The Orient in eighteenth-century Vienna

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By David Do Paco

MW Fellow David Do Paco (HEC just published with the prestigious Voltaire Foundation in Oxford L’Orient à Vienne au dix-huitième siècle f. Here is a brief presentation of his work

In 1780, the well-known publicist and publisher from Berlin, Friedrich Nicolai, noticed that in the Viennese suburb called Leopoldstadt:

‘one meets many Turkish men. They live in the City around the Fleischmarkt, where they also have warehouses for their goods. However, they come here in part for business, and in part because the nearby bridge conveniently has a coffeehouse. It looks eccentric that some go dressed half Turkish and half German’.

The eccentricity in the eye of the Prussian traveller meets the surprise that we sometimes express in the face of the religious and cultural diversity of the early modern metropolis, and this in turn questions deeply a present world obsessed by its cultural identities. Although we tend to reify otherness, studying the Ottoman population in eighteenth-century Vienna paves the way to another understanding of cosmopolitanism dynamics. It forces us to move the focus of history of foreigners away from cultural issues to an examination of the overlapping and crisscrossing administrative, social and urban dimensions of the pragmatic process of social integration.

L’Orient à Vienne is first a history of the Austrian enlightenment. Throughout the eighteenth century the reorganisation of the management of Oriental affairs benefited a new political elite involved in – and taking advantage of – the profound reform of the monarchy and supporting enlightened absolutism at the same time. However, this elite progressively spread out into several rival clienteles, which competed to control the management of Turkish trade and diplomacy, because of the influence it had on the government and the personal enrichment it generated. The Oriental Academy, established in 1754 to train young scholars in Turkish, Arabic and Persian and to serve in the Administration in the Ottoman Empire – as interpreters, chancellors and diplomats – was actually nothing but the incubator of the Chancellor’s creatures. The history of Oriental knowledge fits in with a socio-political history of the administration and was not restricted to artificial national boundaries. Indeed, the emergence of this elite was based on deep economic, social and political connections with Ottoman society and especially with Ottoman subjects in Vienna, as the Conscription of the Turks and Turkish of 1767 testifies.

Although historians used to identify and divide them into distinct nations and diasporas – overstressing their ethnic/religious/cultural features –, Muslim, Sephardic, Armenian and Greek merchants actually proceeded along similar paths of life and similar practices in the city. They were a population, more than a community, that represented about one per cent of the city’s inhabitants in 1775 since, far from being exclusively populated by merchants, it was composed of diverse economic actors, from janissaries to cooks, and was gender diverse, since children represented the biggest component. Studying merchants draws a new economic and social geography of the Austrian monarchy wide open to the Ottoman Empire, and it presents Vienna as a hub between Turkey, the Holy Roman Empire, Central Europe and the Adriatic Sea. Plus, Ottoman trading companies were transcontinental, religiously plural and they constantly interacted with local merchants, administrators and diplomats.

Indeed, the familiarity of Ottoman merchants with the Viennese political elite and its clients played a significant role in reorienting Austrian commercial policy in favour of the Ottoman merchants and in strengthening the authority of the administration over the city. Ottomans gave the Emperor the excuse to liberalize Viennese trade, thus far controlled by a bourgeoisie granted with economic and political privileges. Plus, Ottomans symbolically lived under the protection of the administration, set up in buildings and blocks owned by the administrators of trade and diplomats, strategically located in the old merchant area of the city, where they could find both housing and warehousing. They became members of the elite urban kinship. Being an Ottoman became so appealing that it guaranteed the social integration of the subjects of the Sultan and made more valuable their legal and economic condition, rather than being an “Imperial and Royal subject” of the Habsburg monarch. Moreover, while they were tied with the Viennese administrative elite, the Ottoman merchants systematically reaffirmed their belonging to the Ottoman Empire symbolically by joining the corteges of the envoys of the Grand Seigneur, or in claiming their political identity in case of litigation. Indeed, just as the merchants did, Ottoman diplomats also bonded with the reforming Austrian elite and the aristocracy in the common purpose of securing and promoting Ottoman trade in Central Europe and, in this way, strengthened their respective economic and political clientele in both Vienna and Istanbul.

Austrian administrators, Ottoman merchants and ambassadors formed a milieu, an urban geography that calls for a reinterpretation of the history of eighteenth-century Vienna and a deconstruction of diaspora patterns. The installation of the Ottomans in the city didn’t depend at all on some community logic but on the function of the urban space, where they imbedded themselves and their economic activity. Using such a presence as a contrasting medium reveals the economic heart of the city and allows us to observe its workings. Before everything, it enables us to understand that Vienna was a very attractive city port on the Ottoman trading route, presenting a logic of settling and blending quite similar to Venice, Livorno or Smyrna, usually much more emphasized in the historiography. This calls for an opening up of Mediterranean history and a questioning of the common idea of a decline of cross-cultural trade during the eighteenth century. This meets the new history of an opened, fluid and vibrant Central Europe. It undermines the prejudices of both our post-Soviet and post-9/11 conception of what is Europe.

Finally, this study tempers the role played by the cultural dimension in the globalised world and warns against overstressing ethno-religious features in national politics and in everyday life. It breaks with the sacralisation of differences and calls for a reorientation of the focus of the social sciences on the economic and social logic that generates the social bonding and blending, even in a cross-cultural context.