At the beginning of the 20th century, an administrative decision to abolish Istanbul’s special administration and establish a system that was standard throughout the country was taken. In earlier periods, the administration of Istanbul was carried out only by city officials. The reason for this was that this city was different from other cities in terms of size and population. Firstly, for the Ottomans Istanbul was not just a city; rather, it was the center of the sultanate and the caliph’s place of residence. The government, its administrative units and bureaucracy were located in this city. It formed a significant part of the sources for the sultan’s legitimacy, i.e. the head of state, and the dynastic family to which he belonged. Beginning with the conquest of Constantinople, we know that the settled population was formed from qualified and skilled laborers. In this respect, the highest ranking ulama (religious scholars) were residents of the city, and likewise, most of the poets and men of letters also lived there. It also hosted most of the tradesmen and artisans, and certainly the best artisans were in Istanbul. Furthermore, it was the financial center of the Ottoman State, due to the money-changers, merchants and affluent residents. Even though it was the center that was most densely populated by the minorities of the Ottoman State, it was also the place from where religious leaders, who were the enforcers of the millet system, governed their communities. It was a very important port city which stimulated the economy and provided a livelihood to the river basins, which it used for its own subsistence. With the embassies and other agencies, as well as the foreign merchant class, Istanbul was a city where international communication, interaction and trade were at its most dynamic. Therefore, there were several logical reasons for the Ottomans to regard Istanbul as a country within a country and to charge the Sublime Porte with extra responsibilities.

In Istanbul, the city’s specific responsibilities/duties and the units which carried out those responsibilities were made clear. The responsibility of the Sublime Porte was to set the limits of the authority of the officials, to determine new rules to be applied by these officials in keeping with changing circumstances, to inspect and oversee their implementations and to solve any problems that might arise from such implementations. Of course, one of the most important tasks of the Sublime Porte was to prepare and issue imperial edicts and orders related to all these responsibilities. The area of responsibility of the Sublime Porte in relation to the city of Istanbul can be divided under three main categories: a) safety and security, b) provisions and tradesmen, c) justice


The issue of safety and security was dealt with under two categories, internal and external security; the structure was organized in accordance to this division. The internal security of the city was provided by the qadis and military units. Traditionally, the ordinary internal security of the city was a matter that was related to the qadis. They carried out the ordinary safety duties in conjunction with the subaşı (police superintendent) and asesler (night-watchmen), who worked under the authority of the qadis. Since Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman State and the size of its population was many times greater than that of an ordinary city, the extensive use of various security units was necessary. Moreover, even in ordinary cities, important responsibilities related to security were handled by the qadis with the assistance of military personnel and their units. Therefore, military units also had important responsibilities in Istanbul.

1- Janissary (Castellan)

2- Bostancı (Imperial guard) who was responsible for the safety of Istanbul (Brindesi)

3- Ayasofya and Istanbul. Galata and the two sides of the Golden Horn. Alay mansion at the far end of the walls and Sublime Porte beyond it. 3- Ayasofya and Istanbul. Galata and the two sides of the Golden Horn. Alay mansionThe group of buildings lie in alignment of the minarets of Ayasofya Mosque. (Fossati)

The operation of the janissary corps was handled by the office of Ağa Kapısı, which functioned under the leadership of janissary agha. Indeed, the Sublime Porte would issue general orders and imperial edicts and hold the Ağa Kapısı responsible for their execution. There was an independent official who was responsible for establishing a connection between the Sublime Porte and the janissary agha. This official would usually reside at the Sublime Porte and was known as the muhzır agha. In conjunction with the men under his authority, he was also responsible for protecting the grand vizier; during council assemblies the muhzır agha would keep track of the responsibilities of the janissary agha and his units. The orders of the janissary agha would be delivered by the muhzır agha, as would decisions made at the Sublime Porte related to the corps. Thus, the edicts and orders relating to Istanbul’s safety were issued by the Sublime Porte, while those addressed to janissary agha were delivered by the muhzır agha.

The bostancıbaşı (chief of the imperial guards) also had a permanent representative at the Sublime Porte, known as the bostancılar odabaşısı. Other military units which played a role in Istanbul’s security, such as sipahi (cavalry), cebeci (armorer), and silahtar (regular janissary guards) also had representatives at the Sublime Porte, known as sipahi kethüdası, cebeciler kapı çavuşu and silahtar kethüdası, respectively. All of these officials worked at the Sublime Porte under the authority of the sadaret kethüdası (chief assistant to the grand vizier). When a decision related to security was to be implemented, military units would be deployed with the help of representatives at the Sublime Porte. After the abolition of the janissaries, the related authority and responsibilities of the janissary agha were transferred to the serasker pasha (commander-in-chief). After the first quarter of the 19th century, the commanders-in-chief became one of the authorities responsible for new regulations that were prepared to control deserters and to take censuses of tradesmen. Such regulations were introduced for various reasons, including providing security in Istanbul; this including apprehending deserters and catching and imprisoning criminals.

