City of Books

Impressions of Istanbul: Voyage to Constantinople 1493–1820
Text by Angus O’Neill

The Vehbi Koç Foundation


Philip Mansel explores the first volume of the Ömer Koç Collection – ‘Impressions of Istanbul: Voyage to Constantinople 1493–1820

  • The plan of Constantinople from Frederick Calvert’s ‘A tour to the East’ (1767)
    in its rare coloured state.

Some libraries are declarations of love. Ömer Koç’s library of books on Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire, located in a house overlooking the Bosphorus, shows the authors’ and the owner’s love for the empire and its capital. The first of a three- volume catalogue, with an excellent text and descriptions of the books by Angus O’Neill, and a sparkling introduction by Norman Stone, in addition to a separate one-volume selection from the catalogue, have just been published.

Such was the fascination and accessibility of the Ottoman Empire that in the 16th century it inspired more books than the entire continent of America. France was the empire’s principal European ally; most books are in French. They not only described the empire but also, read by monarchs and ministers, helped guide policies towards it. Books are politics.

Ambassadors inspired or commissioned some of the best books on Istanbul. Jacob Colyer was Dutch Resident in the Ottoman capital from 1668 to 1683, when he was succeeded by his son, who remained in the same post until 1725. In this catalogue, the entry for Journal du voyage de Monsieur Colyer, Résident à la Porte pour Messieurs les Etats Généraux des Provinces Unies (Paris 1672) contains the magic phrase (like many other catalogue entries) “not in Blackmer or Atabey” – meaning that the book is not mentioned in the catalogues of the celebrated libraries assembled by two recent collectors of books on the Ottoman Empire, Henry Blackmer and Şefik Atabey. Blackmer’s and Atabey’s were sale catalogues. Hopefully Omer Koç’s records the foundation of an institution.

My own favourite among these magnificent books is Mouradgea d’Ohsson’s Tableau Général de l’Empire Othoman (3 vols 1787-1820). It is illustrated by quantities of prints made from sketches done locally, transformed in Paris into finished drawings by Jean-Baptiste Hilair. The author was an Armenian Catholic dragoman to the Swedish embassy, who later became a Swedish noble. Researched in Istanbul – written and printed in Paris, and dedicated to Gustavus III, King of Sweden – the book is not only a superb analysis of Ottoman institutions and society, but also a trans-cultural political and religious statement of support for the Ottoman Empire.

A product of the three-sided alliance between France, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, it promises that under a reforming sultan (such as Selim III, who became sultan in 1789) Islam can be regenerated and the Ottoman Empire revived. Events, however, contradicted the book’s premise. The joint Swedish–Ottoman alliance against Russia in the war of 1788–92 led to yet another Ottoman defeat and Russian advance. Partly because of his reforms, Selim III was deposed in 1807 and assassinated in 1808.

The excellent photographs by Hadiye Cangökçe show that Ömer Koç’s library also contains busts, manuscripts, medals, pictures, drawings, passports and photographs – all related to the Ottoman Empire. “Every aspiring collector should own this book,” writes the London bookshop Heywood Hill. Every aspiring city should possess a library like this one.

Philip Mansel’s books include ‘Sultans in Splendour: Monarchs of the Middle East 1869–1945’; ‘Constantinople, City of the World’s Desire’; and ‘Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean’. He is currently writing a biography of Louis XIV

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