Table Topics: “Learning from the Past? Facts and Fictions from Historical Societies with Greater Diversity” – The Case of 19th Century Ottoman Istanbul (Richard Wittmann)


Richard Wittmann (photo: Orient-Institut Istanbul)

Lessons from the past can only be learned if we do not blindfold ourselves by ignoring sources available to us, be it accidental, deliberate, or as a result of methodological approach, argues historian Richard Wittmann.

While the Ottoman capital Istanbul has been home to many nationalities and adherents of various religions ever since the city was conquered from the Byzantines in 1453, its history has by-and-large been written on the basis of texts produced by Sunni Muslim males.  For centuries, the Ottoman ordre public, which was developed according to Islamic notions of the state, allowed for a functioning—albeit unequal—conviviality of Muslims, Christians and Jews, who only occasionally experienced short-lived disruptions of their all-in-all peaceful coexistence. As a consequence of the reform legislation (Tanzimat) of the 19th century, for the first time in Ottoman history, non-Muslims acquired equal citizenship rights.

The study of the personal accounts of male and female individuals of all walks of life, who were part of the composite of inhabitants of Istanbul in the 19th century, reveals for the first time how these new citizens and residents articulated their aspirations, attitudes and hopes with regard to various forms of participation and self-identification in the multi-ethnic city of Istanbul.

At the table “Learning from the Past? Facts and Fictions from Historical Societies with Greater Diversity“, Richard Wittmann will speak on how the residents of 19th century Istanbul themselves wrote about the experience of living in a multiethnic metropolis, which—while being the seat of the Islamic Caliphate—was home to a multiethnic population of Muslims, Christians and Jews. He wants to discuss how individuals of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds situated themselves in relation to changing official definitions of citizenship and belonging.

Richard Wittmann is the Associate Director of the Orient-Institut Istanbul, an Turkey-based German Humanities research institute of the Max Weber Foundation. His research interests focus on Islamic legal history and the social history of the Ottoman Empire. Special attention is given in his work to the consideration of self-narratives as historic sources for the study of the Near East. Richard Wittmann coordinates an international collaborative research project aimed at the study and publication of Ottoman self-narratives (

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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3 Antworten

  1. 24/11/2016

    […] from the Past? Facts and Fictions from Historical Societies with Greater Diversity Richard Wittmann (Orient Institut Istanbul) Lorena Ossio Bustillos (Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social […]

  2. 07/12/2016

    […] Diversity”. Referring to the city of Istanbul during the 19th century Ottoman millet system, Richard Wittmann (Orient Institut Istanbul) particularly stressed the personal freedom of action individuals of […]

  3. 21/12/2016

    […] Roundtable von Lorena Ossio Bustillos und Richard Wittmann knüpfte an solchen scheinbaren Widersprüchen an und fragte, inwieweit die modernen Vorstellungen […]

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