Legacies of Conquest: Interconnections and Memories of the Ottoman and Spanish Empires

Legacies of Conquest: Interconnections and Memories of the Ottoman and Spanish Empires

Denise Klein, Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz; Thomas Wellner, Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz; Barbara Henning, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Richard Herzog, Philipps-Universität Marburg
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
25.01.2024 - 26.01.2024
Eduardo Angel Cruz, University of Teramo, Italy

What does the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople (1453) and the Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlan (1531) have in common? Despite the chronological and geographical distances, these pivotal events loom large in our understanding of early modern empires and postcolonial societies. Both conquests reshaped the geopolitical landscape of their respective regions, leaving enduring legacies that continue to reverberate today. Crucially, these historical events are subjects of intense interest and debate among academics, politicians, journalists, and even filmmakers who seek to shape narratives about the past to justify present and future agendas. Whether it is discussions about national identity, territorial claims, or cultural heritage, the legacies of these conquests are deeply entwined with contemporary politics and discourse.

It is precisely the theme of conquest and narratives of conquest that brought together a diverse group of scholars for this workshop. In contrast to the prevailing academic landscape marked by a dearth of sustained international collaborative endeavours, this assembly takes cues from the accomplishments of two preceding workshops: Conquerors and Conquered: Narrating the Fall of Constantinople and Tenochtitlan1 and Post-Conquest Materiality: Objects in the Histories of the Ottoman and Spanish Expansions2. After a welcome by JOHANNES PAULMANN (Mainz) and an introduction by THOMAS WELLER (Mainz) and DENISE KLEIN (Mainz), the workshop delved into two pivotal aspects that have yet to be fully explored in tandem: firstly, the entangled nature of the Ottoman and Spanish early modern imperial expansions, and secondly, their significance within contemporary memory cultures.

The inaugural presentation from ERIC DURSTELER (Provo) built upon seminal works on the history of food, but with a notable focus on surpassing the national narratives prevalent in much of the current scholarship. Highlighting the importance of the ‘spaces-in-between’, the author examined the exchange of commodities, including corn, chocolate, and coffee, in overlooked areas of the eastern Mediterranean, such as the Adriatic. From this vantage point, the paper also surveyed the societal repercussions of these exchanges, a theme that resonated throughout the ensuing discussions. BARBARA HENNING (Mainz), RICHARD HERZOG (Marburg) and the presenter questioned not only the exchange of products but also its perception, nomenclature, and experimentation of certain items, particularly those introduced but unable to integrate into local daily life. As result, the author signalled that new approaches to the history of food have challenged prevailing historiographical paradigms, suggesting that knowledge often does not accompany commodification. Instead, there appears to be a reverse trend: the original symbolic dimensions are decontextualized to facilitate adaptation to a new environment.

The second presentation by STEFAN HANSS (Manchester) tried to challenge the prevailing narrative surrounding the Battle of Lepanto (1571) as a triumph of ‘Christian Europe’ over Muslim-Ottoman aggressors. Rather than solely revisiting the battle’s accounts, the presenter decided to employ Judith Butler’s concept of the ‘precarity of life’ to highlight shared suffering and casualties spanning the religious divide of the early modern Mediterranean, which provided much material for discussion. While the author insisted on the need to shift the discourse away from national glorification, already co-opted by fascist and right-wing populist movements, contributions from the audience sparked a lively debate. Two key revelations emerged: first, the possible dangers of a narrative of empathetic remembrance, and the flexibility of such discourse on remembrance, even among early modern actors. Indeed, Lepanto was initially portrayed with more ambiguity in the sixteenth century, far from being heralded as a Christian triumph. It was the subsequent narrative construction of the battle that solidified its status as a victory of Christianity over the perceived barbarism of the Ottoman world in the ensuing decades.

Building on the theme of memory culture, GÖNÜL BOZOĞLU (St. Andrews) opened the second day of discussions with a presentation on the Panorama 1453 Museum, which revisits the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople. The speaker illustrated how the museum, tightly bound to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, serves as a foundational tale for Turkey that resonates with a conservative Islamist agenda. So deeply ingrained are these narratives that, during the unveiling of Panorama 1453, it was declared that its purpose was “to keep the sensation of conquest alive!”, achieved through an emotive manipulation of the memory. This not only sought to validate Erdoğan’s rule in Turkey, as English translations were only recently introduced to the museum, but also to justify the notion that Turkish colonization was beneficial for the colonized, a point raised during the ensuing discussion with DURSTELER and CYRUS SCHAYEGH (Geneva/Mainz). This discourse, primarily directed at the Islamic world, is deeply entangled to past narratives of European expansion, yet sets itself apart through its use of Ottoman history and Turkey’s contemporary geopolitics.

