Ottoman System in the Balkans

Ottoman System in the Balkans

By the early sixteenth century most of the Balkan Peninsula’s Christians were submerged within the Ottomans’ Islamic theocratic society. In traditional Islamic civilization, no separation existed between religious and secular matters, and religious considerations predominated in all state affairs. The Ottomans injected a number of unique traits into the scheme. Historians often label their sociopolitical construct the “Ottoman System,” characterized by slave government administration and state power sharing between governing and religious "establishments.” That term, however, conveys a sense of structural rigidity that probably was nonexistent throughout the Ottoman period, since it uses as its specific model the state organization operating in the first half of the sixteenth century under Suleyman I. While the slave administration predominated after its inception in the second half of the fourteenth century, it was persistently opposed by powerful Muslim warriors, religious leaders, and bureaucrats. The idea that two separate “establishments” shared state power was developed by outsiders attempting to understand Ottoman society and probably never entered the minds of the Ottomans themselves, since theocratic notions tended to preclude such categorical distinctions. To avoid these clichés, a general overview of the “Ottoman System” operating in the Balkans best concentrates on its three fundamental sectors: The military-administrative, the religious-legal, and the social-economic.

The Military-Administrative Sector

The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic, rather than a Turkish, state. Islamic principles regarding the state’s nature were fundamental. All Muslims were considered members of a single community of “true believers,, wholly governed by religious precepts found in the "Şeriat". The territories in which Islam held sway were considered the “Domain of Islam.” They stood in perpetual opposition to the "Domain of War" or those lands inhabited and ruled by non-Muslims. Therefore, the Islamic state required a structure enabling it to both defend and expand the Domain of Islam in the face of the Domain of War.

The Ottoman Empire essentially was structured as a vast army compound, in which the administrative organization was synonymous with that of the military. All those enjoying full participation in that organization were classified "askeri" (military) and members of the ruling elite. The capital served as both administrative center and military headquarters for the sultan, the state’s ruler and supreme military commander. The empire’s provinces were structured as encampments reflecting the military organization. Each territorial unit of a province, from the smallest township like district ("kaza") to that of the province ("eyelet") itself fielded a set number of cavalrymen ("sipahis") for the army based on its territorial size. Each was governed by an officer possessing virtually indistinguishable military and civil authority and whose rank reflected its size.

The "sancak" ("banner" or “standard”), governed by a "sancakbeyi", was the primary provincial unit, roughly representing an administrative county and a military regiment. Sancaks were subdivided into kazas (townships/companies), governed by beys (lords), while a number of sancak were combined into eyalets (provinces/ corps), the largest provincial units governed by "beylerbeyis" (governors/ generals). Sancaks and eyalets were centered on towns or cities that served as the beys’ seats, where Janissary detachments, religious judges (kadıs), and bureaucrats also were located for maintaining order, law, and taxation, respectively. Early in the Balkan conquest, the Ottoman Empire consisted only of two eyalet -Rumeli (Europe derived from the Turkish name for the Byzantine Empire, Rum) and Anatolia. By the third quarter of the sixteenth century the empire consisted of thirtyone eyalets, five of which were located in Europe. Three were headquartered in the Balkans –at Sofia, Sarajevo, and Gallipoli.

The sultan was the linchpin of the empire’s organization. Consistent military successes transformed the office from leading nomad warrior commander into the traditional Eastern Mediterranean-West Asian absolute, autocratic, God-ordained emperor. The sultan became the protector and proprietor of the state, the head of the Islamic community, the sole source of civil law, and the controller of all state offices. Only the precepts of Islam and the force of tradition effectively restrained the sultan’s authority. Proprietary ownership of all state territories and control over all official offices together cemented the sultans’ absolute power and central role in maintaining the empire’s structure.

Ownership of the empire’s lands permitted the sultans to support and field the army that played so crucial a role in Islamic state principle. Conquered territories were considered imperial lands ("miri") at the sultans’ disposal. While the sultans retained large tracts as private imperial property (has), putt of which was dispensed among family, friends, and the highest officials, most miri was distributed in pseudo-feudal fashion among "sipahi" warriors and their commanders as conditional military fiefs, providing for the recipients’ maintenance without recourse to the state treasury.

The system of military fiefs, known as the "sipahilik", was rooted in Seljuk tradition but generally followed the Byzantine "pronoia" model. At the time of their conquest Byzantine lands already were portioned out as pronoia holdings to powerful military families. Numerous pronoia-holders accepted Ottoman vassalage and joined the sultans’ forces in exchange for retaining their holdings on former Byzantine terms. The sultans used similar terms in distributing vacant pronoia lands to their warriors. The practice was continued in the conquered Balkan non-Byzantine lands,since most of the Orthodox Christian states generally followed the Byzantine military landholding model. The Ottomans saw no reason to reinvent a well-established, working system. (The same held true for Ottoman provincial administrative structure -"sanjaks" and kazas often corresponded to former holdings of the vanquished Christian regional lords and nobles.)

Unlike medieval European feudal landholding, the Ottoman sipahilik system did not grant the recipient outright ownership of a land parcel or its inhabitants but strictly was financial in nature. A recipient had the right to collect all or a share of taxes due from a certain land parcel’s inhabitants on condition that he fulfill fixed state service duties. That conditional arrangement was spelled out in a deed of investiture issued by the sultan, which specified the territorial extent, personal revenues (scaled relative to his military-administrative rank), and state obligations attached to the grant. The common cavalryman received the lowest-valued fief (timar), while beys and high-ranking commanders-officials received more valuable parcels (zeamets). Failure to fulfill the obligations or abusing the rights attached to the grant usually resulted in the holder being divested of the fief and its redistribution to another candidate. Thus the land on which the sipahi was dependent technically always remained the sultan’s property.

