- A Cultural History of the Ottomans: the Imperial Elite and Its Artifacts by Suraiya Faroqhi
Suraiya Faroqhi's latest book offers up a veritable museum tour of precious objects, finery, and status symbols covering several centuries of Ottoman history. The curious reader will find an assortment of coffee-cups, maces, horsetails, gilded spoons, leather trays, women's dresses, and rosewater sprinklers, among many other items that she has chosen from collections across Europe. Moving from one piece to another, Faroqhi tries to evoke the material culture of the Ottoman elite, to whom most of these displays would have belonged. This emphasis on close analysis of individual objects sets her book apart from the usual studies of material culture that historians tend to write.
Faroqhi does not shield newcomers from the bad news: we still know relatively little about Ottoman material culture. Making the task harder are the records at our disposal, which are not nearly as helpful as we would like them to be. Most useful are Islamic court records. Sorting through their voluminous files, the undaunted historian will eventually chance upon probate inventories, which offer the most direct view of material life. They yield their secrets reluctantly. Among extensive lists of objects and prices are only a few tidbits of information about color, quality, and style. The scribes did not ask where objects were made or how people used them; they sought only to value estates and supervise their division. More disappointments await. Ottoman courts operated in towns, and hold relatively little information about the rural majority. Further obscuring our view are the vagaries of Islamic law, which required inventories only for individuals who died intestate or with minor heirs.
Faroqhi does not counsel despair. She believes that these sources still have a lot to tell us. In the meantime, she is interested in investigating other strategies for research. What she proposes is to look a little beyond official records, using a hybrid method which brings her closer to art history. Instead of working in the archives, she builds each chapter around a small group of historical artifacts. Her aim is to put some flesh on Ottoman material culture, beyond what written sources can do alone. Her choices are rather eclectic, primarily because of the haphazard way in which objects have survived over the generations. The bias runs unavoidably towards luxury items, which were more likely to be preserved and sought out for museum collections. The objects are essentially "early modern," dating from before the mid-nineteenth century. Coverage extends mostly over the Balkans and Anatolia, with fewer references to the Arab provinces. Photographs allow readers to see exactly what she is examining. Thematic overviews at the beginning of each chapter help to set individual displays in historical context. [End Page 194]
One strength of her presentation is that it effectively places Ottoman material culture within the widest possible framework. She tries to map out patterns of cultural exchanges between the Ottomans and all of their neighbors. Latin Europe, which has tended to get most of the scholarly attention, did not really exert much cultural attraction and accounted for only a minor part of overall Ottoman cultural exchange. She reminds us of the many luxury items imported from India and China, the fur and leather trade to the north with Russia, and the various military and sartorial fashions which passed over the Polish frontier to the northwest. She argues that Ottoman admiration for Iranian handiwork, in particular, has not received sufficient recognition, mostly because of political and ideological rivalries that historians have allowed to obscure long-standing sympathies in taste and lifestyle. The resulting reorientation of Ottoman taste and sense of cachet is most refreshing.
One persistent tension in the book is her handling of the standard historian's question about continuity versus change. She acknowledges much continuity, but works harder at identifying little shifts in material culture. It is difficult to evaluate some of her judgments. We have to remember that she is looking primarily at the Ottoman...