We recently received a very interesting donation here at the Arab American National Museum: a set of swords and shields said to be connected to the Ottoman Empire exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Like many others worldwide, the Ottomans, who controlled much of the Arab World at the time, built a display in the fair’s Midway to showcase their culture, architecture and local products. The Ottoman display included a mosque, restaurant, and shops. The exhibit also featured many performances. According to the information provided by the donor, his great-uncle Ahmed Agha Khudari was sent by the Ottoman government in Damascus to perform a traditional sword and shield dance at the fair. These items were used for training in Damascus before leaving for Chicago.
The 1893 World’s Fair plays an important role in the story of Arab immigration to the United States. The first wave of Arabic immigration had just begun in the 1880s and the fair helped encourage that wave to continue. Many people from the Arab World came to the U.S. because of the fair, either through employment like Ahmed, or coming as tourists. Some simply stayed after the fair ended, but still others went back to their home countries and told others about the fair and about America, spurring further immigration. Additionally, sword and shield performances continued to be a staple attraction at Arab American festivals and gatherings well into the Twentieth Century. These artifacts tell both a simple story about the Ottoman performances at the fair as well as fit into a larger story about the history of Arab Americans.