The Merchant’s House Museum

There’s a building on 4th Street in Lower Manhattan that is a museum. It doesn’t really look like a museum. Not when you’re standing there in front of it and mentally comparing it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Guggenheim, but it was well worth the time I spent inside looking around. It takes about an hour and a half or two hours to look at everything. Maybe a bit longer if you want to just hang out and soak up the atmosphere. It’s not pricey either. 10 bucks for adults, 5 bucks if you have a student ID.

The building was built in the early 1800s and the furnishings and personal effects in the home were the property of the original owner, who bought the place in 1835. There have been a few modifications, like the addition of a fire escape for safety, bars on a few windows for security, and the removal of the outdoor latrine for sanitary purposes. Part of the garden was paved over with additional marble paving stones. Two indoor toilets were added for museum visitors. But, most everything else is authentic, like the cooking implements, clothing, hats, wash basins, and furniture. There’s even a pail of coal in the kitchen that one can pick up to experience the carrying load of a household servant or slave.

It’s a cool place and I’m looking forward to going again with my wife. I went by myself on a weekday afternoon. We’re particularly interested in attending one of the summer evening lectures in the outdoor private garden.

Visiting Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island

Guyon-Lake-Tysen House c. 1740 with kitchen addition in 1820s.

Before this month I’d never heard of Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island. The place isn’t heavily advertised and the carpenter in the recreated shop there told us that he wasn’t surprised, because a lot of people that live there in Staten Island have never heard of the place either. You almost wouldn’t know it was there if you rode by on the bus or in in a car. Maybe that says more about the quality of buildings on Staten Island in general than it does about the site, though, that it’s hard to tell buildings that are almost 300 years old apart from the rest of what Staten Island has to offer.

Getting to Richmond Town from Upper Manhattan was a little bit of a struggle. The A train kept stopping in the tunnel and then went local below 59th Street. I know they’ve been doing some construction on the tunnels during the week, at night, but it would be nice if the city could keep the trains running on time when they’re not doing work on the tracks, otherwise what’s the point of the new construction schedule the city pushed? The ferry ride was nice, at least. I always enjoy the views of the city from the boat. The bus ride from the ferry to the town was about 25 minutes, which isn’t too bad.

When we got to Richmond Town we were afraid it was closed because the place was so quiet and empty. I guessed that it was because this is Memorial Day weekend and most people probably stayed home to relax or went out of town for barbecues. When we got to the ticket counter in the gift shop, the clerk there said that Memorial Day weekend is usually really quiet and cited the same reasons I suggested. I didn’t really care that the place was empty of people. Getting away from the crowds in New York City, seeing some trees, grass, fresh air and open spaces was just fine with me.

The fact that most of the buildings were closed was a problem, though. No one there was in costume. When we went on the 3:30 tour, our guide used a set of keys to open up each building we went into and had to take time to open the shutters so there would be light inside. She kept mentioning that the buildings saw regular, period-style use during the week. I wonder who has time to go out there during the week? I’m going to have to do some research and make some phone calls to find out if we can go back on another weekend and see the place completely up and running.

That being said, the tour was really good and our guide knew quite a bit about the houses she was showing us. She was also ready to answer random questions about the facilities and other buildings we were walking by. I was not disappointed at all. It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the place:

Better quality images and more details can be found in my Historic Richmond Town Flickr gallery.

Response: Donald Quataert’s “The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922”

Donald Quataert’s book, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 (New Approaches to European History), is an engaging overview that challenges popular (mis)conceptions about internal dynamics of the empire in regards to inter-communal relations and the role it played internationally. Throughout the text, Quataert takes care to place the Ottoman Empire in context, something which he seems to believe has been rarely done in past historical works, resulting in inflated claims of both power and weakness, as well as claims of undue cruelty both to its own citizens and its enemies. In short, while providing a good overview of the empire, Quataert also does an effective job in leveling the playing field so that the reader is able to understand that both the perceived negative and positive actions of the empire are not unique to the Ottoman Empire, cutting through caricatures to present a balanced view of history.

Having never read anything regarding the Ottoman Empire before, the text was very instructional. I was previously under the impression that the Ottoman Empire was a primarily Middle Eastern, Muslim empire that was organized along monarchical and religious lines. The information presented about the gradual shift in power from the sultan to the viziers/pashas and then to the Jannisaries was interesting. What sort of authority did the office of sultan still hold that it was maintained for the purposes of political legitimation? Why was there never an attempt to restructure the central government? Or was the sultan a political figurehead in a similar way to modern Prime Ministers and Presidents?

