Nelly Hanna, Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early Modern Capitalism (1600-1800). Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book, and what particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
Nelly Hanna (NH): The book is part of a large body of literature that deals with the artisans and guilds of the Ottoman Empire. Scholars have written about artisans in Istanbul, Bursa, Aleppo, and Jerusalem (including Suraiya Faroqhi, Abdul Karim Rafeq, Haim Gerber, and others). More specifically, my work on with the artisans in Cairo follows the same tradition as the work of two other scholars, namely Andre Raymond, whose work was fundamental in showing the socio-economic status of artisans and their changing relations to the Mamluk class, and Pascale Ghazaleh.
One of the issues the book tackles is how to study artisans and guilds, not only in the context of a traditional society and economy, but rather in the context of a period which was undergoing significant changes (1600-1800), due to both local and to regional conditions.
The approach it uses is that of “history from below,” since one of the questions that it addresses is how to define a role for these artisans and guilds in the context of the prevailing commercial conditions of the period, but also as a source of developments in the nineteenth century. The book also addresses the core-periphery model of the world systems approach and attempts to include artisans in this model. In other words, rather than discuss the core-periphery model solely in relation to merchants and commercial activity, it incorporates artisans and their products into the model.
Thus on the one hand it deals, at a micro level, with the individual lives of artisans, following the lives of a few artisan families over several generations, focusing on their work and on their relations to guilds and the economy, as well as to their families and colleagues. At the macro level, these artisans are placed in the context of the broad global and regional changes of the period 1600-1800, namely the greater world trade and more intensive commercial exchanges taking place worldwide. By combining these two different levels, links could be made between the local and the global, between the artisans who worked their product and the expanding horizons of international trade.
The question around which the book revolves is how these artisans fared in the light of these conditions. The book comes up with the idea of “trade without periphery,” a term to describe the period as one during which the region as a whole underwent a certain level of commercialization, but did not undergo the peripheralization of its economy, as happened in the nineteenth century. The same concept could be applied to other regions, such as other parts of the Ottoman Empire or India, which experienced similar conditions, and where commercialization brought about a certain social mobility, both upwards and downwards.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
NH: I have an interest in the economy, and my earlier book (Making Big Money in 1600) focused on merchants and international trade in the seventeenth century. Like this book and my other book, In Praise of Books, individual lives are placed at the fore, and they are part and parcel of the important changes that take place in society. Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo does the same, except that this time the focus is on artisans rather than merchants. This latest work tries to develop a methodology that aims at placing artisans and guilds within the economy, as producers of goods that were in demand, at times locally, at other times regionally. In other words, we need to rethink the term “traditional economy” so that there is space for some agency for artisans.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NH: I believe the book will be of interest to historians of the Ottoman Empire; world historians who are interested in the early modern period and especially those who are interested in integrating lower level groups (artisans and craftsmen) in their models of global change; and economic historians who are interested in exploring the sources of modern economies. I also think that the book would be of interest to historians of India and Asia, as I make numerous comparisons with Indian and Asian history, particularly in relation to the growing commercialization of the period, which affected large parts of the globe.
It can serve as a book for graduate seminars, and parts could also be assigned to undergraduates.
Excerpts from Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early-Modern Capitalism (1600-1800)
From the Introduction:
Objectives: This study aims at filling in some of the blanks on this subject and exploring artisans at a number of levels. One of these levels is to formulate an approach to study artisans in the context of “history from below.” The study aims to explore those that have not had enough visibility in historical studies, and to give them agency; in other words to incorporate them in history. Rather than only study artisans as part of a traditional society or traditional economy, the study explores alternative channels. It asks, for instance, if one can perceive them as actors within local, regional, and world history and in the context of historical processes; if and how artisans may have had a role, influenced trends or had an impact on these processes, if and how they were affected, or they were part of, the changes between 1600 and 1800, if in other words they were part of the historical process. The relationship between local economy and world economy has been studied by historians writing on various regions of the Ottoman Empire. James Reilly and Faruk Tabaq, for example, focused on nineteenth century merchants and explored the interaction between local economies in Ottoman lands and developments in the world economy. The present study uses the same frame, but applies it, firstly, to an earlier period and, secondly, it focuses on artisans rather than merchants.
