New Approaches to the History of Merchant Cities in the Former Ottoman Empire

A project of the Working Group Modernity and Islam in cooperation with the Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin, the Interdisciplinary Centre 'Socio-Cultural History of the Middle East' at Freie Universität Berlin and the Institute of the German Oriental Society in Istanbul.

Research question

The question of whether, and if so how, multicultural environments function is one that concerns modern day politicians as much as urban planners observing the processes of segregation between different population groups along lines of class and ethnicity. In this context, the development of historical urban centres, notably during the 18th to 20th centuries, might provide an interesting comparison and contrast.

The proposed project focuses on the development of merchant ports in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states. The Ottoman Empire holds an interesting position during this period as an Empire intent on expansion (realised only in the Yemen) but de facto coming under increasing European pressure and losing territory. The cosmopolitanism of Ottoman port cities and their tolerance of non-Muslim merchants has been retrospectively celebrated and plays a considerable role in a certain nostalgia for the pre-1918 order. Ottoman merchant and port cities have the subject of important studies, ranging from Leila Fawaz' study of Beirut (1983) to the volume by Eldem, Goffman and Masters on the Ottoman City between East and West which covers Istanbul, Izmir and Aleppo (1999) - the latter not a port but a major trading city. Attention has been paid mostly to those groups which are well documented in the archives, such as state representatives, notables, affluent merchants and Europeans.

In contrast to these studies, this project seeks to investigate the processes of interaction involving broader strata of society, including the transient groups of merchants, sailors, temporary labourers and others, on the one hand, and the somewhat more established local society, on the other. When do individuals and groups become part of local society, and even start to establish their own "sub-communities"? How do they articulate their interests and affiliations? How do they interact with political authority? What imprint, if any, do they leave on the urban texture? How and under what conditions do such processes of integration take place, and how do they unravel again? How are integration and / or marginality understood and defined by the actors themselves?

This focus on the socially less privileged groups raises questions about methodology and sources. Colonial archives and local chronicles or biographical collections will be of less value than in writing the history of the merchant elites. Court records might, as Abraham Marcus and others have shown, provide valuable insight into very different social groups. It is in this domain that much new insight is to be expected from younger scholars working in the Ottoman archives and other public and private collections.

The project is directed by Professor Dr. Ulrike Freitag (Zentrum Moderner Orient and Institute for Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin) and Professor Dr. Gudrun Krämer (Interdisciplinary Centre "Socio-Cultural History of the Middle East" at Freie Universität Berlin)