Like many empires known in history, the Ottoman Empire came full circle from birth and development to its decay and disintegration. The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural and multiethnic entity, which was founded in the late Middle Ages and which managed to last up to the early 20th century. At some period of its history, the territories of the modern day Balkans were a part of the Ottoman Empire, and they were called the province of Rumelia. The goal of this paper is to describe an Ottoman town in Rumelia, the structure of this town, the concept of mahalle in it, and find out the relation between Muslims and non-Muslims in mahalles.
The vast state of the Ottoman Empire included all territories of Southeastern Europe up to the northern frontiers of Hungary, Anatolia, and the Middle East up to the borders of Iran as well as the Mediterranean coast of North Africa almost to the Atlantic Ocean. The Balkan Peninsula was conquered by the Ottomans in the 14th 15th centuries. Such territories as Salonika and Janina, Constantinople, Serbia, the Peloponnese, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Euboea were later consolidated in one province, which received the name Rumelia.
The Balkan Peninsula as part of the Ottoman Empire consisted of the following provinces: Bosnia, Rumelia, Silistria, the Crete, and Djezair. These territories were traditionally Christian territories with the Orthodox Christian Church as the main church. It should be noted that the Ottoman Empire did not impose Islam on the Christian territories. On the contrary, it found a crucial ally in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church did not want to be a subordinate for the Roman Catholic Church or enter into unwanted unions with it. Thus, it opted to survive under the rule of the Muslim sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, this alliance allows one to assume that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Balkan province of the Ottoman Empire were friendly in nature or, at least, not hostile.
All Balkan provinces, including Rumelia, were governed according to the same pattern. Constantinople appointed Ottoman officials to each of the provinces. Each province had an administrative head who used the support of a divan, or a council of assistants. The officials that supported the head of each province were judges, police, tax collectors, and military officers. These people were responsible for defending the empire, collecting taxes, maintaining order, and dealing with the affairs of Muslims.
The same system of officials was present in all villages, towns, and cities. Another thing that common for the large cities of the Ottoman Empire and Ottoman towns was the urban plan. Congregational and neighborhood mosques, a bazaar, caravanserais and inns, schools and bathhouses, shops, and Sufi orders lodges could be found in each town of the Ottoman Empire, including the towns in Rumelia.
The center of any town was usually reserved for business purposes, administration, and local defense. It should be noted that Muslims comprised the major part of the residents of the central part of the town. They represented religious and civil authority of any town. In Rumeli towns, they were a minority, but it was a privileged minority. Besides, the Muslim population of towns in Rumalia was incorporated into the provincial military system.
In addition to Muslims, the residents of town centers were Jewish, Armenian, and Greek as well as foreign merchants since they controlled commerce in towns. No town could do without a market district. In the Ottoman cities, these market districts were the places where goods had been manufactured and sold. Markets were the centers of economic and social life of people. In the markets of large cities, inner covered markets, or bedestan, were built in order to attract craftsmen and merchants. These markets could be closed at night as well as when there was any trouble in the city.
Merchants could live in the inns near the bedestans and, if necessary, they stored valuable goods in the vaults of the inns. Sometimes, bedestans were used as storage places for grains and other agricultural goods collected as product-tax by the representatives of the central administration. Shops at bedestans were a convenient place for the local merchants to exchange their goods with the long-distance ones. There were merchants who performed functions of local traders. They bought and sold goods made by local guilds. In addition, there were the taccar or bazirgan, whose task was to deal with overseas as well as long-distance trade.
The center of the town was surrounded by residential quarters, or mahalles. These quarters formed a ring around the center. Usually, low dwellings of the general population faced narrow streets. Large gardens separated each mahalle from the other, which made the towns appear larger than their actual populations would warrant. The Muslim mahalles were located as close as possible to the towns center or its prominent sections, while the Christian mahalles, or varosh, were usually located closer to the outskirts of towns.
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It is worth mentioning that Muslim residents of Ottoman towns lived in better houses than Christian ones. The houses of Christian residents of these towns had few windows or no windows at all; their structural orientation was made towards courtyards instead of the streets. The shacks that belonged to the poor residents of the Ottoman towns were located close to the luxurious mansions of the towns elite. The wealthy people could afford to build their houses with two courts. The outer court, or selamik, was the reception area where male part of the family could receive and entertain guests. The inner court, the haremlik, was a private place for the female part the family, and no strangers and outsiders were allowed to enter it.
The mahalles were encircled by the land, which was used as the cemetery by the towns residents. The communities of non-Muslim residents of the Rumeli towns were characterized by their heterogeneity. Thus, in the 17th-century Bulgarian urban centers, Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian, and Albanian communities lived side by side. It should be noted that the Balkan officials who had high positions in government resided in beautiful two- or even three-story houses surrounded by vineyards, parks, and gardens. The rich citizens had access to pure water, fountains, and pools. As for the lower classes in Ottoman towns, their houses were simple, and sometimes, they differed from the houses of the villagers only by having the upper story.
All neighborhoods had public bathhouses because a city was not considered to be a proper city by Muslim travelers in the pre-modern period unless it had a mosque, a market, and a bathhouse. Public bathhouses served as places where people could relax and entertain themselves. Perhaps, it was the only place where women could socialize freely, whereas men had an opportunity to socialize with their friends in public markets and coffee houses. Of course, the primary designation for bathhouses was to get clean.