During the Balkan conquest’s early years the sultans used the distribution of military fiefs primarily to cement the loyalty of powerful warriors and their leaders by creating a kind of service nobility. Through the sipahilik, the sultans largely were able to cow the fickle nomad warriors on whom they initially depended and to forge them into an effective, settled military force generally obedient to the rulers’ commands and committed to preserving the system on which their livelihoods depended.

Although the sipahilik tamed the warriors, it did not guarantee their absolute fidelity. Local military leaders might place loyalty to their followers or region aheadof that owed the sultan. The potential threat to the ruler’s authority posed by thesipahilik-supported warrior class led the early sultans to establish a separate, personal military-administrative power base to serve as a counterweight. They did so by combining a long-held Islamic tradition of institutionalized slavery with their control of all imperial offices.

Orhan made the initial moves toward creating a non-nomad warrior military force. He formed paid, professional cavalry and infantry units mostly recruited from Balkan Christians (but by the close of the conquest’s first stage, those units’ ranks were almost exclusively Muslim). Although such units were more loyal than nomad warriors, loyalty based on pay was far from absolute. Murad I first realized that salary grounded in slavery could create the absolutely loyal military force necessary to balance the warrior class.

In the time-honored Islamic tradition of using slaves ("kuls") as soldiers and administrators, Murad I created the first Ottoman slave military-administrative system ("kapıkulu") by taking captured troops as his share of war booty from victories over the Balkan Christians. Murad had them trained in Ottoman tactics and organized into military units under his direct command. The sultan’s new soldiers -the Janissary infantry and the guard cavalry -existed outside of the Turkish warrior tradition and were dependent on the ruler alone, who owned, paid, fed, clothed, armed, housed, and led them in battle.

The most militarily capable slaves were appointed officers in the new units. The intellectually brightest were singled out for training in administrative functions and used as the sultan’s high government officials (vezirs). Although initially their total number was small (no more than 4,000), Murad’s use of slaves was the embryonic beginning of the Ottomans’ hallmark slave military-administrative system and signaled a transformation in the nature of the state’s government from one grounded in nomadic traditions to one based on strong central authority buttressed by a professional military and bureaucracy.

Bayezid I expanded on Murad’s efforts, increasing the numbers of his slave military to some 7,000 men and creating a large, centralized governing bureaucracy.Headquartered in his palace, the new administration was comprised primarily of his household slaves and hired Christian advisors, whose main function was tax collecting. His slaves also were sent into the provinces as commanders-governors. To further cement his power "vis-à-vis" the warriors, Bayezid multiplied the use of vassalage toward the rulers of the Balkan Christian states, who supplied troops to the Ottoman forces under terms made directly with him.

The Turkish warrior class’s discontent over the kapıkulu’s creation helped fuel the Interregnum and assisted Mehmed I in winning the Ottoman throne. He did not abolish the "kapıkulu" but he curtailed its power and authority, relying instead on leading Turk supporters to staff his military command and government offices. The slave system was not abandoned completely because the notion of controlling absolutely reliable military and government officials was too powerful for any sultan to relinquish.

Mehmed’s son Murad II commenced rebuilding the kapıkulu soon after ascending the throne. Once again the sultan’s slaves occupied high provincial military-administrative positions and were appointed to numerous offices in a reinvigorated central government, but the most important offices, such as those of "grand vezir" (the sultan’s viceroy and second highest position in the state) and head of the treasury, remained in the hands of freeborn Turks. Murad also increasingly rejected the use of vassalage regarding Balkan Christian rulers in favor of outright annexation of their territories.

The rivalry between the kapıkulu and warriors underlay young Mehmed II’s inability to rule before and after the Varna Crusade. Any chance for the warriors to predominate was thwarted by his conquest of Constantinople. Initially supported by the kapıkulu, Mehmed expanded the Janissaries to 10,000 men. Slaves all, they were forbidden to marry, live off barracks, or take up trades (which might provide income other than the salary paid them) to guarantee their unquestioned loyalty and obedience. Mehmed’s Janissaries were the most reliable standing military force in Europe at the time. He used the Janissaries not only against his European enemies but also to intimidate his provincial sipahis against rebellion by garrisoning detachments in key locations throughout the provinces.

Mehmed further hobbled the warrior class by confiscating his most vocal opponents’ lands and removing Turkish notables from high government offices in the palace. In their stead he placed members of his slave household. Mehmed’s slaves held a majority of the central government’s leading offices. Only in the imperial state council ("divan"), which consisted of all high government officials and served as the sultan’s imperial cabinet, did freeborn Muslims continue to play any important administrative role.

The policy of using Janissaries to ensure order in the provinces and of relying almost exclusively on the kapıkulu for military-administrative leadership was continued by Bayezid II, Selim I, and Suleyman I. During the latter’s reign, the Janissaries were expanded to some 12,000 to 14,000 men, and his slave household took near-exclusive control of the central administration. Only in the divan did freeborn Muslim religious leaders remain.

There were some notable exceptions to the predominance of either the warrior class or the kapıkulu in the Ottoman military-administrative system.

Throughout the period of the conquest, certain important military and governmental positions were held by hired Balkan Christians. Because the Turks originally were a land -based people, they initially possessed little maritime expertise. When it became obvious that expansion in Europe required a naval, as well as a land, force, the sultans turned to their Balkan Christian subjects who enjoyed maritime traditions for the ships and men needed to create and maintain a fleet. Although over time Turks and North African Arabs acquired maritime skills, Balkan Christians (notably Greeks) continued to play important roles in commanding and manning the Ottoman navy.

Likewise, as foreign relations with European protagonists grew increasingly important, those matters were delegated to hired Balkan Christians (mostly wealthy Greek merchants) commonly involved in international trade. The sultans realized that the cultural divide separating Muslims and Christians made using such Christian intermediaries more effective than using Turks in the diplomatic games played with European opponents.

