Suraiya Faroqhi: Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire

ottoman empire 1We tend to think of the Ottoman Empire as monolithic: a unitary state ruled from Istanbul and subject to a uniform system of laws. A moment’s reflection will lead to the inescapable conclusion that this couldn’t possibly be true: at its height, the Ottoman Empire stretched from north of the Caucasus through the Balkans and over the Anatolian Plateau, across North Africa in the west and to the borders of Persia in the east. Included in this vast empire were Turks, Arabs, Berbers, Slavs, Magyars, Tatars, Armenians, Iranians, Kurds and Greeks, not to mention Germans, Italians, and other Europeans brought in as war captives and slaves, many of whom became influential citizens. Among these peoples were Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Jews, Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic and Armenian Christians, and probably, in the hinterlands of Europe and Anatolia, more than a few Pagans. And the Empire was subject both to Islamic sharia and to Turkish civil law, not to mention local laws and customs that encompassed all the traditions inherent in the polyglot texture of the Ottoman state.

The culture of such an entity, its arts and crafts, the interactions between the various ethnic and religious groups, the interfaces between high culture and popular culture, are the subject of Suraiya Faroqhi’s Subjects of the Sultan. In many ways it is a dizzying survey: Faroqhi’s coverage is extensive, the very richness of the subject is somewhat daunting, and the fascinating sidebars she explores almost lead to severe input overload — but I didn’t care. (She even devotes a section to cooking and dinner parties, and how many “cultural histories” do that?)

She also treats not only the culture of the cities but of the towns, villages, and countryside, although admittedly the sources for any in-depth discussion of the latter are sketchy. There is full attention to the role of women in Ottoman society, which was much more active and independent than one might believe — in fact, often more so than in Europe at the same period. It calls to mind the role of women during the Roman Empire, in which women had certain inheritance and property rights and often exercised enormous political influence. And of course, since the Ottoman sultans claimed to be not only the successors to the Seljuks but also to the caliphs, there is full attention to the role of religious practice and observance, with fascinating looks at the dervishes and their influence on the society and the role that religion played in education.

Fortunately, given the scope of her study and the richness of its subject, Faroqhi’s organization is sensible and straightforward. She begins with a short history of the origins of the Ottoman Empire as a political and military force, first in Anatolia and then in the Middle East and Europe. Her analysis of the economic and social structure of the Empire is concise and cogent and provides a good basis for what comes after: the creation and dissemination of “culture,” meaning not only high culture but the actual workings of economics in relation to women’s activities, trade and business in general, “crafts” such as needlework and weaving, interchanges between the Ottoman heartland and its subjects and neighbors (remember that religious studies were conducted largely in Arabic, the language of the Quran, while the literary language of the Islamic world was Persian), and the role of non-Muslims in both the governing class and the society at large.

Her section on the arts includes not only architecture, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Ottomans to world culture, but a discussion of what it meant to live in a town, the role of ceremonies and festivals as expressions of culture, the growth of Ottoman literature, and food and drink as part of culture. She closes with an overview of the changes in culture brought about by the political and economic crises of the late eighteenth century and the sporadic drive for modernization of the nineteenth.

Unlike The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It, one need not be solidly grounded in the political history of the region, although such a grounding will certainly not be a disadvantage. An awareness of the currents of world thought in the early modern period, however, is a distinct help, both for a sense of where the Ottoman Empire “fits” and to see some of the contrasts that come from a very different set of traditions than those of, for example, Europe. It’s worth noting in this context that the Empire was truly a crossroads, positioned as it was between Europe, Asia, and Africa, and that not only the peoples of the Empire itself but those neighboring — which includes Europe as a whole as well as Persians and Indians — had an influence on the culture of this giant.

It’s a complex and intricate subject, and Faroqhi’s treatment is clear and concise — sometimes, perhaps, a little too concise, but in my case that merely whetted my appetite to go hunting for more information. Subjects of the Sultan is what it claims to be, a survey of the bases and characteristics of Ottoman culture during the early modern period of world history. As such, it is a valuable resource and a very good place to start.

(I. B. Tauris, 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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