This article deals primarily with how the capital city’s population participated in politics from the conquest up until the 1800s. It closely examines issues like the concept of the sultanate; the public’s reaction in the face of natural disasters, fires, and wars; popular religious movements; the migration phenomenon; how beliefs and legends considered “superstitions” today were reflected in the political views and reactions of the public; and the places and instruments of social opposition. Contrary to the claims of traditional Western thought, this article will illustrate that the phenomenon of urban belonging—as well as political participation through social organizations—has long existed in Istanbul.Western thinkers, beginning with Machiavelli, have depicted the Ottoman sultans as “oriental despots” who exercised arbitrary rule over their society. In these scenarios, the Ottoman public was no more than an undifferentiated mass of people with no intermediary classes. In Western political philosophy of the time, class-based society was considered the defining factor for civil society and democracy. In particular, French thinkers and travelers like Montesquieu and Baron de Tott firmly established the ideas that the Ottoman sultan was an “oriental despot” who governed with an iron fist and that the Muslim public was a subjugated mass that had neither civic consciousness nor pride in being his subjects.

1- Ottoman sultans from Osman I to Mahmud II. On top of the picture, it is written “The chain of the sultans of the family of Osman … May Allah last their sultanate till the end of the world. Below this inscription, the names of the sultans are listed in order. (Topkapı Palace Museum)

Western thinkers viewed the transformation of “enlightened despotism” into constitutional and limited monarchies in the West as a sign of democratic and civil societies. They continually saw Muslim nations as submissive, irrational, and fanatical societies opposed to change and drowning in the quagmires of religion and tradition. It should be pointed out that the Muslim scholars’ ideal for a Muslim society that obeys Ulu’l Amr—submission to the ultimate authority—was undoubtedly shaped during the early periods of Islam. In other words, that ideal was shaped during a time when internal conflict was common. During days when peace was longed for at all costs, political and social stability were virtually embodied in the caliph’s personality. However, reducing a variety of Muslim societies to one unanimous “Muslim nation” is an inappropriate approach just as the Muslim scholars’ ideal of an obedient society was also merely a fantasy.

A Sultan Visible but Inaccessible

2- Sultan Mehmed II (Topkapı Palace Museum)

The palace and its surroundings—from which the empire was governed—served as the means of fostering a relationship between Istanbul’s population and politics. Over time, both the sultan’s and his subjects’ perception of the sultanate was altered. Even the harshest sultans felt it necessary to consider the sensitivities of the ruling elite: scholars and the military. It was traditional for the sultan to frequently change his viziers—taking advantage of the factional rivalries—to strengthen his power. Sultans would reign by paying attention to the concerns of the population in the capital city—concerns about the abundance of goods in the market, war, diplomacy, religion, and culture. The sultan had to keep a balance between his absolute right of sovereignty and the legitimate exercise of power—both based on sultanic law and holy law. This led to the development of some customs and traditions which at first sight seemed to conflict with one another. The issue of the sultan’s visibility versus his inaccessibility is an example of such an apparent conflict.

The sultan wanted to reinforce his absolute sovereignty and hold onto the principle of seclusion to wrap himself in a sense of the sacred. There were strict rules regarding palace protocol and which subjects could be broached by whom at a preset time and duration. After the period of Sultan Süleyman I (1520–1566), the sultan would not usually speak at official ceremonies; he kept “his sacred voice” from being heard. Instead, he would communicate with his subjects through a type of sign language. After the conquest of Constantinople, the sultan became an unreachable person who had absolute power. Surrounded by his ‘Slaves of the Porte’ (i.e. the Janissaries), he would have his meals alone and follow council meetings at will hidden from his viziers’ eyes behind a lattice window. Sultan Mehmed II (1444–1446; 1451–1481) was known as the Roman Emperor (Kayzer-i Rum) and wanted to have an unquestionable authority over his subjects and slaves from behind a curtain of mystery he himself created in the spirit of a real emperor. Throughout the centuries of Ottoman history, this principle of invisibility raised Ottoman sultans in the eyes of the public—even to the level of sainthood. This was so much the case that Sultan Bayezid II (1481–1512) was sanctified with the title of veli (saint or friend of Allah).

People in the streets of 19th-century Istanbul would tell each other about Bayezid-i Veli’s miracles. He once told the envoy of a king who was threatening to start a war, “Go and tell your king that if I draw my fingers out from here, I can take both his eyes out;” at that time, the king lost his eyes. After all, the sultan’s breath could melt rocks. According to another legend, two women who cursed Sultan Mahmud II for the scarcity and poor quality of bread immediately went blind. Câbî Tarihi, a contemporary historical source, mentions that the public discussed this sultan’s sainthood. It was also a common belief that the fires which caused heavy damage in Constantinople went out after the reigning sultan arrived (Dipnot). This conviction was obviously based on how motivating the sultan’s presence was to those who fought the fires.Fires, earthquakes, floods, famine, and epidemics plagued Istanbul throughout its history. The floods of 1553, 1563, and 1790 were the most devastating among recorded floods. Epidemics—plague in most cases—were a part of daily life. The major epidemics that occurred every 20 years and resulted in thousands of deaths were considered ordinary phenomena. In addition to the epidemics of 1455 and 1467–1475, at least ten severe plague outbreaks occurred in the 16th century, at least five in the 17th century, and at least seven in the 18th century. An estimated quarter of the city’s population died in the outbreak of 1501 and one-third died in the outbreak that took place in 1773–1778.

Istanbul survived more than 30 earthquakes after its conquest by the Ottomans. The earthquake of 1509 came to be known as kıyamet-i suğra (little doomsday) due to the extent of its destruction. It took the lives of between 5,000 and 13,000 Istanbul residents. The earthquake of 1766 was as destructive as the one in 1509; it destroyed many monumental structures, including Fatih Mosque. As for the fires, those which broke out in 1539, 1589, 1633, 1660, 1718, 1756, and 1782 caused especially heavy damage to the city. Arson was one of the most common and important causes of fire. One of the Janissaries’ duties was to put out fires, but they sometimes set them instead. They either expected to gain plunder, wanted to demonstrate their opposition to the ruling elite, or were participating in a feud by setting a fire. The theory that the fires were a result of contention between Janissaries and the elite is supported by how frequently fires broke out in the Hocapaşa District where most high-ranking government officials lived. The phrase kül fukarası (ash poor), which refers to those who have lost everything they have to a fire in one night, comes from those days. The severity of the damage those fires caused led the poets of the time to write epics about them. The one related to the fire of 1660 by Aznavuroğlu is considered one of the first examples of this genre.

When fires coincided with times of internal or external conflict, they were easily imbued with different meanings. Claims regarding how Sekbanbaşı Hasan Agha—who was originally from the Austrian Habsburg Empire and was agha of the Sekban units in the Janissary Army—was unable to put out the fire that broke out in the neighborhood of Kumkapı during the war with the Habsburgs became the topic of a poem by Osman Taib:

My Sultan! Mercy! we were let burned by
The ominous actions of the Austrian Agha of Sekbans
Those who see the present state of Istanbul
Say ‘such is the city Whose officer is from Vienna’

Famines were usually caused by drought and for some time there was not enough water for the city’s population, which saw an increase from migrants. Sultan Süleyman I increased the city’s water supplies by constructing new aqueducts between 1554 and 1563. When there were water shortages, they were so severe that critical poems were composed. The water shortage could have threatened the order and safety of the city:

Overcrowding made us dependent on the clouds of spring
This much water is not enough to satisfy the city of Istanbul

(Seyyid Vehbi, Tarih-i Sedd-i Cedid der-Kemerler be-Zaman-ı Ahmed Han)

3- Sultan Osman III (Topkapı Palace Museum)

4- Yedikule and Istanbul from the direction of Marmara Sea (Melling)

Such calamities left deep traces in social memory. The reign of Sultan Osman III (1754–1757)—which lasted less than three years—passed with plagues and fires (1755 and 1756) and the freezing of the Bosphorus in 1755. These incidents led the public to believe the sultan was ill-omened. Earlier, the same belief had been commonly held regarding Sultan Osman II (1618–1622); the Bosphorus froze during his reign as well. The earthquakes and fires that took place during the period of Sultan Ibrahim (1640–1648), as well as the unusually warm rain and the appearance of a comet, were all interpreted as signs that the sultan was inauspicious.The legitimacy of each sultan was based on strict rules though, and—according to those rules—there were times when the sultan had to be visible. The sultan’s Cuma Selamlığı (procession to Friday sermon) was one of the most important of these occasions. It was a tradition for the sultan to perform Friday prayers in a public mosque. Every Friday, the sultan’s procession would ceremoniously leave the palace and arrive at the intended mosque after a long pompous parade (the parade would sometimes take a few hours). Those who wished could submit their petitions of complaint to the sultan’s guards at this time. During a period when the Ottoman Dynasty was quite weakened by the internal Celali rebellions as well as by external wars with the Habsburg and Safavid states, Ahmed III (1703–1730) preferred to go to a different mosque every Friday. This gave him the opportunity to display his dynastic right of sovereignty, which was embodied by his person, and illustrate the strength of the Empire to the public with the magnificence of his palace parade.

Another important tradition that involved appearing before the public was the sword-girding ceremony, which required going to Eyüp Sultan Mosque after the sultan’s accession to the throne. The procession would usually go to the mosque by sea and return to the palace by land, visiting the late sultans’ tombs located on the route passing from Otlakçılar to Edirnekapı to Fatih. However, this was not a strict rule. Sources mention that a different route might be followed at the sultan’s discretion. This was the first ceremony in which the new sultan appeared before his subjects, who packed into the yard of the mosque and along the roadsides. The attendance of many high-ranking state officials—such as the sheikh al-Islam, the kazaskers, the nakibü’l-eşraf (representative of the descendants of Prophet Muhammad), and the sheikhs or their representatives—at the ceremony carried symbolic meaning. This was their acknowledgement of the sultan’s sovereignty.Another tradition that demonstrated the relationship between the visibility of the sultan and the legitimacy of the sultanate was the tradition of beyat (swearing allegiance). This old tradition, which the Ottoman Empire practiced at the coronation, symbolized the public’s approval of the new sultan. This ceremony was only attended by the sultan’s slaves and the palace residents, but the sultans would implicitly accept that they were coming to the throne with the approval of the public and all the high-ranking officials. Consequently, the sultans would leave the throne without a fight when a large rebellion broke out. Finally, the sultan participated in visits to the Hırka-i Saadet (cloak of Prophet Muhammad) during the month of Ramadan. The visits proved to large public crowds how religious the sultan was and established that he was the protector of Islamic traditions.The common assumptions that the sultans were invisible and unreachable by the people are obviously quite exaggerated. According to traveler Luigi Bassano—who objected to such commonplace Western views even at that time—the public in the capital city were used to seeing Sultan Süleyman I and his high-ranking officers almost every Friday.

