A more nuanced understanding of when and why people traveled
For historians, there are many challenges to studying people on the move. The problem of “keeping track” of subjects within governed territory has been the main reason that, throughout history, ruling powers have gone to great lengths to compel nomads and other itinerant peoples to become sedentary and thus more easily governable through record-keeping. Consequently, those who were mobile -- particularly non-elites traveling for trade, pilgrimage and other myriad reasons -- leave scarce documentation behind for understanding the spatial, economic and social boundaries of the worlds they inhabited. In “Travel and Artisans in the Ottoman Empire: Employment and Mobility in the Early Modern Era,” Suraiya Faroqhi has endeavored to flesh out the lives and movements of such people within both a historiographical and political context. Her book aims to challenge the predominant understanding that in the early modern era of the Ottoman Empire, “ordinary” people played a role in history merely as passive, sedentary subjects bound within their small worlds. It is true, she acknowledges, that immobility was the norm. However, even in a world where peasants were required to obtain official permission from tax administrators in order to leave their homes and migration in and out of İstanbul was meticulously regulated, there is still great value in developing a more nuanced understanding of when and why people traveled and the politics of control that sought to regulate the movement of people and goods.
Faroqhi has had an influential career working to document the lives of the Ottoman non-elite, as in her previous books, “Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire” (2005) and “Artisans of Empire: Crafts and Craftspeople Under the Ottomans” (2009), among a wide array of literature addressing the economic and social history of artisans, merchants and other Ottoman subjects. Her latest book presents an array of small-scale studies organized by chapter. They present mobility among three broad groups: Ottoman elites, ordinary people traveling (both as free agents and involuntarily as slaves) and those who remained sedentary but were nevertheless mobile within the confines of İstanbul. The author covers a vast range of people on the move, including a look at pilgrims to Mecca through the lens of the noncommercial goods they brought back as well as tracing the trade and distribution networks of 18th-century halva manufacturers and Tunisian fez-sellers in the context of administrative policies regulating their trade and movements. She also addresses specific spaces of heightened commerce and travel, as in the textile industry of Bursa and Üsküdar as a place where fugitive slaves and others were continuously “just passing through” for both licit and illicit reasons (117).
One of the driving forces of Faroqhi’s book is to serve as motivation and exemplar for other scholars to begin approaching the topic of mobility from new angles.
FAROQHI’S LATEST BOOK PRESENTS AN ARRAY OF SMALLSCALE STUDIES ORGANIZED BY CHAPTER
As the author notes in her discussion on “Ottoman domestic politics,” migration can look vastly different depending on the perspective taken. She notes that, “often we know more about the government’s attempt to foil migration than about the moves and motivations of the migrants” (156). Consequently, the most obvious records of the movement of non-elites are generally from the perspective of the Ottoman administration, which show “Ottoman sultans moving their subjects around like pieces on a chessboard” and striving, as in the case of İstanbul, to enforce mechanisms for managing what was perceived to be the city’s “surplus” population of undesirables (xiii). While much of the existing literature on mobility tends to rely on such records, Faroqhi’s overarching aim is to “show the agency of the sultan’s subjects both elite and non-elite” (xii) by making use of often indirect and under-explored sources to paint a broader picture of mobility in the early modern era. In one chapter, for example, she explores narrative complaints presented in petitions that were filed by 16th-century Ottoman merchants in the Adriatic who appealed to Venetian authorities for justice against robbers at sea, often by requesting letters from officials in İstanbul to vouch for their cause. She makes the case that while the petitions themselves are generally laconic and written in very simple Turkish, they, in addition to the supporting documents from Ottoman bureaucrats, provide a window into the ways in which Ottoman merchants in the 18th century chose to present themselves to Venetian officials. Faroqhi presents two case studies -- using these sources as a guide on how to utilize “unpromising documents” (77) -- in which she shows how such Ottoman-Venetian interactions can reveal the “political perspectives in which an Ottoman subject with some knowledge of the world regarded the relationship between Venice and the Sultan” (80). In this way, Faroqhi gives a sense of how historians can provide some insight into the outlooks of people who otherwise would not have left a record of their travels.
