Dana Sajdi’s Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee: Leisure  and Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century 

9781845115708I have enough interest in the Ottoman Empire to motivate me to check out almost any book, fiction or non-fiction, that focuses on some aspect of said. So I was more than happy to review Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee when offered the chance.

This is a lightly edited collection of papers presented at a 2005 conference on culture in the eighteenth century Ottoman Empire. All six of the contributors, including the editor, are early career scholars, most with academic appointments. All of the papers in some way challenge a thesis about cultural decline in the late Ottoman Empire that has apparently dominated Ottoman studies for decades. I say “apparently” because I have no confirmation about the status of this thesis other than what I’ve read in this book. I don’t claim to be an Ottoman Empire scholar, just an appreciative amateur holding scholarly credentials in other areas.

Dana Sajdi’s opening paper, “Decline, its Discontents and Ottoman Cultural History: By Way of Introduction,” makes the cultural decline theme quite explicit. My note on this paper says “very linear literature review,” meaning that Dr. Sajdi has considered each author’s position separately, in linear fashion, rather than attempting to present a critical synthesis of their ideas. I regard this approach as a developmental step that someone takes in learning how to write a literature review rather than a desirable final product.

The authors of the other five papers in this small (less than three hundred page) volume are considerably less explicit in articulating connections to the cultural decline thesis. This is my primary reason for characterizing the collection as “lightly edited.” For example, Orlin Sabev’s essay “The First Ottoman Turkish Printing Enterprise: Success or Failure?” uses primary data on the production and sales of the first dozen or so titles published by Muteferrika, a press established in 1726, to support his argument that the press was in fact quite successful; however, he doesn’t frame this finding in terms of the cultural decline thesis at all. I could say the same of Ali Caksu’s piece “Janissary Coffee Houses in Late Eighteenth-Century Istanbul,” which suggests that the coffee houses operated by members of the Janissaries (the Sultan’s military forces) served as sites for political activism, among their many other purposes, again, with no mention of the cultural decline thesis. This article, by the way, reminded me of Scott Haine’s The World of the Paris Café and, in a different way, of Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree. I enjoyed making those connections.

Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee contains no illustrations other than the simple graphs used to display the data in “The First Ottoman Turkish Printing Enterprise.” Endnotes for all the essays are located at the back of the book. The bibliography and index are likewise at the end of the book, consolidated across all the contributed essays. Not surprisingly, many of the references are in Turkish, Arabic or French.

Just to be clear before I end this review, this is a work of scholarship, not a book I’d recommend to a general reader, even someone who shares my interests in the Ottoman Empire!

(Tauris Academic Studies, 2007)

About Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.