While the sipahilik system was imposed throughout the Ottoman Empire, the sultans’ use of institutionalized slavery in the military -administrative sector had consequences unique to their Balkan territories. These had to do with the "devşirme", a periodic levy of youths from among the Balkans’ Christian subjects used to fill the ranks of the sultan’s slave household. First conducted on a limited scale during the late fourteenth century, it was instituted regularly in the fifteenth century by Murad II to provide a stable source of slaves in numbers large enough to staff his expanding kapıkulu, whose manpower needs outstripped the supply derived from military captives. Until the late seventeenth century the devşirme was the principal source of slaves for the Ottoman military-administrative system, and those slaves were drawn exclusively from the Balkans.

Depending on need, devşirmes were conducted at intervals of one to seven years, collecting 1,000 to 3,000 youths each time. When a child levy was desired, detailed orders and quotas were sent to the Balkan provincial authorities, who then dispatched Janissary detachments to the villages (towns were exempt to protect the craft industries and trade), each of which was required to provide for inspection a set number of youths between the ages of seven and fourteen. All eligible youths (sons of artisans or craftsmen were ineligible for economic reasons) were mustered in the village center and inspected, and a predetermined number was chosen for collection on the basis of demonstrated physical or intellectual promise. Selected youths immediately were considered enslaved by the sultan and marched off under guard to the capital or to Anatolia, where they were converted into devout Muslims, physically conditioned and mentally disciplined by a number of years labor in the countryside, and provided with the best available training for careers in either the janissary military units (the fate of the majority) or the palace central administration (for the minority who exhibited exceptional intellectual capabilities).

On completing their training, the devşirme recruits entered their new careers at the lowest ranks. Promotion usually depended on individual talent and job performance, since advancement in the slave household theoretically depended on merit (although favoritism, political expediency, and bribery could influence individual promotions). Merit promotion, combined with dire consequences ranging from demotion to execution for incompetency or failure, helped make the devşirme-staffed military-administrative system the most efficiently centralized in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Modern Western Europeans and most modern Balkan nationalists usually envision the horrors of African slavery when the word “slavery” is mentioned. Slavery in the Ottoman context, however, little resembled that of the American South -there were no whips, chains, or other degrading aspects involved. Entry into the sultan’s slave household opened the door to immense power, wealth, social position, and public honor for any slave with the natural abilities and dedication to rise through the ranks. The emphasis placed on individual merit for filling important offices, with little regard for birth status or social position, was advanced relative to conditions in contemporary European societies, where such considerations were paramount. To be the sultan’s slave was to possess the opportunity to rise in military-administrative standing as far as skill and ability would permit, including the office of grand vezir -second only to the sultan in authority.

In an ironic way, slavery and the devşirme opened an avenue of social mobility to the Ottoman Islamic state’s Balkan non-Muslim subjects that they theoretically should not have possessed. Many devşirme officials remembered their families and birth places by extending to them preferential treatment. Numerous Christian parents, especially in the poorer mountain districts and in ineligible urban centers, begged or bribed local authorities to take their sons because they realized the potential benefits offered by the devşirme. Even Muslims sometimes sought to have their children illegally collected. Some urban Muslims followed the example of their Christian counterparts and resorted to bribing local officials for that purpose. The Bosnian Muslims, originally Christians converted after their conquest by Mehmed II, arranged to have themselves and their descendants declared eligible for thedevşirme as a condition for their conversion, with the stipulation that those children collected would serve only in the palace administration and not in the military.

By the late fifteenth century the Ottoman military-administrative system was firmly in the hands of the kapıkulu. Its ranks were filled almost exclusively by devşirme recruits. So dominant were they that the name “devşirme” was transformed from one simply identifying a child levy to one denoting a powerful and wealthy Ottoman social class.

The Religious-Legal Sector

Islam was more than a state religion, it was the heart of the Ottoman state. Islamic sacred law -the Şeriat at the core of Ottoman society, and the Koran, its bedrock component, served as the state’s official law code. Full-fledged members ofIslamic society –Muslims- accepted as natural the notion that all law was religious and that their government necessarily must be Islamic. As an Islamic theocracy, the
Ottoman Empire represented Islamic civilization’s most dynamic and powerful component society.

The Ottomans espoused mainstream sunni (orthodox) Islam, as opposed to the minority Shiite branch practiced primarily in Iran. Sunni Muslims adopted a set of the Prophet’s traditions ("sunnas") and sayings ("hadiths") as legal supplements to the Koran. These were necessary since Koranic prophecy stopped with Muhammad’s death, at which time Islam was deemed complete. Muhammad bequeathed to his followers a dynamic Islamic state for which many areas of law remained ill defined or completely untouched by the Koran. Because religious law was a matter crucial to the state, the religious leadership (the "ulema"), which was composed of the most literate and skilled legal scholars, was forced to fill the gaps. They extrapolated legal precedents from Muhammad’s biography concerning situations not specifically covered in the Koran. Four collections of such precedents became accepted as canonical, and a school of interpretive law grew up around each. Although all four operated within the Ottoman Empire, only the Hanafi school enjoyed statewide recognition.

The authority of the Ottoman sultans always was tempered by Islamic legality. The Ottomans maintained the traditional Turkish governing concept, reinforced by Byzantine traditions after 1455, of an autocratic ruler possessing the right to issue legally binding secular decrees ("kanuns"). In all cases, such laws customarily were approved by the Islamic ulema leadership to ensure their compatibility with the "Şeriat".

