Thieves’ Guild on the march: The Procession of the Guilds, Istanbul, 1638

You see it’s all a show, keep them laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

The streets of Istanbul never had a shortage of spectacles. Whether the city was called Byzantium, or Constantinople, or Istanbul, there was always something for the crowds to gawk at.

Religious processions in honour of Aphrodite or Dionysus and perhaps Cybele and Serapis, nude torch races from the coast to the acropolis, sacrifices; military parades, triumphs, chariot races and bloodsports; theatre and dances, performances by acrobats and entertainers of all sorts with varying degrees of public debauchery; executions and mutilations, walks of shame, processions of holy icons and relics, the coronation of Emperors and Caesars and Sultans. And riots. Many many riots.

But perhaps the City in all its long history never saw anything as spectacular as the Procession of the Guilds of 1638, in honour of Sultan Murad IV as he was preparing to march for Baghdad. Luckily, we have an eyewitness account: the great Ottoman traveller and chronicler Evliya Çelebi recorded everything for posterity.

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He describes 735 guilds parading on foot or on decorated carts, displaying their tools and wares, entertaining the crowds with theatrics and songs, handing out their products but also selling and haggling, vying for the Sultan’s favour and competing for the most bizarre outfit and the most outrageous performance.

The carpenters build small houses as they pass, the bakers have prepared enormous loaves of bread “large as the cupola of a hamam”, the toymakers give away toys for the children and some of them are dressed as babies (big burly bearded men pretending to bawl and play), the undertakers brandish their shovels, the sailors parade boats on wheels and perform a mock naval battle in front of the Sultan’s kiosk…

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…and so on and so forth, thousands upon thousands of participants, a pandemonium of sounds and a riot of colours and perfumes, from sunrise to sunset, for three days.

And perhaps most remarkable of all, once all the conventional guilds of merchants and artisans and labourers had passed, the end of the procession was reserved for some less respectable groups. In fact, they were positively disreputable. The last leg of the parade was headed by Istanbul’s Thieves’ Guild, or, as Evliya says, “the corporation of thieves and footpads who might be mentioned here as a very numerous one and who have an eye to our purses. But far be they from us. These thieves pay tribute to the two chief officers of the police and get their subsistence by mingling with Istanbul’s crowds and cheating foreigners.”

Then came the Beggars’ Guild – 7000 members with their sheikh (their guildmaster, that is), on foot or riding donkeys, praying loudly and quoting the Quran on the importance of giving alms to the poor.

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Second to last were the jesters and mimes, and Evliya gets lyrical about them: “Wherever there’s a feast for the circumcision of a royal family member, or for a wedding, or for a victory, two to three thousand singers, comedians, mimes, and the city’s naughty children, who have drunk to the last drop seventy cups of the poison of life and anarchy, gather and play day and night.”

And last but not least, came the Innkeepers. A few years earlier, Murad IV had banned coffee and alcohol in the capital, and gone about it rather brutally: transgressors could be killed on sight. It was an era of state terror, but still, for some reason, the ban never quite caught on in this city.

So the guild of tavern keepers paraded in disguise. Evliya tells us there were “one thousand such places of misrule, kept by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. In the procession wine is not produced openly, but the inn-keepers pass all in disguise and clad in armour. The boys of the taverns, all shameless drunkards, and all the partisans of wine pass, singing songs, tumbling down and rising again.” Others wore masks, or poured sherbet to the spectators, though who knows how much wine was consumed right there, under the nose of the authorities.

Evliya concludes: “The procession began its march at dawn and continued till sunset… on account of which all trade and work in Istanbul were disrupted for a period of three days. During this time the riot and confusion filled the town to a degree which is not to be expressed by language, and which I, poor Evliya, only dared to describe.”

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Such processions were not uncommon in the 16th and 17th century, though 1638’s was, by all accounts, the most magnificent. And there really was a rearguard of outcasts marching “under the watchful eye of the police”, like a strangely unconfrontational Black Bloc at the back of a protest. A rearguard comprised of Rogues, Bards, and Innkeepers.

These denizens of the dark, so often shunned and feared and hunted, were momentarily acknowledged and brought to the light. And for a precious short moment of collective honesty, as the sun was setting over the jagged skyline, the domes and the minarets of Istanbul, on the last hour of the last day of the Procession of the Guilds, the city’s naughty children were finally celebrated.

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Because let’s be honest: how can a city be a city without its Rogues, its Bards, and (prohibition be damned) its Innkeepers? Without its scoundrels, its vagabonds, its outcasts, without its naughty children who “have drunk to the last drop seventy cups of the poison of life and anarchy”? It was about time someone cheered them, and it was about time the city bowed to its neglected offspring for once, even as it laughed at them.

In the rarity of this gesture, and in its stark contrast with everyday life in the margins, lies hidden a great heartbreak which is not to be expressed by language, and which I, poor Rogue, dare not even try to describe. Instead, I salute my fellows from across the sea and through the ages.

[source: “Istanbul: The Imperial City”, by John Freely. These links from Google Books might give you a better idea for the Procession: [x] [x] . I am dismayed that I can’t find a translation of Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahâtnâme (The Book of Travels) online.]

[originally posted by Rogue on tumblr]

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