Provincially Ottoman

Defining Ottoman-Balkan Architecture at the Mehmet Ali House, Kavala, Greece
by Bridget Halstead

This post is part of our series Stambouline in the Classroom

[1] Sign for "Mohamet Ali Street" in Greek and Latin letters, Kavala. Photo by Emily Neumeier.

The phrase “Ottoman architecture” poses potential complications to the study of buildings in Ottoman lands.  A distinctive stylistic category of “Ottoman Architecture” is particularly difficult to define within the eighteenth-century empire. In the context of this period, the term  does not connote a distinctive, empire-wide aesthetic architectural movement led by Istanbul, but rather suggests some measure of synthesis between the traditions of the central empire and its outlying regions. 

[2] Exterior view of the Mehmet Ali House. Creative Commons License.

[3] Portrait of Mehmet Ali
Pasha, Auguste Couder, 1841.
Palace of Versai

Image in public domain.
The Mehmet Ali House, located in Kavala, in the Macedonia region of Greece, is significant among eighteenth-century residential structures because it exemplifies these ongoing debates over the definition of “Ottoman architecture” and over Ottoman architectural legacy in the Balkans. [Figures 1 & 2] Because this house was constructed in 1720, before the creation of national boundaries in the Balkans, it cannot be considered a characteristically “nationalist” Greek, Albanian, or Macedonian structure.  It is instead an example of a synthetic “Ottoman core” or “Rumi” architectural style in which the design of residential structures was largely consistent across large central swaths of the empire, and in which regional ornamental or decorative variants, if they existed, were present in such a way that they did not obfuscate the consistent form of the “Ottoman core”-style structure. In addition, the house’s role as the family home of Mehmet Ali, an Ottoman military official who in the early nineteenth century declared himself governor of Egypt and instituted military and economic reforms--actions that earned him the title “Founder of Modern Egypt"--marks this house as historically significant not only to the Balkan region, but also to Egypt. 

Modern nationalist historiography has attempted to ascribe national origin for various architectural styles in formerly Ottoman-occupied nation states.  Ottoman structures like the Mehmet Ali House, however, espouse a necessarily synthetic Ottoman architectural style, as they were constructed before the advent of national boundaries. Maurice Cerasi proposes that a “core area” of Ottoman architecture, in which domestic residential architectural styles were largely consistent, existed in the swath of land between Anatolia and Rumeli, extending to Thessaly in the south and Bosnia to the east (130). Tülay Artan, similarly, dubs this necessarily synthetic architectural style “Rumi” due to its “fusion of monumental and residential” aesthetic elements (99). Artan, like Cerasi, proposes that this synthetic architectural style was not the result of conscious cultural and aesthetic fusion, but rather came about as the result not only of a simultaneously “reconstructing” and decentralizing system of imperial power, but also of cultural dialogue and “power-sharing arrangements” between the provinces and Istanbul.

Because of its location inside this “core area,” the Mehmet Ali House’s wooden brackets, two-story stone and mortar structure, and large windows on the exterior are extremely similar to other “Rumi” residential structures. Its tile roof and ornamental features, however, are distinctively Balkan. In defining an Ottoman-Balkan legacy, therefore, this house presents evidence of a pre-nationalist synthetic architectural culture which, though tinged with some ornamental features specific to residential structures in the Macedonia region, was common to the “core area” of the empire.  The house itself is a refutation of nationalist historiographies, which tend to champion singular origins for architectural style and to characterize Ottoman residential aesthetics as having overpowered distinct, national-provincial styles that existed before Ottoman incursions into the Balkans.

The Balkan region as a whole represented an extremely valuable zone that affected the financial and social standing of the empire. Frederick Anscombe writes that, “in terms of population, economic vitality, and imperial prestige, the Balkans constituted the most important part of the Ottoman domains, giving a European aspect to an empire commonly imagined as ‘Asiatic’" (574). Despite his emphasis on the strategic importance of the Balkans, Anscombe’s argument segregates the Balkans from the center. Here, the Balkans are not only of strategic and financial importance to the imperial center, but are also construed as pivotal Western elements of the Ottoman Empire. Cerasi’s delineation of a “core area” of influence for Ottoman residential architecture, however, frames the Balkans as having synthesized architectural styles with the center. In dialogue with this, Artan classifies Rumelia, rather than Anatolia, as the aesthetic center and “richest heartland” of the empire, due to its essentially synthetic architectural styles and economic vitality (100-101). Where Anscombe’s framework emphasizes the cultural disparity between the center and the Balkan provinces, Cerasi’s “core area” thesis and Artan’s “Rumi” conception promote a synthetic framework that is reflected in the integrated architectural style of the Mehmet Ali House.

