19th century Istanbul through European engravings
For nineteenth-century Europeans, engravings were the most common way of viewing distant lands from afar. In the 21st century, such engravings of Istanbul are a window into a city untouched by industry and globalization.

By Joshua Bruce Allen

Looking at European representations of Istanbul from earlier centuries, we might feel a tinge of embarrassment – the turbans, donkeys, veils, and ruins fit too neatly into Orientalist fantasy. Much like the tourist brochures of today, these pictures were made to be attractive, not to reflect the reality of Ottoman life. But if you are curious about the complex relationship between Ottomans and Europeans, paintings and engravings are an interesting record of reality and fantasy. Novelist and poet Julia Pardoe, who began traveling as as cure for her tuberculosis, wrote one of the most popular Istanbul travel accounts of the nineteenth century, The City of the Sultan and Domestic Manners of the Turks, first published in Britain in 1837.

This book offered a wealth of political and cultural observations on nineteenth-century Istanbul – as well as intriguing chapter titles such as “Dangers of Blue Eyes,” “The Golden Eggs,” and “The Hairdresser of Halil Pasha.” Following on from this success came Pardoe’s second book on Istanbul, The Beauties of the Bosphorus, published in 1838. It was this volume that produced a series of remarkable engravings by William Bartlett, a fellow Briton whose illustrations had taken him to such far-flung locations as Egypt and North America.

William Bartlett, “The Aqueducts of Valens”

Alongside landscape paintings and photography, engraving was one of the arts favored by Europeans who wanted to capture Istanbul’s chaotic beauty. Indeed, before photography became commercially available, engravings were a popular medium for illustrating books and newspaper reports. While Pardoe’s first Istanbul account is anecdotal in style, the second is a virtual tour through neighborhoods and historic sites, which are brought to life in great detail by Bartlett’s masterfully composed illustrations.

Another indispensable creator of Istanbul engravings was British architect Thomas Allom. Given Allom’s work on the designs for the Houses of Parliament in London and many Victorian churches, it is perhaps unsurprising that he brought this practical eye to his travels throughout Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine. The topographical illustrations in Allom’s Constantinople and the scenery of the seven churches of Asia Minor show an astounding level of detail, with each image exploring aspects of the country’s landscape, buildings, people’s dress, transport, weather, flora, and wildlife.

Thomas Allom, “Column of Marcian”

As its title suggests, the book centers on Istanbul and the seven ancient churches of Anatolia mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Despite a “historical account” by the Reverend Robert Walsh, this is a book of illustration with text rather than a written account with illustrations – the images are the main attraction. Sections on “The Favourite Odalique” and “Interior of a Harem” further lighten the purportedly religious and topographical focus of this travel guide. As foreign artists were generally not allowed to work in Ottoman families’ quarters, we can conclude that these images were based on fantasy – and likely included for commercial reasons.

However, such Orientalist touches do not ruin the overall majesty of these engravings, an art form that is being lost to history. As much as these idyllic views of Istanbul’s natural and architectural harmony appealed to foreigners 100 years ago, they are also a source of bitter nostalgia for modern residents – in the turbo-charged metropolis of 2016, who can imagine the leafy pedestrian streets described by Pardoe, Bartlett, and Allom?

The City of the Sultan and Domestic Manners of the Turks, The Beauties of the Bosphorus, and Constantinople and the scenery of the seven churches of Asia Minor are all available from Google Books.