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Social Structure of the Ottoman Empire

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Image of a fountain in the Ottoman Empire used for advertising in Europe, c. 1910.

Image of a fountain in the Ottoman Empire used for advertising in Europe, c. 1910.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Ottoman Religion-based Structure:

The Ottoman Empire was organized into a very complicated social structure, because it was a large, multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. Ottoman society was divided between Muslims and non-Muslims, with Muslims theoretically having higher standing than Christians or Jews. During the early years of Ottoman rule, a Sunni Turkish minority ruled over a Christian majority, as well as a sizable Jewish minority. Key Christian ethnic groups included the Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians, as well as Coptic Egyptians.

As "people of the Book," other monotheists were treated with respect. Under the millet system, the people of each faith were ruled and judged under their own laws: sharia for Muslims, canon law for Christians, and halakha for Jewish citizens.

Although non-Muslims sometimes paid higher taxes, and Christians were subject to the devshirme, a tax paid in male children, there was not a lot of day-to-day differentiation between people of different faiths. In theory, non-Muslims were barred from holding high office, but enforcement of that regulation was lax during much of the Ottoman period.

During the later years non-Muslims became the minority due to secession and out-migration, but they were still treated quite equitably. By the time the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, its population was 81% Muslim.

Government versus Non-Government Workers:

Another important social distinction was that between people who worked for the government versus people who did not. Again, theoretically only Muslims could be part of the sultan's government, although they could be converts from Christianity or Judaism. It did not matter if a person was born free or was a slave; either could rise to a position of power.

People associated with the Ottoman court or divan were considered higher status than those who were not. They included members of the sultan's household, army and navy officers and enlisted men, central and regional bureaucrats, scribes, teachers, judges and lawyers, as well as members of the other professions. This entire bureaucratic machinery made up only about 10% of the population, and was overwhelmingly Turkish, although some minority groups were represented in the bureaucracy and the military through the devshirme system.

Members of the governing class ranged from the sultan and his grand vizier, through regional governors and officers of the Janissary corps, down to nisanci or court calligrapher.  The government became known collectively as the Sublime Porte, after the gate to the administrative building complex.

The remaining 90% of the population were the tax-payers who supported the elaborate Ottoman bureaucracy. They included skilled and unskilled laborers, such as farmers, tailors, merchants, carpet-makers, mechanics, etc. The vast majority of the sultan's Christian and Jewish subjects fell into this category.

According to Muslim tradition, the government should welcome the conversion of any subject who was willing to become Muslim. However, since Muslims paid lower taxes than members of other religions, ironically it was in the Ottoman divan's interests to have the largest possible number of non-Muslim subjects. Mass conversion would have spelled economic disaster for the Ottoman Empire.

In summary:

Essentially, then, the Ottoman Empire had a small but elaborate government bureaucracy, made up almost entirely of Muslims, most of them of Turkish origin. This divan was supported by a large cohort of mixed religion and ethnicity, mostly farmers, who paid taxes to the central government. For a more in-depth examination of this system, please see Chapter 2, "Ottoman Social and State Structure," of Dr. Peter Sugar's Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354 - 1804.

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