Public Parks as Spectacle

Social Life of 19th Century Istanbul

Rana Irmak Aksoy (MArch I ’21)


Image Credit / Bibliography:

Kağıthane River - Sadabad (1880s) by Guillaume Berggren

Proliferation of public parks is one of the key defining features of the changing urban fabric of 19th century Istanbul. Most scholarship has interpreted this proliferation merely as a symptom of the Western influenced modernization of the city. However, these public parks are also important to examine from a social lens because they are emblematic of shifts happening between the public and private spheres of an increasingly cosmopolitan Istanbul.

The notion of public space in Istanbul is of course not confined to this current era of modernization. Courtyards of mosque complexes (kulliyes) functioned as gathering places for decades before the emergence of public parks. At this time, this notion of public space was confined to the mosque’s site where there was still a clear separation between the private (domestic) and public sphere. This separation started becoming less apparent in the 18th century with the opening of imperial gardens to the general public. Sadabad, the imperial garden constructed in 1721 by Ahmed III and reminiscent of Versailles with its winding paths around artificial pools and marble-paved river banks, allowed the public to pass freely from the public promenade of Kağıthane to the imperial palace grounds to entertain themselves in this space. This typology began blurring social spaces between the ruling elite and the public, making Kağıthane one of the most popular excursion spots in Istanbul. Countess de la Ferté-Meun visiting Istanbul in 1816 describes the Kağıthane scene as such: “[…] the sound of this cascade at your feet, these groups of Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish women whose mores, customs and outfits are so varied and who delight, undaunted, in all sorts of divertissements the countryside [has to] offer, make this promenade a ravishing spectacle.”

The spectacle of the diversity of visitors in these new parks evolved into a ‘see and be seen’ dynamic in the public sphere. The first of these modern public parks in Istanbul built in the 19th century was the Büyük Çamlıca Park created in 1870. Rumors alone of the park led “Istanbul’s young revelers and women [….] to start preparing and competing with one another on what to wear.” This modern park, built on the grounds of a former imperial garden, attracted such a crowd that the carriages circulating on the roads traversing the park caused it to be likened to a “bee hive”. The park had kiosks dispersed along the roads, where musicians would play, and food and drinks would be served. 19th century’s first garden parties and masquerade balls (first of which was organized by Sultan Abdulaziz) all took place here. It was à la mode in the evening for the aristocrats to walk around and watch the crowds. One can clearly see a shift from the interest of sightseeing (visiting the parks to see and enjoy nature), to seeing and being seen (becoming a spectacle of the social scene).

As Hannah Arendt states in her essay “Public and the Private Realm” in The Human Condition, public and private space are greatly intertwined in the modern world. Modernization leads to the blurring of the public and the private sphere, and to the emergence of what she defines as “the social realm”. This realm, she claims, satisfies the modern need of public admiration. Istanbul’s public parks became this identified social realm that set the stage for a more modern, dynamic and diverse method of living, defining the social life of 19th century Istanbul.


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