The office of the bostancıbaşı was another office that was used by the Sublime Porte to solve security problems; it focused on problems caused by illegal immigrants and workers. Problems related to tradesmen were addressed by the qadi of Istanbul and the ihtisab agha (director of the guilds and markets). Since problems experienced related to immigration to the city usually occurred after immigration had occurred, the Sublime Porte tried to find ways to resolve this issue before the immigrants even arrived at the city. The responsibility to stop and prevent illegal entry into the city from its several gates fell to several officials. The security officials working under the authority of the bostancıbaşı set up a check point in a neighborhood known as Bostancı Bridge on the Anatolian side of the city to check the mürur tezkeresi (visa). On the European side of the city, a similar check point was established in Küçükçekmece. The passage fees for those who had a mürur tezkeresi were also collected by these officials, and those who did not have a certificate were not allowed to pass through the check points. However, the route used by those wanting to enter the city illegally was not through the regular check points. The illegal workers who sought refuge in the gardens of the districts of Kadıköy and Üsküdar on the Anatolian side as cheap labor would later find a way to enter the city. Moreover, all the points that met with the Bosphorus presented the possibility of a security breach. A large number of people entered the city illegally, especially from Şile, due to its distance from the center, and from other weak check points. On the European side of the city, it was possible to find open sections along the line that extended from Çekmece to the Black Sea coast. In this respect, the control of these expansive areas was implemented by muhafız (guardian) pashas, who were sometimes appointed to be responsible for each side of the city.

4- The map of Bosporus from the piers of Istinye up to the Black Sea (Istanbul
    University, Rare Books and Special Collections Library, Maps Section)

The reason for the Sublime Porte’s reservations about immigration was that it did not want the population structure and production-consumption balance to be disrupted fluctuations in the population of the minorities caused especial concern. The Sublime Porte took a variety of precautions with regards to illegal immigrants, be they families or workers. There were usually security precautions to stop illegal egress into the city over the long term. However, towards the middle of the 19th century, possibly because the precautions which had been taken to stop immigration had not worked as planned, new measures were brought onto the agenda. Due to the direct impact of immigration upon tradesmen and production, responsibilities were given to the ihtisab ministry in Istanbul. After the abolishment of the janissaries, the state had become more successful at sending those who had illegally entered Istanbul back to their home cities in comparison to earlier periods. After these dates, a new policy began, and illegal immigrants, consisting of young men and workers who resided in hostels constructed in districts like Eyüp, Galata, Üsküdar, and other places outside the city walls, were supervised until they had learned a profession. Attempts were made to integrate the people who fell into this category into the city’s population.

5- The imperial writ (1808) about the transfer of Sublime Porte, which was burned
    down in the Incident of Alemdar Mustafa Paşa, to Yusuf Ağa Mansion (BOA HH,
    no. 735/34860)

The regulations issued for the district of Galata to ensure safety and order in the city in the first half of the 19th century will be dealt with here. Specific examples will also be given to demonstrate the roles of the Sublime Porte in relation to Istanbul’s security. Upon an increase in the number of foreign citizens in the Galata district, in order to restore the balance in this region, the Sublime Porte changed the multi-administrative and control structure that consisted of the office of the regional tersane eminliği (superintendent of shipyard), the office of the Galata voivode and the office of the gümrük eminliği (customs superintendent) and the authorities of some other institutions. Then the Galata Ministry was established, uniting all these responsibilities under one authority. The Liman Odası (port authority) was placed under this new ministry. The minister was to be notified about every development related to Galata. As for those who did not conform to the social order, the Galata Ministry only had the authority to arrest them. The minister was responsible for delivering the suspects to the Sublime Porte for sentencing. Moreover, according to an 1831 regulation regarding the temporary stay and residence of foreigners, it was necessary for civil servants of the Liman Odası and the ihtisab nazırı (superintendent) was to provide the Sublime Porte with the records they kept about foreigners entering the city. Likewise, the requirement for the foreign embassies to provide lists of foreigners demonstrates the dominant role that the Sublime Porte played in maintaining Istanbul’s security.

