Sources and Issues

Filed under : istanbul

What is known of the demographic structures and the social relationships within the capital-city of the Ottoman Empire, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly concerns either the Palace itself and its web of political relationships or the more “Westernized” suburbs of Galata and Pera, whose inhabitants were mostly the Levantine or the non-Muslim. In any case, the available information concerns mostly middle- or upper-middle-class strata. The stock of published and materials (novels, memoirs, biographies, travelogues, etc.) also concern, for obvious reasons, more or less the same groups.
Besides, they are, for the most part, concentrated in the post-Tanzimat period. As exemplified by the history of Kasap ƒlyas however, grassroots , much less “visible” both to contemporaries and to historians, was certainly quite different. The majority of the Istanbulites, especially those living in the intramural city, shared more modest households and neighborhoods, and it is they and their movements that ultimately put their stamp on Ottoman . However, not much of significance has been written either on the daily lives of ordinary citizens, on the structure and the web of relationships of average neighborhoods or, for that matter, on the human fabric of Ottoman cities at large.
As far as the Anatolian towns are concerned, the picture is not all that different. In the heyday of their discovery and frenetic exploitation as a new source, it was hoped that the early Ottoman tax cum land cadastral surveys of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the tapu-tahrir registers (the Defters), could be used to reconstruct quarter by quarter their demographic and economic structure. These documents, however, have proven to be too schematic, too isolated, and too incomplete to provide anything more than a simple indication of relative population densities and, in some cases, of global
population trends36 in these cities. Besides, consistent long-run series are almost impossible to obtain for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

As to the Ottoman/Turkish tradition of local history, this literature deals quite extensively with the archaeological remains and the architecture, the historical monuments, the urban layout, and so forth, of various cities. Notwithstanding a few notable exceptions, much of this literature, especially that concerning Anatolian cities, is little more than undigested raw historical source material with almost no attempts at detailed comment or synthesis. Besides, this literature is, mainly for lack of historical documentation, largely silent on what is the basic element of any community object of study: the people and their daily lives in the Ottoman period.
There is a small number of brilliant exceptions to this sad state of affairs. Faroqhi on seventeenth-century Ankara and Kayseri, André Raymond on various Arab cities under Ottoman rule, Haim Gerber on seventeenth century Bursa, Abraham Marcus on eighteenth-century Aleppo, Daniel Goffman on Izmir, and Özer Ergenç on sixteenth-century Ankara deserve special mention. All of these studies use the archives of the local religious court records as one of their main source of documentation.
Local Archives
We know, however, of no equivalent historical study focusing on a single mahalle within an Ottoman or Middle Eastern city. Indeed, one of the reasons why, among all of the neighborhoods in traditional Istanbul, the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle has been picked up for such an in-depth, demographic, and historical study is, first and foremost the availability of a really exceptional set of archival sources pertaining to its population. The equivalent of these historical sources exist, to the best of our knowledge, for no other urban neighborhood of Istanbul, or for that of any other Ottoman city, for that matter.
These quite exceptional archival sources consist of three thick notebooks accompanied by a number of loose folios, all handwritten by the successive imams of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque and by the muhtars of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle in the second half of the nineteenth century. These notebooks and folios contain, among other items of information:
1. a nominative list of 654 marriage contracts registered by the imams of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque in the second half of the nineteenth century;
2. a complete list and description of waqf property in the neighborhood starting from the 1660s and ending about the middle of the nineteenth century, as well as the uses to which these waqf buildings and land have been put and the revenues that accrued;

3. a nominative list of population movements in and out of the neighborhood in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as well as a (very incomplete) list of births and deaths in the mahalle;
4. a very precise descriptive count of all real estate property, public and private, in the neighborhood conducted in 1885 with names of owners and of tenant(s), if any.
The care with which the successive imams and muhtars of the the nineteenthcentury Kasap ƒlyas mahalle took note of the demographic events that occurred in their neighborhood is truly surprising. Prior to the late nineteenth century regulations on registration, there was no Ottoman/Muslim tradition of registering or centralizing vital events. A particularly zealous scribe (the local headman, muhtar Osman Efendi, of whom more will be said later) was instrumental in preserving these local documents. We have used these exceptional local records to complement the official census documents, to obtain an insider’s perspective about the social and economic makeup of the neighborhood, and to trace the process of rural migration and integration into the mahalle. The marriage records contain little demographic information, for neither the ages, nor the dates and places of birth of the spouses were noted.
These records are, however, a good indicator of the progressive secularization of vital registration. As to the local waqf records kept by the imam, the local trustee, they furnish important glimpses on intramahalle relationships in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The movements in and out of the neighborhood have provided a means of analyzing a multisecular migration model from the Anatolian town of Arapkir.

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