Nelly Hanna, Artisan entrepreneurs in Cairo and early-modern capitalism (1600–1800) (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011. Pp. ix + 244. ISBN 9780815632795 Hbk. £30.50/$34.95)
Article first published online: 17 DEC 2012
© Economic History Society 2013
The Economic History Review
Volume 66, Issue 1, pages 379–380, February 2013
How to Cite
Pamuk, S. (2013), Nelly Hanna, Artisan entrepreneurs in Cairo and early-modern capitalism (1600–1800) (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011. Pp. ix + 244. ISBN 9780815632795 Hbk. £30.50/$34.95). The Economic History Review, 66: 379–380. doi: 10.1111/ehr.12005_24
- Issue published online: 17 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 17 DEC 2012
This book makes use of a large volume of documents from the archives in Cairo to examine the activities and life trajectories of artisan entrepreneurs, and, more generally, the economic history of Egypt during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the author emphasizes, this was a period before trade and other linkages with Europe began to dominate the Egyptian economy. As a result, local trade and trade within the Ottoman Empire were much more important for Egypt. Moreover, these two centuries included a period of increasing commercialization and economic expansion from late in the seventeenth century until the 1760s, as identified some decades ago by Andre Raymond. Hanna emphasizes the continuities between the patterns of production and accumulation during this period and the nineteenth century and argues that the origins of capitalism in Egypt need to be searched for in the inner workings of the Egyptian economy and more broadly in the Ottoman context during the early modern era.
Based on the evidence from the probate inventories, the artisan entrepreneurs of Egypt were more modest than the largest of the merchants but they stood at the top of the artisan community. They were usually not constrained by the guilds and acted as small capitalists. Thanks to the availability of rich archival materials, Hanna is able to follow over long periods of time selected individuals engaged in textiles, sugar, oil, and leather manufacturing and analyse their activities and strategies, their links to the countryside, diversification of their activities, and their investments in local and long-distance trade, in tax farms which were always very important in the Ottoman context and elsewhere. She does not deny the importance of the state sector but emphasizes the limits of the command economy and argues that the period of economic expansion provided many opportunities for accumulation to the artisan entrepreneurs as well as the merchants. I am well aware this is not easy due to the limitations of the archival sources but Hanna could have attempted to support her arguments with greater quantification. This caveat notwithstanding, it is clear that Hanna's study offers us major insights into the economic history of early modern Egypt. Her study is all the more valuable because it is also very rare to be able to pursue the history of a few individuals or families from archival sources in the medieval and early modern Middle East.
One issue Hanna could have emphasized or explored more is the political limits to this kind of small-scale capitalism which was, after all, observed in many parts of the Old World during the early modern era, and why it was difficult for Egypt or the Ottoman Middle East to move to the next level. As she concedes, neither the artisan entrepreneurs nor the merchants received much support from the state. On the contrary, even during the good times they had to watch for the intrusions and encroachments by the state and the state elites. The latter not only levied and collected taxes and tried to regulate the activities of merchants and artisans but they also engaged in entrepreneurial activities themselves, most importantly in tax farming where they had privileged if not exclusive access, but also in trade and elsewhere, including manufacturing.
It is perhaps telling that the period of growing commercialization and expansion that lasted until the 1760s, which is the main focus of the book, was interrupted by a power struggle within the state elites and waves of attacks on the guilds, artisans, and merchants. The Mamluks or imported state elites with slave origins eventually gained control of the economy as well as politics, pushing out the merchants and artisan entrepreneurs and establishing their own coercion-based networks not only in tax collection but also in production and trade. However, after an extended period of political instability following Napoleon's occupation of Egypt, the Mamluks themselves were destroyed and replaced by a new model of state capitalism or economic control by a modernizing state under Muhammed Ali.
As Hanna shows in the later chapters of the book, this half-century of political instability and the growing concentration of power in the hands of the state elites, first by the Mamluks and then by Muhammed Ali, represented the sharp reversal of the capitalist tendencies that flourished until the 1760s. Was this half-century, when politics dominated if not destroyed the economy, an exceptional period, an aberration, or was the economy and the emerging small-scale capitalism always under the influence or even direct control of the state elites? For understanding the early modern Egyptian and Ottoman economy, this is, in my view, an important question that deserves greater scrutiny and discussion.
At any rate, Hanna has produced one of the most important books written in recent times on the economic and social history of Egypt and more generally the Middle East. I would warmly recommend it also to those interested in comparative economic history and the debates on the great divergence.