The Tanzimat and Children on the Periphery

The Mekteb-i İdadi of Baghdad
contribution by Lydia Harrington
[1] Mekteb-i İdadi (Preparatory School), Baghdad, view from inner courtyard. 
Photograph 1880-93. Abdülhamid II Collection, Library of Congress.
[2] View of Mekteb-i İdadi from the Tigris.
Photograph 1880-93. Abdülhamid
 II Collection, Library of Congress.
The Baghdad that appears in contemporary media as a bombed-out, crumbling, dangerous cityscape (or, for that matter, Saddam Hussein's tacky, self-aggrandizing monuments of the 80s and 90s) makes it hard to imagine the city's not-so-distant history as a booming metropolis and center of civilization. And while architectural historians have primarily focused on the (mostly-unrealized) high-modernist projects in the 50s commissioned by the Iraq Development Board and the art-deco designs that flourished during the British Mandate period, a look at pre-Mandate Baghdad reveals that modernist principles were not introduced to this city’s architecture by the British, but by the Ottomans. Examining new institutions of 19th-century Ottoman provincial capitals such as Baghdad offers a new spatially-oriented perspective on power relations between the imperial center and periphery, and this can particularly be seen in the development of educational systems in the last years of the Empire. A prominent example is the Mekteb-i İdadi (“preparatory school”), which still stands today between the left bank of the Tigris River and al-Mutanabbi Street, a well-known book-selling district that suffered a devastating car bomb attack in 2007. [Figs. 1-2] The Mekteb-i İdadi served an elite cadre of young men who experienced a new kind of education system with a more modern and secular curriculum compared to what was offered prior to the 19th century. Graduates typically moved on to be trained at the military academy in Constantinople, followed by careers in government administration and diplomacy. 
[3] Contemporary aerial view of the clocktower, Saray and Mekteb-i İdadi amid the modern urban sprawl of the city. Google Maps Street View 2015.
New infrastructure projects--roads, railways, tramways, telegraph lines, bridges, steamships--enabled an increased communication between the imperial center and its provinces and facilitated the building of institutions such as schools, administrative centers, hospitals, prisons, and the printing press. Namık Pasha, the vali (governor) of Baghdad from 1851-1852 and 1861-1868, and Midhat Pasha, vali from 1869-1872, are credited with introducing such innovations that were characterized by a more direct role of the state in local life. Plans to set up the Mekteb-i İdadi were made at the beginning of the Tanzimat era but not realized until the 1850s. It was built next to the Saray (administrative center) complex initiated by Namik Pasha and completed by Midhat, and featured a 23-meter tall clock tower (completed later in 1870) in what was known then as the Rusafa district. [Fig. 3] Baghdad’s division by the Tigris allowed such projects to be built in full view of visitors and locals alike.

[4] Baghdad Mekteb-i Rüşdiyye under construction.
Photograph 1880-1893. 
Abdülhamid II
 Collection, Library of Congress.

During the Tanzimat, military education took precedence over civil institutions and was superior both in terms of breadth of topics and quality of education. Thus the first modern educational institutions in the empire were provincial military schools whose graduates were sent for further study in Constantinople. Young men from the provinces had more opportunities to pursue a modern education, shifting the tide of thought both in and beyond the capital and producing a class of educated officials and professionals, some of whom disagreed with Sultan Abdülhamid II’s rule. Prior to the Tanzimat, higher educational opportunities in the city were few and the system and curricula largely religious. The youngest students went to a kuttâb to learn reading, writing, and Qur’an recitation, and more advanced students attended a madrasa  to study transmitted sciences (theology) and rational sciences. Namık Pasha began to modernize the system by founding new versions of the kuttâb and madrasa—the ibtidai and rüşdiyye, respectively—where new subjects such as French and modern sciences were added to the curriculum. [Fig. 4] Such changes in lower education demonstrate not an entire secularization of education, but an expansion of or complement to pre-existing kinds of education. The Mekteb-i İdadi was the highest level of (non-Islamic) education a young man in Baghdad could undertake and expanded upon the subjects taught at the rüşdiyye, adding military strategy. Except for classes on religion, which were taught by an imam (in Arabic), all instruction was given by Ottoman military officers in Turkish. 

[5] Mekteb-i İdadi, Baghdad. Plan 1890-93. Abdülhamid II Collection, Library of Congress.

[6] Plan of Mekteb-i İdadi from Salname-I
Nezaret-I Maarif-I Umumiye
The extant sources for the physical appearance of the Mekteb-i İdadi in Baghdad include plans of the school's layout and photographs of the activities that took place within its walls. Looking at the two existing ground plans for the school, however, raises some issues regarding what had been proposed versus what was in fact built on the ground. One plan [Fig. 5] shows two floors surrounding a central open courtyard, and this corresponds with what is seen in contemporary photos. Another (later) plan for the Mekteb-i İdadi, published in the 1906 Salname (yearbook) for Baghdad [Fig. 7], however, does not correspond with the other drawn plan. It has some similarities regarding the layout, but no courtyard. So this could be evidence for renovation projects, a plan for a different floor, or a different building altogether. These two plans call into question the accuracy of planimetric documentation and stress the importance of comparing such documentation with historical photographs, if possible. 

