Understanding Merchants in Ottoman Cairo: A Review

[DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 17, October 2016]

by Anthony T. QUICKEL

A growing body of scholarship on Ottoman Cairo has given better insight into the life and work of the city’s merchants. This corpus provides a scope of studies from micro-histories of some of Cairo’s individual merchants and their dealings and interactions with others to traditional economic histories that explore trends in commodity trading. Furthermore, there has been an increasing amount of work that has chipped away at the great task of trying to understand the nature and dynamics of these merchants, their families and households, and their interactions within the community, especially the mechanisms by which they functioned vis-à-vis the courts, guilds, and other formal and informal structures. These studies approach the topic of Cairo’s merchants, and trade generally, from a variety of historiographical lenses ranging from economic studies of coffee to intellectual histories of merchant book ownership and reading patterns. However, with such a vast and growing literature, sociological studies of the nature of the merchant community itself remains lacking. Often, when dealing with the issue of Cairene merchants, the most immediately economic of nomenclatures is given: class. These works either look at the merchant community as a class itself or try to fit the merchants into a larger local Egyptian or broader Ottoman class structure. While class is not a necessarily invalid approach to understanding Cairene merchants and their role and place within society – in fact, such an approach can be quite helpful – it has in some ways hindered a consideration of how the merchants of Cairo functioned as a community itself. It is helpful, therefore, to examine the existing body of literature regarding this group and then to ask how such scholarship may be extended, especially with regards to gaining an insight into the nature of the community itself.

The wakala in Cairo (© Quickel)
The wakala in Cairo (© Quickel)

The economic history of Cairo during the Ottoman period has, until very recently, been situated within the larger history of the empire to which it was an important component. Therefore, understanding the historiographic tradition of the part, Cairo’s merchants, requires a view towards the evolution in the study of the whole, the Ottoman economy. The body of scholarship relating to the Ottoman economy ran in parallel to the traditional narrative of the Ottoman political history. This body of work held that the dynamism of early Ottoman history – from Osman through the conquest of Constantinople and the expansionism of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century – gave way to stagnation after the reign of Sulayman Kanuni. Similarly, the majority of sources dealing with the empire’s economic history long-held that from the sixteenth century onward stagnation and decline were the hallmarks of the Ottoman economy. Partly, these sources attributed Middle Eastern economic decline generally to the Age of Discovery and the large influxes of resources and bullion from the New World and other global colonial acquisitions. Thus, in both political and economic terms, the prevalent view was of an Ottoman Empire in decline or, at the very least, stagnating. Many of these same sources, then show that during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman realms undergo a resurgence, again both politically and economically. This, these historians write, may be attributable to the adoption of Western political and economic methods and reforms. Thus, to them, the Ottoman way had been proven to have failed, but with the adoption of Western techniques a resurrection was possible.

This model of studying Ottoman political and economic history was advanced until very recently. The works of H. A. R. Gibb, Bernard Lewis, and Stanford Shaw serve as clear illustrations to this tradition in Ottoman historiography (see: Gibb, Lewis, and Shaw in the bibliography for relevant works; also Holt and Issawi). Inalcik nicely summarizes this long-prevailing narrative:

“The authors… track the shifting importance of the trade in its global context. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire played a determining role in world trade. The empire’s far-flung adventures… all had economic implications. Ottoman military actions were closely connected with economic… The battle of Lepanto (1517), and the advent of the English and Dutch in the Mediterranean (1580-90), marked the beginning of the empire’s reduction to a regional state. At the same time, the rise of the Atlantic economy, with America’s huge supplies of cheap silver, cotton and sugar, and above all Europe’s aggressive mercantilism, caused the collapse of the Ottoman monetary   system… Subsequently, the relative importance of Ottoman foreign trade to the global economy declined” (1997, 4).

Inalcik’s summation of the historiography of Ottoman economy illustrates all of the key points discussed above: inseparability from the empire’s political history, the rise of European commercial capitalism, the discovery of the Americas, and a constant diminution in the importance of the Ottoman Empire apropos the global political and economic scene. This last point is particularly important; the study of Ottoman economic history was, until very recently, always conducted with an eye towards the Ottoman economy within the world system – and especially with regards to Western Europe. Lewis succinctly hits upon a number of these themes, when he discusses the advancement of Europe and the movement of global trade towards the Americas and around the African Cape into the Indian Ocean and away from the region. This shift, politically and economically, left the Ottoman Empire “in a stagnant backwater through which the life-giving stream of world trade no longer flowed” (Lewis 1961, 28).

This approach to the study of the Ottoman economy has undergone a great deal of scrutiny in recent decades, but it does, however, persist in part. This is especially true for the ways in which this long-standing historiographical model influenced and shaped the eventual avenues by which more recent research has been conducted. In the early years of testing and challenging the decline model, researchers sought to comparatively apply quantitative data from the Ottoman realm with that of Europe. Here there is a significant realization that perhaps the decline model needed revision, yet such corrections were to be conducted with regards to a European reference. Thus, these early revisionist studies fail to differentiate between whether decline is happening in comparison to the expanding and growing European economies or in absolute terms vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire’s own economy. Later studies have been far more successful. Rifa‘at Abou-El-Haj looks at internal processes of change in his 1991 book The Formation of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries. In doing this, Abou-El-Haj examines Ottoman political history, and economic by extension, within its own context and not with a specific reference to European historical patterns. In applying such a methodology, he presents evolving trends within the Ottoman realm as they are, not constantly within a framework of decline juxtaposed to a rising Europe.

