But if we want to touch or see things from the past, what has normally survived is the work of artisans and craftsmen.
Every tourist sailing in to İstanbul across the Marmara and rounding the tip of Seraglio Point sees an impressive skyline of domes and minarets and towers, all the work of architects and builders from previous centuries. Visiting museums and galleries, we see coins, vases, pots and pans, glassware, jewelry, carpets, calligraphy and fine clothing, all the work of artists and metalworkers, potters and weavers from earlier years.
We are amazed at the richness of the material used. We are delighted by the beauty of the designs. We are fascinated by the intricate fine detail. We wonder at the stories behind a beautiful object: Who made it? Where? How was it sold? Who first bought it? Was it for themselves or a present for some other? What fine lady or gentleman used it? Who admired it? If only these objects could talk, they could tell us a fascinating story of life in the past.
In Turkey, as in most countries, the names of those who created such beautiful objects are lost in the mists of time. While architects are remembered and celebrated -- every British person knows Sir Christopher Wren, every Turk Mimar Sinan -- the names of the craftsmen who fired the tiles that line the walls, the names of the weavers who made the rich carpets, the names of the stonemasons who carved the intricate patterns, the names of the calligraphers who painstakingly wrote verses from the Quran and the names of the metalworkers who shaped the lead on the domes and cupolas are long lost to us.
Yet each was important in the part he played to create the whole effect. Management trainers of the 21st century use the example of two stonemasons in medieval France to instill in modern managers the importance of making every worker feel that what they do is part of one important whole. A traveler passes by a site where two masons are doing an identical task: splitting slabs of stone. He asks them what they are doing. One replies, “I am just splitting each large slab into two smaller ones of exact equal size.” The other replies: “See that building in progress over there? I am part of the team building that cathedral!”
I enjoy this story because it not only embodies the concept that seeing the big picture is important, but it emphasizes the difference identified by American lawyer Louis Nizer in his famous quotation: “A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.”
A major academic work tracing the history of these men who worked with their hands and their brains and their hearts and left us the most wonderful Ottoman artifacts has just been republished in paperback in a more accessible form to the non-academic world. Professor Suraiya Faroqhi’s “Artisans of Empire” traces the history and development of crafts throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Faroqhi is a leading Ottoman scholar. Born in Berlin, she came to Turkey as part of her undergraduate studies in the 1960s. Since then, she has held professorships in both Germany and Turkey, and is well-respected for her knowledge of the subject. In particular, Faroqhi is worth reading for the fact that she often avoids the most popular areas of academic research, preferring the lonely furrow of pioneer research over jumping on whatever is the current popular academic bandwagon.
Most academics, particularly foreign ones, study just two Ottoman periods: the flowering of the state -- roughly up to the end of the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent -- and then the time known as the Ottoman decline -- from the restructuring (Tanzimat) in the 1830s to the end of the empire. For most academic works, the gap in this sandwich is seen as a time when very little of any interest happened.
Not so Faroqhi, who insists on following the thread of social change from one generation to another, providing clear continuity as well as reasons why the Tanzimat period occurred. She also focuses on parts of society others overlook.
“Studies to date of social groups within the empire normally concern men involved with the government, especially religious scholars, but also officials with scribal training,” she says. “Among Ottoman urbanites, merchants have been the most privileged in life as in scholarly research; and in the hierarchy of neglect, artisans rank just above peasants and nomads, the most numerous and least studied segments of the Ottoman population.”
In such, she ratifies the statement made by another American lawyer, Albert Pike: “Almost all the noblest things that have been achieved in the world, have been achieved by poor men; poor scholars, poor professional men, poor artisans and artists, poor philosophers, poets, and men of genius.”
Although very much an academic work, “Artisans of Empire” is eminently readable because each chapter is subdivided into short sections, and the focus of the book is social structure and the effect on the daily lives of Ottoman subjects. It is people-focused rather than state-focused.
In the first part of the book, covering the years to the end of the 17th century, Faroqhi explores the Ahi communities (Turkish Islamic organizations) and how they grew into guilds. The second part, covering the period usually leaped over by most Ottoman histories, focuses on a period of change and how craftsmen and guilds responded and adapted to this change, some successfully, some not so successfully. The last section deals with the most major change, which threatened to wipe out the artisan totally: worldwide industrialization.
French poet and critic Remy de Gourmont summarized this threat in his famous quote: “Industry has operated against the artisan in favor of the idler, and also in favor of capital and against labor. Any mechanical invention whatsoever has been more harmful to humanity than a century of war.”
The story that Faroqhi uncovers from a variety of original sources is one of resourceful and talented craftsmen adapting their methods of operation, organization and marketing in order to adapt to changes in local government, Ottoman society and the world at large.
Academics may fault this study for failing to tackle some of the more specific issues of guilds, such as their legal basis. But it is the very focus on the human facet and social history rather than political history that makes it readable for those of us interested in the history of Turkey.
Memories of walking around artisan quarters, such as the bedestens of Diyarbakır where the copper workers still ply their trade, remind me that Faroqhi’s study is right up to date. She hopes that her original research, uncovering many documents previously ignored, will encourage more academics to focus on the Ottoman guilds and craftsmen, developing her ideas and themes further.
For modern craftsmen to survive, we need to hope for studies on how skilled crafts can adapt and survive in the modern global world, and whether there is a need for modern Ahi communities or guilds to enable the artisan to compete with mass-producing factories. I hope history doesn’t turn out to teach us that history teaches us nothing in this area!
“Artisans of Empire,” by Suraiya Faroqhi, published by I.B. Tauris (new edition 2012) 14.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-184885960-9