Fluidity and Imprecision

Fluidity and Imprecision

At no period in the history of can the number of mahalles within the walled city be taken as a datum. Their number in the early and formative decades of the Ottoman city after the 1453 conquest is not clear.21 The estimates for the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries range between 60
and 130 mahalles. New mahalles were still being formed more than half a century after the Ottoman conquest. Whether the increase in the number of mahalles that occurred in the first half of the sixteenth century is due to population growth by immigration, that is, in many cases, by forced settlements (sürgüns) of provincial groups, or simply to local population spillover is highly uncertain. The total number of Istanbul mahalles was put at no less than 219 in a listing of pious foundations done in 1546.22

About two centuries later, however, a trustworthy and often cited source of the late eighteenth century puts the total number of neighborhood communities in intramural Istanbul at only 181.23 In the post-Tanzimat era there was a tremendous change in the number of these basic urban entities. A
listing of Istanbul mahalles drawn in 1876 for electoral purposes contains 251 items. The 1907 population census contains population data from 147 intramural mahalles. Another administrative list dated from 1913 contains no less than 346 names of neighborhoods. Only ten years later their number has fallen to 282, according to another official listing published in 1922.24 The 1927–1928 Republican municipal reorganization finally reduced the number of Istanbul mahalles situated within the walled city to 114. It also redefined and stabilized their borders. In many cases, these newly defined and redrawn, “rational” and republican mahalle borders were not in conformity with previous usage, nor were they necessarily in agreement with traditional perceptions of local urban space. The number and area of these intramural Istanbul mahalles is, however, still the same today.
The number, the borders, the areas, and the modes of transformation of the quarters of Istanbul, as well as the social, demographic, and economic reasons behind their fluctuation, is still a moot question. Population growth— whether because of immigration or simply as a result of an excess of births over deaths—might have resulted either in a multiplication of neighborhoods or in an overcrowding of existing ones. Demographic growth certainly caused an increase in the number of mahalles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but not necessarily in the nineteenth, when overcrowding was the result in many cases.
Besides, many local or large-scale fires frequently devastated Ottoman Istanbul, in whose residential areas houses were, especially after the sixteenth century, built more and more frequently of wood. As a result of the large-scale fires, many neighborhoods were frequently burned down.25 In the reconstruc- tion process, however, some neighborhoods were reconstructed and survived almost intact (e.g., Kasap ƒlyas) but some less fortunate mahalles did not. They disappeared and/or were absorbed by one or more surrounding mahalles. A well-documented example is that of the Servi Mescidi mahalle, situated in central Istanbul. In 1826 a local fire completely destroyed the neighbor-
hood. The mahalle contained at the time of the fire a total of forty-four houses, its namesake mescit and a han.26 After the fire, new houses and shops were rebuilt on the vacant lots, but these were somehow attributed to the two neighboring and larger mahalles of Mahmud Paœa and Cezerî Kasım Paœa. The unfortunate Servi Mescidi neighborhood then disappeared from the official records. It does not appear in the 1876 listing. The efforts at revival and restoration by the trustees of the local pious foundation (vakıf) and by the imam of the local mosque—who had lost his sources of revenue in the fire— were of no avail. As late as 1902, the trustees of the foundation related to the small mosque filed an application to the Council of State (¥ûra-yı Devlet) to make their point. The Council of State issued a ruling stating that the Servi Mescidi pious foundation was still valid, that the charred remains of the mosque were still standing, and that, therefore, the destroyed neighborhood
had not lost its legal right to exist. But the court ruling could never be implemented, and the local mosque, and the Servi Mescidi mahalle were never rebuilt.27 In the municipal reform of the 1920s its area was included within Mahmud Paœa.
What is it that made such a difference possible between the “stable” Kasap ƒlyas, which survived all the fires, and the unfortunate Servi Mescidi neighborhood that succumbed to the first large-scale fire and could not be restored? The answer is not clear. Whatever it may be, the lesson is that the physical, mental, and social boundaries of the Istanbul neighborhood communities were basically imprecise. The topographically amorphous nature of many of these urban cells could make them extraordinarily resilient as well as prone to sudden and accidental change. There is even a relative instability in the very names of many mahalles, when considered over a long period of time.
The case of a “new” mahalle, just next to Kasap ƒlyas is a good example of an attempted but aborted neighborhood. Its existence is documented as far back as the second quarter of the sixteenth century, and it seems to have then occupied an area around the Davud Paœa gate. It was at that time called a
“new mahalle, adjacent to Kasap ƒlyas,” probably because it did not yet have a mosque of its own from which to derive a name. In the 1630s, however, Bekir Paœa, one of the defterdars28 to Sultan Murad IV, built a two-story wooden mosque on the seaside just outside the ramparts, endowed it, and
appointed an imam and a muezzin to officiate in it. With a number of people already living in the area, and a newly established and endowed mosque, the new neighborhood was thus set to acquire its independence from Kasap ƒlyas. It appears, however, that a bona fide “Bekir Paœa mahalle” could never be launched. This “new” neighborhood does not appear in a late seventeenthcentury Istanbul avârız list of neighborhoods29 composed just a few decades after the building of the Bekir Paœa mosque. About a century and a half after the foundation of the mosque, an exhaustive and authoritative listing of Istanbul mosques does contain the Bekir Paœa mescit, but does not omit to mention that this small mosque “has no mahalle attached to it.”30 Similarly, a “Bekir Paœa neighborhood” appears in none of the post-Tanzimat nineteenth-century official mahalle listings. Yet another source calls the small mosque not by the name of its founder but as “the mescit next to the Davudpaœa wharf.”31 In the second half of the nineteenth century the mosque must have fallen totally in disuse, for during the Ottoman 1885 census it was already abandoned and in ruins. In the last Ottoman census of 1907, it had completely disappeared.

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