The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

Politics, aesthetics and the Ottoman Cemetery

Nikki Petroni Monday, 25 July 2016, 14:07 Last update: about 7 years ago

I have always been extremely fascinated by the Ottoman Muslim Cemetery in Marsa. Its beauty is indisputable, yet it is admittedly a rather troubling architectural feature due to Malta's historical conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and also due to its relationship with Malta's art historical tradition. The recent proposal to develop a fuel station and car wash facility right next to the cemetery arguably shows more than disregard to architectural heritage. It also has cultural-political roots and is a twenty-first-century manifestation of long-standing hostility.

The cemetery was designed by Malta's preeminent nineteenth-century architect, Emmanuele Luigi Galizia, who was also the architect for the Ta' Braxia and Addolorata cemeteries. Completed in 1876, the Ottoman Cemetery is very much a product of the nineteenth-century search for past and non-Western artistic styles. The cemetery has been praised by Prof. Conrad Thake, who has outspokenly criticised the proposed development, as "a superb interpretation of an exotic Oriental architecture." (MaltaToday, February 1, 2014). Prof. Thake's research paper on the Ottoman Cemetery will shortly be published in an international journal which centres on the visual cultures of the Islamic world.

Dr. Mark Sagona, whose research focuses on nineteenth-century art and architecture, argues that; "This period, unfortunately, has suffered from underestimation in Malta, but it is gradually being investigated and given its proper place in the impressive artistic and cultural history of the Maltese Islands.  The importance of the Ottoman Muslim Cemetery is seen in the way how it breathes the spirit of the nineteenth century in its artistic and architectural language."

Moreover, Dr. Sagona states that Galizia "bears the true mark of his age and thus moved between Romanticism and Eclecticism in his design solutions.  The cemetery, in fact, brings about that nostalgia of time and place which is essentially Romantic in quality.  It also reflects the eclectic spirit of the time, in which artists, designers and architects could bring together motifs from various past styles.  The architect was definitely looking around him but his creative genius permitted him to synthesise his visual sources.  He thus created a spectacular work which is at once Romantic, Eclectic and exotic, also reflecting the nineteenth century obsession with oriental cultures."

However, it must be noted that placing this architectural monument within the context of nineteenth-century Orientalism tends to divorce it from its Muslim origins and consequently makes it a product of Western cultural interests. Edward Said introduced his seminal book Orientalism by describing the European idea of the East: "The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." Orientalism was essentially manifested through 'domestications of the exotic' (Said).

Framing the Ottoman Cemetery as orientalist gives it international relevance and links the work of a Maltese architect to the East and to developments taking place in Europe. Yet the question of 'domestication' is problematic because the style of the cemetery does not really form part of Malta's aesthetic culture, as Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci argues: "Force as much as one wants the cemetery was always alien to us. It is aesthetically very beautiful but completely outside of our aesthetic-scape."

During our discussion on the cemetery, Dr. Schembri Bonaci underlined that the debate on its preservation tends to be de-politicised. It is essential that we talk about art and architecture critically to really understand the significance of our heritage. In no way does this imply that the cemetery should be obscured by an unnecessary intervention, but we cannot forget the meaning given to aesthetics by past and contemporary politics.

Said's Orientalism is a highly political text which emphasises the need for critical analysis on empires and their cultural products. The Ottoman Cemetery was commissioned by the then Sultan of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Sultan Abdűlaziz I or Abd Al-Aziz, as a resting place for members of the Turkish military. Its official commission and style make it part of the critical debate on colonial ideologies. One cannot forget the Armenian Genocide of 1915-17 in which the Ottomans massacred millions of Armenians, the killing of the Kurdish people due to the ongoing Kurdish-Turkish conflict which has led to the displacement of half a million Kurds in the past year alone, and other atrocities. The events of the past week, the Turkish government's acts against the military, judiciary, academics, and other groups, cannot be excluded.

That being said, the Ottoman Cemetery is a piece of Turkish heritage as much as it is of Malta's architectural history. However, its problematic links with Maltese political and art history make it susceptible to compromising situations. The proposal to jeopardise the cemetery is not so different from other recent attempts to sabotage Renzo Piano's incredible City Gate project with mediocre monti stalls and cheap temporary kiosks.

The thing is that the Ottoman Cemetery cannot be categorised as solely the result of a European tradition and separated from the history of the Ottoman Empire and even of present-day Turkey. This cultural overlapping between East and West is what makes the Ottoman Cemetery such an intriguing and political architectural monument. As Dr. Sagona argues, the fuel station development "would be insulting to the story of architecture in Malta, an affront to the memory of Galizia, and irreverent to the dead who are buried there.  It will definitely set a very wrong example in the safeguarding of our artistic and cultural heritage."    

Several others have spoken against the development. Architect and advocate for the preservation of architectural heritage, Edward Said, stated: "What needs to be done is simple; the application is of course refused and immediately the site zoned as a buffer to protect the context of the cemetery. Such applications should get the authorities (with the help of e-NGOs) to take stock of other historic landscapes and structures around our islands and study their context and zone accordingly. These areas will have the same status as ODZ or at most minimal intervention will be allowed in them."

I like to think of the collective efforts of many academics, architects and environmental organisations to preserve this architectural masterpiece - which was ultimately the result of cross-cultural artistic collaboration - as being linked the need to overcome East-West political barriers.

The situation of the Ottoman Cemetery in Malta may be framed as a reflection of that which is engulfing the contemporary Arab world. The iconoclasm of cultural heritage in the Middle East is causing the destruction of beauty and giving increased representation to tragic and violent acts. In the midst of an unsightly and chaotic palimpsest of vehicles, warehouses and tarmac lies a resplendent monument, a reminder that beauty can persevere even when consumed by ugliness. In our contemporary age of continued struggle between East and West, further exacerbated in recent days with the strengthening of state despotism in Turkey and with the French President's proclamation for increased military intervention in Iraq and Syria, the will to preserve the Ottoman Cemetery and to resist any impairments which the proposed fuel station will cause show the determination to defy the subjugation of cultural and artistic value. 

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