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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922
Author(s): Donald Quataert
Source: International Labor and Working-Class History , Fall, 2001, No. 60 (Fall, 2001),
pp. 93-109
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of International Labor and
Working-Class, Inc.
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MIDDLE EAST, 1700-1922
Labor History and the Ottoman Empire,
c. 1700-1922*
Donald Quataert
Binghamton University, State University of New York
This article surveys the evolution of labor history writing as an increasingly vibrant sub
field of Ottoman history. It addresses labor historians outside of Ottoman history and for
their benefit traces why and how workers almost completely were left out of Ottoman his
torical writing until c. 1970. Thereafter, Ottoman historians have more frequently dis
cussed workers and their histories. At first focusing on organized workers and their rela
tions with the state, these writings then shifted to labor in action. Thus, Ottoman labor
history writing paralleled, in many respects, that of other fields of history. More recently,
attention has been given to non-guild, non-union labor?including women and children?
and its activities in the workplace.
The Ottoman Empire, emerging from the Anatolian highlands around the turn
of the fourteenth century and enduring until after World War One, is one of the
more remarkable states in global history. Born in the borderlands between a dy
ing Byzantium and ephemeral Turkish principalities, the Ottoman rulers forged
a new synthesis based on creative flexibility that welcomed all comers and steadi
ly built a rich and powerful state.1 In c. 1500-1550, this empire arguably was the
wealthiest and most powerful state system in the European and Mediterranean
worlds. Thereafter, relative to the Atlantic states and economy, it fell on harder
times, becoming the “Sick Man of Europe” at the end of the eighteenth centu
ry. Although there were significant nineteenth-century successes in rebuilding
state and military strength, the Ottoman Empire vanished in 1922. Specialists
debate whether this final collapse derived mainly from external, imperialist pres
sures or internal factors, such as the rise of nationalism. I, for one, take the view
that arguments based on the power of nationalism have been overstated; indeed,
the empire retained the loyalties of its subjects/citizens until the end.2
The experiences of an empire that survived deep into the age of the nation
state offer labor history comparativists rich alternative perspectives on workers’
culture, everyday life, politics, organization, and activism. During the nineteenth
International Labor and Working-Class History
No. 60, Fall 2001, pp. 93-109
? 2001 International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc.
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ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
century era of imperialism, vast chunks of Ottoman lands in the Balkans were
lopped off. In the territories that were Ottoman in 1914?a small part of the
Balkans, Anatolia, and the Arab and North African provinces?the Ottoman
Empire remained fundamentally independent, although prey to the gunboat
diplomacy and indirect financial control of Great Britain and the other western
Great Powers. The province of Egypt was an exception, taking a more or less
separate course, since 1805, from the central imperial state (remaining all the
while under Ottoman suzerainty). In 1882, the distinction between the empire
and the province became still greater as Britain occupied Egypt, both militarily
and politically. With the exception of Egypt, the late nineteenth-century Ot
toman Empire paradoxically resembled both Japan and China in its freedom of
political and economic action.3 Like China, it suffered encroachments on its ter
ritorial integrity and foreign interference in its domestic political and economic
affairs, and it lacked a big factory industrial base. Like Japan, it enjoyed major
power status and genuine autonomy of action in most decision-making areas. By
1914, the Ottoman Empire had recovered to the status of a second-rank Great
Power, likely not dissimilar in strength from Russia and Austria-Hungary. In
common with many states elsewhere in the world during the nineteenth centu
ry, it was restructuring itself on a new basis, reshaping relationships with its sub
jects/citizens and broadening vastly the scope of its activities and responsibili
From its inception until its demise, this was an agrarian empire and econo
my. Three quarters of the inhabitants lived in the countryside and drew their liv
ings from the soil and agriculturally related activities. Many, often cultivator
families, also gained incomes from manufacturing and mining. During the nine
teenth century, the basic economic profile remained in place, but there were im
portant changes. Agriculture, especially in Egypt, underwent commercializa
tion, thanks to rising international demand and urbanization, particularly of the
port cities. Mining grew impressively, notably in the coal sector of Anatolia that
came to employ ten thousand workers. And manufacturing underwent a signif
icant transformation (see below) as it adapted to the industrializing West.4
Here, I wish to offer the Ottoman past for the consideration of labor histo
rians, albeit with several caveats before we begin. First of all, I need to confess
that the term “Ottoman labor history” is one of convenience, similar to that of
“British/German labor history,” and camouflages a host of important regional
differences and locally distinctive cultures. Perhaps the flavor of this variety is
suggested by the notion that Ottoman workers spoke and left records in a host
of mother tongues, including Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, Armenian,
Greek, Kurdish, Arabic, and Ladino. Over all of them rested the administrative
hand of the Ottoman state, from the archives and documents of which histori
ans derive their data, usually in the Ottoman language. Whether there actually
is an Ottoman labor history is uncertain at this point, but it is helpful (and like
ly correct) to assume so. Here, as should be clear by now, I consider Egypt to be
within the purview of Ottoman historians. Since it fell under direct European
control while the larger Ottoman Empire retained its independence, its inclu
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922
sion in Ottoman labor history should help us to isolate the importance of formal
colonialism on labor in the Middle East.5 The second caveat concerns the actu
al state of Ottoman labor history studies. As will be clear from the following, it
has not quite emerged as a subfield in the way that there are separate labor his
tory subfields in US or British or French history. Also, Ottoman labor history is
still powerfully influenced by normative notions, which are based primarily on
the state’s vision of the role and character of labor. The actual nature of the Ot
toman labor experiences remain rather unclear, somewhat less so for the very
late period, after c. 1890. Since the baseline of comparison is uncertain and has
not yet been established, it is difficult to discuss, much less determine, the evo
lution of the Ottoman labor force over time.6 This is important. For example, it
is difficult to analyze the role of guild organizations in the later formation of la
bor unions, syndicates, and strikes in the early twentieth century because we do
not understand the nature of the guilds themselves (see below).
