Event details

Ritualised reactions to subsistence crises: Food riots in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states in the Middle East

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Date: 18–19 January 2019


Organiser: Till Grallert


The workshop will bring together case studies and research on (urban) food riots and popular protest across the Ottoman Empire and its successor states until the end of WWII that will allow for comparative discussion of analytical approaches. The workshop aims at an empirically grounded discussion of theoretical and methodological approaches to the social history / historical sociology of the late Ottoman Empire and its successor states that were originally devised for other geographies and periods.


Food riots—understood as a form of contentious collective action, in which a group of people assemble in a public place and raise the demand of lower food prices vis-à-vis another group of people—are a phenomenon that needs explanation if one considers the potentially life-threatening repercussions protestors faced as consequence of their actions and the seemingly inherent failure of food riots in securing short-term access to food. The large body of scholarship on food riots demonstrated that food riots cannot be understood as direct functions of elevated food prices and scrutinised the complex set of relations between political changes, sets of beliefs, subsistence crises, famines and food riots. Pioneering studies by E.P. Thompson, Louise Tilly, James Scott, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé and Amartya Sen—to name but the most common examples—focussed either on the end of the ancien régime in northwestern Europe (showing how food riots gave way to demonstrations and formal politics) or the Global South since the second half of the twentieth century (showing food riots as popular reaction to the destruction of the paternalist state by international institutions). 


One is confronted with a dearth of scholarly work, however, with regards to Islamicate societies in the Middle East and North Africa before the WMF riots—with the notable exception of a growing body of literature on food riots in Iran. Almost thirty years ago, Edmund Burke made three erroneous claims in his attempt to apply Charles Tilly’s analytical apparatus to the Middle East: contentions invariably started at the chief mosque of a city; the crowds attacked food stores; and food riots disappeared with the 19th century (Edmond III Burke, Towards a history of urban collective action in the Middle East, 1989). Recent years have seen the emergence of an environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East that successfully established the interplay between social and natural factors, but Yaron Ayalon still writes about “a starving mob storm[ing] the courthouse”. (Yaron Ayalon, Natural Disasters in the Ottoman Empire, 2014:68)


Against this backdrop, the workshop invites papers that will allow us to address the following broad questions: Are food riots indeed a sufficiently distinguishable social phenomenon and different from other forms of protest movements? How stable is such a repertoire of contentious action across time and space and what are its components? Which of the elements of such a repertoire are inspired by other forms of public rituals or ritualised protest? What are the regional specificities of food riots? What are the functions of this form of contentious action within the urban society? What are the implications of food riots for our conceptions of Islamicate urban societies, particularly for the deeply entrenched notion of gender segregation and a public/private divide?




Friday,18 January

10:00 - Welcome and introduction: Till Grallert (OIB)


10:30–11:30 - Food riots in the Ottoman Empire: the early modern experience: Eleni Gara (University of the Aegean, Mytilene)


11:45–12:45 - The bread riot investigation: The vali, the consul, the inspector, the mob, and the historian: Özge Ertem (Koç University)


13:45–14:45 - Neither mosques nor notables: Urban food riots across late Ottoman Bilād al-Shām: Till Grallert (OIB)


14:45–15:45 - Muleteers as Bandits and Mutineers: Global Capital and Social Transformation in the Countryside: Joan Chaker (Harvard Univeristy)


16:00–17:00 - Moral Economy, Social Control and Popular Protest in Modern Jordan: Tariq Tell (American University of Beirut)


19:00 - Dinner, Location tba


Saturday, 19 January


9:30–10:30 - Bread and Sovereignty: Food Riots in Syria during the French Mandate: Sara Pekow (City University of New York)


10:30–11:30 - Administering Drought and Scarcity: The Politics of an Agrarian Crisis in French Mandate Syria: Elizabeth Williams (University of Massachusetts, Lowell)


11:45–12:45 - “If the Flour Ever Arrives Late, This Could Lead to Unfortunate Results”: The Free French and Food Supplies in Mandate Lebanon (1941-1943): Nina Studer (University of Bern)


13:45–14:45 - Concluding discussion