Picturing Public Space: Ethnicity and Gender in Iraklio

by Aris Anagnostopoulos

In anticipation of the International Biourbanism Workshop “Socio-Spatial Transformations Under The State Of Emergency” this August in Heraklion Crete we republish here Picturing Public Space: Ethnicity and Gender in Picture Postcards of Iraklio, Crete, at the Beginning of the 20th Century (in Eckehard Pistrick, Nicola Scaldaferri and Gretel Schwörer (eds), Audiovisual Media and Identity Issues in Southeastern Europe,  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011). In this article Aris Anagnostopoulos examines postcards in a double way: first as ‘traces’ of history, and second as material artefacts that have shaped contemporary ways of looking back at this particular moment in time. The pictures themselves are the survivors of an intense sorting out by market forces. They are material artefacts that have survived because they entered the circulation of postcards at the time. They were sifted through according to aesthetic criteria of their era, and some never made it to us. Their scarcity, which substantiates their iconicity, must consequently be understood as a product of this process through time. These pictures were made iconic precisely through the advance of modernity that involved the destruction of the historical moment they represented. While the ‘old city’ they portrayed was transformed from lived reality to abstract aesthetic selling point, these pictures acquired the status of nostalgic reminders, of markers of and for history. In time, their material existence substituted for the existence of the thing they portrayed. This process of transformation lies at the heart of the production of local history and its relationship with gentrification processes.

 Religion and Politics in Fin-de-siècle Crete

 At the turn of the 20th century, the population of Crete was profoundly divided along religious lines. The Christians of Crete were the majority; they spoke Greek in its local dialect and most were in favour of union with Greece. For almost all Cretan Christians, being Christian meant also to be Greek. The Greek state supported the numerous insurrections of the Christian element that took place during the 19th century and finally succeeded to establish the island as independent regime in 1898, under the suzerainty of the Sultan and the military control of the Great Powers of the era (Britain, France, Russia and Italy). Cretan Muslims, much fewer in their numbers, also spoke Greek and most were attached to the Bektashi credo. Almost in their entirety, they were Cretans who had converted to Islam at some point, and not Muslim settlers. All Cretans in principle were considered subjects of the Ottoman Empire; however Muslim Cretans identified so strongly with the politics and fortunes of the Empire that they were locally referred to as “Turks”, although they were ethnically close to their fellow islanders.

 Throughout the history of the city of Iraklio, and up to the first decade of the 20th century, Muslims were the majority in the city, despite the predominance of Christians in the island by and large. This happened because Muslims felt protected by the Ottoman garrisons that were stationed in the major cities of the island, most of which were furthermore walled by gigantic Venetian ramparts. By 1895, and the outbreak of the last Christian insurgency a huge number of Muslims sought refuge inside the city walls of Iraklio. A rough estimate elevates this number to 40,000- 50,000. The city had no capacity to sustain such a great influx, and contemporary Sources spoke of a humanitarian disaster. There was no sewage or waste disposal to speak of, provisions were sparse, and the population of the city was out of the control of the Ottoman authorities or the British garrison that was already stationed there. Hungry and impoverished, these Muslims were easy prey to religious fanatics who instigated a mob upheaval in August 1898. The Muslim mob murdered Christians and British soldiers and set fire to Christian properties, destroying one of the major thoroughfares of the city. This event forced the Great Powers to intervene and grant independence to the island (Holland and Markides 2006: 90-94).

By 1900, and after the establishment of the Cretan Autonomous Polity, which consolidated the political hegemony of the Christian element, a significant out-migration of Muslims depleted the population of the island, while the city of Iraklio went back to its usual population of about 20,000 inhabitants. By this time, a local “bourgeoisie” had established itself, a merchant class that was related to up-and-coming professionals in the city through matrimonial bonds. A large number of these people were educated in universities of Greece or Europe, were fluent in French or other European languages, and aspired to turn their city from a “Turkish” abomination into a western advanced city. As it turned out, this bourgeoisie comprised more Christians than Muslims. Class divisions among Cretan Muslims were much steeper, and upper class Muslims extracted wealth through “traditional” forms of land usury, compared to the entrepreneurial prowess of Christians. However, rich Muslims of the city found themselves in accordance with the plans of the Christian bourgeoisie to re-order the built fabric of the city according to western precepts of urban order (Anagnostopoulos 2007).