Part A: Workers in Ottoman Historical Writing Until c. 1970
Labor history has been both ignored and mistreated in Ottoman historical writ
ing. While the empire lived, this writing, both by residents of the empire and by
foreigners, had been either disdainful of or outright hostile to labor history. Dur
ing the first half-century of the post-Ottoman period, that is, until c. 1970, these
trends continued both in the Turkish- and Arabic-speaking successor states and
among scholars in west European countries and the United States. In the Sovi
et sphere of the Cold War world (for example, Bulgaria), Ottoman workers re
ceived more respectful, if sometimes ideologically distorted, attention. Around
1970, finally, writers in the Turkish and Arabic and west European/US circles
began focusing some scholarly attention on workers. Here are some details, em
phasizing mainly the period after 1700.
The paucity of attention on Ottoman workers in part derives from the up
per and then middle strata origins of most Ottoman-language chroniclers before
and during the nineteenth-century expansion of literacy. Similarly, foreign au
thors were of elite background on diplomatic missions to the Ottoman court,
merchants doing business in the empire, or middle-class travelers. Speaking in
the most general terms, these Ottoman and foreign writers recorded the deeds
of the sultans, the royal family, and the administrative, military, religious, and
cultural elites. The stuff of labor history, such as workers’ activities and wages,
their families and institutions, characteristically were left out?nearly totally
(see below)?from this record keeping.
After the Ottoman Empire disappeared in 1922, these prevailing emphases
on elite groups continued under the influence of two intellectual traditions, the
first of which was orientalism. The past of the Ottoman Empire in general and
of its workers has been clouded by the continuing prevalence of Western stereo
types concerning the Middle East. This is a complex story, with roots in the rise
of a “Europe” that sought to identify itself as a superior entity and yet was con
fronted with an extraordinarily sophisticated, powerful, and rich Middle East
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ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
ern neighbor that refused those claims. In the orientalist discourse that conse
quently emerged in Europe, the cultural, political, and social institutions of the
Middle East were falsely asserted to be stagnant, backward, and resistant to
change. So, too, therefore, was the economy and those working in it. These no
tions have been attacked and largely discredited, but their intellectual legacy
lives on.7 And so, Ottoman history writing of the post-Ottoman period often has
little sense of change over time, although this latter characteristic has been
In a sense, the “modernization” paradigm (the second intellectual tradi
tion) that emerged to dominate?both in academic and US policy-making cir
cles?Middle East and Ottoman historical writing in the mid-twentieth century
derived from orientalism. Modernization theory essentially argued that change
in the Ottoman Empire came from without, namely, from the West. Under the
influence both of the modernization school and of the statist tradition already
dominant in Ottoman history writing, scholars in the post-Ottoman era explored
Ottoman history. Not surprisingly, they found their foci of attention among the
westernizing Ottoman elites who were seen as the only agents of change in an
otherwise inert and dying social, political, and labor formation. For several
decades, in a trend that peaked in the 1960s, scholars reported on the actions of
a handful of Ottoman leaders, seen as westernizers.8
Given this legacy of writing from the Ottoman and immediate post
Ottoman periods, it cannot be very surprising that Ottoman workers rarely were
present in the historical narratives. Their scant appearances, moreover, were
marred/marked by a number of alleged characteristics that Ottoman workers
were said to possess. First of all, an ethnic division of labor (inaccurately) was
presumed to exist among Ottoman workers in which “we can discern distinct dif
ferences among nationalities with respect to their choice of occupation, partic
ularly the industrial arts.”9 Thus, certain religious and ethnic groups were said
inherently to have possessed certain qualities and consequently dominated par
ticular categories of work. Muslims were seen as incapable of commercial activ
ity and inept in manufacturing (except carpet-making); they were suitable only
for agriculture, which they practiced in a primitive manner. (Turkish Muslims
were said to be good soldiers and tough government administrators.) In non
rural labor, particular non-Muslim groups?such as Armenians, Greeks, and
Jews?were said to excel and predominate in specific tasks such as dyeing, tex
tile production, or metal work.10 Second, the little research being done in labor
history until c. 1970 heavily emphasized organized labor that was in the service
of the state bureaucracy and military. Nearly uniformly, only workers who were
members of guild-like organizations, which followed official dictates regarding
provisioning of Ottoman soldiers and subjects, were considered. The focus was
upon guild-like bodies (hereafter called guilds) that existed in Istanbul and a
number of larger and smaller Ottoman cities, and which frequently provided
goods and services to armies on campaign, the palace, and the state apparatus.
Thus, thousands of pages of historical texts are devoid of the subjects of labor
history, except when their organized lives intersected with the needs of the
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922
state.11 These guilds were considered to be (1) comprehensive in their control
of Ottoman urban labor; indeed, some twentieth-century-scholars explicitly ar
gued that no workers existed outside of these structures. In addition, these guilds
were considered to be (2) rigidly restrictive and monopolistic; (3) religiously ho
mogeneous; and (4) without political autonomy of any sort. Moreover, it was im
plicitly assumed, and not really ever discussed, that (5) all the workers were
males.12 And, without a great deal of evidence being presented, it also was as
sumed that (6) the guilds featured the same apprentice, journeyman, master hi
erarchy as in western Europe.
The historical origins of Ottoman guilds are not clear. Similarly uncertain
are the connections or (dis)similarities between pre-Ottoman guilds in the Mid
dle Eastern region and those in east, central, and/or western Europe, India, or
southeast Asia. Several researchers quite early inconclusively explored possible
links between fraternal brotherhoods (ah?) founded in medieval, pre-Ottoman
times and the formation of Ottoman guilds. These brotherhoods flourished in the
absence of any state authority and had full political autonomy, but the guilds that
came after allegedly were devoid of such autonomy. Unfortunately their work
has not been added to in any significant manner during the past half-century.13
Thus, Ottoman labor historians during the pre-1970 period considered the
guilds as creations of the state, brought into being to facilitate its control and as
sure provisioning of its needs.14 Content with describing the links to the state,
the scholars studying guilds paid scant attention to how these bodies might have
changed over time. Indeed, little was revealed regarding their internal struc
tures. And, since the guilds were considered to be important only insofar as they
served the state, the dynamics among members and possible mutual aid func
tions were left unexplored. Other than these discussions, labor history was con
fined to a few articles on workers in various government arsenals or factories.
