In Rumelia

Project Synthesis, and the Power of the Port

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In this post I want to talk more about the Ottoman Empire’s relationship to the city–more specifically the port city–during the 15th to 17th centuries. And close to the end I wanted to talk more generally about my thoughts about where I think the project has taken me in the past three weeks, and how I’ve tried to synthesize my travels with the initial question I posed in this proposal: what factors led to the Ottomanization of the city and what consequences did this urban development produce as a result?

As you may know, for the past three weeks I have been in multiple cities in three different countries–and many of these cities are situated next to a body of water. I mentioned a few days ago how Constantinople was once at the epicenter of the Ottoman Empire, not just geographically but also in terms of cultural, political, and economic hegemony.  The fact that Constantinople/Istanbul sits between the Aegean and Black Seas gave it the power to transmit, trade, and govern via both land and water. Thus the city’s location and its realization of power cultivated the “most sacred political soil” of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople, therefore, was not just a port in terms of trade and commerce–it was also the port from which the sultan would order his pashas to set sail for the Ottoman Balkans and the Middle East, invite foreign diplomats from western Europe, and import/export cultural and political capital to make sure other cities would follow Constantinople’s example of a successfully developed urban space.

An illustration depicting an Ottoman port

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Nikolai Todorov (who I’m assuming is the same Todorov that was Bulgaria’s president in 1990) suggests in his book The Balkan City: 1400-1900 that “the medieval Muslim culture was above all an urban culture” (8). The contrast between the city and the village are worth mentioning here–in the Muslim city, enormous mosques were constructed in order to situate the center of the city in the place of religion. Baths, tekkes, tombs, and other buildings complimented the giganticism and power the mosque’s architecture was meant to convey. Villages were left alone, at least according to Todorov–instead, “[the Ottomans] considerably altered the outward appearance of the cities and place on them their lasting imprint” (9). It was the city where influence would truly thrive.

There are two key points about the medieval Muslim city that Todorov introduces. The first relates to the fact that it “was distinguished by the absence of an organic structural unity,” i.e., there was a serious lack of any municipal structure that the typical European city possessed, instead relying on self-governing groups and districts that functioned more as a confederacy rather than a municipality. The population, usually divided by religious profession, quartered themselves “with their own places of worship, public baths, and stores and shops” (9). Moreover, the bureaucratic and administrative components of the city attempted to centralize themselves alongside various religious and cultural institutions by building palaces, administrative offices, and police stations in the fortified part of the city (16th-century Thessaloniki is one example). But the divisions between districts very much remained–however, the Ottoman Empire did not see that as a problem, as long as their laws were being followed and every city maintained its economic growth alongside Constantinople’s.

Which leads me to Todorov’s second point, highlighting a key feature of the Ottoman city: economic interventionism. “From the viewpoint of Muslim legislation, the population was made up of two categories: first, representatives of power and those who maintained its authority–the administration, the tax-exempt military and religious officials; and second, the ordinary subjects, the reaya, who created material goods. Part of the reaya cultivated the land, another engaged in handicrafts, and a third part in trade. What united these three kinds of reaya was the payment of taxes and the right to acquire wealth.”

The covered bazaar in Constantinople. Many bazaars of this kind were found in cities of the Ottoman empire

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But an essential difference did exist among the reaya, Todorov writes. “Muslim legislation controlled the activities of both the farmer and the artisan, restricting the sale price, the rate of profit, the supply of raw materials, and the volume of production; the activity of the merchant, however, saw all sorts of encouragement.” The Ottoman state was as eager to control the markets as they were to encourage merchants to increase production and trade–again, this all goes back to the legislative hub of the Ottoman Empire doing its best to determine the developmental outcomes of its branch cities.

This period between the 15th-17th centuries, however, was before the quartering of the cities into Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Turkish, etc. districts had made commodity-monetary relations so stratified. The state was still powerful enough to control trade between port cities without worrying too much about unequal distribution of wealth or the political capital that they lost once minority groups became the commercial powerhouses of the empire. For now, the worker (işçi) remained subservient to the economic and political conditions the Ottoman state had laid out.