Stability and Harmony in the Capital City

5- Daily life in Edirnekapı (Gouffier)

The most important feature distinguishing Istanbul from other contemporary political centers was that this densely-populated city never experienced severe famines that led to massive loss of life. The Ottoman Empire conciously adopted policies that consistently provided its citizens with food. Over time, the methods of supplying food—i.e. that most basic necessity of the city—gave rise to a distinctive city culture.Since ancient times, Istanbul has been a part of the commercial and cultural system that connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This old system, which has turned into a network of oil and natural gas trade flowing north-south, originally relied on the wheat and slave trade from what is now the Ukraine. The Pax Romana of the Roman period connected the Black Sea to Egypt through the Bosphorus even before the time of the Emperor Constantine. The city of Constantinople, which gained its imperial character thanks to Constantine, was after all a political center. Even though it was an important transit point on the Black Sea-Mediterranean trade route, it owed its existence as a city to politics. As a political center, the city’s social stability was incredibly important and that stability depended on the regular and continuous provision of food.

Constantinople, which occupied an essential place in the imperial vision of Sultan Mehmed II, became a scene of immense development and progress through construction. As in every other political center, the city was more of a consumer than a producer; Istanbul was not an exporting center. Even though it had an immense capacity to produce arms, artillery, and ammunition—and was host to the largest military-industrial organizations in the Mediterranean Basin—its harbor was essentially for imports. The Ottomans considered the Black Sea an Ottoman lake and the Port of Caffa in the Crimea was the most important port for exporting slaves to Istanbul. The customs registers at the Port of Caffa show that a great deal of the customs revenue came from the slave trade. Even before the rise of the Ottoman Dynasty, Genoese ships had been transporting Kipchak slaves from this Crimean city to Egypt and selling them to the Mamluks. According to estimates, the population of Istanbul during the period of the conquest (1500-1700) was highly dependent on slaves and migrants. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, no city could achieve natural population growth because of famines and epidemics. The population of a city could grow only with migration from rural areas. The extant registers state that even middle-class individuals of the time, like grocers or butchers, could actually afford to own a slave. Those domestic slaves would eventually be manumitted and they would usually become members of the family through marriage. They joined the free Muslim population of the city this way. It is likely that 20 % of the city’s population had slave origins.Istanbul’s wheat, which was transported regularly, was mostly transported through the Black Sea. The Ottomans followed a policy of cheap bread to prevent scarcity in the city. The wheat brought to the capital city at a fixed price would be milled and distributed to the bakeries according to the official quotas and then offered to the public at the official fixed price. The need for wheat in the capital city could be as much as 150,000 tons a year. According to estimates, the population of Istanbul between 1500 and 1800 increased from around 150,000 (16th century) to 350,000-400,000 (17th century) and eventually reached 500,000 (at the end of the 18th century).

With its constantly-increasing population, this city was a giant consumer. Only Cairo and the ancient cities of India and China could compete with it. On average, about 2,000 camels or mules came to Üsküdar every month. Sheep, wheat, honey, and butter came from Wallachia and Moldova; wheat, legumes, coffee, cotton, and spices from Egypt; butter, salt, and slaves from Crimea; sugar from Cyprus; olives, olive oil, and soap from Syria and Crete; and raisins, dried figs, almonds, wax, and citrus from İzmir. These goods were brought to the public at wholesale markets, grand bazaars, and in hans (large commercial buildings). In 1700, the city consumed four million sheep, three million lambs, and 200,000 cattle. Meanwhile, its daily wheat consumption amounted to 500 tons. These are quite modest figures since the palace residents, who were the city’s biggest customers, lived in Edirne at the time of Sultan Mustafa II (1695–1703). In fact, one of the complaints the tradesmen had during the 1703 Rebellion was about the decreased trade volume that occurred during the sultan’s long absence. The vital role the palace played in the stability and welfare of the city can be explained in numbers. The palace’s consumption of sheep increased from 16,379 in 1489–1490 to 38,226 in 1573–1574. This number reached 99,120 in 1669, and a century later (1761–1762) it was 211,116. In the 16th century, Topkapı Palace served meals to 3,000 people daily with its nine kitchens, 60 cooks, and 200 assistant cooks.

To feed the capital, the Ottomans applied the principle of provisionism. This principle aimed to keep a balance between production quantity, product quality, and product prices. The legal margins of profit over consumer products would rise and fall between five and ten percent in the imperial city. Provisionism—even if it was not an ideal principle—led to cooperation between tradesmen associations, qadis, and the muhtesib (officers in charge of the marketplaces). It established a balance that allowed the imperial city’s populace to have mediators who represented them at the various levels of state. Through those intermediaries, the populace secured participation in various stages of city administration. In this ancient city, the state aimed to spread welfare to the public; it provided the food and goods that were the basis of political and social stability. Together with state officials, more than 50 lonca (guilds) were responsible for the organization of these welfare activities. Along with tariqats, the loncas were the main organizing elements of society. An urban organizational structure, which was based on Islamic brotherhoods (ahi and futuwwah organizations) of the pre-Ottoman period, raised civic awareness among its members through vocational education and moral principles.

Ahi was not only a tradesmen’s organization, it also aimed to discipline its members’ souls. Professional competence was not enough to join the guilds; they required certain manners and etiquette to be internalized as well. From table manners to proper conduct in commercial transactions to the rules for visiting the sick or a house, the general public learned about appropriate and inappropriate actions and behaviors through religious orders and the ahi organization. According to those rules, the following were regarded as fair reasons for fighting: using harsh language against tradesmen in the market, disturbing others in the marketplace, being wild and loud, spitting or blowing one’s nose near the marketplace, running in the middle of the street, gazing at people from behind, waving hands nervously or looking around idly while bargaining, and loitering in the residential quarters. These rules were compiled because they led to a harmonious society and harmony meant social stability, which was the throne’s main goal for the city.

The institution of waqf (charitable endowment or foundation) is the most original contribution the Ottomans made to the other practices of civic life they inherited from ancient times. It is why the Ottoman Empire is seen as a waqf civilization. Waqf institutions generally held humanitarian aims and were religious in their essence. People often thought it was a social responsibility for members of the dynasty—high-ranking officials of state and affluent members of society—to establish waqfs. To avoid the complex Islamic laws of inheritance, those who were not wealthy could endow even their houses and shops and leave them to later generations by adding their own conditions to the vakfiye (endowment deed). For this reason, Istanbul was a paradise for waqfs.

Among so many different types of charitable endowment, imarets (soup kitchens) played a particularly important role in the city’s stability. This term, which originally meant settlement or plantation, was correlated with multi-functional mosques and dervish lodges in Ottoman civil culture. Large structures known as kulliya could consist of a madrasa (college), library, bimarhane (hospital), and imaret along with a mosque. Its expenditures would be met by endowed revenues. Even the small dervish lodges were designed to be multi-functional and operated as waqfs. As such, waqf imarets played an undeniable part within the Ottoman model of urbanization—so much so that there were an estimated 149 imarets throughout all the Ottoman Balkan cities. The waqf imarets played a vital role in feeding the Ottoman cities, and there was no religious discrimination in the distribution of food. There were 50 imarets established in Istanbul, while there were 11 in Edirne, eight in Bursa, and seven in Salonika and Manisa. The most magnificent of these was from the 16th century, when there was a total of 18 imarets in the capital city. In addition to these imarets, there were 116 waqfs distributing food in the city. According to estimates, 10% of Istanbul’s population ate free meals in imarets every day. This figure was also true for Edirne.

During this period, many houses in Istanbul did not have a kitchen. In a shared yard, people would light a common fire and cook their food together. The cost of cooking meals was shared among neighbors this way, the high price of wood less worrying. Under such circumstances, imarets that distributed free meals and businesses selling ready-made meals—like bakeries and liver sellers—were among the indispensable elements leading to political stability and harmony in Istanbul. Neither lonca, tariqat, or the principle of provisionism were the inventions of the Ottoman Empire. Waqf, however, created urban awareness in the capital city over time. In other words, residents from all walks of life knew they lived in a special city and were proud of it. However, in Istanbul and Islamic cities in general, the populace was aware of more than just religious affiliations and community associations. In the eyes of its entire population, the capital city belonged to the sultan in whose justice the world sought refuge; Istanbul was “the seat of the sultanate, of the sultan in whom the world seeks refuge.” It was a gate of felicity for the “72.5 nations.” Jews and Muslims who had fled the Eastern Mediterranean because of religious persecution undoubtedly felt this way. The multi-colored reality of life in Istanbul was internalized and boasted of by its inhabitants. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were more French and British migrants in the Ottoman lands than in the New World.

Law and Order in the Capital City

6- People of Istanbul when entertaining (Vehbi)

The task of securing order in Istanbul was not given to a single authority. Instead, various authorities were appointed to specific sections or regions of the administration to uphold the city’s safety. Istanbul was divided into four offices of the qadis in terms of administration and prosecution: the offices of the qadis of the Dersaadet (the city within the walls), Galata, Eyüp, and Üsküdar. While the office of the qadi of Galata oversaw the region on the Rumelian side of the Black Sea Coasts, the Anatolian side of the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus were under the authority of the Üsküdar qadi. The religious rulings and records of the qadi courts show that the people frequently turned to the qadi courts to find solutions for their problems and disputes. Unlike the current Turkish legal system, the inhabitants of the capital city at that time did not suffer under the daunting process of the court distributing justice. In the old days, accessing a religious court was common and ordinary. Not only were trials heard at the qadis’ courts, but marriages, divorces, and commercial and credit contracts were recorded in qadi registers as well. Those registers might also contain imperial fermans (edicts) since the qadis—as agents of the Ottoman bureaucracy—were responsible for executing sultanic law and holy law.

