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The Semt

Ever since the early sixteenth century, the urban fabric of the residential areas of intramural Istanbul has consisted of a juxtaposition of mahalles. Some of them retained their name and topographical location for centuries. These mahalles were usually not very populous, nor did they cover a wide area. On the eve of the First World War, for instance, the Istanbul mahalles had an average population of around fifteen hundred people. 4 Ten or fifteen streets at most, grouped around a thoroughfare or perhaps around a small square, and one or two small mosques (or a church or a synagogue, depending on the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood) defined most of the residential Istanbul mahalles. The neighborhood also usually contained a public fountain or two and a few shops catering to basic necessities or services. There might also be some some public utility buildings (a public bath, or perhaps, a dervish convent or a primary school). Less basic goods and services were available either in the more central commercial areas, like the covered big bazaar (çarœû-yı kebir), or in the many weekly markets serving larger slices of the urban population. Many of these Ottoman mahalles of Istanbul bore the name of the benefactor of the local mosque, the public bath or fountain, that of a
mythical figure, that of a Byzantine monument, or even, in a few cases, the name of the geographic origin of its first Muslim inhabitants. Although the borders and areas of each of the Istanbul mahalles were never very strictly drawn, and they certainly did fluctuate in time, these urban neighborhood units were at all times perceived as an important protective and cohesive unit immediately surrounding the family and the household. They fostered a durable sense of local identity and cohesion. At least ever since the middle of the sixteenth century, and in the absence of accepted family surnames, many of the artisans and the ordinary folk of Istanbul were known or nicknamed as “from such and such a district (semt) or mahalle.” Various types of rivalries or cooperative actions between adjacent neighborhoods and districts are well-known and have survived well into the twentieth century.

