"The exordium of Ottoman History has perished": The Bursa Earthquake of 1855 and Reconstruction of a Tanzimat City
“MESA 2023 Annual Meeting”
Conference Proposal, 23 Feb 2023
This paper explores the ways in which natural disasters affect an urban environment on physical and societal levels. Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, was rebuilt in the wake of two earthquakes in the nineteenth century. The paper investigates these earthquakes which took place in 1855 resulting in the deaths of 1,500 residents. The major damage to the physical environment was caused by a fire that began in the business quarter where all the khans and bazaars were accumulated. The estimated number of houses and shops burnt down in this fire was around 2,000. Following these calamitous events, the imperial administration initiated a reconstruction program as it identified Bursa as a pilot project for the second phase of the ongoing Tanzimat (the official name for the grand Ottoman modernization project) reforms.
Bursa recovered from this ‘crisis’ through the reconstruction of its quake-ridden monuments executed according to a new city plan, which created a gentrified area now inhabited by silk merchants and factory owners in place of the former Armenian neighborhood. 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 in the physical, demographic, and economic urban environment may determine the pace of reform, facilitate the implementation of novel ideas and projects, and mobilize local and central governmental actors to take advantage of an extraordinary moment of destruction. The responses to the earthquake of Bursa demonstrate that even supposedly standardized grand reform programs aiming at centralization are informed heavily by local conditions.