By analysing films, TV series, waffling signifiers, and hyperrealist propaganda from 2012 to the present day, JOSH L. CARNEY (Beirut) subsequently delved into the narratives surrounding the Fall of Constantinople in Istanbul. In doing so, the author shed light on how Turks are encouraged to perceive Ottoman imperialism, highlighting how groundbreaking technologies have ushered in the post-truth era in Turkey. Here, the very medium through which these messages are disseminated, the ‘monumental screens’ – hyperrealist projections displayed on Istanbul’s most iconic monuments – challenges the fundamental relationship between signifier and signified, a theme that was further dissected during the discussion. The exchanges between Hanss, Klein, and the presenter manifested that the prevalence of these hyperrealist images is such that, while a foreign visitor may be taken aback by ‘a sight of zombies’ depicted in these scenes, for most locals such images are simply part and parcel of daily life. Although weariness may be apparent, it does not appear to alter neither the content of the message nor the reality that the government is exploiting the past at an alarming rate.

The final two presentations shifted the focus towards examining the narratives surrounding the Conquest of Tenochtitlan, firstly from the indigenous perspective and secondly from the Spanish viewpoint. MANUEL MAY CASTILLO (Madrid) delved into the relationship between ritual practices, ceremonial centres, and alternative narratives crafted about the Conquest in the Maya region. By underscoring the enduring nature of community-level rituals, in which the author himself has participated – not in an academic capacity but as a community member – the paper offered a potential pathway for epistemic decolonization, particularly in terms of acknowledging the agency of indigenous groups as custodians of traditional knowledge. With this, two main themes emerged during the discussion: the issue of positionality and the fundamental question of who wields control over the past. Here, the author reflected on the present-day exploitation of the indigenous past by Mexico’s president and the contradictions inherent in nationalist narratives for the lives of Maya people in the region, particularly as initiatives like the Maya Train, have desecrated religious sites and led to the displacement and loss of land for many Maya communities.

JORGE LUENGO SÁNCHEZ (Barcelona) further explored the contemporary discourse surrounding Spanish imperialism, with a particular focus on Spain’s public sphere. As postcolonial theory has permeated Spanish society, the author showed how a contentious debate regarding the interpretation of the national history, particularly concerning the Conquest and Colonization of the Americas, has emerged. Through an examination of cultural media, revisionist essays, and institutions such as the Museum of America, the author also illustrated how arguments advanced by professional historians are often overshadowed by the resounding success of non-professional, revisionist historians who perpetuate myths in the collective memory of Spaniards, in a phenomenon that resembles previous debates about the Spanish Civil War (1936-9). Indeed, while the former group has focused on the historical ramifications of the Spanish Empire, the latter has centred on a more simplistic query: Was the Empire beneficial or detrimental? As part of the ensuing discussion, the author concluded by noting that the opposing narratives of ‘imperofobia’ and ‘imperofilia’ had gone far beyond Spain’s academic sphere and it has become a moral issue, which explains their widespread popularity among right-wing politicians, while also underscoring its perils.

Finally, CYRUS SCHAYEGH and SILKE HENSEL (Cologne) offered some concluding remarks at the roundtable discussion, during which participants underscored not only the similarities but also the interconnectedness between the Ottoman and Spanish modes of imperialism in the early modern era and their contemporary commemoration. Notably, while acknowledging the differences between the cases of Constantinople and Tenochtitlan, Schayegh remarked that the enduring legacies of these conquests in both Latin America and the eastern Mediterranean share many common features beyond the events themselves, particularly in the contested remembrance of those events. Furthermore, Spain and Turkey, despite their vastly disparate imperial outcomes, appear to have arrived at similar concerns following the postcolonial turn. As noted also by Weller and Klein, this highlights the necessity for scholars to not only adopt a comparative approach to the history of empires but also to consider an inter-imperial dimension altogether.

Conference Overview:

Johannes Paulmann (Mainz): Welcome

Denise Klein (Mainz) / Thomas Weller (Mainz): Introduction

Eric Dursteler (Provo): Mobile Foods in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Stefan Hanß (Manchester): Lepanto Reconsidered: Politics and the Precarity of Life

Gonül Bozoğlu (St. Andrews): Memory Culture of the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople

Josh L. Carney (Beirut): Palimpsestuous Screens: Mediating the Conquest of Istanbul in the Post-Truth Era

Manuel May Castillo (Madrid): Lost Knowledges? Revisiting Ritual Practices and Ceremonial Centres in Maya Communities

Jorge Luengo Sánchez (Barcelona): The Spanish Imperial Burden: Public Memories of a Postcolonial Nation

Silke Hensel (Cologne) / Cyrus Schayegh (Geneva/Mainz): Round Table

1 Dorothea Wagner / Rike Szill, Tagungsbericht: Conquerors and Conquered. Narrating the Fall of Constantinople (1453) and Tenochtitlán (1521), In: H-Soz-Kult, 14.07.2022, https://www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/fdkn-128430.
2 Simon Mallas, Tagungsbericht: Post-Conquest Materiality: Objects in the Histories of the Ottoman and Spanish Expansions, In: H-Soz-Kult, 11.09.2023, https://www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/fdkn-138224.