Similarly, another trap set by the traditional historiography of the Ottoman economy is to treat the Ottoman Empire, with its diverse provinces, as a monolith. Assuming the same economic currents and activities were underway and affecting all provinces equally throughout certain periods was an extremely faulty corollary of treating the Ottoman Empire as a single macro-economic entity versus its various European counterparts. Realizing this, economic studies at the provincial level began to challenge the macro-imperial model. In doing so, various historians attempted to understand the economic history and conditions of a particular province, in and of itself or with regards to the larger empire or other provinces. This movement towards the provinces was particularly fruitful in better producing a dynamic portrait of the economic realities occurring in various periods and locales. Works by Faroqhi, Hanna, Islamoglu-Inan, among many, many others have helped us to shift away from a macro-Ottoman or Istanbul-centric view and begin to see the dynamics of change within various provincial contexts.

From the Balkans to the Red Sea, economic histories at the provincial level have helped to highlight not just the non-uniformity and diversity of the pressures and currents underway within the Ottoman economy over various periods, but have also helped to show the trade networks and internal economy of the empire itself. Rather than focusing on trade between the Ottomans and others, these provincial histories have allowed us to see the great deal of internal trade within the provinces, amongst them, and between the provinces and the imperial center. All of these views have broadened the scope of our knowledge about the several dynamics and currents at play within the empire itself. But beyond adding to and enhancing the body of scholarship regarding the empire’s economy, these economic studies of the provinces have also opened up a plethora of opportunities for exploring various elements contributing to and participating in the provincial economy itself. Thus, for the first time we begin to see scholarship on specific commodities being traded within the provinces, such as Ralph Hattox’s study on the rise coffee in the Yemen, the Hijaz, Egypt, and eventually the imperial capital. Similarly, scholarship on the merchant groups of various provinces or on specific merchants themselves begins to emerge in parallel to these other more focused studies. While such a review could embark on forays down the avenues of all of this new abundance of economic research within the Ottoman period, it is to this last topic of merchants and merchant groups that we turn, specifically those situated within a Cairene context.

Cairo Skyline (© Quickel)
Cairo Skyline (© Quickel)

The opening salvos of scholarship on the merchant groups of Cairo during the Ottoman period were initiated by André Raymond in Artisans et commerçants au Caire au XVIIIe siècle. In addition to many articles, Raymond further advanced the study of the Cairene merchant community in his joint work with Gaston Wiet, Les Marchés du Caire. Among many other accomplishments, these early works on Cairo’s merchant class helped to show scholars new ways of thinking about the local, regional actors who helped to drive commerce and trade within the Ottoman economy. Nelly Hanna took this a step further in her ground-breaking micro-history of a specific Cairene merchant (see, Making Big Money in 1600). In this study, Hanna explored the interactions, activities, and business dealings of a specific Cairene merchant using probate court records. In doing so, she shed light onto the different ways in which a merchant functioned within the commercial class and also with regards to the state and other players in the urban fabric of Cairo. In later works, Hanna also explored issues related to the provincial economy, especially regarding craftsmen and artisans and their roles within a growing and evolving entrepreneurial economy.

Hanna’s work is not alone. Tying together politics and economics, Jane Hathaway has studied the military households that were important in the political life of the Egyptian province, but also out of which many merchants also rose. Hathaway has studied the dynamics of these military/merchant households within the Egyptian and Yemeni contexts. She shows how several outside Turkic military families asserted themselves in Cairo’s political and commercial scene serving within the political power structure of both Cairo and the ports of Yemen while also profiting greatly from gaining access to the trade networks of the Red Sea. Looking at things differently still, Husam Muhammed Abdul Mu‘ti looked at the ways in which a group of merchants from one province or region, the Maghrib, became an integral part of the commercial scene in another province, Egypt. His scholarship sheds light on the ways in which regionalism bound together merchants even within a new geographical context and helped to play an important role in facilitating trade.

These studies are not alone, but are only a few examples amongst an ever-growing body of research contributing to our understanding of various facets of the merchant community in Cairo. One final area that has been touched upon variously by different scholars is the role of family within the context of the merchant community. We know that families were critical to facilitating trade and that the use of family ties helped to forge and strengthen commercial activities. That said, this is one topic particularly that still warrants a great deal of study. And as this is personally important to my own research, it is here that I will conclude by asking a number of questions that I feel remain unanswered and in need of exploration. For example, we have yet to achieve a solid understanding of the role of the various ta’ifa in forging commercial ties. While there has been scholarship already done on the role of the Syrian or Maghribi ta’ifa in engendering a community with economic inter-cooperation, more study is required in order to appreciate the role of these communities in mediating between the various families within those communities. Another structural question lies in understanding how heads of merchant families were chosen, the ways in which the various family heads interacted amongst themselves, and the role of these leaders within the urban fabric of the city. With a nod towards Hathaway’s work on households, we know that many of Cairo’s prominent commercial families were also involved in the political and cultural life of the city. How did these families convert their economic capital and prestige into political and cultural influence?