Usually the presence of guild workers was recorded on two different types
of occasions. The first involved times when the state prepared for war. On these
occasions, it relied on guilds in the Istanbul capital (and elsewhere) to provide
the supplies and materials and often the manpower to process or manufacture
these supplies and materials in the field. Here, workers are presented to receive
praise or criticism for their role in aiding the state, and then vanish again.15 On
the second type of occasion, workers enter the narrative as participants in
protests or revolts against conditions or a particular sultan or high-ranking offi
cial. Here, the workers are given some significance because of their intrusion
into elite politics. Sometimes they are righteous instruments against adminis
trative injustice, while at other times they appear as irrational actors blindly, of
ten corruptly, lashing out.16 Once the particular revolt ended, however, the
workers faded from historical view.
Part B: Workers in Ottoman Historical Writing Since c. 1970
Ottoman labor history emerged as part of the larger shift in history writing in
Europe and the United States. A new generation of historians, born of the de
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ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
mocratization of the university and initially inspired by E. P. Thompson’s The
Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963) and the search for so
cial justice during the 1960s, participated in a larger historiographical shift to
wards history from below.17 Many younger scholars turned to the history of the
weak and began writing their stories. In Ottoman history, however, this tenden
cy mainly expressed itself in the form of studying economic history, an indirect
means of learning about the non-elite groups who are so elusive in the histori
cal record. History from below remained very unusual. The focus on economic
history, for its part, produced fine studies about commerce, agriculture, and, to
a lesser extent, manufacturing and mining.18 But there has been little concern
for the individuals and groups working in those sectors. Merchants received
some attention, but peasants, artisans, miners, and others have not. The narra
tives of Ottoman history even now are inhabited by few representatives of the
popular classes.
A number of factors help account for this state of affairs. The first concerns
the tendency to uncritically use the major source of documentation available,
the Prime Ministry Archives of the Ottoman state in Istanbul. While stupefy
ingly rich, they are the creation of bureaucratic and military officials who wrote
about what concerned them and their state. Workers appear in the state docu
ments as objects and producers of wealth, but rarely as agents with everyday
lives beyond those as taxpayers. These state-generated sources present only one
view of the past. Also, the sheer quantity of central Ottoman archive documents
often entrapped scholars, causing them to ignore relevant evidence located else
where, for example, in provincial locations, Europe, and the United States. Of
course, these are problems common to many historical fields. But the achieve
ments of Alltagsgeschichte (the history of everyday life), for example, and of US
and European labor history in general demonstrate that the obstacles to good
history from below can be breached with considerable success. There is anoth
er obstacle to Ottoman labor history writing, one shared with labor historians of
Asia, Africa, and others outside of the m?tropole. Namely, the sources used are
often those prepared by authors from a different cultural tradition. These Eu
ropean and American authors?consular officials of the various European gov
ernments as well as the Levant Company and other commercial agents?viewed
the Ottoman Empire through the prism of their own, different concerns and cul
ture. Thus, Ottoman historians who today are examining those from below have
a double disadvantage. First, in common with very many other labor historians,
they heavily depend on sources generated by a class distinct from the workers.
And second, they also must utilize materials generated not only by a different
class, but also of a different and sometimes hostile and condescending culture as
well. The obstacles to writing good Ottoman labor history are not insurmount
able, but there are obstacles perhaps less frequently encountered by most read
ers of this journal.
Another factor that inhibits the maturation of Ottoman labor history con
cerns the nature of history writing that still prevails in most Ottoman successor
states. Syrian, Rumanian, Greek, Iraqi, Bulgarian, and Egyptian historians, for
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922
example, have generally been too willing to simply denounce the Ottoman lega
cy as degenerate, destructive, and, oddly enough, also irrelevant. Thus, at one
level, the Ottoman past (and its workers) in general are not seen as worthy of
examination. And, at another level, the writing of Ottoman history in these
countries has repeatedly been bent to serve the agenda of the new state, which
is incorrectly seen to have little, if any, legacy from the Ottoman period. While
this tendency is obviously not unique to Ottoman history writing, this situation
does seem somewhat worse because, until very recently, there has been little ac
knowledgement that such is the case.19 With the emphasis on nation-state for
mation, there has been little room for the study of workers, except those in the
service of the state.
Take, for example, the modern Turkish state, the nature and evolution of
which powerfully has shaped the writing of Ottoman history. In the process of
its formation from the 1920s to the 1950s, the emerging Turkish republic es
sentially excluded popular participation. It restricted political activity to a small
elite, crushed labor movements and made them illegal, and kept peasants out
of the political process. Government and elite suspicion of the popular classes
was exacerbated because of the new Turkey’s enmity toward the adjacent So
viet Union, self-proclaimed standard-bearer for the workers and peasants of
the world. Worker and peasant demands and activities inside Turkey were also
easily labeled as communism, and thus dismissed out of hand as dangerous and
traitorous to the state. As a corollary, an effective censorship and self-censor
ship regarding labor history came to prevail in Ottoman historical studies, and
not only among Turkish nationals. Ottoman society and economy appeared in
an odd light, discussed almost solely in reference to the state, which each docile
ly served. Hence, the emphasis on guild workers that I discussed above. Just as
workers in Turkey (actually) were carefully monitored and overseen, research
on Ottoman workers depicted them solely as examples of elaborate govern
mental control systems and little more. Thus, there has been little labor histo
ry writing in Ottoman studies, even with the “old” labor history school empha
sis on the shop floor, organized workers, and workers in action. An Ottomanist
equivalent to Eric Hobsbawm’s Workers’ Worlds of Labor (New York, 1984),
in my view, literally was unthinkable until very recently. Indeed, the study of
workers still is a vaguely illegitimate academic enterprise among some Ot
Having belabored (!) what’s wrong with Ottoman labor history, let me now
examine its character and achievements over the past decades. To begin with,
since the late 1960s and early 1970s, there has been a greater willingness to see
workers as actors in their own right and not merely as extensions of the state.