Disputes between sellers and customers in the marketplace, quarrels between neighbors, or conflicts between spouses were among the most frequent types of social disputes recorded in qadi registers. One thing that was prohibited was abusive language in a quarrel; cursing religion, the Prophet, or holy persons resulted in a trial. Because religious courts paid particular attention to the testimony of an eyewitness, the party who produced a witness would usually win the trial. Confessions of guilt in the court were not rare. Some of the most interesting cases were when abusive husbands were taken to the qadi by the members of the neighborhood. In such cases, the qadi would sometimes force the husband to move into another house to protect the wife. However, many disputes were resolved without going to court. If a dispute took place in the marketplace, guilds were expected to intervene. The members of the district under the leadership of a certain imam would intervene in arguments that took place in their neighborhood. All these facts show that the population of the capital city had its own social organizations. In popular stories of Tıfli, which circulated in the imperial city for many centuries, the prosecution of crimes—like the abduction of girls or the organization of mixed-gender parties—are narrated humorously.

The bostancıbaşı (head of sultan’s gardeners), topçubaşı (head of canoneers), kaptan paşa (admiral), cebecibaşı (head of armorers), and the head of the Janissaries were among the leading authorities in charge of keeping order in the city. The bostancıbaşı was responsible for the security of the surroundings of Topkapı Palace, the Golden Horn-Karışdıran, the Bosphorus, the Marmara coasts up to Şile, and the district of Yalova. Bostancıs—who worked in the vineyards, orchards, and gardens lying along the coast of the Bosphorus—were the officers who ensured security under the command of the bostancıbaşı. The topçubaşı was charged with the security of Tophane and Pera, the most difficult parts of the city in terms of safety. Some other problematic regions, like Kasımpaşa, the naval base, the left banks of the Golden Horn, and Galata fell under the responsibility of the grand admiral. The most problematic regions in terms of law and order in cities like Istanbul were the port areas bustling with sailors, daily workers, and porters. The Galata region was where sailors from all nations resided. In many port city businesses—like coffeehouses and restaurants—signs saying “no entry for sailors” would be hung in the windows. It was almost a universal principle that harbors, tanning yards, and shipyards had their own laws. Foreign embassies in the district actually requested better security. These requests resulted in the patrols undertaken by the master of the palace school—located in today’s Galatasaray High School—along with the patrols of 100 sergeants.The cebecibaşı and the head of the Janissaries were responsible for ensuring the safety of the intra murros (suriçi region, Dersaadet ) since their headquarters were in the suriçi region. The cebecibaşı resided in the western corner of the Hippodrome (At Meydanı) and ensured the security of the cebecis’ headquarters as well as the Hagia Sophia, Hocapaşa, and Ahırkapı districts. The head of the Janissaries was charged with the safety and security of all of Istanbul excepting Topkapı Palace and the places that were under the responsibility of the cebecibaşı. Even with this being the case, the Janissaries were not legally allowed to carry firearms within city walls.

Division of responsibility in this way made sense. For instance, Cossacks entered the Bosphorus by boat in 1624, pillaging Yeniköy before leaving. Because this district was under the responsibility of the bostancıbaşı, he was put in charge of dealing with the issue. However, the task of catching the Cossack boats in the open sea was, of course, left to the kaptan paşa. For centuries, the bostancıbaşı was the law enforcer whom the public was most afraid of; he was like the master of the sea in the city. Every night, in his grand boat, he would inspect the Bosphorus and harshly punish those who were caught in a boat consuming intoxicants, reveling without permission, or enjoying female company. Thanks to many scholars ranging from Eremya Çelebi—one of the most important scholars raised in the Armenian community in the 17th century—to his contemporary Evliya Çelebi, we understand the central role the bostancıbaşı played in the civil culture of the capital city. In public memory, the bostancıbaşı was a high-ranking, conceited officer with a harsh character who meted out discretionary punishment and, most of the time, filled his pocket with bribes. He had the privilege of speaking with the sultan and standing next to him as steersman in the sultan’s boat. He could use this privilege as an opportunity to complain about any high-ranking statesman he did not like. And so even the viziers of the Imperial Council were afraid of him. That he was allowed to grow a beard—an honor conferred on only a few palace officials—is proof of his position’s significance.

The Ottoman State would address the community rather than the individual about certain issues related to public order or taxes. Istanbul’s population was classified according to religious community as well as by the vocational organizations we mentioned earlier. The principle of collective responsibility, created because of such classifications, made the administration of the city easier. This system was called the kefalet sistemi (system of surety). A burglary that took place in 1528 is a good example of the system at work. Rumor had it that many bachelor street vendors were immediately executed on the orders of Sultan Süleyman I on the suspicion that the burglar was one of them. Such punishments were regarded as an important method of ensuring public order. Criminals were hung by hooks for days, hung by ropes, or thrown into the sea. The severed heads of rebellious and treacherous pashas were exhibited. False witnesses were mounted backwards on a donkey with their heads covered with tripe. These are among the sights that frequently appeared in local and foreign narratives about the city and in visual resources regarding the period. In such a crowded city, which was also the capital city, such punishments were not very surprising. Until modern times, similar punishments were common in Europe as well.

7-  Sultan Murad IV (Yank’s Album)

Immigration was the issue that threatened the political and social stability of the city most. Following the conquest of the city, Sultan Mehmed encouraged immigrants to come to the city. He even followed a policy of transferring populations and forced people to settle in the city. Armenians and Greeks from Amasra (1459); Greeks from the Peloponnese, Taşöz (Tassos), İmroz (Imbros), and Semendirek (Samothrace) (1460); Greeks from Trabzon (1461); Turks and Greeks from Konya, Larende, Aksaray, and Ereğli (1468–1474); and Greeks, Armenians, and Latins from Caffa (1475) were the city’s new residents. The names of certain places, like today’s Aksaray and Belgrat Woods, are indicative of this part of Istanbul’s history. Many relocated people were looking for ways to escape their cities, which were severely damaged from the conquest. Contemporary observations by the Ottoman historian Âşık Paşazâde are quite illuminating regarding this period of immigration. He illustrates how disturbing Mahmut Pasha’s settlement policies were for the inhabitants of Istanbul. In general, migration to the city was encouraged until the 1550s. However, problems regarding public order and provisions around this time led to policies that consistently dissuaded immigration to the city from that period onward. When Sultan Süleyman I ordered Mimar Sinan to restore the aqueducts and bring water from new sources to ensure the public’s comfort, Grand Vizier Semiz Ali Pasha opposed this decision fearing it would encourage immigrants.The changing nature of immigration was the single most distasteful phenomenon in Istanbul from the 1450s to the 1550s. At one time, people with specific professions had been forced to immigrate to Istanbul with their families to revitalize the city. The goal was to turn the city into a center of art, poetry, and crafts by settling craftsmen, artists, and scholars in the new conquered lands.

A century after the conquest, people started to push against the gates of the city to escape the increasing violence in rural areas and to find work. In other words, these people were essentially refugees concerned about their livelihood. The Celali rebellions—which were connected to issues like population growth, the spread of cheap and handy firearms, and sectarian fights—were the main factors behind those migration waves. The static social order based on knowing one’s place was being replaced by a more dynamic social structure that allowed for social mobility. Fluidity between the social classes was a reality in the new period; it was easier than ever before for a peasant to obtain a musket and leave his village to pretend to be a member of the military class. Istanbul also took its share from these changes, which were seen by the intellectuals of the time as social chaos that would destroy the established order. The new migrants—mostly young single men—were subject to many derisive descriptors like serseri (vagrant) or pırpıri (vagabond).Some of these laborers would go back to their hometowns after working unskilled jobs for a time and saving some money. Some poverty-stricken men took refuge in the city with the hope of finding a new life. “Those donkeys who do not know why they ever came to this great city even after living for 50–60 years without learning Turkish or correcting their language and confusing the words yaprak (leaf) and barmak (finger) are also seen as elements threatening the order of the city.” Jobs like porter, manual laborer, bath attendant, greengrocer, or boatman—which could immediately earn cash—attracted such people. They stayed in bachelor inns, which were mostly concentrated around the districts of Üsküdar, Tophane, and near the Tersane (shipyard). These men were the reason these areas were so unsafe. As a precaution, they had to have a guarantor. When those who did not join the system of surety were caught, they were taken to places like Yalova, Gemlik, or Karamürsel by bostancı corps and then set free. Instead of returning to their hometowns, many would work as farm laborers in the gardens. Whenever they got a chance, they would return to Istanbul. The people who flooded into the city to work in unskilled jobs were not coming solely from Anatolia. Albanian and Croatian migrants were leading those who came from the Balkans and making trouble in the city. On the other hand, Bulgarian migrants made a name for themselves—which continued until recent times—for their excellence in dairy farming. When the wretched Albanian and Croatian migrants got caught, they would fight the bostancıs and sometimes claim to be under the protection of the Venetian ambassador.

In the 1730 uprising known as the Patrona Halil Incidence, the unemployed played a very important role. The food scarcity experienced in 1740 because of the growing population led tradesmen to rebel. After the era of Sultan Ahmed III, the number of imperial edicts which tried to stop immigration to the city increased. At the end of the 18th century, single migrants from rural areas began residing in the same neighborhoods as the barelegged (i.e. rowdy) sailors. These places were dangerous. A safety precaution taken by the Sublime Porte was the demolishing of the bachelor inns and the detaining of prostitutes in the harbor until the navy left Istanbul. In 1771, during the Russo-Turkish War, a three-day battle broke out involving the mariners who killed a coffeehouse owner in Galata and the local police force; 5,000 men were eventually involved in this battle. Trenches were dug, barricades were built, and mutual attacks were carried out with the support of cannon and musket fire. This civil war was only quelled by the threat of full mobilization.

With such a rapidly-growing city on their hands, sultans found it necessary to put certain intelligence protocols in place. The most famous of these was for sultans to inspect the city in disguise; he would frequently go out into the city incognito and observe. In addition to incognito inspections, spies were the oldest mechanism of intelligence and control. Of course, not every sultan paid the same attention to these protocols. In 1603, Sultan Ahmed I introduced the law requiring hat lanterns were carried at night to ensure the security of the streets. Ahmed I’s son Murad IV (1623–1640) often went out incognito. The night raids and cruel punishments of this sultan, who was well-known for his bloody incognito inspections, became the subject of many folk stories. During one of his incognito inspections, Sultan Murad IV once caught an imam’s young son going to the mosque next to their house without a lantern and he mercilessly ordered the young man’s execution. During such inspections, the bostancıbaşı would usually accompany the sultan.