I was also very interested to find out that for a large portion of the empire’s existence, the vast majority of the population resided in the European provinces, making the empire more European than Middle Eastern. The fact that the Ottoman Empire expanded so far into southeastern Europe helps to explain the modern mistrust and fear of Turkey and, as the author says, the hesitance the European Union is displaying regarding Turkey’s application for membership. It’s a hesitancy and fear that’s a legacy of the Ottoman Empire’s initial military successes, but why does Turkey bear the legacy of that fear? Is there something about Turkey that makes it different from the other former Ottoman lands? The Ottoman’s central administration was located in Turkey, but in the formation of the modern Republic of Turkey, the Ottoman legacy was almost completely abolished. Is there some fear that Turkey might use the European Union to ascend economically and politically and once again pose a political threat to the European nations?

One thing that I wish had been better addressed in the text was the legal system in the Ottoman Empire. How heavily did it rely on religious law? How much was secular law? Was there a process where the ulema approved the laws, or was religious validation not required? Was religious law widely applied or was it limited to civil courts? Also, how heavily were communal religious courts used, and how often were there appeals to Islamic courts? What did sectarian (non-Muslim) courts use as a basis for law and are any of the law books they used still existent? Or were they more informal? The particulars of the law systems is probably a subject for a separate book, but the author didn’t seem to spend too much time discussing the court system in general, and the fact that non-Muslim citizens often appealed to the Islamic courts for ‘justice’ makes it a point of interest.

Overall, Donald Quataert’s book tackles a subject that, judging by his text, has often been unfairly maligned in popular media due to old biases and fears. His attempt to overcome those misconceptions are obvious throughout the text, where he constantly makes comparisons between the Ottoman Empire’s methods or actions and those of other contemporaneous political entities. The division of the book into sections that generally cover time periods, followed by chapters that address certain aspects of Ottoman society helps the reader to place the more detailed information into the greater framework of events. The Ottoman Empire: 1700-1922 is an excellent introduction to an important period of history.

Response: Cemal Kafadar’s “Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State”

Cemal Kafadar’s book, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State, is an attempt to find a middle-ground between existing theories that paints a more realistic picture of a dynamic and fluid process that didn’t exist in polar opposites, as presented in the theories put forward by Herbert Gibbons, Paul Wittek and M. F. Koprulu. By that, I mean their theories seem to be presenting history in a way that supports a contemporaneous need to justify the superior role of one group or another, or a particular aspect of a group, rather than in a way that produces a realistic and sufficiently complex set of events. Cemal Kafadar recognizes this and, rather than producing another theory and trying to prove it, he attempts to reconcile the theories presented by Gibbons, Wittek and Koprulu into something that might better approximate the truth of the origins of the Ottoman state.

Kafadar tells us that very little written documentation exists from the foundational period of the Ottoman state, and what does exist is only useful up to a certain point because of the possibility of the text being altered to fit the author’s needs. According to Kafadar, it’s possible that the Ottomans didn’t know where they came from. When attempting to establish an empire, however, it’s important to have political legitimacy and creating a new historical narrative is one way to establish the right to rule. Attempts to establish that right are obvious in the creation of false lineages that allowed the Ottomans to trace their descent to Noah (Islamic legitimacy) and to the Oghuz Turks through the Kayi tribe (ethnic legitimacy?). Regardless of whether or not these lineages are accurate, knowing that they were important at the time as symbols of political legitimacy can help explain the problems the Ottomans were facing at the time. Why did they feel that they needed to shore up their right to rule at those particular times?

It was especially interesting to see the changing role of Islam and the gradual shift from a localized version of Islam to a more orthodox Sunni version of Islam. How important was Islam in the beginning of the Ottoman’s attempt to found a state? Did they even conceive of it as ‘gaza’ at the time? Or was it later legitimated as gaza by historians seeking to shore up the Ottoman’s Islamic credentials? Kafadar mentioned that religious identities at the time were very fluid and often Muslims would ally with Christians for the sake of raiding and battling rivals. It’s likely that the Ottomans also engaged in that practice. And, it’s also likely that they didn’t feel any less Muslim for doing so, given that they had Islamic titles, like “Champion of the Faith.” What made a good Muslim in that period? It’s probably not even possible to make that distinction today, but it’s interesting to see how much more cavalier the reality was, compared to the supposed Islamic norms.

Kafadar made a brief mention of the similarity between events in Anatolia and the events in the Iberian peninsula, where the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty were slowly being whittled down by the Catholics in the Reconquista. In that conflict, there were also Muslim mini-states that would ally with Christians against a rival Muslim mini-state, with the end result being that Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the last Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in 1492. The rulers of the Muslim mini-states in the Iberian peninsula had to know what would eventually happen to them, so why did they continue to ally with Christians? How important was religion to them, compared to politics and political power? In the same way, modern thinkers were probably reading too much into the religious aspect of the frontier warfare in Anatolia.