Also, the blatant stereotyping regarding the alleged ethno-religious division of
labor is being discarded, although the process is halting and incomplete. Re
search has shown that particular divisions of labor in one town or area are quite
different in other communities, even those quite nearby. Thus, Armenians per
haps dominated cotton cloth weaving in one community, while Muslim Arabs
predominated in a second, and Turks together with Greeks and perhaps also Ar
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ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
menians controlled the same craft in a third location. And sometimes, no one
group prevailed. Hence, there are divisions of labor that are particular to a place
but not to the empire as a whole. Here, Kirh’s analysis (below) of the importance
of chain migration in determining who controlled a work site is important. In ad
dition, Ottoman historians have been examining a number of other important
issues including: the class struggle and formation of the working class; the na
ture of the guilds; international competition and the transformation of Ottoman
labor; the importance of unorganized labor; and the importance of women.20
Some encyclopedic works in Turkish first focused on the search for the
working class, an important sub-theme of Ottoman labor history and a familiar
one to readers of this journal. This search has several manifestations, including
the focus upon labor that, late in the Ottoman period, organized into unions and
syndicates, and labor in action?familiar themes among earlier generations of
US labor historians. Appearing at a time (the 1960s) when labor sympathies of
ten were personally dangerous to hold in Turkey, the first works chronicled and
described the labor strikes that occurred between c. 1860 and 1914. A break
through study appeared in 1970 detailing the formation of workers’ and leftist
organizations in the late Ottoman, early republican Turkish eras. In a similar
vein, a mid-1980s study traced the story of Egyptian factory workers’ (ultimate
ly unsuccessful) struggle against the state and capital. These and other works, in
cluding a more thorough analysis of late nineteenth-century Ottoman labor un
rest that appeared in the early 1990s, share several concerns.21 Theirs was an
emancipatory narrative, with a viewpoint from the Left of labor as a liberating,
progressive movement. This group focused on workers in action, often engaged
in strikes, and, as a corollary, on those organizing or about to form labor unions
or syndicates. And, also as a corollary, some writers were concerned about the
success or failure of the workers in the political arena, in their ability to wrest
political power from the state nomenclatura. On the one hand, that search for
an Ottoman working class likely was chimerical. After all, the so-called “work
ing class” has existed for only a brief period in world history, and many labor his
torians now agree that labor does not necessarily evolve naturally toward a form
of self-conscious, organized, big factory work. Rather, such workers globally are
the exception. Indeed, as many of the above works have demonstrated (contrary
to their explicit intent), organized Ottoman factory workers seeking political
power have been the exception, and formed the minority of the actual Ottoman
work force. Factory workers of every sort formed a tiny fraction of the non-agri
cultural work force. The “real story” where most of the actors are present lies
elsewhere in the period of concern here (since 1700); it often involves unorga
nized workers in small-scale work sites. On the other hand, we should not aban
don the study of the Left and of workers in action, since those activities have
shaped late Ottoman history. They do constitute vibrant examples of workers as
agents of change, as participants in struggles that helped shape both the charac
ter of the labor force and the Ottoman state itself.
Since 1970, the reality of guilds has become somewhat more nuanced and
complex, but there are still enormous uncertainties. Case studies from differ
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922
ent regions have demonstrated that guilds were often religiously mixed organi
zations, consisting of varying mixes of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Indeed
such heterogeneity appears commonly and can no longer be seen as odd or un
usual. Also, the Ottoman terms translated as guild?such as lonca, esnaf and
ta’ife? have come under greater scrutiny. In the nineteenth century, esnaf’was
perhaps the most commonly employed term.22 Use of the term esnaf as a short
hand reference for nineteenth-century guilds has become very problematic
since research has revealed important differences in its meaning over time and
place. Sometimes being in an esnaf meant membership in a hierarchical orga
nization that had officers, fixed prices, and maintained a community chest that
offered assistance to sick members and widows. Such esnafs sometimes were
sub-divided by city district. But even in such cases, it is unlikely that guilds ful
ly enveloped the labor force of the particular community. Guilds were very im
portant in some, but not all, Ottoman towns and cities of significant size. The
presence of tightly organized guilds in Istanbul, the imperial capital, is now be
ing acknowledged as somewhat idiosyncratic and atypical, a response to the
special needs of this huge and politically sensitive center.23 Other esnafs have
been shown not to possess these organizational and functional features. In some
locations (including the Istanbul neighborhoods studied by Kirh), the term es
naf sometimes contained little meaning beyond a place of business or being in
a particular profession, not unlike membership in a chamber of commerce. The
Kirh contribution in this volume demonstrates that tightly organized guilds in
the capital coexisted with esnafs that may have had no organizational structure
whatsoever. Some of these existed only in the minds of state officials, as a tax
collection convenience for the state. Persons recorded together in a tax
register labeled the “X esnaf” might never have met, much less participated in
communal actions. That is, in some cases, the term esnaf meant only to pay tax
es for engaging in an economic activity. Equally, such an esnaf register might
have been a roster of those possessing the legal right to carry out that craft or
Various guilds enjoyed real political autonomy in many provincial loca
tions?the Balkans (Seres), Anatolia (Bursa), and the Arab provinces (Damas
cus)?and it is likely that some did in imperial Istanbul itself. Whether these
different guild forms are part of an evolutionary scale or are concurrent but dif
ferent forms is unclear. The latter is likely the case. At the same moment that
guilds of varying forms and structures existed in numerous towns and cities,
guilds apparently were absent in other urban areas with similar demographic
and manufacturing profiles. Since all these cities were ruled by the Ottoman
regime, such variations suggest that the local culture, not state policies, primar
ily shaped labor structures.24 This issue seems important. If guilds were neither
omnipresent nor homogeneous in form and if labor indeed possessed different
structures and forms in the various areas, can guilds be central to our efforts to
construct an “Ottoman labor history”? In the end, it is likely that the Ottoman
guild system is more the illusion of historians than historical reality. We need
to look to such factors as local labor traditions, market conditions, and (as the
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ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
contributions by Kirh and Chalcraft demonstrate) chain migration from the
provinces. And we need to problematize still further the term esnaf.
The question of guilds and their fate when confronted with competition
from abroad has occupied some attention and debate, specifically, the transfor
mation of Ottoman guilds with the influx of textile imports from India during
the eighteenth century and the rising tide of European textiles and other goods.
