- Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early-Modern Capitalism (1600–1800) by Nelly Hanna
Nelly Hanna’s latest book is a useful, though not unproblematic, addition to the growing corpus of microhistories of the economy and society of the Ottoman Empire’s provinces. Here, Hanna’s subject is what she calls “artisan entrepreneurs,” a term that appears to denote urban craftsmen who also engaged in trade, albeit of a more geographically circumscribed kind than that of the long-distance merchants known as tujjār. Her chief source for this study is the registers of Muslim court registers housed in Egypt’s National Archives (Dāral-Wathā’iq). Her purview is Cairo in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and her particular focus is the makers of linseed, a.k.a. flax seed, oil, which was used variously for cooking and lighting.
Following a review of the historiography of early modern Egypt’s economy in chapter 1, succeeding chapters treat different features of this economy, notably the artisan entrepreneurs themselves (chapter 2) and the craft guilds (chapter 6). While this structure allows Hanna to offer a critique of a sometimes vaguely-defined “conventional” scholarship, it arguably prevents several of the book’s key arguments from unfolding in an entirely lucid or convincing manner. Only in the course of chapter 3, for example, does it become clear that the author seeks to demonstrate change in artisans’ entrepreneurial initiatives between the early seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century. She regards the early seventeenth century (the height of what was unquestionably a global economic crisis) as an era that allowed artisans the widest scope to break into entrepreneurial activity. The window of opportunity narrowed later in the century, as the economic crisis eased, and had all but closed by the mid-eighteenth century, by which time, not coincidentally, tax-farming was omnipresent in Egypt. Similarly, an opportunity is missed for a sustained critique of “provisionism”—the economic policy that an earlier generation of Ottomanists assumed the Ottoman central authority to have followed—which discouraged exports in order to ensure an even distribution of commodities to urban markets, and relied on urban craft guilds to limit competition and prevent social unrest. Recently, historians such as Giancarlo Casale and Suraiya Faroqhi have questioned the notion that the Ottomans actually followed such a policy. In chapter 3, Hanna gestures toward a similar critique but is sidetracked by explications of cases from her primary sources and discussions of secondary scholarship. It may be just as well in this case, since Casale’s and Faroqhi’s critique rests on demonstrating not simply that non-state actors exhibited capitalistic behavior but that actors within the state did, as well. Hanna, in contrast, habitually depicts “the Ottoman state” as a monolithic entity wedded to a “command” economy.
In chapter 4, Hanna presents evidence from the court registers that fleshes out the identity of the Jalfi household, which, as I have demonstrated, dominated Egypt’s Azeban regiment during much of the eighteenth century, using the established Azeb officer promotional track of odabaşı-çorbacı-kethüda to cement its authority while playing a subordinate role to the hegemonic Kazdağlı [End Page 247] household, which dominated the Janissary regiment. Hanna’s material reveals the centrality to this household of linseed oil production and trade. Disconcertingly, however, she chooses to depict the Jalfis as just another “mamluk household,” albeit one with artisanal roots, ignoring most of my findings, notably the Ottoman Chief Harem Eunuch’s role in the household’s founding and client-procurement, which gave the household a key link to the imperial center.1
Chapter 5 argues that the eighteenth century witnessed steadily increasing intervention by the military-administrative elite in Egypt’s economy, forcing the artisan entrepreneurs to resist as best they could. Although Hanna’s depiction of both the grandees’ and the artisans’ activities as capitalistic is welcome, her portrayal of these actors as oppositional blocs is unfortunate. Her persistent characterization of Egypt’s grandees as an undifferentiated mass of “mamluks” or “emirs” obscures the...