While the exact date of the first Romani/Gypsy migration to Istanbul is not known, it is clear that Gypsies lived in Constantinople during the Byzantine period. It is likely that the Gypsies first came to this city as they migrated west after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, when the Turks entered Anatolia. The Gypsies probably arrived in Istanbul after it was conquered and lived collectively outside the city walls in an area called Çürüklük in Kasımpaşa. Later, they moved into the neighborhoods of Ayvansaray, Sulukule, and Sultan, as well as the Selamsız neighborhood in Üsküdar.1
For the most part, Gypsies lived in the Rumelia region during the Ottoman era. Because they were nomads, their population figures were never precisely recorded. By 1477, there were 31 Gypsy households in Istanbul.
Gypsies lived in Istanbul before the city was conquered by the Turks. Evliya Çelebi stated that Sultan Mehmed II brought the Gypsies from the city of Balat and relocated them in the Balat neighborhood,2 and that the Balat Gypsies looked like the Muslims and worked as musicians and çengi dancers.3 Istanbul and Rumelia were the two primary locations for the Gypsies, but after the conquest of Constantinople, the Balat neighborhood became well known as a home to the Gypsies. Another part of the city with a dense Gypsy population was Sulukule, situated between Edirnekapı and Topkapı within the city walls.4
Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatnâme records that the Gypsies were removed from Gümülcine and Menteşe provinces and relocated in Istanbul during Sultan Mehmed II’ reign (1451–1481). Then they were relocated to Yenibahçe, Sulukule, Ayvansaray, Üsküdar, and Kasımpaşa. The Gypsies who lived below the city walls, especially those in Edirnekapı and Sulukule, mostly preferred to stay for a while rather than to settle permanently.
Another region in which Gypsies lived in Istanbul was Kasımpaşa; since the Ottoman period many Gypsies worked as blacksmiths at the tersane (shipyard).5
In the few records that exist, Gypsies were grouped together with non-Muslims, and there are almost no specific data about the Gypsy population in Istanbul. Even though Evliya Çelebi mentioned that Gypsies were living not only in Sulukule and Kasımpaşa but also in other parts of Istanbul, he did not provide any information about their numbers.6 For instance, regarding Tophane, a quarter where Gypsies are known to have lived, Çelebi stated that it contained 70 Muslim, 20 Greek, and 7 Armenian neighborhoods, as well as a few Jewish houses, and that there were no Coptic or European residents in the area.7
Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan mentioned the Armenians, known as Poşa, who lived in Kumkapı and Topkapı in the mid-17th century. Ekrem Hakkı Ayverdi, based on Eremya Çelebi’s account, wrote that Jews used to live in Ayvansaray and around Tekfur Palace and that the Armenian Poşas (who were Gypsies) were located in Topkapı, and Armenians, Greeks, and Jews lived in Hasköy.8
Although the Gypsies initially lived around Edirnekapı,9 by the middle of the 18th century they moved closer to the innermost parts of the city; some eventually lived in rented rooms in Büyük Karaman and Dülgerzade around Fatih Mosque. After some Gypsies committed crimes that received public attention, the Gypsies were sent back to their original locations and were required to live on the outskirts of the city. Even in earlier times, some rigid decrees were passed aimed at preventing crime by Gypsies.10 Similarly, the Copts were allowed to live in Istanbul, but had to pay the Istanbul jizya (yearly per capita tax); after a fire destroyed some of their homes near Büyük Karaman, they were sent to live in a segregated neighborhood in Edirnekapı; eventually they were allowed to return to their previous homes.11
İnciciyan, who wrote about life in the 18th century,12 described how Topkapı was defeated during the conquest of Constantinople, with the cannons placed at the gates, and described the Gypsies living on the other side of these gates: “These Gypsies, whose men would produce sieves at home and whose women would wander around the city selling the sieves, were actually Armenians, some of whom converted to Islam during the reign of Sultan Ahmet III and some others during the days of the grand vizier İbrahim Pasha. They still produce sieves and have shops by the Unkapanı shore.” Halil İnalcık noted that the Gypsies of Topkapı converted to Islam en masse in the 19th century.13
Istanbul residents were entitled to enjoy the various cultural and entertainment events the city provided. These shows were of varying types: public, religious, or formal. Among the public performers, Evliya Çelebi noted, were Gypsies who lived in 70 residences in Balat; they trained bears to dance and strolled around the crowded venues and busked on the streets, playing tambourines as the bears danced. Gypsies were also employed, as Çelebi noted in the 10th volume of Seyahatnâme, in other guilds, including slaughterhouses, Jewish butchers, dairies, shepherds, and lion-keepers as well as bear-trainers. According to Çelebi, the members of the last three guilds put on a performance that pleased the sultan. Çelebi described the guild of bear trainers as consisting of masterful Gypsies who lived in the Şah neighborhood near Balat.14
According to Paspati, there were 140 Gypsy families in Istanbul by the second half of the 19th century. This author identified 123 Gypsy families who lived in cities and towns such as Silivri, Çorlu, Çatalca, Büyükçekmece, and Tekirdağ, and studied their language. Some authors have stated that significantly fewer Gypsies settled in Rumelia than in other regions; Paspati claimed the contrary and argued that Ami Boue had given incorrect information and numbers on this matter.15 Reşat Ekrem Koçu stated that the Gypsies could be divided into three religious groups: atheists or pagans, Muslim Copts, and Nazareth Copts. He stated that the Nazareth chose their ancestors’ religion during the Byzantine period and adopted Greek names such as Lambo, Dimitri, or Kosti.16
The Gypsies of Istanbul may not have reached the skill level of the Çigan orchestras performing in Hungary or Romania, but they were great music enthusiasts. Osman Cemal Kaygılı stated that the lives of these Gypsies were spent dealing with the harvests, peddling gypsy tents (çerges), baskets, tongs, and trivets, training bears, and fortune-telling.