The Mehmet Ali House as Architectural Artifact
The Mehmet Ali House, built in 1720, covers 2,079 square meters. Its two-story construction is typical of the “core area” architectural style. As depicted in Figure 2 and 3, the house utilizes a narrow stone base with a jutting second story supported by wooden cantilever beams. 

[3] Another view of the Mehmet Ali 
house from the south. 
Photo by Emily Neumeier.
These features are common to “core area” domestic architecture because they are found not only in residential structures found in the Macedonia region like the Mehmet Ali House, but also in domestic architecture found across the imperial “core,” including areas of Anatolia.  This two-story wood-beamed structure, then, can be considered the elemental basis upon which synthetic “Ottoman architecture” can be built.

In the case of the Mehmet Ali House, regional architectural elements are present in the house’s jutting second story and tiled roof. These design elements were common in what is now continental Greece and Macedonia, and in the Mehmet Ali House are imposed onto the “core area” structural base of the house. As illustrated in Figures 2 and 3, the house’s balconies and tile roof not only customize the imported “core area” structure but also utilize the house’s strategic location. The Mehmet Ali House stands upon a scenic overlook; the back of the house faces the Aegean. [Figure 4]

[4] View from the sea of the historic citadel of Kavala, where the Mehmet Ali House is located. 
Photo by Emily Neumeier.

Here, the addition of balconies may not have been, as nationalist frameworks would suggest, a conscious imposition of regional architectural elements onto the stone-and-protruding-mortar construction of the “core structure,” but rather an attempt to capitalize on the house’s strategic location. The tiled roof, moreover, may have served a practical purpose. Cerasi suggests that certain ornamental elements found in the Macedonia region were informed by ancient Greek architecture. The use of a tiled roof may have been due to available supplies in the area.  

It is important to remember that these Macedonian architectural features were not imposed onto residential structures like the Mehmet Ali House out of a nationalistic aesthetic fervor.  They were instead included due to a process of synthesis which, over time, slightly modified the common “Rumi” structure due to a natural process of cultural and aesthetic fusion.  

This “core area” architecture, however, was not a specific set of architectural or aesthetic guidelines handed to the provinces from Istanbul, but was instead the result of a slow process of hybridity. Similarities in architecture were due less to central imperial desires to quash difference - cultural, aesthetic, or religious - in the provinces than they were to the desire of provincial notables to emulate the building styles of Istanbul. In the context of the de-centralizing eighteenth-century empire, in which changes to the tax system allowed wealthy provincial power-holders to amass more wealth and resources, this emulation of central styles allowed provincial notables to demonstrate their cosmopolitanism, while distinctive provincial changes, such as the tile roof on the Mehmet Ali house, allowed them to erect domestic structures which were in dialogue with regional aesthetic forms. The fusion of local ornamentation and core area-style structural design on the Mehmet Ali House, then, was not only a result of the house’s position within the core architectural region of the empire, but also of an increasingly-available architectural synthesis that occurred as a natural result of political and social changes in the eighteenth century empire. While the house retains its distinctively “Ottoman core” form, the addition of a tiled roof and balconies allow it to be distinguished from hybrid styles in other areas of the empire.

In this sense, decentralization accelerated the process of architectural synthesis in the empire’s dynamic [Balkan] heartlands, and residential constructions like the Mehmet Ali House took on an inherently synthetic architectural style. Here, Artan’s discussion of a necessarily synthetic “Rumi” architecture is again applicable: the “interactive patronage” between the Balkans and center was not only spurred by decentralizing wealth and political power, but was also encouraged by cultural and ethnic interaction in the provinces. Because of this, structures like the Mehmet Ali House espoused an essentially integrated architectural aesthetic. This style is both fully Balkan and fully Ottoman; neither architectural tradition enveloped the other, but the two rather meshed to form a hybrid, synthetic style of “Ottoman architecture.” 

