Empire of Salons: Conquest and Community in Early Modern Ottoman Lands

A history of the Ottoman incorporation of Arab lands that shows how gentlemanly salons shaped culture, society, and governance


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Mar 29, 2022
18 b/w illus.
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Historians have typically linked Ottoman imperial cohesion in the sixteenth century to the bureaucracy or the sultan’s court. In Empire of Salons, Helen Pfeifer points instead to a critical but overlooked factor: gentlemanly salons. Pfeifer demonstrates that salons—exclusive assemblies in which elite men displayed their knowledge and status—contributed as much as any formal institution to the empire’s political stability. These key laboratories of Ottoman culture, society, and politics helped men to build relationships and exchange ideas across the far-flung Ottoman lands. Pfeifer shows that salons played a central role in Syria and Egypt’s integration into the empire after the conquest of 1516–17.

Pfeifer anchors her narrative in the life and network of the star scholar of sixteenth-century Damascus, Badr al-Din al-Ghazzi (d. 1577), and she reveals that Arab elites were more influential within the empire than previously recognized. Their local knowledge and scholarly expertise competed with, and occasionally even outshone, that of the most powerful officials from Istanbul. Ultimately, Ottoman culture of the era was forged collaboratively, by Arab and Turkophone actors alike.

Drawing on a range of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish sources, Empire of Salons illustrates the extent to which magnificent gatherings of Ottoman gentlemen contributed to the culture and governance of empire.