The members of the ulema were learned scholars of jurisprudence (muftis) who produced the law books, served as the government’s legal advisors, and generally were responsible for the empire’s Islamic administration. At their head stood the "Şeyhülislam" (“Elder of Islam”), the chief "mufti", who was appointed by the sultan. His duties included reviewing and approving the sultan’s secular laws and overseeing the provincial (muftis and judges who promulgated and dispensed both religious and secular law. He was assisted by two "kadiaskers", one responsible for the European and the other for the Asian provinces, who were the only ulema members given official positions in the sultan’s divan council.

The presence of the ulema was manifest throughout the empire by the network of provincial judges. "Kadıs" responsible for dispensing and upholding law sat in the administrative centers of all kazas and wielded great local authority. just as the Şeyhülislam served as the Islamic watchdog of the sultan’s governance, the kadıs oversaw the operations of the various provincial administrators and possessed ultimate authority over the police function of the provincial janissaries. They presided over courts charged with implementing the laws promulgated by the muftis and adjudicating local cases at issue with both the religious and secular laws among Muslim and Christian subjects alike.

Although enforcing the "Şeriat" was the primary function of the local kadıs, secular legal matters often figured prominently in their operations. The Ottomans displayed a practical adeptness in adopting and adapting preexisting secular legal statutes in conquered territories dealing with matters outside of the Şeriat’s jurisdiction. The sultans incorporated them in kanuns issued to enforce their authority as lands were acquired. By retaining the legal relationships already in force among conquered territories’ populations, the transition from native to Ottoman rule was eased, economic disruption avoided, and the possibility of rebellion minimized. At the local level in the conquered Balkan lands, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Albanian laws continued in force.

That the Ottomans’ non-Muslim Balkan subjects were permitted to retain their religious beliefs and thus their European cultural identities can be attributed to certain concepts of religious toleration embedded in Islamic precepts.

Muslims considered Islam the final divinely ordained correction for the waywardness that had crept into the two related monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity. Both had received God’s divine revelati0n—the Jews in their Torah and the Christians in their New Testament -but had strayed from its precepts. For that reason, God made a final attempt to bring humankind to the true path of faith through the last prophet, Muhammad, who recorded the revelation made to him in the Koran. Just as the Bible contained the older Jewish writings supplemented by the newer Christian revelation, the Koran retained a great deal of the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—augmented by new, highly specific corrective divine principles.

Possession of a book containing divine monotheistic revelation was extremely important in Islamic mentality. It demonstrated a people’s direct and intimate relationship with the true deity and fundamentally served to differentiate them from irrevocably unrighteous pagan polytheists. Muhammad himself classified Jews and Christians as “Peoples of the Book” because of their written scriptures, and he treated them with religious tolerance as a result. Their scriptures were proof of their past direct intimacy with God, although their beliefs were considered flawed by Islam. Whether their continued adherence to their own precepts was wrong was a matter that only God could judge. Therefore, “Peoples of the Book” were permitted to practice their faiths within the Islamic state, while pagans could be forced to convert to Islam on pain of death.

Ottoman religious toleration of Christians and Jews was conditional. By definition, Islam was the supreme faith in an Islamic state. Under the Şeriat, the Ottoman Empire’s Christian and Jewish subjects were afforded “protection” ("zimmi"), that is, continued existence as practicing Christians and Jews, on condition that they acknowledged the domination of Islam and its temporal authorities and accepted inferior legal and social status. The zimmis (“protected ones”), as tolerated non-Muslim subjects were classified, were compelled by the Hanifid religious law school to pay discriminatory taxes, to which Muslim subjects were not liable, and to suffer a number of legally defined restrictions. Such taxes included the poll tax (cizye) and the dezzgirme (which was applicable to the empires Balkan Christian subjects alone). Discriminatory restrictions ranged from limiting the size, height, and conspicuousness of non-Muslim religious edifices to regulating the style, color, and textiles permissible in clothing. Zimmi ownership of horses and weapons was, with certain exceptions, forbidden. In legal proceedings, zimmi defendants and testimony were at a decided disadvantage in cases where they were opposed by Muslims.

The Ottomans also had pragmatic reasons for tolerating their non-Muslim Balkan subjects. From its beginnings, Islam was a civilization spread by conquest, and every Islamic state initially acquired a significantly large non-Muslim subject population. In West Asia and North Africa, their zimmi subjects predominantly were Christians and Jews. The discriminatory taxes paid by them often constituted the single most lucrative source of revenue for the Islamic state. Therefore, it was in the state’s interest to preserve the numbers of its zimmis at the highest possible level. Until the early sixteenth century and the expansionary campaigns of Selim I in Islamic West Asia and Egypt, the Ottomans’ non-Muslim Balkan subjects equaled or outnumbered the Muslims in the empire as a whole.

The numerous Balkan non-Muslims posed legal difficulties for the Ottoman governing authorities. In an Islamic state, the Şeriat was applicable only to Muslims and possessed no validity among zimmis, for whom kadı courts had no jurisdiction unless cases involved them with Muslims. The very process of Balkan conquest innately posed increasing administrative problems for the sultans, and by the close of the fifteenth century nearly half of the empire’s subject population lay outside the law.

Until the fall of Constantinople, the problem was dealt with on an ad hoc basis.Laws already in force in conquered territories were incorporated into the sultans’ secular kanuns. The Ottoman authorities often enlisted local Christian or Jewish religious leaders to settle mundane legal issues among their coreligionists. By the reign of Mehmed II, however, the zimmi numbers had swelled to such an extent that the sultan found it necessary to create an institutional structure for administratively integrating this important segment of the empire’s subject population into the theocratic Ottoman state. In 1454, one year after taking Constantinople, Mehmed instituted the "millet" (religious nation) system of zimmi administration.