Osman III was a special case. This sultan, who was enthroned at the age of 56 after a long life in forced seclusion, spent his three-year reign walking around in disguise as Topkapılı Osman Agha giving folk lectures in coffeehouses on bribery and immoral women. Those who knew which coffeehouse he was going to would fill the place up to flatter him and become recipients of his generous gifts. His last grand vizier, Koca Ragıb Pasha (d. 1763), would have his men praise the sultan on these incognito trips to gain royal favor.It is a universal approach in absolutist regimes for rebels to target the men around the ruler—who is a sacred personality—instead of directly blaming him. In the rebellions in the capital city, rebels would not demand the deposition of the reigning sultan at first. Instead, they asked that certain high-ranking officers who were on their black list be dismissed from their positions or executed. Depending on how events unfolded, the sultan might also lose his throne or even his life. Osman II is the only sultan who was dragged outside of the palace and murdered during a rebellion. The cooperation of scholars and soldiers was necessary to legalize the deposition of the reigning sultan. The legitimacy of deposing the sultan was based on his disregard of ancient traditions and holy law. The bey’at, which symbolized the approval of the public, could be broken only when the sultan lost his mind, wasted the state treasury, or violated the holy law in legal theory.

8- People of Istanbul when submitting their written complaints to the qad (<em>Nadiri Divanı</em>)

To protect their absolute right of sovereignty, Ottoman sultans would follow a policy of balance between political factions by frequently changing their grand viziers. It was also custom to use various military groups against one another. At first, care was taken to prevent the Janissary and the imperial cavalry corps from establishing solidarity. When they rebelled together, the provincial troops of timar-holding cavalry (prebendal cavalry) were called out. In the rebellions after the period of Sultan Murad III (1574–1595), bostancıs became increasingly more active in protecting the palace. During the dethronement of Sultan Osman II, rebels were frightened by the possibility of an opposition by the bostancıs. During the term of grand vizier Melek Ahmed Pasha, it was the bostancıs who helped subdue the craftsmen’s rebellion. Mahmud I was able to execute Patrona Halil—the ringleader and the de-facto ruler—in the palace only with the help of the bostancıs. When Mahmud II decided—in the middle of a political crisis—to shut down all the coffeehouses within the city walls as well as those along the banks of the Bosphorus and around the Golden Horn, he made an exception for the establishments owned by the bostancıs.

Participation in Politics by the Inhabitants of the Imperial Seat

Organized or civil society is traditionally at the heart of Western democracy, and the populace’s ability to participate in a democratic system is a result of centuries-long conflicts between the various social classes and the ruling elite. The urban sites where such conflicts occurred were defined as public spaces in Istanbul. These were considered places where public opinion was shaped. Of course, public space did not always mean a place where the city populace and the state authority were in conflict. There were always instances when the public participated in politics without coming into conflict with the state. Viewing politics at that time as an environment of constant conflict would be misleading. In the face of natural calamities—fire, flood, plague, famine, drought—or bad news like defeat on the battlefield or Bedouins looting pilgrimage caravans, the sultan would expect the public to act in unison and invite his subjects to congregational prayers and invocations. The public would take a political stance by either accepting or refusing to participate in such occasions of social solidarity and popular commitment. In 1592—when the city faced an unabating plague—Murad III ordered a congregational invocation in Okmeydanı on Alemdağ, which was accepted as a holy place. The public participated so intensively in this invocation that even the shops in intra murros Istanbul were closed. On the invitation of religious scholars, people attended a congregational invocation in Okmeydanı once again in the face of a plague epidemic in 1598.

9- Daily life in Sultanahmet square and the police superintendent (on the right) who together with his men, was responsible for the order of the city (Melling)

During the period of Sultan Ahmed I, the public went to pray for three days in Okmeydanı because of a famine resulting from the Celali rebellions. So much attention was paid to this social mobilization that the regular meeting of the Imperial Council was cancelled on the day of the congregational invocation.Outside the city, Okmeydanı and Alemdağ came to the forefront as places of invocation. Within city walls, this function was fulfilled by Hagia Sophia, which maintained its traditional role from the Byzantine period during the Ottoman period as well. Evliya Çelebi recounted that during the infamous plague epidemic that occurred in the middle of Sultan Selim II’s reign (1566–1574)—it killed 3,000 people a day—the sultan ordered a congregational prayer for the relief of the plague at Hagia Sophia for three days. When Sultan Süleyman I’s suckling brother Beşiktaşlı Sheikh Yahya Efendi was preaching in the packed mosque during that catastrophe, a palace member named Gülabî Agha wanted to go outside to go to the bathroom but he got stuck in the middle of the crowd. Evliya Çelebi fancied in his account that he was saved from this difficult situation by the immortal Khidr (deus ex machina) who secretly flew him to Kağıthane.

The populace didn’t come together only during times of catastrophe. The sound of cannons in the skies of Istanbul was meant to spread good news to the public and promote celebrations. This news could be that it was the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, a royal baby had been born, or even that it was time for the seasonal departure of the navy to patrol the Mediterranean at the beginning of May upon the arrival of a foreign commercial ship. Istanbul was a city that produced a great deal of noise. The splendor and magnificence of the various celebrations and ceremonies were a new entertainment for the public. Javelin competitions, for example, were organized in the presence of the sultan in Hasbahçe during the Sacrifice Fest (minor fest; ‘Eid ul Adha) and Candy Fest (major fest; ‘Eid ul Fitr). The sultan’s days-long weddings or circumcision ceremonies, victory celebrations, the army and navy parades either going to or returning from campaigns—these were some of the joyous events that people from all classes attended and which strengthened awareness and pride in living in the capital city. Once, Sultan Ahmed I and his brother Mustafa had measles at the same time and the Ottoman Dynasty was on the verge of extinction. When they both recovered, Istanbul turned into one large festival. All these celebrations required intense preparations and good organization. It was a tradition to annually bring 1,000 boatloads of black and thin sand from Darıca and Tuzla on the Asian side of Istanbul just to remove mud. This sand was scattered over the squares where the celebrations and ceremonies were held and on the paths where the sultan would pass under the supervision of the bostancıbaşı. Examples of such venues include paths in the Hasbahçe, the Javelin Square in Gülhane, and Agha Garden.

Foreign travelers state that unlike events in the West, the celebrations organized in Istanbul usually involved popular participation. In fact, Ottoman sultans were aware that it was necessary to display magnificence and splendor to attract and influence the heart of the public. When Sultan Süleyman I returned from a failed siege on Vienna, he immediately organized the circumcision ceremonies of his sons Mustafa, Mehmed, and Selim to try and make his subjects forget the failure.

10- One of the coffee houses which were sometimes closed and had been at the top of the places where people talked about life politics (Topkap Palace Museum)

11- Ottoman scholars in a feast (Vehbi)

During the period of Sultan Ahmed I, the public went to pray for three days in Okmeydanı because of a famine resulting from the Celali rebellions. So much attention was paid to this social mobilization that the regular meeting of the Imperial Council was cancelled on the day of the congregational invocation.Outside the city, Okmeydanı and Alemdağ came to the forefront as places of invocation. Within city walls, this function was fulfilled by Hagia Sophia, which maintained its traditional role from the Byzantine period during the Ottoman period as well. Evliya Çelebi recounted that during the infamous plague epidemic that occurred in the middle of Sultan Selim II’s reign (1566–1574)—it killed 3,000 people a day—the sultan ordered a congregational prayer for the relief of the plague at Hagia Sophia for three days. When Sultan Süleyman I’s suckling brother Beşiktaşlı Sheikh Yahya Efendi was preaching in the packed mosque during that catastrophe, a palace member named Gülabî Agha wanted to go outside to go to the bathroom but he got stuck in the middle of the crowd. Evliya Çelebi fancied in his account that he was saved from this difficult situation by the immortal Khidr (deus ex machina) who secretly flew him to Kağıthane.

It would be misleading to see the Ottoman public as a crowd that ran to the mosques for congregational prayers whenever their sultan commanded. For instance, the Janissary and the members of the imperial cavalry rebelled from 1687–1688 and caused disorder in the capital city for four months. While the public united under the banner of Prophet Muhammad (sancak-ı serif) against the rebels, they were unresponsive to Osman II’s appeal to gather against the rebels under his sacred banner. Those who supported the Nizam-ı Cedid (New Order) reforms started by Sultan Selim III continuously lobbied for the organization of evening lectures in the mosques to promote propaganda. It was considered more appropriate for the people to learn about reforms in these public conferences than to “indulge in political conversations” in coffeehouses. We know that the public barely responded to such invitations from the state and were comfortable displaying their opposition to the palace.In short, the populace’s participation in politics over the course of Istanbul’s history did not only take the form of opposition. And public opposition did not always lead to the toppling of the reigning sultan. Rebellion was the utmost form of public protest. Just as not all opposition movements required a rebellion, not everyone who displayed their objections should be regarded as a rebel who wanted to create mischief and disorder. A rebellion was not always necessary for the throne to change hands either. Sometimes, the power struggles of factions among high-ranking officials would determine who the new sultan was going to be. At a certain level, those factions were mirrors of the state and the expectations of the public.

The aggressive foreign policy of Sultan Mehmed I necessitated the expansion of the prebendal system to make continuous and regular military recruitment possible. There was a strong veiled opposition to this system. The sultan responded to the opposition by confiscating and turning the villages belonging to religious endowments into prebends that were to be distributed among the provincial cavalry. Apparently, the faction which supported Beyazıd was aware of the opposition, but the rival faction behind Cem was not. Bayezıd II obtained the support of the public and Janissaries in important centers like Istanbul and Bursa, thereby winning the struggle for the throne which started after the death of Sultan Mehmed I. The new sultan analyzed the public’s reaction to centralist policies and not only gave lands back to their owners, but also decreased taxes to feasible levels. In other words, popular opposition found its reflection in political decisions.The excessive practicing of fratricide angered the city’s inhabitants. The two cases that greatly disturbed the public opinion involved Murad III’s execution of his five brothers in the first days of his sultanate (1574) and Mehmed III’s execution of his 19 brothers, most of whom were still in their infancy (1595). In particular, the little coffins coming out of the palace one after another in the latter incident angered the public. Another instance that clearly illustrates the interaction between public opinion and factional rivalries is Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan’s murder (1651). This powerful queen mother acted as a regent for numerous sultans and never underestimated the power of the streets. She worked constantly to keep the imperial subjects on her side by bestowing favors and was adored in the capital city because of her many charitable deeds. For example, she paid off the debts of prisoners during the month of Ramadan to have them released and regularly manumitted her female slaves and got them married. The Büyük Valide Han she constructed played an important role in the commercial life of the city; it could host 3,000 customers at one time. When the faction supporting Mehmed IV’s mother Hadice Turhan Sultan assassinated the queen mother, an unofficial public mourning prevailed in the capital city for three days in protest.

