Social Structure of the Ottoman Empire


Social Structure of the Ottoman Empire

Social Structure of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire lasted for over six hundred years (1299–1923) and extended to the three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa. Thus the Ottoman Empire would be home to an extremely diverse population ranging from the Muslim majority to the minority population, specifically Christians and Jews.

Non-Muslim Population of the Ottoman Empire

There were a large number of non-muslim people in the cosmopolitan Empire. Ottoman capital Istanbul, for instance, had %30 non-muslim community.

Beneath the Sultan, Ottoman society was divided into a privileged ruling class (see the Ottoman titles below) and a tax paying subject population.

Rank and honour could be gained through education or service in the army or administration. It was never hereditary.

Ottoman Titles Abolished by Turkish Republic

This social structure was modified during the reforms of the 19th century yet Ottoman titles were only finally abolished in 1924 after the Turkish Republic was created.

Last Ottoman Sultan was exiled to Europe when the Sultanate was abolished in 1922. Ottoman royal family still live in different countries of Europe at the present time.

Ottoman Sultans

Ottoman Sultans

Portraits of Ottoman Sultans

Position of the Sultan in the Ottoman Social Pyramid

The first Ottoman Sultans were the leaders of warlike tribes living on the frontiers of Byzantine Empire. From 13th century, however, dynasty established itself at the head of a large empire. Ottoman Sultans were admired and feared for their military strenght due to the well-established Janissary infantry unites.

Ottoman Sultan was the apex of the social order and everyone owed allegiance to him. Sultans mostly lived a life of ease and luxury in renowned Topkapi Palace. The Ottoman sultans were always succeeded by one of their sons, but not automatically by the eldest.

Each Şehzade (Prince) was assigned to one of the major cities as viceroys to practise state issues. When Sultan died, the strongest and smarter one was able to seize the throne.

Social Structure of the Ottoman Empire

The Sultan was political and religious leader of Empire like a king or emperor. The second man in the state was Grand Vizier. Like a prime minister of modern day parliaments.

Ottoman Viziers
Social Structure Of Ottoman Empire

Grand Vizier

  • Grand Vizies (Prime Minister) And Viziers (Ministers)

Minister of the state, the four most senior ministers were called “Viziers of the dome” because they attended cabinet meetings in the domed hall of the Divan (Imperial Council) in the Topkapı Palace. Initially Sultans were ruling the council meetings. From 16th century, the council was presided over by the immensely powerful Grand Vizier.

  • Şeyhülislam (Religious Authority)

Head of the Ulema, a religious institution which was made up of “learned man” responsible for interpreting and enforcing Islamic law. (Sharia)

Ottoman Janissary Troops


Janissary elite infantry units

Ağa or Agha (Officer)

Leader of an organization. The most influential Ağas were the commander of the Janissary Corps, the sultan’s elite troops.

Janissaries were unbeatable land forces of Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years but they became a real trouble from the 17th century and onwards. Many Sultans were killed trying to replace them with a modern army. Sultan Mahmud II finally abolished the conservative Janissary corpes.

The second most influential Ağa was the Chief Black Eunuch (Harem Ağası), who was in charge of the Harem. Black eunuchs’ living quarter can be seen in the entrance of Topkapı Palace Harem Rooms.

  • Bey (Lord)

Governor of a district or province. This word is now used simply to mean “Mr.” Famous district of Istanbul, Beyoglu, actually means son of a governor. It’s atrributed to Alvisa Gritti son of the Doge of Venice who had lived in Istanbul in 16th Century.

  • Caliph (Halifa)

Spiritual leader of Islamic World. The first Caliphs were companions of Prophet Mohammed. Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali. They were humble leaders of Islamic society.

However; emperors, kings, sultans (hereditary monarchies) became caliphs afterwards.

The title is assumed by Ottoman Sultans, beginning with Selim I in 1517 until 1924. Caliphate is eventually abolished by Turkish Repuclic in 1924 and there are no more caliphs in the world since then.

Imperial Council Topkapi Palace

Imperial Council in the Topkapi Palace

  • Kadı (Judge)

Judge charged with interpreting Islamic Law and Ottoman administrative codes. The Supreme Court was located in Ottoman Sultan’s Topkapı Palace: Divan-ı Humayun (Imperial Council)

  • Khedive Of Egypt (Hıdiv)

Viceroy of Egypt under the Ottoman Rule. The autonomous khedives acknowledged the religious leadership of the Ottoman Empire. They Khedives were like shadow of Ottoman Sultans in the southern provinces.

Khedives were extremely rich people. They built spectacular buildings by the Bosphorus, Istanbul.

Such as Khedive Palace in Çubuklu, Egyptian Consulate in Bebek, Bosphorus.

  • Paşa (Pasha)

Title bestowed on a civil administrator or high-ranking army officer. According to his rank, a pasha was entitled to display one, two or three horsetails on his standart.

It was possible to understand the rank of a person in the Ottoman society by looking at his Turban. (headwear based on cloth winding) Shape of the turban would be the tombstone of the same person on his grave.

  • Valide Sultana (Queen Mother)

Mother of the ruling Sultan. She was the ruler of Harem. The head of the sophisticated hierarchy of Harem in the Topkapı Palace. Next in order of importance came the sultan’s sisters and daughters. Then comes the official wives and favourites.

It was possible to raise up to the top rank (Valide Sultan) from slavery. If the concubine would be able to attract to attention of Sultan and delivers a boy, then becomes Haseki (mother of prince); if that boy becomes Sultan, then becomes the Valide Sultana.

Map Of Ottoman Empire At Its Height

Ottoman Empire Map Greatest Extent 1699

Ottoman Empire Map Greatest Extent 1699

Social Structure Of Ottoman Empire By Serhat Engul


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