Claims of Modernity: The Building of the Ottoman Imperial Bank in Istanbul

Fabian Steininger, Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Servet 1892_2

Cover of the journal Servet-i Fünun from August 11, 1892, showing the southern facade of the Ottoman Bank building

In May 1892, the Ottoman state bank (Bank-ı Osmanī-i Şahane) moved into its newly built headquarters in the Voyvoda Caddesi in Istanbul’s Karaköy district. The bank had been founded almost twenty years earlier as a semi-independent institution. Its shareholders were mainly French and English entrepreneurs.

The building of the bank is architectonically remarkable in that it is characterized by two completely different facades. The northern facade facing the street featured the main entrance and was built in the European neo-classical style of the day. The southern facade facing the Golden Horn and the old city could not be seen from the street level but from the water. It was built in a rather different style, which may be called neo-Ottoman or neo-Islamic, and featured eaves and alcoves clearly inspired by early Ottoman architecture. The building, which to this day dominates the view of the Galata peninsula, was designed by the Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury. Today, it houses a museum of the bank and SALT, a center for research and the arts.

Servet 1892_1

Cover of Servet-i Fünun from August 18, 1892, showing the northern facade of the Ottoman Bank building

The architectural eclecticism of the building is often interpreted together with the institution it housed as being part of the catching-up modernization efforts of the Ottoman Empire or in a classic “East-meets-West” framework. Against that, in Turkish Republic architectural history, following a paradigm of Ottoman decline, it was often derided as a “reactionary style”, to differentiate it from the modernism of the 1930s and 1940s. Such accounts are problematic in light of recent critiques of the European concept of modernity. Here, the notion of modernity not as an analytical category, but as a claim‑making concept at a specific moment in history offers itself as an analytical tool. I want to use the Ottoman Bank building to add a few points to this discussion: I propose to take the hybridity of these claims serious, in that they were expressed in different media, directed at distinct audiences, and involved both efforts at synchronization and a reconfiguration of space.

The Janus-faced nature of the building was only strengthened by its medial representation. Both facades independently featured on the cover of the influential weekly “Servet-i Fünun” (Wealth of the Sciences). In its issues, the journal celebrated contemporary scientific and cultural developments both in the Ottoman Empire and the World, and it was read mainly by the late nineteenth-century Muslim intelligentsia. The accompanying article presented the building as being part of contemporary developments in “progress” and “order”, and compared the bank favorably to European institutions. While the difference between the two facades is mentioned, the magazine presented them as forming a unity.

The southern facade overlooking the Golden Horn also featured in numerous contemporary postcards – a medium where state control and censorship of sold motives was perhaps even stricter than in the domain of printed texts – while cards of the street side are seldom found. A photo of the southern facade was also inserted in the photographic albums of Sultan Abdülhamit II., which were sent out in 1893 to foreign heads of state and which sought to demonstrate the Empire’s civilizational pedigree.

The bank building was not the first structure to be built in such a neo-Ottoman style. Vallaury was probably one of the most influential architects of fin-de-siècle Istanbul and designed several representative public buildings. He played an important role in the formulation of a new imperial Ottoman architecture, which was kick-started by the Ottoman participation in the Vienna world fair of 1873. For this occasion, the government had commissioned a diverse group of both local – mainly Levantine – and naturalized European architects to edit a book which was later published in German, French, and Ottoman-Turkish: The “Ottoman Building-style” (Usūl-i Mi’mārī-i ‘Osmānī). The book selectively compiled elements of historical buildings of the Empire – especially drawing on early Ottoman Ornamentation – to establish a genuine, monolithic, and systematic architectural tradition.

This tradition was soon put to work, for Istanbul was rapidly growing at the time. The great famine in Anatolia of 1873 and the millions of refugees caused by the war in 1877/78 had led to an unprecedented increase of the urban population. While precise numbers are hard to come by, the population approximately trebled in the period from 1844 to 1896 and reached almost one million inhabitants by the end of the century. The share of non-Muslims in the city’s population decreased during the same period from 52% (1844) to 43% (1896). Urbanization also affected the geographical size of the city, which expanded northwards. In 1882, almost a quarter of the city’s population lived in the district of Beyoğlu, where the bank was located. Together with newly erected multi-story apartments and office buildings, the infrastructure of the area also changed considerably – in 1875 a subterranean urban rail line was opened close to the bank’s building.

Postcard Ott Imp Bank

“Loxandra raised her head and looked up at the Istanbul skyline. The newly built apartment buildings of Beyolu, which rose up as far as the eye could see left her in astonishment. ‘Where is the Sky?’ she exclaimed, to no avail.” (Maria Iordaniou, Loxandra. Athens: Estia 1963, p. 199)

The area had been imagined by the Ottomans as a space different from the rest of the city since the conquest of Constantinople; this imagination was reinforced during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when most foreign embassies and companies settled there, and a vibrant nightlife emerged in the area. The district, symbolized by the “Grande Rue de Pera”, today’s Istiklal Caddesi, came to be shorthand for progressive, European, non-Muslim, and indecent life. This projection, which was fed both by European travel accounts and local text production, diligently overlooked the significant local Muslim population.

The bank building participated in this reconfiguration of the area. It asserted synchronicity through a selective appropriation of both local and European traditions and references to contemporary developments. Disseminated via photography, articles, and its presence in the urban fabric, it addressed a diverse audience: the international concert of states, the Ottoman-Muslim and the local non-Muslim bourgeoisie, European travelers, ferries entering the city, as well as the local working classes at the docks, which were concentrated along the shorelines of the Golden Horn and thus could always see the building’s southern facade.

At the same time, the difference in style and representation of the two facades hints at the point that there were always multiple and competing claims of modernity at a given time and place. Their semantics could draw upon European notions of “civilization” and “progress” as well as elements from the regional Islamic or Ottoman Imperial tradition. They were statements of self-representation within a contemporary discourse – or under the aegis – of European economic, political and cultural hegemony. This hegemony, however, also enabled most often local bourgeoisies to produce different and diverging statements in an urban context.


Fabian Steininger is a PhD student at the Graduate School “Moral Economies in Modern Societies” in Berlin. His research explores the relationship between moral orders and community in the Late Ottoman Empire.

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