The Islamic City suite

The Islamic City suite

It is also usually understood, in the context of the same paradigm, that the guilds in Islamic cities did not essentially function as organizations defending the interests of craftsmen. Given the general weakness of urban organizations in Islamic lands, the guilds would be functioning basically as a means of supervising and taxing craftsmen, who would otherwise have totally escaped governmental control.15 This centrally controlled rigid guild structure would then obviously have impeded the appearance of a class of “free” laborers, the social basis for industrialization and for capital accumulation. The administrative rigidity of the guilds’ organization, another pillar of the “” paradigm, will be clearly seen, in the case of Kasap ƒlyas, to be more an illusion than a reality. The fluidity and permeability of guild and nonguild activities will be illustrated by the fruit and vegetable peddlers who had been living for centuries in Kasap ƒlyas.
The haras or mahallas of some Arab or Middle Eastern cities, such as those of Cairo or Aleppo, were often barred by gates that had to be shut at night, a fact taken as a handy physical demonstration of the segmentation of Islamic urban structures. As to the borders of the various city quarters of , or those of any other Turkish Anatolian city for that matter, let alone being physically barred, they were never even strictly drawn or well defined.16 Over the centuries, there were orders issued by the kadı of , especially in times of political trouble, demanding that the population construct gates to protect their mahalles from outside aggressions. But these rulings were never fully implemented, or only haphazardly.
As exemplified by the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle and by its adjacent neighbors, the areas of the traditional Istanbul neighborhoods have always been somewhat imprecise and fluid. The mahalle was essentially a basic urban community defined by a dense web of relationships, before being a “ward,” a local
administrative unit.
As to the continuum in local consciousness in Istanbul, it may well be due not to any pre-set internal homogeneity, but to the very peculiar functional and topographical constraints which, from the very beginning, besieged almost all quarters of the capital-city. The fact that the continuity in the topographic and administrative makeup of the capital-city of the Empire implied a rigidity neither in the number nor in the human and social composition or the economic and social function of each of its cells is perhaps a further challenge to the essentialist notion of a clearly defined, archetypal, and immutable “Islamic city.”
The resilience and the physical and social flexibility of our particular city quarter needs explanation, when viewed over a number of centuries. That the small Kasap ƒlyas neighborhood had the capacity and contained a multisecular mechanism designed to absorb rural migrants and integrate newcomers is striking enough. The fact that, in the last four centuries, it has more or less successfully survived a number of devastating fires, earthquakes, political instability, changes in the economic fortunes of Istanbul, and nineteenth-century throes of modernization must be a sign of its power of adaptation. Ottoman/ Turkish cities were not amorphous conglomerates of homogenous, rigid, and isolated town quarters or guilds. The apparent lack of formal urban institutions before the nineteenth century signifies neither that townsmen had no means of articulating their specific interests, nor that particular public cultures, of the sort that the legacy of the “Islamic city” typology has contributed
to obscure, did not exist.
True, no Muslim Istanbul neighborhood could exist or survive without a minimal level of autarkic organization centered around a mosque (and with a public fountain, a few shops, perhaps a school or a public bath, etc.). From that trivial fact to the notion of a city made up of homogenous and uniform
cellular units, there is, however, a huge step which, if taken, will wear away much of the historical variety that characterized Ottoman cities and neighborhoods. We would suggest that any attempt at devising a normative “Ottoman neighborhood” or producing a programmatic “Istanbul mahalle” is
bound to lose much factual wealth and historical variety. In organizing research into local history around such clichés as “integration,” “local autarky,” “staticness,” or “topographical fragmentation” we would elude many issues. Much information would be put away by the a priori submission to such
bulky concepts.
This book does not pretend to provide a paradigm to rival the idea of the Islamic city, and to replace one norm or one archetype by another. If anything, we would argue, in the context of Islamic/Ottoman/Middle Eastern cities, against any essentialist reductionism and in favor of the irreducible historical singularity not only of each city, but of each of its bits and pieces.
The contribution of such a microstudy to the debate would be to show, perhaps, that not only the cities of Arab, Islamic, and Ottoman lands themselves, but also their topographical or functional or social constituent parts (i.e., the neighborhoods, haras, or mahalles) too, cannot be made to fit into
a set of fundamentally unique and ghettoizing characteristics.

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