Mediterranean Encounters: Trade and Pluralism in Early Modern Galata
Oakland, University of California Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780520289932; 404pp.; Price: £70.00
Max Planck Institute for European Legal History/ Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED), Koç University, Istanbul
Date accessed: 4 June, 2023
The 18th century is still the least popular among Ottoman historians. Recently, with the influential counter-narrative of Ottoman decline and the coining of a new term—the 'Second Ottoman Empire'—by Baki Tezcan, our understanding of periodization in Ottoman history has changed. It is now recognized that there was no golden age followed by centuries of decline. Instead, the Ottoman Empire adapted to the changing social, cultural, and economic landscape in order to survive into the early 20th century. Following Tezcan’s study, Ali Yaycıoğlu produced a powerful and richly sourced book that decentralizes the relationship between Istanbul as centre and the provinces in the Ottoman Empire to create a complex image of interdependencies between rising provincial elites and entrenched central elites.(1)
It is in this context that we place Fariba Zarinebaf’s new book on the early modern port city of Galata (part of today’s Beyoğlu district in Istanbul). This book is a continuation of the author’s prolific studies on 18th century Istanbul. Zarinebaf has ample interests, looking at prostitution, violence, social control, and sociability; or, to put it another way, all that constitutes the social texture of any large early modern city. In her new study, she aims to offer ‘an alternative way of examining an Ottoman port through its layered history, legal pluralism, merchant networks, and connectivity’ (p. 11). This she does in seven topical chapters. The book’s clear strength is Zarinebaf’s pronounced knowledge of Ottoman archives and sources. To Ottoman sources, she adds French archival material from Marseille and French embassy reports. In fact, somewhat contrary to its title, her book is principally a study of French-Ottoman encounters in 18th-century Galata, Istanbul, and the wider Ottoman world.
The fact that the first part of Zarinebaf’s book title is the same as Elisabeth A. Fraser’s book title on artists indicates that the concept of encounters is mainstream in today’s research.(2) However, this concept, also widely referenced in dissertation titles, could be defined to make it a more heuristically coherent tool for new studies on Ottoman-European relations. The word ‘encounter’ itself suggests two parties (perhaps even adversaries) meeting face-to-face, often unexpectedly or by chance, and often resulting in a violent clash. Yet, the daily cohabitation, coexistence, and conviviality of Europeans and Ottomans in early modern Galata or Pera, the diplomatic district of Istanbul in the 18th century, goes beyond that concept. Rather, the English, the Italians, the French, the Dutch, the Russians, the Poles, the Swedes, and intermittently the Spaniards, the Prussians, and the Danes lived side-by-side with Ottoman Muslim and non-Muslim subjects in those two districts. They knew each other intimately and lived in close proximity. In the early modern period, Galata and Pera had a complex social fabric, with friendships forming and conflicts arising each day.
This complex world is the subject of Zarinebaf’s study, which she treats in an impressive longue durée perspective spanning the entire early modern period (the 16th to early 19th century). The book is aimed at both general and scholarly readers and begins by painting a knowledgeable image of Galata and Istanbul starting from the late Middle Ages (chapter 1). Galata was originally a Genoese enclave which Mehmed II incorporated into the Ottoman domain in 1453. With the introduction of Ottoman administration, some of the churches were converted to mosques and Muslim settlement was encouraged. Galata, as a port city surrounded by a wall, had its own red-light district with brothels, taverns, coffee houses, and sherbet shops. Originally, Ottomans catered to European diplomats in Istanbul proper or Galata. Starting from the 16th century, however, diplomats moved their seats gradually from Galata to the hills and vineyards of Pera, where Ottoman control was less strict, and more space was available.
Diplomats had the right to import, produce, and store alcohol; the French embassy, as Zarinebaf points out, had its own wine store. Frequent fires that devastated large parts of wider Istanbul stimulated the rebuilding of embassies closer together and in masonry rather than in wood. The rise of Pera (chapter 2) was a complex and multifaceted process that took centuries and was finished in the late 18th century with the creation of Grand Rue du Pera (today’s Istiklal Caddesi), lined with neoclassical architecture that is still visible today.
Having described Galata and Pera, the author proceeds to an analysis of ‘ahdnames (or capitulations) between European powers and the Ottomans in the early modern period (chapter 3 and 4). ‘Ahdnames, as international treaties, structured the relations between foreign powers and their subjects with the Ottomans, within and beyond the empire’s territory. Zarinebaf focuses on ‘ahdnames signed by the Ottomans with Galata, Venice, France, England, and Holland. If England and Holland belong to the Mediterranean world in Zarinebaf’s mental map, then a reader might wonder why the Habsburgs, Poland, and Russia are excluded. In the third case, literature in languages other than Russian is scarce, but literature on the Habsburgs is rich, and all of the Polish ‘ahdnames have been published.(3)
Chapters 4, 5 and 6 predominantly address the question of trade and shipping between France and the Ottoman Empire which, I suggest, would profit from a holistic view of Ottoman trade with Europe as a whole. The Ottomans not only connected three continents, but also controlled land trade routes between South East Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa with West, Central, and Eastern Europe. Apart from a few navigable riverine trade routes and some shipping in the Black Sea, goods were transported to Central and Eastern Europe overland, but this does not mean that this trade was less pronounced than Mediterranean shipping. It is, rather, less popular and less researched by Ottoman historians.
