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Strengthening Male Bodies and Building Robust Communities: Physical Culture in the Late Ottoman Empire


This dissertation examines the making of modernity in the late Ottoman Empire by tracing the connections between sports, the body, male subject formation, nation building, and communal and imperial identity. It focuses on the development of a shared Ottoman physical culture amongst upper and middle-class Muslim, Christian, and Jewish men of Istanbul from the 1870s until World War I. My research draws from a diverse array of archives and primary sources written in Ottoman-Turkish, Armenian, Armeno-Turkish, French, English, German, and Greek, such as government reports and documents, school and association records, private correspondence, periodicals, books, and pamphlets, as well as vernacular photographs, in order to present an alternative understanding of cultural transformations and the historical linkages between different ethno-religious communities of the late Ottoman Empire. The central argument of this dissertation is that Muslims, Christians, and Jews of Istanbul engaged sports as a shared civic activity that offered benefits for the individual, community, and empire.

This study investigates how Ottoman physical culture was underpinned by novel understandings of the body and implicated in larger debates and processes concerning the self, gender, ethno-religious communal identity, and the nation by pursuing three principle areas of inquiry. The first area of focus is the institutionalization of Ottoman physical culture in schools, voluntary associations, and government ministries. The study begins by exploring the development of athleticism as an educational ideology in a government lycée, Mekteb-i Sultani, and a foreign missionary school, Robert College. It demonstrates that many of the leading physical culture enthusiasts first encountered discussions about the educational significance of exercise and corporeal development as students in these two schools, and went on to establish voluntary athletic associations, as private spaces, in which young men formed, negotiated, and performed novel male subjectivities and identities. Ottoman government officials in the Ministry of Public Education recognized the success of these institutions in popularizing physical culture and sought to harness its potential in order to create strong and healthy Ottoman young men. In order to achieve this, the Ottoman government created the Physical Training Inspectorate and the position of Inspector to teach physical training to Ottoman teachers and oversee the integration of physical training classes in all state schools throughout the imperial domains. The second area of inquiry is Istanbul’s multilingual physical culture press, which consisted of illustrated magazines, daily newspapers, and sports periodicals. These experimental publications constituted a public forum that offered an aspiring middle-class textual and visual instructions on how to cultivate a modern male subject and community on the soccer field, in the gymnasium, and at the sports club. The final area of inquiry is the public display of sports in newly constructed urban spaces. Two spaces in particular, theatres and stadiums, served as the venues in which schools, athletic associations, and the state exhibited physical dexterity, celebrated sports as civilized activities, and redefined communal divisions separating Muslims, Christians, and Jews during the period.

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