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Ottoman Society


The Ottomans: From Frontier Warriors To Empire Builders
Author: Robert Guisepi
Date: 1992


Part Four

The Ottoman state and its society rested on many institutions. In creating these institutions, the Ottomans drew on the experiences of earlier Muslim empires, as well as their own Turkish traditions and ghazi ideals. Many of these institutions were altered or corrupted over time, contributing in part to the empire’s decline.

The Ottomans’ ancestors, 11th-century Turkish intruders from Central Asia, brought with them the belief that leadership was a divine right bestowed on a chosen family. This went against the established Islamic practice of elected leadership, the model for which was the selection of Abu Bakr as Islam’s first caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Osman and his descendants ruled in an unbroken chain down to the abolition of the sultanate by Mustafa Kemal in 1922.

There were two other concepts that accompanied Ottoman practices of succession. One was that, up until the reign of Muhammad III (1595-1603), Ottoman princes were sent off to the provinces in the company of their tutors (and often their mothers) to learn the business of government. The other was that these same princes had to compete for the throne. Potential male heirs fought each other at the time of the death of the reigning sultan, and to the victor went the sultanate. The practice developed that the sultan would often kill most of his male relatives—careful to leave at least one alive as a future successor—in order to avoid a rivalry within his own family that might endanger his reign. After the practice of sending princes to the provinces was ended, princes were kept in a special place in the palace called the kafes (Turkish for "cage"), where they generally spent their days in idleness among the women of their harems. As a result, when they came to the throne they had no practical experience in governing. In accordance with the Turkish proverb, "the fish begins to stink at the head," this lack of leadership became a serious factor in the decline of the empire.

In addition to their traditions of family sovereignty, the Ottomans drew strength from their origins as ghazis. The ghazi principle fueled their urge for conquest and then helped them to structure their developing society. The social structure of settled, urban Islamic society consisted of four social groupings: 1) the men of the pen, that is, judges, imams (prayer leaders), and other intellectuals; 2) the men of the sword, meaning the military; 3) the men of negotiations, such as merchants; and 4) the men of husbandry, meaning farmers and livestock raisers. Life on the frontier was far less structured; society there was divided into two groups, the askeri (the military) and the raya (the subjects). Besides protecting the realm and the raya, the askeri conquered new territories, thus bringing more raya and wealth into the empire.

In the early days, it was possible for raya to cross over and become askeri through, for example, outstanding military service. Over time, however, the separation between askeri and raya became more rigid and the military, like other social groupings within the empire, became stratified along functional lines. By late in the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the men of the pen were the bureaucrats of the empire, while the judges and imams made up a separate group called the men of religion. The men of the pen, the men of religion, and the men of the sword all were classified as askeri. As such, they were exempt from taxes and lived off of the wealth produced by the raya. Each of the three groups had its own educational system, its own internal practices, and its own values. In Ottoman society there was a place for everyone, but one of the functions of the sultan was to keep everyone in their place.

There was even a place for the non-Muslim. In classical Islamic tradition, non-Muslim religious communities that possessed an accepted, written holy book were granted a covenant of protection, the dhimma, and were considered to be protected people, the dhimmis. In return for this status they paid a special poll tax, the cizye. The Ottomans continued this tradition during the reign of Muhammad the Conqueror (reigned 1451-1481). The three leading non-Muslim religious communities—the Jews, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Church—were established as recognized dhimmi communities known as millets. Each millet was headed by its own religious dignitary: a chief rabbi in the case of the Jews, and patriarchs in the case of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities. In the millet system, each community was responsible for the allocation and collection of its taxes, its educational arrangements, and internal legal matters pertaining especially to personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In the pre-modern Middle East, identity was largely based on religion. This system functioned well until the European concepts of nationalism and ethnicity filtered into the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the 19th century.

In addition to the millet system and the division between the askeri and the raya, several other elements constituted the backbone of Ottoman administrative practices and military preparedness. They were the timar system, the land survey, the provincial structure, and the Janissaries.

Once plunder had given way to conquest as the financial engine for the empire, the Ottomans needed a way to compensate some of the askeri, guarantee their future services, and administer newly won territories. They developed the timar system, likely modeled on an earlier Persian system. In the timar system, an askeri was given a share of the agricultural taxes of a designated region—usually consisting of several villages—in return for military service as a cavalryman and assistance in provincial administration. Those who were given such grants were called timarlý (Turkish for "timar-holders") and, like other askeri, they were exempt from taxation. The values of timars varied, and the military obligation attached to the timar varied with its income: the higher the income, the greater the obligation. At their best times the Ottomans were able to put more than 100,000 cavalrymen into the field.

