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Correspondence manuals in nineteenth-century Greater Syria: between the arzuhalci and the advent of popular letter writing

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This article is based on several editions of a recently located letter writing manual by Yusuf Efendi al-Shalfun (1839-95). This booklet provides a new perspective on a period in which the practice of ‘popular’ letter-writing was expanding in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire. Little research has been devoted thus far to the implications of the increase in the ability to write (in contradistinction to the ability to read), in the empire’s Arab provinces in the second half of the nineteenth century. Popular correspondence, both personal and more formal, gradually developed among the Arab urban literate population, who used manuals such as the one written by al-Shalfun as guides to write in various official, social, and familial situations. Letter writing thus complemented the work of the arzuhalcis, the professional letter and petition writers in the Ottoman empire. This paper examines the impact of popular letter writing in Greater Syria in the second half of the nineteenth century as well as the public’s ability at the time to communicate through writing.


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