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A depiction of a horse market c.1580 (gouache on paper). Before the decline of the empire, the Ottomans were a powerful, efficient people.
A depiction of a horse market c.1580 (gouache on paper). Before the decline of the empire, the Ottomans were a powerful, efficient people.

Secrets of the empire

Feature A remarkable archive detailing daily life in the early Ottoman Empire gives us a vivid new insight into an organised, progressive society dedicated to keeping records.

A remarkable archive detailing daily life in the early Ottoman Empire gives us a vivid new insight into an organised, progressive society dedicated to keeping records - documents that could help settle land disputes in today's Middle East. Hamida Ghafour reports. In the popular imagination, the Ottoman Empire brings to mind a lecherous sultan lazing on silk cushions and amusing himself in a debauched harem as a decaying state crumbles around him. The image dates from the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, the "sick man of Europe" struggling to rule over a vast swathe of territory and unable to keep up with the industrial revolution that propelled Europe and North America into the modern world.

And yet the Turkish empire was once a highly organised, efficient and pragmatic state in which millions of Muslims, Christians and Jews lived as subjects of a single capable ruler. The Ottomans were also brilliant record-keepers, and millions of documents still survive which detail the minutiae of daily life from the far reaches of the realm, whether it was Baku or Algiers. The centre of it all was, of course, Istanbul, and it is here that a new project has been launched to record for the first time each decade of the 16th century using court documents from a period when in total contrast to the "sick man of Europe" days, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents and was at the vanguard of progress in arts, medicine and law.

The Centre for Islamic Studies, a government-funded institute, has just published the first of a 10-volume encyclopaedia, rather prosaically named the Istanbul Court Registers Project, and work is underway on the next volume which will be published later this summer. The first volume opens in 1513 and ends in 1521 (or in the Islamic calendar Hijra 919 to 927) and chronologically lists 826 documents filed in the court that decade. The result is an intimate and vivid slice of daily Ottoman life.It also reveals the pragmatism of the early Ottoman state.

Christian Europe was shaking off the backwardness of the Middle Ages, and within a couple of hundred years the Europeans would dominate the world. But these records, bit by bit, show a modern, tolerant and powerful Muslim empire. There is the will of Nasuah ibn Abdullah, a citizen of Üsküdar, a neighbourhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, who died in 1513. A tally of his estate by the court noted that upon his death Abdullah had 30 swords, 15 quilted jackets, 20 pots and eight water jugs. These he left to his widow. He also owned two frying pans, 12 pieces of underwear, four plates and seven oxen.

"But he had some loans, had not paid his taxes or the dowry owed to his wife after they were married, so these were going to be taken from his legacy by the court," says professor Recep Senturk at the Centre for Islamic Studies and an adviser on the encyclopaedia. "He was a very rich guy," he adds, peering at the will written in a blend of Persian, Arabic and Turkish. In total, nine scholars from various universities are involved in the publication. The project is timed to coincide with Istanbul becoming the European Capital of Culture for 2010, and to that end, the centre is trying to secure a grant from the European Commission to fund it.

The Ottomans ran a highly centralised and organised state. The imperial court in Istanbul appointed three employees to each administrative unit across the empire. The head of each unit was the governor, or qazi, who also acted as a mayor and judge, and his court rulings were based on a new legal system. The second employee, the mufti, provided moral guidance to the population and served as a legal assistant. He also mediated between parties who did not want to go to court but wanted a religious scholar to resolve a dispute with a solution acceptable by all sides. The third employee in the unit was the teacher of the madrasas, religious schools that educated a new generation of Muslim Ottoman citizenry. "Each qazi kept records of everything they did," Senturk says, "the same with the mufti and teachers."

These civil servants sent their records to the central offices in Istanbul - they are today kept in the Ottoman State Archive - and the 10-volume encyclopaedia will be based on approximately 4.5 million documents. Yet that is only a fraction of what is scattered around Europe, the Middle East and Asia - by one estimate 250 million documents - and attempting to publish an encyclopaedia to capture it all would be virtually impossible.

"The Ottoman archive is an ocean; we will publish something very small and minute," says Senturk. "This encyclopaedia project is an homage to this district, Üsküdar, where our office is. It is also one of the oldest districts in the Islamic world because Muslims came here in the 13th century." The Ottoman dynasty began in 1299, but its rise to supremacy in south-east Europe and the Mediterranean came when Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453 with an army "as numberless as the stars", according to a contemporary witness in the the book Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, by Roger Crowley.

The first volume of the encyclopaedia, however, begins with Mehmet II's grandson, Suleyman the Magnificent, who ascended the throne in 1520 and ruled for 46 years. This remarkable monarch enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous reign partly because he had no rivals: thanks to a brutally efficient succession policy his father introduced, when a new sultan came to power his brothers were locked up. When the ruler's first son was born, the brothers and their sons were killed.

To his subjects, however, the sultan was known as Suleyman Kanuni, meaning "the lawgiver", because he collected all the judgements issued by the previous sultans, ironed out the inconsistencies and created a single legal code, covering everything from education to criminal law in accordance with Sharia. These laws lasted for centuries and governed every aspect of life down to the smallest details.

