Ottoman Messages in Kind: Emotions and Diplomatic Gifts

From Firenze University Press Journal: CROMOHS

University of Florence
3 min readAug 31, 2022

Hedda Reindl-Kiel, University of Bonn

A diamond is forever

About 75 years ago, a smart copywriter coined a new tag line –‘A diamond is forever’ –for his client, De Beers. A new symbol of eternal love was created, and the diamond became the almost obligatory gem of election for engagement rings. In the Middle Ages through to early modern times, however, these stones carried a connotation of boldness and were predominantly worn by men. In the early modern Ottoman context, diamonds were evidently a symbol of power, for in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we find diamonds mainly in the possession of high-ranking viziers. In gift-giving, they played practically no role outside the royal family and courtly circles, although they do appear in diplomatic gifts in the eighteenth century.

Ottoman society and love

Since the methodological ‘emotional turn’ more than a decade ago, a vast corpus of literature has emerged in this field. In this short article I will mainly draw on a paper by Walter Andrews on emotions in the Ottoman realm. Andrews constructs a conceptual diagram showing a ‘cycle of emotion generators’ centring on ‘love.’ Among the features incorporated in this cycle he includes a ‘political node’ (also termed ‘livelihood’ or ‘subsistence node’), encompassing ‘structures of gift and reward.’ He concedes, however, that in this political sphere ‘we are least likely to take seriously […]the Ottoman focus on the emotional content.’ In this context he instances the example of a miniature depicting a beautiful young male proffering flowers to the sultan. Andrews terms the picture a ‘typical Ottoman love scene,’ which is true but in Ottoman reality, outside an idealised poetic sphere, presenting flowers was more often than not a method for squeezing a ‘reward’ (usually some money) out of the recipient.10Indeed, the miniature in Andrew’s example refers to the poet Sehi’s plea to become the defterdar(finance minister).

The nature of Ottoman gift traffic

Before trying to detect traces of emotion in Ottoman gifts, we should first take a short look at the Ottoman system of giving and receiving presents, which at least until the eighteenth century largely rested on the notion of pişkeş, gifts, pretty close to a tribute, presented by an underling and graciously received by an individual of higher rank. To some extent in contrast to Marcel Mauss’s theory expounded in his classic Essai sur le don, the Ottomans did not always practise reciprocity. A higher-ranking individual might respond to a present from an inferior with a favour or general benignity. The concept of pişkeşis a case that calls into question the voluntariness of a gift. It operated much like a tribute in the sense that it was by and large normal for such presents to be demanded from inferiors. Moreover, lavish gifts were required when needing to rely on someone’s help or favour. Diplomatic gift traffic did not substantially differ from the domestic mode of pleasing and honouring colleagues and superiors with official presents. During the sixteenth century, Ottoman protocol demanded a similar approach to the diplomatic traffic of objects, namely, lavish gifts would primarily be bestowed on a partner whose power outshone one’sown position. This mode of giving actually dated back to the late fifteenth century, but was less visible due to the political entanglements of the time. This approach meant that the Porte largely avoided making offerings to rulers of countries not regarded as equals.


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