Mehmed II reasoned that the religious laws of the various non-Muslim groups could serve to govern them as the "Şeriat" did Muslims. Using the “Peoples of the Book” precept as justification, Mehmed divided his subject population into millets, based solely on religious affiliation and administered by the highest religious authorities of each. All zimmis were distributed among three millets, representing the most important existing non-Muslim faiths: The Orthodox Christians, headed by the patriarch of Constantinople and representing the single largest and economically most important non-Muslim group; the Jews, who were of great commercial and cultural significance, headed by an elected representative of the rabbinical council in Istanbul; and the Armenian (Gregorian Monophysite) Christians, headed by an Armenian patriarch of Istanbul appointed by the sultan, who also represented the empires Roman Catholic subjects. The Muslims constituted a "de facto" fourth millet.

The first officially founded millet was the Orthodox Christian in 1454. The Armenian was recognized in 1461, while the Jewish (officially constituted in 1839) was represented by a leader chosen from the Istanbul Jewish community by Mehmed himself in 1453.

Each non-Muslim millet represented its membership before the Ottoman court and was internally self-governing. They all were granted the rights to tax, judge, and order the lives of their members insofar as those rights did not conflict with Islamic sacred law and the sensibilities of the Muslim ruling establishment. The religious hierarchies of the millet; thus were endowed with civil responsibilities beyond their ecclesiastical duties, and their head prelate was held accountable for their proper internal functioning. In effect, each "millet" became an integral part of the empire’s domestic administration, functioning as a veritable department of the Ottoman central government. In return for ensuring the smooth administration of its non-Muslim subjects, the sultan’s government granted each ‘’millet’’ a considerable amount of autonomy in the spheres of religious devotion and cultural activity, judicial affairs not involving Muslims, and local self-government.

Although the term millet involved the idea of “nation” in the Turkish language, it shared little with the Western European concept. Millet identified people solely on the basis of religion; ethnicity played no role. Both the Armenian and Jewish millets were defined by belief despite their names) apparent modern ethnic connotations. As for Orthodox Christians, the Ottomans made no distinctions among Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian, or Romanian Orthodox believers. All were lumped together in a single ‘’millet’’ even though it is certain that the Muslim authorities were aware that ethnic differences existed among them. Given the Muslim Ottoman rulers’ theocratic mentality, ethnicity was thought relatively unimportant. It made little difference to them that the head of the Orthodox millet was, and would remain, a Greek.

By eliminating all consideration of ethnicity, ‘’millet’’ identification entirely lacked the territorial connotations associated with the Western European concept of nation. No matter where one lived within the empire, no matter how mixed the population, millet affiliation governed one’s life; all were members of their own self-contained administrative communities, complete unto themselves, with no claims whatsoever on the others. The homeland for all Ottoman subjects lay anywhere within the borders of the empire. This fact increasingly led to mixed ethnic populations throughout the Balkans.

Until the close of the eighteenth century, millet affiliation -that is, religious be1ief -was the fundamental source of group identity among all of the empire’s subjects, demonstrating that the millet system possessed roots far deeper than simply Islamic concepts of religious toleration. Since the fourth century, self-identity primarily was religious in nature for the populations of Christian Western Europe, the Balkans, West Asia, and North Africa. For Jews, their own religious identity was centuries older.

The Ottoman millet system was not a new concept -the Byzantine, Umayyad,
Abbasid, and Seljuk states all had used the leadership of minority religions for administrative purposes. It merely institutionalized the practice and, by doing so, firmly cemented religious group identities among the Ottomans’ general subject population. It also proved a shrewd political mechanism, providing the Ottomans with the ability to administer effectively their multi-religious subject population within the precepts laid down for an Islamic state. At the same time, it solidified differences among the major groups of the empire’s numerous non-Muslim subjects, making it difficult for them to organize concerted rebellious activities against the state. Ultimately, the millet system served as one of the pillars that perpetuated Ottoman control over the Balkans for centuries.

The Socioeconomic Sector

Religion and the military-administrative system provided the Ottoman Empire with its fundamental social categorizations: Society was divided religiously between superior Muslims and inferior non-Muslims and politically between military rulers and ruled. All those enjoying "askeri" (military) status (military-administrative officials, warriors, standing soldiers, bureaucrats, and members of the ulema) were ranked in the ruling class. All others, Muslims and zimmis alike, constituted those ruled, whose primary function was to support the rulers economically. Their status and purpose were expressed aptly in the rulers) official designation of them –"reaya"("the fIock”). The term bore the connotation of sheep that required careful shepherding, protection, and fattening so that they could be fleeced beneficially in the interests of the ruling class.

The Ottoman government espoused no concerted overall economic strategy in the modern sense. Its economic goals were state survival, internal order, and just social relationships within Islamic precepts that were attained through the principles of stability and self-sufficiency. Economic legislation and regulation were enacted without consideration of their broader implications or situations, and every economic activity was judged as either good or bad in itself. Fostering expanded markets and increased productivity had little appeal for the Ottoman government because their accompanying financial uncertainty and price fluctuations were viewed as potentially destabilizing.

Any intervention in the economy was made to guarantee production of absolute essentials (such as precious metals and salt) and military materials, or to enforce fairness in economic relations (combatting fraud, verifying weights and measures, equalizing raw material distribution, and such). The spirit of Islam was strongly laissez-faire in economic matters, and what regulation the Ottomans did impose often ran counter to traditional religious law. Many government taxes were legally questionable (especially the devşirme and most customs duties), and were justified to the religious leadership only by the most creative and convoluted type of casuistic arguments.

Military expenditures constituted the principal economic stimulus provided by the Ottoman state. The money spent on weapons and other military supplies returned income to the state in the form of conquered territories that provided plunder, new taxes, and new properties for sipahilik distribution. Even in the sphere of military spending, however, the Ottomans demonstrated narrow economic vision. Infrastructural expenditures (on roads, bridges, and mountain passes, for example) were limited to military expediency with little regard for broader civilian economic well-being. Instead of investing in a fleet of commercial transport ships to service international markets, the Ottomans depended on outsiders (primarily Venetians and Dubrovnik Dalmatians) for much of their maritime carrying trade, depriving themselves of higher profits and security.