As soon as spring arrived, the Gypsies would set up their tents by Büyükdere Stream or between Çırpıcı and Çörekçi Creeks, and celebrate their festival, known as Kakava or the saucepan festival, with dancing, singing, and feasts. Tayyib Gökbilgin explained that according to Paspati, the Kakava festival, celebrated on May 6 (April 23 in the Julian calendar) coincides with a festival observed on the same day in various places in Rumelia. However, according to some researchers, this day was set by some officers to facilitate tax collection. As the Gypsies began to pay their taxes in other ways, this method was eventually abandoned.17
Tayyip Gökbilgin wrote that the Gypsies, who were part of Istanbul’s social life and entertainment culture, also influenced Turkish literature. For example, Ahmet Mithad Efendi’s 1886 novel The Gypsy tells the coming-of-age story of a Gypsy girl living in Kağıthane, who is trained and educated by a sympathetic Istanbul resident. Osman Cemal Kaygılı’s novel The Gypsies (İstanbul 1939) depicts the life of the Gypsies in Topçular, Erenköy, and Çamlıca, and narrates the life stories of Gypsy musicians who lived in various parts of Istanbul. In Gökbilgin’s view, these two authors, by taking Gypsies as their subjects, made an important contribution to Turkish fiction.18
Along with Sulukule, Selamsız, and Ziba, Hacı Hüsrev is considered one of the most famous Gypsy settlement sites in Istanbul. It was also the first neighborhood where Gypsies settled permanently.19
Sulukule neighborhood and Sulukule Street are known with the city wall that has the same name. It has been asserted that the Gypsies who lived in this area were mostly entertainers and had probably lived in houses in Sulukule that were later torn down. The Sulukule residents were the second settled group of Gypsies after those in the Ayvansaray-Lonca neighborhood. Compared to the Lonca Gypsies, who led extravagant lives, the Sulukule Gypsies tended to have lower incomes. In the last century, some Istanbul Gypsies held Greek Orthodox beliefs. However, Muslim Gypsies lived in Sulukule and Ayvansaray-Lonca. Sulukule and the Ayvansaray-Lonca neighborhood, which contained the highest concentration of Gypsies, were among Istanbul’s most important entertainment districts.
Istanbul slang contains some Romani as well as Greek words. Evliya Çelebi frequently tried to contact Gypsies wherever he went and gained valuable information about their language and dialect. In Seyahatnâme, he mentioned slang words Gypsies used among themselves.20
The Gypsies played a great part in Ottoman entertainment culture. In Seyahatnâme, Evliya Çelebi mentioned Gypsy musicians, including those who appeared with other musicians before the sultan. He described the musical instruments that the Gypsies used, including one called the çökür.21
Although the Gypsies did not officially take part in in palace entertainments, on certain occasions they would participate in the sultan’s entertainment and the circumcision feasts. The circumcision feast for Prince Mehmed, the son of Murad III (1574-1595), took six weeks, and June 21 was reserved solely for the Gypsies, who carried a red and white striped flag during this celebration.
