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The Islamic City

Social and urban historians of Istanbul have often stressed the idea that these mahalles, however diverse they may have been, defined on the whole a static configuration, typical of most precapitalist urban populations.8 The mahalle is implicitly taken to be not only a basic level of social integration but also a community characterized by a high amount of autarky and an almost builtin inability to move. This static picture of the human topography of Istanbul intra muros is usually taken to mean, first, that the numbers, areas, and composition of the residential mahalles were well-defined and relatively stable, and, second, that the restricted mobility of the population implied some rigidity in the ethnic/religious makeup of each of the neighborhoods.
The absoluteness of the ethnic, religious, and functional divisions embedded in the topographical makeup of the city, its cellular structure, and the absence of interpenetration between the ethnic and religious constituents were also used for claiming the existence of a specific and typical Islamic urban model, an archetypal Islamic City. The functional articulation of various parts of the city, the use of public space, and its overall architectural and urbanistic consequences (the functional triangle consisting of the mosque, the market, and the public bath) were also taken to have an unequivocal and unique connection to this model. Often even the sheer physical shape of the Islamic city was taken to be an unequivocal expression of its social structure, just an external sign of a system of law, social ethics, and social institutions.
The presence of ruling elites that distantiate themselves from the population at large, the general lack of urban political autonomy and of oppositional political initiatives coming from the cities in Islamic lands—as opposed to “Western”/European cities—that were attributed to this structure were taken
to be an a posteriori demonstration of the thesis.9 Some proponents of the thesis went as far as denying the existence of any sort of permanent formal institutions within the Islamic city and of any sort of corporate personality within which there might grow up an exclusive solidarity that could take
precedence over the community of “believers at large,” the umma.10 The thesis on the existence of an essentially “Islamic city” was, for a long time, surrounded by the prestige and aura of its first proponent, none less than Max Weber himself. Weber had, in fact, adduced no historical evidence
worthy of that name to support his thesis. His idea, however, was taken up by, and integrated into, other worldviews such as “Orientalism” or the “worldeconomy/world-system” paradigm. These two were obviously in dire need of defining (albeit sketchily, and notwithstanding the teleological vision involved), some overarching urban similarities that would account for the decline or
“peripheralization” of Ottoman, “Islamic,” and Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth century. A classical Islamic scholar, Gustav von Grunebaum, came to the rescue in the 1950s, filled up Weber’s historical lacunae with religious and philological scholarship and, for all practical purposes, codified the concept of the Islamic city for the coming decades, and it became part of a more general typology of urban forms.11 The same codification had also been applied in the 1930s and 1940s to North African Muslim towns by the French Islamists William and Georges Marçais.12 The Eurocentric Weberian framework on urban development in Islamic lands received a more nuanced interpretation in the hands of such scholars as Ira Lapidus and Albert Hourani.13 While sharing with Weber and von Grunebaum the basic view of a disaggregated and vertically segmented typical Islamic urban structure that lacked the elements of a true civil society, these historians had a more nuanced view of the politics and governance of these cities. They admitted the historical existence of a group of denizens who could, under certain circumstances and by common consent, come to represent an (almost European) civic community spirit, a strictly local ‘asabiyya.
For a number of reasons, most of them concerning the available historical sources, scholars have so far considered the (North African as well as Middle Eastern) Arab case as the normative type of “Islamic city,” although Anatolian and other Ottoman towns, and even Istanbul, have also been envisaged within the same paradigm.
More recent studies, however, while seeking neither to question nor to support the long-standing paradigm of the Islamic city have, first and foremost, tried to diversify their historical perspective by using a larger variety of local sources. Recent historical work tends to focus on the diversity of situ-
ations and on the singularity of urban societies in Islamic lands and in the eastern Mediterranean. Efforts are made to situate and represent a greater diversity of ethnic, religious, local, and professional identities. Scholars now rightfully insist not only on the singularity of each Ottoman city, but also on that of each of their constituent parts. As Lapidus candidly wrote in an article published in 1973: “When we speak of Muslim cities, we do not speak of a special type of city society, but we refer to the predominant religious and cultural identifications of their inhabitants and the institutions built around these identifications.”14
In the residential quarters of Istanbul, settlement patterns did traditionally follow religious and ethnic lines. Socioeconomic determinants of housing patterns were, for centuries, of only secondary importance. The class- or income-based differentiation of the urban fabric did not take hold of Istanbul before well into the twentieth century. But from this observation to the idea that these residential patterns were, before the twentieth century, either frozen or at least largely predictable, there is a huge step that the proponents of this thesis would not hesitate to take. The reality is, as we shall see in the case of Kasap ƒlyas, that even in times of relative demographic stability, even before the “long” nineteenth century, both the population of Istanbul and of the traditional residential neighborhoods were in considerable flux. The demarcation lines between mahalles were never so strict and the horizontal mobility of the residents was much higher than is usually admitted. At the local level, mobility and change seem to have been the rule, not the exception.

