MESA Banner
Crime in the City: Urbanization and Criminalization in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Panel VII-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
The rapid urbanization experienced by Middle Eastern societies beginning in the 19th century presented novel challenges to governments and new threats to the lives and livelihoods of urban citizens. This panel brings together scholars of the histories of the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and the southern Caucasus to explore how urbanization and social rupture contributed to new understandings of crime, the criminalization of certain urban populations, and the development of criminal enterprises reliant on the concentration of wealth found in large cities. Our first two papers will explore how urban nuisances presented a challenge to policing and social order in Iran and the Ottoman Empire. The first panelist explores the policing of urban soundscapes including music, parties, and unruly drunks in Iran in nineteenth century, analyzing the tension between the desire to police soundscapes associated with perceived immorality and strong Qajar norms supporting domestic privacy. Our second panelist continues the theme of auralities and crime with a paper on the various ways in which Ottoman authorities legislated and policed soundscapes, demonstrating how attempts to police sound intersects with issues of class, gender, ethnicity, and religion. Turning to the topic of political crime, the third paper investigates the increased surveillance of urban Armenian populations in eastern Anatolia and how house searches were used to uncover evidence of political crimes linked to the "Armenian Question." The final paper focuses on the development of the qochus, a group of criminals unique to Baku who emerged in the late 19th century following the city’s oil boom. Displaced rural men who were armed and employed as security by wealthy industrialists, the qochus wielded significant economic and social power. Through these four papers, this panel offers a trans-imperial appraisal of the challenges of urbanization and explores the diverse ways in which crime and criminalization shaped societies in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.
  • Dr. Kent F. Schull -- Discussant
  • Prof. Farzin Vejdani -- Presenter
  • Prof. Kelsey Rice -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Ilkay Yilmaz -- Presenter
  • Prof. Kelsey Rice
    Baku’s oil boom, which commenced in the 1870’s, transformed the formally small city into one of the Russian Empire’s wealthiest and largest industrial centers. Its chaotic growth created an urban landscape replete with both opportunity and danger. From this landscape emerged a social group unique to Baku, the qochus. Displaced rural Muslim men who were armed and employed as security by the city’s elite, the qochus engaged in organized crime with relative impunity, benefiting from their connection to the powerful industrialists who ran the city. Often associated with prominent conservative members of the ulama, they also policed the streets of Muslim neighborhoods to enforce traditional social norms, targeting Muslim women who ventured out in public unveiled and the growing coterie of radical Muslim activists, artists, and intellectuals. The qochus served as something of a collective bête noire for Muslim reformers, who frequently depicted them as progress’s primary antagonists in their writings. Yet, as this paper will demonstrate, the qochus were an inherently modern social group, a product of the rapid industrialization and urbanization of Baku who sought to influence how their society would navigate the challenges of modernity. Drawing on reformist writings including memoirs and press coverage that can be read against the grain, this paper will argue that the qochus played an important role in the development of the politics of Baku’s Muslim population in the late imperial era, a role that scholarship has largely neglected due to the continued influence of Soviet historiography on the field.
  • This paper aims at discussing the definitions of political crime by Ottoman Government during the 1890s. It investigates the increased surveillance of urban Armenian populations in eastern Anatolia and how house searches were used to uncover evidence of “political crimes” linked to “Armenian Question”. The case of a school-teacher Sosy Hamparsomian (later Gabrielian) will be analyzed to explore the practices of the Ottoman Panel Code in relation to the political crimes in the article 54. This paper aims to examine the Ottoman legal system and policing technics with a critical security approach. Through the case of Sosy Hamparsomian this paper analyses threat perceptions, actors, norms, and the state’s approach towards the mobility of ideas in urban spheres. During the last two decades, a new discussion on transnational security regimes has emerged through the history of anarchism, police cooperation, extradition treaties, etc. However, this literature mostly focused on the European sphere. This paper aims at widening the discussion on these issues with putting Ottoman Empire in the center of this discussion.
  • Prof. Farzin Vejdani
    The sonic constitutes a neglected medium for understanding crime in the Iranian urban landscape of the nineteenth century. Utilizing an array of sources, including newspapers, police and government reports, diaries, and memoirs, this paper employs "earwitness" accounts to elucidate how certain sounds—such as entertainment music, merriment and partying, and loud yelling and screaming—became synonymous with the moral crimes of performing and listening to immoral music, alcohol consumption, and/or prohibited gender mixing and prostitution. On the one hand, strong privacy norms prevailed in Qajar society, which acted as a bulwark against overzealous policing of illicit sounds emanating from a domestic residence. On the other hand, sounds were rarely contained in the domestic realm, especially in the dense urban fabric of many neighborhoods. When sound spilled out into the streets or reached the ears of the disproving, several groups became potentially involved in the moral policing of illicit sounds. Neighbors either complained to the authorities about noise disturbances or took matters into their own hands by confronting perceived offenders. Similarly, those associated with the ulama, especially seminarians and sayyids, regularly raided homes on the grounds that aural evidence indicated illicit activities inside. Finally, police patrols followed sonic signs to pursue those suspected of having violated the law.