While the book’s title suggests a central focus on artisans, a full third of the text is dedicated to the observations and interactions of elite travelers, including an exploration of Ottoman envoys to European courts, asylum-seekers into Ottoman territories (such as Jews, fugitive royals from foreign courts, Spaniards, Italians and other outsiders) as well as a chapter revisiting the fascinating but not-always-reliable narratives of famous traveler Evliya Çelebi recounting his stay in Cairo. Her discussion on the evolution of ambassador protocols for reporting back to İstanbul reveals the ways in which travel served as a source of political knowledge and can provide intriguing insight into the aspects of material culture and institutions that caught the attention of visiting diplomats. She does so by exploring the accounts of several dignitaries, including figures such as Zülfikâr Pasha, a 17th-century ambassador who spent much of his time reporting the indignities and poor treatment he suffered at the Habsburg court but who also
AS THE AUTHOR NOTES, MIGRATION CAN LOOK VASTLY DIFFERENT DEPENDING ON THE PERSPECTIVE TAKEN
relayed what insight he could gather on European military affairs.
These diplomatic accounts serve to urge the necessity of moving beyond what Faroqhi takes to be a simplistic argument put forward by figures such as Bernard Lewis that prior to the occupation of Egypt by Napoleon, there was very little interest on the part of Ottoman dignitaries in European politics unless directly pertaining to Ottoman interests. While it is true that embassy accounts in the 1700s generally focused on diplomatic protocol and functional description rather than deeper observation -which, as Faroqhi herself admits, can be a source of frustration for historians -- they nevertheless document shifting Ottoman interest in closing a perceived gap in the knowledge of the affairs of Latinate Europe. In addition to highlighting primary sources that demand closer examination, she emphasizes the importance of such sources in reevaluating periodization schemes of different stages of Ottoman perspectives on Europe through distinctive worldviews.
Another instance of Faroqhi’s creative approach to exploring movement employs documents pertaining to a building project at Hotin, a northern fortification where nearly 2,000 unskilled construction laborers were drafted and relocated from İstanbul in 1716. This case study is interesting in that it exemplifies an ongoing theme throughout the book: The preoccupation of the Ottoman administration with regulating borders and adjusting the population of İstanbul by ridding it of people perceived as surplus or possibly even undesirable. Many of the workmen drafted were young, single and unskilled male migrants into İstanbul, including Albanians, Armenians and various Christians of unidentified ethnicity. Consequently, Faroqhi speculates that labor conscription to remote regions may have been one mechanism for ridding the capital of “excess” people. Similarly, her chapter on 16th-century Üsküdar as a hub of movement into and out of İstanbul and her discussion on the trade networks of Tunisian fezsellers through the guild system present a fascinating picture of conflicting forces at work. The emerging paradox throughout the book shows how on the one hand İstanbul was a city that, prior to the 19th century, could not reproduce its population without influx of migrants. On the other, however, Ottoman administrators were heavily invested in preventing unwanted movement and occasionally pruning the population.
Faroqhi variously describes her chapters as “vignettes” or “sketches,” and they should be taken as such. While the book’s breadth ultimately leaves many questions unanswered and should pique the curiosity of both historians and non-historians alike, Faroqhi’s contribution lies in the windows she opens for future scholarship on mobility. What emerges from her disparate accounts is a picture of movement as an integral part of the “business of living -- and of making a living” (xii) for many Ottoman subjects, whether through the complex circulation of people and goods required to sustain Bursa’s textile industry or simply the excursions of sweetmeat sellers scouting potentially prime “slots” (gedik) to establish new shops in İstanbul. Through this lens, we can view a wide range of obstacles and regulations to movement, such as guild membership as a precondition for North Africans’ legal residence in 18th-century İstanbul. Conversely, the act of travel generated anxieties, as with the links to criminality associated with boat travel into and out of İstanbul, where an underground of fugitive slaves, slave hunters, and various illicit activities took place. In this way, the many case studies in the book serve not only to show how control of movement became “a precondition for political survival” (216) for the Ottoman administration but also manage to capture both the autonomy of individuals and the complex webs of control they needed to navigate.
FAROQHI GIVES A SENSE OF HOW HISTORIANS CAN PROVIDE SOME INSIGHT INTO THE OUTLOOKS OF PEOPLE WHO OTHERWISE WOULD NOT HAVE LEFT A RECORD OF THEIR TRAVELS
Suraiya Faroqhi, “Travel and Artisans
in the Ottoman Empire: Employment and Mobility in the Early Modern Era,” (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2014),
320 pp. ISBN: 9781780764818
Faroqhi has endeavored to flesh out the lives and movements of tradesmen within both a historiographical and political context.