This debate, moreover, has been made more complex because the late eigh
teenth and early nineteenth centuries were also an era of profound crisis for the
Ottoman state and economy, in ways that are not always related to the issue of
international competition. The original argument?that under the impact of the
West both Ottoman guilds (wherever and in whatever form they existed) and
manufacturing collapsed and disappeared?is being modified. During the era of
internal crisis and mounting international manufacturing competition in the
late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, guilds in several important cities be
came more structured, hierarchical, and restrictive than they had been in the
past.25 In Damascus, textile guilds fell into extreme internal conflict: Guild mas
ters, themselves squeezed for profits, pressured their journeymen, who finally
revolted and struck against their masters.26 (See also the contribution by
Zarinebaf-Shahr.) The ultimate fate of guilds varied considerably. Until the end
of the empire, manufacturing guilds remained important in Istanbul and nu
merous towns and cities of the Anatolian, Balkan, and Arab provinces.27 For ex
ample, in the latter region, transformed craft guilds at Damascus and other lo
cations survived with significant memberships into the period of French and
British occupation after World War One.28 Elsewhere, however, guilds and
crafts declined or collapsed altogether. For example, the famed guilds of Ango
ra mohair weavers in Ankara and of wool cloth makers in Sal?nica completely
disappeared when confronted with west European competitors.
As these destructive processes took place, other profound transformations
were reconstructing the Ottoman labor force. Craft replaced guild. In addition,
the manufacturing work force became decreasingly male, urban, organized, and
workshop-based. Ottoman workers were increasingly female, outside of any for
mal labor organization, and located in the rural countryside, in homes as well as
workshops. On the one hand, labor with some or all of these features?female,
unorganized, and rural?had long been present and did not appear de novo with
European capital and trade in the Ottoman lands. In the sixteenth and seven
teenth centuries, merchants were organizing putting-out networks that operat
ed outside the jurisdiction of the guilds and of the state. During the eighteenth
century, artisans fled of their own accord from one important manufacturing
center (Tokat, in northern Anatolia) to smaller towns and villages to lower their
production costs. In this case, the flight was sparked not by foreign competition,
but the heavy and insensitive hands of Ottoman tax farming officials.29 Female
workers who supplied guilds with processed materials, such as the mohair spin
ners of Angora/Ankara in the eighteenth century, were a routine part of the Ot
toman manufacturing scene. (See the contribution by Zarinebaf-Shahr.)
However, and visibly so by the early decades of the nineteenth century, the
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922
importance of manufacturing labor that was non-guild, female, and rural accel
erated dramatically. The number and significance of artisan-shopkeepers?who
likely had characterized Ottoman manufacturing?declined while that of arti
sans working under the control of others rose concomitantly. Take the shoe
makers of imperial Istanbul, for example. The industry had nearly disappeared
by c. 1850, but more than recovered in the subsequent fifty years. By then, the
shoemaking guilds were largely gone. But local shoemakers had not only re
gained the Istanbul market, but exported to the provinces, including Egypt.30
They now worked in decentralized workshops under a master-owner. Merchants
placed orders and provided the materials. Each workshop employed five to fifty
male and female workers, each engaged in a quite specific task, working for very
low wages. More generally, let us take the textile sector. As elsewhere in many
areas of the globe, textile production was the leading manufacturing sector, and
is used here to illustrate the patterns of Ottoman manufacturing labor. By the
nineteenth century, most workers spun and wove for the domestic market. (The
famed Ottoman textiles had disappeared from international markets.) Two
examples will suffice here. At well-watered Trabzon on the Black Sea coast,
women wove silk cloth and printed head scarves for merchants, while at Alep
po on the edges of the Syrian desert, girls and women worked for male master
weavers. In the export industries, the patterns of female labor working for oth
ers are still more clear and impressive. Two export-oriented industries, silk reel
ing and carpet making, grew impressively after c. 1830. At the late Ottoman peak
of the silk industry, more than 30,000 young girls and women spun silk, mainly
in western Anatolia Bursa and in the Lebanon. Unusually for the Ottoman
world, these silk workers labored in mechanized factories, whereas most Ot
toman labor found work outside “factories.” In the carpet making industry, there
were 60,000 workers in all phases of the industry in 1914, including wool prepa
ration, dying, spinning, and knotting (weaving). Before the vast commercial ex
pansion of the industry that began in c. 1830, women and men, in homes and
workshops, carried out the crucial task of knotting more or less equally. At that
time, most knotters in one area might be men while women dominated nearby.
But as Ottoman and foreign merchants scrambled to meet skyrocketing de
mand, they recruited only women (increasingly non-Muslim) to knot the rugs.
In both the domestic and export sectors, rising female labor meant cheaper la
bor input and lower final costs. Thus, Ottoman textiles remained globally com
petitive, but at the price of the greater exploitation of (increasingly female)
Thus, guilds in manufacturing declined in significance during the later Ot
toman period when guild masters seem less important, while merchants became
more visibly active in the control of production and labor. On the contrary, their
importance in the transport sector increased both in absolute numbers and in
terms of their relative importance in the organized labor force. Ottoman trans
port guilds were possibly more cohesive in 1900 than they had been for centuries.
Indeed, by focusing only on textiles and manufacturing, scholars risk missing a
dynamic part of the Ottoman labor story. Transport workers have received some
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ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
attention in Ottoman labor history. (See the contribution in these pages by Chal
craft.)31 Ottoman commerce increased some sixteen-fold in the nineteenth cen
tury, offering a powerful stimulus to the growth of the transport labor force. As
the nineteenth century proceeded, ambitious construction projects rendered a
number of Ottoman ports?including Izmir, Alexandria, Port Said, Sal?nica,
Beirut, and Izmir?accessible to the increasingly large and capacious steam
ships. To these flocked thousands of men for employment in the expanding ports,
as stevedores, boatmen, and (in the case of the Chalcraft article) coal heavers.
At imperial Istanbul, there were patterns of transport labor migration that dat
ed back centuries, bringing workers from eastern Anatolia as well as the Black
Sea coast for work that lasted from a single season to many years. In this case,
the transport workers lived communally in bachelor quarters, intermittently
visiting their homes and families before permanently returning to the village.
But in Sal?nica, also an old, well-established port city, the porters were drawn
from the local population and resided in the city with their families. Beginning
in 1908, the Young Turk political elites built alliances with port workers in many
Ottoman cities, using them as instruments of political power and intimidation.
