The City, The Semt and the Mahalle

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The image of Istanbul as the city, or as “a world in itself” was often used to depict the size, the bustle, and the diversity of the Ottoman capital.1 As the center of economic and political power of an empire stretching over three continents, Istanbul drew people from all Ottoman lands and even from beyond. Its population was no doubt one of the most disparate in the world, and the city itself was very large. The walled city itself, a triangular peninsula surrounded by water on two sides, was, at least until the industrial revolution, larger in area than most European cities.2 Its three boroughs (Eyüp, Galata,
and Üsküdar) were set outside the walls and, for two of them, across the water. The official Ottoman denomination of greater Istanbul, Dersaadet ve bilâd-ı selâse (the Abode of Felicity and the three boroughs), does reflect the feeling of size and distance, as experienced by its inhabitants in their daily
lives. Many Istanbulites were leading a localized life, especially before the nineteenth century, and were only partially familiar with the city at large, especially those parts of it that were “across the water.” Well into the nine teenth century, traveling from one part of the city to another was still some thing of an adventure, and daily “commuting” was unthinkable. Local iden-tities and solidarities at the neighborhood and district level developed within Istanbul long before an overall urban conscience could impose its stamp on the inhabitants.

The population of Ottoman Istanbul, though it certainly had a number of ups and downs, always seemed to be tremendous.3 Among Ottoman cities, only Cairo could ever have stood the comparison. Though the hard data are lacking, Istanbul—and not London or Paris—might well have been the most
populated capital-city of Europe between the sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries. At the time of the Ottoman conquest, the population of the Byzantine capital had fallen to just tens of thousands of people. The policy of Mehmed II (the Conqueror) was one of bringing settlers to Istanbul, a policy of forced migration (sürgün) in an attempt to revive the city in the decades immediately following the conquest. About a century later, under the reign of Süleyman “the Magnificent” (1520–1566), the Istanbul population

probably reached the quarter-million mark. It was then almost twice as large as that of Paris or London. Throughout the centuries, the Porte was always worried about the uncontrollable crowding of Istanbul and tried to limit migration to the city and to push away all undesirable elements, if necessary manu militari. These efforts, however, were mostly to no avail. Except for some wild guesses made by a few European travelers, there are practically no data for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century population of Istanbul. The earliest estimates for the first half of the nineteenth century point to slightly less than half a million inhabitants. Growth was slow but regular throughout
the nineteenth century. The first citywide reliable count is that of 1885. The one-million mark will be crossed—for the first time, and only temporarily—just before the First World War, due to the sudden inflow of refugees fleeing the Balkan wars. Not surprisingly, the historiographical heritage of Istanbul has tended to view this enormous conurbation not as an integrated whole, but rather as a patchwork, a colorful collage. There is a wealth of studies on the trade and commerce of Istanbul, its politics and government, its art and architecture, its religious/ethnic communities, and so forth. There have been very few efforts to examine Istanbul as a unified whole. The very problematic nature and— as often as not—the simple absence of historical documentation on the social life of the city and of its inhabitants, is a forbidding obstacle facing local and social historians of the Ottoman capital. Specific in-depth local studies as well as studies emphasizing the modes of articulation of the diverse sections
of the city to each other are sorely lacking. Istanbul’s topographical mosaic of well-defined individual cells did consist, on one side, of city quarters or residential neighborhoods (mahalles), delineated on ethnic/religious grounds and, on the other side, of ethnically more mixed commercial/economic areas. There is, however, a very basic difficulty in finding references to individual mahalles in pre- nineteenth-century Ottoman archival sources. The only Ottoman historical sources for Istanbul that are classified on a topographical basis and in which various mahalles can be spotted are the Archives of the Religious Courts (¥er’iye Sicilleri/Kadı sicilleri); and even in these archives, homogenous,
long, and uninterrupted time series are difficult to come by.


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