Groundwork for the period of transformations
Turkish public opinion celebrates Sultan Selim III as one of the greatest reformers in Ottoman history. The tragic assassination of an altruistic sultan as narrated in history textbooks surely has something to do with his popular image. Unlike many other great reformers (say, Peter the Great or Mahmud II) he never was a cruel and uncompromising autocrat -so the story goes. On the contrary; an inventive musician and accomplished poet, he was a sensitive and refined man. The horrible demise of such a man at the hand of ignorant fanatics has aroused much sympathy for him. This idealized image of a selfless reformer was an invention of 19th century Ottoman intellectuals. Başaran takes issue with this exclusively affirmative approach to history of Ottoman reforms, like many historians of her generation. She chooses to focus on the first three years of Selim’s reign to underline his policy of social control and policing in İstanbul, which, she argues, was based on a combination of conservative and novel approaches.
How to understand the transition to modernity without resorting to the “decline” paradigm? This is the overarching question of the book. The author sees a neat possibility in Selim’s policies concerning public order and security as well as his measures against the perceived threat of immigrants.
The book opens with a short introduction that lays out the plan of the book and examines the theme in four chapters. It is supported by a bibliography, a general index, two appendices about the shops, inns and trades in the southern Golden Horn, 15 tables and six maps on population of İstanbul as well as the distribution of (military) titles and professions in the city and five illustrations of Sultan Selim III and several Janissary companies with their distinctive insignias. The author conducted original research in the Ottoman Archives and the Topkapı Palace Archives, both located in İstanbul, as well as court records and a number of Ottoman chronicles.
“The Eighteenth Century: Defining the Crisis” (Ch. 2) is designed to give the framework to understand Ottoman urban policies in İstanbul in this century. Perennial concerns about supplying the crowded city, maintaining order, fires and epidemics are addressed in this chapter. The author provides the reader with the administrative framework of policing the city. There were various functionaries in charge of maintaining order in different districts of İstanbul; the chief gardener (the Topkapı Palace, the Golden Horn-Karışdıran, the Bosporus, Şile and the Marmara shores as far as Yalova); head of the gunners (Tophane and Pera); the grand admiral (Kasımpaşa, the left bank of the Golden Horn, Galata);
the chief armorer (Ayasofya, Hocapaşa, Ahırkapı); and finally the Janissary Agha (anywhere that does not fall within the premise of the were important figures in policing the city.
“Wartime Crisis and the New Order” (Ch. 3) focuses on Sultan Selim’s will to restore public order in 1789-1792, thereby centralizing his personal authority. In many respects this young sultan did not differ much from his predecessors in his policies. The imposition of sartorial laws and surveillance over coffeehouses and wine shops are reminiscent of previous eras. Selim III undertook a series of legislative reforms part of which was the prohibition of handing petitions directly to the sultan. The author views this as a clear break with the traditional understanding of justice since it limited subjects’