This coalition is reminiscent of an earlier one in Ottoman history, that between
the Janissaries and the urban workers.32
Railroads, for their part, came to employ several tens of thousands of work
ers as (almost exclusively European) capital built a modest network in most of
the empire but, in Egypt, one of exceptional density. Foreign capital in railroad
construction and the technological requirements skewed formation of the labor
force in ways that are familiar to labor historians in many other areas of the
globe, including the United States. These foreign corporations, in recruiting
white-collar employees who worked in the offices and stations, hired about equal
numbers of Europeans and Ottoman Christians. In soliciting workers for em
ployment on the trains, engines, and in the repair shops, they overwhelmingly
hired Ottoman Muslims.33
More generally, this stratification pattern of Europeans and non-Muslims
at the top of the job hierarchy and Muslims at the bottom prevailed in the
European-capitalized enterprises that proliferated in the late Ottoman period.
These enterprises formed the modern sector of the Ottoman economy, and in
cluded steam-powered flour mills, breweries, food processing plants, textile
mills, banks, railroads, steamship lines, and utility companies. Altogether, these
employed well over 100,000 employees and workers?persons who were partic
ipating in a labor stratification the opposite ofthat prevailing in official Ottoman
circles where Muslims had dominated and non-Muslims had been in a subordi
nate position. We cannot know which pattern would have prevailed in the end;
Ottoman labor and Ottoman society at large were in transition from one form
of hierarchy to another, but the evolution was halted by the destruction of the
Ottoman Empire after World War One.
Here, let me return to and amplify some points of the preceding discussion
regarding the declining and rising fortunes, respectively, of guilds in the manu
facturing and transport sectors. In July 1908, the “Young Turk Revolution”
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922
toppled the autocracy of the ruling sultan, promising a new era of justice and
equality.34 A “strike wave”?of more than 110 recorded strikes?erupted in nu
merous Ottoman cities. This strike wave indeed crystallizes the evolution of Ot
toman labor to that point. As many as half of the strikes were in sectors just cre
ated by foreign capital (especially railroads, the modernized ports, and in the
new food processing factories). In these sectors labored both Ottoman subjects
and workers (and employees) from west, central, and east Europe. These for
eigners clearly helped establish unions and syndicate forms of organization that
organized the strikes in these sectors. But a large number of strikes also occurred
among workers such as bakers with longstanding ties to the guilds. A task for
Ottoman labor historians is to identify the workplace culture that framed and
mobilized, within several weeks, strikes among workers of so many different oc
cupations and locations. How were the frameworks of mobilization connected
to the actually remaining structures, or vestiges or memories of structures, of the
Ottoman guilds? And did union and syndicate forms of organization intersect
with the existing Ottoman forms? The evolutionary path such hybrid organiza
tions may have taken is difficult to see because the Ottoman state stepped in to
co-opt or crush the strikers and passed legislation restricting strikes.35 Shortly
thereafter, World War One erupted and then, in 1922, the Ottoman Empire van
Following are three contributions to Ottoman labor history?by Chalcraft,
Kirh, and Zarinebaf-Shahr. The article by Chalcraft will be seen as the most fo
cused on exclusively labor history topics, while those by Kirh and Zarinebaf
Shahr demonstrate that Ottoman labor history often is still enmeshed in larger
issues concerning social and economic history and has not quite attained the sta
tus of a separate sub-field within Ottoman history. The general applicability of
these studies is uncertain since the main geographic focus of all three is Istanbul
and Cairo, great capital cities of an empire and a very rich province. At the least,
we can compare their findings with those of the labor history of London, Paris,
St. Petersburg, Vienna, and perhaps Berlin.
Chalcraft takes as his focus a group of workers created by European capi
tal and action, similar to some earlier research on labor in the port works, rail
roads, and other foreign corporations in the Ottoman world. Like the port work
ers and stevedores of Istanbul, these coal heavers were unskilled workers in the
emergent transport sector that expanded so rapidly in the later Ottoman peri
od. Thus, in common with these earlier works, he reminds us that textile work
ers are only part of the story of nineteenth-century labor. But he departs from
these studies in an important way: For him, worker protests derive more from
the ongoing political transformation of the state than emerging capitalist rela
tions of production. And so, he seeks to uncouple those protests from capital
ism, and instead emphasizes their connection to the state-building efforts then
occurring in Egypt. For Chalcraft, labor history is not necessarily progressive.
Workers can and do find themselves trapped. And yet, he shows, they adroitly
maneuvered in the spaces created by the evolving state. Changes in the state trig
gered transformations in the nature of workers’ grievances. As the state adopt
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ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
ed a reformist, centralizing agenda, the coal heavers appealed to these same
goals to obtain redress of their own grievances. Refreshingly, he is able to use
the workers’ own voices, as expressed in petitions to the state, in his analysis.
Kirh’s contribution is important for the light it sheds on the actual content
of the term esnaf, on the question of what constitutes a worker, and on the sub
ject of labor history. In his work, esnaf members include those who owned the
means of production and employed others as well as those who did not. Some
who did not own instead rented their shops from third parties and employed oth
ers. Still other members, notably boatmen and porters, did not require such shop
spaces, did not add value to a product, and lived solely from the labor of their
bodies.36 It is likely that most of those producing goods and services in the gen
eral Ottoman world fell into these categories of Kirh’s esnaf. As already stated,
esnaf in this sense may indicate only tax paying status. Whether or not they were
members of a formal guild structure, however, is a different matter. Guilds over
time probably became decreasingly common in the craft sectors and increasing
ly so in transportation (where unions/syndicates/associations began to emerge).