Impositions of a Nationalist Framework
Şuhnaz Yılmaz and İpek Yosmaoğlu outline a view that contends that, in the Balkans, Ottoman rule disputed “the otherwise natural development of various nations” (679-80). The application of a nationalist framework assumes that modern nationalist sentiment existed in some form in the premodern Ottoman provinces. In the context of architecture, however, regional ornamental and decorative variants of the type used in the Mehmet Ali House are not representative of a concerted effort to pit regional Macedonian, Balkan, or provincial cultural capital against the might of aesthetic encroachment from the imperial center, but rather of a gradual stylistic synthesis that occurred organically. The traditional historiographic view outlined above imposes a nation-based rationale on the premodern workings of the Ottoman Empire that is incongruous with the synthetic cultural contact illustrated architecturally through the Mehmet Ali House.

The traditional nationalist framework identified by Yılmaz and Yosmaoğlu would signify some measure of cultural conflict in the architecture of the house. As outlined above, however, the synthesis of architectural elements likely occurred organically, as evidenced by the largely intact, centrally-wrought “core structure” of the house.

Nationalist historiographical “myths” that aim to place Ottoman and provincial cultures at odds in order to characterize Ottoman rule as “an era of oppression, humiliation, and resistance” (Anatov 2016: 33), then, are not reflected in the synthetic definition of Ottoman architecture proposed here or illustrated through the Mehmet Ali House.

[5] Public square next to the Mehmet Ali House: Statue of Mehmet Ali (left) that was dedicated by King Fuad I of Egypt, and the Church of the Dormition (right). Photo by Emily Neumeier

The Mehmet Ali House in Modern Context
The synthetic architectural style of this house is also reflected in its present ownership.  Currently, the house itself is the property of the Egyptian government, due to a continuation of early twentieth-century Egyptian waqfs, or charitable endowments, instated before the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, while its gardens are the property of the Municipality of Kavala. Here, again, the nationally-distinct architectural model fails. The two-state holding of the Mehmet Ali House illustrates the extent to which each nation claims architectural-cultural descendance from the Ottoman-style house.

Ornamentally-fused Ottoman-provincial architectural styles of buildings like the Mehmet Ali House represent a larger pattern of cultural synthesis. The surrounding neighborhood, Panagia, also reflects this architectural hybridity. The house’s location between a Greek Orthodox Church and a mosque dating to the sixteenth century exemplifies the extent of these synthetic cultural and aesthetic factors. A modern statue of Mehmet Ali stands between the house itself and the Orthodox church. [Figure 5] In these surroundings, the house’s architectural hybridity is expressed both environmentally and religiously; because these structures existed while the Mehmet Ali House was occupied, they indicate that some measure of cultural synthesis was already at work in Kavala. 

[6] The multi-lingual signage found 
above the doorway of the Mehmet
 Ali House. Photo by Isabelle
Parshall, 2016.
Some measure of the house’s architectural hybridity, moreover, is acknowledged on the signage above its front door, which proclaims the name of the building in Ottoman Turkish, French, and Greek and which has hung above the house since at least the early twentieth century. [Figures 6 & 7] Here, both the regional Macedonian and central Ottoman impacts on the house’s architecture are overtly expressed. Though both the Egyptian government and the Municipality of Kavala hold separate waqf claims to different portions of the house and surrounding land, the expression of complex influences expressed in the multi-lingual signage indicate that both governmental claimants acknowledge some level of architectural and cultural hybridity is at work in the design and existence of the house.

[7] Late 19th or early 20th-century postcard depicting the
multi-lingual signange at the Mehmet Ali House.
Photo in the public domain.

