City Organization and Administration (1977) - Peter Sugar

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Peter Sugar, "City Organization and Administration," Chapter 4 of his Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804, University of Washington Press, 1977.


Cities cannot flourish if the government does not promote those activities on which their very existence rests. Of all these activities those concerning trade are the most essential. The Ottomans have often been accused of not understanding the importance of commerce and of failing to support it. The very fact that cities developed and prospered in the Ottoman Empire contradicts this assertion. To show that there was a basis for city life and that it rested to a considerable extent on the central government's understanding of the importance of trade, it is necessary to examine trade policy before life in the cities can be discussed.

Until quite recently scholars dealing with the later Middle Ages and the early modern period have usually blamed the decline of Byzantium and the rise of the Ottoman Empire for the disruption of the Mediterranean trade that occurred in those periods. Recent scholarship has shown that this view was erroneous, but the image of the Turks as savage horsemen destroying and looting still prevails. The great interest that the Ottomans had in trade and production, while known to the experts, still awaits a specialized monograph. Nevertheless, enough is already known to be able to state that the Ottomans regarded economic pursuits, including manufacture and trade, as essential to the well- being and financial stability of their state and favored such pursuits, although they regulated and taxed the producers and traders heavily.

Their approach is not surprising; it follows logically from both the Ottomans' experience and their view of the state. Although weakened considerably era by the time the Ottomans entered on the stage of history, Byzantium still had the financial resources to buy off enemies or to subsidize allies, including the early Ottomans. The few manufactured goods needed by the western Anatolians were supplied, to a considerable degree, by merchants in touch with the imperial city, and the various caravan routes and ships laden with merchandise going to Byzantium passed near and later through Ottoman-held territory. It was not difficult to connect this lively commercial activity with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of money the Byzantines appeared to have. If the Ottomans were willing to fight for booty, as to some extent they were, how much more tempting must the easier, Byzantine way have been.

Nor should it be forgotten that the Ottoman Empire was the domain of the House of Osman and that its official name included the adjective "well flourishing." Almost by definition Allah's domain had to flourish, but under the Ottomans it was also considered the duty of the subjects to add to the power and prosperity of the ruling house. Productive work was, therefore, considered not only a religious and civic duty, but also a pledge of loyalty to the ruler. On the other hand, it was part of the sultans' hadd to create circumstances that contributed to the well-being of their subjects. In this manner experience, basic philosophy, and the duties of both ruler and ruled combined with the growing needs of an expanding state, court, and bureaucracy to create a climate favorable to economic pursuits. Beginning with their capture of Bursa in 1326, the Ottomans not only confirmed the privileges of artisans and traders in each city that they conquered, but also tried very hard to build up flourishing centers of manufacture and trade. These cities were connected by roads, and those among the zimmi who were exempt from various taxes to maintain them in good repair worked not only on major military, but also on other roads whose significance was mainly commercial. The privileges accorded to those who served in the merchant marine fall into the same category of special treatments accorded to the road crews.

The major roads in the European provinces, both military and commercial, were often the old Roman iters and had been in use since the days of the Roman Empire. The major road started out from Istanbul, the terminal point of numerous roads coming from Asia, Asia Minor, and the Arab lands, and led to Edirne. There it split and moved on in four directions. The northern line passed through the Dobrudja to the mouth of the Danube and followed the Prut to the northern border of Moldavia, where it entered Polish territory. The southern side road leading to Gallipoli was short but very important strategically. The major, central road moved from Edirne to Plovdiv, Sofia, Nis, Belgrade, and Buda. Very important commercially, this was also the major military highway. The fourth main line ran south of the major military highway to Serres, Salonika, Monastir, and Ohrid, reaching the Adriatic at Durres (Dirac, Drac, Durazzo), and was primarily of commercial importance. The main military highway was of economic importance not only because it connected Istanbul-Edirne and Nis-Belgrade- Buda, but also because it served as the first half of an extremely important trade route, the fifth major artery, that forked off near Sofia at Pazardzhik (Tatarpazarcik) and passed through Skopje (Uskub, Uskup, Skoplje, Skopije, Shkupi), Pristina (Pristina), Sarajevo, and Mostar before reaching Dubrovnik (Ragusa) on the sea. Secondary roads branched off from these main roads. Another major commercial "highway was, of course, the Danube, and the rivers feeding it or leading to the Aegean Sea were also important trade routes. The most important cities were located along these major and minor roads and waterways. Several, as indicated earlier, were Ottoman foundations, but the great majority owed their existence to their geographic locations and had been urban centers since Roman or Byzantine times. A few had been established by the Slavs. Although these cities housed only a minority of the population, they became the economic heart of the Ottoman Empire. During the period presently under discussion the population of most of them increased, thanks in part to the arrival of Turkish settlers, in part to the influx of people from the countryside who sought refuge in times of war, and in part to the opportunities city life offered. These cities supported the state not only by their production and trade, but also by the considerable tax revenue these activities produced. By analyzing them from different angles it is possible to explain much about life in Southeastern Europe during the best years of the Ottoman Empire. The task is made easier by the fact that most cities in the "core" eyalets of Rumelia and Bosnia were organized along similar lines. Differences existed, depending on location, major economic activity, and other circumstances, but the basic organization and life patterns were nearly identical. Cities in Hungary and the Aegean region offer significantly divergent patterns and warrant separate description.


Practically every city in the world has a business district, good and bad residential neighborhoods, industrial districts or suburbs, parks and recreational centers, "ghettos," and several other similar sections. The combination of these areas determines the unique nature of each city. In older European cities, whose histories go back to antiquity or medieval times, it is still possible to point to the old part of the city built around some fortification or royal or noble residence and separated from the new districts by a belt of major avenues or boulevards that follow the lines of the protective walls of the old city.

Cities in Southeastern Europe follow this familiar pattern almost without exception. They grew up around the acropoleis of the old Greek cities or around important geographical features like the castle hill in Buda, the Kalimegdan in Belgrade, the small peninsula between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara in Constantinople, or the various bays along the sea coast and the Danube that offered the best port facilities. The Ottomans did not disturb the pattern in the cities that they took over, although they did alter the character of the focal points by making them Turkish or Islamic and by adding new ones such as schools and markets. In the cities that they established or that grew spontaneously around Ottoman focal points the same pattern was copied.

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