Noontime Scholars Lecture with Stefan Peychev, “The Nature of the Ottoman City: Water, Space, and Place in Sofia, 1380s-1910s”


In his April 16th presentation “Water and the City: Ottoman Sofia in the Early Modern Period,” Stefan Peychev discussed the main ideas from his recently deposited dissertation, “The Nature of the Ottoman City: Water Management and Urban Space in Sofia, 1380s-1910s.” An article featuring these central concepts is soon to be published in an edited volume entitled Living with Nature and Things: Contributions to a New Social History of the Middle Islamic Periods.

Most broadly, Peychev’s work seeks to fill a gap in scholarship on the urban environmental history of the Ottoman Empire, which he attributes to the disciplinary isolation of Ottoman historians and to the emphasis on nation over nature in histories of Southeastern Europe. Further, by examining what he calls the “culture of water” in Sofia (today Bulgaria’s capital city and formerly the provincial capital of the Ottoman Empire), Peychev challenges the contemporary Bulgarian historical narrative, which downplays and even rejects contributions of the Ottoman period. While Bulgarian historiography deprives the Ottomans of the ability to conceive of urban development and, more specifically, of effective use of water as a natural resource, Peychev argues that the Ottoman contribution to Sofia’s foundation was in fact rich and that the obliteration of Ottoman legacy from Sofia’s urban fabric not only has unfortunate consequences for the modern city’s relationship with nature but creates a rift in our understanding of its history.

Sofia’s culture of water, and in fact its very location and construction, hinge on two important water sources: constant running water from the nearby Vitosha Mountain and hot thermal springs at the center of the city. To understand the shaping of these resources into the Ottoman water supply system, as well as the financial and logistical arrangements between city and village (what Peychev calls a “system of economic interdependence”) in the region surrounding Sofia, Peychev draws on Ottoman military commander Yahya Pasha’s vakfiye (pious foundation deed) and refers also to sixteenth century cadastral registers. Travel writings and records from visitors to Ottoman Sofia further elucidate the historical importance of water in the construction of urban space and place and its role in the “built fabric” and daily life of the city. The technicalities of Ottoman Sofia’s water infrastructure and its translation into a culture of water merge in Peychev’s discussion of Sofia’s public baths, particularly Banabashi, the largest and most central, both geographically and economically, of the five thermal baths. Not only were the sacredness and healing properties of the water celebrated, but the population of Sofia developed a taste for the water, making it an iconic method of place identification for locals and visitors alike and a central component of Sofia’s social and economic life. Perhaps most importantly, this culture of water was but one apparatus in the greater machine of Ottoman urban community and Peychev’s study plays an important role in exposing the functionality, dynamism, and efficacy of Ottoman society and urban development.

Today, Peychev claims, Sofia’s unique culture of water has deteriorated and modern residents do not relate to water as did previous generations. The thermal baths are all but gone, allowed to crumble or converted into Western style architectural structures with functions unrelated to thermal water. Streets and neighborhoods formerly named for natural resources including rivers and fountains are renamed to recognize national heroes. This drastically different approach to the construction of urban space can be attributed to Bulgaria’s aggressively anti-Ottoman nation-building following their liberation from the Ottomans in 1878, also evident in the continued desire to wipe the Ottoman imprint from Bulgarian history and in the prevalent notion that Ottoman presence destroyed Sofia’s urbanistic tradition. Peychev suggests, at least in the case of Sofia’s relationship with what is arguably its paramount natural resource, that actually the reverse is true. Ultimately, however, national concerns aside, Peychev believes that modernity is responsible for the destruction of Sofia’s culture of water, and, further, that without greater knowledge of early modern Ottoman Sofia, today’s residents will not understand the “defining imprint” left on the city’s urban design by the Ottoman water infrastructure.


Danielle Nutting is a DMA candidate in Flute Performance and Literature, minoring in ethnomusicology and Balkan studies. Her doctoral research concerns the intersection of traditional and art music and the classical flute in Bulgaria.

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