The mahalles were well entrenched as basic communities at the local level and played key roles in shaping local identities and solidarities. This solidarity entailed a particular modus vivendi, plus some sort of collective defense, as well as various mechanisms of mutual control and surveillance, many of them designed for regulating and monitoring public morality. In many mahalles collective social life was real, durable, and strong. In many of them, for instance, self-appointed bands of youths would act as militias to defend the mahalle’s “honor” from outside “agressions.” In others, there were, in the nineteenth century, self-organized amateur “fire-brigades” who took charge of the extinction of real and of the prevention of potential fires. These young
mens’ brotherhood type of groups (tulumbacı) also took upon themselves the task of defending the honor and reputation of the locals. Twentieth-century Kasap ƒlyas bears many reminiscences of these groups. The districts (semts) and mahalles of pre-twentieth-century Istanbul had their—real or imagined— honor and reputation to uphold.
The traditional mahalles of Istanbul were generally very mixed in terms of wealth, social class, and status. Residential patterns usually ran along lines of ethnicity and religion. However, ethnically and/or religiously mixed mahalles were not infrequent either. Recent studies have tended to show that even in the early periods of Ottoman rule, ethnic and religious identities did not necessarily exhaust the definition of a mahalle. The notion of the absolute homogeneity of the Islamic or Middle Eastern town quarter regarding its social composition and the idea that these neighborhoods were exclusively defined by religious, ethnic, class, or occupational affiliation have also seriously been challenged by recent studies on Ottoman cities, especially in the empire’s Arab provinces.5 In intramural Istanbul, large mansions of pashas and beys neighboring the shanty lodgings of beggars (se’ele) or of streetporters (hamals and küfecis) were quite a common occurrence. These different
groups were not usually clustered in separate parts of the neighborhood either. Indeed, there were some mahalles where, on the whole, the inhabitants fared better than those of other neighborhoods. However, really “exclusive” areas, or particularly well-off neighborhoods, or particularly destitute ones were quite exceptional.
Within intramural Istanbul, the distinction between the semt6 (district) and the mahalle was of primary importance in the perception of urban space and in situating local identities. The semt is a nondescript area, a district, usually much larger than an average mahalle, indicative of a rather large
section of the city. Most of the semts took their name from a precise point, such as a city gate, a large market, or a building that was functional for the city as a whole (Edirnekapı, Fatih, Sultanahmet, Karagümrük, Unkapanı, ¥ehremini, Fener, etc.) and were therefore used as basic geographic markers.
Sometimes, the toponymy of the semts might indicate the city or region of the empire from which an initial population had migrated (Aksaray, Karaman, Çarœamba, etc.). Many people referred to their personal addresess by indicating both the semt and perhaps the name of a local landmark (a well-known mosque, a city gate, a wharf, a monument, etc.). These semts and landmarks were no
doubt better known by the inhabitants of Istanbul at large than the names of the numerous small traditional mahalles. The mahalles, notwithstanding some remarkable exceptions, were of vital importance only to their own denizens and their names might not be known to inhabitants of distant semts.
A cadastral land survey of the city and a regular name for each street of intramural Istanbul (with a number for each house or gate) were to come only in the 1860s. Before the last quarter of the nineteenth century, even official documents—deeds of sale of real estate, for instance—in which a precise definition mattered, routinely used only very approximate addresses in which the semt and/or a well-known local landmark were mentioned. For instance, in the religious court rulings in which a resident of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle was involved, that person was always identified as “such and such, from the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle near [the] Davudpaœa [wharf/gate].” The Davudpaœa semt and/or the Davudpaœa wharf clearly localized the small Kasap ƒlyas mahalle.
For all practical purposes, this was deemed to be a sufficient “address.” Once in the neighborhood, people were pretty sure of finding their way to a precise destination or of reaching the desired person simply by asking around.
The mahalle was an economic and social entity which, as far as the daily lives of its inhabitants is concerned, delineated their primary cultural milieu (family life, religious community, neighborhood, etc.). This is especially true of the period preceding the early nineteenth century, since local public coffeehouses began spreading in Istanbul only then.7 Before that period, these public coffeehouses were concentrated in a few central or commercial areas of the city. The mescit and, perhaps, the hamam were the only public meeting places at the mahalle level. Therefore, the local mescit, which was of definitional importance to the neighborhood, was also the main available public space.
Local consciousness at mahalle level necessarily meant close and frequent contacts. As to the semt, its extent implied that routine face-to-face meetings were much less important. In Istanbul the semt was almost always related to the functionality of the area within the overall urban organization (trade,
commerce, religion, politics, education, etc.). The sense of belonging to a mahalle was part of daily life, but that of being part of a semt certainly involved a somewhat higher degree of abstraction, a sort of open topographical self-positioning and status-seeking with respect to the rest of the city. A
residential semt could be more or less prestigious than another and there could be a—real or imagined—hierarchy of semts, but not of mahalles.
Unlike the mahalle, the semts never were legal administrative units. The mahalle, however, was always both a basic urban administrative unit and a social and economic entity. However, these two meanings never completely overlapped. The centrally determined administrative network of Ottoman
Istanbul and the web of local identities did not necessarily coincide. This was so in the inceptive fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as well as in the “modernizing” nineteenth. The perception of the urban population regarding their environment and their self-definition in relation to their immediate surrounding was always more important than the religious/administrative matrix imposed upon the cityscape for purposes of control or tax collectio.

In the residential quarters of the Ottoman city, the imam of the local mosque was considered, up until the Tanzimat reforms of the middle of the nineteenth century, as a local headman of sorts. As a mediator of the authority of the kadı, he had both administrative and religious powers and duties. His most important duty was to apportion and to collect the lump-sum taxes imposed by the Ottoman state. He also acted as a guarantor for every local inhabitant. Any newcomer who wanted to set up house in the mahalle had to have the imam’s approval, provide a guarantor, and also produce proof of his solvency. After the 1830s laymen (muhtars) were appointed/co-opted as ocal headmen. The process of transfer of authority was generally smooth and a good example of this transfer can be followed in Kasap ƒlyas.

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