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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Istanbul as a Center for East-West Information Transfer in the Twentieth Century

Pamela Spence Richards
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA

The city of Istanbul remains as it has for centuries a major conduit of information between the (geographical) east and the west; but as I will demonstrate in the course of this paper, the nature o f information flowing in both directions has changed radically in the course of the 20th century. The institutions and agencies through which this information flows have changed as well. These altera tions are the result of political and cultural developments inside Turkey and without. In this paper I will attempt to demonstrate the impact the most important of these developments have had on Ista nbul's role in the international transfer of information, whether that transfer has taken place through interpersonal communication, the press, or through libraries.


The focus of my study will be on twentieth-century Istanbul, but much of the city's cultural infrastructure was laid during the 450 years it served as the administrative and religious capital of the Ottoman empire, which ended with the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923.

Information transfer from west to east: The last century of Ottoman rule was characterized by the creation of a variety official channels for importing European information as the sultans sought way s to improve the empire's military and technological performance. After 1826 Prussian officers were imported to train the Turkish general staff and as the nineteenth century progressed, a medical sch ool and faculties of science, law, letters and economics using Western European texts were established in Istanbul (1). In addition, the Porte's Translation Office, whose French-speaking Turkish e mployees handled the empire's diplomatic correspondence, turned into an important conduit for French political ideas such as liberalism and nationalism. But Sultan Abdulhamid II's fear of western-ins pired demands for constitutional, parliamentary government led during the last decades of the nineteenth century to a crack-down on channels to the west: the embryonic daily press was muzzled and the new university faculties in Istanbul were closed (2).

Ironically, the censoring of the political news forced Istanbul's newspaper editors to fill their own pages with encyclopedic articles on European science, history, technology and literature for wh ich their limited readership was hungry. Thus the late Ottoman press served as a sort of current western library for the 10% of the empire's population that could read (3).

Probably the most important channel of western information into the late Ottoman empire were the schools and colleges set up by Europeans to teach the empire's non-Muslims. The Sultan, who was also bore the title of Caliph, or religious leader, of the world's Muslims, did not permit evangelizing among his Islamic subjects, but over the centuries European-funded schools grew up to serve the em pire's Christian and Jewish populations. After the Young Turk revolution of 1908, which forced numerous reforms on the imperial government, these institutions were open to the Islamic populations as well. The most influential of the institutions for Christians was the English-language Robert College, founded by Americans in Istanbul in 1863. Still flourishing today as the state-controlled Engl ish-language University of the Bosphorus, Robert College, together with the American College for Girls founded in Istanbul in l890, was an important bridge to western information. Because these two institutions maintained libraries meeting American college standards, they also served as important conduits of professional expertise in librarianship (4). (Worth mentioning as other channels of wes tern information, even though they were outside of Istanbul, are the French Catholic schools in the Levant, and, in the early twentieth century, the schools funded by German and French Jewry in Pales tine -- especially the German-language Technikum founded in Jaffa by the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden.)(5) Information transfer from east to west: Western Europeans' fascination with the East dates at least back to the Crusades, but the institutions founded by westerners in nineteenth- and twentieth century-Istanbul to supply them with information about the Ottoman empire had very modern motives -- namely a need to know more about the Islamic peoples whose lands the western powers were colonizin g. The French in North Africa, the British in India and Egypt, the Russians in the Caucasus, the Italians in Libya and the Dutch in the East Indies, all ruled millions of subjects whose spiritual lo yalty lay with the Caliph in Istanbul. Istanbul, the seat of the Caliphate and the site of one of Islam's greatest libraries, that of Suleiman the Magnificent with its 73,000 Islamic manuscripts (6) , was thus the logical center of Islamic studies, or "orientalism" as it was called in the nineteenth century. Istanbul's magnetism was compounded by the fact that printing had been permitted by the Ottomans only after 1728; thus hundreds of years of Islamic scholarship existed only in manuscript form and had never been disseminated to western libraries. It was difficult to study Islam from afar .

Another factor bringing western scholars to Istanbul in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the romantic interest in ancient history which led, among other things, to Heinrich Schlie mann's digging on the coast of Turkey in the 1870s for the site of Troy. Trebizond, the ancient Hittite cities, Assyria, Sumer and Babylon all lay within Ottoman territories ruled from Istanbul. Ott oman administrators could permit or forbid European digs on their territories.

