Stefan Peychev: The Nature of the Ottoman City: Water Management and Urban Space in Sofia, 1380s-1910s

My book project, The Nature of the Ottoman City: Water Management and Urban Space in
Sofia, 1380s-1910s, examines the natural ecology of urban life through a focus on water
management and usage. At the same time, I use the notion of nature metaphorically to introduce
a discussion of the characteristic mechanisms of Ottoman urbanism and problematize the
narrative of ruin and decay that underpins the dominant discourse on the Ottoman period in
Sofia’s history. I argue that the Ottomans harnessed the full potential of Sofia’s rich hydrography
into a comprehensive system of water management. Water left a defining imprint on built form,
urban culture, and daily life in the Ottoman city, with human actors at the local, provincial, and
imperial levels actively involved in the management of this natural resource and the
infrastructures that were based on its use. The holistic nature of environmental research and its
resistance to the chronological constraints of political history enable me to extend my inquiry
into the modern period, including the first four decades of Sofia’s post-Ottoman history. I argue
that the establishment of the Bulgarian nation-state in 1878 does not represent a radical break in
the history of Sofia’s water supply, especially in terms of the socio-economic, technological, and
natural conditions that predetermined the state of the water infrastructure. My research points to
a remarkable degree of continuity in water management, an area that was otherwise at the
forefront of the modernization project. Until the construction of the city’s first modern water
supply system in 1912, Sofia’s water supply functioned largely within the bounds of a system
established in the late Ottoman period and based on the workings of a regional economy of
natural resource management.

Stefan Peychev is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the History Department at Boston College. He is a historian of the Ottoman Empire, its successor states, and the wider world, with research interests in urban environmental history, space and place, travel writing, scientific exploration, and cultural representation. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has published articles and book chapters on Ottoman Sofia’s relationship with its natural environment and on Western travel writing about Ottoman cities. His research has been supported by the Council for European Studies, the American Research Center in Sofia, and the Turkish Cultural Foundation. Dr. Peychev is currently working on his first book, entitled The Nature of the Ottoman City: Water Management and Urban Space in Sofia, 1380s-1910s.

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