Kirh, significantly, also illustrates the crucial role of labor migration in the life of
the imperial capital and as a determinant in labor patterns. Here he challenges
and refutes the hoary notion of an ethnic/religious division of labor. People
worked together in his Istanbul neighborhoods not because of shared religion
or ethnicity, but because they came from the same village or town in the pro
vinces. As he puts it, regional allegiances are central for understanding the com
position of the work force at a particular work site. His analysis of the connec
tion of the Janissary military corps, instigators of a host of Istanbul revolts during
the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to Muslim shopkeepers similarly
adds much to Ottoman labor history. Kirh’s evidence that Janissaries were
commonly shopkeepers overturns assumptions that they were linked only to
propertyless urban workers, and forces us to reconsider the nature of their in
surrections and the role of labor in Ottoman political history between 1700 and
1826, when a sultan destroyed the Janissary Corps. And finally, his discussion of
gardeners reveals the importance of this group in the urban workforce and, to
boot, offers a wonderful picture of the complex rural-urban life in one of the
largest cities in the world at the time. Here is much grist for the comparativist’s
Zarinebaf-Shahr’s article contributes both to Ottoman women’s history and
labor history. It helps to normalize women as workers and ordinary, everyday
participants in the economic life of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman elite and
higher-ranking women so far have received the bulk of the attention from schol
ars, although the outlines of women’s participation in the workforce are becom
ing somewhat clearer. There is still considerable apathy or resistance to women
workers’ history, in part because of the nature of Ottoman history writing in gen
eral and because so much energy in Ottoman labor history has been expended
on the organized workforce, which (apparently) systematically excluded female
workers. And so, her analysis of women workers, shopkeepers, and economic
agents fills important lacunae. Her material is doubly important, for much of it
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922 107
concerns the eighteenth century, allowing us to compare earlier patterns with
those of the better-known subsequent era. She vividly illustrates the fear that
guildsmen held of female workers outside their organizations. More specifical
ly, the complaints of journeymen against women workers may suggest the pow
er of merchants or the changing role of masters in organizing production. Her
revelations of the divisions between journeymen and masters within guilds dur
ing the eighteenth century offer evidence that otherwise has been scarce in Ot
toman labor history scholarship.37 Thus, she adds considerably not only to our
picture of women workers in (textile) production, but also the mechanisms used
by Ottoman manufacturers to meet domestic and international competitors. In
the process, she helps us to better understand the role, importance, and activi
ties of the labor force in the Ottoman economy after 1700.
* My thanks to Mel Dubofsky, Tom Dublin, and the Ottoman labor history seminar at
Binghamton University for their helpful comments.
1. Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 (Cambridge, 2000).
2. Ibid., 186-90.
3. After 1882 and until 1914, when the tie to the Ottoman Empire was severed as Britain
declared a protectorate, Egypt, in most senses of the term, was a British colony.
4. Halil Inalcik with Donald Quataert, eds., An Economic and Social History of the Ot
toman Empire, 1300-1914 (Cambridge, 1994).
5. Whether or not later nineteenth-century Egypt should be considered still Ottoman is a
bit of a conundrum for specialists, as suggested just above. Since the career of Muhammad Ali
Pash (d. 1848), Egypt in some but not all respects functioned as an independent entity. It re
mained nominally under Ottoman suzerainty after the British occupation of 1882, until the
British declaration of a protectorate in December 1914. In many respects, however, Egypt re
mained closely tied to Istanbul and the two labor histories are often similar. The inclusion here
is intended to promote closer comparisons between the researchers in the Egyptian provinces
and the Ottoman Empire as a whole.
6. A notable exception, which is both richly detailed and provocatively analytic, of earli
er Ottoman guild history is Eunjeong Yi, “The Istanbul Guilds in the Seventeenth Century:
Leverage in Changing Times” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2000).
7. Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) was the opening salvo in the attack on such
stereotypes. While orientalism has faded, no paradigm has emerged to frame discussions in Ot
toman and Middle East history.
8. Notably, Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (London, 1960), and later
9. A 1917 account by A. J. Sussnitzki in The Economic History of the Middle East, 1800
1914, ed. Charles Issawi (Chicago, 1966), 115. Halil Inalcik, in a number of studies dating from
the early 1960s, pointed to a vital and active Muslim participation in trade and industry, and di
rectly contradicted the prevailing assumptions about the division of labor. See his works cited
in the bibliography of his contribution to Inalcik with Quataert, eds., An Economic and Social
History of the Ottoman Empire.
10. For a more detailed presentation and critique, see Donald Quataert, Ottoman Manu
facturing in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 1993), 7-15.
11. Of course there are exceptions. Some writers, usually non-Ottomans, were interested
in economic topics and wrote about workers. Usually, however, these characterizations were
laced with the stereotypes described below.
12. H. A. R. Gibb and Harold Bowen, Islamic Society and the West, vol. 1, 2 parts (Lon
don, 1950-1957). But see the fine critique of most of these points in Yi, “The Istanbul Guilds.”
13. See the various works by Franz Taeschner, for example, “Futuwwa, eine gemein
schaftsbildende Idee im mittelalterlichen Orient und ihre vershiedenenen Erscheinungsfor
men,” Schweitzerisches Archiv f?r Volkerkunde 52 (1956):122-58. Cemal Kafadar is currently
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108 ILWCH, 60, Fall 2001
working on this subject of guilds and their origins; for his earlier efforts, see “Yeni?eri-Esnaf
Relations: Solidarity and Conflict” (M.A. thesis, McGill University, 1981).
14. For example, see the studies by Gabriel Baer, “The Administrative, Economic and So
cial Functions of Turkish Guilds,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 1 (1970):28-50;
and Gibb and Bowen, Islamic Society and the West. For an argument that guilds are a product
of Middle Eastern social needs rather than state requirements, see Bernard Lewis, “The Islamic
Guilds,” Economic History Review 8 (1937-38):20-37.
15. There is a considerable body of literature in Turkish. In English, see Mehmet Gen?,
“Ottoman Industry in the Eighteenth Century: General Framework, Characteristics, and Main
Trends,” in Manufacturing in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, 1500-1950, ed. Donald Quataert
(Albany, 1994), 59-86.
16. For example, see S. J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw, A History of the Ottoman Empire
and Modern Turkey, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1976-1978).
17. See the introductions in Zachary Lockman, ed., Workers and Working Classes in the
Middle East (Albany, 1994); Ellis Jay Goldberg, ed., The Social History of Labor in the Middle
East (Boulder, CO, 1996); and Donald Quataert, ed., Workers, Peasants and Economic Change
(Istanbul, 1993).