The literature concerning the frontier area is especially interesting in how it depicts the role of women. If Islam were a driving force in Turkish expansion in the area, then why were women depicted in roles that supposedly broke Islamic norms? Efromiya is depicted as a woman convert to Islam that battled alongside men she wasn’t related to, kept their company at night, and didn’t cover herself, and likely had a lover for a while before being married to him (Artuhi). Similarly, in the Book of Dede Korkut, Kan Turali sets out to look for a woman that is good at cutting the heads off of infidels, which isn’t a role traditionally filled by a Muslim woman, or at least not the way we think of a Muslim woman today. He eventually marries a Christian woman, Princess Saljan, who is presented as strong-willed and highly sexual (“she went weak at the knees, her cat miaowed, she slavered like a sick calf…[ and] said, ‘If only God Most High would put mercy into my father’s heart, if only he would fix a bride-price and give me to this man!’”, p 69). How do these stories fit into the actual history of the region? Are they complete fictions that only represent the general fantasies of men at the time for foreign women? Was this considered legitimate behavior in that time and place?

The only thing that could have made reading his book clearer and more readily understood would have been an introduction that spelled out their theories before Kafadar launched into his own interpretation of them and the events that surround the founding of the Ottoman state. Since there is as yet very little existing documentation from that period, the best we can do is make conjectures about the period and Kafadar does a good job in reducing Wittek, Gibbons, and Koprulu’s one dimensional theories into something more life-like and believable.

Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee…

So, down in Georgia, there’s a river called the Chattahoochee. According to Alan Jackson, it gets hotter than a hoochee coochee and it’s a great place to learn to swim, love, and live.

Alan Jackson - Chattahoochee (Official Music Video)

Back in the 70’s, which is when I assume he’s talking about, that might have been true, but these days there’s so much industrial pollution and waste water run-off in the Chattahoochee that if it’s hot, it’s because it’s burning your skin. Atlanta pumps a lot of waste into the river, ruining it for all of the cities downstream.

Chattahoochee River, River Walk, Phenix City side.
Chattahoochee River, River Walk, Phenix City side.

That hasn’t stopped both Columbus (on the Georgia side of the river) and Phenix City (on the Alabama side of the river) from both trying to develop the area. One of their projects is a river walk. I remember when the Columbus government first started building the river walk back in the mid 90’s. If I remember right, I did a March of Dimes event there when I was a sophomore in high school. It was pretty nice. The view was good. Even going back there now, after having seen the skylines of so many cities in and outside the US, it’s still good, though that may be partly the nostalgia.

Blown dam on the Chattahoochee River
Blown dam on the Chattahoochee River

The other project that Columbus is working on is something to do with white water rafting. The city government has this idea in their head that if they build it, ‘they’ will come, in the hundreds of thousands, so, sure enough, several historic dams that were built to power factories that used to operate along the waterfront were blown open to create a ‘white water’ effect in the river. Personally, I think it looks more like a ‘lazy river’ ride at a theme park, way too tame for someone seeking a real white water thrill, but maybe they haven’t opened up all the dams yet.

My wife and I went down the Phenix City riverwalk with my dad and he was telling us about how the city made a big deal out of blowing the dam we happened to be looking at, at the time. It was televised and people were expecting a large explosion, but it wasn’t really anything special. I still wish I’d been there to see it, but mostly because I’d have been interested to see what was at the bottom of the river. I bet they pulled a lot of neat stuff out of there.

Covered over square tunnels visible in far walls.
Covered over square tunnels visible in far walls.

Across the river from where we were, for example, there was a wall built of large square stones that was previously submerged. In the side of that wall there were square tunnels running back into the bank. I wonder what’s in there? Was it used fro waste run-off or sewage? The way it was built, with two walls in terraced set-up, it seemed like there used to be a road down there.

Old factories and a power station (small building 1/4 from the right)
Old factories and a power station (small building 1/4 from the right)

Anyway, there’s a lot of history in that area. One of the last major wars of the Civil War was fought in Phenix City. Columbus used to produce most of the boots and swords for the Confederate Army. Columbus was also the end of the line for river cargo from the Gulf of Mexico, since it sits on the fall line. Now, those old factories are being converted into expensive lofts and the river is being turned into a commercialized tourist attraction (which will probably fail due to health concerns), but at least the river has a bit more character now. I wish I could get down in there with a metal detector…