Western dictates of modernisation and civility provided the middle ground on which elites from different ethnic groups could join in reform, tentatively transcending their religious differences. Apart from the class solidarity forged by novel forms of socialisation (dances, reading clubs, cafes), this unity was a political decision. The new autonomous regime (1898-1913) continued in many respects the autocratic, centralised Ottoman regime by granting minimal powers to the parliamentary assembly. The larger cities of the island were thus transformed into spaces where moneyed classes could express their desire for reform in a political way. The city of Iraklio, for example, began implementing a city plan before this was legally sanctioned by the Autonomous Polity of Crete. Led by a Muslim mayor, and governed by a Christian majority in the city council, Iraklio became the testing ground for bourgeois visions of urban reform and civil betterment (Anagnostopoulos 2007: 40-66).

Photography in Iraklio, Crete

Of the handful of photographic studios which documented these transformations in the city of Iraklio at the turn of the 20th century, two left their mark on the trade for postcards of the era and have visually defined our notions of what public space looked like in those days: the studio of Rahmizâde Behhaeddin and the paper industry of Nikolaos Alikiotis. Behaeddin was born in Istanbul to the family of one Ibrahim Rahmi Giridi (Ibrahim Rahmi the Cretan), in 1875 (Marinakis 2008: 11). He was educated in Paris, and then traveled to Crete, where he received his first lessons in photography with one Salih Zeki, a photographer residing in Chania, Crete, before he returned once again to Istanbul. He settled permanently in Iraklio towards the end of the century. There, he married the daughter of the most significant Muslim doctor and then director of the Ottoman hospital, Pertev Effendi Mulazâde (Bediz 2005). He kept the store in Iraklio up to his departure from the island in 1909 or 1910. From what is known of him, he opened a photographic studio in Istanbul and Smyrna in 1910: “Foto Resne”. He passed away in 1951 in Istanbul (Marinakis 2008). Nikolaos Alikiotis came to Iraklio with his parents from his birthplace in Arcadia, mainland Peloponnese near the end of the 19th century. The reasons for their migration are unknown, but Alikiotis started working as a shoeshine and newspaper boy, gradually making his fortune and ascending the social ladder. In his early youth, he managed to become a salesman for Greek and European newspapers, and later he set up a bookstore and a printing industry in the central market of the city. He expanded his business and opened shops in Athens, until financial issues made him go bankrupt after the Second World War.

The Making of a Collection: Political Issues as Aesthetic Considerations

Both editions produced a numbered series of postcards. Behaeddin issued about 200 numbered postcards, which he photographed himself. Alikiotis’s production was much more ample, and, judging from the serial numbers, reaching nearly 500 postcards, only half of which are known to exist in public and private collections today. Alikiotis himself was not a photographer, but he employed amateur or professional photographers to produce the glass plates for his postcards. Therefore, his record is much more varied in execution, content and quality. Besides postcards, Behaeddin produced an unknown – but certainly large – number of cabinet portraits, which surface frequently in auctions and private collections. Alikiotis published in his series a large number of portraits of Cretan Christian insurgents and political personalities. The time-lines of the two publishing houses also differ greatly. Behaeddin’s collection was printed and distributed between 1898 and 1909 or 1910, with reprints of his postcards made by his successors, or Alikioti himself. Behaeddin’s successors did not issue any postcards that we know of as publishers, but collaborated with Alikiotis, whose series went well into the 1930s at least.

The themes that the two publishing houses choose vary, but they converge at some specific points. Behaeddin’s themes were initially chosen from inside the city, and he later expanded towards the countryside. This was probably a forced decision: when Behaeddin began working, in the midst of religious strife, the countryside was ‘cordoned off’ by British forces, in order to prevent Muslim refugees from returning to their villages and Christian insurgents to raid properties near the city walls. It would have therefore been extremely risky for a Muslim photographer to venture to the countryside. Alikiotis’s collection, conversely, moves inwardly, from the country to the city. Most of his early postcards depict entire villages or historical monuments of the countryside. These villages were frequently selected for their significance in Cretan history. Some were battlefields of the recurring Cretan insurrections of the 19th century. For example, the tower of Ksopateras, site of a battle recorded in popular song, or a plain village house which deemed worthy of photographic exposition because it housed the Cretan Christian revolutionary assembly.