The institutions founded to serve these various western interests in the Ottoman Empire were at first mainly located in Europe: A chair of oriental studies was founded in St. Petersburg in 1863, and in Germany and Austria a number of orientalist periodicals, most notably Türkische Bibliotheken (Berlin l905-1927), reflected the growth in scholarship (7). As we will see, it is not until after Wo rld War I that Istanbul itself becomes the seat of significant western research institutions.


The dismantling of the Ottoman empire by Allies after its defeat in World War I, and the establishment of an independent Turkish republic in Anatolia by Mostafa Kemal in 1923, brought about a radica l alteration in the role of Istanbul as a center of information exchange between Europe and the east. A most important factor in this shift was Kemal's replacement of Ottoman culture with Turkish cul ture. In defeat, Turkey's lands had been reduced primarily to Anatolia, which under Kemal's military leadership had survived an invasion and partition attempt by France, England and Italy between 19 19 and 1922. In 1923 Kemal moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, both for security reasons and to emphasize the Turkish roots of the republic. And in 1924, when he dissolved the Caliphate, Kema l ended Istanbul's centuries-old function as the global center of Islam and turned the Turkish Republic into a purely secular state.

Information transfer from west to east: While western learning had been viewed as a necessary evil by the Ottomans and the Islamic authorities, it was encouraged outright by Kemal, who said in 1925 that "This nation has now accepted the principle that the only means of survival for nations in the international struggle for existence lies in the acceptance of the contemporary Western civilizatio n."(8) The most effective way to inculcate western standards was through educational reform, so right after proclaiming the Republic Kemal brought in John Dewey from Columbia University to redesign the Turkish school system.(9) In higher education reform Kemal was helped by Europe's own turmoil in the 1930s: By 1939 over a hundred German academics dismissed from German institutions in the wak e of National Socialism found employ in Turkey, many in the newly-secularized universities of Istanbul and Ankara. Classes at Ankara and Istanbul were taught with the help of a translator, although t he contracts signed by the Germans stipulated that they would do everything in their power to teach in Turkish after their third year in Turkey (10). The presence of German scholars in the 1930s left its mark on Turkey's young profession of librarianship as well. Joseph Stumvoll, later head of the Austrian National Library in Vienna, organized in 1933 the library at the university of Ankara for the faculty of agriculture and veterinary medicine, considered the best academic library in Turkey at the time. And when the National Library was opened in 1948, its cataloging code was based on the Prussian Instructions (11).

Information transfer from east to west: If Europe represented everything modern to Kemal, the Ottoman Empire was to him the opposite -- medieval, oriental and unprogressive. His energies were devote d to showing the Turk as different from the myriad other Islamic peoples. Ottoman culture became anathema. The Ottoman language and writing systems abolished: Late Ottoman, written in Arabic script and composed mostly of Arabic and Persian vocabulary, was replaced in 1929 by a purely Turkish language written in the roman alphabet and composed of vocabulary and linguistic elements drawn from ru ral Anatolia (12). Official emphasis was laid on the unique role in history of the Turks and the Turkic language. The Turkish Historical Society, richly endowed by Kemal in Ankara in 1932, focused on what it called the civilizing force of Turks in history, discovering Turkish ties with the Hittites, Sumerians and Babylonians, and claiming Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Attila as "proto-Turks"(13). The Turkish Linguistic Society, dating from 1931, also founded and endowed by Kemal in Ankara, proclaimed -- to the discomfiture of many established Turkish linguists -- that Turkish was the closest of all existing languages to the world's first language and that all other languages have developed from this primeval langauge through Turkish to their present state (14).

During the interwar years, Kemal's Turkish focus did not have a great effect on the transfer of information from Istanbul to the west. His nationalist emphasis was largely for domestic consumption, intended to rally Anatolia around a new flag. For example, Kemal was extremely careful not to endanger his excellent relations with the Soviet Union by exporting pan-Turkic nationalism to the USSR's Turkic republics, and his party actively prosecuted proponents of such export when they found them (15). In Europe and the United States, Turkic studies -- as opposed to Ottoman studies -- were st ill in their adolescence and would not mature till after the middle of the twentieth century (16).

But the Islamic peoples and their ancient pasts remained a magnet to western interests throughout the interwar period and beyond. Ironically, it was under the secular, western-oriented Republic tha t the great western infrastructure was laid in Turkey for the export of information about the Near East, from Ottoman to pre-historical times. Thus the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, owner of what is now the premier library in its field in Turkey, was founded in 1929; the Institut francais d'études Anatoliennes d'Istanbul was opened in 1930; the British Institute of Archaeology was opened in Ankara in 1947; and the Netherlands Historical and Archaeological Institute was founded in Istanbul in 1958. All of these institutes maintain libraries and regular research journals in western l angauges. And, with one exception, they are all in Istanbul.

