Professor Sajdi spoke to us about the early Ottoman presence in three ancient cities: Aleppo, Damascus and Cairo. How did the Empire “Ottomanize” areas more historically rich than they were? After all, Damascus was the first capital of the first Islamic Empire, the Umayyads, from 661-750. It was also the historical center of Islamic learning, as Professor Sajdi said, of both jurisprudence and Sufism. She explain, “If you were a scholar from Sarajevo and you wanted to get a job in Istanbul, you needed to spend a few years in Damascus and prove yourself there.”
So how does an “upstart” empire gain legitimacy in cities and regions that have more traditional authority that it does? In each city the regional governor would endow a complex – mosque, soup kitchen, school, fountain and caravansary. They would not put it in the middle of the city, but rather on the edge. They would use the local architectural vernacular – in the Arab lands, that would be Mamluk design). As people began to use the services, they identified more and more as part of the Empire. It is an interesting and effective approach.
We visited a such a kind of complex on the edge of Edirne, constructed by Sultan Beyazid II in the 1400s. Parenthetically, it is one of the most beautifully designed museums I have been to, and has won many awards. Arranged around a series of courtyards are the mosque, the hospital, the medical school and the soup kitchen.
In a different area were the caravanserai and the bathhouse, now lost. The medicine practiced looked painful and frequently ineffective if not actively harmful, but I had to remember that compared to Western Europe in the 15th Century it was quite advanced!