A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo

Wakala Oda Basha
The Wakālat Oda Başa, built in 1673 by an Ottoman Chief White Eunuch and now, so far as I can determine, no longer extant, but depicted here as it existed in the 1830s, displaying the spatial configuration and use of an Ottoman wakāla (also voweled wikāla) akin to that in the biographical entry below, with vendors active on the ground floor, storage directly above. (Pascal Coste, Architecture arabe; ou, Monuments du Kaire, mesurés et dessinés, de 1818 à 1826, Typ. de Firmin Didot frères et compagnie, 1839: Volume II plate XLIV.)

The following short biography is taken from the famed chronicle- which is also a biographical dictionary- of the Ottoman Egyptian scholar al-Jabartī (1753-1825), best-known for his accounts of the French invasion and occupation of Egypt under Napoleon. His chronicle contains numerous fascinating slices of every-day life in the late eighteenth century, such as this entry concerning a person of middling estate (which he made up for, as we will see, in other types of ‘capital’):

Ismā’īl Efendī ibn Khalīl… known as al-Ẓuhūrī al-Miṣrī al-Ḥanafī al-Muktib died. He was a good person, satisfied with his lot in life, who earned his living through book-copying and fineness of calligraphy which he had improved in and reached perfection under the tutelage of ‘Alī Aḥmad Efendī al-Shukrī. He wrote with his fine handwriting numerous books (kutub), copies of al-Saba’a al-munjiyyāt [seven selected Qu’ran suras with reputed prophylactic power], Dalā’il al-khayrāt, and full copies of the Qur’an. He also had a storehouse wherein he sold coffee beans, located in the caravanersai of greens (wikālat al-baql) close to the Khalīlī Khan. He was also very knowledgeable in the science of music, melody, the playing of the ‘ūd, and the composition of poetry, having composed madā’iḥ, qaṣā’id, and muwashshaḥāt.[1] He died, God be merciful to him, in 1211/1796.[2]

The picture that emerges from this brief life is of a man who deliberately cultivated a wide range of skills and forms of cultural expertise, while also participating in the flourishing marketplace of goods and commodities. His enterprises were such that they could overlap: selling coffee beans at the scale suggested here would have only occupied so much time, Ismā’īl otherwise working at what al-Jabartī presents as his primary trade, that of a copyist. Despite sporadic in-roads of moveable print in the eighteenth century Ottoman world, manuscript production remained dominant, with men like Ismā’īl turning out often prodigious numbers of texts for an expanded market compared to earlier periods. His specified repertoire consists of works that households with few other texts might very well have owned, either for reading and recitation or simply for their role as potent conveyors of baraka (and, secondarily perhaps, markers of cultural prestige). It is striking that, like several other copyists profiled by al-Jabartī, the Dalā’il al-khayrāt is given as part of Ismā’īl’s calling card, a text of such popularity that it could form a stable item all of its own regardless of individual customer commissions.

Besides having his finger on the pulse, as it were, of Ottoman devotional culture, Ismā’īl also made money off of other cultural preoccupations of the early modern Ottoman world, most notably the era’s (licit) beverage of choice, coffee. Not unlike many other entrepreneurs of middling means, Ismā’īl traded in coffee beans, which could be stored relatively easily, holding their value well. He was also proficient, we learn, in the sorts of arts that one might encounter in the coffee houses that no doubt purchased some of Ismā’īl’s stock. Coffee houses could be heard from a distance as well as seen and smelled, as they frequently hosted musicians, singers, storytellers, reciters, and poets, almost all of which roles Ismā’īl could have filled or contributed to in his various capacities.

In short, Ismā’īl Efendī stands as a fine representative of Ottoman urban early modernity. Not only that, but in a good example of the closeness of Ottoman early modernity to that of other parts of the world, Ismā’īl could have probably plied his living in almost any early modern city in the world (provided he spent some time learning local languages and customs, of course). This was an age of mass-market (at least compared to the medieval age) books, whether they were produced by small-scale moveable metal type printers in Europe, marketplace copyists in the Islamicate world, or woodblock printing houses in Tokugawa Japan. And it was an age of urban sociability, with coffee the unifying beverage across Western Eurasia and into the Americas, music and literature and all manner of knowledge and political ideas fermenting in the thriving social spaces that sprang up in cities and towns across the world. People like Ismā’īl- who, in another marker of early modernity, begin to show up in the records with greater frequency- were crucial in this social, cultural, and material prodigiousness, their ingenuity, labor, and social maneuvering the raw stuff that built the early modern world, and, by extension, the world in which we now live.

The opening to an Ottoman Syrian (probably) copy of Dalā’il al-khayrāt, perhaps not too far in style from those produced by Ismā’īl Efendī- as was probably the case with much of his production, this copy was once part of a family library, albeit an exceptionally well-stocked one. (University Library of Leipzig, Vollers 200)


[1] These are different types of Arabic poetry; the first can be translated as ‘praise poetry’ or encomium, while the other two have no ready English translation.

[2] ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Jabartī, ʻAjāyib al-āthār fī al-tarājim wa-al-akhbār, ed. by Ibrāhīm Shams al-Dīn (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʻIlmīyah, 2010), 123-124.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Support this blog, if you’d like. But mostly, just keep reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s