The first half of the 19th century was not the most fortunate period for Istanbul. Anarchy reigned over the city and significant moments of unrest took place one after the other: the İngiliz Vakası (English Event) in 1807, the Kabakçı Mustafa İsyanı(rebellion), the rebellion led by Alemdar Mustafa Pasha to reinstate Selim III to the throne, the Alemdar Vakası (incident). These events not only disturbed the peace of the capital but also caused a great deal of damage throughout the city. In 1807, the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus were closed to foreign ships due to the Ottoman-Russian War. Russian ships were anchored at Bozcaada though, and at the instigation of English ambassador Charles Arbuthnot—who wanted to reduce France’s influence on the throne—an English fleet passed through the Dardanelles on the morning of February 19, 1807 to anchor in front of the Prince’s Islands. This was a threat to the capital of the Ottoman State; the English navy’s passing through the Dardanelles with such ease exposed the vulnerability of the throne and created hysteria in the city.
Apart from the various fortresses along the Straits, Istanbul really had no defenses. And, unfortunately, it was clear that the fortresses were not effective against attacks from the enemy. The very real possibility that the city’s wooden houses would burn to the ground if there was a bombardment increased the citizens’ panic. Administrators experienced short-lived confusion and despair as well; however, with the encouragement of French ambassador Sébastiani, the process of fortifying the city began.
While negotiations with the English continued, the city’s defenses were reinforced as a necessary precaution. A group of French officers and engineers consisting of 200 people (not counting Sébastiani) took part in these efforts, as did the Muslim and non-Muslim populaces. In a short time, earthworks and redoubts were raised in various places along the coastline, 300 cannons were placed in them, and the necessary military equipment was procured.1 Selim III personally invested time to these defense efforts and assigned government officials to oversee the fortifications in various areas.The English Raidended on March 1, 1807 with the retreat of the English fleet and no serious damage to the city; however, it still caused Istanbul’s citizens to lose faith in the sultan and the administrators of the city. In fact, the Kabakçı Mustafa Revolt erupted only a short while later on May 25, 1807. This revolt, which began at the forts of the Bosphorus, grew when the insurgents began to march on Istanbul along the Ortaköy coastal road; civilians, canoneers, the Cebeci Corps, and the Janissaries joined them on their march. Despite causing a serious political crisis, lasting a total of five days, resulting in a total of 15 deaths—most of them those of high-level government officials—and ending with the accession of Mustafa III, no plundering or further damages took place.
Civil unrest continued in the city during the reign of Mustafa IV, who came to the throne after the revolt of 1807. There were attempts to re-establish and ensure stability and peace in Istanbul while Alemdar Mustafa Pasha was grand vizier (July 28-November 16, 1808). In addition to the sekban soldiers, whom the grand vizier brought from Rusçuk (Ruse) and deployed in various locations, the arrival of Anatolian and Rumelian soldiers (ayan soldiers) resulted in a large number of troops in the city.2 The Sekban-i Cedid soldiers, established to revitalize the Nizam-i Cedid army, were garrisoned at the Levent Farm and the Selimiye Barracks. The construction of new sekban barracks began at Kum Meydanı, but these barracks were left unfinished when Kum Meydanı burned down during the Alemdar Incident.3 The era of Alemdar Mustafa Pasha was one during which Istanbul was militarized. The degree of apprehension this militarization process caused the people of Istanbul is revealed in the following poem by Galatali Hüseyin:
Youth from the mountains invaded Istanbul
Alemdar Pasha’s wrestlers
Courts have been established for execution
Kircali soldier with short coat and tight pants
There’s no way they’ll leave here now.
In addition to the sekban soldiers he had brought with him, Alemdar Mustafa Pasha was an ayan and foreign to the culture of Istanbul and its people. More importantly, the harsh actions he undertook to re-establish order—like the instantaneous and merciless punishments he inflicted—caused Istanbul’s residents to dislike him, and resulted in an era of terror in the city. Because his intimidation tactics were so successful, he always remained distant from the people. They were never persuaded into liking him. According to the historian Sanizade, at least 1,000 people were killed during this period. Despite all the pasha’s efforts, rebellious incidents frequently took place in various parts of Istanbul during his rule. “Talks on politics” continued to take place in cafes and violent incidents frequently occurred—especially in Üsküdar. Consequently, travelling in Istanbul with a firearm was prohibited and anyone who walked at night in the streets had to do so accompanied by a lantern. Additionally, some bachelor’s rooms frequented by the porters and sailors of Üsküdar were demolished. The Alemdar Incident—a chain of events that began on November 16, 1808 and came to an end after November 19—caused great damage to Istanbul. A group of Janissaries—after killing Mustafa Pasha, the janissary agha who refused to join them—gathered in front of the Ağakapısı on November 16. They then headed towards the Paşa Gate, which was located close to the Alay Pavilion, and they set the building on fire. Following the fire, which caused a great deal of damage, the Paşa Gate became unusable. This caused the government to temporarily move into the manor of Yusuf Agha, the kethüda of the valide sultan.