It is interesting, finally, to note that modern tourism documents from the Municipality of Kavala describe the house has having been “based on Macedonian architecture” rather than Ottoman architecture. Despite the inherently synthetic nature of the house’s architectural style, and despite the municipality’s de-facto acceptance of this synthesis through its shared claim with Egypt, the city of Kavala markets the house as a purely Macedonian structure. In doing this, the Municipality is attempting to impose a nationalist origin on the culturally-fused house and to lay claim to its cultural and architectural capital. This national-origin claim may be intended to encourage tourism to the region of Macedonia or to erase some measure of Ottoman impact in the region to unfamiliar visitors, but, in describing this synthetic “Ottoman architecture” structure as “Macedonian architecture,” the official materials fail to account for the extent to which local and “Ottoman core” aesthetic styles fused and worked in tandem in the creation of the Mehmet Ali House.

It is inappropriate, therefore, to characterize the Mehmet Ali House as having a single pre-national stylistic origin. Ottoman architectural styles are necessarily synthetic because of the expanse of the empire, and this site illustrates this synthesis in both its “core-style” structure and distinctive Macedonian ornamentation and its physical location. Cerasi writes that the “typical” Ottoman house type was a style which fused Byzantine, Greek, Turkish, and Central Asian elements: “All these elements were well known to the diverse groups dwelling or working in western Ottoman towns…the Ottoman house did not exist as a coherent type before these many ethnic and cultural elements were integrated” (133-34). “Ottoman architecture” as a term is imprecise and insufficient to describe the hybridity and synthesis of these “core area” architectural styles and, despite attempts in later historiography to impose national origins or national frameworks onto Ottoman residential architecture like the Mehmet Ali House, these sites retained an aesthetic and architectural stylistic hybridity which fused a basic architectural form from the imperial center with decorative or ornamental forms from the provinces. Ottoman architecture, then, cannot be defined within a nationalist framework because, as a style, it is pre-nationalist. The Mehmet Ali House exemplifies both this synthesis of style and the ongoing debate over the terms on which “Ottoman architecture” can be defined.  

Bridget Halstead is a recent graduate of Boston College. 

Works Cited and Further Reading:

Anatov, Nikolay. “Emergence and Historical Development of Muslim Communities in the Ottoman Balkans: Historical and Historiographical Remarks.” In Beyond Mosque, Church, and State: Alternative Narratives of Nation in the Balkans, edited by Theodora Dragostinova and Yana Hashamova. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016.

Anscombe, Frederick. “The Balkan Revolutionary Age.” The Journal of Modern History 84 (2012): 572-606.

Artan, Tülay. “Questions of Ottoman Identity and Architectural History.” In Rethinking Architectural Historiography, edited by Dana Arnold et al, pp. 85-109. London: Routledge, 2006.

El Ashmouni, Marwa and Katharine Bartsch. “Egypt’s Age of Transition: Unintentional Cosmopolitanism During the Reign of Muhammad ‘Ali (1805-1848).” Arab Studies Quarterly 36 (2014): 43-74.

Cerasi, Maurice. “The Formation of Ottoman House Types: A Comparative Study in Interaction with Neighboring Cultures.” Muqarnas 15 (1998): 116-156.

Colvin, Peter. “Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the School of Oriental and African Studies Library.” Libraries and Culture 33 (1998): 249-59.

Hartmuth, Maximilian. “De-Constructing a ‘Legacy in Stone’: Of Interpretive and Historiographical Problems Concerning the Ottoman Cultural Heritage in the Balkans.” Middle Eastern Studies 44 (2008): 695-713.

Hartmuth, Maximilian. “The History of Centre-Periphery Relations as a History of Style in Ottoman Provincial Architecture.” Paper presented at Centres and Peripheries in Ottoman Architecture: Establishing a Balkan Heritage, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hersegovina, April 22-24, 2010.

“Kavala: One Destination.”

Lalenis, Konstantinos and Elena Samourkasidou. “Wakfs in Kavala, Greece: A Legal, Political, and Architectural Heritage Issue.” International Journal of Architectural Research 7 (2013): 206-220.

“Municipality of Kavala.”

Yılmaz, Şuhnaz and İpek Yosmaoğlu. “Fighting the Spectres of the Past: Dilemmas of Ottoman Legacy in the Balkans and the Middle East.” Middle Eastern Studies 44 (2008): 677-693.


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