Masson on Faroqhi, 'A Cultural History of the Ottomans: The Imperial Elite and Its Artefacts'

Suraiya Faroqhi
Gemma Masson

Suraiya Faroqhi. A Cultural History of the Ottomans: The Imperial Elite and Its Artefacts. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2016. 288 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78453-096-9.

Reviewed by Gemma Masson (University of Birmingham) Published on H-Empire (November, 2017) Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

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Material culture is currently enjoying a renaissance in Ottoman studies. In fact, considering the long-standing popularity of Islamic art history one could argue that it never ceased to be studied. However, this new wave of material culture studies is distinctive in its interdisciplinary nature. Blending museum studies and archaeology with more traditional art history, this new scholarship allows more nuanced perspectives and diverse interpretations which enrich understanding across all contributing fields. Another benefit of the study of material culture is that it is a methodology that is more accessible than manuscripts, which often present issues regarding access and language barriers as well as palaeographical complications. Also the case could be made that material culture is less open to biased interpretations than manuscripts with proof-texting and document fetishism being rife in mainstream history. Furthermore, material culture has the potential to make visible areas of society that may have otherwise been overlooked. For example, everyone used things/wore clothes/ate food/lived somewhere/existed while not all members of a society may have been literate enough to leave a written record of themselves or, alternatively, did not do anything significant enough to be recorded by others.

However, Suraiya Faroqhi does highlight the shortcomings of material culture, stating that “it is only during the last few decades that certain museums have shown a sustained interest in items not destined for the sultans and their households” (p. 2). She also offers a reason for why material culture has been quite understudied in Ottoman history until now: the inclinations and training of historians. Due to the abundance of written documentary evidence, scholars did not need to look at any other resources for data as they got enough information for their needs from the aforementioned documents. Additionally written sources discussing material goods used by the Ottomans are rare, which makes the study of material culture all the more elusive. Further, potential shortcomings in the book are addressed from the beginning when Faroqhi states that some critics will, maybe fairly, claim that Istanbul culture receives more space than the provinces or that the Muslim population is emphasized at the expense of other groups. However, we are reminded not to equate the Ottoman Empire to the modern Republic of Turkey, and, as is evidenced throughout the text, a discussion on material culture, albeit weighted toward the elite, is still valuable.

After giving a methodological rundown of the field in the introduction, Faroqhi structures the book chapters based on the provenance and use of the objects discussed in each one. Chapter 1, “Reusing the Work of Past Time and Foreign Lands,” pays homage to the borrowing thesis, a prevalent theory in Ottoman studies that suggests that most aspects of Ottoman identity and society were co-opted from other times and places. While the Ottomans did have a tradition of assimilating other cultures, there is no suggestion that this made them any different to other civilizations. Fernand Braudel likens the process of the construction of identity for all civilizations being like a railway goods yard. The carriages coming in and leaving are the diverse cultures the host civilization interacts with and the host civilization picks and chooses which things they want from the trucks and the rest get sent away again.[1] Chapter 2 examines goods relating to the martial and pious images of Ottoman rulers and shows how these were propagated and reflected in their material goods.

Chapter 3 addresses the divisions in Ottoman society and presents what can be gleaned about them from examples of material culture. The next chapter examines the religious aspect of Ottoman life, covering both Muslim and non-Muslim populations, followed by a chapter on war and peace, which analyzes conflicts, gift exchanges, and the defining of borders. Chapter 6 focuses on eating and drinking, allowing for the near-constant changes in Ottoman food culture and overlaps nicely with the following chapter addressing textiles and leathers, which Turkey is famous for to this day. The last chapter, “Earth, Water, Air and Fire: The Gifts and Perils of Nature,” addresses Ottoman interactions with the elements, from raw materials for their industry to dangerous natural disasters.

These chapters feature strong contextualizations before analyzing several select examples of material culture and expanding each analysis to an empire-wide and sometimes global extent. This methodology not only provides a detailed analysis of the object in question but also sets the item firmly in context and demonstrates how material culture can contribute to big picture history thus encouraging its use more widely. Additionally Faroqhi has selected a diverse range of objects for examination from more traditional art history pieces, such as the Bellini portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror, to weighing scales and weights used in Ottoman markets. Considering the diversity of subjects covered in this book and variance in chapter theme, it is likely that Faroqhi has allowed the material to dictate her categorizations and her desire to showcase as many aspects of the Ottoman world as possible.

To conclude, this book not only provides a rich history of the lifestyle of Ottoman elites but also touches on some less studied areas of Ottoman society that may have not been accessible to scholars were it not for material culture. Additionally the work shows how material culture can be employed to enrich the writing of all histories, regardless of their focus. It is to be hoped that this publication paves the way for more scholarship using these rarely tapped sources of knowledge.


[1]. Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilisations, trans. Richard Mayne (London: Penguin, 1993), 29.

Citation: Gemma Masson. Review of Faroqhi, Suraiya, A Cultural History of the Ottomans: The Imperial Elite and Its Artefacts. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017. URL:

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