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This chapter visits sketches the contours of an “Ottoman lighting system,” that is, a centrally regulated network that procured lighting materials from the provinces and channeled them to Istanbul and other crucial points in the imperial power grid and set lighting priorities in line with its political needs. The main argument is that lighting was considered a basic commodity and its regular supply therefore concerned the state. Yet, access to light was extremely unequal, which, as shown in the next chapter, made light a shiny index of power.
Hearing without seeing, or without seeing well, was one of the defining experiences of the preindustrial night. This chapter seeks to capture something of this experience. It follows darkness as it fell, from sunset to bedtime, beginning with an attempt to “listen around,” or to reconstruct the aural texture of the everynight. While hearing was much more important than during the day for information and orientation, it could not compensate for the loss of vision. The deep darkness of the early modern city undermined people’s sense of control, aggravating fears of very real nocturnal dangers. Discussion accompanies people as they were readying themselves to sleep and shows that even at home, fears and real dangers could shake people’s security and disturb their peace. But while nocturnal threats, fears, and nuisances seem universal, their effect was highly differential, since it depended on the means one could use to cope with them. My second argument is therefore that sleep did not necessarily emancipate people from diurnal social hierarchies and material conditions. They remained unequal even in their beds.
Seeking to limit potentially invisible, incontrollable activity, official decrees, neighborhood communities, guilds, and moralists together created a powerful discourse that stigmatized the night, and a set of regulations aimed to impose visibility on those who nevertheless went out after dark. Yet, with vision impaired, the night continued to pose a challenge to urban order, and the authorities at times applied harsh punitive measures in order to project fear. These demonstrations of formal violence were meant to somewhat compensate for the rulers’ actually rather precarious control over the dark city.
This chapter shows how the loosely regulated night of the eighteenth century, that had accommodated orthodox and antinomian ritual, order, and its transgression, gradually turned into a battleground between the palace elite and the janissaries, the unofficial rulers of the night. When at conflict with the palace, the janissaries used the night not only for licentious pleasures and business, but also for conspiracy and sabotage, as a crucial facet in their “protocols of rebellion.” Once activated, the janissaries’ networks would organize quickly under the cover of darkness and march out of the shadows to confront the sultan in broad daylight. Ottoman sultans, on their part, occasionally tried to dislodge these networks, significantly in this context, by eradicating the nightlife scene which they considered the breeding ground of janissary revolts. These efforts, however, were thwarted by the dependency of the authorities on, and the ambivalence toward these very networks and activities. The drama is narrated below in three acts of major upheavals: the 1730 rebellion, the nizam-i cedid reforms and the 1807 uprising that undid them, and the destruction of the janissaries in 1826, which opened the way to significant changes in Ottoman nocturnal realities.
In a world that is constantly awake, illuminated and exposed, there is much to gain from looking into the darkness of times past. This fascinating and vivid picture of nocturnal life in Middle Eastern cities shows that the night in the eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire created unique conditions for economic, criminal, political, devotional and leisurely pursuits that were hardly possible during the day. Offering the possibility of livelihood and brotherhood, pleasure and refuge; the darkness allowed confiding, hiding and conspiring - activities which had far-reaching consequences on Ottoman state and society in the early modern period. Instead of dismissing the night as merely a dark corridor between days, As Night Falls demonstrates how fundamental these nocturnal hours have been in shaping the major social, cultural and political processes in the early modern Middle East.
Darkness offered economically underprivileged and socially marginal groups livelihood and leisure opportunities that were hardly available during the day. These populations therefore figured prominently in the city’s nocturnal life. But the night offered cover also to the “respectable” residents of the city, and to its rulers. Darkness indeed had a blinding effect, but it also made it easier to turn a blind eye. Whereas infringements in broad daylight were a direct challenge to established order, it was often comfortable for all parties to pretend nighttime violations never happened. Both order and its alleged enemies, could more easily transgress their bounds at night, assuming that what happened in the dark remained in the dark. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, a huge nightlife scene was allowed to exist, as long as it remained out of sight and did not openly undermine diurnal order.
In a world that is constantly awake, illuminated, and exposed there is much to gain from looking into the darkness of times past. Paradoxically, the most significant thing that studying Ottoman nights allows us to see, is the benefits and costs of invisibility. This book shows that the night in the eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire created unique conditions for economic, criminal, political, devotional, and leisurely pursuits that were hardly possible during the day. It offered livelihood and brotherhood, pleasure and refuge; it allowed confiding, hiding, and conspiring. It was the ability to keep out of sight that created all these opportunities. To be “in the dark” surely involved the insecurity of not knowing, but also the promise of not being known, and the benefits of pretending not to know. This hide-ability, as I argue in this book, had far-reaching consequences on Ottoman state and society in the Early Modern period.
This chapter seeks to understand traditions of nocturnal conviviality, particular those that involved the consumption of alcohol, “from within,” that is, in the terms of those who partook in them. It begins with exploring the language and imagery of night and nocturnal devotion in contemporary poetry, which, as shown later in the chapter, also framed nocturnal sociability and invested it with meaning. Approached through this discourse, the night no longer appears as a mere a dark closet in which to hide while drinking, but rather as the ideal setting for cultivating intimacy and love, carnal, platonic, and divine. In fact, hiding in the night and investing it with spiritual significance were mutually dependent. By enveloping these traditions in darkness, the night allowed a space of “ambivalence and ambiguity” that would not directly challenge the unequivocal dictates of orthodoxy and authority. Social drinking, in short, and the wider cultural streams that legitimized it, found fertile soil in the nocturnal, and flourished in it, much like in a walled night garden.