The Skilliter Centre conference on The Ottomans and health: a comparative perspective was held from 3-6 July, 2013. The conference set out to consider health in the widest possible sense with papers on areas ranging from concepts of hygiene, morality and philanthropy, to healthscapes, architecture and gravestones.

Wednesday 3 July 



14.00-18.00 Registration

18.45-20.30 Reception

A reception will be given by the Principal of Newnham College, Professor Dame Carol Black, to be held at the Principal’s Lodge.

Thursday 4 July

09.30-11.00 Panel I – Morality

Chair: Professor Elizabeth Zachariadou (Crete)

  • Professor Angeliki Konstantakopoulou (Ioanina), Pure soul in unclean body: some remarks on Christian-Islamic divergences.
  • Professor John Alexander (Thessaloniki) and Dr Sophia Laiou (Ionian University, Corfu), Health and philanthropy among the Ottoman Orthodox population, eighteenth to early nineteenth century.
  • Dr Ebru Boyar (ODTÜ, Ankara), The moral road to health in the late Ottoman empire and early Turkish republic.

11.00-11.30 Coffee

11.30-13.00 Panel II – Cleanliness

Ch​air: Dr Colin Heywood (Hull)

  • Professor Elizabeth Archibald (Durham), Therapeutic bathing in the medieval West: literary and historical evidence.
  • Dr Svetla Ianeva (New Bulgarian University, Sofia), Hygiene in nineteenth-century Ottoman Bulgaria.
  • Dr Kate Fleet (Cambridge), The little frogs in Terkos: providing water to Istanbul in the late Ottoman empire.

13.00-14.30 Lunch

14.30-16.00 Panel III – Trade

Chair:Dr Kate Fleet (Cambridge)

  • Dr Tara Alberts (York), Rose water from Mecca and gall-nuts from the Levant: the trade in curative commodities between Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the early modern period.
  • Erol Baykal (Cambridge), Selling medicine in the late Ottoman empire.
  • Dr Vera Costantini (Venice), Well-protected remedies. The Venetian pharmacopoeia in the Ottoman empire.

16.00-16.30 Coffee

16.30-18.00 Panel IV – State and Health in the Late Ottoman Empire

Chair: Dr Gábor Ágoston (Georgetown)


  • Dr Tuba Demirci (Kemerburgaz University, Istanbul), Mother and children’s health in the late Ottoman empire: critical issues regarding welfare, pronatalism and population progeny between 1839-1908.
  • Dr Emine Ö. Evered (Michigan State), Confronting disease, controlling society: late Ottoman experiences with syphilis and regulation.
  • Dr Yücel Yanıkdağ (University of Richmond), Firar as psychogenic fugue: the dilemma of Ottoman military desertion in the Great War.

19.30 Dinner

Friday 5 July

09.30-10.30 Panel V – Medical Knowledge I

Chair: Professor Ben Fortna (SOAS)

  • Dr Debby Banham (Cambridge), ‘The East’ as a source of medical ideas and materials in early medieval England.
  • Dr Birsen Bulmuş (Appalachian State University), Feyzi Mustafa Hayatizade and the Ottoman conception of syphilis in the eighteenth century.

10.30-11.00 Coffee 

11.00-12.00 Panel VI – Medical Knowledge II

Chair: Professor Abdul-Karim Rafeq (College of William and Mary)

  • Dr Maurits van den Boogert (Leiden), Dr Russell’s clinical eye: western reports on Ottoman medicine from the eighteenth century.
  • Dr Kyle Evered (Michigan State), Locating malaria in the late Ottoman context: between republican narratives and the historical record.

12.00-13.00 Panel VII – Hospitals

Chair: Professor Filiz Yenişehirlioğlu (Başkent University, Ankara)

  • Dr Miri Shefer-Mossensohn (Tel Aviv), The many masters of early modern Ottoman hospitals: between the imperial palace, harem, bureaucracy, and the Muslim legal courts.
  • Dr Nina Ergin (Koç University, Istanbul), Healing by design? A multi-sensorial approach to early modern Ottoman hospital architecture.

