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Encyclopedia > State organization of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire developed a highly advanced organisation of state over the centuries. Even though it had a very centralized government with the Sultan as the supreme ruler, it had an effective control of its provinces and citizens, as well as its officials.


The structure of power

The Ottoman society had a ruling class called the askeri, inluding the noblemen, court officials, military officers and the religious class called the ulema. Townspeople, villagers and farmers formed a lower class called the reaya. This class had nothing to do with what religion one belonged to but rather meant anyone who wasn't askeri. Nobles sometimes used the word turk for Muslim farmers and villagers, referring to them as ignorant.

Wealth and rank wasn't necessarily something you inherited, rather it had to be earned. This was not in the case of the sultans, of course, but for most titles such as viziers and ağas. Military service was a key to advancement in the hierarchy.

The imperial government

Though the sultan was the sublime monarch he had a number of advisors and ministers. The most powerful of these were the viziers of the Divan, led by the Grand Vizier. The Divan was a council were the viziers met and debated the politics of the empire. It was the Grand Vizier's duty to inform the sultan of the opinion of the divan. The sultan often took his vizier's advices in consideration, but he by no means had to obey the divan. Sometimes the sultan called a divan meeting himself if he had something important to inform his viziers of, such as coming war. The viziers then carried out his orders. The divan consisted of three viziers in the 14th century and eleven in the 17th century, four of them served as Viziers of the Dome, the most important ministers next to the Grand Vizier. Sometimes the commander (ağa) of the Janissaries attended at the divan meatings as well.

The ministers (Nazır) had not as much influence over the sultans as the viziers, but controlled the ministries (Nezareti). The ministries and departments were important parts of the Ottoman bureaucracy. The ministries also supplied the viziers with whathever information they required. In addition, the viziers had their own advisors called the kahya. The most important minister was the minister of justice, the Adliye Nazırı, whose ministry included the civil judges (kadis) and the military judges (kadiaskers or kaziaskers) who were the highest judicial authority of the Empire after the seyhulislam, the supreme religious leader of the ulema. For each military corps there was a Nazır who had the administrative power. Under him was the Ağa who had the ceremonial command of the corps. Other officials within a ministry included the Kethüdar, a representative of the ministry and assistant to the minister with several clerks (kalfas) under him. The kalfas did all the paper-work in the Ottoman bureaucracy.

The court

The servants

The sultan, his viziers and his harem was served by an army of pages who were the sultan's slaves. Twenty-five of these served in the kitchen and in the larder. Others served in the Treasury and the Armoury, maintaining the sultan's treasures and weapons. There where also a branch of servants that were said to serve the Chamber of Campaign, i.e. they accompanied the sultan and his court while on campaign. The best of the pages was chosen to serve the sultan in person. One was responsible for the sultan's clothening, one served him with drinks, one carried his weaponry, one helped him mount his horse, one was responsible for making his turban and a barber shaved the sultan every day.

At the palace served also a great number of stewards who carried food, water and wood throughout the palace and lit the fireplaces and braziers. The corps of doorkeepers (Kapıcı) numbered several hundreds and were responsible for opening the doors throughout the entire palace and also for execution. The chief doorkeeper was resonsible for escorting important guests to the sultan. A number of lackeys (Çikadar) served as messengers in the palace and the city and from one of these were the Imperial Herald (Divan Çavısı, literally "sergeant of the divan") who was a man by entrusted by the sultan to various tasks, among others to inform people who would take part in meetings of the Divan.

There were also a corps of palace guards (Zuluflu Baltaci) under the command of the Swordmaster and palace gardeners (Bostancı) who also were responsible for the Sultan's luxury boat. Those taught in European etiquette and language (mainly French) served as Yasakçi, guards for foreign ambassadors. Also stationed near the palace was the Six Divisions of Cavalry (Altı Bölük) and, of course, the Janissaries.

The nobles

The viziers was the core of the nobles, though they were really slaves of the sultan. Other noble families inhabited Istanbul and often visited the court during parties or ceremonies. The clergy was another prominent part of the court. The muftis and imams were always present at religious ceremonies, which were plentiful. The müteferrika was a sort of young noblemen's club, where the sons of effendis, paşas and other notables got together. They often accompanied the sultan when he went out hunting.

The Harem

The Harem was one of the most important powers of the Ottoman court. It was ruled by the Valide Sultana (or Baş Kadın, 'chief lady'), the mother of the Sultan, and she enjoyed supreme power over the Harem and an exquisite status in the court. Sometimes she got involved in state politics could diminish the power and position of the Sultan in what was called a Sultanate of Women (Kadinlar Sultanati). Under the Sultan's mother in the hierarchy came the Hasseki Sultana, the queen and mother of the Sultan's firstborn son. The Sultan also had four other official wives, the Hasseki Kadın. Below the Sultan's wives came his eight favorite concubines (ikbaliks or hassodaliks, literally 'fortunate girl') and then the other concubines in favour of the Sultan (gözde or gedik). Next in rank was the concubines of officials who were ranked below the sultan's concubines. Pupils (acemi) and novices (cariye or şahgird) were younger women who either was waiting to be married off to someone or who had not yet been graduated from the Harem School.

The Harem was under the administration of the eunuchs, of which there were two categories, Black and White Eunuchs. Black Eunuchs were Africans taken as slaves who served the concubines and officials in the Harem and together with chambermaidens of low rank. The White Eunuchs were Europeans from the Balkans. They served the recruits at the Palace School (see below) and were from 1582 prohibited from entering the Harem. An important figure in the Ottoman court was the Chief Black Eunuch (Kızlar Ağası or Harem Ağası). In control of the Harem and a perfect net of spies in the Black Eunuchs, the Chief Eunuch was involved in almost every palace intrigue and could thereby gain power over either the sultan or one of his viziers, ministers or other court officials.

The Palace School

The Palace School was the place where the devşirme boys where trained. There were palace schools in the old palace in Edirne, one in the Galata Palace north of the Golden Horn in Istanbul and one in the Ibrahim Pasha Palace at the Hippodrome in central Istanbul. When graduating from these after seven years, the boys were ready to become servants for the sultan or other notables, to serve in the Six Divisions of Cavalry or as a Janissary. Some of the most talented devşirme boys came to the Topkapi Palace where they were trained for high positions within the Ottoman court or military.

Vassal States

Khanate of Crimea in the region north of Black Sea contributed tremendously in various military campaigns.


The Ottoman Empire was divided into provinces (vilayets or beylerbeyliks eyalets). See provinces of the Ottoman Empire for a list of the provinces. The Provinces of Rumili (Rumelia) and Anadolu (Anatolia) were under the direct rule of the sultan in Istanbul. Otherwise, the provinces were ruled by governor-generals (beylerbeylis).

The provinces were divided into smaller divisions known as sanjaks (sancaks). Sanjaks were ruled by Sancakbeys and were divided into timars (fiefs held by timariots) and zeamets (also ziam; larger timars). Some, such as the Sanjak of Jerusalem, were not part of a province.



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