It would be facile to contrast the ‘urbane’ character of Behaeddin’s photos with the almost pastoral concern of Alikiotis – the educated, cosmopolitan Ottoman subject contrasted with the localism and parochial sensibility of a local nationalist bookseller. Much in this opposition rests upon the ways we today perceive the epoch in question, the notions that help us frame social and cultural change in the era, like, for example, cosmopolitanism (e.g. Breckenridge et al. 2002). However, there is certainly more to this, which can only be grasped through a sense of the historical context in which these photographs were taken. As we already mentioned above, there were pragmatic limitations – as for example the inability to move freely around the country – to the work of photographers, which should not be interpreted as aesthetic choice. Pragmatic considerations like this certainly put to question Bourdieu’s intentionalist reading of photographic aesthetics (Bourdieu 1990: 6).

On the other hand, Alikiotis’s depiction of the countryside does indeed carry significant ideological and political baggage. During the 19th century, the political power of Christian Cretans rested on the extended kinship networks of the countryside. Every single Christian insurrection began at a village and gradually descended towards the city. Symbolically, the countryside represented the struggle of Christian Cretans for union with Greece, while the city – as seat of the Ottoman administration and army – represented authority (Anagnostopoulos 2007: 135). The rural scenery came symbolically to stand for the insubordinate nature of Cretans, while nature itself took the symbolic force of reproducer of national traits. At the same time, there were Christian delegates who took part in the Ottoman administration. These were mostly representatives of the new urban classes that we described above. While nationalist politics united these two groups, and consequently the city and the country, the contradictions and ambivalence stayed for much longer; some would say up to our day (Herzfeld 1985). It is in this respect that Alikiotis attempts to produce an ‘archive’ of Cretan history-cum-landscape. His intended audiences were those who rejoiced in the struggle of Cretan Christians for union with Greece. He therefore chose to publish pictures of rural settings not for their pastoral quality, but for their historical and political import.

When photographing the city, Behaeddin maintains this distance from his subject in most cases. His most remarkable photographs are panoramas of the city taken from a vantage point on top of the Venetian ramparts that surround Iraklio up to this day. He also attempts to produce a sense of ‘lines of flight’ by portraying thoroughfares such as Kalokerinou avenue from a high vantage point. This particular choice of perspective is telling in his case. We know that he had photographed the same subject from eye level, but he chose to publish only the photograph taken from above. The street-level photograph gives us an entirely different picture of this particular street, bringing us closer to the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life, the haphazard laying out of produce, the variety of dress and comportment. The photograph is half shaded by the buildings to the right, and produces a sense of a closed, intimate space. The lens follows the long avenue as it disappears in the distance, but the eye level reveals it as poorly constructed, almost rural in its quality. The Ottoman fountain at the back left corner is here seen as an element of everyday life, and indeed it were, as I will discuss further in the following section.

The picture that Behaeddin finally published was significantly different. First of all, it was taken from the top of the western Venetian rampart of the city, overlooking the city in the same direction as the street- level photograph. The time of the day is different, as is visible from the length of the shadows. A brief comparison with buildings today shows that the photographer chose the middle of the day to take this shot. Better lighting and sharper contrast is one technical consideration. The other, however, is that at that particular time in the day there were few people in the street and most shops were closed. This produced the effect of an empty, monumental space, and brought all visible landmarks centre-stage. The fountain becomes an iconic element, a monument comparable with the orthodox church of St. Minas in the distance. In fact, the two are connected by a visual line which follows the street and leads the eye from one monument to the other.

Behaeddin’s choice to publish this photo instead of the street-level one helps us rethink his notions of urban space. Behaeddin rarely chose to publish postcards portraying everyday life from eye level, although many surviving plates of his depict such scenes. He insisted on the distance created by a bird’s eye view of the city. It is as if he wanted to document the city as a realm to be calmly surveyed and governed and not as the locus of everyday human relations. Indeed, his vision bears similarities with the cartographic project of the British authorities, whom he himself photographed with such passion. The British administrators of the city attempted to produce maps of the built fabric inside the walls, and were beaten by the wildly meandering streets and the fragmentation of property. It took several years for the local authorities to produce a city plan and, even then, its enforcement was sometimes impossible. On the street level, properties were not located by a street number system, but by neighborhood and proximity to other properties or landmarks. Navigating oneself inside the city took intimate knowledge of its layout and interpersonal communication. As the new autonomous state instituted itself, and the desires of the bourgeois to change their city gradually took form, this chaotic urban fabric gave way to a rationalised street grid. Central to this was the desire to survey the city from above, to divide it into segments while keeping an image of the whole, to rule over it in a rational manner.