13.00-14.30 Lunch

Afternoon free

Saturday 6 July

9.00-12.00 Panel VIII – City and Health

Chair: Professor Elizabeth Zachariadou (Crete)

  • Professor Abdul-Karim Rafeq (The College of William and Mary), Traditional and institutional medicine in Ottoman Damascus.
  • Dr Amina El-Bendary (AUC, Cairo), A social history of medicine in medieval Egypt and Syria.

10.00-10.30 Coffee

  • Dr Nükhet Varlık (Rutgers), Imagined healthscapes: places of health and disease in early modern Ottoman cities.
  • Dr Colin Heywood (Hull), Edirne-Izmir-Larnaca, 1690-1710: experiences of disease and death in three Ottoman milieux.
  • Dr Antonis Anastasopoulos (Crete), Communicating death: Ottoman gravestones from Crete.

12.00-13.00 Roundtable Discussion: 

Discussant: Dr Gábor Ágoston (Georgetown)

13.00-14.30 Lunch

The organizers gratefully acknowledge the support of the George Macaulay Trevelyan Fund and Newnham College

For further details please contact Kate Fleet ( or Ebru Boyar (



Rose water from Mecca and gall-nuts from the Levant: the trade in curative commodities between Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the early modern period

Tara Alberts (University of York)

Recent scholarship has stressed the vibrant trade in spices and other commodities between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Historians have explored the effect of these diplomatic, mercantile and religious exchanges on the societies, cultures and economies of both regions. The arrival of Europeans in Southeast Asia brought added complexity to these trade networks: disrupting some established connections and influencing the creation of new diplomatic and mercantile links between the two regions. European accounts are frequently very detailed about the commodities available in the entrepôts of Southeast Asia. In particular, these accounts can reveal the flourishing medical market place which existed in many port-cities, illustrating the wide range of medicines, ritual objects and other materials which could be used for healing. This paper explores European perceptions of the trade between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and in particular of the curative commodities (purportedly) arriving in Southeast Asia with Middle Eastern merchants. Many European accounts made rhetorical reference to the supposed struggle between cross and crescent in the region, as Islam and Christianity both gained converts. Against this backdrop, medicines and ideas about health and healing often took on added significance in narratives of the encounter. Some missionaries expressed concern, for example, that Muslim proselytisers would be able to persuade Southeast Asians of the veracity of Islam through providing access to novel cures. This paper will explore the ways in which monitoring the exchange of curative commodities between Southeast Asia and the Middle East became linked to wider European objectives and anxieties in the region and the wider world.

 Health and philanthropy among the Ottoman Orthodox population, eighteenth to early nineteenth century

John Alexander (Thessaloniki) and Sophia Laiou (Ionian University, Corfu)

For the Orthodox Christian urban population of the Ottoman Empire the eighteenth century was identified with demographic and economic development. This development resulted in obvious socio-economic differentiation between the Orthodox urban strata and the formation of “internal” elites, which interacted with the Ottoman administrative system  and/or participated in the commercial networks within or outside the Ottoman empire.

A means of reproduction of the power structure within the boundaries of the Orthodox Ottoman population was the practice of philanthropy. In the second half of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century in large Ottoman cities wealthy Christian reaya funded the building of hospitals, aiming at the comfort of the co religious lower social layers. On the other hand, Orthodox bishops, continuing the philanthropic tradition of the Orthodox Church, donated money to the monasteries for the relief of the ill and infirm people.

In this paper the above mentioned aspects of the philanthropic activity will be addressed, focusing on issues referring to: a) the restriction of this activity in large urban centers, in full correspondence with the restricted number of the hospitals established as vakıfs by members of the Ottoman dynasty; if in the case of the Ottoman Muslims the offer of food was considered a more significant act of philanthropy and piety, in the case of the urban Orthodox Ottoman population were there other priorities concerning the donation of cash for philanthropic reasons? b) What was the social profile of the donors and what was their motivation? How strong was their class consciousness towards their co religious? c) What was the role of the Orthodox monasteries in the nursing of the sick poor Christians? d) In what way the rules that the Orthodox donors imposed can be compared with the stipulations of the Muslim cash vakıfs?

