Kentel, Mehmet

Istanbul Research Institute, IAE

Research Title: Assembling Pera: An Environmental History of Late Ottoman Istanbul

Dr. Kentel works on the urban and environmental history of late Ottoman Istanbul. He received his PhD with distinction from the University of Washington in 2018. His book project, based on his dissertation, treats the making of the Pera district of Istanbul as an environmental unfolding that connects distant parts of the Ottoman capital in the nineteenth century. He is the Research Projects Manager at the Istanbul Research Institute and the managing editor of YILLIK: Annual of Istanbul Studies. His curatorial work includes Memories of Humankind: Stories from the Ottoman Manuscripts at the Istanbul Research Institute (curator, 2019) and The Characters of Yusuf Franko: An Ottoman Bureaucrat’s Caricature at Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (advisor and author, 2017). 

Click here for the fellow’s Introductory Video…

Fellow’s End of the Academic Year Research Report:

Most of Pera’s premodern urban fabric was destroyed on June 5, 1870 by flame (Fig. 1) in one of the biggest conflagrations of the nineteenth century that killed around 2000 people and an unknown number of the members of the region’s nonhuman habitat—eyewitness accounts complained about the countless carcasses of dogs and horses lying and rotting on the streets, weeks after the disaster. In my ongoing research, I study the 1870 fire as a crucial episode in Pera’s environmental history. Two upcoming papers on this event at major international conferences (CIEPO and ESEH) will help me draft one of the chapters in my first book project, Assembling Pera: An Environmental History of Late Ottoman Istanbul, which I have been working on as an ANAMED post-doctoral fellow over the 2021–2022 academic year.
Fig. 1. Dr. Brunetti. Épisode de la catastrophe de Péra. Souvenir du 5 Juin 1870 [Constantinople]. SALT Research, Edhem Eldem Collection.
This event serves as a ground zero—literally—for the late nineteenth-century study of the city, as well as the present-day debates around its heritage, for what survived from the nineteenth century was almost exclusively built during the district’s restoration in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Pera. But it is not the only one. Six years prior, it was not the flames emanating from a certain Rechini’s kitchen in a house on Feridiye Street that got out of control and blazed its way to Kasımpaşa, as it did in 1870, but rather a massive municipal operation, pursued by engineers and manual laborers, shovels and donkeys, which destroyed one of the largest edifices of Pera’s premodern built environment: the medieval Genoese Walls (Fig. 2), dating from the thirteenth–fifteenth centuries, to be replaced by a more regular street network and apartment buildings. The destruction not only created land plots for real estate development and strengthened a network of landowners, capitalists, and policymakers, it also triggered an interest in the district’s Genoese past, as I discuss in a forthcoming article in Muqarnas, prepared during my fellowship at ANAMED.
Fig. 2. Galata Tower and the walls. Photograph: James Robertson, 1853–1854. Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation (SVIKV), IAE, FKA­_004223.
The new Pera, often deemed a cosmopolitan enclave, a symbol of Westernized urban modernity, was built upon the havoc created by these two acts of massive destruction, and they were not alone. Another drastic form of intervention to the city’s premodern fabric was on its cemeteries, its champs-des-morts, both grand and petit. Both of them were gradually eaten up by urban sprawl, but significant portions of them were also reorganized as municipal gardens, the former in 1869 and the latter in 1880. This transformation was not only about the spaces of the dead and new ways of dealing with them but also about nonhuman living things. In a forthcoming chapter for the edited volume Şehrin Doğası, a book on Istanbul’s nature, I explore the transformation of the Petits-Champs des Morts into Jardin des Petits-Champs with specific attention to how Tepebaşı’s flora was changed due to this transformation.
The debate around Tepebaşı’s transformation gives us a pathway to link Pera’s history to that of Kasımpaşa, the neighboring working-class district located on its western foothill. The Petits-Champs cemetery once provided an easy passageway from Kasımpaşa to Pera, which was disrupted in the second half of the nineteenth century by several developments, including its partial replacement by a gated, upper-class garden. This disruption impacted humans’ mobility in between these two rapidly—but rather antagonistically—growing quarters, but it did not have as much of an effect on Pera’s waste, which increasingly found its way into the many creeks (Fig. 3) that flowed through the Kasımpaşa valley into the Golden Horn. In a recently published short essay in the Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, I discuss the methodological virtues of the sewage plans produced in the late nineteenth century for the study of Pera, as well as other urban centers in the eastern Mediterranean that more often than not rely on insurance maps. I continue to follow these waste trajectories between Pera and Kasımpaşa in another article currently under review for another academic journal, in which I map out the 1893–1894 cholera outbreak in connection to the region’s sewage problem (here is the video recording of a talk I gave based on this article in progress). My work for this article has also finally given me the long-needed push to learn the basics of GIS, and thanks to some crucial introductory guidance from ANAMED Director Chris Roosevelt, I have recently started experimenting with it.
Fig. 3. Maisons en bois le long d’une rue dans le quartier de Kasımpaşa. Photograph: Auguste Léon, May 30, 1912. Autochrome. Archives de la Planète.
All of these, among others, are part of my endeavor of writing critical histories of nineteenth-century Pera and Istanbul, most of which will be compiled in my book project supported by ANAMED. Begun almost eight years ago with a doctoral fellowship, again at ANAMED, and having taken me along meaningful detours, such as my work on ANAMED’s 2017 exhibition The Characters of Yusuf Franko: An Ottoman Bureaucrat’s Caricatures and a most recent Toplumsal Tarih article on the representation of Beyoğlu and Galata in Reşad Ekrem Koçu’s Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, this larger undertaking to demystify and materialize the history modern Pera has relied so much on the support of ANAMED and its resources, as well as the scholarly networks and inspirations it has provided.
Finally, as obvious from the above examples, my scholarly practice oftentimes revolves around infrastructure and the environmental entanglements it brings about, which led me to recently write reviews of two important books on Middle Eastern infrastructure: Begüm Adalet’s Hotels and Highways, published in the Arab Studies Journal, and Peter Christensen’s Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, published in Cornucopia.
It has been a productive year so far, and let’s hope that I will be able to send out my book proposal before the academic year ends and finish the first draft of the chapter on the 1870 fire.