The rich people built private baths for themselves in order to avoid going to the public bathhouses. Nevertheless, the masses continued to visit the public baths since private baths were too expensive for them to build. The public bathhouses worked from morning to sunset, and, of course, men and women visited them separately. Moreover, some neighborhoods even had public bathhouses for women only, where they could discuss every subject of interest and amusement, whether politics, scandal, or news; to arrange marriages and to prevent them, to ask and to offer advice, to display their domestic supremacy, and to impart their domestic grievances but above all to enjoy the noise, the hurry, and excitement that they lacked at their homes.
As it has been already mentioned, the mahalles were city residential quarters. However, they were more than just blocks of houses where people lived. They constituted social and economic as well as cultural zones, separating the lives of their residents from other neighborhoods of the towns or cities. Each religious and ethnic community of every Ottoman city and town lived in a mahalle of its own. Moreover, members of each mahalle could spend the majority of their lives in their own mahalles since everything they needed was to be found in their social surroundings.
Each mahalle had a market where people could buy necessary goods, perhaps a small mosque, a butcher shop, fruit vendors, and other institutions providing social services. All members of mahalle communities knew each other very well since they socialized every day, and they could recognize strangers immediately if those appeared in their mahalles. Sometimes, this familiarity between members of a mahalle was not a good thing since it encouraged speculations and gossip among them.
The population of towns was segregated by the mahalles according to profession and religion. Mahalles with the Christian population received their names after the churches located there. The same can be said about the Muslim mahalles with their mosques. If residents of a mahalle practiced some profession, it could give the name to a mahalle, as well.
The focal point for each community was its house of worship. It was the cultural and religious center for each neighborhood. Such houses of worship were mosques for the Muslim mahalles, churches for the Crhistian communities as well as synagogues for Jewish communities. Consequently, administrative and religious heads of communities were leaders of mahalles.
Thus, in a Muslim mahalle, imam was the religious leader of the community, but the government was represented by the kethada. Similarly, a rabbi was the leader of a Jewish community, and a priest led a Christian community. With the help of the mahalles, the authorities of the Ottoman Empire could collect taxes in cities and towns. Sometimes, the kethada and/or the elder of each mahalle functioned as the tax collector for the state.
As it has been already said, Muslims in Rumeli towns were a minority, but this minority had privileges. There was no equality between religions in the Ottoman Empire. It did not mean that Christians or Jews were persecuted, but they were not regarded equal to Muslims. For instance, only Muslims were allowed to hold high positions in government and military or become members of the ruling strata.
Non-Muslims in towns of the Ottomab Balkans were tolerated by Muslims. They were called the zimmis, the protected ones, and were compelled by the Hanifid religious law school to pay discriminatory taxes, to which Muslim subjects were not liable, and to suffer a number of legally defined restrictions. According to Hanifid law, Christian zimmis were forbidden to have large houses as well as buildings that could perform social functions.
When the Ottomans conquered the Balkans, they had to deal with the fact that the people there were affiliated with religions other than Islam. Nevertheless, they organized their empire based on their subjects religious affiliations. For the Orthodox, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Gregorian Armenian population of the Balkans, they established millets, the administrative divisions based on religious affiliation. The Constantinople Patriarch and his administration were representatives of the Orthodox millet in cases when it was necessary to deal with the Ottoman authorities.
The Christian milled was subject to three legal systems. The Muslim law could be applied to all Muslims and matters that involved Muslims and Christians. Millets had their ecclesiastical law, which regulated family issues, for instance, marriages or morals. As the time passed, in some communities, local laws became more important than other laws.
It is worth mentioning that conditions in the mahalles favored preservation of national divisions. Moreover, local and national particularism was increased in some regions. For centuries, Muslim, Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian villages could exist near each other without personal intermixing. People could spend their entire lives without leaving their communities and getting to know members of other communities.
The population of the Christian mahalles in Balkan towns knew that Muslims had a superior status. There were personal and material prohibitions to be observed. For example, Christians were not allowed to bear firearms, wear green clothes since green was the sacred color for Muslims. If a Christian was on horseback and he happened to pass a Muslim, he had to dismount. Christians could not build houses that would look richer than their neighbors affiliated with Islam. Neither bells no bell towers were allowed to be present in Christian churches. Besides, Christians were not allowed to build new churches. However, they could repair the old ones. While Christians were usually not allowed to be in the military forces, since that was the privilege of Muslims, they had to pay taxes for them as well as provide support for other functions of the Ottoman Empire.
Similar to the Orthodox Christians, the Jews that lived in the Ottoman Empire were allowed to govern their affairs. The congregation elected rabbis, and the sultans confirmed them. The Jews were known for their excellence in commerce and trade, and the Jews of the Balkans were especially skilled traders.
Nevertheless, with the increase of Islamic conservatism and decay of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th-18th centuries, Muslim authorities began to persecute Jews. Besides, relationships between Christian and Jewish communities deteriorated when Christian mobs began to attack businesses run by Jews and Jewish neighborhoods.
Summing up the above-said, the following conclusions can be drawn. Rumelia as the Balkan province of the Ottoman Empire played an important role in the development of the Ottomans. Ottoman towns in Rumelia were just like the towns in other parts of the great Islam Empire. They were built according to the same plan, the town structures were the same with a market being the social and economic heart of the town. Markets were surrounded by communities, mahalles, which were based on the religious affiliations of their residents. Members of these communities did not communicate with members of others much as they had everything they needed in their own mahalles, including markets, shops, churches or mosques, and other things necessary for comfortable living.
In the Balkans, Muslims were a minority, but they had all the privileges that neither Christians nor Jews as well as other ethnic groups had. There was no persecution of Christians or Jews by Muslims. However, Christians could not join the military, which was the privilege of Muslims, or become important government figures.