The Contours of a Local Identity

Filed under : istanbul

It was a chilly November day of the year 1494 (Safer 900 a.h.). ƒlyas slowly climbed the steep hill toward the large mosque of the Grand Vizier Davudpaœa. Its lofty dome and tall minaret overlooked the whole district, the large semt to which it had come to give its name.
Obviously, the Davudpaœa mosque was much larger and loftier than the small mescit ƒlyas himself had built down the hill. But how could he, a simple butcher, have ever competed with the fortune of
a grand vizier? There was no point in being dissatisfied with the comparison. Turning back, ƒlyas looked down the hill toward the Marmara Sea and marveled at all that had been accomplished.
ƒlyas had seen glorious days indeed. He sometimes felt that the whole city of was his. True, he was only a simple butcher.
But he had been given, in his time, the incomparable honor of feeding and serving the army that conquered this magnificent city. He had been appointed chief butcher of the sultan’s army, and had
served his master as best as he could. He did not only feed the Blessed Army; he was also part of it. This meant that he too had waged a Holy War in his own right. That was more than four decades ago. For weeks and months in the spring of the year 1453 (857 a.h.) ƒlyas and his aides had borne the heavy responsibility of slaughtering sheep and providing the besieging army with a sufficient
amount of meat. Once Constantinople was taken, who could deny his vital contribution to the victory?
And yes, after the conquest, when the time came for sharing the spoils, he was not forgotten. The glorious Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror allotted his chief butcher, ƒlyas, a large piece of land within the walled city. The other chief butcher of the conquering army, Demirhan, had also received his share. He had, however, died soon after the conquest. Demirhan’s lot was perhaps better situated,
as it overlooked the bustling Golden Horn from the top of a steeper hill near the Byzantine church of Christ Pantocrator and was nearer to the commercial center of the city. But it was much smaller in area and already rather densely populated by Christians. As to his own share, near the city walls and overlooking the sea of Marmara, it was much larger and virtually empty. Luckily, ƒlyas had to face a territory that was practically a tabula rasa. Indeed, after the conquest the quasi-deserted city had to be almost totally repopulated. Settlers had to be brought in, new neighborhoods had to be formed, mosques had to be built, and Byzantium had to be given a new and Muslim stamp. So, in a sense, Kasap ƒlyas’ Holy War was far from having ended with the capture of the city. His personal Holy War was in fact only beginning.
He remembered the very day he had set foot on “his” bit of Istanbul. That was also the first time he had entered the conquered city itself. Approaching his territory on a boat, he had found landing
on a small old wharf made of a few creaking planks. The infidels called it the Agios Emilianos wharf. Part of the Muslim army had already used it as a landing place during the two-month long siege
of Constantinople. This wharf was the nearest sea access to his portion of the city. ƒlyas had then looked at the area in and around the city walls bordering on the sea of Marmara and he had chosen
the best place to build his mosque: not too close to the sea and the city walls, but not too high up the hill either, a plot of land bordering on the small side road that led from the Forum Bovis of the
infidels to the city walls near the Seven Towers. Then he had boats bring to the seaside blocks of stone, limestone, and sand to make mortar, wood for construction, and so forth. Workers were hired
and building began. Very soon, however, the building of the mosque had to come to a temporary halt. ƒlyas remembered why. He was sitting on a block of stone watching the workers unloading the boats and carrying the various building materials from the wharf to the construction site of the mosque. The actions of one of these workers struck him. The man took a heavy stone or a sack full of limestone from the boat moored at the wharf, brought it to the building site and, without leaving it there, carried the same sack or stone back to the boat again. The action was repeated quite a few times. ƒlyas was puzzled. When asked for the reason for his strange behavior, the man answered that “he felt he had to do his share of daily work, and that he had no choice but to work for a living; however, as he was impure, he felt he should not contribute to the building of a holy place of worship while in a state of ritual impurity.” ƒlyas was struck by the man’s honesty and piety. On the spot, he gave the order to
stop all work on the building site of the mosque. Then, he gave priority to building a large hamam first, so that the workers could wash and regularly perform their ritual ablutions. A location just
across from the mosque was selected for the purpose. The mosque itself was finally completed only after the public bath was built and in operation. With the mosque and the shops built just next to it,
the providential public bath would become an essential part of the new mahalle.
Many of those who worked on Kasap ƒlyas’ construction site were also among his former aides in his work as a butcher. They were all used to slaughtering sheep and cattle and all of them enjoyed a good bite of mutton or beef. Save one. This odd man was strangely averse to eating meat and would never even have a taste of it. No wonder he was nicknamed “Etyemez” (meat-averse!). It was very strange, therefore, that this man could take part in a long-term enterprise whose very existence rested on the provision and consumption of animal meat. Naturally, ƒlyas ended up by banishing this misfit. The man was told to go and settle as far away as possible from the mosque and from the center of ƒlyas’s new mahalle. The vegetarian went and settled on a small bit of land at the extreme western tip of the large area put by the Sultan under ƒlyas’s responsibility. The vegetarian’s place of banishment was later to become a separate neighborhood known as Etyemez. Nevertheless, this neighborhood always remained morally part and parcel of Kasap ƒlyas’s dependencies.
But all of this was a long, long time ago. ƒlyas the butcher was now old and felt tired as he climbed up the hill on a narrow dirt road. He knew that the end was not very far, but he was ready to
go, and at peace with himself. He had already accomplished the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj. Besides, he had just made his will and had given away all of his possessions to endow a holy foundation. The foundation, his perpetual vakıf, was to take care of his mosque, the mosque he had built himself, the visible product of his dedication, of his piety and hard work. This mosque that bore his name, the Kasap ƒlyas mosque, was standing just below him, toward the foot of the hill on land gently sloping toward the sea. He had indeed richly endowed it. Apart from the yearly revenues accruing from the thirty thousand aspers in cash that had bequeathed to his foundation, there would also be the rental incomes from no less than sixteen shops and six rooms, all adjoining the mosque. These moneys would certainly be more than sufficient for the upkeep. An imam as well as a müezzin would be appointed on a permanent basis and the imam would be the trustee of his foundation. The wages of the Coran reciters, those of the Friday preachers and of the cleaners and caretakers of his mosque, as well as the expenses for the necessary upkeep and repair work would be paid out of his foundation’s revenues.
Besides, with the public bath and the shops all near the city gate leading to the seaside and to the wharf, he was sure that a small center of attraction had already taken shape. Through his efforts, a
durable neighborhood community, a real mahalle had been formed. However rich or prestigious the adjacent mahalles might become, he was sure that his mahalle would always have both chronological and spiritual precedence over its surroundings. In time, the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle would, no doubt, put its stamp on the whole district. It seemed then that Kasap ƒlyas had waged his personal Holy War
with a great deal of success. As for himself, he had made sure that, when the time came, his body would be laid to rest in the small plot of land just behind the mosque. That would be a perfect location for watching his neighborhood, the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle, grow and prosper—and forever remain a basic building block of Muslim Istanbul.

