Contemporary Literature, Culture and Cinema of Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey

Issue 4.1: October 2014


Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire by Mehrdad Kia

Pamela Barber

Kia, Mehrdad. Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011. 294 pp. 


To describe daily life in the Ottoman Empire in a single text is a daunting task. Ottoman rule spanned many centuries, from the end of the thirteenth century to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, following World War I. During the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire extended throughout much of the Middle East, including North Africa and the Balkans, and the proximity of its armies was watched with apprehension by the states of Eastern Europe. In Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire, Mehrdad Kia points out the considerable cultural diversity that fell under Ottoman rule and provides a vibrant picture of the Turkish culture in Istanbul at the political centre of the Empire. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from accounts of travellers from past centuries to contemporary historians, Kia depicts various aspects of Ottoman society in a clear and non-polemical manner that allows readers to form their own impressions. Kia’s text is of value to the student of the Ottoman Empire and, more generally, of history relating to the Middle East. Commonly used Turkish terms, with their equivalents in Arabic, are introduced in context. Kia’s text may also serve as a broad and approachable resource for modern travellers, interested in the rich and complex cultural histories of the regions that were once under Ottoman rule.


The organization of Kia’s text assists the reader by first setting out the historical, political, and religious context of the Ottoman Empire and then discussing many aspects of life in such contexts in more detail. Kia begins by providing the reader with a historical overview of the significant events and succession of sultans across the centuries of Ottoman rule, explaining the ongoing and complicated interactions between the Ottomans and the various states of Europe and Asia. He points out, for example, the complex and continually changing diplomatic relations between Britain and the Sublime Porte during the late eighteenth century, when the Ottomans faced a war with Russia and the French invasion of Egypt under Napoleon. Kia then discusses the structures of political authority within the Empire, examining the powers of the sultan, the grand vizier, the officials of the palace, the janissaries, and the military governors (sancak beys) of the various provinces. Kia next considers structures of religious authority and the coexistence of various religious communities throughout the Ottoman Empire, pointing out that “ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity and heterogeneity constituted the most basic characteristic of the state” (xiv). Kia describes the social topographies of urban centres such as Istanbul, which mirrored the many relatively self-contained communities (millets) within the Empire. He goes on to provide some background on Islamic beliefs, describing the customs practised during important festivities. Kia discusses the roles of scholars of the religious establishment (ulema), pointing out that religious judges (kadis) were responsible throughout the Empire for the administration of Islamic law (┼čeriat) as well as the laws issued by the sultan (kanun). Kia then explains the mystical brotherhoods of the Sufis. While Western readers may have heard of whirling dervishes, at whose ceremonies present-day travellers may still have the opportunity to be spectators, they may not be aware of the considerable influence that Sufi brotherhoods exerted upon Ottoman society throughout past centuries.


Kia then turns his attention to domestic matters and some of the preoccupations of everyday life. He discusses the rituals involved in important family events, such as marriages and births, both in the palace and among more poor rural Ottoman subjects. He describes, for example, the elaborate schedules and procedures that were followed in order to protect a new mother and her infant from the “evil eye” (209). Furthermore, Kia presents the typical diet of various classes of the Ottoman society and discusses the history of coffee, tobacco, wine, and opium consumption throughout the empire. He notes the Ottoman pride in equestrian skills, which were honed in sports that contributed to military training.


The stereotyping in Western perceptions of Eastern cultures has, of course, been the subject of much scholarly discussion. In Orientalism, Edward Said has argued that Western representations of cultures of the Near East have often included generalizations based on a common set of exoticized images and European self-perceptions, rather than realistic depictions of the actual diversity of those cultures. Kia states that his text “is designed to provide the general reader with a series of selective representations of daily life in the Ottoman Empire” (xiv). He does not explicitly indicate aims of either dismantling misperceptions or exploring notions of Orientalism in relation to Western representations of Ottoman societies. Nonetheless, Kia’s careful inclusion of details about Ottoman customs in his text assists in countering the lack of familiarity and knowledge that may abet Western generalizations about the Ottoman Empire. The position of women in Ottoman societies, for example, was a topic of much interest in European representations. Kia states, “No other subject aroused more controversy and discussion among Western visitors to the Ottoman Empire than the status of women, particularly the concept of the harem and the custom of veiling” (214). He confirms that, indeed, “[s]egregation between the sexes was observed at all times” (216), with women typically having almost no interaction with men aside from their husbands and male relatives. At the same time, Kia points out aspects of Ottoman life that may be contrary to stereotypical belief. Kia notes that outside the royal harem, polygamy was not at all common in Ottoman societies. Moreover, he relates that arranged marriages could be instigated by love and a young man’s request to his mother to initiate such negotiations. Kia suggests that a significant degree of influence could in some cases be exerted by women of the royal harem, such as the mother of the sultan. He notes that, under Islamic law, women held control of their own property. Additionally, Kia points out the importance of the labour of women in the economic survival of rural communities, through their work in the fields and caring for animals or in their production of carpets, embroidery, and lace. 