Behaeddin’s panoramas reproduce this sense of the city as realm of governmentality, by attempting to integrate and understand the multiethnic, dispersed city as an organic whole. In this respect, he is writing into the picture a sea change in the perception of the city. In his time, the city changed from a cluster of semi-independent neighborhoods, each with its own character, and oftentimes an official or unofficial governing body, to an administrative entity, subject to a single governing body and ruled with a scientific, rational approach (Anagnostopoulos 2007). While Behaeddin’s vision was an urbane vision in this respect, and he often searches the open vista and the straight lines to visually refer to large western cities, the finished product is somewhat disheartening, showing a sea of small houses with no thoroughfares to speak of, punctuated by the marks of religious difference: the huge cathedral of St. Minas, pride of the city’s Christians, and the numerous minarets of Muslim mosques. Besides Behaeddin’s desire to show the city as a rationally governed realm, he was equally motivated by a desire to disguise its shortcomings. When the British occupation forces first arrived at the city, they were appalled by its sanitary condition. All kinds of filth and garbage littered the streets, people and animals drank from the same public springs and urinated in public, sewers were broken and their contents flooded the streets. The head of public sanitation of the British garrison, Captain Clarke, wrote in his report: “…the town was in an indescribable condition; an overpowering stench rose from its streets, which were almost impassable, being full of decaying offal, in which crowds of flies rested. Pariah dogs were the only scavengers, and many of these very unsightly objects, covered with scores and dying of disease” (Foreign Office: Turkey No.1. Further Correspondence respecting the Affairs of Crete, 1899). The city of Iraklio and its bourgeois rulers thus entered a “scopic regime” (Jay 1988: 5-7), in which the primary idiom was one of embarrassment towards the inquisitive eye of a ‘civilised’ colonial power. So Behaeddin perhaps favoured the distance in order to conceal this sorry state of affairs, sometimes recording rooftops instead of the chaos of the road level.

Behaeddin returns with remarkable insistence to a limited array of monuments. The Venetian fountain at “Lions” square, Kalokerinou avenue, and Eleftherias (Freedom) square, are those he photographs and publishes with remarkable insistence. The question is why he chose these instead of others, which he was definitely aware of. A historical explanation would offer that Behaeddin was probably heavily influenced by the developments in photographic style in the Empire at the time of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909). Abdul Hamid was a photographer himself, and greatly encouraged the development of photography in the Empire, not least for its propaganda values. He commissioned the production of a series of illustrated albums in the 1890s, which aimed to document the modernization of the Ottoman Empire. The emphasis of photographs of public spaces fell on modern buildings, public works, public monuments that consciously sought to redress orientalist imagery of the Empire (Woodward 2003: 365). We are led to ask, then, why did Behaeddin not photograph buildings that were created by the Ottoman authorities themselves, for example the barracks in Eleftherias square, which feature in his postcards only as a backdrop. Conversely, for Behaeddin, a Muslim subject of the empire, the most iconic element in the fabric of the city was the massive orthodox church of St. Minas, built in the middle of the 19th century as a symbol for the Christian predominance over the city.

We should be aware of considering ethnic or religious identities as fixed, determinate models for action and expression that are somehow represented directly in photography. As other scholars have pointed out, even those visual conventions that can be discerned in 19th century photography of the Middle East “were, contrary to the emphasis of much scholarship, not monolithic or hegemonic” (Woodward 2003: 363). In the case of Behaeddin, we have the concurrence of several different influences, motives and aesthetic considerations: one is certainly his education in cosmopolitan Istanbul, at a time when massive changes in the structure and official ideology of the Ottoman Empire were in place. The other is Behaeddin’s place in the local bourgeoisie who may have looked toward the west for inspiration, but at the same time kept a sure footing in the doings of the Empire. His constitution as a cosmopolitan subject of the Ottoman Empire produced a notion of citizenship much more fluent and more contingent than any ‘oriental’ or ‘Muslim’ rubric can describe (see Beaulieu/Roberts 2002 for similar approaches to Orientalism).