Bucharest in the Pre-Modern Period: The Oriental City
For several centuries and up to the mid-19th century, Bucharest was a picturesque and cosmopolitan town with a diverse and mixed population of many nations. Along with the autochthon Wallachians, lived here Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Armenians, Jews, and in lesser numbers, Hungarians, Germans or Italians. A transit town situated at the crossroads of major trade routes linking central European cities with Constantinople, Bucharest acquired a characteristic air of lively, colourful Oriental bazaar. For much of its history, Bucharest was a Balkan city through atmosphere and appearance. The long-lasting Ottoman domination resulted in Bucharest assimilating complex influences of Oriental origins, from clothing, habits and morals to the architecture and urban structure.
But how did this Balkan city look? To place it into context, it is worth mentioning that until the late 19th century Bucharest was surrounded by forests and vineyards, and its skyline was outlined only by church steeples and bell-towers. In the central commercial areas, tiny shops crowded along the narrow, crooked streets, competing for space with the numerous monasteries and inns. Indeed, one could say that Bucharest was a city of inner spaces: the courtyards surrounded by high walls of the inns and boyar residences, and monastery precincts.
Moving away from the center, houses were more scattered, usually gathered around churches, each house having its own garden, or even a small orchard. A specific element of the urban ambiance were the maidans (sing. “maidan“, from Turkish “maydan”), vacant lands used as meeting and trading places, often provided with a well, to supply water. The hills were covered with vineyards over large areas, and allegedly, some Turks chose to move to Bucharest and change their belief because of the good wine produced here and the beautiful women who served it! Due to its many gardens, orchards and vineyards, Bucharest was compared with an “endless and cheerful garden”.
At the height of the Ottoman domination, the inns (“han”, pl. “hanuri”, a Turkish word), originating from the Oriental caravanserais, became very common. They first accommodated merchants arriving from abroad, as well as their servants and merchandise, but, in time, they started housing wholesalers, bankers, and even institutions. Unfortunately, very few of the city’s inns -a characteristic of old Bucharest- survived the vagaries of time to this day. One of them is the picturesque Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn -see bottom right photo).
Did the modern Bucharest entirely replaced the patriarchal city? The old city still exists, and can be glimpsed today in the still standing churches and a handful of civil edifices, and especially in the irregular street pattern of some of the old neighborhoods. The legendary Calea Victoriei itself, with its meandering course, widening here and there into small pockets (largos), provides a recognizable evidence of the vanished patriarchal city.