Disasters and Re-formation of an Imperial City: Ottoman Bursa in the mid-nineteenth Century

By Baris Tasyakan
Submitted to Session P4992 (Managing and Manufacturing Disaster, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire; Turkey;
Ottoman Studies; Turkish Studies; Urban Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores the ways in which various natural disasters (earthquake, fire, and disease) affect an urban environment on physical, economic and societal levels. Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, was rebuilt in the wake of such disasters in the nineteenth century. The paper brings together an earthquake that hit Bursa in 1855, a fire that burnt down the Armenian neighborhood in 1863, and an epidemic in silkworms that cripled the sericulture industry in 1857. Following these calamitous events, the imperial administration initiated a reconstruction program as it identified Bursa as a pilot region for the ongoing Tanzimat (the official name for the grand Ottoman modernization project) reforms.

Bursa recovered from this ‘crisis’ period through the reconstruction of its quake-ridden monuments planned in relation to a new city structure, through creating a gentrified area now inhabited by silk merchants and factory owners in place of the burnt down Armenian neighborhood, and through establishing a Silk Institute headed by an Ottoman student educated in France which adopted the Pasteurian method for raising silkworms. The recovery was made possible by the cooperation of central government bureaucrats and local elites but not always appreciated by common city dwellers. Using mainly the documents from the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives in addition to the UK National Archives and the Archives Diplomatiques of France, this paper tells the story of how these actors interacted during the post-disaster recovery. It argues that the case of Bursa in the second half of the nineteenth century shows that a crisis situation in the physical and economic urban environment may determine the pace of transformation, facilitate the implementation of novel ideas and projects, and mobilize local and governmental actors to take advantage of an extraordinary crisis moment. Thus, the experience of Bursa demonstrates that even supposedly standardized grand reform programs aiming at centralization are informed heavily by local conditions.