New Release: Patricia Blessing's Architecture and Material Politics in the Fifteenth-century Ottoman Empire

Nov. 17, 2022

Architecture and Material Politics in the Fifteenth-century Ottoman Empire by Patricia Blessing was released in November 2022

Just released by Cambridge University Press, Patricia Blessing's Architecture and Material Politics in the Fifteenth-century Ottoman Empire explores the emergence of Ottoman architecture in the 15th century and its connection with broader geographical contexts. Analyzing how transregional exchange shaped building practices, she examines how workers from Anatolia, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Iran and Central Asia participated in key construction projects. She also demonstrates how drawn, scalable models on paper served as templates for architectural decorations and supplemented collaborations that involved the mobility of workers. Blessing reveals how the creation of centralized workshops led to the emergence of a clearly defined imperial Ottoman style by 1500, when the flexibility and experimentation of the preceding century was levelled. Her book radically transforms our understanding of Ottoman architecture by exposing the diverse and fluid nature of its formative period. It also provides the reader with an understanding of design, planning, and construction processes of a major empire of the Islamic world.

Q&A with Patricia Blessing

What inspired you to choose this topic?

The project emerged from the epilogue of my first book, Rebuilding Anatolia after the Mongol Conquest: Islamic Architecture in the Lands of Rūm, 1240-1330 (2014). There, I reflected briefly on continuities and ruptures between the period  of Mongol presence in the region that I had worked on, and early Ottoman architecture. A visit to Bursa, the first Ottoman capital and a major site of patronage for centuries, had sparked my interest in understanding ties to earlier monuments in the same region, and beyond. The literature on these two topics is often completely separate, but there actually is a significant chronological overlap as the Ottomans first emerged as local rulers in northwestern Anatolia in the late thirteenth century. The earliest extant monuments built under their patronage date to the 1330s, the same period that I had been studying for cities  such as Sivas, Ankara, and Kayseri. Over time, the project evolved to cover a later period, roughly from the 1380s to the 1510s, because I realized that there was a need for an architectural history of the Ottoman Empire in the long fifteenth century, both before and after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

How long did you work on the manuscript?  Were there any noteworthy challenges or windfalls?

I first began to research early Ottoman architecture in 2014-15, after I had completed my first book. The following year, however, I became very interested in medieval Islamic, but also Christian and Jewish architecture in Spain, and into the question of relationships between textile and architecture. So, for a while, the “Ottoman book”, as I sometimes jokingly called it, was on hold as I wrote articles on the Iberian material. I returned to the project that resulted in the book in fall 2017, and submitted the manuscript for peer review in winter 2020. Given the timing, an obvious challenge was the Covid-19 pandemic, which prevented me from taking a last research trip to Greece and Turkey in summer 2020. I decided that this was not absolutely essential to completing the book, and luckily peer reviewers agreed. As I was completing final revisions in summer 2021, I was still not able to travel because my daughter had been born in March, so there are a few footnotes mentioning the pandemic. And there was the challenge of getting the manuscript ready for production while taking care of a newborn. In the end, it all worked out though, and I am very happy with the result.

Which new questions has writing the book raised for you?

As I was writing my book, I became more and more interested in questions of design, and in the use of paper as a vehicle for it. I explored part of these questions in my book, as I examined how elusive (in the sense that they haven’t been preserved) paper templates could have played a role in how monuments and architectural decoration from stone to tile and woodwork were created. Such templates could also have traveled between sites along with the highly mobile makers who produced them, even though we lack physical evidence. I also kept running into the fact that interior decoration is often only partially preserved, and that even buildings that retain their original function, such as mosques, are filled with modern objects rather than historical ones. The latter are of course in museum collections, sometimes in their place of origin my more often dispersed around the world due to looting to supply the art market since the 19th century. Right now, I am working on a project in which I want to address two central questions: first, how interiors were designed and second, what we can understand of the relationship between buildings and the objects such as lamps, carpets, candlesticks that furnished them.

Were there any key discoveries or surprises that emerged in the process of researching/writing?

As I begun working on the project, I didn’t expect how much of my book would be about histories of process, making, and hence of technologies. As I was working, I uncovered more about many unnamed makers – those who participated in Ottoman construction projects at various levels – than I had expected. I don’t mean biographies, since even for those few makers whose signatures we have, life stories are elusive before the mid-sixteenth century. Much rather, I refer to collaborations whose actors are unnamed, but that are clearly taking place and visible in the buildings themselves.

Why is this topic relevant today?

The book covers major historical monuments in a range of cities in Turkey, Greece, and North Macedonia, but also draws comparisons on monuments located in Iran, Uzbekistan, Egypt and Syria. In the fifteenth century, these locations were connected by networks of scholars, intellectuals, artists, and others who were highly mobile at the time. Thus, the architectural heritage of these places is closely connected. The book serves as a reminder of these connections, when the political realities of the day are ones of separate, national narratives and, in some places, even war.