The question of speed is crucial in trade. Ships that navigated between Marseilles and Galata could enter Galata without quarantine until the early 19th century, as Zarinebaf points out, but had to wait for at least 40 days before entering Marseilles and selling their merchandise. A ship navigating between Marseilles (also Venice) and Galata needed between 30 and 60 days to reach its destination (p. 194). Overland caravans organized along established routes to Poland, for instance, did not have to wait because there was no quarantine and plague was dealt with by closing borders. Protected by 200-300 armed men, such caravans, resembling a marching army, reached Istanbul in 40 days. Irritated Ottoman diplomats, on the other hand, had to wait ‘for a long time’ to enter Marseilles, whereas many entered Poland or Russia, after crossing the border rivers, without much ado (p. 73). As Zarinebaf skillfully suggests, French-Ottoman trade flourished in the 18th century, and French ships played an important role in provisioning Istanbul. The French exported French cloth and colonial goods (coffee and sugar) to the Ottoman Empire and imported raw materials (silk and later cotton); the British exported woolen manufactures in exchange for Ottoman foodstuffs, mohair, raw silk and cotton.(4) Ottoman trade with the French and the British was unbalanced, with the Ottomans often exporting raw materials to import them back as a processed commodity.
The Ottoman trade with Central and Eastern Europe—part of the Greek and Armenian web of merchant networks spanning the entire Mediterranean—is beyond the scope of the author’s book and of Anglophone research as a whole, but it could diversify our understanding of the Ottoman trade balance. As suggested above, this trade was often faster than shipping between France and the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman merchants imported foodstuffs and textiles into Vienna, where there was a well-established Greek Ottoman colony, analyzed recently by David Do Paço, using Habsburg sources.(5) Much of the Russian struggle to enter the Black Sea and gain a footing in the diplomatic world of Pera was driven by their desire to gain direct access to Eastern Mediterranean textiles and foodstuffs. An interesting case in point is Poland-Lithuania. By the 16th century, a fashion for Ottoman style was well-established in Poland and led to an enormous consumption of luxury textiles, horse tack, and Arabian and Turkish horses well into the 18th century. Any self-respecting early modern noble in Poland-Lithuania required at least one set of Ottoman-style clothing, a Turkish horse, and horse tack for social encounters or parliamentary meetings. All of these luxuries were imported with the help of caravans from the Ottoman Empire, by which Ottoman Muslim, Orthodox, and Jewish merchants exported amber, cheap local textiles, metals, and furs.(6) Much remains to be researched in the Ottoman archives, but it seems that Ottoman trade with Europe as a whole might have been more balanced than previously imagined.
A fascinating part of Zarinebaf’s book is her prolific study of sexual and social encounters in public and private spaces of Galata and in villages along the Bosphorus (chapter 7). As in the rest of the book, in this chapter, the author masterfully combines European and Ottoman accounts to paint a complicated image of Galata’s social texture. Most Europeans who lived in Galata were men; many were bachelors. This created a market for brothels, some of which were organized by Muslim women as a private enterprise. Local taverns offered alcoholic drinks and sparked nocturnal activities, including singing and brawls. Venetian and French merchants often married local Christian woman. The Levantines, who stemmed from European-Ottoman intermarriages, worked as interpreters and gained the status of beratlı (holders of a privilege [berat] issued by the Imperial Council at ambassadors’ requests), an Ottoman merchant protected by a European ambassador. If we imagine the early modern society of Galata and Pera at large as a social mosaic, the Levantines were the glue that held all the pieces together. The 18th century, as Zarinebaf wonderfully illustrates, also saw a rise in the building of waterfront mansions as Ottoman elites and diplomats moved their summer residences from forests north of Istanbul to villages along the Bosphorus.
To date, Zarinebaf’s book is clearly the best socio-cultural study of 18th-century Galata and Pera that is based predominantly on French and Ottoman sources. Written in clear and pleasant prose, her study will certainly figure on the syllabi of many Ottoman and (one hopes) European history courses, and will enter the canon of classics in the field. Zarinebaf’s study also delivers an example of how early modern diplomatic sources might best be used to ask social and cultural questions.
 Baki Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World, (Cambridge, 2012); Ali Yaycıoğlu, Partners of the Empire: The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions, (Stanford, CA, 2016).
 Elisabeth A. Fraser, Mediterranean Encounters: Artists between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, 1774-1839, (University Park, PA, 2017). Fraser’s book is not listed in Zarinebaf’s bibliography. A similar publication date indicates that both books were drafted, possibly, without knowledge of one another.
 Dariusz Kołodziejczyk, Ottoman-Polish Diplomatic Relations: An Annotated Edition of ‘Ahdnames and Other Documents, The Ottoman Empire and Its Heritage, vol. 18, (Leiden, 2000).
 Michael Talbot, British-Ottoman Relations, 1661-1807: Commerce and Diplomatic Practice in the Eighteenth-Century Istanbul, (Woodbridge, 2017), p. 74.
 David Do Paço, L’Orient à Vienne au dix-huitième siècle, Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment, vol. 2015: 05, (Oxford, 2015).
 Andrzej Dziubiński, Na szlakach Orientu: handel między Polską a Imperium Osmańskim w XVI-XVIII wieku, (Wrocław, 1997), pp. 151-154.
The review highlights the main themes but Kaczka should also note that I am primarily an urban historian! I am not out to prove there was a second Ottoman Empire but wanted to highlight the importance of both domestic and European trade and how the state supported each and how traders negotiated their rights! So, I compared provisioning traders with European traders in Galata. There are important questions regarding the debate on the Ottoman economic mind and commercial policies and their evolution that I tried to tackle in the book!
However, as the reviewer must know, one cannot do everything in one single book! If I did that, the book would also be critiqued for being all over the place! I leave it to other scholars with the right expertise to tackle Ottoman-Polish and Ottoman-Habsburg relations. The archives for each region would be located in different places and would require different linguistic expertise! It took me seven years to write this book. I used England and Holland for comparative purposes because they competed with France over the Levant trade in this period. The reviewer is a bit unrealistic expecting one single monograph and scholar to do everything. I hope he can undertake this project!