Displaying political opposition by closing shops was a common practice in the old days—as it is today. All stores were closed following the regicide of İbrahim (1648) while only bakeries, groceries, and butchers were allowed to be open during the Edirne Incident (1703) when the rebels overthrew Mustafa II. Sometimes the rebels forcefully closed shops to create a food shortage and weaken the legitimacy of the court. The rebels under the leadership of Patrona Halil resorted to this strategy. Mahmud I, naturally, had to ban the closure of stores during uprisings. In the events that led to the dethronement of Selim III, however, the accomplices of Kabakçı Mustafa kept the stores open and only banned the selling of intoxicants in taverns. However, when a grocer in Üsküdar was killed by a mariner, all grocery stores in the neighborhood were closed to show professional solidarity.In addition to closing stores, street demonstrations and chanting slogans in front of government offices were other ways the public displayed opposition. It is interesting to note that the women of the capital city were leaders in some instances. The Russo-Turkish War, the British navy’s raid on Istanbul, and the Kabakçı uprising coincided with famine in Istanbul. Istanbul’s women invaded the house of the Istanbul qadi, whom they blamed for the famine, at lunchtime in May 1808. The qadi could only save himself from the rage of the women, who saw him sitting at a table filled with all kinds of food, by escaping to the harem section of his house. The women immediately hung animal liver and tripe on sticks and went to the Friday procession at Beyazıd Mosque to communicate their complaints to Sultan Mustafa IV (1807-1808); ‘Even a piece of liver costs 25 para.’ It is rumored that Mustafa IV banned women from going out in the streets during this period of crisis. During the same years, it was women who complained to Mahmud II (1808–1839) about the poor quality of bread. Due to famine during the reign of Mustafa III (1757–1774), women took pots and pans and went out “rice looting” during the evenings of Ramadan in 1758. They seized the rice cellar in Eminönü with yatagans in hands since there was no bread to be found in the city. Osman III banned Istanbul’s women from leaving their houses more than four days a week. According to popular hearsay, he wore hobnailed shoes in the harem so that the women could hear him coming and get out of his way. When Mahmud II realized that women were going out too frequently after breaking their fast, he banned them from strolling the city in the Ramadan evenings of 1810. Sitting at home in those days rather than going to the marketplace was part of the social etiquette of the upper classes; such mentality was influential in those bans, which amounted to moral advice at best. Women living in the capital city were far from constituting a marginal group. Seven percent (68) of the city’s 953 mosques and 28% of the total 491 fountains extant from the Ottoman period were constructed by royal women, wealthy women, or were built in their names.

Foreign affairs were among the issues that kept Istanbul’s inhabitants busiest during war times. There were times when even Sultan Süleyman I could not escape being the target of public criticism. The public did not approve when he ostentatiously hosted Shah Tahmasb’s brother Elkas Mirza in Istanbul to cause discord in the Persian Empire. The extravagant garden parties of Mehmed IV and his court in Üsküdar at the time when Venice besieged Limni (Lemnos) (1656) provoked the public as well. It was a time when the grand vizier was trying to repair the walls of Istanbul as a precaution against a possible Venetian attack and the people were selling their houses and taking refuge in Üsküdar out of fear. After the Russo-Turkish wars that broke out at the end of the 18th century, the failure to secure victory led to open criticism of the sultan. When the preacher of the Hagia Sophia Mosque called the sultan ghazi (holy warrior) in his sermon at a time when Crimea had been lost, some Mawlawi dervishes loudly protested (1771). Twenty years after that incident, someone in North African dervish attire fired at the afore-mentioned sultan’s son and successor Selim III when he was praying in the same mosque’s sultan’s lodge; three shots were fired and one of the shots even broke the divider. This, for obvious reasons, greatly alarmed the sultan.

Popular Religious Movements and Politics

The scholarly arguments of mullahs, sheiks, imams, and preachers who were in daily contact with the public could lead to large disputes. Some reflected a public opposition against the high-ranking officials while others carried no political symbolism. Some religious scholars who propounded objectionable views that were popular among the public were punished to ensure stability and order in the capital city. For this reason, scholars as a social group were expected to always be on the palace’s side.

12- People of Istanbul when trying to collect the dispersed money (Intizami)

13- The yard of Beyazid Mosque, one of the meeting places of the people of Istanbul (Bartlett)

14- Janissaries (d’Ohsson)

15- People of Istanbul when having their daily talks, shopping, and entertainment (Melling)

An ideology called Hûbmesihîlik (lovers of the Messiah), which probably carried the influences of the obscurantist Hurufi sect, attracted a considerable number of followers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Its most influential propagandist, Mullah Kabız, claimed that Jesus was superior to Muhammad as a Muslim and spread this idea in the streets of Istanbul. It was daring for a Muslim scholar to claim in the locus of the Caliphate that the tenets of the Bible were still valid. Mullah Kabız was making his claims just as Sultan Süleyman I returned victorious from the campaign of Mohacs. As his followers increased in number, Mullah Kabız was tried at the Imperial Council, charged of being a heretic and an apostate, and finally executed (1527). In the Hûbmesihî cult were Hâkim İshak and other individuals whose names have not been disclosed. They lived in the same period as Mullah Kabız and shared the same fate. Almost 150 years later, Rycaut—a Brit who published his travel accounts—still spoke about the Hûbmesihî cult as a separate group. The Islamic Cult of Jesus (İsevî Müslümans) seems to have been kept alive in Istanbul among certain groups for a long time. Hidden atheists, who called themselves Musirrîn or “those who refuse the Secret (Allah),” existed among the scholars and palace residents. They tried to hide their (dis)belief, but one of them, Larî Mehmed Efendi—who had served as an imam before—was executed in 1665 after being charged and convicted of openly promoting his atheist views and causing mischief among the public.

Pantheists (supporters of vahdet-i vücud) existed alongside the atheists. Some of those sheikhs, who were mostly from the Bayramî-Melamî and Halvetî-Gülşenî religious orders, were so charismatic they were executed on various trumped up charges simply to eliminate the threat they posed to social harmony. The following are some of the allegations about them: claiming Allah and nature were the same, refusing the doctrine of resurrection, ignoring holy law by regarding criteria about the forbidden and permissible acts as symbolic, and considering themselves to be qutbs (saints) superior to many prophets.Oğlan Sheikh İsmail-i Maşukî (Çelebi Sheikh, d. 1539) took the Bayramî-Melamî order from its rural roots and turned it into an urban religious order. This sheikh, who came from Aksaray to Istanbul when he was still a boy, preached pantheist ideas in Hagia Sofia and Beyazıt mosques and gathered many adherents from the public around him. Tradesmen, merchants, soldiers, scholars, and literary men in Istanbul were among those influenced by this charismatic sheikh. The possibility that his rapturous sermons could cause social disharmony brought about his end. He was charged with numerous allegations: worshipping the saint he represented instead of God, believing in reincarnation instead of the hereafter, accepting adultery and sodomy as religiously lawful, and rejecting all acts of worship except for two communal sermons during Ramadan and Sacrifice festivals. These beliefs might have actually led to anarchy in Istanbul if the number of his followers had increased.

Hamza Balî, Sütçü (Lebenî, milk-vendor), Beşir Agha, and many other individuals known as Kutb-Mehdici (believers in qutb or the Messiah) threatened the stability of Istanbul’s government. While the Bosnian Melamî sheikh Hamza Balî did not reside in Istanbul, he managed to gather many disciples around him from the imperial seat. Based on concerns that he had designs against the sultanate via the Mehdici (Messianic) movement, he was brought to the capital city, tried, and then executed. During his execution, one of his disciples—a baltacı (halberdier)—committed suicide in despair. The spread of the followers of Hamza, especially among the imperial cavalry in the 1600s, worried government officials. It seems that after Hamza’s death, his followers started a social and political movement in both the capital city and Bosnia called Hamzavîlik. They then initiated preparations for rebellions in 1572 and 1582. This was why they were constantly persecuted throughout the 17th century. Melami Qutb Sütçü Beşir Agha was executed by strangulation in 1661 or 1662 at the age of 90 for being a member of the bostancı corps and to prevent even more members of the bostancı and Janissary corps from becoming his followers. In fact, when Beşir was a young man, he was a disciple of Melami Qutb Sheikh İdris (Sheikh Aliyy-i Rumî). According to legend, when about 40 of his disciples went to Chief Mufti (sheikh-ul Islam) Sunullah Efendi on the day following Beşir Agha’s execution and asked him to execute them too as a protest, their request was granted.

The “unjust” execution of Sheikh Muhyiddin-i Karamanî—one of the Gülşenî tariqat sheiks—based on similar charges (1543) caused outrage among the public of the capital city. People who were not convinced about the sheikh’s heresy blamed Chief Mufti Ebussuud Efendi for being jealous of the sheikh. They claimed this was why he refused the sheik’s cries of repentance. In doing so he allegedly relied on the Maliki School of Law instead of the Hanafi School.Popular religious movements took a new course in the 17th-century when the Ottoman world was rife with internal and external unrest. In particular, the Kadızadelis and Sabbatai Zevi occupied an important place in the daily politics of Istanbul. Scholars have likened the Kadızadelis, who were influential from the 1620s until the second siege of Vienna, to British Puritans of the period for their salafi tendencies. Kadızadelis can be accepted as the pioneers of the Wahhabis. Under the influence of some of leaders like Kadızadeli Mehmed Efendi and Üstüvanî Mehmed Efendi—both disciples of Birgivî Mehmed Efendi (d. 1573), the archenemy of Ebussuud Efendi—some lower class ulama members started a movement that went back to the roots of religion. They were looking for solutions to the crises of the period. In Fatih Mosque, which they turned into their headquarters, they declared many Islamic traditions as innovations that were not in the Qur’an. They were attempting to undermine the reconciling of Islamic mysticism and Sharia by Ghazali. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, who was scared of the Kadizadeli upsurge in this intolerant environment, had to spend most of 1651 in the French Embassy. The threat reached an alarming level when the Kadizadelis attempted to demolish all the tombs and additional minarets in 1656. They were temporarily prosecuted for these attempted crimes.

