Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

Skyscrapers of the Past and Their Shadows: A Social History of Urbanity in Late Ottoman Istanbul

Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

Skyscrapers of the Past and Their Shadows: A Social History of Urbanity in Late Ottoman Istanbul

Article excerpt

Today, approaching Istanbul by ferry from the Anatolian coast, one cannot help but notice how drastically the skyline has changed within the past several years. For the first time in the history of the city, wide areas in and around the central quarters are marked by high-rises, transforming the way the city has been perceived by its inhabitants for centuries. The construction activity began in a novel fashion with the rise of new moneyed classes from the 1980s onwards against the background of neo-liberal policies in both economy and politics, an influx of global capital and culture, and a demographic peak after decades of rural-to-urban migration.1 As almost two decades of rapid urban expansion have accelerated in the last ten years, the areas where high-rises now punctuate the city have highlighted class divisions and generated concerns about urban renewal, the distribution of economic wealth, and * 1 2 social identity.2

A more careful look, however, demonstrates that this is not the first instance of such a major change in istanbul's urban space, nor is it unprecedented with respect to a corresponding transformation in society during the modern period. Instead, the city first outgrew its ancient walls in the nineteenth century and extended to the north as an urban sprawl that would define the principal direction of the modernizing city ever since.3 In other words, the city as we know it today emerged in the late Ottoman Empire, and building on nineteenth-century socio-economic change, like many of its counterparts throughout the world and the wider Mediterranean,4 it went through a paradigmatic shift in the construction and organization of its urban space. This was the period when monumental architecture, which was mostly represented by Muslim religious buildings, began to give way to civic and secular structures. Brick and stone apartment buildings, multi-storied office blocks and imposing school houses were constructed, changing the way the city looked and its inhabitants experienced it.

An engaged discussion, then, of urbanization in nineteenth-century istanbul is acutely relevant for making sense of the current city. Of particular significance in this respect is an attention to the social history of urban growth. In understanding istanbul's nineteenth-century development, there haven't been many systematic attempts to combine social history with urban studies. While urban historians have contributed extensively to our knowledge of the nineteenth-century city, they have tended to bring out the formal and material features of development by focusing on urban plans and administrative projects.5 Social historians, on the other hand, have not been much interested in exploring the institutions of society in the context of the built environment, even though they have shed light on the characteristics of the nineteenth-century Ottoman social space. Meanwhile, both urban and social historians have emphasized the state-oriented nature of development.6 These tendencies in scholarship compel us to consider society's relationship with the physical entities that shaped lives on an everyday basis and to connect analyses of social history to broader questions of urbanity and the development of the cityscape. Unearthing the experiences of the lower classes and relating them to those of the upper segments of society is especially important since the available studies still largely focus on the latter in exploring the social aspects of urbanity.7 While this overall task, i.e., examining urban history from a social perspective, is beyond the scope of one individual study, any scholarly attempt in this direction would complement the limited literature for a broader and variegated perspective on the history of istanbul in the late Ottoman period.

This article, therefore, is interested in the people who contributed to the creation of a new istanbul and aims to trace the role of the human agency in the emergence of istanbul's modem urban landscape in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. …

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