For the past two years, I have spent my summers in Istanbul and Ankara, both for the sake of improving my Turkish and also in order to travel within central Anatolia. During one excursion this past June, I stumbled upon a small museum. There, a collection of old city plans hung suspended from the wall—included were Constantinople and other urban spoils of the Ottoman Empire (Varna, Selânik, Smryna, and Constanța, to name a few). Many of these cities resided in Rumelia, “the land of the Romans,” a historical region comprising the territories of the Ottoman Empire in Europe beginning in the 1400s. As a Government major interested in city planning and Ottoman history, I asked myself: what goals did the Ottoman Empire have in regards to redefining the urban character of the Eastern European and Hellenic cities they had captured? What were the successes and failures of Ottoman urban planning at the end of the medieval era and how did the interaction between local subjects and the Turkish diaspora lead to the Ottomanization of the city?
My target travel countries are as follows: Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. It is there where I can retrace the consequences of Ottoman imperialism—in the Balkan case, for example, the Ottomans listed over two hundred settlements on the Balkan peninsula under empiric rule as cities (şehirler) in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. What followed was an implementation of Turkish administrative control in all of these areas—censuses were conducted starting in the mid- to late-fifteenth century while city planning administrators began to reconstruct the city from the ground up—quite literally speaking, all of the fortress walls of Balkan cities were destroyed by the Ottomans to make room for single-storied, wooden buildings that lacked any sort of “Western” appearance. Like Constantinople, urban hubs in the Ottoman Balkans began to separate themselves into various quarters of the population, or mahalles, and a central street with merchant stalls (çarşı) was formed while inns, storehouses, and alleyways hid behind palaces, mosques, and janissary offices. As before, feudalism persisted with the Ottomanization of the city—the haraç land tax on non-Muslims and quartering of “infidels” often determined the division and status of the urban population. These practices often led to the immigration of Turks into these lands and the emigration of local Greeks and Bulgarians to Western Europe.
More specifically, I plan to travel west of the Golden Horn and visit various port cities of the Ottoman Empire: Athens & Thessaloniki (Greece), Izmir (Turkey), and Varna (Bulgaria). (These cities were all seen as essential trading centers during the Ottoman Empire’s reign, linking the Orient with Greece and Eastern Europe.) There I will document remnants of the cities’ Ottoman past—namely by tracking down Ottoman-era buildings, interviewing local residents, and exploring each city on my own two feet. My goal is also to dig through the archives at the Oriental Department of Cyril and Methodius National Library in Sofia where a number of Ottoman blueprints and census documents are located. Lastly, I will search for similar versions of these documents in Turkey (which are available in Turkish national archives and libraries in Istanbul). In a nutshell, my project consists of visiting six cities and three countries over three weeks in January 2012.
The overarching objective of this project is to create a digital account of my travels via an online photo journal, which I have created on this website. By documenting my experiences, others interested in urban planning, migration studies, and the Mediterranean/Black Sea region can use the internet resources I have created as a reference point for their own academic pursuits. My discoveries are published in real time, which would allow me to update, add to, and refine any of my posts. Publishing online will also (in time) help me in researching for my senior thesis project, which deals primarily with Turkish migration in Europe.
None of this would have been possible without a few benefactors, namely the Cornell University Classics Department, which granted me the opportunity to pursue this project with the Harry Kaplan Travel Fellowship. I would also like to thank a number of individuals who have helped me thus far, namely Gail Horst-Warhaft, Joseph and Leslie Day, David DeVries and Jeremy Rusten.
– Chris Levesque, Cornell University Arts & Sciences Class of 2013