Blog 61 26/11/2017 Constantinople and the Exotic World of the Guild of Furriers.
Constantinople and the Exotic World of the Guild of Furriers.
The guild system has played a vital role in commerce throughout the developed world for centuries but probably none were more diverse or eccentric than those in the Ottoman Empire. Each year the inhabitants of Constantinople were treated to a spectacle on a grand scale when the guilds held their annual parade which filed past the Sultan and his entourage. All vied to display their trade with the utmost professionalism. According to imperial decree, the procession would pass by in an allotted order ranging from the most important guilds to the lowliest, and even the lowliest were still respected members of society because according to the Hadith “The best of men is he who is useful to mankind”.
Textile guilds always rated highly and amongst the most important was the guild of furriers. The Ottoman traveller, Evliya Çelebi, was an eyewitness to these events and gives us a wonderful insight in his Book of Travels “Seyatname” written sometime between 1640 – 1685. His attention to detail brings the scenes alive and it is easy to imagine oneself a bystander alongside him. The following is taken from his accounts.
“Accompanied by a special military band, they filed past the Sultan with their shops on drawn carts and carried on their shoulders, adorned with the furs of sable, ermine, marten, red squirrel and Russian silver fox, the head and leg furs of sable, the neck furs of duck, swan and goldfinch, the neck and belly furs of fox and the furs of astrakhan lambskin, all worth hundreds of thousands of gurus.
Next the Greek furriers in the Mahmudpasa market form a separate grand procession, wearing hundreds of furs which they put on backwards. (Fur-side out as we do today) On their heads are outlandish bearskin caps. Their trousers are also of animal skins. Some are covered head to foot with skins of leopard, tiger, lion and wolf. Others have sable kalpak crowns on their heads and pikes and javelins in their hands, and pass with their horses, also smothered in animal skins.
Some are strangely attired as jinns, confounding the minds of any who see them. Still others put on lion or leopard or tiger skins and go on all fours, giving the onlookers threatening glances, and are hardly restrained from attacking them by their keepers who drag them along by chains and strike them with rattan staffs.
The Guild of Sable Merchants. 1,000 individuals, all of them Rumelian Greeks, from the cities of Serfice, Florunya, Licista and Golikesri (around the region of Florina, Epirus), with no religion and no patron saint. They are wealthy merchants who every year import sables and squirrels and other furs from Muscovy. They put their sables on backwards and pass in parade with their litters and horses adorned head to foot with sables and leech teeth, also known as fish teeth. (Thought to be walrus teeth or the bone which was known as fish tooth)
The Guild of Falconers (and other hunters). 200 individuals. They are the furriers’ hunters and possess sultanic rescripts exempting them from taxes. None of the hunters – whether chief falconers, or the keepers of hounds of the palace gardeners or of the janissaries – can interfere with these furriers’ hunters. They shoot swans, goldfinches, mallard drakes and speckled ducks in the Great and Little Cekmece inlets and in the Terkoz lakes, and give the throat-fur to the chief furrier and their wings to the chief arrowsmith. They too pass in procession with their game.
The Guild of Leopard Keepers. One agha – his shop is in the Lion’s Den – and fifty-five individuals. Because the chief furrier possesses leopard skins, these leopard keepers parade with all the sultan’s leopards, dragging them along by gold and silver chains and keeping them in check with rattan staffs, crying ‘My leopard did not take it, my leopard did not see it!’
The Guild of Lion Keepers. Their patron saint was Ali, the lion of God, at whose feet all the wild beasts used to grovel. The chief lion keeper, in charge of lions and tigers, was originally supposed to march with the mastiff sheepdog keepers under the authority of the chief butcher; but the chief furrier persuaded the sultan to have them under his authority instead, since he had control over the skinning and tanning of lion and tiger skins. So the fifty lion keepers too go in procession with the furriers, dragging their chained lions and tigers – and panthers, bears, wolves and hyenas – like so many vicious dragons.
Following them come the Greek and Muslim darling boys (apprentices) of all the furriers, with their Tatar kalpaks and armed to the teeth. The chief falconer of the furriers, the chief leopard keeper, the deputy of the chief lion keeper, and the chief furrier go together in front, stirrup to stirrup and bridle to bridle, dressed in the finery of their respective guilds. Following after are their darling boys and their eightfold band, all passing in ceremony.
The Guild of Furriers is very necessary to the Ottomans, whether at home or on campaign.”
And this is just one small section of the procession. How I wish I could transport myself back to the Constantinople of Evliya’s days and experience it all.
“An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliye Celebi” by Robert Dankoff
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