Faroqhi S. (2005) The Ottoman guilds

Faroqhi Suraiya (2005) “Chapter 1: Understanding Ottoman Guilds”, in Faroqhi Suraiya and Deguilhem Randi, Crafts and Craftsmen of the Middle East: Fashioning the Individual in the Muslim Mediterranean, London/New York: I.B.Tauris, 3-39.



The main problem for the study of the Ottoman guilds is the lack of sources to study them, specially before 1570; it is not even known whether they were introduced by the 16th-century conquest in the Arab lands (Syria and Egypt) or if they existed there before (p.3). Early 20th century scholars were particularly interested in the relationship the Ottoman artisans had with religion. In particular, Ülgener wondered why the advanced Ottoman economy did not make the transition to capitalism. For him the shift away of international trade created conditions in which the only way for craftsmen to accept economic stagnation was to develop a mental system based on modesty, egalitarianism, religious piety and small mindedness (p.5).

From the 1930s onward the state was seen as a de facto replacement of the guilds destined to unify and organize the economic effort towards conquest and development (p.8). In the eyes of historians such as Gabriel Baer, guilds were little else than instruments of social control manipulated by the government. This feature associated the Ottoman state with the so-called Marxian “Asiatic mode of production” (p.9).

An Ottoman guilds model?

The interest during the 1980s for proto-industry convinced Ottomanists to pay attention to the question in a Turkish context. They soon discovered unguilded rural part time craftsmen around Bursa and Ankara as early as the 16th century. Yet unlike their European counter parts, these artisans retained the ownership of the means of production and solely depended on the urban traders for loans and access to market (p.10).

Nikolai Todorov expressed the views that the survival of Ottoman guilds well into the 19th century was due to the early industrialists’ understanding that they needed the constituted power of the guilds to negotiate with the government. Nonetheless Ottoman-style guilds did not flourish all over the empire; for instance, they did not develop in Hungary (p.12). One of the specificities of this idiosyncratic model was the segregation between Christian and Muslim Hungarian corporations while in the rest of the Empire religion tended to mix.

In 1400-1500 Bursa there was also the singular issue of the slaves working in small textile manufactures (p.15). The phenomenon was certainly caused by high profits and limited labour supply, but faded away in the latter 1500s when conditions changed. This example underlines the importance of institutional change in a sector historians long assumed was locked in an “eternal present” (p. 14). For instance the division of guild membership along denominational line grew in the 19th century (p.15).

The European historiography has long considered the guild as a backward institution swept away by the rise of state and market (p.16). But recent studies on the Netherlands and France show that guilds and economic growth could go along. Guilds were seen by 17th- and 18th-century governments as useful for controlling quality and educating apprentices (p.17). The Ottomans seem to have adopted a similar approach and Anatolian guilds might not have been so different from their European counterparts (p.18).

In Istanbul

The first list of guilds available for Istanbul dates back from the festival of 1582. During this festival, guildsmen paraded the streets displaying their products as a testament of their skills (p.20). While earlier historians estimated that the guilds were merely relaying the government’s policies, a new approach indicates it may not have been the case. The guilds seem to have been a loose institution where matters were discussed but much of the decision left to the individuals. The contacts with the Sultanate were mostly informal and on a personal basis (p.21).

One of the most important changes in Istanbul guilds’ history is the appearance of the gedik, a slot the artisan had to purchase before he could open a workshop. Although this way to create a barrier of entry limiting competition went against the government’s policy, the kadis (judges) appear to have accepted it due to the important contributions of the guildsmen to the kadis’ pious foundations. By that time, the Sultanate was involved in numerous struggles against powerful magnates and may not have been keen on taking on yet another adversary (p.22).

The role of the state

Administrative abuses may have been an important factor in the fall of Ottoman domestic production. For instance the Jewish textile industries of Salonica underwent a crippling crisis in the mid 16th century due to the fact they were forced to provide graciously the uniforms of the Janissaries at a time when this elite corps grew exponentially. This was made worse by the fact that wool price rose and English import prevented to report the extra costs on the consumers.

As a result numerous weavers and spinners migrated to nearby towns not submitted to the janissaries’ toll. The Ottoman administration did all it could to force the craftsmen back in Salonica (p.23). A rough competition for labour and primary materials also induces a strife between Salonica and the nearby textile town: in Gara for instance Salonica craftsmen were not allowed to drink and eat so they could not overbid local artisans on the market (p.24).

The guilds of Istanbul’s bakers and millers is another example of the (otherwise not very common) direct government involvement in production. For political reasons, the quality of bread in the capital was critical to the Sultanate so it carefully oversaw the guilds’ works. It seems the guilds’ member were content with the situation since they regularly denounce those among them not respecting the governmental standards. Unlike the Salonica case, a pacific consensus was reach between ruler and ruled.


Interestingly enough a roughly similar system was in place for 18th- and 19th-century Stanbulite Jewish meat dealers, but this time the rabbis were in charge of the quality control instead of the state (p.25). The butchers were also in charge of levying the crushing gabela rabbinic tax (p.26).

The guilds were also an important mean of cooperation between religious groups. Since members of the same guild usually shared common social conditions, it was an opportunity for Jewish, Christian and Muslim poor to cooperate against the rich (p.27). In 19th-century Syria the administration seems to have favoured guilds mixing communities as a way to contradict the rise of Arab nationalism (p.28).


Two reasons causes are generally assumed to have caused the dismissal of the Ottoman guilds. First, cheap European import destroyed many craftsmen livelihood and the corporations disappeared with them. Secondly, the crushing 19th-century taxation forced numerous urban artisan to the countryside where they went on with their job but where guilds did not reach them (p.30).


One Response to Faroqhi S. (2005) The Ottoman guilds

  1. halil aytaş says:

    dear sir/madam,
    I am a student in Public Administration Institute for Turkey and the Middle East (TODAIE). I prepare my thesis about turkish tobacco which name is “tobacco market in turkey and changes in globalization period. I dont find any tobacco statistics in 1600-1885..if you have these knowledges ..(book, web address or the other source..) ..can you send to me..

    Halil AYTAŞ

    best regards..

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