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How did this subservience develop after these cities in the Balkans and Greece had been conquered by the Ottomans? We have already talked here and there about the Ottomanization of the city, replacing the Byzantine presence with an Islamic one, and making smaller cities follow the model of one great imperial metropolis (which at that time was Constantinople). But the economic elements that came with the Ottoman port city–from Constantinople to Salonica to Varna, etc.–were also a major factor, as we have briefly described in this post. More important to mention is how political decisions determined economic outcomes in the Ottoman Empire during the 15th-17th centuries: Todorov mentions in his conclusion that as a result of the Ottoman state’s policies, “the development of the urban economy in all parts of the Balkans was now influenced by the gradual growth of internal commerce [i.e., trading with other Ottoman cities] and the consolidation of economic ties both among neighboring areas and between the interior and such major centers of consumption as Istanbul, Edirne, and Salonika” (455).

However, it is important to say here that the Ottoman Empire was by no means in full control of these urban developments at any time, though the state’s power was perhaps more centralized during the time period I have been studying for the past three weeks. Different ethnic and religious groups had managed to separate themselves so well from the Turkish districts of the city partially because they were aware of how a city functioned already–“actually,” Todorov writes, “urban life was an essential feature of the feudal period in Asia Minor and the Balkans irrespective of the vicissitudes in the political fate of their states (Byzantium, Bulgaria, Serbia and, ultimately, the Ottoman Empire)” (455).

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The Osmanlı Bankası Müzesi, close to Taksim Square

Most literature on Ottoman port cities focuses on a time period after the 17th century. Perhaps this has to do with a number of things involving the Tulip period of Ottoman architecture, embracing elements of the West in the fold of city planning, and the increasing autonomy of minority groups in the Ottoman Empire that contributed to the rise of trade between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. More documentation and record-keeping became available during this time period as a result (a good place to check out is the Ottoman Bank Museum (Osmanlı Bankası Müzesi) in Istanbul, if you’re interested in how the 18th- and 19th-century iterations of the empire engaged with Western industries and commercial development).

But the story here with this project is about the state itself, and moreover how the state decided to deal with the people living in the spoils of their conquests. I have tried to find what remains in terms of architecture and city planning in the once-bustling port cities of the Ottoman Empire, and though I’m not finished writing about this yet I will take a second to pause and say this: though it is difficult to track down the remnants of a former Empire that many people have tended to forget and it is equally as challenging trying to connect that to the later histories of three very different countries (Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey), it nonetheless surprises me what I have been able to find, from mosques to old neighborhoods to museums to now-empty spaces (or high-rise buildings that have replaced whatever Ottoman elements had once stood).

The Maiden's Tower in Istanbul (early 20th century)

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Maiden's Tower today (2012)

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Getting lost and finding my way in a number of places in the past three weeks has helped me focus on certain questions, but other thoughts have come up along the way that I haven’t been able to avoid: I’ve written about graffiti, uploaded pictures of the contemporary city and its sights, even tried to show how each city functions today in tandem with the people who live there–all of this is meant to show not only how the city has changed, but also to show the emptiness/visibility of the Ottoman Empire in now-completely different spaces. In some cities, Ottoman buildings were set ablaze or torn down. In others, they are now crumbling or being converted into art galleries, cinemas, or cultural centers. And in the remaining cities I’ve visited, some buildings constantly undergo restoration and remain towering above other parts of the city, reminding people who live there what used to be and how that history helps make that city what it is today.

Perhaps this is too painstakingly obvious, but that is the true power of making the city manifest in both architecture and urban planning–the effects of the Ottoman Empire have been “tagging” each city all along, extending beyond a certain time and blending in with the protests, street art, and other modern forms of political and cultural capital that have never seen a sultan, a pasha, or minaret after minaret lining the city skyline.

So yes, this project has been challenging and sometimes a bit tiring, but a really good experience at the same time. No worries, I still have a few more posts to follow up. I’m taking notes and reading through what I can find at the National Library in Sofia, and I’m hoping that I can give more details on Ottoman urban planning/naval trade in the next few days, since I still feel as if I haven’t been able to talk about it as much as I would’ve liked. What I have been happy about, though, is doing what I can to emphasize the importance of The City in the Ottoman Empire and moreover how the urban elements of each city demonstrated how the cultural, political, and economic elements of the empire functioned in different areas.

I will also post scrapbook photos of Sofia a bit later and talk  about the Banya Bashi mosque (which still exists in the city center pretty close to the apartment I’ve been crashing for the past few days). Also a more proper post on Varna is forthcoming, but I may write that after I get back to the U.S. on Thursday night.

By the way, I found a great blog with some wonderful pics of Istanbul here. Worth checking out if you have some free time!

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This entry was published on January 18, 2012 at 15:38. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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