Located at the center of the major maritime and overland trade routes linkingEurope and Asia, the Ottoman Empire naturally was involved with international commerce. The sultans viewed creating a beneficial trading environment as a duty grounded in the best Islamic tradition. (Muhammad himself had been a merchant.) Foreign traders thus were offered relatively free access to the empire’s ports so long as no political differences existed with them at any given time and customs duties were paid. By the mid-sixteenth century the empire flourished commercially as the middleman in the lucrative spice, silk, and other luxury trade carried on by Europe with Asia.

Those foreign traders deemed economically important by the Ottomans oftenwere granted certain privileges (such as remission of customs duties) called capitulations. In many respects, the capitulations granted through the mid-sixteenth century constituted the establishment of formal Ottoman diplomatic relations with various Western European states. Representatives of the Ottomans’ privileged trading partners received diplomatic protection and immunity somewhat analogous to millet status, although they remained subject to Ottoman laws in cases involving them with the empire’s subjects. If residing within the empire, they could own property, worship freely, and enjoy self-government. They usually dealt with the Ottoman authorities through intermediaries drawn from the empire’s Christianmillets, but direct interaction with Muslims was minimal.

Tax revenues, along with military considerations, were paramount for the Ottoman rulers. A stable economy meant guaranteed income to pay the general military expenditures, to support the military-administrative system, to fund public charitable activities, and to purchase luxury commodities. The government proved extremely adept at devising taxes. Anything that could be taxed was taxed. There were customs duties; trade taxes; market fees; sales taxes; land use ("haraç") and pasturing taxes; livestock taxes; road, bridge, and mountain pass tolls; a household tax; court costs; fees for legal documents; and numerous other imposts for which all Ottoman subjects were liable. In addition, there were discriminatory taxes paid by zimmis, the most important and lucrative being the "cizye". In crisis or emergency situations, temporary extraordinary taxes (avaris) were imposed. Most general taxes were levied using the household (hane) as the basic taxation unit rather than the individual to ensure revenue stability through group obligation.

Prolific tax registers were kept, serving to both regulate tax collection and provide census information of sorts. Interestingly, the Ottomans created no bureaucratic mechanism expressly for tax collection. Fiscal administrators developed records of taxes due and kept track of revenues received but left the actual collection to others. The tax collectors were fief-holders in most rural regions; otherwise, they were tax farmers. The latter agreed to pay the government fixed amounts of revenue at regular intervals. Since tax farming was open to obvious abuse, the sultans, understanding that economically ruined subjects provided little or no tax revenues, issued laws protecting their subjects against rapacious tax farmers and vigilantly applied them when necessary.

Tax revenues from the Balkans reaya population were vital for maintaining the empire. Through the end of the fifteenth century, Balkan Christian zimmis constituted the largest single component of the Ottoman population. As late as the second decade of the sixteenth century, the European portion of the empire comprised over two -fifths of the total population (approximately 5 out of a total of 12 million people). Christian subjects, who numbered more than 4 million, accounted for over four-fifths of the empire’s Balkan population and more than a third of all Ottoman subjects. Following the sixteenth-century military conquests of Islamic lands in West Asia and North Africa, the Balkan Christians’ share of the empire’s total population dwindled by almost 50 percent to less than a fifth. Still, the empire counted on the extra taxes paid by its Balkan zimmis.

The overwhelming majority of Balkan reaya were village—dwelling peasants living on military fiefs. Since the Ottomans primarily were urban, most Balkan peasants were Christian zimmis. Under the sipahilik system, the resident peasants enjoyed direct use of the land under terms contained in a lease issued to them by the fief’s holder. The fief-holder was obliged to facilitate the uninterrupted cultivation and habitation of the land to guarantee a stable income. The peasants were obliged to sow and cultivate their land parcels and make timely tax payments. Tithes in kind and cash payments were the preferred methods of payment. Tithes ensured the "sipahi" of the basic food and craft necessities. Cash payments included tithes commuted to cash and taxes levied on most components of agrarian life, such as on livestock, mills, forges, and milking facilities.

Other than the small plot granted each fief-holder as personal income-producing property (çift), the land was divided into numerous autonomous plots parceled among the peasants with rights to hold and work them. Thus the peasants were not left landless. Neither were they enserfed. The price for retaining use of the land and their personal freedom was certain obligations owed the fief-holder, such as working on his (çift three days during the year (which often was commuted to a cash payment). Compared to the deplorable situation of peasants living under late-feudal conditions in neighboring European states, Ottoman zimmi peasants enjoyed a far better lot, which helped to account for the immigration of numerous Christian peasants into the Ottoman Balkans during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries from Hungary and southern Poland.

By the sixteenth century the most important fiscal obligation owed by theOttomans’ non-Muslim peasantry was the annual cizye, the head tax paid by all males over the age of twelve and capable of work. A peasant’s listing in the cizye tax registers carried with it legal obligations to the land, to "corvées", and to various labor services. Service demands usually had a military purpose, such as furnishing transport for military supplies, undertaking construction projects, performing courier service, or working on road maintenance. By the mid-sixteenth century many zimmi labor obligations were commuted to cash payments as reimbursement for their elimination. Certain groups of peasants continued to provide the Ottoman authorities with various specialized labor services even after such duties had been commuted for the general peasant population, in return for which they received certain tax privileges. Herein lay the basis for differentiating the zimmi peasantry between common and privileged reaya.

It is estimated that close to a third of the Balkan zimmi population enjoyed some sort of privileged status, particularly exemption from the cizye. They were grouped into twenty-six corporate categories based on the types of services provided, and they were divided into two basic functional groups: Those with military assistance functions and those whose services mainly were commercial or productive.