Information transfer from Turkey eastward: The secularization of Turkey did not end Istanbul's value as an information source for Islam. The cultural value of Suleiman the Magnificent's collection o f Islamic manuscripts to the world's Moslems is enormous. The library's staff is preparing a microfilm archive of materials on Islam and has been supplying microfilms of its holdings to scholarly ce nters in Iran and Pakistan (17). Proof of the city's continued importance to Islam is the fact that in 1979 the Organization of the Islamic Conference opened a Research Centre for Islamic History, A rt and Culture in Istanbul.


After 1950 geopolitical factors caused an increase in western interest in Turkish, rather than Ottoman, studies. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and gradually became the Soviet Union's most heavily-armed neighbor and an important site of bases for Turkey's western allies. It was also the cultural homeland of the Soviet Union's more than 30 million Turkic inhabitants, stretching along the nation's so uthern flank from the Caucasus to China (18). During the last forty-five years Turkey served as the major western listening post for developments among the Soviet Turkic populations. Since the diss olution of the USSR in 1991, Turkey's cultural relations with these now independent peoples are more overt, emphasizing common linguistic and ethnic roots. Western interest in these emerging, oil-ric h countries is intensifying and Turkey offers a fertile site for their study.


So Istanbul remains a key transfer point of strategic information important to Europe and the United States. With its population of more than three million inhabitants, five universities and numerou s research libraries, Istanbul remains not only the largest city but the intellectual and cultural capital of Turkey, publishing all nine of the republic's national daily newspapers and most of its scholarly journals. It remains an important source of information about Islam and Islamic scholarship. Increasingly it is a conduit of information to and from the Turkic republics to the east. As t he largest Black Sea port it is in direct maritime communication with the politically volatile Caucasus. Thus the city's informational value to the west has probably increased since the end of the Cold War.

Conversely, Istanbul remains Turkey's major source of western information. Located physically in Europe, it is the site of the nation's largest European population, has the most European visitors, the most representatives of western corporations, the most European scholars, and the most international conferences of any Turkish city. From here, into the Turkish Asian mainland, flows the infor mation packaged by the mass media and scholarly presses of Istanbul.

Thus the city's critical role as east-west information transfer point continues. My discussion today has been limited to the twentieth century, and has ignored the importance of information flowin g from this city in the medieval and early modern period. I hope nonetheless that I have persuaded you all that there could hardly be a more appropriate site than Istanbul for the conference of an organization concerned with the dissemination of information.


1. Bisbee, Eleanor, The New Turks: Pioneers of the Republic 1920-1950 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951), p. 91.
2. Zürcher, Erik, Turkey: A Modern History (London: I.B. Tauris, l993), pp. 43, 70. Bisbee, Eleanor, The New Turks: Pioneers of the Republic 1920-1950 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951), p. 91.
3. Zürcher, p. 82.
4. Thompson, Lawrence S., "The Libraries of Turkey", Library Quarterly 22(1952):281.
5. Friedman, Isaiah, Germany, Turkey and Zionism 1897-l9l8 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 158-162.
6. Cankaya, Leman, "Turkey, Libraries in", Encyclopedia of Library and Information Studies (New York, Marcel Dekker, 1981), vol. 31, p. 231.
7. Kononov, A. N., "Turkic Studies", Great Soviet Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1981), vol. 26, p.481.
8. Macfie, A. L., Atatürk (London: Longman, 1994), p. 138.
9. Cankaya, p. 226.
10. Richards, Pamela Spence, Scientific Information in Wartime: The Allied-German Rivalry 1939-1945 (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1994), p. 51.
11. Thompson, pp. 274, 277.
12. Macfie, A.L., p. 137 ff.
13. Noordman, W. E. De Republiek Turkije (Meppel: JA Boom, 1963), p. 77.
14. Zürcher, p. 198.
15. Hostler, Charles Warren, Turkism and the Soviets: The Turks of the World and their Political Objectives (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1957), chapter 3.
16. Kononov, p. 482.
17. Cankaya, p. 231.
18. In 1957 Hostler gives 22 million as an estimate, based on statistics from 1945. See Hostler, p.27.