Memories of Humankind
Stories from the Ottoman Manuscripts
In an old cupboard at home, on the dusty shelves of a secondhand bookstore, on the bookcase of a collector, in the storerooms of an institute… Manuscripts surviving from the Ottoman era still have many stories to tell, even after 90 years have passed since the adoption of the Latin script, 100 years since the collapse of the empire, and almost 200 years since the spread of the printing press.
Created by manuscripts that were read and circulated in the multilingual society of the empire and the permeable regions of the early modern period, Ottoman manuscript culture gradually lost its importance as the printing press became widespread in the 19th century; it ceased to be a source of information, stories, or spirituality for the masses in the 20th century, attracting the interest only of collectors. The cultures of writing and reading had changed – books came out of the printer in thousands of copies, all the same; the marginalia written by readers remained limited to their own copy; libraries punished members who wrote in books; and the text of the author became untouchable, unalterable.
Modern historiography’s relationship with manuscripts was also affected by these conditions regarding writing and reading. The literature came to be shaped by the quest for the “most accurate” text, the “most valuable” binding, and the “cleanest” copy, whereas manuscripts used to be a part of a much more collective world of literacy. Texts changed in the hands of copyists and readers and these changes could be traced physically on paper, where readers and authors engaged in a dialogue between lines and in margins. Reading was as collective an act as writing; there were people who read popular stories aloud in coffeehouses, and some readers answered the notes of previous readers.
Recently developed new perspectives study this collective culture and enable us to better understand the multilayered world of manuscripts. Such approaches address the history of reading along with the history of manuscripts and consider texts as open-ended creations in motion.
Memories of Humankind: Stories from the Ottoman Manuscripts brings together Ibrahim Ağa, the guardian of the Van Citadel who found time to copy manuscripts while on duty; Zübeyde Hanım, whose divan was widely circulated; Yirmisekiz Çelebi Mehmed Efendi, the Ottoman Ambassador to France, who corrected his own manuscript; Rıfat from Kilis, who intervened with the text by scribbling in the margin, “whoever wrote this is wrong”; Enderunlu Fâzıl, whose writings were scolded and censored but still made the rounds through word of mouth; the “Ya Kebikeç” prayer, written to protect the manuscript, and the bookworm that payed no attention; and hundreds of famous or anonymous writers and readers. The exhibition presents a selection from Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Manuscript Collection, inviting the visitor on a journey among texts, objects, and periods; it traces the multilingualism of Ottoman society, daily life, medicine, knowledge of the universe and time, gender and sexuality, while also showing how to recreate Istanbul’s historical landscape using manuscripts.
Memories of Humankind: Stories from the Ottoman Manuscripts nudges the door ajar to the memory of humanity, which crystallizes in manuscripts and is alternatively worldly and otherworldly, multilingual and multi-religious, urban and rural, unique and ordinary, sometimes very alien and occasionally very familiar, fragmentary, incomplete, and always inspiring.