The disputes caused by the Kadızadelis kept Istanbul busy for a long time and they created popular discussion topics at marketplaces and coffee houses. Many customs, which the Kadızadelis found religiously questionable, had already become a part of the imperial subjects’ daily lives. The most interesting were issues like the following: dhikr rituals of certain religious orders involving whirling and dancing; the dhikr service itself; the consumption of tobacco and coffee; the etiquette for visiting cemeteries; intoned recitation of the Qur’an and adhan; shaking hands and bowing heads while greeting one another; saying the names of the Prophet and his Companions together with invocations of respect and reverence; the question of Khidr’s immortality and whether or not the repentance of the Pharaoh who died in the Red Sea had been accepted. People from all levels of society became involved in these discussions—at least, as far as their knowledge allowed them to. Sometimes large fights took place. Kadızadelis were supported by the viziers from the Köprülü family because they were a social control mechanism. Even though the Kadızadelis’ influence decreased after the Köprülüs were removed from politics, the above-mentioned popular religious debates—which were identified with their name—never disappeared.The famous debate of harf-i dad (the Arabic letter dad) took place right after Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Pasha became the grand vizier. This period, among other names, was known as the Tulip Period (1718-1730). İspirizade Ahmed Efendi, who was one of the planners of the 1730 Rebellion (the Patrona Incidence) and who worked as a preacher at the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), was involved in that debate. Some scholars, including İspirizade, insisted on the pronunciation of the Arabic letter dad always as zi/za. Another group of scholars, under the leadership of Chief Mufti Abdullah Efendi from Yenişehir, did not approve of this. This debate should have been limited to a very few people due to its scholarly nature, but it led to fights among the public. To stop the fighting, some scholars—including Süleyman Efendi from the sheikhs of Hagia Sophia—were reprimanded or even exiled from the imperial city.

16- Sultanahmet Square (IRSMH)

17- A coffee house in Istanbul (Topkapı Palace Museum)

Non-Muslim subjects were influenced by the crises of the 17th century as much as Muslims. The Messiah movement, which was started by Sabbatai Zevi, is the best example of how they also tried to find solutions to their problems. When Sabbatai Zevi—a Sephardic Jewish mystic from İzmir—declared he was the Messiah in 1648, he was expelled from the city by the prominent members of Izmir’s Jewish community. For many years, he travelled, preached, and gained followers. In 1665, some Jews from Gaza were convinced that he was the Messiah. Like the radicals already mentioned, he was inclined to question the existing religious rules regarding what was lawful or unlawful. This attitude attracted the public. His influence spread so much that a year later he openly declared that he would establish justice by removing the Ottoman sultan from the throne. Upon making this statement, he was brought to Istanbul by grand vizier Fazıl Mustafa Pasha and prosecuted. To save himself from execution, he pretended to convert to Islam and adopted the Muslim name Aziz Mehmed Efendi. When his followers turned his house in Kağıthane into a center of pilgrimage in 1672, he was exiled to Albania. Some of his adherents also pretended to convert to Islam by following him; they are still known as dönme (converts).

The palace—unlike sheikhs, imams, and preachers who were in daily contact with the public—only allowed public debates over scholarly issues as long as they didn’t threaten social harmony or present a political threat. The ceremonies held every year on the Day of Ashura (10th of Muharram, the first month in the Muslim calendar) to commemorate the Kerbela martyrs were watched carefully by many of Istanbul’s residents. Starting in the 1700s, the Büyük Valide Han became a commercial and religious center for Persian and Azeri merchants. Their mosque was in the inn’s front yard. Shiites and Jafaris would beat themselves with chains and walk through the streets covered in blood shouting “Hasan!” and “Hussein!” on the Day of Ashura. The next day, they would renew this performance on the Asian side of the city in Üsküdar. Allowing such ceremonies in the capital city, which was the cradle of Sunni Islam and the caliphate, can be explained by the flexibility of the Ottoman administrators. However, in cases where a political threat developed, authorities often took extremely harsh measures. Even the Bektashi Order—the ancient order of the Janissary corps—rapidly fell out of favor with the state by the 1790s after becoming politically suspect for opposing reform movements.

During the reign of Sultan Selim III, the religious beliefs of the Janissary corps—who opposed reforms—were open to question for political reasons. Having a Bektashi Sufi lodge in the Janissaries’ barracks was customary. However, reformists opened a Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi convent in 1805 near the Selimiye barracks established for the new army, which was known as the Nizam-ı Cedid (New Order). This was how the reformist government illustrated the kind of creed they expected from the new army; they hoped it would support a Western-style absolutist regime. The Mujaddidi branch of Naqshbandiyya, which attracted adherents mostly from the intellectual urban classes, began making an impression on palace officials during the era of Sultan Selim III. The Müceddidî was distinguished from other branches because of its emphasis on political activism and religious renewal. It argued that the creation of a submissive society was possible through the steadfast application of the holy law. This ideal society would consider submission to the ultimate authority (ulu’l-emr: i.e. sultan-caliph) a prerequisite for properly serving both state and religion (din-ü-devlete hizmet). To create this ideal society, they concentrated on missionary activities directed towards the political elite. The Naqshbandi Order was attractive to the ruling elite and the learned classes while the Bektashi Order addressed the masses. Both the ideal society propounded by the Naqshbandis and the idea of an absolutist state were foreign to the Muslim and non-Muslim segments of the public. Almost every name on the black list presented to the palace during the 1807 Rebellion (the Kabakçı Incident) came from disciples of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi sheikh Bursalı Mehmed Emin Efendi, who was exiled to Bursa after the uprising. This movement slowed down a little after 1807. However, the Order—particularly its Khalidi branch—began attracting followers among the ordinary public in reaction to the Janissaries not only failing to quell the Greek Revolt but also continuing to foster positive relations with the Greeks. Keçecizade İzzet Molla—a prominent figure of the period leading up to the abolition of the Janissaries (Vak’a-i Hayriye; the Auspicious Event)—and Mekkîzade Mustafa Asım, a former chief mufti, were adherents of the Khalidi branch of the Order. The multi-dimensional defamation campaign against the Janissaries turned into a new type of Islamic orthodoxy during the reign of Sultan Selim III. Thanks to political conjuncture, this orthodoxy spread throughout all social classes over time. It should be mentioned that defeatism vis-à-vis Western foes and Russia played a large part in this transformation.

The Secret Power of the Street: Political Conversation and Hearsay

In absolutist regimes, the sultan is the sole political authority. This absolutism requires enforcing balanced policies among the ruling elite’s factions and keeping an eye on any individual opposition against daily political developments. Sultan Mehmed II’s policy eliminating the frontier lords and members of the Turkish aristocracy in order to promote the ‘slaves of the Porte’ (kapıkulu: i.e. the Janissaries and the imperial cavalries) is an example of the sultan’s absolute power. In reaction to the new policy, Sultan Mehmed’s imperial council was likened to “a slave market.” Theoretical autocracy could not completely dominate practical Ottoman politics. Through their representatives—guilds, religious orders, and notables—ordinary people were able to negotiate with the state. However, in the days when public opinion (efkâr-ı umumiye) was not yet respected, authorities did not approve of ordinary men freely ‘uttering words’ on political matters. All types of political discussions were perceived as mischief and sedition, and those who dared “chat about the state” were condemned. In short, ‘loose talk’ by his subjects was seen as infringing on the sultan’s honor.

18- Ayasofya and Sultan Ahmet III Fountain (Brindesi)

19- Daily life in Istanbul (in Küçükçekmece district) (Mayer)

Coffeehouses, barbershops, inns, mosques, public baths, boats, streets, cemeteries, and recreational areas are all at the top of the list when we think about places to make and spread political rumors. A new means of political opposition was invented immediately after the bitter recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea (1784): the hanging of acrimonious brochures on the walls of the Old Palace—today, the rector’s office of Istanbul University—among other locations. People went to the above-mentioned places as individuals rather than as members of a congregation, order, or guild. Even before coffeehouses became common, some preachers spoke out against the state to their mosque congregations. This made the historian Mustafa Âlî angry. The possibility that people from all social classes might gather and socialize freely had always worried the state, which always kept places where people gathered under surveillance. After pimps, the imperial seat hated most public inspectors or “those who proved to be incompetent in any other profession and became night guards (ases), court criers (muhzır), or the armed guard for an important person (yasakçı).

”Among the recreational areas that spread across Istanbul, we should mention the Kâğıthane (Sadabad), Dolmabahçe, Beşiktaş, and Bebek gardens. On the Anatolian side were Üsküdar, Çubuklu, Kanlıca (Mihrabad), Beykoz, Akbaba, Dereseki, Yûşâ, Kısıklı, Bulgurlu, Feyzabad, Çamlıca, Haydarpaşa, Nerdübanlı, Kalamış, and Fenerbahçe. In every age, a different excursion spot was in demand. Every sultan liked some of his gardens—which numbered as many as 60—better than the others. While Ahmed III was fond of Sadabad, Mahmud I (1730–1754) frequently visited Karaağaç, Beylerbeyi, and Beşiktaş as well as Sadabad. Those gardens were also hunting grounds. Mehmed IV—a renowned hunter—spent the cherry season hunting in Üsküdar, Istavroz, and Kandilli. During the reign of Sultan Selim III, Sadabad, Boğaziçi, and Çamlıca were revived as excursion spots. These promenades—which were resting places open to the public—also served as places where people met, talked, and exchanged gossip and stories. They were places where politics were shaped as well. High-ranking officials would discuss political matters at moon-watching parties on summer nights and at halvah-eating parties on winter nights. These recreational places were indispensable when it came to developing Istanbul’s diplomatic policies. When foreign political developments needed to be kept from the public—particularly during times of crisis—diplomatic talks and negotiations with foreign envoys were held in those faraway promenades.

For example, in 1787 and 1788, the Sublime Porte hosted negotiations with the Spanish and Polish ambassadors regarding the Treaty of Sistova and the Treaty of Jassy in Kağıthane; these treaties ended wars with Russia and the Austrian Habsburgs. Kağıthane slowly became an important location. Reactions against the period of Ahmed III had kept Kağıthane from being very popular for a long time before Sultan Selim III came to power. During his reign, it not only revived as a recreational area, but also became an important place for reforms and so was honored with the sultan’s personal attention. One way to arrange unofficial meetings with foreign envoys was for the sultan to visit a recreational area and “accidentally” run into a foreign envoy. The two would then talk out of courtesy. This diplomatic trick was based on the assumption that coincidences like this would be regarded as normal in such popular places. When Sultan Selim III’s successor Mustafa IV needed to unofficially meet with French ambassador Sebastiyani and the Spanish envoy, he went to Kağıthane on the pretense of riding. He chatted with those envoys out of politeness when he “accidentally ran across” them. Kağıthane was at the center of politics in Istanbul during the first quarter of the 19th century.