Among the military privileged category, the most numerous and important were the "voynuks", who supplied the Ottoman military with horses and transport drivers, and the "dervencis", who defended and maintained militarily important mountain passes and roads. Other groups included "martoloses" (local militiamen) and "yamaks" (auxiliary Janissaries). Military privileged zimmis could own weapons and wear certain clothes forbidden to non-Muslims under Hanifid law. The commercial category of privileged reaya received tax privileges in return for producing materials and goods, primarily ores and foodstuffs, needed by the army or the court. Included in this service classification were metal ore miners and processors ("madancis"), sheep and other food livestock dealers and breeders ("celeps"), salt producers, falcon raisers, and rice producers.

Other reaya categories enjoyed limited tax and service benefits separating them from common peasants. They were listed in Ottoman cizye tax registers as “free” -not totally free from state taxation but from avaris payments or from the devşirme. “Free" status could be acquired either by performing services for the authorities or through residence on particular classes of land. An example of the former was the “reserve” voynuks, who paid common cizye but, because they constituted a reserve pool for active—duty voynuks, were exempt from paying avaris. Examples of the latter were peasants living on has lands or on "vakıfs".

"Has" lands owned outright by the sultan, members of his family, or high-ranking officials bestowed “free” status on the peasants inhabiting them as a benefit for working capitalistic estates. Vakıfs were tax-exempt properties owned outright ("mülk"), usually by Muslims in the military-administrative or religious sectors, from which their incomes were inalienable endowments for Islamic religious establishments. In the legal donative document establishing a "vakıf" the benefactor usually assigned the administration of the endowment to himself and his family in perpetuity, with much of the revenues set aside for the administrators use, thus guaranteeing an inalienable income for the donor and his heirs. Similar to "has" land, the "mülk" primarily was a capitalistic enterprise. Both sought to attract and retain laborers by granting tax breaks.

Almost all Balkan peasants enjoyed local self-government, usually through village communes. The village commune was a closed collective organization comprising a particular village’s inhabitants and administered by their clan elders and religious leader, who usually came from the village’s most important families and often were its wealthiest and best-educated residents. The commune ordered the mundane affairs of its members and oversaw work on the villagers’ assorted family plots and common lands. Dealings with neighboring villages and with local authorities, both Ottoman and millets also were its responsibilities. The Ottomans legalized the commune, its functions, and the lands it administered through kanuns that usually preserved pre-Ottoman agrarian statutes, thus freeing them from intimate involvement in mundane local affairs.

The usual absolute religious distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims often was absent in the villages. Communal obligations were fixed by the authorities without regard to religious affiliation. The commune was considered the economic, political, and legal representative of all its members, whether the village was religiously homogeneous or mixed. In mixed Christian and Muslim villages, religious differences resulted in a certain differentiation in work functions, living quarters, and cultural activities. Otherwise, the villagers usually shared common experiences, traditions, songs, and often languages.

The Balkan reaya population’s urban segment -between 3 and 5 percent of the total- was small. Nearly all Balkan urban centers existed prior to the Ottoman conquest and they served primarily as headquarters for civil-military and ‘’millet’’ administration as well as centers for the handicrafts and mining industries. Some, especially the coastal and Danubian centers, conducted important commercial activities. Ottoman Balkan urban centers generally retained their pre—Ottoman functions as local artisan and trade centers. What changed after the conquest was the ethnic composition of the urban population. During the conquest some of the native inhabitants were displaced to make room for Ottoman officials, garrisons, artisans, and agents. The conquerors brought the remaining native residents thoroughly into the Ottoman urban social organization. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Muslim urban element steadily increased as additional administrative personnel, janissaries, artisans, and local sipahi fief-holders settled in.

Towns in the Ottoman Balkans acquired a distinctly Islamic physical and social character. Hanifid law forbade Christian zimmis to possess large houses or buildings performing social functions. With the presence of the Muslim authorities constant and direct, zimmi urban residents were forced to accept Turkish material standards of urban development. Skylines became characterized by minarets and mosques. Many large, well-built Orthodox churches were transformed into Islamic religious buildings over time. Town centers were renovated with new, Islamic structures, such as mosques and their satellite buildings, "imrarets", baths, fountains, and "caravanserais". While buildings devoted to the Muslims) administrative, cultural, and private well-being usually were large and constructed of stone, those of the subject zimmis often were small and poorly built.

Urban populations commonly were ethnically mixed and either evenly divided between Christians and Muslims or divided slightly in favor of the latter. Most Muslims lived in or near the town center, where administrative, defensive, and commercial activities were concentrated. Residential quarters (mahalles) ringed the center, where the general population lived in low dwellings along meandering and narrow streets. Mahalles frequently were separated from each other by gardens, which tended to make towns appear larger than their actual populations warranted. While Muslim quarters most often were in the oldest, most prominent sections of the town, the zimmis commonly were in less attractive or more peripheral locations.

Mahalles frequently served to segregate the urban population in terms of religion and profession. Most were named after some known structural landmark within their confines or after some local town notable who resided in the quarter. In those possessing an exclusively Christian population, they often acquired the names of churches or noted priests who lived there. Frequently mahalles were named after the profession or trade pursued by the majority of their residents. Such named mahalles often were of a mixed Christian and Muslim population. For urban zimmis, mahalles resembled rural village communes in administrative and functional terms. The Ottoman authorities considered the mahalle the corporate representative of its residents and used it as the basic mechanism for urban tax collection. Mahalles were administered by elders possessing functions similar to those of their village counterparts.

Artisans owning their own shops comprised an important part of the urban population. Their lives were bound closely to the workings of the Ottoman guilds ("esnafs"). Unlike the Western European system, Ottoman guilds were controlled, regulated, and regimented by the central authorities through local kadıs. The state set all prices, authorized all sources of supply and material, decided product quotas, and determined the types of products that could be legally manufactured and sold. The system was structured to eliminate competition and to ensure social and economic harmony, thus maintaining a stable source of materials and tax revenues for the central government.

