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Petitions and Accommodating Urban Change in the Ottoman Empire

Abstract : In many societies, petitions are a means of communication between rulers and ruled. Since the 1980s, historians have tried to analyse the nature of this relationship and to answer linked questions, such as the emergence of public opinion, the existence of a civil society and the capacity of a society to develop forms of democracy. Petitions are indeed a very abundant archival resource, and also a very specific individual or collective expression of discontent, protest, opinion or need. As such, they are invaluable historical sources, both informative and reflective of the nature of the society that produced them. From ancient times to the era of Byzantium, from medieval England to18th century North America, or from 18th century Japan to present times, petitions have been crucial in shedding light on the whole governance context, as scholars have frequently shown. In the Ottoman empire, petitions were also central features of the relationship between rulers and ruled. In the Ottoman empire, communication between local societies and the central administration in Istanbul was codified during the period of the old regime on the basis of various medieval practices, themselves sometimes of ancient origin. In cases of conflict, or where generally accepted administrative processes had broken down, or in cases where new demands or problems had arisen, inhabitants were granted the right to write petitions either on an individual basis or as a group (professional, confessional, civic collective body). But this system of petitioning was more than mere recourse to remedies or adjustments. Rather, it was an integral tool in the functioning of the empire and in the definition of imperial power in the provinces. The petition was not just an exceptional tool, but a normal procedure, whose bureaucratic nature had been formalised over the course of the Ottoman centuries. Indeed, the central archives in Istanbul contain hundreds of thousands of such petitions from throughout the empire and spanning the 15th to the 20th centuries. These petitions were registered by a specialised administrative bureau, whose consistency and importance grew as the empire set about constructing its bureaucratic apparatus. Petitions were registered in daftar, and subjected to a whole administrative process that constituted the very essence of imperial authority. The petition cannot be likened to a bottle thrown into the ocean in the hopes of capturing the sultan's attention, and nor was it merely akin to a medieval supplicant's appeal to the sovereign in the hopes of gaining an exception. It was rather an act of codified administrative communication whose role is pivotal to an understanding of the very essence of the Ottoman empire and the relationship between centre and peripheries. This codification had a multifaceted heritage dating from the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries, an era that in administrative terms constitutes the Ottoman old regime. However, during the Tanzimat era and, for cities, the period of municipal reform during the second half of the 19th century, when both the whole administrative system and the very foundations the organisation of society itself were reordered, these old practices were, paradoxically, used intensively to negotiate the accommodation of the new administrative system with local configurations. At the very moment of its reform, the old system was the object of strong collective investment, which reveals both the importance of the old channels of communication and of the mediation process for accommodating the new.
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Nora Lafi. Petitions and Accommodating Urban Change in the Ottoman Empire. Özdalga (Elisabeth) Özervarlı (Sait) Tansuğ (Feryal). Istanbul as seen from a distance. Centre and Provinces in the Ottoman Empire, Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, p.73-82, 2011. ⟨halshs-00618770⟩

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