Everyday Life and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century Damascus

James P. Grehan

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  • Published: 2007
  • Subject Listing: Middle East Studies; History
  • Bibliographic information: 310 pp., 12 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Publications on the Near East
  • Contents

Damascus was for centuries a center of learning and commerce. Drawing on the city's dazzling literary tradition-a rich collection of poetry, chronicles, travel accounts, and biographical dictionaries-as well as on Islamic court records, James Grehan explores the material culture of premodern Damascus, reconstructing the economic infrastructure, social customs, and private consumer habits that dominated this cosmopolitan hub in the 1700s. He sketches a lively history of diet, furniture, fashion, and other aspects of daily life, providing an unusual and intimate account of the choices, constraints, and compromises that defined consumer behavior.

Coffee, tobacco, and light firearms had arisen as new luxury items in preceding centuries, and Grehan traces the usage of such goods in order to get a picture of the overall standard of living in the premodern Middle East. He looks particularly at how wealth and poverty were defined and how consumption patterns expressed notions of taste, class, and power, illuminating the prominent role played by Damascus in shaping the economy and culture of the Middle East.

In assessing the magnitude of social change in modern times, we have few benchmarks from the period preceding the onset of modernity in the nineteenth century. This informative study will make possible more precise cultural and economic comparisons between different parts of the world as it stood on the brink of a radically new economic and political order. The book's focus on a little-examined period and region will appeal to scholars and students of urban social history and Arab popular culture.
James Grehan is assistant professor of history at Portland State University.

"An extraordinarily well-researched and well-written work that promises to make a unique contribution in Middle Eastern Studies. Grehan presents a very engaging picture of how the residents of Damascus lived in the eighteenth century."
-Resat Kasaba, University of Washington

"Grehan breaks new ground in Middle Eastern historiography. There is no work that deals in detail, and also with depth and insight, with consumer culture in the Middle East like Grehan's work. This work is a truly pioneering effort in this field."
-Adbuk-Karim Rafeq, The College of William and Mary

"An extraordinarily well-researched and well-written work that promises to make a unique contribution in Middle Eastern Studies. Grehan presents a very engaging picture of how the residents of Damascus lived in the eighteenth century."
-Resat Kasaba, author of The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy: The Nineteenth Century

Note on Transliteration
I. City and Environment
II. Bread and Survival
III. Luxury and Variety: Everyday Food
IV. Luxury and Variety: Everyday Drink
V. Domestic Space
VI. Fashion and Deportment
Appendix A: Major Articles of Furniture
Appendix B: Major Utensils for Cooking and Eating
Appendix C: Major Articles of Clothing

"It is impossible here to mention all the details of this rich and challenging study, which is a very important contribution to Damascene history. . . . In conclusion, Grehan has brought an innovative approach to his study of the probate inventories in eighteenth-century Damascus, combining the analysis of his empirical data with anecdotal information from narratives, chronicles, and travel accounts that served to contextualize his material. . . . he has successfully raised pertinent questions about consumer culture and consumption trends."
-Journal of the American Oriental Society

"In this interesting and careful study of consumption patterns in eighteenth century Ottoman Damascus, James Grehan puts to imaginative use probate inventories, local chronicles, and religious literature in order to bring detail and life to everyday practices involving food and drink as well as clothing and domestic space . . . . This study nicely complements other consumption studies in the field . . . . More importantly, it brings much needed color and complexity to our understanding of everyday life in an important eighteenth century Ottoman city."
-Journal of Social History

"One must count Grehan's study among the most exciting books that have appeared in the fields of Ottoman and Middle East history in recent years. . . . Everyday Life and Consumer Culture in 18th-Century Damascus represents an excellent step in the further development of Ottoman consumption studies, and one whose topic merits additional study by the author."

"Grehan gives his city a real presence: we enter its environment and rhythms. . . . Damascus as portrayed here is a late, enchanting flowering of the austere world of the early Arab Conquests - and it is to be enjoyed."