“Empire of Salons: Conquest and Community in Early Modern Ottoman Lands” by Helen Pfeifer


Visitors from the Arab world flock to Istanbul today, enjoying the city’s cosmopolitan vibe alongside its comfortingly familiar culinary and architectural riches. Turkey’s accelerating pivot towards the Arab world has renewed old connections. Ottoman Sultan Selim the “Grim” conquered Syria and Egypt in 1517. For the next 400 years, Arabs frequented Istanbul as loyal Ottoman subjects. Helen Pfeifer’s Empire of Salons examines the first century of encounter between the Arabs and their rulers. It addresses the question of how the Ottomans managed to integrate the proud, ancient centers of Arabic civilization that were Damascus and Cairo. 

Pfeifer tells her story by weaving together the extensive biographies and memoirs of the learned people who lived at the time of the Ottoman conquest.  Judges, tax collectors, theologians or Sufi elders, they traveled back and forth between Istanbul and Damascus or Cairo, attended audiences with the sultans, and participated enthusiastically in literary activities. If one is to understand the attitudes of the Turks and Arabs towards one another, and towards the Empire, these biographies are a good place to start.


 Empire of Salons: Conquest and Community in Early Modern Ottoman Lands, Helen Pfeifer (Princeton University Press, March 2022)
Empire of Salons: Conquest and Community in Early Modern Ottoman Lands, Helen Pfeifer (Princeton University Press, March 2022)

Integrating the Arab and Turkish elites may sound like a false problem, if one thinks of the cosmopolitan nature of the Islamic lands in this era before modern nationalism. Tangiers-born jurist Ibn Battuta famously traveled as far as India, successfully practicing law along the way. The Sufi poet Jalaluddin from Balkh in today’s Afghanistan moved to Konya in Turkey, where he became known as Rumi. (“Rumi”, Pfeifer reminds us, refers to inhabitants of the Eastern Roman Empire, Anatolia and the Balkans, the core of the Ottoman state). Integrating entire elites, though, is a different problem compared to hiring talented individuals (and newly Islamicized India and Rum had more need for talent, as Pfeifer explains, than the Arabic-speaking lands). Damascus and Cairo had their own, storied circles of patronage and friendship. Istanbul’s circles were like start-ups. It was not obvious that these circles could merge.

These circles, moreover, had subtle but significant differences. The Rumis followed the legal school of Ibn Hanbal, the Arabs that of Al-Shafa’i, rather like courts practicing either British or American law. As for belles lettres, the Rumis enjoyed Persian literary classics like the Shahnameh and Khosrow Shirin. Indeed, contemporary Ottoman poetry explicitly imitated these Persian texts. The Arabs had their own, rich literary traditions. Their religious colleges and mosques boasted of magnificent libraries, dwarfing even the sultan’s collections. In their production of school books and qualified teachers, Cairo and Damascus were the Ivy League of that age. Although the Rumi elite necessarily learned to read and speak Arabic, they rarely reached the level of erudition required to appreciate classical Arabic poetry, let alone produce it.

This posed a problem in a society that prized one’s ability to interject a bon mot or to extemporize a bit of poetry. The native Arabic speakers looked down on the Rumis for their frequent grammatical or lexical lapses, and even made fun of them in public. One is reminded of the cliquishness of the Italians in the Papal Curia vis-a-vis the foreign cardinals. Given the importance of interpreting the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, the Arabs enjoyed a monopoly of excellence and authority in this age.

These gatherings functioned a little bit like Britain’s “Got Talent”, a bit like Davos.

Yet, as Pfeifer tells it, the Rumis and the Arabs did manage to forge a modus vivendi, and to work together to govern the sprawling Ottoman dominions. A number of factors facilitated this cooperation. Both parties shared an enthusiasm for literature and poetry, despite the performative advantage of the Arabs. Often both sides belonged to the same Sufi lodges, which functioned socially like Masonic Lodges with which later European visitors often compared them.

Pfeifer identifies as the main vehicle for this socialization the informal gatherings, the salons of the title, in Arabic, majlis  Depending on their social standing, Rumis and Arabs held majlis in mosques, in coffee shops, Sufi shrines, garden pavilions or reception rooms in urban mansions. Here they drank wine, smoked hashish, exchanged gossip, recited poetry, explored fine points of philology, investigated the authenticity of legal traditions. These gatherings functioned a little bit like Britain’s “Got Talent”, a bit like Davos. As in any gathering of alpha males, tensions rose over seating protocol. Turbans grew bigger in attempts to assert dominance. Competition was real though, as those who shined in the majlis often were rewarded with important legal or cultic positions.

Who received invitations to these assemblies determined the real power structure in the city. If a man had many supporters in the majlis, then one had to be careful not to attack him. In the autocratic system of the Ottomans, the majlis provided the court of public opinion, and guided and tempered the whims of the governors appointed the distant Sublime Porte. Pfeifer makes a convincing case that the majlis gave the Rumi carpetbaggers a feel for local politics, and enabled them to govern effectively.

The utility of the majlis went beyond greasing the wheels of governance. They functioned partly as book clubs, partly as book launching ceremonies. Pfeifer attributes the flourishing of 16th-century Ottoman culture to the cross-fertilization of the Arabs and Rumis in these majlis.


All good things come to an end. The Rumis learned well their lessons  from the Arabs, like the Americans from the English, to the point where they considered themselves equal or superior to their teachers. By the 17th century the Arab elite wondered if they were not second class citizens of the empire, but it would take another couple of centuries before they began to see their destiny as outside of the Ottoman state.

Pfeifer’s painstaking analysis of the personalities and careers of her protagonists brings to life the power brokers, the holy men and the social climbers. Their urbane figures peeping out from under the staggeringly heavy turbans, shown in this book’s many illustrations, end up striking us as familiars, friends even. Backed up by a persuasive bibliography of published and unpublished sources, Empire of Salons presents a definitive picture of this age.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.