Istanbul is like a giant festival area, a fairground where commercial, cultural and artistic wealth is introduced and displayed. Istanbul’s journey of becoming one of the world’s important exhibitions and fair centres started in the nineteenth century. When the number of fairs in Europe increased, Sultan Abdülaziz decided to have one in Istanbul, and the preparations, which started in 1862 planned out with the inauguration of a great exposition in Sultanahmet Square in February, 1863. Being opened on 27 February, 1863 and closed on 27 July, 1863, this great international fair, which was the first one for Istanbul as well as for Turkey, is known as “Sergi-i Umumî-i Osmanî (Ottoman General Exhibition)”. The exposition was held in order to “bring competitiveness to the Ottoman economy, to see the quality, variety and prices of the producer goods in the country, to pinpoint the problems of the manufacturers, and to reward the successful ones”. The General Exhibition, which was originally designed as an exposition limited to domestic products, expanded into an international exposition with the participation of agricultural and industrial machines and equipment from Europe.
The construction of a new building for the General Exhibition on the square between the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet Mosque in Sultanahmet district was commissioned to a company of which Mustafa Fazıl Pasha was a partner. The building, designed by architects Bourgeois and Parvillée, had a glazed, rectangular-shaped exhibition section made from masonry, cast iron and wood and occupied and area of approximately 3.500 m2. The construction was completed in 65 days. A rectangular-shaped garden was designed in front of the building. Additionally, a fountain was built in the centre of the exhibition building to supply the fire engines with water. It was originally planned to turn the building into a permanent bazaar named “Çarşı-yı Osmani (Ottoman Bazaar)” in the future. In addition to the exhibition building, a private apartment for the Sultan on the Theodosius’ Obelisk side and a café for people, where they could rest, smoke, drink coffee, beverages etc., were built. (When there was a smoking prohibition in the exposition area, the smokers used this café.) A substantial amount of money was spent on the exhibition building works and on the iron fencing, paving and gardening works for landscaping the Sultanahmet Square. A second exhibition building was constructed for the steam engines and equipment from Europe, behind the main exhibition building, in the area extending from the Obelisk of Theodosius to the Walled Obelisk, enclosing the Serpent Column within its boundaries. All the expenses of this construction were covered by Mustafa Fazıl Pasha. 300 people, consisting of police officers and fire-fighters in special uniforms, provided security for the exposition area against fire and other dangers.
The Ottoman General Exhibition was officially opened by Sultan Abdülaziz on February 27, 1863 following the Jumuah (Friday Prayer). The Sultan toured the fairgrounds and as a sign of his pleasure gave various gifts and medals to the officials. The Sultan visited the exposition couple more times and even had iftar in the building constructed for him.
Men could visit the exposition on Fridays, Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; and Muslim women on Wednesdays and Saturdays. On March 11, 1863, the Queen Mother Pertevniyal Sultan, Prince Yusuf Izzeddin Efendi and a committee from the court visited the exposition and officially started the women-only days and gave valuable presents and gifts to the head of the exhibition commission and some officials. On women-only days, nobody was allowed inside the exposition area except for the product owners; non-Muslim women were allowed to visit the exposition every day. For 5 months, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, visited the exposition. Among the visitors, there were many Europeans coming from Austria and Britain. Ferry lines organized special ferry rides for the tourists coming to the General Exhibition. Exposition entrance fees varied from 5 kuruş (piastre) to 1 kuruş. Tourniquets placed to provide control of the entrance to the exhibition and enabling the paid entrances were a new practice and thus attracted the attention Istanbulites.
The Imperial Band’s concerts, given in order to increase the public’s interest in the Exposition, lasted until the final day and were highly appreciated by the visitors. Callisto Guatelli Pasha, who was the Instructor General of the Imperial Band, composed a special exhibition anthem called Marche de l’Exposition. A book prepared by Marie de Launay for the Ottoman Exhibition was published in Journal de Constantinopol with her own translation, and a booklet written by Monsieur Lindhaym was presented to the Sultan. Additionally, poems were written for the exhibition and many articles were published in the newspapers.
Commodities and products from 13 provinces and 22 cities, primary from Istanbul, were brought to the Ottoman Exposition. In addition, manufactures from the Imperial Shipyard, the Imperial Armoury, the Imperial Garment Factory and the Hereke Imperial Factory were also displayed. Craftsmen from Istanbul, such as spoon makers, knife makers, saw makers, adze makers, imame makers, mould makers, baristas, sail makers, animal hair weavers, musk growers, merchandisers who sold women’s products, weighers, distillery operators, embroiderers, hookah tube makers, peshtamal makers, weavers, hodden makers and tanners attended the exposition, as well. The products and commodities to be displayed were exempt from customs and other miscellaneous taxes, and their travel and shipping expenses were covered by the state.
The items were displayed in 13 different sections in the exhibition area. These were about agricultural and forest products, mining products, weapons, jewels, textiles, different types of silk and silkworm cocoon, leather goods, embroidery and lace, decoration and musical instruments, models and drawings of military and civil architecture and fine arts. The majority of European-origin products consisted of examples of machines run with steam power, equipment designed for ploughing and harvesting, and furniture examples.
The largest place in the exposition was reserved for agricultural products; tree and lumber samples were displayed here, as well. Lake, sea and rock salts, marble and rock samples, mining collections consisting of various mines and examples of tiles displayed in the mining products section.