The epigraph to Kia’s text seems to suggest that one of Kia’s goals is to provide a fuller picture of Ottoman societies than is commonly found in Western representations. Kia quotes Julia Pardoe, an early nineteenth-century traveller to Ottoman lands:

The European mind has become so imbued with ideas of Oriental mysteriousness, mysticism, and magnificence, and it has been so long accustomed to pillow its faith on the marvels and metaphors of tourists, that it is to be doubted whether it will willingly cast off its old associations, and suffer itself to be undeceived. (vii)

At the same time, the details of everyday life, observed by travellers, comprise an essential source of information in Kia’s construction of Ottoman cultural history. Along with Pardoe, Kia frequently references other European travellers, such as the eighteenth-century British traveller Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who accompanied her husband during his appointment as an ambassador to Turkey. In addition to diplomats, European merchants travelled in Ottoman lands throughout the centuries. In discussing the history of the coffee trade, Kia provides one example of the global commerce that was carried on from very early times, making possible the social as well as economic interaction that is recorded in many travel accounts. Before the development of coffee plantations in the West Indies would pose significant competition to Ottoman control of the coffee trade, “European merchants purchased Yemeni coffee in Cairo, where the trade reached its zenith in the late 17th and early 18th centuries” (238). William H. Bartlett’s engravings of early nineteenth-century Istanbul, as well as the other drawings, paintings, and photographs, incorporated within Kia’s text, are a valuable supplement to Kia’s discussions of Ottoman culture. Kia frequently cites travellers and historians from Eastern cultures, including, for example, the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi and historian Ibrahim Peçevi, both of whom lived in the seventeenth century.


Orhan Pamuk, an acclaimed contemporary Turkish writer, discusses in his memoir of life in Istanbul the problematic appeal of Western representations of Eastern societies. Pamuk notes that certain aspects of Turkish culture were typically found in the depictions of the city provided by European travellers of past centuries: “Dervish lodges, fires, the beauty of cemeteries, the palace and its harem, the beggars, the packs of roaming dogs, the prohibitions against drinking, the seclusion of women, the city’s sense of mystery, the Bosphorus tour, and the beauty of the skyline—these things gave the city its exotic allure” (237). Nonetheless, Pamuk suggests that as the Ottoman past begins, over the distance of time, to appear exotic even to citizens of Istanbul today, Western representations of the city during earlier centuries offer an interesting source of written observations and visual images that assist in imagining features of Turkish society that have disappeared. Kia’s use of the accounts of European travellers as a source of information reflects this complex relationship between documentation and fantasy and underlines the role of selectivity in travellers’ use of their impressions in the construction of cultural history.


To provide a reader with a sense of everyday life in an empire that extended over a vast area and several centuries, many choices of selection must necessarily be made. Kia states that it was beyond the scope of his text “to include the social and cultural history of all the ethnic and linguistic communities who lived and worked as the subjects of the sultan and analyze the profound changes that the Ottoman society experienced throughout the six hundred years of its existence” (xiv). Kia focuses primarily on the customs of Muslim societies in Turkey. The changes in life that accompanied the modernization processes that occurred during the final century of Ottoman rule are considered only very briefly in his text, and the rich artistic practices and traditions of the non-Turkish cultures under Ottoman rule receive little attention. Nonetheless, Kia’s text provides a broad overview of the history and the political and religious structures of the Ottoman Empire as well as a fascinating selection of details of various scenes in Ottoman societies. Kia’s depictions of many aspects of everyday life provide an interesting and useful addition to current scholarship relating to the Ottoman Empire.  Within the scope of a single text, Kia has presented a rich picture of life in the Ottoman Empire that may be greatly appreciated by the scholar, the traveller, and any other reader with curiosity about the extensive influence of Ottoman culture.


Works Cited


Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul: Memories and the City. Trans. Maureen Freely. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.



Pamela Barber is currently a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. In her dissertation, she is examining the reflections and interconnections found between historical writing and travellers’ representations of the cultures of the Near East and India during the late eighteenth century.


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