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The Mahalle and 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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The City, The Semt and the Mahalle

The image of Istanbul as the city, or as “a world in itself” was often used to depict the size, the bustle, and the diversity of the Ottoman capital.1 As the center of economic and political power of an empire stretching over three continents, Istanbul drew people from all Ottoman lands and even from beyond. Its population was no doubt one of the most disparate in the world, and the city itself was very large. The walled city itself, a triangular peninsula surrounded by water on two sides, was, at least until the industrial revolution, larger in area than most European cities.2 Its three boroughs (Eyüp, Galata,
and Üsküdar) were set outside the walls and, for two of them, across the water. The official Ottoman denomination of greater Istanbul, Dersaadet ve bilâd-ı selâse (the Abode of Felicity and the three boroughs), does reflect the feeling of size and distance, as experienced by its inhabitants in their daily
lives. Many Istanbulites were leading a localized life, especially before the nineteenth century, and were only partially familiar with the city at large, especially those parts of it that were “across the water.” Well into the nine teenth century, traveling from one part of the city to another was still some thing of an adventure, and daily “commuting” was unthinkable. Local iden-tities and solidarities at the neighborhood and district level developed within Istanbul long before an overall urban conscience could impose its stamp on the inhabitants.

The population of Ottoman Istanbul, though it certainly had a number of ups and downs, always seemed to be tremendous.3 Among Ottoman cities, only Cairo could ever have stood the comparison. Though the hard data are lacking, Istanbul—and not London or Paris—might well have been the most
populated capital-city of Europe between the sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries. At the time of the Ottoman conquest, the population of the Byzantine capital had fallen to just tens of thousands of people. The policy of Mehmed II (the Conqueror) was one of bringing settlers to Istanbul, a policy of forced migration (sürgün) in an attempt to revive the city in the decades immediately following the conquest. About a century later, under the reign of Süleyman “the Magnificent” (1520–1566), the Istanbul population

probably reached the quarter-million mark. It was then almost twice as large as that of Paris or London. Throughout the centuries, the Porte was always worried about the uncontrollable crowding of Istanbul and tried to limit migration to the city and to push away all undesirable elements, if necessary manu militari. These efforts, however, were mostly to no avail. Except for some wild guesses made by a few European travelers, there are practically no data for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century population of Istanbul. The earliest estimates for the first half of the nineteenth century point to slightly less than half a million inhabitants. Growth was slow but regular throughout
the nineteenth century. The first citywide reliable count is that of 1885. The one-million mark will be crossed—for the first time, and only temporarily—just before the First World War, due to the sudden inflow of refugees fleeing the Balkan wars. Not surprisingly, the historiographical heritage of Istanbul has tended to view this enormous conurbation not as an integrated whole, but rather as a patchwork, a colorful collage. There is a wealth of studies on the trade and commerce of Istanbul, its politics and government, its art and architecture, its religious/ethnic communities, and so forth. There have been very few efforts to examine Istanbul as a unified whole. The very problematic nature and— as often as not—the simple absence of historical documentation on the social life of the city and of its inhabitants, is a forbidding obstacle facing local and social historians of the Ottoman capital. Specific in-depth local studies as well as studies emphasizing the modes of articulation of the diverse sections
of the city to each other are sorely lacking. Istanbul’s topographical mosaic of well-defined individual cells did consist, on one side, of city quarters or residential neighborhoods (mahalles), delineated on ethnic/religious grounds and, on the other side, of ethnically more mixed commercial/economic areas. There is, however, a very basic difficulty in finding references to individual mahalles in pre- nineteenth-century Ottoman archival sources. The only Ottoman historical sources for Istanbul that are classified on a topographical basis and in which various mahalles can be spotted are the Archives of the Religious Courts (¥er’iye Sicilleri/Kadı sicilleri); and even in these archives, homogenous,
long, and uninterrupted time series are difficult to come by.

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