In 1513, we see a decree issued by the qazi of Üsküdar after residents complained that there was not enough bread available in the bakeries, particularly on Fridays. The bakers refused to make more because they were worried they would not sell enough on the most holy day in the Islamic week. The qazi decided that once a week each bakery had to be kept open for 24 hours. "This was in case someone needed bread at midnight," Senturk says. "You can see the administration gave the well-being of the people some thought."

The qazi also fixed the prices of food so shopkeepers could not overcharge their customers. There is a list which shows rice had to be sold for 19 akca, honey for 5.5 akca and garlic cost 12 akca. The prices of plums, grapes, vinegar and chickpeas were also regulated. The worries of ordinary subjects were removed from the luxuries of the royal palace. The kitchens were staffed by hundreds of cooks who waited hand and foot on royals and courtiers, and they could order a late-night dish of egg and onions or Circassian chicken.

The letter and spirit of the law followed the principles of Sharia, but the empire was also home to millions of Christians and Jews. Each religious group had a legal community called the millet, and they could adjudicate civil-law issues among themselves, according to their faith. "The head of each millet was an employee of the state, " says Senturk, "so the chief rabbi was elected by the community but approved by the sultan and his salary was paid by the Ottoman state. They reported to the caliph."

By the early years of the 1500s, thousands of Jewish refugees had settled in Istanbul. In 1492, Muslims and Sephardic Jews were expelled from Catholic Spain during the Inquisition. The sultan at the time sent a fleet of ships to save them - their choice was to leave, convert or be burnt at the stake - and they were brought to Turkey and allowed to live in the empire. The best-educated Jews, such as doctors, found positions in the royal palace, including Moses Hamon, who rose to become a physician of Suleyman the Magnificent.

There are hints in the book about how the courts dealt with their religious minorities but often the most tantalising details are left out. For example, a representative of the Pope, Isa bin Mehmed, had a debt of 200 akca to the Holy See, and the court forced him to repay the debt in 1519. How did he accumulate that debt? We will never know. That same year, a Greek Christian named Koca Pavlo died suddenly as he was talking to another man on the street. Because he was a high-ranking nobleman an investigation was launched into his death. The court asked witnesses to come forward. The brother of the dead man gave a statement and identified the corpse but the record is incomplete. We don't know if there was anything suspicious about Koca Pavlo's death.

There is more to these documents than interesting, if trivial, bits of social history. The Ottoman archives also carry significant geopolitical ramifications for the Middle East today. "The land ownership of the whole empire was kept here," Senturk says. "If there is a debate about land ownership in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bulgaria, you can find the records in the central Ottoman archive because they recorded all land for tax purposes: who lived there, what they produced and how much they should pay in tax."

That included Palestine. Although the Istanbul project is only publishing records from the 1500s, the state's archives have records that date until its very end in 1922 and have taken on a new significance for Palestinians trying to keep their land. Indeed, the fate of 500 Palestinian families facing eviction in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah may be decided by the Ottoman's record-keeping skills.

A group of settlers with the Sephardi Jewry Association claims that a group of Jews legally purchased the land in the 19th century. The Palestinians turned to the Turkish government for help. Turkey and Israel have good relations but because of the anger over the devastating bombardment of Gaza earlier this year, the Turkish authorities allowed the families access to the Ottoman court records and the families now say they have evidence that the Jewish land purchase is forged.

This is unusual because Turkey traditionally has refused to get involved in land disputes due to its close military and political ties to Israel. An Israeli court is considering the Ottoman documents, and judgement is expected in the next few weeks. The other legacy that endures is the waqf system. In the 15th century the Ottomans established cash waqfs, trust funds approved by the courts in which cash capital was borrowed by others. After a period of time, perhaps a year, the capital was returned with extra money which was used for social purposes such as schools and hospitals.

Many were founded by women. "There were 300 endowment foundations of money to finance charitable works and 40 per cent of these cash foundations were founded by ladies in the 16th century. It's unbelievable," says Senturk. "I was shocked by this. We found this in our research on the volumes." The Mihrimah Sultan mosque by the quay in Üsküdar, which is named after a powerful Ottoman princess who funded its construction in 1548, still plays a large role in the local community. The site of the old madrasa is now a health clinic. The stones leading to the graceful mosque are careworn, and the view across the bullet-grey Bosphorus is similar to what it would have been when its chief architect, the great Mimar Sinan, a Christian-born slave, constructed it.

Up the stairs the courtyard has a circular ablutions fountain with spouts all around. Some men are preparing and cleansing themselves for the prayer. Others are gazing out of the terrace. Below the mosque, modern life continues. There is a merchant selling the round sesame seed biscuits from a wagon, much as would have happened centuries ago. An old woman buys two biscuits and the man puts them inside a white plastic bag. She breaks off a hunk and waits for traffic to slow down so she can cross the street.

There are boats bringing in people from the European side of Istanbul. Girls are walking to school, men are on their way to or from work. A couple of families enter the health clinic, an enduring legacy of what the Ottomans left behind. It is the rhythm of life uninterrupted for centuries.

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