Hollanda Araştırma Enstitüsü  -  Nederlands Instituut in Turkije

The Social-Political Context of City Fires of Ottoman Istanbul in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries According to European and Ottoman Sources

Burak Fıçı (Leiden University)

Throughout centuries, Istanbul, the capital city of the Ottoman Empire suffered numerous catastrophic city fires not in the least because of its wooden architecture and narrow streets that made the city vulnerable to fires. The wooden architecture and the narrow streets of Istanbul as such were not the major cause of the fires. Accidents and sometimes arson were the main causes for the fires which, however, because of the wooden houses, the building density, and lack of proper prevention measurements and firefighting infrastructure regularly resulted in major catastrophes which had profound impact on the personal, social and economic life of the inhabitants of the city. Fires were sometimes so powerful that they not only reshaped entire districts but also had major impact on the larger political and social constellation of a particular period in time.
During my research in Istanbul I collected data to make a comparison between the European (Dutch, French, British) and Ottoman reports of fire. I am interested in whether arson (sometimes in combination with plunder) was an important mechanism and whether it was used by groups, such as the Janissaries, in order to ventilate protest and put pressure on the authorities. The city fires of Istanbul were thus sometimes more than mere accidents. This fact in combination with the frequency of city fires and their profound impact which often went beyond the material raises numerous interesting questions: What were the major causes of the frequent city fires in Istanbul and if arson was the cause what were the circumstances which led to these cases of arson and what were the aims of the arsonists? What were the social and political implications of the fires, how did the Ottoman authorities react to the fires and how are city fires reflected in both Ottoman and European source material?