When Mahmud II ascended to the throne, well-esteemed notables of the rural areas were invited to Istanbul to sign a charter which became known as the Deed of Alliance (Sened-i İttifak). According to this agreement, notables would not fight with one another, would obey the imperial edicts, and support the reforms. In return, the sultan would provide them with certain assurances. While the conditions of this charter—which Mahmud II unwillingly signed—were being negotiated, the young sultan accepted powerful notables like Cabbarzade, Sirozî İsmail Bey, and Karaosmanoğlu at Kağıthane.

Mosques were the most obvious meeting places for the Muslim community. Contrary to their function today, mosques were not just used for performing daily, Friday, or Ramadan prayers. They were the only place for social campaigning during times of war and epidemics. This was especially true in a capital city like Istanbul, which had many mosque complexes with various functions. One of those functions was discussing politics. The palace was so opposed to the discussion of views contradicting the official political stance in mosques that Mahmud II was once forced to ban ‘chatting about state’ in mosques. The yards of the mosques of Fatih, Eyüpsultan, Beyazıd, and Hagia Sofia hosted bazaars during the month of Ramadan where people could purchase books instead of fruits and vegetables. Petition writers also worked in these marketplaces. Mosques had a central place in the public’s social life and, naturally, they were host to many disputes. At sacred places like the Hagia Sofia Mosque, which some foreign diplomats and visitors could enter with special permission, fights would sometimes break out because foreign habits like spitting on the ground were condemned by Muslims. These situations could even lead to diplomatic crises.

The madrasa students fought with knives and guns in the yards of Selim I and Fatih mosques in 1686-1687. On the command of the sheikh-ul Islam, all madrasas were raided to find the culprits and some of the students who were found guilty were punished by exile and some by execution. Mosques became the scenes of such judicial as well as political incidents. Just like today, Beyazıt Mosque was often where social opposition took shape. Orta Mosque, in the neighborhood of the Janissary quarters, naturally became the headquarters of rebelling Janissaries; this had also happened during the Edirne Vakası (1703). The decision to have Süleyman II (1687-1691) ascend to the throne in place of Mehmed IV was made at the Sultanahmet Mosque.

Hagia Sophia Mosque played a special part in the uprisings that took place in Istanbul. The rebellion that ended with the murder of Osman II began with a Janissary uprising and their march on the palace (May 19, 1622). The Janissaries thought that armed bostancıs were waiting for them in the palace yard, so they surveilled the yard from one of the Hagia Sophia Mosque’s minarets. When they realized their fear was baseless, they raided the palace as they had planned. This lit the fuse for later events.

In the Alemdar Incidence, which broke out during Ramadan in 1808, the Hagia Sofia Mosque came to the forefront because of its strategic importance. The âyan of Rusçuk (Ruse), Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, helped Mahmud II take the throne from Mustafa IV and had himself appointed as the grand vizier. He invited the notables around the country to Istanbul and made them accept the Deed of Alliance. He also established a new army called Sekban-ı Cedid, which annoyed the Janissaries. The Alemdar Incidence came about as a result. It is recorded in history as the one and only uprising during which a grand vizier resisted the Janissaries and, in the end, committed suicide. Alemdar’s suicide—which involved blowing up the Sublime Porte—could not stop the civil war, which lasted for days between the Janissaries and sekbans. On the second day (November 17, 1808), three sekban soldiers started a hunt for rebel Janissaries from the minaret of Hagia Sofia Mosque; they were looking for the rebels deployed around Topkapı Palace. When the rebels burned a corpse wrapped in a straw mat in the stairwell of the minaret to drive the sekbans out, the sekbans had to surrender. The Janissaries then went up to the minaret and shot many of the sekbans who were fighting on the palace walls and those waiting in Darphane Square. Qadi Abdurrahman Pasha, the commander-in-chief of the Anatolian troops and a reformist who saw the situation, bombarded the minaret to retake Hagia Sofia. Hitting the minaret with three cannon balls was enough to make the Janissaries surrender. These small cannon balls did not destroy the minaret; however, Hagia Sofia experienced one of the most dangerous days in its long history because of this civil war. During this same period of days—on the orders of Grand Admiral Ramiz Pasha—the navy bombarded Ağakapısı, which was acting as the Janissaries’ headquarters. One of the cannonballs went through a window of the Süleymaniye Mosque. The imperial cavalrymen who wanted revenge for Sultan İbrahim—killed during the Sultan Ahmet Mosque Incidence (1648)—and their opponents, the Janissary supporters of Mehmed IV, turned Hagia Sofia and Sultan Ahmet mosques into a battlefield. The defeated cavalrymen sought refuge in Sultan Ahmet Mosque, which resulted in the mosque’s being damaged by musket fire. All these incidents illustrate how the mosques could become places of strategic significance during internal conflicts in Istanbul.

Coffeehouses were the places that probably caused the most trouble in the city. Coffee and coffeehouses were introduced to Istanbul in the 16th century to mixed reactions. Although religious scholars debated for a long time whether roasting its beans made coffee religiously impermissible or not, coffeehouses turned into—as described by a Western traveler, “Istanbul’s temples without gods”—after the 17th century. They were so described because men—independent from any of their affiliations to congregations, religious orders, or guilds—met as individuals in the coffeehouses as they did in mosques. During times of political crisis, Istanbul’s coffeehouses were subjected to strict surveillance as infamous places where one dared to talk against the state. Murad IV not only banned intoxicants, but also closed all coffeehouses. Sultans had their reasons for being worried about coffeehouses. At the beginning of the 19th century, one in seven shops in Istanbul was a coffeehouse. The owner of one in three coffeehouses was a Janissary with a title like beşe, bostanî, or odabaşı. Every one out of two Janissaries who worked as a tradesman was a coffeehouse owner. Selim II, Murad III, Murad IV, and Selim III are among the sultans who most strongly opposed coffeehouses, which they viewed as hotbeds of immorality, corruption, hostility, anti-religion, and illicit political opposition carried out through villainy.

It is hard to say whether people went to coffeehouses primarily to drink coffee. Like with boza houses and taverns, the object was to meet, talk, and have a good time.

The common characteristics of these beverage establishments are that they became central to the social life of Istanbul and were generally banned by rulers all at the same time. When the taverns were banned, then boza houses would start to sell spirits illegally. To prevent increased public disorder during the wars with Russia and the Habsburgs—which took place early in Sultan Selim III’s reign—all but a few taverns were turned into charcoal stores. While boza houses and candy stores immediately became the new places to purchase alcohol, the copperware market in Beyazıd Square ran out of alembic because of high demand from distillers for domestic use.Coffeehouses competed with one another mostly through the types of services they offered. Coffeehouses that wanted to make a difference developed side services, most of which were unrelated to coffee. Some of them acted like musicians’ clubs and were frequented by music lovers while others catered to the unemployed and were visited mostly by migrants, addicts, and all kinds of suspicious people. Others were similar to reading houses (kıraathane) where books were shelved; they would try to stand out by inviting famous storytellers (meddah) or operators of shadow show known as Karagöz. Such performance arts are not popular today even among children, but in those days the plays were often political satires that commented on current events. This was particularly the case after the conquest of Constantinople. Most of the available Karagöz plays were recorded in the second half of the 19th century. Some local and foreign sources, like Evliya Çelebi, discuss the contents of earlier Karagöz plays. The plays illustrate how the capital’s public reacted to daily politics.

Hacivat, one of the stock characters of Karagöz plays, would often act as a colonel of the Janissaries (çorbacı), patrolling at night. He would fail to understand the Janissary novices he came across, each of whom spoke in a different dialect, and would reprimand them. This reflected real problems that existed in the city. In another play, the character Karagöz gets caught by watchmen with an unlit lantern and saves himself by saying that the imperial edict did not mention anything about candles. He then gets caught again with an unlit lantern, but this time he has placed a candle in the lantern. He did not, however, light the candle since the edict did not mention anything about having to light the candle.

Frequent raids on women’s bathhouses at the beginning of the 17th century seem to be the subject of the theatrical play Ghazi Boşnak’s Raid of the Bathhouse, mentioned in Evliya Çelebi’s writings. During the gaudy birthday celebrations for Sultan Mustafa III’s daughter Hibetullah, impersonators and Karagöz players mocked and teased the government officials and scholars in a well-known incident. Because the previous sultans—Mahmud I and Osman III—had passed away without producing a child, Hibetullah was the first royal baby in a long time (1759). In the pompous festivities organized to celebrate her birth, a prankster dressed as the qadi of Istanbul got on a donkey backwards, held the donkey’s tail, and acted as if he was inspecting the tradesmen. This infuriated the scholars as this was the punishment given to false witnesses in court. When scholars threw their turbans to the ground and complained to grand vizier Koca Ragıb Pasha, the grand vizier reminded them that such jokes—as well as tolerating them—was customary during such celebrations. Otherwise, he himself would have been offended by the acts of the Karagöz players. He actually called these players “bastards” because they had represented him in a shadow-play as a puppet sitting on a horse without a saddle while wearing an outrageously high turban (75 cm.). They had then ‘spun the puppet around on the shadow screen.’

During the reign of Sultan Mahmud II—which was full of naval calamities—the sultan’s son-in-law, kaptan-ı derya Laz Mehmed Ali Pasha, was satirized in a play. When a young man asked a Karagöz player which profession he should choose, he was told to enter the navy and be an admiral since he was so unintelligent. A Karagöz play dealing with rumors about the private life of Topal Hüsrev Pasha, a prominent stateman of that period, was in great demand among the public. The Janissaries from Aleppo, who fell from public grace during the 1768–1774 Russo-Ottoman War that was filled with calamities—including the loss of Crimea—could not escape the Karagöz satires even a century later.The hagiographies narrated by storytellers, the legends of folk poets, the reign of Sultan Murad IV as narrated by storytellers, and the Tıfli stories openly satirizing even the sultan himself were among the stories in great demand by the public. The performers would not only appear in coffeehouses, but also perform at the banquets of affluent members of society. Hayalî Hafız Bey, a famous Karagöz player during the reign of Sultan Selim III, became a giant figure in the eyes of Istanbul’s public for his professional ethics. In his story Lordship of Karagöz, “chamberlain Hacivat Çelebi” brings the slaves and concubines he bought to Karagöz’s mansion. When Karagöz calls one of the slaves—named Selim—by his name, Sultan Selim III himself jokingly responds by saying, “Here I am! (Lebbeyk!).” Just then Hayalî Hafız Bey realizes his mistake, quits his job, and goes on pilgrimage in order to leave Istanbul even though the sultan clearly expresses his satisfaction with the joke.