Following the Paşakapısı fire, clashes broke out throughout the city. These clashes led to other fires spreading throughout Istanbul. A fire that spread from the Divanyolu to Süleyman Paşa Han caused serious damage in Defterhane, Mehterhane, Sultanahmet, and Uzun Mahsen. The fire ravaged various houses and stores, especially those located around Sultanahmet, and damaged the minaret of the mosque. Another fire, which broke out around the Haseki Sultan Hamam (Turkish baths), caused similar destruction in the Kabasakal, Cebehane, and Ishak Pasha districts. Some parts of the Hatice Sultan Palace burned down due to confrontations. Attempts were made to extinguish these fires in accordance with a decree from Mahmud II; however, the blowing winds interfered with these efforts and caused the fires to spread even further. In fact, fires in some areas could only be brought under control three days later. According to information relayed by Russian observer Grigorevich Krasnokoutski, close to 4,000 homes burned down as a result of the fires.In contrast to the incidents of the Kabakçı Revolt, the response of some government officials and sekban soldiers led later clashes to gain momentum. The violence that broke out in the city increased the amount of damage to it. For instance, while the fire at the Paşakapısı continued, Grand Admiral Ramiz Pasha (d. 1813) attempted to protect the palace from a possible attack by sending for the sekban soldiers stationed at the Levent Farm and Üsküdar. On the decree of the pasha, two corvettes were brought to Unkapanı and these bombarded the Ağakapısı, Gümrükönü, and coastal areas. These were all places where the Janissaries were more densely located. The corvettes were also given the command to fire on civilians who were helping the rebels if necessary. Some of the people who gathered at the Çöplük Pier to follow the course of the confrontations died from cannon fire.
During the indiscriminate bombardment, certain buildings in Kumkapı, Beyazıt, Vefa, Süleymaniye, and Falakacılar were hit. The windows of Süleymaniye Mosque were broken and the windows of the divan area of Hagia Sophia Mosque were shattered while some items inside were damaged as well. The fact that holy places such as these were struck caused a negative reaction among the people. The Janissaries saw this as an opportunity, and attempted to spread the rumors that the central units—who had even attacked mosques—had no respect for holy areas and would not refrain from attacking the people as if they were non-believers. After the first day of attack, which concentrated on the Ağakapısı and the Paşa Kapısı, Topkapı Palace became the central location for conflict. The palace was under siege in the fullest sense of the word. When it fell prey to food and drink shortages, attempts to break the blockade were made from time to time. For instance, a group of sekban soldiers, under the command of Süleyman Agha, stepped outside of the palace, attacked some rebels on Divanyolu, and returned back to the palace with food they obtained by breaking into some stores. The Cebeci corps at the Sedefçiler Market were also attacked in a similar way and the odabaşı here lost his life.4 In a fight that broke out between rebels who were trying to break down the doors of Topkapı Palace and the military units that were situated inside the palace, the mutineers fired cannon shots at the main gates from the palace court. Similar events took place around the Hagia Sophia Mosque as well and the rebels fired from the mosque onto the palace. Even though sources do not cite exact numbers, they do state that both sides suffered numerous casualties and the khan and stores in the area were filled with wounded people.
The last phase of the incidents took place at the Levent Farm and the Üsküdar Barracks. The rebels and various opportunists who had joined them attacked both barracks, which had received no damage during the 1807 events. The Levent Farm was attacked by hordes of rebels coming especially from the districts of Galata, Tophane, and Beşiktaş. As soon as news about the rebellions within city walls spread, the docks at Üsküdar were closed to transportation and sekban soldiers began patrolling the area more often. Those who did not obey orders were jailed and, when deemed necessary, some stores were closed down. Despite all precautions, the clashes reached Üsküdar and fighting broke out between the two sides in the courtyard of Selimiye Mosque where people who had been caught in the crossfires of violence had sought refuge. Rebel Janissaries, who attacked the barracks in Üsküdar, not only set the areas where the soldiers lived on fire, but also the buildings where the families of the officers stayed. Various houses and stores burned down in the fire that erupted. The mansion that belonged to the heirs of the former grand vizier Hafiz Ismail Pasha—in which the qadi resided—also burned.
