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Artisan Society and Struggles in the Ottoman Empire

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the history of the lives and work of middle eastern artisans. Bread from the Lion’s Mouth: Artisans Struggling for a Livelihood in Ottoman Cities, soon to be published, uses archival documents to re-create a scene of life in the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth through twentieth centuries. Following, editor Suraiya Faroqhi discusses the history of this project and her interest in this region.

 

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What drew you to the study of artisans in Ottoman cities? Why do you think there is a renewed interest in this field today?

 

Perhaps because I am fond of my own work, as a historian I have for a long time been interested in people that work – as opposed to those that pray, govern, or fight. Moreover I like to see the things that artisans/artists have made; and we must keep in mind that the beautiful things we admire in museums did not come into being ‘just like that’ but are the product of human work, especially that of artisans and artists.

 

Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

 

I first got interested in artisans when working on the urban history of Ottoman Anatolia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; that happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when few people were much concerned with the world of crafts. When people at that time studied towns, they often were most interested in the role of these settlements as centres of tax collection and the remittal of taxes to the central administration. Land and sea routes were also of interest, but scholars did not try very hard to find out how the builders of boats or the manufacturers of saddles made a living. As for the question of women working in crafts, nobody much cared at that time, except for Fahri Dalsar who already in 1960 published Ottoman sources on females in the Bursa textile trades.

 

 

What aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

 

It is not always easy to cope with texts written by people who are new to the field. But then, when I was a beginner, Stanford Shaw (UCLA) and Gustav Bayerle (Indiana University) taught me how to produce presentable manuscripts. I did not always like to be corrected, and I remember that Bayerle once had to threaten me with an Incomplete in a graduate course if I didn’t do the revisions he had asked for. In the end, however I am glad I’ve followed his advice; and I hope that I can be useful to younger colleagues in a similar fashion.

 

As for the rewarding aspect: when editing, you are forced to engage with new work. I had no idea that a secondary market for rights-to-work in a given spot (gedik) existed, and might not have found out if I hadn’t encountered the work of Seven Ağır and Onur Yıldırım.

 

 

Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

 

I am not really sure. However there is an underlying tension. On the one hand, there are scholars who think that there was a kind of pre-established harmony between the Ottoman administration and local artisans, and others who think that even though the surviving documents don’t say very much about tensions artisans did have a marge for manoeuver. Thus not every attempt to do more than just scrape by on a minimum automatically disqualified a craftsman as a ‘bad person’, in spite of most texts on artisan morals (fütüvvetname) constantly harping on the abnegation of self.

 

Admittedly personal ethics play a role as well: I have grown up with the assumption that you work hard and that gains you a legitimate access to the joys of life. As Goethe once put it: work in the daytime, guests at night, weeks of hard work and joyous festivities! Therefore I am interested in seeing Ottoman artisans having access to worldly goods; and not everybody will agree with this concern.=

 

 

What inspired your love of your subject (could be specific people, events, etc.)? When?

 

I think that my commitment grew gradually: I have always liked museums, from my high school days onward; and once exhibitions became relatively frequent, I came to visit a large number of them, often more than once, and sometimes with my students. I guess that my concern with artisans deepened as I came to appreciate the enormous amount of hard work and competence that these people put into their products.

 

 

Who is one iconic figure featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?

 

I have an enduring respect for my teacher Ömer Lütfi Barkan (1902-79). Certainly he was a person of his time, and believed that Ottoman artisans were ‘like soldiers’ and went without demur wherever the sultans sent them. However, Barkan also was one of the first scholars to connect Ottoman social history with the histories of other societies, in his case mostly of mediaeval and early modern France. He understood the importance of mapping social data and studied food consumption as well as trans-imperial phenomena, such as monetary devaluation and inflation. Even when as present-day historians we disagree with some of his assumptions, we need to recognize his pioneering role.

 

 

What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?

 

We need to look more carefully at the role of rural craftspeople; this is very difficult to do for the period before 1800, but we have not really put much effort into the subject.

 

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Suraiya Faroqhi is Professor in the Department of History at Istanbul Bilgi University. She has taught at Middle East Technical University, Ankara (1972-87) and served as a professor of Ottoman Studies at the Ludwig Maximilians Universität in Munich, Germany (1988-2007).

 

Series: Volume 25, International Studies in Social History