In doing so, it will implicitly address the issue of Egypt’s passage to modernity and ask if artisans had a role in this process. A dominant trend in scholarship has tended to associate modernity with reforming rulers, with colonialist policies or with Europeanized elites in the nineteenth century. We propose to attempt to find some answers to this question by looking both back in time to the eighteenth century and earlier, and lower down in the social strata to artisans involved in production. This is not a claim to give artisans the exclusive role or an attempt to exclude any other group from this process. The members of the military ruling class as well as merchants were important actors in some of the transformations of the period. Rather, we ask where to place artisans in this process, to find out if they may have shaped the way Egypt entered the nineteenth century or the direction it may have taken. One needs to look for the impact from below, for the social forces that may have helped to either bring about some of these changes or influenced the direction that they took. This kind of question has the aim of trying to integrate artisans in some of the broader historical trends of the period, such as the intensification of world trade currents; and in some of the regional trends, like the changing balance of power between the core and the periphery of the Ottoman Empire.
The study aims to explore those that have not had enough visibility in historical studies, and to give them agency; in other words to incorporate them in history. Rather than only study artisans as part of a traditional society or traditional economy, the study explores alternative channels. It asks, for instance, if one can perceive them as actors within local, regional and world history and in the context of historical processes; if and how artisans may have had a role, influenced trends or had an impact on these processes, if and how they were affected, or they were part of, the changes between 1600 and 1800, if in other words they were part of the historical process.
From Chapter Three:
Jalfi’s life story, which can be followed for some forty years in court records, shows how his father started as an artisan; how his own activities overlapped three economic spheres, oil-production, trade, and tax-collection. Finally, his life also illustrates another important dimension, notably the way that his economic activity had an impact on his close family, his kin, and his extended family, and the other way round, how family was used to reach certain economic goals. Thus the intermingling of economy, culture, and society, of his private life, his work life, all these combine to show us how the different aspects are connected to each other and the importance of considering not only the economy but also its relation to the other dimensions. In addition to this, the life trajectory shows that, in spite of his dramatic rise in status and wealth, Jalfi remained closely linked to his guild and was guild head for many years. In other words, the various economic spheres were combined.
The combination of the various modes is what constitutes the most interesting aspect of this mobility, precisely because it has an element of hybridity. At the time that Ahmad al-Jalfi died, what appears from reading the details of his inheritance is a person that one could place in the category of merchants. At the level of his patterns of work, of marriage, and so on, the interpenetration of more than one mode becomes apparent. If one includes in the picture not only Ahmad al-Jalfi the individual but also his family, nuclear and extended, as well as his mamluks, the people who worked for him, in short his circle or milieu, the combination of various modes is also obvious: artisan mode, slave or mamluk modes, capitalist mode. The way marriage alliances could be used as tool to further economic ends can also be shown. The marriage of his daughters into mamluk circles, notably to his own mamluks who rose in rank in the regiments, is one example of the way political alliances consolidated economic achievements.
As we follow the family over a number of decades, his children, his mamluks, who worked in the oil-press and who married his daughters, we find that part of the family were artisans and the other part belonged to the mamluk set-up while others still had a foot in both worlds, the world of artisans and the world of military mamluks. We can consequently explore the impact of these diverse modes on the lives of the different Jalfis. His life trajectory not only illustrates the way he moved between different economic spheres, but his family and personal life as well reflected the different combination of styles and modes.
The Jalfis thus absorbed two cultures, mamluk and indigenous, and two economies, an artisan economy, an entrepreneurial economy and a ruling class economy which was based more on tax grants, that is, on the obtention of iltizams. Moreover, the Jalfis, through their leadership of the guild of masaranis, were able to bring under their own hierarchy some other auxiliary guilds. Through the years that one can follow members of the Jalfi family in the court records, the mobility touched not only a rise up the social and military scale; it touched on other aspects of his life as he moved from artisanal production to commerce to tax grants; and through this emerges the interpenetration of civilian and military; of slave and free.
 Donald Quataert, “Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c. 1700-1922,” International Labor and Working Class History 60 (Fall 2001): 93-109.
 James Reilly, “Damascus Merchants and Trade in the Transition to Capitalism,” Canadian Journal of History 27 (April 1992): 1-27; Faruk Tabaq, “Local Merchants in Peripheral Areas of the Empire: The Fertile Crescent During the Long Nineteenth Century,” Review 11 (1988): 179-214.
[Excerpted from Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early Modern Capitalism (1600–1800), by Nelly Hanna, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2011 by Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]