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The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem.

The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem, by Amnon Cohen. Leiden, Boston, and Koln: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001, 305pp., $86.

A non-specialist reader's first reaction on perusing The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem would most probably be, guilds? Ottoman Jerusalem? Some readers, including this one, would even wonder if they knew what the word "guild" means in the context of Jerusalem of two or even three centuries ago.

More, and greater, surprises are in store for our reader. Here is a small town, with a population in 1800 of approximately 9,000, catering to a little less than a hundred guilds. Even a very partial listing of these guilds, and the great variety of professions, crafts, and trades they include, would be difficult to give in a short review. To give the reader just an idea, here are the names of some of them, classified according to the trade or professions to which they belong:

* Ten guilds were in the category of municipal services, among them tourist guides, water carriers, bathhouse janitors, undertakers and diggers, physicians, beauticians, and washers of the dead.

* In food and drink, there were six professions: Butchers, slaughterers, bread suppliers, extractors of sesame oil, sweetmeat producers, and coffee sellers.

* The four guilds in leather goods included shoemakers, tanners, cobblers, and makers of waterskins.

* Among the five professions of metal works are gold- and silversmiths, blacksmiths, swordmakers, and coppersmiths.

* Textile production's nine guilds included weavers, dyers, bleachers, tailors, cloth printers, and goat-hair weavers.

* The eight guilds in trades included grocers, greengrocers, soap merchants, booksellers and bookbinders, brokers, and public criers.

* And there were guilds of carpenters, builders, and potters.

As a fundamentally urban institution that fitted most naturally into a society that was predominantly urban, the Muslim guilds have rightly been described as reasonably autonomous organizations that defended their interests against members of other guilds, workers outside the guilds, and merchants. As such, these guilds, which in Ottoman Jerusalem numbered a little less than a hundred, were carefully registered in court and approved by a kadi (shar'i judge).

Complaints against unqualified competitors or involving other inter-and intra-guild disputes were brought before the kadi and judgment duly passed and recorded. The 19 documents reproduced here, accompanied by parallel printed Arabic texts as well as English translations, are mostly records of cases of disputes and complaints taken to the kadi, as well as texts of verdicts passed.

Very little has been written on the subject of guilds and the guild system in the Ottoman Empire, and next to nothing about guilds in Ottoman Jerusalem. The history, function, and organization of these guilds during that period were seldom the subject of serious academic research even by Israelis. After the Six-Day War of 1967, however, accessibility to the archives of the shar'i courts became relatively easy, and Professor Amnon Cohen took the challenge and conducted the vast amount of research whose fruits are given in The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem.

It was not an easy undertaking, and the question of interpretation and appraisal even more problematic. The aggregate number of identified members of the guild system of Jerusalem in any year of the period under review in this book is roughly 900. If we bear in mind that the city's population numbered less than 10,000, this figure, to quote Professor Cohen, "indicates a surprisingly large percentage of economically active inhabitants."

There have, of course, been a number of different approaches to the subject of Ottoman guilds. Historians generally agree that guilds are an integral aspect of Mamluk and Ottoman realities, and that the guilds were an urban institution that fit naturally into the fabric of a society that all students of the subject view as a predominantly urban one. They had sharp differences, however, when it came to interpretation.

The author here gives a brief survey of these positions. One theory expounded by some Orientalists, namely, that the guilds were in large measure organizations established by the central government to supervise and tax craftsmen, is rejected by Professor Cohen. He asserts, in contrast, that these guilds were in fact "harbingers of civil society," in that in the guild system, there were important elements of autonomy that "bordered on independence."

The guilds, in fact, were never regarded as part of the administration, and none of their members received a salary or was granted a lease. Istanbul, according to the author, was very seldom involved in the appointment of a guild head. Moreover, there was no price-fixing mechanism dictated from Istanbul or from Damascus, the provincial capital.

The conclusion Professor Cohen reaches is that by nature the guild system was "a combination of elements reflecting two contradictory concepts," in that they were "a mirror of the prevalent situation wherein government considerations and those of the local society were both involved."

Thus, located as they were between the omnipotence of the administration and the total subordination of the population, they may best be regarded as a phenomenon similar to, or a precursor of, civil society as the modern world has come to know it."

N.B. ARGAMAN is a writer who lives in Jerusalem.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Argaman, N. B.
Publication:Midstream
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Words:848
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