Altogether the most efficient account of a six-hundred year empire I’ve ever read.

Everyday Life In Ottoman TurkeyEveryday Life In Ottoman Turkey by Raphaela Lewis

Excellent overview of a people, place and time, even if I do suspect that Lewis is a wee bit undiscriminating in her love of her subject. It begins with a brief history

In 1390, however, Sultan Bayezid began his conquests in Asia Minor. His Muslim troops were unwilling to fight their co-religionists, whom, anyway, they could not loot with a clear conscience…

Eight concise chapters (the book is only 197 pages long) follow which concern themselves with government

A request for the investigation of the surreptitious fixing of pipes and taps to divert public water for private consumption was sent to the Superintendent of Waterways and the Cadi of Istanbul; a command to warn off the poachers who had been stealing the exclusively royal fish from the waters near Bursa was sent to the Cadi of that town, and to the Cadi of Istanbul a complaint about the requisitioning for postal couriers of the horses and mules belonging to guests of a kahn, thereby scaring off customers with consequent loss of revenue, concluding ‘This must stop!’…


Writing of any kind, originally revered by the illiterate because it might be the Koran or was at any rae in the same script as the Book, became a charm of the greatest magic.

and civil life

All the markets, covered and uncovered, were constantly patrolled by inspectors of weights and measures, and in Istanbul the Chief Inspector was the Grand Vizier himself, who made a circuit of the markets each Wednesday in the company of the Chief Cadi and the Agha of the Janissaries, and on two other days independently, to ensure the proper observance of the craft and trade regulations and to punish anyone found guilt of infringing them.

Below which paragraph is an illustration of a street-trader being beaten for selling short weight. The Ottomans were no believers in justice delayed.

In the chapter on family life we learn that Girls were married without either their consent or their approval, and boys were not much consulted either, and that the midwife brings her own birthing chair, the appearance of which signals the menfolk of the household to remove themselves. The year progressed from one Muslim holy day to the next, and, interestingly, few men lived at leisure.

The exercise of some skill was considered an honourable duty, to such a degree that every Sultan was obliged to learn a craft.

I remember our guide in Marrakesh last year, a jovial man named Mohammed, walked us around the city right through noon prayers, and when we asked he said firmly, “Work is prayer, too.”

It is impossible, writes Lewis

to over-estimate the importance in the social structure of the role of the guilds…The guilds of beggars, prostitutes, pickpockets and thieves, who paid their taxes to the police and observed faithfully the discipline of their organisations, were among the oldest established and dated from well before Ottoman times. The guild of thieves also acted as a kind of clearing-house for ‘lost’ property: when a man had been robbed he made representations to their sheikh, offering a sum of money for the safe return of his valuables. If the price was fair and the thieves had nothing against the man, his property was enquired for, collected, and returned to him.

And then Lewis moves out into Anatolia and the provinces. The Ottoman overlords practiced a kind of benign neglect when it came to territory not right under their actual gaze, so long as those territories paid their taxes.

The book ends with a brief but comprehensive glossary. Altogether the most efficient account of a six-hundred year empire I’ve ever read.

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Dana,

    Enjoyed very much Shugak series to book 20. You are perhaps bored with your heroine and dog – I am not!! Any chance you could resurrect for just one more??

    Regards John L

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