For most of the Ottoman Empire’s existence, the crossing from day into night was unmistakeable, as it was in much of the world. In cities and towns, the process began with the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, which echoed through the streets just as the sun disappeared on the horizon. Markets and inns closed. Neighbourhood and courtyard gates were shut. Noise died down as people and animals went within. Darkness fell.
Ottoman nights were dark. Until the introduction of street lighting in the second half of the 19th century, pedestrians were required to carry lanterns; since exposure to bright light impairs night vision, this helped less with seeing than with being seen. Things weren’t necessarily better indoors. Wealthy households in Anatolia consumed several kilos of candles each day, many of them made from beeswax. But most homes were dimly lit. The cheap tallow candles on which ordinary people relied were feeble: seventy tallow candles would emit less light than a single 60-watt bulb. That all this darkness mattered is the argument of Avner Wishnitzer’s recent book, the first devoted to the Ottoman night before the era of gas lighting. Ottoman nights weren’t just a darker version of the day. Rather, darkness transformed society.
For many inhabitants of 18th-century Istanbul (the focus of Wishnitzer’s book), darkness was a source of fear, and rightly so. In Ottoman lands, as in Western Europe, the evening brought about what Amanda Vickery has called in the English context a ‘frenzy of fortification’: front doors were locked, precious objects were put away and guards placed on duty. In families of all faiths, special prayers were recited, entreating God to protect the household. Along the Habsburg frontier, Serbian mothers rubbed their babies with garlic to protect them from witches. Wishnitzer estimates that nearly half of the nocturnal offences registered at the Üsküdar court of greater Istanbul were violent.
Although bakers, fishermen and domestic servants, to name just a few, laboured at least in part during the night, the main institutions that structured Ottoman society depended on daylight. With the help of the sun, guilds allocated goods under the scrutiny of military and palace officials. By night, smugglers circumvented this system. Even sultans discovered the limits of their power after sunset. When Selim III (r. 1789-1807) was woken one night by European mariners carousing on the Bosphorus, he had no choice but to wait until morning to issue orders prohibiting nocturnal revelry. Even so, it continued. As in Europe, the night marked the temporal frontier of state power.
Of the few public places that were lit, mosques were the most dazzling. On an average night in 1850, when Istanbul proper was dark, the Hagia Sophia was lit by 1167 lamps; this increased to a whopping 3834 during Ramadan. These lights recalled the Quranic passage that describes God’s light as a lamp ‘shining out in houses of worship’. Sufis were particularly adept at exploiting the dark-light divide. Their nocturnal gatherings began with a ritual lighting of candles, rousing the soul from darkness and preparing it to receive divine truth.
Many more people enjoyed nocturnal depravity. Chief among these were men of state, who regularly assembled by candlelight to recite poetry and drink wine. Defenders of the moral order by day, by night they engaged in sensual and sexual pursuits. They were supported by an intellectual movement sometimes known as the ‘school of love’ (aşk mezhebi). Students of this school were found across the Islamic world. They documented their soirées in verse, including the pleasures considered dubious by more orthodox interpretations of Islam, and invested them with spiritual meaning. The moon was the face of Muhammad; wine stood for (and enabled) the intoxication of God’s love; the prepubescent boys who sometimes acted as erotic objects channelled divine beauty. This semiotic system could be dismissed as opportunistic, which it undoubtedly was. But the poet Naşid (1749-91) captures some of the emotional intensity of these evenings:
My young boy, let us be satiated with the glass of pure wine
Let us drink so much so that we let loose our temper
Come on, don’t incline to sleep this early, my lord
Oh Moon on the summit of grace, let us go out to the full moon light.
Drinking didn’t only occur in private homes. Wishnitzer estimates that in the 1790s Istanbul had at least 570 drinking establishments. Add to that street vendors of alcohol (one 17th-century traveller calculated there were at least eight hundred), hundreds of unauthorised bars and the many coffeehouses that served wine by night, and the capital starts to look very boozy indeed. In principle, the consumption of wine is prohibited by Islamic law and was punishable in Ottoman lands by 24 lashes (usually converted to a fine). The state upheld the fiction that taverns were only for Christians and Jews, who were permitted to brew alcohol and to serve it to their kind. But it was no secret that Muslims went out drinking too. Janissaries, once the elite corps of the Ottoman military, were known in the 18th century to be especially fond of drink. Officials tolerated this nightlife because it was lucrative: then as now, taxes on alcohol were an important source of government revenue. Many sultans found themselves torn between the ideal of dry streets and financial reality. Darkness helped them square the circle. As long as illicit activity wasn’t too visible, they could pretend it didn’t exist. Still, unlike those who gathered in private residences, people selling or drinking alcohol in public ran the risk of punishment.
The Ottoman night, as Wishnitzer describes it, belonged to men. Of 236 defendants brought to the Üsküdar court for night-time offences, only 41 (about 17 per cent) were women. It was considered unseemly for women to walk the streets at night, and most of those who did were just that: street walkers. The number of prostitutes in Istanbul swelled in the 18th century with the population of the urban poor, and most of those 41 arrested women were sex workers. But even women who stayed at home had to guard against attacks on their respectability. In July 1747, two women brought their neighbour to court for violating their honour. The neighbour, they claimed, had stood at their door the previous night, yelling profanities and calling one of them a whore. Though the two women joined with others to demand that the culprit be expelled from the neighbourhood, it’s likely the damage to their reputations had already been done. Other women faced nocturnal assaults inside the home: the same domestic inviolability that protected patriarchs from police surveillance also left female residents vulnerable to violence.
In the 1660s, starting with Paris, major Western European cities began installing street lighting. The innovation both responded to and enabled intensified nocturnal sociability, and by 1750 royals, aristocrats and burghers – the main beneficiaries of the policy – routinely stayed out until the small hours of the morning. In the Ottoman Empire, street lighting wasn’t introduced until the 1840s, first in the Pera district of Istanbul and only later in Istanbul proper and in the other cities of the empire. The discrepancy is of the sort that has long troubled people: why didn’t the Ottomans embrace this modern amenity, viewed already by 18th-century Europeans as an index of societal refinement? Wishnitzer, for whom the Ottomans’ modernity is not on trial, is unperturbed. Although his book isn’t structured around the question ‘why not?’, it tentatively offers an answer: turning on the lights would have extinguished the productive ambiguity that night brought with it.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.