18. See Inalcik with Quataert, eds., An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Em
pire for a summary of economic historiography. Ottoman women’s history is still in its infancy;
see Madeline Zilfi, ed., Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early
Modern Era (Leiden, 1997).
19. An interesting effort to place history writing in Turkey in its historical context is Halil
Berktay, “The Search for the Peasant in Western and Turkish History/Historiography,” in Halil
Berktay and Suraiya Faroqhi, eds., “New Approaches to State and Peasant in Ottoman Histo
ry,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 18 (1991):110-84, esp. 137ff. Also see Maria Todorova,
Imagining the Balkans (New York, 1997).
20. A host of important topics remain unaddressed or have been scarcely touched upon,
including, for example, peddlers.
21. Oya Sencer, T?rkiye’de is?isinifi (Istanbul, 1969); Mete Tuncay, T?rkiye’desolakimlar
(Istanbul, 1967), and various later editions; Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the
Nile (Princeton, 1987); Yavuz Selim Karakisla, “The 1908 Strike Wave in the Ottoman Empire,”
Turkish Studies Association Bulletin 16 (1992): 153-77. See also the sources cited by Chalcraft
in his article in this volume of ILWCH.
22. See Donald Quataert, “Ottoman Workers and the State, 1826-1914,” in Workers and
Working Classes in the Middle East, ed. Lockman, 23-7. Earlier, ta’ife may have been more com
monly employed. See Yi, “The Istanbul Guilds.” Labor historians need to examine the relative
frequency of the various terms over time and whether or not changing usage reflects the mount
ing presence or absence of organized, hierarchical structures. If esnaf indeed is the more com
mon late Ottoman term, is this merely a vocabulary change, or does it reflect more profound
alterations in the nature of the Ottoman work force?
23. Even there tight state control cannot be assumed. For autonomous guild actions in
seventeenth-century Istanbul, see Yi, “The Istanbul Guilds.”
24. Here I can list only a few of the works. Suraiya Faroqhi has been notable for her ear
ly efforts at history from below, both that of women and of workers. For more recent contri
butions, see her “The Fieldglass and the Magnifying Lens: Studies of Ottoman Crafts and
Craftsmen,” Journal of European Economic History 20 (1991):29-57; and also Faroqhi, “Eigh
teenth Century Ottoman Craftsmen: Probl?matiques and Developing Sources” (unpublished
paper, c. 1998). Also, see two collections important for their introductions and contributions:
Lockman, ed., Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East; and Goldberg, ed., The Social
History of Labor in the Middle East. Also, Onur Yildirim, “Craft Guilds in the Ottoman Em
pire (c. 1650-1826)” (unpublished research paper, Binghamton University, 1990), 13.
25. Faroqhi, “Eighteenth Century Ottoman Craftsmen.” In addition, she argues that these
guilds concentrated labor in relatively large workshops.
26. Sherry Vatter, “Militant Textile Weavers in Damascus: Waged Artisans and the Ot
toman Labor Movements, 1850-1914,” in Workers and the Working Class in the Ottoman Em
pire and Turkey, 1839-1950, ed. Donald Quataert and Erik J. Z?rcher (“London, 1995), 35-57.
27. Sherry Vatter, “Journeymen Textile Weavers in Nineteenth-Century Damascus: A
Collective Biography,” in Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, ed. Edmund Burke
III (Berkeley, 1993), 75-90, and sources therein.
28. This is one of the major conclusions of Quataert, ed., Workers, Peasants and Econom
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Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922 109
ic Change. For a more recent and comprehensive treatment of the shift from guild to craft, see
John Chalcraft, “Crafts and Guilds in Egypt, 1863-1914” (Ph.D. diss., New York University,
29. Yiiksel Duman, “Notables, Textiles and Copper in Ottoman Tokat” (Ph.D. diss., State
University of New York, Binghamton, 1998).
30. The Istanbul case is from Quataert, ed., Workers, Peasants and Economic Change.
Chalcraft, “Crafts and Guilds in Egypt,” tells a very similar story of the Cairo shoemakers.
31. Quataert, ed., Manufacturing in the Ottoman Empire, focuses nearly solely on textiles.
For transport workers, see Donald Quataert, “Labor Policies and Politics in the Ottoman Em
pire: Porters and the Sublime Porte, 1826-1896,” in Humanist and Scholar: Essays in Honor of
Andreas Tietze, ed. Heath Lowry and Donald Quataert (Istanbul-Strasbourg, 1993), 59-69; and
Donald Quataert, Social Disintegration and Popular Resistance in the Ottoman Empire (New
York, 1983). And also see Chalcraft, “Crafts and Guilds in Egypt.”
32. For example, Robert Olson, “The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion of 1730: A
Realignment in Ottoman Politics?” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
17 (1974):329-44.
33. Quataert contribution in Inalcik with Quataert, eds., An Economic and Social Histo
ry of the Ottoman Empire. Also, this hiring pattern was replicated in the hiring patterns of the
6,000-person work force employed by the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, created to
oversee Ottoman state repayment of foreign loans after 1881.
34. The deteriorating economic conditions in which the revolution occurred have been ig
nored nearly totally and scholars have emphasized only its overtly political origins. See Don
ald Quataert, “The Economic Climate of the ‘Young Turk Revolution’ of 1908,” Journal of
Modern History 51 (1979): D1147-D1161. This article is reprinted in Quataert, ed., Workers,
Peasants and Economic Change, 49-62, and sources therein.
35. Yavuz Selim Karakisla, “The Strike Wave,” 153-77, and also his “The Emergence of
the Ottoman Industrial Working Class,1839-1923,” in Workers and the Working Class in the Ot
toman Empire and Turkey, ed. Quataert and Z?rcher, 19-34.
36. Well worth further study is the question of ownership of the boats and relations be
tween the boat owners and boatmen if these were not the same. On the related issue of migra
tory labor, see, Christopher Clay, “Labour Migration and Economic Conditions in Nineteenth
Century Anatolia,” Middle Eastern Studies 34 (1998):4,1-32.
37. See also Yi, “The Istanbul Guilds.” See also Vatter, “Journeymen Textile Weavers”;
and Vatter, “Militant Textile Weavers,” which offer a rich analysis of such conflicts during the
nineteenth century.
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