20- People of Istanbul in Küçüksu promenade (Allom)

During the 18th century, the maddahs in Istanbul were mostly from the families of affluent tradesmen; Salih Efendi (candy maker), Aksaraylı İsmail Çelebi (skullcap maker), and Meddah Mustafa Çelebi (fez maker) were among the important individuals. New upper social circles were formed during this century. The palaces and mansions of the wealthy showed interest in the meddahs. They attracted public interest by dealing with the changing values of society in their stories. The public demanded not only the commonly-read hamzanâmes—which were based on courage and an idealist understanding of merits—but also Tıfli stories that dealt with the middle-class merchants’ individualistic, selfish, realistic, and cunning values. Their mocking descriptions provided entertained. Social status became measured by money during that time. Individuals like merchants and peddlers were adopting life styles that imitated those displayed at the palace. The newly rich did not wear clothes appropriate to their class, but dressed flamboyantly. These individuals, alongside people who pretended to be statesmen and discussed politics in coffeehouses, incurred the wrath of the sultan. The reforms illustrated the sultans’ belief that the ancient order was corrupted, and they were concerned with ancient regulations regarding appropriate dress—which nobody cared about anymore—as well as strict measures against adultery. They attributed social corruption to people not knowing their place in the social and political structure.

From this perspective, it is not paradoxical for each of the 18th-century reformist sultans’ to try to enforce Western-inspired reforms while simultaneously trying to revive the ancient social structure.In many ways, public baths were like coffeehouses for women because they had functions other than just allowing one to bathe. They were places for women to find brides for their sons and organize amusing parties. Bathhouses were also places where daily politics were discussed. Because they were the most important places for female socialization, even rich women who had private baths in their own homes would regularly go to the public bathhouse in their neighborhood. It was impossible to avoid various social tensions in these places. It was not rare for the wives of the Janissaries to carry their husbands’ quarrels into the bathhouses, and some incidents of espionage definitely occurred in bathhouses. For example, during the period of Mahmud II (1809), women who discussed politics in Beyazıt Bathhouse were captured and taken into custody on the information of a female agent.

It is unknown whether the government had regular professional spies in Istanbul like there were, for example, in Paris. According to one view, most of the coffeehouse owners were already spies—that’s what their regular customers thought at least. Many coffeehouses had regular customers, just like the social clubs and lounges in the West. When someone who was not “a member” stopped by, the regulars would become suspicious, change the subject, and avoid criticizing government officials. Can the same thing be said about the barbershops and employees of the bathhouses? Was there a government office that employed spies? None of this can be confirmed. Gossip was the most important communication medium of that period; rumors directed and led the public. For instance, during the Alemdar Incidence, a cannonball’s falling into the Süleymaniye Mosque through a window frame was used by the Janissaries as a pretense for spreading propaganda against the government. According to them, the reformists’ only concern was to destroy the city with cannonballs and then surrender it to the Russians. The Russian fleets continuously visiting the city because of the Russo-Ottoman alliance and the recent British raid (1807) probably made these claims seem credible. Moreover, this propaganda seemed all the truer when the navy mistook the people who had gathered around Eminönü to watch the bombardment with a group of Janissaries and then proceeded to bombard them.

Similar incidents can be found in the city’s history. In 1649, Celali rebels under the leadership of Nebî the Georgian, Mehmed—a muleteer’s son—and Ahmed the silk-weaver came to Üsküdar. To defend the city, a fight lasting a couple of days took place between the Janissaries and the Celali rebels in the outskirts of Üsküdar. Thousands of Istanbul residents ran to Üsküdar with binoculars to watch the battle. This watching the fighting instead of joining in to defend the city infuriated Evliya Çelebi. During the British raid, on the other hand, people from all social classes mobilized spontaneously first in the Princes Islands and then in the traditional city without waiting for a command to join the city’s defense. After the danger was cleared, some of the non-Muslims who had proven themselves useful during the city defense were exempted from the jizya (poll tax) tax. This incident illustrates the citizens’ sense of civic attachment to the city and their feeling of belonging to it.Information was mostly circulated in the city through rumors. People’s use of the question “What’s up?” to greet each other summarizes this fact in the most beautiful way. The ruling elite called rumors loose talk (kîl u kâl), empty words (lakırdı), and rattle (zırıltı). They regarded those who spread rumors as sources of mischief and sedition.

For the masses, rumors were a way to “analyze” the daily political developments. The rumors were fed by many sources of information: merchants from all over the Mediterranean carried news of wars, famines, and epidemics; the palace and Sublime Porte accidentally leaked information about factional rivalries; stories about the background of government policies circulated freely. Various beliefs strengthened the public’s feeling of belonging to the city. These beliefs originated from many things—ranging from the common hagiographies about the saints regarded as sacred by both the Muslim and Christian communities to myths and prophesies about the history and the future of the city. These beliefs were always instrumental to the interpretation of daily politics; they helped make them comprehensible for common people. The hagiography about Sultan Mehmed II’s famous vizier Mahmud Pasha, who gave his name to a large neighborhood along with its mosque and market, is one well-known example of this genre. This vizier, who fell from grace after the Otlukbeli War and who did not get along with Prince Mustafa, was executed upon the provocations of other viziers when he remained unconcerned about the death of the prince. His execution was regarded as so unjust among the people that by means of hagiographies he was raised to a position of near sainthood. In the eyes of the inhabitants of Istanbul, he was the one who conquered Constantinople and he was even the one who pushed back the Cossack raid upon the Bosphorus (1624/1625). According to legend, he also took care of the danger when Tatar Khan allegedly came to the gates of Edirne and asked Murad II (1421–1444; 1446–1451) to surrender the Ottoman throne.

For common people who had difficulty understanding the debates surrounding the consumption of coffee, Chief Mufti Ebussuud Efendi was simply an archenemy of coffee. It was even alleged that he had ships carrying coffee sunk. It was a common rumor that Osman III—who was not very popular among the public—could settle on the throne only by executing the Quran reciter, who informed the palace that late Sultan Mahmud I might be alive as he heard noises coming from his fresh grave.A dervish who invited Selim III to the court saying, “I have a lawsuit against you” became famous in Istanbul. Male citizens believed this man was taking his chains off in the lunatic asylum every night, walking around freely, and coming back to his cell in the morning when he was found chained again. In the end, he magically disappeared to the other side. This example illustrates that the hagiographic convictions that were dominant among the public could raise a brave political opponent to the level of a saint. During Oğlan Sheikh’s execution, people who believed the decision was unjust spread the rumor that light had poured down upon Oğlan Skeikh’s grave. The rumor was so powerful that Ebussuud Efendi issued a fatwa accusing those who claimed Oğlan Sheikh “was unjustly killed” of being his followers and so also deserving execution. Angry over whisperings saying that he had Muhyiddin-i Karamanî executed because of jealousy, Ebussuud Efendi issued a similar fatwa to stop those rumors.

In times of great turmoil, the Ottoman Dynasty’s legitimacy was overtly questioned. The conquest of Constantinople enormously strengthened the Ottoman Dynasty’s prestige, but it was impossible to quell the many prophecies. The belief that someone with the name of a bird was going to end the dynasty was common among some people. Rumors surrounding pro-Russian Khan of Crimea Şahin (hawk) Giray’s execution in Rhodes during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid I and the belief that Tayyar (flying) Pasha had counted on his felicitous name when rebelling—allegedly to claim the throne—can be attributed to this prophecy. Here are the names of those who were said to be alternatives to the Ottoman Dynasty: sheikh-ul Islam Sunullah Efendi during the Sipahi Uprisings in 1600–1603; Grand Vizier Davud Pasha during the period of Ahmed I; Grand Vizier Davud Pasha, late Mehmed’s III son-in-law, after Osman’s II regicide; Şahin Giray from the Crimea-Tatar Dynasty during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim; Fazıl Mustafa Pasha during Mehmed IV and Kösem Sultan’s time; during the Edirne Incidence, the Crimean-Tatar Dynasty and the İbrahimhanzades who came from İbrahim Pasha’s lineage, the son of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha and İsmihan Sultan; Tayyar Pasha and Pazvantoğlu Osman during the reign of Selim III; Esma Sultan and the Crimean-Tatar Dynasty again during the Alemdar Incidence in reaction to Mustafa IV’s execution. The imperial edict that announced the enthronement of Ahmed II (1691–1695) remarked that he was chosen by a consensus among the ruling elite. Meanwhile, Niyazi Mısrî—famous for being an enemy of the Ottoman Dynasty as well as for his claim to be the Messiah—gathered his followers and arrived in Edirne on the pretense of joining the jihad. So it appears that the legitimacy of the Ottoman Dynasty was quite worn down after the second siege of Vienna.

Biases transmitted from generation to generation among the communities through rumors and legends would endanger the city’s administration and stability. In the last quarter of the 18th century, the tension between Muslims and Christians increased. In 1768, some Muslims who had come to see the army off on the campaign to Russia were annoyed by the presence of Christians there and attacked them. The closure of the taverns during the first years of Sultan Selim III’s reign led to rumors among Christians that they were going to be killed at Easter. According to these rumors, the sultan wanted to keep the Muslims sober for that task. On Easter Day, the fear caused by the sound of a pistol—which was accidentally fired—led to the death of a priest during Easter services. Non-Muslims’ fighting among themselves was more common than their quarrels with Muslims. For example, the Greeks believed that the Jews were abducting Christian children and sacrificing them in ritual ceremonies. This superstition was also very common in Europe and it fed the animosity against Jews for centuries. This belief reached such a serious level that in 1553–1554, through an initiative led by Sultan Süleyman I’s Spanish Jewish doctor Musa Hamon, an imperial edict was decreed ordering that those who made such claims would be tried at the Imperial Council. Stoning and insulting a man forced to walk the streets wearing a rabbi’s attire was a custom practiced by the Greek-Orthodox until recent times. Unfortunately, such superstitions had deep roots and could not be stopped by imperial edicts. In 1874, superstitions led the Greeks to attack the Jews in Istanbul. To prevent such problems, the bostancıbaşı would try to establish security by appointing a guard during non-Muslim community celebrations.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.