During the reign of Abdulhamid II, in 1906, both Muslim and non-Muslim Gypsies lived in the Topkapı Bayındır Ağa neighborhood. However, by 1908, a few groups of Gypsies from the Balkans had settled in Okmeydanı in Istanbul. The newcomers numbered about 84. Many more wanted to travel to Istanbul if they could obtain travel permits; but even when they did get permits, they were not allowed into the city.22
Sulukule, which can be considered the oldest Gypsy neighborhood in Istanbul, remained a Gypsy settlement site during the Turkish Republican period. However, it is doubtful that the current residents of this district are related to the original residents. According to information provided by the Gypsies themselves, the families of the current residents of Sulukule have been there only for the last 250 to 300 years. Sulukule neighborhood faced demolishment and exile during the Republican period. In the 1950s, during the demolition undertaken by the Menderes government, some parts of the neighborhood were destroyed and the Gypsies were exiled to an area outside the city. Some later returned to Sulukule and lived in the ruins of the old houses, thereby remaining in Sulukule despite the difficult circumstances. In 1982, these residential areas underwent further demolition. The neighborhood then known as Sulukule, close to Millet Street, was destroyed, and what is currently known as Sulukule appeared within the borders of the former Sultan region. Sulukule and the Sultan region are two completely different Gypsy neighborhoods. Hacıhüsrev, one of the former Gypsy neighborhoods, was also affected by the population changes. During the population exchange between Turkey and Greece, a large number of Gypsies came from Thessalonica and settled in Hacıhüsrev; they were generally settled Gypsies who made their living as tobacco workers. In the 1950s, the government demolished the homes of another group of Gypsies from Bursa and relocated them to Hacıhüsrev. The latter group still lives in this area, but the group from Thessalonica diminished remarkably. Küçükbakkalköy, where nomadic Gypsies lived during the Ottoman era, has maintained its identity until today.
Sulukule, which has been a residential area for the Gypsies for many years, was rebuilt by the Directorate of Urban Transformation, in a project carried out by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in collaboration with Fatih Municipality as part of the 2010 Istanbul European Capital of Culture project. The Gypsies who lived in this area have been resettled in an area 40 km away known as Taşoluk.
1 İsmail Altınöz, “Osmanlı Toplumunda Çingeneler” (Phd thesis), Istanbul University, 2005, p. 152.
2 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, prepared by Orhan Şaik Gökyay, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 1996, vol. 1, p. 45.
3 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, prepared by Seyit Ali Kahraman, Yücel Dağlı and Robert Dankoff, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2003, vol. 8, p. 37. Çengi is a Romani dance.
4 According to Paspati’s estimations, there were 140 settled Gypsy families living in Yeni Bahçe and Çınarçeşmeme in Istanbul (Alexandre G. Paspati, Études sur les Tchinghianés ou Bohémiens de l’Empire Ottoman, Istanbul: Impr. A. Koroméla, 1870, p. 11); according to Evliya Çelebi, there were 170 Muslim, 20 Greek, and 2 Jewish neighborhoods in Tophane but no European or Gypsy neighborhoods (Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 1, p. 58).
5 Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan, İstanbul Tarihi: XVII. Asırda İstanbul, tr. by Hrand D. Andreasyan, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 1988, p. 38. About Gypsies who worked as blacksmiths in the Golden Horn dockyard during the Ottoman Empire, see: İdris Bostan, Osmanlı Bahriye Teşkilatı: XVII. Yüzyılda Tersane-i Amire, Istanbul: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1992, p. 75.
6 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 1, p. 45.
7 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 1, pp. 440-441.
8 Ekrem Hakkı Ayverdi, Fatih Devri Sonlarında İstanbul Mahalleleri, Şehrin İskânı ve Nüfusu, Ankara: Vakıflar Umum Müdürlüğü, 1958, p. 77.
9 See: TSMA, E. 7019/29.
10 Ahmed Refik, Hicri On İkinci Asırda İstanbul Hayatı (1100-1200), Istanbul: Enderun Kitabevi, 1988, pp. 198-199.
11 BOA, C.DH, no. 11102.
12 P.G. İnciciyan, XVIII. Asırda İstanbul, tr. Hrand D. Andreasyan, Istanbul: İstanbul Fethi Derneği İstanbul Enstitüsü, 1956, p. 120.
13 Halil İnalcık, “Istanbul”, DİA, XXIII, 236.
14 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 1, p. 245.
15 Paspati, Etudes sur les Tchingianes, p. 11.
16 Reşat Ekrem Koçu, “The Gypsies”, İst. A, VII, 3986-3987.
17 Tayyib Gökbilgin, “Çingeneler”, İA, III, 426. This specific application ceased when new regulations were introduced.
18 Gökbilgin, “Çingeneler”, III, 426.
19 Tuna Baltacıoğlu, “Hacıhüsrev”, DBİst.A, III, 480-481.
20 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 8, p. 41.
21 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 1, p. 303.
22 Ceyda Yüksel, “Buçuk Millet: The Ottoman Gypsies during the Reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909)” (post-graduate thesis), Bosphorus University 2009, pp. 150-151.