Ehl-i Hiref: Artistic Patronage in the Ottoman Empire
Topkapı Palace in Istanbul was the symbolic and political heart of the Ottoman Empire, supporting guilds and artistic production through the Ehl-i Hiref. What was it, and what did it do?
The Ehl-i Hiref was the craftsman’s guild of the Ottoman Empire, run from Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. Rather than commissioning external, independent artists for Palace projects, the Ottoman Empire co-opted the best craftsmen into its own Palace workshops. We know from the records and wage books of the Ehl-i Hiref which types of artists were employed, their names and their specialities, as well as how the ottoman state organised, directed and financed the production of art.
The Ehl-i Hiref was divided into different sections based on their specialities: the designer-decorators (which included the book-makers), the jewellers and goldsmiths, the armourers and clothiers, textiles and costumes, carpet weavers and tile makers, metalworkers and silversmiths, turners and woodworkers, and miscellaneous.
The sizes of these sections waxed and waned over the centuries, depending on the State budget and court tastes; and whilst new sections were added in later years (glaziers, clockmakers, candlestick makers), others were removed from the governance of the Ehl-i Hiref (carpet weavers, tile makers).
The inclusion of the carpet weavers and tile makers is a puzzle, as production is mainly linked to centres in Bursa and Iznik, and the number of artisans is too few to meet the full demands of the Palace. For instance, there were only 18 carpet weavers in the Ehl-i Hiref during the reign of Bayezid II (1481–1512). So, their jobs may have been to produce designs and samples for the bigger production centres, whilst making a few important items themselves.
The Ehl-i Hiref did not just include artists, however. At times included groups such as wrestlers, surgeons and eye-doctors, showing that these were trades considered important and indispensable to the Ottoman establishment. Artisans outside the Ehl-i Hiref could also be commissioned for Palace projects.
The Ehl-i Hiref was therefore the umbrella organisation for artistic patronage by the Palace, with tight control over finances, quality, and design.
1. Cagman, Filiz. (2000). ‘Behind the Ottoman Canon: The works of the imperial palace.’ From Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul (pp. 46–56).