Itinerant artisans of the Ottoman streets

With their idiosyncratic cries and colorful appearance, the itinerant artisans of the Ottoman period, in other words, its street vendors, were part and parcel of neighborhood life.

The Ottomans were past masters at creating unique institutions and organizations. And the trade guilds were one of them. All tradesmen were divided into guilds, each of which had a head, a steward, a master craftsman, an experienced apprentice and novices, who worked together in strict discipline according to their established customs, traditions and rules. The induction of apprentices, their rise to experienced worker and passage to master were celebrated in ceremonies that often lasted for a week with myriad games and spectacles at Istanbul’s famous parade grounds such as Kağıthane, Veliefendi and Çırpıçı Çayırı.
Clowns, dancers, masked players and giant puppets put on a variety of shows at such Ottoman festivities and weddings or when the army was setting out on campaign, and all the city’s craftsmen also loaded their workplaces onto carts and strutted their wares for the duration.
Not only did Ottoman craftsmen work in rigorous discipline among themselves, they were also subject to a strict regimen of institutional inspection and controls. Anyone who used deficient weights and measures or sold defective goods was penalized in public.

Evliya Çelebi devotes 200 pages of the first volume of his famous 10-volume ‘Seyahatnâme’ or ‘Travel Book’ to the artisans, listing 1109 types of them in 57 groups. Among them are also players, clowns, and purveyors of various skills including even some regarded as anti-social and criminal. Everything is recorded, in other words. Evliya Çelebi divides the artisans into two groups, those with shops or fixed work places, and the itinerant.
With their idiosyncratic cries and costumes, the itinerant artisans, also known as street vendors, made up the most colorful group by far. And a series of pictures of them in almost every city was painted accordingly. A deck of cards, for example, known as ‘Cris de Paris’ was produced, every card of which shows a picture of a different street hawker together with his cry. The Viennese painter Andreas Magnus Hunglinger, who was in Turkey in 1798-99, produced a series of engravings of street vendors in Istanbul before returning to his country, and these were published in 1800. Below each vendor’s picture Hunglinger records his cry in Turkish, inscribed in his own hand. Among them is everyone from sellers of cherries, strawberries and carnations, to milkmen and yoghurt vendors, sellers of Cacheval cheese and clotted cream, sellers of baklava and milk pudding, fruit syrup and ice vendors, sellers of fans, rose water vendors, liver sellers and fishmongers, sellers of candy, shawls, ‘sahlep’ and ‘boza’ (two traditional drinks made, respectively, of dried orchid tubers and fermented millet), sellers of gauze, chicken vendors, chimney sweeps and purveyors of ‘simit’ (bread doughnuts coated with sesame seeds).

As a child and youth I lived in the Istanbul district of Lâleli. The neighborhood yoghurt vendor passed through our street every day, calling ‘Yoğurtçu’ (‘Yoghurt seller’) and drawing out the last syllable. Living on the top floor, we immediately leaned out the window upon hearing his cry and invited him up. With his large wooden yoke balanced on his shoulders, he would slowly climb the stairs. One side of the yoke contained a large tin pot of Silivri yoghurt, the other his scale, a short-stemmed ladle for dishing out the yoghurt and a box with handle and lid for removing the top cream when people wanted their yoghurt without it. Although some 65 years have passed, I can still hear his cry ringing in my ears. Just like those of the rag-and-bone man, the knife sharpener and the seller of ‘macun’ (a gum-like confection) who called out in quatrains.
While they perhaps did not stop as often as the yoghurt vendor, the cotton and wool fluffers who came at certain times of the year were also a subject of enormous interest to me. I would watch with great curiosity as they aired and fluffed the wadded cotton that filled our mattresses, pillows and thick quilts. These would first be ripped open at the seams, and the cotton or wool inside them pulled out and spread over a cover on the ground. The fluffer had a tool the size of a large bow with a string stretched taut. Using a mallet made of hard wood he would strike the string, which produced a sound like a musical instrument every time it was struck. As the cotton and wool flew through the air, I in my childish imagination would feel I was living in a fairy tale.

To illustrate how unforgettable those sounds are, let me cite an example of an American friend of mine who grew up in Turkey. In 1956-57 I was invited to the United States for a year and a half to study theater arts. Writing to some of the major film studios in Hollywood, I asked for permission to tour their studios and watch while a couple of scenes were shot. All my requests were to no avail, save for one. A letter from Columbia Pictures indicated that they would be happy to see me and show me anything I wanted to see. It was signed, Elly Levi, Director of International Relations, and inscribed in large letters in the old Ottoman script below the signature was the word ‘Merhaba’. When I went to see the writer of the letter, he greeted me in Turkish and said he would be right with me. He sat down beside me and, after a few sentences in Turkish, went on in English. As a young Jew of Izmir, he had been unable to find work and had come to New York on a freighter. Doing menial jobs at first like cutting film and transporting reels, he had gradually risen higher. He had never returned to Turkey, but he mentioned Izmir in every breath and kept a notebook in which he had had all the Turks who had ever come from Turkey to see him write a brief note. I even came across some familiar names. One of them was a popular novelist and my Turkish teacher at the Galatasaray Lycée, Esat Mahmud Karakurt; the other a journalist and our neighbor, Hikmet Feridun Es. Both had written illustrated series on Hollywood in the daily papers for a long time and published photographs of themselves rubbing elbows with the famous film stars. And it was Elly Levi who had helped them out. He took me on a tour of their studios and the outdoor sets where films were being shot. Later, at dinner, he imitated the cries of the Izmir street vendors, with the precise intonation and pronunciation, as if he were singing nostalgic songs of homesickness.

The street vendors have vanished today, and the sounds and colors of our streets are rapidly fading. But a small number of them still pursue their occupation, and now and then cries of ‘Boza’, ‘Simit’, and ‘Eskici’ (rag-and-bone man) can still be heard. The rest has been consigned to paintings, engravings and black and white photographs.