Fluidity and Imprecision suite

Filed under : istanbul

The Bekir Paœa mescit, as a building, had stood the test of time for about two and a half centuries. However, at no point in time had it succeeded in giving its name to a neighborhood independent from the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle from which it was supposed to have emerged. Was the congregation of the small seaside mosque too small or too poor and/or was the initial endowment and incomes of the waqf insufficient for the upkeep of an imam? Why didn’t the “new” neighborhood expand beyond its initial area? Why didn’t it annex new groups of streets and people?
There was no Muslim neighborhood in that did not have at least one proper mescit. But there were plenty of mosques that had no at tached mahalle of their own.32 At least three other such small mosques without a mahalle of their own were situated not too far from our Kasap ƒlyas
neighborhood. One was the ¥ah ü Geda mosque, situated to the west of our neighborhood and part of the Kürkçübaœı mahalle. The second was the ¥ah Sultan mosque in the neighboring Etyemez District. The third was the Çavuœzade mosque situated at the northern border of Kasap ƒlyas. All of these mosques were sixteenth-century constructions and the Çavuœzade mosque is even said to have been built by the master architect Sinan. None of these small mosques ever had their own mahalle. We shall probably never fully understand the social and economic dynamics that lay behind Bekir Paœa’s unsuccessful attempt at pioneering the establishment of a new neighborhood “independent” of Kasap ƒlyas.
The city quarter, as a location, was always both socially and physically flexible. This was perhaps even more so in topographically very large and— at least until the second half of the nineteenth century—relatively sparsely populated Istanbul, than in other cities of a more normal extent. Suraiya Faroqhi, for instance, points to a relative stability in the numbers but to a very frequent change in the names of the mahalles in the central Anatolian towns of Ankara and Kayseri in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.33 In
Istanbul, both borders and areas could vary even over a relatively short period of time. “Mergers and acquisitions” of mahalles were probably as frequent as new formations and split-ups. An example is again provided by our—still relatively stable—Kasap ƒlyas mahalle. As detailed in the 1885 census documents, the inhabitants of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle lived within a total of 14 streets and culs-de sacs. Only twenty-two years later, the official rosters of the last Ottoman census of 1907 show us that the population of the same mahalle had spilled over an adjacent street and that the neighborhood—as defined jointly by census officials assisted by the local headman (muhtar) during the census operations—now included 15 streets instead of 14.34 The Kasap ƒlyas mahalle had, in the meantime, spilled eastward and encroached on a street that had formerly “belonged” to the Bayezid-i Cedid mahalle. This neighborhood, whose exist- ence is documented from the sixteenth century on, appears, however, in none of the nineteenth-century official mahalle listings and must, in the meantime, have merged with another neighborhood, probably with the one called “Sancaktar Hayreddin” situated just to the west of Kasap ƒlyas. A mahalle at one point in time is a still photograph of a complex process of building and destroying, and of organizing and reorganizing.
The flexibility of the notion of the mahalle is also shown by the many cases of “a neighborhood within a neighborhood.” These are instances where part of a mahalle is called by a different name. The aborted “Bekir Paœa mahalle” is a case in point, albeit unsuccessful in the long run. But some of these
smaller entities might have found their way into some historical sources and have appeared as a distinct city quarter in some listings, and not in others.35
At some point in time, an Istanbul mahalle could have, embedded in it, a subgroup of streets or even of a few building blocks that bore a special name.
For instance, Çavuœzade Street has always been part of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle. Nevertheless, it was considered by many of its twentieth-century inhabitants as forming a separate entity having distinct characteristics. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century inhabitants of Ispanakçı Viranesi, another
small area within Kasap ƒlyas, also formed a subgroup. People living in these two submahalle entities were distinguished due to their—real or imagined— social, ethnic, professional, or religious backgrounds. Ispanakçı Viranesi housed new rural migrants to Kasap ƒlyas, especially in the nineteenth century, and Çavuœzade Street was inhabited mostly by Istanbulites. But there never officially existed a separate Ispanakçı Viranesi mahalle, nor was there ever one named Çavuœzade.
.. These two names never found their way into official mahalle listings. It remains that a subset of a given mahalle could sometimes, or just for a certain period of time, be considered a totally separate neighborhood.
This adds a further element of imprecision to the already fluid local perception. In a sense, a mahalle was always a process in the making and only a fleeting picture is provided by the few available cross-sectional snapshots. Gradual changes in the makeup of Istanbul mahalles were also induced by the simple horizontal mobility of the inhabitants. The ethnic/religious composition of neighborhoods could not have been totally static either. This mobility is impossible to document for periods preceding the second half of the nineteenth century. The few reliable figures that exist for the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle in the Hamidian period, however, strongly suggest that even in earlier periods urban mobility must have been far from negligible.
The turnover rate of the population in our small neighborhood was very high in the second half of the nineteenth century. Between 1885 and 1895 the yearly entry and exit rates to and from the mahalle totaled around 3 percent. That is, for a population of around 1,000 to 1,100 inhabitants, the muhtar’s notebooks reveal that there there were about 30 people moving in or out of the neighborhood every single year. This is a very high rate of circulation. We should add to this figure of 3 percent the yearly births and deaths that occurred among the population of the mahalle. This would mean that the demographic and social composition of the neighborhood could be completely transformed within a generation or so. Indeed, over the last quarter of the nineteenth century the population of Kasap ƒlyas changed almost to a degree of unrecognizability. Practically none of the families and households present in the mahalle during the 1885 census are to be found twentytwo years later, in the last Ottoman census of 1907.

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