It is not totally impossible for these events to have really taken place. This narrative is, as a matterof-fact, just a combination of various local myths and legends of Kasap ƒlyas with the few elements of truth that can be gathered from sixteenth-century sources.
As to the first serious historical source of detailed information on the mahalle, it dates from 1546, no less than half a century after the putative decease of its mythical founder and almost a century after the conquest of Istanbul.1 In the detailed list of vakıfs established in 1546 and published by Barkan and Ayverdi, the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle is listed as one of fourteen neighborhoods that were then part of the Davud Paœa area.2 In this collation of Istanbul pious foundations, the details of no less than 2,490 deeds of trust are enumerated and these are distributed over a total of 219 mahalles of Istanbul intra muros. This shows an average of 11 vakıfs per Istanbul neighborhood, though for most of the mahalles the number of deeds of trust did not exceed four or five. Among the neighborhoods adjacent to Kasap ƒlyas, for instance, only three vakıfs were registered for the Sancaktar Hayreddin mahalle, two for Abacızâde, eight for Kürkçübaœı, nine for Hubyar, and eighteen for Davud Paœa. With a total of twenty six local pious foundations Kasap ƒlyas was indeed the record holder in and around the Davud Paœa area, and was also among the ten mahalles of Istanbul having the highest number of
local vakıfs.

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