A group of individuals who observed the clashes in Üsküdar were wounded and pillaging took place there. Events had gotten out of control, and regular people took part in the unrest alongside the rebels. For instance, the women around the İhsaniye, Tunus Bağ, and Karacaahmet areas plundered various items and groceries—like wood, coal, grains, outfits, blankets, and furniture—for over a week. They broke into a total of approximately 15 stores and households. At the same time, residents of Üsküdar had begun to arm themselves with weapons to protect their property and ensure their own safety. Groups of 200 to 300 watchmen patrolled the neighborhood day and night. After twenty days of patrolling, when the Janissary Agha had restored public order, these groups were dispersed and the number of guards in the area was increased; no other group was allowed to patrol or carry firearms.
The general damage caused by the incidents in 1808 was significant. Istanbul paid a heavy price that year. It is estimated that around 15,000 people—men and women—died, and 7,000 homes were damaged.5
BOA, HH, 735/34860.
Beyhan, M. A., Saray Günlüğü,Istanbul: Doğu Kütüphanesi, 2007.
Coquelle, P., “Sebastiani: Ambassadeur A Constantinople 1806-1808 d’apres des documents inedité”, Reveu d’Histoire Diplomatique, 1904, vol. 17, pp. 574-611.
Driault, Eduard, “Correspondance du général Sébastiani, ambassadeur a Constantinople, du 24 dec. 1806 au 10 Mars 1807”, Revue des Etudes Napoleoniennes, 1913, vol. 2/4, pp. 402-425.
Driault, Edouard, Napolyon’un Şark Siyaseti, Selim-i Salis ve Napolyon, Sebastiani ve Gardan, tr. Köprülüzade Mehmed Fuad, Istanbul: Kanaat Matbaası, 1329.
Raczynski, Edward, 1814’te İstanbul ve Çanakkale’ye Seyahat, tr. by Kemal Turan, İstanbul: Tercüman Gazetesi, 1980.
Şânîzâde Mehmed, Atâullah Efendi, Şânîzâde Târîhi (1223-1237/1808-1821), ed. Ziya Yılmazer, II vol., Istanbul: Çamlıca Basım Yayın, 2008.
Yaycıoğlu, A., “The Provincial Challenge: Regionalism, Crisis and Integration in the Late Ottoman Empire (1792-1812)”, PhD Thesis, Harvard University, 2008.
1 For a list of the batteries, see: Saint-Denys, Juchereau de, Révolutions de Constantinople, en 1807 et 1808, précédees d’observations générales sur l’etat actuel de l’Empire Ottomane, et des considérations sur la Gréce, Paris: Brissot-Thivars, 1819, pp. 261-262; BOA, HH, 654/31964.
2 For the hans and mansions in which the regular infantries resided, see: Câbî Ömer Efendi, Câbî Tarihi (Tarih-i Sultan Selim-i Salis ve Mahmud-ı Sani), Tahlil ve Tenkidli Metin, ed. Mehmed Ali Beyhan, Istanbul: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 2003, vol. 1, pp. 190, 205, 273; Yayla İmâmı Risâlesi, ed. Fahri Ç. Derin, TED, 1973, no. 3, pp. 250-252.
3 BOA, D.BŞM.BNE, no. 16139 (23 Z 1224/29 January 1810).
4 For the recognizance records of the Cebeci battalion, which suffered tremendous losses, see: BOA, C.AS, no. 20707 (21 Za 1223/8 January 1809).
5 Ünal, F., “Aleksander Grigoveriç Krasnokutsk’un Günlüğünden ‘1808 Yeniçeri Ayaklanması ve Alemdar Mustafa Paşa Vakası’”, Uluslararası Sosyal Araştırmalar Dergisi/The Journal of International Social Research, 2008, vol. 1, no. 4, p. 584 Even though the number is a bit exaggerated, it is significant in that it conveys the high number of deaths.