Fire and Brimstone

Nazperver Kalfa’s decision to build her school and public fountain in 1792 precisely on the “Butchers’ Road” was no coincidence. A few years ago, the area had greatly suffered as a result of a catastrophic fire, one of the most destructive that ever hit Istanbul, and there were plenty of vacant plots of land along that road.
Ottoman—and wooden—Istanbul has been the theater of hundreds, if not of thousands of fires. Many of them were strictly local affairs that left no permanent scars on the city’s texture and ended up by destroying just a few houses and shops, or sometimes a whole neighborhood. The city, however, did not suffer in its structure. But some others, such as the fire of 1660 or that of 1782, were a real cataclysm. Due to the strong northerly winds, the absence of any effective preventive action, and the nonexistence of fire brigades worthy of that name, everything that they met with turned to ashes.
These fires could last for days on end (those of 1660 and 1782 lasted for three days each) and spared no public building, be they mosque, church, palace, or school. Many were killed in those large fires, tens of thousands were left homeless, and thousands were often forced to migrate elsewhere.68
The probability that any new fire would quickly spread to the neighboring houses and shops was perhaps less likely in such sparsely populated areas as Davudpaœa and Kasap ƒlyas, as compared to the more densely settled central districts. Indeed, all of the fires that devastated big chunks of the city
started either in the commercial areas bordering on the southern shores of the Golden Horn, or right in the residential center (in Fatih, Aksaray, Saint Sophia, etc.) and quickly spread to the neighboring districts. It is hardly surprising that the name of the Davudpaœa District and that of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle do not frequently occur in the numerous accounts of the fires in Istanbul. The sparsely distributed population and distant houses, as well as the many gardens and orchards and the small number of shops might have been a protective factor. So were presumably the presence of the city walls and the proximity of the sea. These proved to be insufficient “protection,” however, whenever the fires were violent. The fact remains, however, that no fire that started in the Davudpaœa District and then spread to other parts of the city has ever been recorded in Istanbul.