeting foreign prostitutes. The huge changes in both the imagined and actually constructed space in and around the cities can only be understood if one takes into account that they are both the reflection of an offer from overseas that port city residents could join a world on the move as equals as well as the results of local desires for revolutions in the urban space.

Leisure practices, including evening strolls, society balls, opera, and beer garden visits were not only important opportunities to display cultural capital in the port cities. They also testify to a desire for reciprocal cultural exchange with the rest of the continent, which however failed due to the loss of interest in Western and Central Europe in Eastern culture as of the 1830s. The inhabitants of nineteenth century port cities were very much men and women “without qualities” in the sense of Robert Musil: while they were well aware of the possibilities of the modern world, their reactions were diverse. Many felt plagued by a malaise due to their inability to develop a satisfying self-identity; but a minority managed to enjoy the ambivalence that was characteristic of their age and utilize it to their desires. A noticeable number of other port city residents however attempted to rein in the experimental mode of self-identities. While they propagated technocratic modernization, they warned of personal indulgence into the possibilities of the modern world, as they believed it to threaten tradition, religion, and the nation. From among these sceptics arose a group of young men and women who were ready to combine the utilitarian logic they had learned from their exposure to Western education with the intent to at first undermine and finally eradicate the sway European culture held over the port cities.

When reflecting about the vanished port city culture from today’s vantage point, what Ilham Khuri-Makdisi said about late nineteenth century political radicalism in cities of the Levant to some extent holds true for nineteenth century Eastern Mediterranean culture in general. It is characterized by a “lack of orthodoxy and rigid boundaries that was a key characteristic of the fin de siècle, whether intellectually, culturally, or socially. It suggests a Weltanschauung taking shape during a period of flux, in which different groups of actors in the non-Western world felt confident they could assemble their own visions of social and world order, borrowing, adapting, synthesizing perhaps plundering ideas from ‘the west and the rest’ and melding them with local practices and ideas to produce what might strike us today as a radical package marked by contradictions and limitations.” My book is meant as a humble contribution to understand this seemingly paradoxical urban culture better as well as to relocate it to the center of discussions not only about Ottoman, but also European history.


Malte Fuhrmann is a research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. Having spent many years doing research and teaching in Istanbul, he is the author of Konstantinopel – Istanbul. Stadt der Sultane und Rebellen (2019), Der Traum vom deutschen Orient: Zwei deutsche Kolonien im Osmanischen Reich 1850-1918 (2006) and co-editor of The City in the Ottoman Empire: Migration and the Making of Urban Modernity (2011) with Ulrike Freitag, Nora Lafi, and Florian Riedler. He is currently working on a DFG-funded project on the evolution of developmental discourse in Bulgaria and Turkey in the debate on traffic infrastructure.


Citation: Malte Fuhrmann, Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27052.


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