Communicating death: Ottoman gravestones from Crete

Antonis Anastasopoulos (University of Crete and Institute for Mediterranean Studies/FORTH)

The aim of my paper is to examine how death is represented in the epitaphs of the Islamic gravestones of Rethymno (Ott. Resmo), Crete. Death is the result of factors such as ill health, accident, crime, or old age, but most of the time citing the cause of death on an Ottoman gravestone was considered irrelevant. By definition, the aim of the epitaphs was not to systematically record the lives and circumstances of death of the persons concerned, but rather to mourn death and praise the dead. Thus, the paper will focus on socially acceptable ways to talk about death in the context of funerary practices, and will also seek to address the issue of the bounds between social conformity and the expression of genuine feeling on gravestones as permanent markers of death placed in a cemetery, which in the case of Rethymno, as in other Ottoman settlements, was an open area situated outside the district of the living, the walled town. The Rethymno gravestones will be examined in the context of the extensive literature on Ottoman gravestones, and an attempt will also be made to locate references to death in other types of sources from Ottoman Crete, such as folk poems.

 Therapeutic bathing in the medieval West: literary and historical evidence

Elizabeth Archibald (University of Durham)

Therapeutic bathing was widely practiced in the medieval West. In this paper I shall consider various kinds of evidence, literary and historical. Baths were widely available in private homes and in public bathhouses, though public baths were on a much smaller scale than Roman ones. Visits to the baths were often excuses for amorous encounters, according to literary texts including the Roman de la Rose, the Occitan romance Flamenca, Boccacio’s Decameron and Macchiavelli’s play Mandragola. Bathing as a cure for medical problems was very widespread in continental Europe (I am less confident that it was common in England, which has only one hot spa, Bath). It is recommended in many medical texts for everyone from newborn babies to the old, with many qualifications according to the season and the ailment to be cured. Many images offer further evidence of the popularity of bathing; our spa and jacuzzi culture today is nothing new.

 ‘The East’ as a source of medical ideas and materials in early medieval England

Debbie Banham (University of Cambridge)

The twelfth century is widely known as the period when ‘Arabic’ medical knowledge (some of it originating even further east) became widely available in western Europe, but western texts had in fact been showing an interest in places to the east for a couple of centuries before that. This paper will focus on medical texts written in the vernacular in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries, showing how they foreshadow developments normally asociated with the twelfth-century ‘Renaissance’. In common with other writings from early medieval England, the Old English medical texts do envisage Asia as a locus of strangeness and special knowledge, as well as holiness, but they also associate it with particular medical authorities and ingredients. The paper will investigate the identity of those authorities and ingredients, and the sources of the latter, and place the texts’ ‘Orient’ in its context, both within medical developments in the medieval West, and in wider ideas about the East in England in the early middle ages.

Selling medicine in the late Ottoman empire

Erol Baykal (University of Cambridge)

The public discourse about different types of drugs in the Ottoman empire took two distinct forms, namely the discussion of new and established medication in professional journals on the one hand and the marketing of branded drugs on the other. Both forums addressed a distinctly different audience: the former, medicine professionals and pharmacists, and the latter, the general public. Interestingly, dichotomies occurred between what was, according to expert opinion, proper good value medication and the type of drugs the general consumers, influenced by advertising campaigns, preferred. This paper examines the behaviour of Ottoman consumers within these parameters in order to establish how much expert opinion and advertising could influence consumer behaviour.

A social history of medicine in late medieval Egypt and Syria

Amina El-Bendary (AUC, Cairo)

The history of medicine is one of the richest areas of medieval and early Islamic history. Much research has focused on the medical discourses of classical Islam, especially on medical texts written by physicians. These texts have revealed to us the continuation of Galenic medicine under the Arab caliphates and the persistence of the humoral theories. This study of medical discourses is also complemented by studies that focus on the practice. For medieval Islamic societies, surviving waqf documents are also an important source for studying the bimaristans of the period.