[7] Mekteb-I İdadi, Baghdad, drills in the courtyard. Photograph 1890-93. 
Abdülhamid II Collection, Library of Congress. 
The students photographed in the courtyard of the Mekteb-i İdadi who are ostensibly lined up for military exercises stand at attention under the eyes of teachers and staff from all sides and from above. [Fig. 7] The layout of the rooms and doors in both plans (assuming Fig. 6 is indeed of the Mekteb-i İdadi) not only facilitates ease of movement and socialization, but also ease of surveillance. This aspect of physical and psychological control is shared with contemporary institutions like modern hospitals, insane asylums, prisons and, of course, schools in the Ottoman Empire, Europe, and North America. 

Stylistically, the exterior of the school building was rendered in the late Ottoman Neo-Classical style of Constantinople’s most prominent buildings, demonstrating that tastes of the imperial center still defined the periphery. This was not necessarily mimicry of what Europeans were doing, but was a way to display power, wealth, taste and investment in education as high-ranking members of a world empire. Meanwhile, the interior courtyard typology of the Mekteb-i İdadi reflects the traditional building types of Baghdad for which keeping living spaces cool in the scorching summer heat and maintaining privacy were primary concerns.

[8] Students from the Baghdad Mekteb-i İdadi. Sebah and Jouaillier, Photograph 1888.
Abdülhamid II Collection, Library of Congress. 
[9] Students from the Tribal [Aşiret] School
in Constantinople. Abdullah Frères, Photograph
Abdülhamid II Collection, Library of Congress. 
Both idadi and rüşdiyye schools are well documented in the large collection of photographs kept by Sultan Abdülhamid II. The documentation of the Baghdad Mekteb-i İdadi can be considered as comparable to that of other late Ottoman photography projects such as the Elbise-i Osmaniyye, in which different Ottoman ‘types’ were posed together and regions ordered according to their proximity to the imperial center. The availability of the Elbise-i Osmaniyye to Europeans in the Vienna Exposition of 1873 and to elite Ottomans back home enforced a hierarchical view of “Ottomanness” based on class, ethnicity, religion and geographical location. Similarly, the Abdülhamid II photograph albums were viewed by Ottoman elites and gifted to institutions such as the British Library, ensuring consumption by foreign elites. The students of the Mekteb-i İdadi were, like the Elbise subjects, photographed before a backdrop, devoid of context and wearing fezzes and Ottoman uniforms. [Fig. 8] The only kind of indigenous dress or identity revealed in these albums is in a controlled environment (such as the Aşiret School in the imperial center), while all other regions demonstrate homogeneity of dress. [Fig. 9] The schools were photographed as well, separately from their students. This lack of context makes it possible that these are not even the students at these institutions, but they are still valuable since they demonstrate how the center represented the periphery in Constantinople and abroad.

Documenting subjects through photography was not only a way of gathering information, but also of psychologically reorganizing the empire as it was physically reorganized. Ussama Makdisi has argued that Ottoman elites in the 19th-century internalized some Orientalist views from Europeans and at the same time projected an “Ottoman Orientalism” on their own “others” in the provinces. In Namık and Midhat Pashas’ case, they became at once objects of reform as well as essential parts of an empire that was losing its western provinces. In his first public speech in Baghdad, Midhat Pasha emphasized the need for development and modernization and contrasted the great past of the city with the present backwardness of the region. He noted that not all changes may be welcomed by the people, but he believed they would ultimately benefit.  According to Makdisi, “the Ottomans represented their own periphery as an integral part of their engagement with, explicit resistance to, but also implicit acceptance of, Western representations of the indolent Ottoman East.” Ottoman elites used the provinces as a sort of laboratory for experimentation with modern and new institutions and techniques; analysis of the Mekteb-i İdadi, however, demonstrates that the motive behind reformers was more to retain imperial strength and demonstrate competence rather than change a social status quo. Examining the intersection of imperial and local interests, institutions, architecture, and representations allows us to go beyond the binary of “East and West” and see the more complex picture that was reform in Late Ottoman Baghdad. 

LYDIA HARRINGTON is a Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Architecture at Boston University, focusing on modern institutions in the Middle East and the representation of Islamic art and architecture in museums.

**The Abdulhamid II Photograph collection is available on its own digital platform at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. All images are free to use in the public domain.

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Citation: "The Tanzimat and Children on the Periphery," Lydia Harrington, Stambouline (July 4, 2015).


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