Istanbul in the late 16th century

From Fernand Braudel, The Medieterranean and the Mediterranean World in the age of Philip II:

Constantinople was not a town; it was an urban monster, a composite metropolis. Its site made it a divided city and this was the source both of its greatness and its difficulties, certainly of its greatness. Without the Golden Horn – the only safe harbour between the Sea of Marmara, which was exposed to bad weather and often rough, and the Black Sea which had a well deserved reputation as a *punishmg sea* – without the Bosporus, neither Constantinople nor its successor Istanbul would have been conccivable. But it also meant that the urban area was interrupted by successive stretches of water, and extensive sea fronts. A population of boatmen and ferrymen manned the thousands of barques, calques, perames, mahonnes, lighters, and ‘door-ships’ (for the transport of animals from Scutari to the European side). *RumeIi Hisar and Besiktas, to the south of the Bosporus, are two prosperous villages of ferrymen,’376 the latter for goods, the former for passengers. For this endless, exhausting work by which the essential unity of the city was achieved, there were always vacancies. Pierre Lescalopier who arrived at Constantinople in the spring of 1574, noted: *In the “parmes” [perames or ferry boats] there are Christians [slaves] who are earning their ransoms, with their masters’ permission.’

Of the three cities, Constantinople, or Stambul, or Istanbul, was the largest. It was the triangular city between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, shut off on the landward side by a double wall *not m very good condition either’where *round about, there are ruins in quantity’. It had a circumference of 13 to 15 miles while Venice had only 8. But this urban enclosure was full of trees, gardens, squares with fountains, meadows and promenades, and counted over 400 mosques with lead roofs. Around each one was an open space. The Mosque of Sulaiman the Magnificent, the Sulaimaniye with *its esplanade, its medreses, its library, its hospital, its imaret, its schools and gardens, constitutes a whole quarter in itself’. Finally the houses were clustered together, low-lying,” built, ‘in the Turkish fashion’, of wood, ‘earthen walls’.383 and half-baked bricks, their facades daubed in pastel colours, pale blue, pink and yellow. The streets are narrow, twisting and uneven not always paved and frequently sloping. People travelled along them on foot, on horseback, but rarely on wheels. Fires were frequent and did not spare even the Seray. In autumn, 1564, a single outbreak destroyed 7500 wooden shops. Inside this great city lay another, the Bedesten (bazestan), like the St. Germain Fair’, as Lescalopier put it, admiring the ‘great staircases of fine stone and the beautiful shops selling haberdashery and cotton fabrics embroidered with gold and silk . .. and all manner of beautiful and charming things. Another was the ‘Atbazar*, the horse market. Finally, the most sumptuous of all, the Seray, at the southern end of the city; a succession of palaces, kiosks, and gardens. Istanbul was predominantly a city of Turks, their white turbans outnumbered the others: 58 per cent of the population, in the sixteenth as in the seventeenth century. But there were also a number of Greeks with blue turbans, Jews with yellow turbans, as well as Armenians and Tziganes. 

On the other side of the Golden Horn, Galata occupied the ribbon running along the southern shore between the Arsenal of Kasim Pa§a with ‘about a hundred vaulted stone arches each long enough for a galley to be built there under cover . . .’,and further to the south the second Arsenal of Top Hane ‘where they make powder and artillery’. Galata was the port frequented exclusively by western ships; here were the Jewish commission agents, the shops, and warehouses, the famous cabarets where wine and arak were served; behind on the hills were the Vines of Pera, where, first among the western envoys, the French ambassador had his residence. It was the city of the rich, ‘quite big, populous, built in the French style’, inhabited by merchants. Latin and Greek, the latter often very rich, dressing in the Turkish style, living in grand houses, adorning their women with silk and jewels. These women, rather too given to coquetry, ‘appear more beautiful than they are, for they paint their faces as much as possible and spend all their wealth on clothes, many rings on their fingers, and jewels for their head-dresses, most of which are false’. and Pera together, which travellers took for the same place, ‘form a town comprable to Orleans’ The Greeks and Latins were not masters there far from it, but they were free to live and worship there as they pleased. Notably ‘the Catholic religion practised in this city in all freedom, including the Italian processions of flagellants and at Corpus Christi, the streets are decorated under the surveillence of two or three Janissaries, to whom a few aspers are given.

On the Asian side, Scutari (Uskiidar)395 was almost a third city, different from the other two. It was the caravan terminus of Constantinople, the point of arrival and departure for the great routes across Asia. The number of caravanserais and bans alone were a sign of this, as was the horsemarket. On the sea front there was no sheltered harbour. Goods had to pass by quickly and trust to luck. A Turkish town, Scutari was full of gardens and princely residences. The sultan had a palace there, and it was a great spectacle when he left the Seray and took a frigate to the Asian side ‘to enjoy himself’.  
A description of the whole would not be complete without mentioning the most important suburb of Constantinople, Eytip, lying at the point where the Sweet Waters of Europe meet the Golden Horn, together with the long strings of Greek, Jewish, and Turkish villages on both sides of the Bosporus, villages of gardeners, fishermen, sailors, where the summer residences of the rich soon appeared, the yali-s with their stone basements and two storeys made of wood; their ‘many unlatticed windows’ opened on to the Bosporus where there was no indiscreet neighbour. These ‘houses for leisure and gardens’ can, not unreasonably, be compared with the villas in the countryside around Florence.  
The whole formed a vast conurbation. In March, 1581, eight ships from Egypt laden with wheat only provided food for a single day.Records
dated 1660-1661, and 1672-1673 give us some idea of the city’s appetite which was much the same as in the previous century. Its inhabitants daily consumed 300 to 500 tons of grain, which provided work for its 133 bakers (in Constantinople itself, out of 84 bakers, 12 made white bread); in one year almost 200,000 cattle, of which 35,000 went to make the salt or smoked meat, pastirma; and (one has to read the figures two or three times before one can believe them) ahnost 4 million sheep and 3 million lambs (the precise figures are 3,965,760 and 2,877,400); plus the barrels of honey, sugar, rice, sacks and skins of cheese, caviar, and 12,904 cantars of melted butter, brought by sea, i.e., about 7000 tons. 

These figures, too precise to be accurate, too official to be entirely false, give some idea of the order of the operation. Without doubt, Constantinople drew continually on the inexhaustible riches of the empire, under a system organized by a meticulous, authoritarian and dirigiste government.  The supply zones were chosen to suit the convenience of methods of transport, prices were fixed, and if necessary requisitioning was enforced. Strict regulations fixed the points where merchandise could be unloaded on the quays of the port of Constantinople. It was at Un Kapani, for instance, that grain from the Black Sea was unloaded. But of course all trade did not flow along these official channels. By its very size the city exercised an enormous power of attraction. We should note the role played in the grain trade by the big merchants who exploited the small transporters of the Black Sea, and that played by the Greek and Turkish captains of Yeni Koy, on the European shore of the Bosporus, or of Top Hane, near the quays of Galata, who amassed huge personal fortunes, acted as intermediaries and transporters, and were involved on more than one occasion in the contraband passage of grain to the West from the islands of the Archipelago.

 So Constantinople consumed the thousand products of the empire as well as the fabrics and luxury goods of the West; in return the city gave nothing or virtually nothing, except for the bales of wool and hides of sheep, oxen, and buffalo that passed through the port. It would bear no comparison with the great export centres at Alexandria, Tripoli m Syria, and later Smyma. This capital enjoyed the privilege of the rich. Others worked on her behalf.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s