Timars were set forth and awarded in accordance with the land survey known as the tahrir. The tahrir took place when a new area was conquered, and sometimes when there was a change in reign or when conditions in an older area had changed sufficiently so as to require a new survey. A team of officials surveyed and recorded by sanjak (the administrative division of a province) the names of all adult male farmers, all sources of wealth in the area—farms, orchards, vineyards, mills, farm animals, and crops—their yields, and the taxes paid on them. Since this process involved the calculation of regional land and agricultural taxes as well as the cizye and other Islamic taxes, the committee was assisted at the scene by a local judge.

Two registers were compiled from the gathered information. One was a detailed register of both the regional taxes levied in the sanjak and the new Islamic taxes to be imposed. Also recorded were the regulations governing the relationships between the timar-holders and the raya. The timar-holders could collect no more than the officially mandated taxes and services from the raya. This new regime weighed less heavily on the peasantry than the former Byzantine tax system.

A copy of the register was kept by the military commander of the area. He thus knew which timars were vacant, due to death in battle or otherwise, and could authorize the grant of vacant timars. Increasingly, sons succeeded their fathers as timar-holders, and even wives could petition for the timars of their dead husbands. They would then have to find people to do the military obligation associated with the timar. The timar system offered two major advantages to the sultan. First, he was able to know how many cavalrymen he could count on, and second, he was able to have a relatively accurate idea of the empire’s income. The system was exceptionally stable up until the 17th century, when inflation and the onset of serious military losses made timars less desirable.

While the timar system was similar to Western European feudalism, there were several important differences. Unlike a European feudal lord, the timar-holder did not dispense justice; justice was the sultan’s prerogative. European feudalism was government on the local level in the absence of central government. In the Ottoman Empire central government was active and crucial; in fact, the timar system, with all its associated paperwork, could not have survived without it.

Another Islamic institution adapted by the Ottomans was the ghulam system. A ghulam was a slave (by definition, a non-Muslim) educated and trained for state service. The Islamic caliph Al-Mustasim (833-842) used ghulams, and the Ottomans knew of the institution from their direct predecessors, the Seljuk Turks. The Ottomans modified the ghulam system by instituting the infamous devshirme, in which young Christian males between the ages of 8 and 15 were removed from their villages in the Balkans to be trained for state service. The youths were brought before the sultan, and the best of them—in terms of physique, intelligence, and other qualities—were selected for education in the palace school. There they converted to Islam, became versed in the Islamic religion and its culture, learned Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, and were trained in the military and social arts. They owed absolute allegiance to the sultan and were destined for the highest offices in the empire as they rose through the ranks of the school. When members of this select group graduated at about the age of 25, they assumed positions in the provincial military structure or took up service in the palace guards regiments. They could then work their way up the system and become its military-administrative head, the grand vizier. Those not selected for the palace school converted to Islam, worked for rural Turkish farmers, learned vernacular Turkish and folk Islamic culture, and became members of the sultan’s elite military infantry, the Janissaries.

This division in the devshirme, between those who received the best available education in the high Islamic tradition and those who followed the folk tradition and served as Janissaries, reflected a significant development within the society as a whole: the definition of the Ottoman identity. By the early 16th century the term Ottoman, which had first indicated the men around Osman and then the dynasty itself, had become a cultural-political-sociological term. Only a minority of the askeri class could be called "true" Ottomans. To be an Ottoman one had to serve the state and the religion and know the "Ottoman way." Serving the state meant having a position within the military, the bureaucracy, or the religious establishment that carried with it the coveted askeri status and tax exemption. Serving the religion meant being a Muslim. Knowing the "Ottoman way" meant being completely at home in the high Islamic tradition. It also meant being fully trained in Arabic and Persian—languages that were, along with Turkish, the constituent elements of Ottoman Turkish, the language vehicle of all Ottomans. By this definition, the bulk of the Janissary corps—made up of devshirme youths who were not trained in the palace school but rather in the traditions of folk Islam—could not be considered Ottomans. Even though they served the state and the religion, they did not know the Ottoman way. High-ranking Greeks who served as translators for the Ottoman state were not Ottomans because, while they knew the Ottoman way and served the state, they were not Muslims. Although it was possible for people born outside the "true" Ottoman group to overcome, either through the devshirme or through other avenues, the barriers that stood in their way, the later Ottomans remained a generally exclusive community. Children of Ottomans had the right connections and opportunities to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and they were quick to do so.

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