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Tinker, tailor, soldier, ´ahi´
1.       tunci
7149 posts
 25 Sep 2011 Sun 12:33 am

Tinker, tailor, soldier, ´ahi´

Niki Gamm


Ahi organizations consisted of people who worked with their hands, such as tinsmiths (tinkers), tailors, bakers, candle makers and the like.

Ahi organizations consisted of people who worked with their hands, such as tinsmiths (tinkers), tailors, bakers, candle makers and the like


“Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor” goes the old, English nursery rhyme that uses occupations to count, but an Ottoman variation would surely have added “ahis,” whose existence has been commemorated all this past week by the Istanbul Governor’s Office, to the list. The word is often translated into English as guildsman, a member of a guild or trade association.

Just when the ahi concept appeared among the Ottomans is unclear although it is attributed by some to a leather maker, Ahi Evren, who came to Anatolia to escape the Mongols in the 13th century. He is said to have settled in Konya where he organized the leather workers; his followers were called Ahi after him. The first solid documentation of the ahis, meanwhile, comes from the 16th century.

These organizations, who had strong backing from the Ottoman Janissary army, consisted of people who worked with their hands, such as tinsmiths (tinkers), tailors, bakers, candle makers and the like. They organized quality standards, prices, hours, the places where they would do business and an apprenticeship system for training the next generation. Moreover, they were overseen by a “kethuda” (steward) who had to be approved by the master craftsmen and the government’s central administration, unlike the guilds in the West.

After the Ottomans captured a city, they would construct or refit a location into a “bedestan,” a type of building to house stores; they would immediately designate which products could be sold exclusively on which street leading from the bedestan. Even today in Istanbul, one can see the effects of this. The copper workers in Istanbul are still located outside the Grand Bazaar in small shops, some set in the wall around Istanbul University.

Upholding guild standards

The ahis for the most part rented their stores from foundations but owned the equipment they used to produce their wares. A room was set aside in which they could hold meetings and each ahi organization had its own type of dress. The kethuda saw to it that problems were solved, money owed to the government was paid, prices were regulated, standards were upheld and that an orderly transition took place whenever a master craftsman died or could no longer work – usually resulting in a son or another member of the family taking over the shop. This changed, however, as more and more people migrated to major cities in the Ottoman Empire – especially to Istanbul. Many set up their own shops in parts of Istanbul where the ahis had not previously worked and began operating without permission or regard for quality and set prices.

Certificates were given

Frequent complaints were lodged against these migrants with the Council of State, which generally took the side of the ahis. A change was made to the system in the second half of the 18th century through which the ahis were given certificates (gedik) that, for instance, showed that they owned their own equipment. This resulted in two things: an ahi no longer had to work cheek by jowl with every other ahi who sold the same product, but could instead move elsewhere and use his certificate as collateral for loans. In the latter case, if he defaulted, he would lose the gedik, and the new owner could sell it to whomever he pleased.

The 19th century saw the gradual decline and demise of many guilds and by the time the Turkish Republic was proclaimed in 1923, there were few left. This decline has been attributed in part to the lowering of import tax on European goods although some writers suggest that the amount of imports was far lower than the total consumed within the empire. It may also have been a result of the guilds’ losing their strong backer, the Janissaries. Factories and other industries also soon began to emerge, while millions of migrants arrived due to war, overwhelming the guild system.

Soldiers to tradesmen

Many soldiers from the Ottoman Empire’s famous Janissary army also exchanged their weapons for tools to become tradesmen themselves over the years. As discipline in the ranks began slipping in the 17th century, soldiers were allowed to marry and earn money at crafts outside of the military, primarily becoming butchers and sword makers. The Janissaries were officially disbanded and subjected to a violent purge in 1826, and presumably those who were not killed in the aftermath simply continued with whichever trade they had been plying


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