These are only a few of the many questions that can be asked in advancing our knowledge regarding the role that familial ties played amongst Cairo’s merchant and commercial class in the Ottoman period. There are as yet a myriad of ways by which the subject can be approached and explored further, as well as many other topics regarding Cairo’s merchants that remain understudied or completely untouched. However, before embarking on such a task, understanding the road from the macro-imperial economic histories discussed above to these more specialized and detailed topical and subject-specific studies on merchants is critical to not falling into the historiographical traps of the past. And further, grasping the foundation that was laid by these earlier works of scholarship and the evolution of the historiography thereafter can help us to better approach a specific topic, like Cairene merchants, in rectifying some of the faults of these earlier studies. Hopefully, in so doing, we can gain a better and more comprehensive view of not only the provincial and imperial economies but of also the individual merchants and traders operating within them.

Anthony T. Quickel (October 2016)

Quoted and Referenced Bibliography:

  • Abdul Mu‘ti, Husam Muhammed. (2005) “The Fez Merchants in Eighteenth-Century Cairo,” in Society and Economy in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean: 1600-1900, Essays in Honor of André Raymond, ed. by Nelly Hanna and Raouf Abbas, The American University  in Cairo Press.
  • Abou-El-Haj, Rifa‘at. (1991) The Formation of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, State University of New York Press.
  • Faroqhi, Suraiya. (1989) “Merchant Networks and Ottoman Craft Production (16th-17th Centuries),” in Urbanism in Islam: The Proceedings of the International Conference on Urbanism in Islam, Vol. 1: 85-132, Institute of Oriental Studies, University of Tokyo.
  • Gibb, H. A. R. (1957) Islamic Society and the West: A Study of the Impact of Western Civilization on Moslem Culture in the Near East, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press.
  • Hanna, Nelly. (1991) Habiter au Caire: les maisons moyennes et leurs habitants aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
  • Hanna, Nelly. (1991) “Isma‘il Abu Taqiyya et le commerce international au Caire 1585-1625,” in Les Villes dans l’Empire Ottoman: activités et societés, ed. By Daniel Panzac, Vol. 1: 211-  219, Centre national de la recherche scientifique.
  • Hanna, Nelly. (1998) Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma‘il Abu Taqiyya,   Egyptian Merchant, Syracuse University Press.
  • Hanna, Nelly. (2011) Artisans Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early Modern Capitalism (1600-1800), Syracuse University Press.
  • Hathaway, Jane. (1997) The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: The Rise of the Qazdaglis, Cambridge University Press.
  • Hathaway, Jane. (2003) A Tale of Two Factions: Myth, Memory, and Identity in Ottoman Egypt and Yemen, State University of New York Press.
  • Hattox, Ralph. (1985) Coffee and Coffee Houses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East, University of Washington Press.
  • Holt, P.M. (1966) Egypt and the Fertile Crescent 1516-1922: a political history, Longmans Green and Company.
  • Inalcik, Halil. (1969) “Capital formation in the Ottoman Empire.” Journal of Economic History 29/1: 97-140.
  • Inalcik, Halil. (1973) The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. Weidenfeld and Nicolson Press.
  • Inalcik, Halil, with Donald Quataert (eds.). (1994) An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, Vol. I: 1300-1600, Cambridge University Press.
  • Islamoglu-Inan, Huri (ed.). (1987) The Ottoman and the World Economy, Cambridge University Press.
  • Issawi, Charles. (1966) The Economic History of the Middle East 1800-1914, Chicago University Press.
  • Lewis, Bernard. (1961) The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Oxford University Press.
  • Lewis, Bernard. (1963) Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire, University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Lewis, Bernard. (1970) “Some reflections on the decline of the Ottoman Empire,” in The Economic Decline of Empires, ed. by C. M. Cipolla, Metheun and Company.
  • Lewis, Bernard. (1982) The Muslim Discovery of Europe, W.W. Norton and Company.
  • Lewis, Bernard. (2002) What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Oxford University Press.
  • Owen, Roger. (1993) The Middle East in the World Econony: 1800-1914, I.B. Tauris.
  • Raymond, André. (1973) Artisans et commerçants au Caire au XVIIIe siècle, Institut français de Damas.
  • Raymond, André and Gaston Wiet. (1979) Les Marchés du Caire. Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
  • Shaw, Stanford. (1962) The Financial and Administrative Organization and Development of Ottoman Egypt, 1517-1798, Princeton University Press.
  • Shaw, Stanford. (1976-77) History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 2 Vol., Cambridge University Press.

To quote this publication:

Quickel, Anthony T., “Understanding Merchants in Ottoman Cairo: A Review”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 17, online edition, October 2016, available at: http://dyntran.hypotheses.org/1568


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