Ottoman Mediterranean Cities

A review of Les Sabbatéens saloniciens (1845-1912): des individus pluriels dans une société urbaine en transition (Salonican Sabbatians (1845-1912): plural individuals in an urban society in transition), by Dilek Akyalçın Kaya.

Dilek Akyalçın Kaya’s work consists of a finely wrought intricacy of urban and socioeconomic history. It relies on a remarkable array of Ottoman archival documents of various sorts combined with printed sources, all submitted to a meticulous analysis. The result is an inventive contribution to the history of Ottoman Mediterranean cities and of their 19th-century transformations (by now a colossal field of study). Simultaneously, a distinguishing feature of Akyalçın Kaya’s work is her consistent case for micro-analysis, which makes it crucial to larger debates on the conceptual nomenclatures that frame scholarship in Middle Eastern studies.

The dissertation’s title nicely conveys the complexity of its topic, which interlaces two simultaneous lines of inquiry: one is about Sabbateans (that is, descendants of the Ottoman Jewish followers of Sabbatai Zevi, who had converted to Islam when their Messiah turned Muslim in 1666); the other focuses on Salonicans. For each, Akyalçın Kaya pursues what she calls a “vertical” analysis (exploring diachronic continuity and change over three generations) and a “horizontal” one (highlighting the diversity of social life at the turn of the 20th century) (p. 311). Out of the five chapters which the dissertation comprises, all combine these threads of analysis in various proportions: chapters 1 and 2 are more of the Salonican kind; chapters 3 and 4 retrace the Sabbatean connection; chapter 5 recombines it all into a synoptic picture that focuses on the late-19th-century Salonican-cum-Sabbatean beau monde.

Inasmuch as the work looks for Sabbateans in Salonica (and at times elsewhere in the Ottoman realms), some may expect it to look into Sabbateanism, i.e. to base its analysis on traits of religious culture and communal solidarity. Which it quite decidedly and voluntarily does not (p. 29). Akyalçın Kaya’s take on the topic is that the notion of a Sabbatean “community” cannot but remain highly problematic. One of her main conclusions is that it is impossible to speak of a Sabbatean group whose members would behave in a similar fashion (p. 265). On this account she sets out to understand them as members of a larger social, cultural and economic fabric, marked by inner plurality and diversity. The premises and implications of such a claim come out very clearly in the dissertation’s introduction: tracing individual trajectories and interactions is deemed more fruitful than an approach premised on the idea of an homogeneous group (pp. 22, 31).

Looking for Sabbateans nonetheless involves a lot of a detective work: in Akyalçın Kaya’s expression, it implies to “find the unfindable” (p. 20). Other works on “converts,” such as Marc David Baer’s, opted for oral history as a means of locating living protagonists and thus of better tracing their ancestry back into the 19th century (see The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslims Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010, e.g. p. xii). By contrast, Akyalçın Kaya decided to limit herself to documents produced during the period under study: fiscal or cadastral surveys, petitions, official records and correspondence, court registers, Ottoman almanacs, local newspapers, and a manuscript (the Esadnâme) held at the Süleymaniye library, along with an inventory of Sabbatean tombstones at the Bülbülderesi cemetery in Istanbul (a document shared with the author by Lucette Valensi)—all provide the primary material for her study. She thus manages to list 98 individuals (annex 9) and to retrace genealogical links for 14 key families (annex 3), with a view to focusing on “the Sabbateans’ economic and social forces” at the time (pp. 30–1).

In so doing Akyalçın Kaya strives to make the most of the idea that “[their] identity was an open, if not openly recorded, secret” (Baer p. xii, here quoted p. 23 n. 32): more often than not, she goes as far as arguing, Sabbateans actually had “visibility on the ‘public’ scene,” which leaves us with more numerous traces of their activities than is usually presumed (p. 14). This is what chapter five, “The urban life of Sabbateans,” most clearly corroborates: it highlights the Sabbateans’ experience of the city’s spatial mobility (with the advent of the newly built Hamidiye neighbourhood outside the city walls), their investment in conspicuous urban buildings, and their participation in the eventful social life of Salonican “high society.” In sum, it stresses how “a sentiment of responsibility vis-à-vis the city” developed amongst Sabbateans qua Salonicans (p. 308).

The two previous chapters (3 and 4) flesh out the idea behind this late-19th-century final tableau, namely that Salonican Sabbateans shared in a “diversity of lived experience,” whose richness could not be discerned through an exclusively religious lens (pp. 32–33). Retracing the patterns of change and continuity over three generations in 14 Sabbatean families, Akyalçın Kaya details their role in the city, be it as landowners (a social profile seldom associated to them), traders and bankers, or civil servants. Deciding not to subsume the course of events into an unmistakable rise of a “bourgeoisie” (p. 30), she highlights the various ways in which Sabbateans, like other Salonicans, took part in urban elites (p. 200), either through economic prosperity or through adhesion to European ideas (p. 204). In an in-depth analysis of three entrepreneurial initiatives taken by Sabbateans at the end of the century (the launching of a mining company; the drainage of marshlands in an area involving the Gazi Evrenoszade pious foundation; the opening of a fez factory), she reiterates her methodological commitment: “relationships only make sense in the context of their establishment,” which implies that shared religious references, important though they may be, did not always take center stage in the forming of alliances: professional or relational factors could matter more (pp. 259–261). All in all, the “economic bonds” of Sabbateans made for a dense network of relationships between them and others, be they Muslims or Jews (p. 216).