The esnaf system was largely anti-profit in nature and subject to the Muslim principle of "hisba", which protected the interests of the population against profiteering, fraud, and speculation under the Şeriat. The application of this principle was an obligation of the Islamic state that the Ottomans took seriously. A11 types of speculation in the area of the craft industries were punished as criminal offenses.Kadıs set the just price for craft goods and determined the just profit allowed the artisan producers.

Each esnaf organized the artisans engaged in a particular craft into a social “brotherhood.” It collectively represented its membership and their professional interests to the authorities, and it regulated all economic relations among its members. Each was granted judicial powers over its membership and complete autonomy with regard to its operations. Guild treasuries were used as a primitive form of workman’s compensation for injured or disabled members, as funding for public festivals sponsored by esnafs (usually on religious holidays), or as principal for interest-bearing loans to their memberships.

Guild membership could be religiously homogeneous or mixed. Often the religious composition of an esnaf depended on the type of craft it represented. For example, Muslims predominated in the fur and leather craft industries, while metalsmithing and most textile-related industries were performed chiefly by Christians. Such endeavors as money-changing, tinsmithing, and glassmaking usually were conducted by Jews and Armenians. Many of the Balkan craft esnafs exclusively were Christian. In those with mixed zimmi and Muslim membership, the latter displayed tolerance of the religious and cultural manifestations of their non-Muslim “brothers,” even when those manifestations entailed a considerable outlay of esnaf funds, such as on certain ‘’zimmi’’ religious holidays.

Merchants (individuals intensively involved in international or interregional trade) were a small but important element in Balkan urban populations. Craftsmen who sold the products of their own labor and tradesmen who sold goods secondhand were not considered merchants by the Ottoman authorities. There were colonies of foreign merchants in the leading centers of international trade, but the majority were Ottoman zimmi subjects. Ottoman merchants enjoyed a certain amount of economic freedom permitting them to conduct truly capitalistic operations.

Similar to artisans, merchants were organized into esnafs representing types of goods traded. Unlike artisans, they were not subject to "hisba" and thus not regulated in terms of pricing and profits. Merchants were free to accumulate and increase capital and to engage in all sorts of trading activity. They fit neatly into the concept of putting money to work that served as a fundamental premise of traditional Islamic society. For this reason, merchants were granted social privileges. In return, the state used merchants as a source of steady revenues through customs duties and loan funds. Merchants also served the state as mediators between rulers and ruled in tax matters, as a pool for agents and ambassadors, and as a supply source for goods unavailable within the empire.

The Ottoman Empire provided merchants with ready access to foreign international traders and a unified market for interregional trade. Through their international and regional trading activity, merchants maintained the economic foundations of urban society by providing the larger towns with essential food products and the raw materials most artisans needed. They also were the chief agents in distributing finished craft products to distant markets. Despite the merchants’ crucial role in urban economic life, the artisans often despised them as being morally corrupted by their wealth and privilege. Merchants played little or no active part in local markets or in retail sales. Only a few merchant families maintained retail shops in their urban home bases.

Ottoman international commerce mostly was concentrated in the hands of Dalmatian Dubrovnik merchants, Greeks, or Jews, who possessed the capital for long-distance maritime operations. Together they serviced the important markets of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Levant. Merchants hailing from other Balkan subject peoples were small traders with relatively limited capital, such as the Bulgarians and Serbs. They might participate in international trading as partners or clients of the Dalmatians, Greeks, or Jews, but they primarily operated as independent agents in interregional trade.

A significant portion of urban inhabitants engaged in low-paying, day-laboringactivities either in town or on land outside of town in the immediate vicinity of theirmahalles.

Except for some Jewish and Greek merchants, zimmis did not constitute an affluent element in Balkan urban populations relative to the wealthy Ottoman dignitaries and absentee landlords. Nor did they equal in economic standing a great any Muslim artisans, resident Orthodox millet leaders, or the wealthier foreign merchants. There did exist some wealthy zimmi artisan guilds and a few individual zimmi master craftsmen within each of the esnafs who were economically better situated than the majority of the guild membership and who furnished zimmi guilds with administrative leadership. A smattering of relatively well-to-do zimmi merchant families also existed. In the main, however, zimmis were either poor or only moderately wealthy members of Ottoman urban society.

The socioeconomic environment that the Ottomans imposed on their conqueredBalkan non-Muslim subjects ultimately reflected one fundamental purpose: To ensure a stable source of revenues for the empire’s rulers. So long as the zimmis paid their taxes, they generally were free to conduct their mundane affairs as they saw fit. Rather than suffering oppression, the Balkan non-Muslims led relatively autonomous lives.Since the empire’s crucial military-administrative sector was predicated on the sipahilik system, the economic well-being and productivity of the rural and urban subjects had to be nurtured and protected to ensure stable and constant tax revenues. One of the state’s most important duties was to protect its reaya against provincial military-administrative abuse that might unfavorably affect the tax base. Some scholars have argued that the Ottoman conquest had little effect on the Balkan populations’ daily lives other than replacing one ruling class with another and that the non-Muslims’ overall situation even may have improved as a result.

ee also

*Ottoman Conquest of the Balkans


*Dennis P. Hupchick, The Balkans, 2002, ISBN 0-312-21736-6
*Lord Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, 1977, ISBN 0-688-08093-6
*R.J.Crampton, Bulgaria 1878-1919, 1983, ISBN 0-88033-029-5
*R.J.Crampton, A coincise History of Bulgaria, 1997, ISBN 0-521-56719-X
*George W. Hoffman, The Balkans in Transition, 1963, D. Van Nostrand Company


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