The weapons section occupied a very large space in the exposition. The weapons were sent from the Zeytinburnu Imperial Factory, Tersane (shipyard) factories, the factories in Istanbul and from other provinces: 4 cannons, 3 howitzers, 50 carbines from the Zeytinburnu Weapon Factory; 20 escopettes and marine infantry rifles, a nautical cannon with its bronze mount, and a pistol from the Tersane factories; 3 new rifle models designed by the Imperial Mint chief engineer Waren; 60 carbines, rifles and pistols mostly from the private factories in Istanbul. Besides firearms, more than 100 swords from private factories in Istanbul were displayed in the exposition. With their quality, the most remarkable weapons among all the displayed weapons were the grooved cannon examples from Zeytinburnu Factory. There were also carbine rifles manufactured according to the British and French models, helmets, steel armours, and a small shield rifle, which was designed by Colonel Fazlı Bey from the same factory. From the factories in Tersane, 20 remarkable weapons consisting of sawn-off and naval rifles were exhibited in the exposition. All of them were simple and functional and they were manufactured according to the system developed in Tersane.
Examples of jewellery were displayed along with precious emerald gemstones, diamonds, necklaces, earrings and bracelets, belts, various swords and canes, which were brought from the Imperial Treasury inside special cases, and also with examples of coins and medals from the treasury. The richest collections in the exposition were in the textile products section. Manufactures from two state factories, Basmahane and Feshane, presented most of the items in this section. 100 of the 500 textile items from Basmahane were multi-coloured patterned ones used as shirting and for making dresses, and were manufactured according to the European examples. Approximately 60 printed patterns were used as table cloths, drapery and as dress fabrics. The rest of the examples included woollen and cotton socks, gloves, textile, named “American”, which was manufactured from unbleached cotton. From Feshane, 300 items were sent. Good quality fabrics woven mainly from wool being, the majority of these items were thin fabrics for military use, red, black or blue coloured textiles which were used in the garmenting of servicemen, covers, cummerbunds, ticking and fez. Embroidered cummerbunds made from coloured Lebanese silks, lame and flower-patterned fabrics from Aleppo, fabric samples from Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Diyarbakır, various fabrics such as silk apron, kutnu fabric, kemha fabric, lima fabric from Bursa, and wool woven fabrics, headscarves, socks, various thin and thick fabrics, drapery fabrics, kinds of chintz and velvet, brocade and silk inlaid fabrics, head pieces: various headscarves and kerchiefs, wool samples, carpets, rugs and prayer rugs from various regions were also displayed in the textile section of the exposition. A considerable part of the embroidered fabrics were made in Istanbul and they were made with gold and silver spangles or gold work. Most of these examples consisted of the handworks of the students of the Armenian Catholic Girls’ School, the principal of which was Mr. Hassoun.
Among the leather and fur examples, the leather half boots, which were manufactured in the Beyoğlu Military Barracks Workshop, won Sultan Abdülaziz’s approval. In the decoration and musical instruments section, flowers made of silk and wax, and musical instruments of foreign origin were displayed. Among the military and civil architecture examples, models of the Galata Bridge and Beylerbeyi Palace State Officials’ Apartments were displayed.
Among the products brought from Europe, there were ploughing equipment, rakes useful for collecting haulms, seed drill machines, scythes, threshing boards, threshing machines, grain separator machines, hay crushing machines, carding machines, spinning wheels, flour mills, spools, milking machines, wheeled fire engines, hand barrows and coffee mills from Britain. Some of the threshing machines were powered by humans and animals, and some of them by steam power. While the products from France were mainly furniture, the products from Austria, Vienna, mostly consisted of iron safe boxes and saw machines.
Displayed items were sold during the exposition and following the closing, they were delivered to their new owners. Starting from August, the products and commodities, which could not be sold at the exposition, were auctioned on Mondays and Wednesdays; the rest was put up for sale in Galata and in various shops in Istanbul. Agricultural equipment from Europe were tried in the presence of the Sultan at Ferhat Pasha and Oltanice plantations, and the approved ones were sent to the Darülfünun (İstanbul University) in order to be used as examples and models, and from there 13 items were taken to the city of Bursa by Ahmed Vefik Efendi; others were bought by the treasury and taken to the Imperial Real Estates’ plantations.
The Ottoman General Exhibition, which was originally planned to be open for three months, stayed open for five months as a result of the demand and interest from the public and was closed in July, 1863. Throughout the exposition, 1250 “Ottoman General Exhibition Crafts Arts Commerce Medals” and “Ottoman General Exhibition Agriculture and Industry Medals” and 21 Orders of the Medjidie were given. Because the exposition revenues only compensated for the 1/5 of the overall expenses, the difference was covered by Sultan Abdülaziz. Even though the cost of the exposition was high, the Ottoman Empire successfully carried out this big fair and the exposition was successful in keeping government officials, public, artisans and farmers informed about the developments in the Empire and in the world. The buildings constructed in Sultanahmet district specifically for the General Exhibition and which were planned to turn into a permanent bazaar in the future, were unfortunately demolished a couple of years later and its wreckage was sold at an auction at scrap prices.
Gültekin, M. Edip, “Sergi-i Umumî-î Osmani (1863 İstanbul Sergisi)” (graduation thesis), İstanbul University, 1982.
Kasap, Sevilay, “Sergi-i Umumî-i Osmanî, 1863” (MA thesis), Marmara University, 2003.
Önsoy, Rifat, “Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Katıldığı İlk Uluslararası Sergiler ve Sergi-i Umumî-i Osmanî”, TTK Belleten, vol. 47, no. 185 (1984), pp. 195-235.