However, in addition to this high tradition of specialized medicine, other traditions existed and practice varied. Surviving Arabic chronicles can also add to our understanding of the practice of medicine on a popular level. Historians such as al-Maqrizi or Ibn Taghribirdi or Ibn Tawq as they chronicled the everyday affairs of their societies also gave us an idea of how these societies perceived and dealt with health concerns and illnesses. The references to health issues and concerns by medieval historians suggest that practice was more varied than the study of normative texts suggests. These references also help us to better appreciate the challenges facing medieval societies, and the social anxiety at a time of different epidemics.

 Dr Russell’s clinical eye: western reports on Ottoman medicine from the eighteenth century

Maurits van den Boogert (Leiden)

The medical knowledge of the Arabs was held in high regard in the West for a long time, but this began to change in the eighteenth century. Due to new approaches to (the teaching of) physick in Europe, Western medical men began to look at the East from a different perspective. Scholars and practitioners in Europe continued to be interested in medical texts – mostly still in Arabic – from the Ottoman empire, but the Levant also became a territory where first-hand experience could be acquired with diseases that were uncommon in the West. The British merchant navy and the Levant Company provided fruitful infrastructures for such medical inquiries. Alexander and Patrick Russell – the two half-brothers who are all too often conflated into the singular “Dr Russell” – embodied many aspects of these developments during the Enlightenment. As students of the pupils of Boerhaave, they were genuinely interested in actual patients, and both relied more on clinical observation than on venerable medical theories. On the basis of the publications of both Alexander and Patrick Russell, this paper will discuss their attitudes towards Ottoman medicine; their reports about the plague; and what accounts like those of the Russells tell us about Ottoman folk medicine, including inoculation.

 The moral road to health in the late Ottoman empire and the Early Turkish Republic

Ebru Boyar (Middle East Technical University, Ankara)

This paper aims to trace the developments in the state policy towards syphilis, one of the four big diseases in the late Ottoman and early Republican period. For the state, syphilis was a “terrible disease” endangering not only public health but also threatening the security of the state and even the very survival of the population. The way the state sought to combat the spread of the disease was to make it a moral issue and it therefore adopted an increasingly moral tone in its discourse, developing from the comparatively relaxed tone of the Abdülhamidian era to the more stridently moral pronouncements of the CUP and the more stigmatising rhetoric of the early Republican government. However, this increasing moralistic tone proved counter-productive and undermined the ability of the state to enforce its health policy. The state was thus forced to shift its discourse, on the one hand toning down its moralistic approach in its relations with the urban upper classes, further driven into concealment rather than disclosure by social stigmatisation, and, on the other, stressing the moral unacceptability of syphilis in rural areas, in combination with a strong-arm policy of enforced medical treatment.

Mustafa Feyzi Hayatizade Efendi’s Risale-i İllet-i Merakiyye:a case study in pre-modern Ottoman conceptions of syphilis

Birsen Bulmuş (Appalachian State University)

Mustafa Feyzi Hayatizade Efendi’s Risale-i İllet-i Merakiyye, written in 1093 (1682-1683), represents a pivotal moment in Ottoman conceptions about syphilis, an infectious disease that possibly originates from transmission from America in the wake of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery”. This work, thoroughly based on the findings of late sixteenth- and early seventeeth-century European writers such as Hieronymous Fabricius, Amatus Lucitanus, and Daniel Sennert, endorsed the claim that syphillis had changed in nature, and had, in time, become distinct from the French pox (maraz-i Efrenci). In Hayatizade’s opinion, illicit sex was only one cause of the illet-i merakiyye, “the disease of curiosity/passion”. Poor diet, or anything else that could cause a preponderance of black bile in the internal organs, could upset the Galenic bodily balance, and set off a chronic infection.

Hayatizade, like the European sources which he used, aimed in large part at elite audiences. The Galenic methods which they advocated required the individualized attention of courtly doctors, and could not readily be applied to the poor. They also focused on male patients, and blamed women as being much more naturally predisposed towards the disease, and possibly helping to spread the bile.

Hayatizade’s work is also of interest because of its lack of reference towards spiritual causes. This may in part be due to his own background as a Jewish convert to Islam, and to his role as the chief court physician (Hekimbaşı) to Mehmed IV, whose job might have been in part to transmit the latest knowledge and methods from abroad.

Some two centuries later, Ottoman o