Duties and Powers

The precise mode of selection and/or appointment of the first muhtars in the Istanbul mahalles in the 1830s and 1840s is not well documented. It is highly improbable that a regular and really free election could have taken place at that time. Most probably, a well-known local figure, perhaps also approved and chaperoned by the imam of the local mosque, was presented to, and appointed by, the office responsible for order and security within Istanbul (Ihtisab Nezareti).31 It is not to be excluded that the imam of the local mosque was appointed as the first muhtar in many of the Istanbul neighborhoods.
Duties and Powers
Religious duties and functions (daily mosque services, duties related to the celebration of marriages, trusteeship of vakıfs, etc.) put aside, the ordinary obligations of the new local headmen were more or less the same as those of their predecessors, the imams. These duties were basically of two kinds: there were those connected with security, and those related to the representation of the neighborhood.
The functions of the muhtar related to security matters essentially involved keeping records on the inhabitants of the mahalle, and especially on the newcomers who wanted to set up house. This was a direct consequence of the Ottoman government’s almost obsessive—but to some extent justified, given that many Istanbul revolts and uprisings had ended up by overturning rulers and governments in past centuries—preoccupation with the overcrowding of the capital-city of the empire and with the “quality” of its potential inhabitants. Poor single men of rural origin seeking temporary employment,
and coming to the city from the faraway provinces were especially singled out for being filtered off.
The Tanzimat period saw the revival of a series of old regulations and practices, called men’-i mürur (prohibition of passage), that tried to reduce uncontrolled migration toward Istanbul.32 Every person who moved from one place to another had to be in possession of a sort of internal passport called
mürur tezkeresi (certificate of passage). The muhtars were expected to refuse residence to all who came to their mahalle without this passport. As to those locals who were leaving the neighborhood, the muhtars were to issue a bona fide sort of certificate of good behavior, which entitled them to acquire an internal passport from government authorities.
As to the muhtar’s duties of representation, they generally put him in the position of a mediator between the local population and the Ottoman executive or judiciary powers. The muhtar could testify in court in the name of his whole mahalle, of which he was the legal guarantor, collectively and, if need be, individually. For instance, he was almost systematically called to testify in cases of inheritance with litigation that directly involved inhabitants of his mahalle. He could also transmit to the authorities any collective wish or complaint of the locals and was asked to serve as a sort of mediator in quite a variety of instances.
A typical case is that of the “police station.” In 1888 or 1889, Osman Efendi, then muhtar of Kasap ƒlyas, took the initiative of, or perhaps was asked to, inquire about the possibility of establishing a local police station within the neighborhood. He first looked for a suitable location within the neighborhood and, after consulting with the local inhabitants, found a centrally situated empty plot of land that apparently had no legal owner and seemed suitable for the building of a local police station. The inhabitants of the mahalle looked favorably on that initiative and supported their muhtar.
On April 3, 1889, Osman Efendi wrote a long letter to the Police Department of Istanbul (Zaptiye Nezâreti) voicing the desire and the agreement of the locals, explaining the situation of the empty plot of land, and had his own letter countersigned by a number of inhabitants of his mahalle.33
As previously with the imam, the muhtar was also asked to help with taxes. He could not impose or apportion individually the taxes himself, as the imam used to do with the former avârız taxes, which were imposed collec- tively on the whole mahalle. The new taxes were now strictly personal. The
muhtar of Kasap ƒlyas was asked, for instance, to help establish lists of taxpayers in his mahalle and to keep a copy of these lists. The incomes and real estate assets of the inhabitants were also collected by our muhtar. The taxes involved, in the case of Kasap ƒlyas, were the road tax (tarîk vergisi) and the
property tax (musakkafat vergisi).


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