Still, Akyalçın Kaya’s search for Sabbatean-Salonican “diversity” does not confine itself to urban elites: the dissertation’s first two chapters, in particular, offer a picture of the city and its transformations that encompasses other social tiers. In keeping with the author’s working hypothesis, this general picture leaves the Sabbateans almost invisible as such. As a matter of fact, only 9 individuals could be identified for sure as Sabbateans in the 1844–1845 Ottoman revenue surveys (temettuat defterleri) for the city, which Akyalçın Kaya draws upon in detail when dealing with “mid-19th-century Salonica” (chapter 1). Small as it may be, this sample in itself testifies to the professional and socioeconomic diversity of Sabbateans (pp. 103, 311–312). Of all the others, unidentifiable though they may remain, we know they are listed there, as surely as we know that Sabbateans were part of urban society (p. 31). From her minute analysis of the revenue surveys Akyalçın Kaya is thus able to draw conclusions that may be considered relevant to Sabbateans in particular as they are to Salonicans in general: namely, that revenue variation did not entail clear-cut spatial differentiation (p. 98); that ethnic division of labor was no rule (p. 102); that whenever segregation became manifest, it followed economic and social patterns rather than ethnic or religious ones (pp. 154, 157).

Akyalçın Kaya’s analysis of mid-19th-century Ottoman revenue surveys quite effectively allows to sketch hierarchies between groups, while taking into consideration differences amongst individuals within the same presumed group (p. 103). Comparison with source materials from the later decades of the period under study (chapter 2) supplements this approach with an analysis of diverse upward mobility processes, as they occurred over the second half of the 19th century (p. 158). Exemplary in this regard is the author’s treatment of the founding and reforming of Sabbatean schools in Salonica: drawing on the registers of career records (sicil-i ahvâl defterleri) created for Ottoman civil servants under sultan Abdülhamid II’s reign, she manages to trace the paths of social mobility of some 55 students who graduated from the Salonica Sabbatean schools (pp. 141 sqq.). As she stresses, “nothing allows us to declare that these graduates were all of Sabbatean origin, and we should not consider them as such; yet their schooling and professional dispositions may help better understand the Sabbatean founders of the schools and their views as to what the training and professional needs of students were supposed to be” (p. 142). This further testifies to the author’s inventive use of sources, and to the open-ended character of her search for “the Sabbateans’ worlds” (p. 27).

Clearly then, Akyalçın Kaya’s look at Salonican Sabbateans is no quest for a “community,” be it defined as a specific religious synthesis or as a tendency to group endogamy. While both these traits have oftentimes been perceived by scholars as characteristics of a closed and secret communal life (pp. 12, 21), the present work aligns itself with revisionist approaches to the historiography of Ottoman communities (as could be found in Paul Dumont and François Georgeon’s (eds.) Vivre dans l’Empire Οttoman, Paris-Montréal: L’Harmattan, 1997) or in Ayşe Özil’s recently published dissertation Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Empire, New York: Routledge, 2012) in its commitment to understand interactions between individual identities and communal forms of social life (pp. 13, 21). By questioning the presumed homogeneity of the Sabbateans as a group and their singularity vis-à-vis other Salonicans (p. 32), it crucially stresses that “individuals make choices that are not solely determined by ethnic and/or religious belonging. When analyzing their trajectories, we need to take other criteria into consideration, that are both more personal (economic position and family status) and more general (the course of economic and social developments)” (p. 213). Akyalçın Kaya consistently advocates opting for a delicate blend of micro-and macro-analysis, rather than a univocal group theory, when dealing with Ottoman ethnic or religious diversity. On this account her work nicely contributes to enlivening analytical debates on how to factor “communities” into our understanding of the complex Middle Eastern societies.

Marc Aymes
Centre d’Études Turques, Ottomanes, Balkaniques et Centrasiatiques
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Primary Sources

Alliance Israélite Universelle, Paris
Macedonian Historical Archives, Thessaloniki
Prime Ministry’s Ottoman Archive (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi – BOA), Istanbul
Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul
Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslam Araştırmaları Merkezi, Istanbul

Dissertation Information

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. 2013. 382 pp. Dissertation originally written in French. Primary Advisor: Maurice Kriegel.

Image: “Map of Province of Salonica.” Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives, HRT.h 325.

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