The city’s external security was arranged by taking into account the possibility of attacks by foreign states or large scale internal uprisings. In this respect, Istanbul’s coastal security began from the Dardanelles Strait. From the Black Sea Coast, it extended up to the Black Sea Straits, the furthest point of the Bosphorus. The fortresses and bastions that had been built, particularly in areas close to the Black Sea, were established in order to detect and prevent unexpected naval attacks. On the other hand, in 1807 a British fleet passed through the Dardanelles and came to Istanbul without any difficulty, attempting to lay siege to the city; this example best illustrates what the Dardanelles meant for the security of Istanbul. Istanbul’s coastal security was under the responsibility of the kaptan pasha. The Sublime Porte would contact the kaptan pasha in relation to matters such as security-related precautions that were taken around the straits, the control of foreign boats passing through the straits, and checking commercial ships from enemy powers. When a decision was made related to the security of the coasts of both the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, beginning from Galata, the kaptan pasha was the first authority to be notified. Provided that they were under the supervision of the kaptan pasha, the patrona (vice admiral) and riyale (rear-admiral) beys were also given some responsibilities related to the security of the straits. As mentioned above in relation to the issue of immigration, the city’s land security was ensured by a system of dual guardianship.

Provisions and the Tradesmen

The Sublime Porte’s main role in this regard was to assess and determine the needs of Istanbul, to prepare sources which would meet these needs, to provide transportation, and to maintain order among tradesmen who were the fulfillers of these needs. Since the issue of Istanbul’s provisions was one of the most important responsibilities of the state, there was a traditional order that had been applied for centuries. There was a well-established system that dictated from where and by whom Istanbul’s meat needs were to be satisfied, as well as from where, via which routes and by what vehicles Istanbul’s need for wood would be met. Even the varieties of cheeses, which villages would be given what kind of exemptions, and what price they would be paid for Istanbul’s yearly and seasonal needs were all recorded. For the usual needs, the Sublime Porte would frequently send ferman (imperial edict), buyuruldu (rescript), and kaime (bill) type orders to the officials in the places that fulfilled Istanbul’s needs, such as the sancakbeyi (head of a sub-province), the beylerbeyi (governor-general), and in particular qadis and officials who supervised the operation of these works, such as the emin (superintendent), mübaşir (official who conveyed the orders of a department), and mübayaacı (agent for wholesale purchase). The central government would usually be notified about works related to acquiring provisions via the kadı i’lâms (judicial decree). If a problem emerged – which was something that happened frequently, qadis would inform the central government and wait for further instructions. In particular, with regards to prices, when the gap between the prices established by the government and those in the market increased, goods accumulated in the hands of the local and foreign merchants. Transportation problems could be experienced because of insufficient transportation vehicles and their high costs. As a result of drought and other natural disasters, shortages could be experienced in food supplies. In such circumstances, the Sublime Porte was responsible for making decisions and locating new resources and solutions. As the government’s principal center of administration, it was within the authority of the Sublime Porte to establish the sources and vehicles for international trade, as well as making decisions about temporary commerce with enemy countries when local resources were inadequate. Moreover, the government could be forced to find new ways to provide grain, a vital staple. Istanbul’s provisions and its geographical location attracted foreign merchants; sometimes sanctions would be imposed upon the merchants and ships of enemy states, banning them from entering the Mediterranean or Black Sea. In the end, it was the Sublime Porte that determined these policies.

6- Topkapı Palace and the Imperial Chancery of State (Divan-ı Hümayun) (<em>Hünername</em>)

It was also the Sublime Porte’s responsibility to find solutions to any extraordinary circumstances that could arise in Istanbul. For instance, fires were a frequently experienced disaster that led to considerable increase in the needs of Istanbul. The problems of providing new housing after the fires triggered the construction and repair sectors. Issues like determining Istanbul’s need for timber, its quality and price, from which port it would come, and with which tradesmen would import it were determined by the Sublime Porte. Developments experienced the attainment of raw material for production purposes in Istanbul can also be included here. For instance, when acorns, which were important materials used in tanning hides, were taken from their area of production and illegally exported by merchants, it was not just the tradesmen whose occupation it was to tan animal skins who suffered; important state institutions, such as the armory and shipyard were also affected. In other words, there were many reasons behind the Sublime Porte’s duty to manage, organize and protect.

7- Topkapı Palace: Babüssaade (the second gate) and Babüsselam (the third gate) (<em>Hünername</em>)

The prevention of any development or behavior that could lead to corruption in the tradesmen’s traditional organization was an issue that usually exceeded the power of this organization and that of the qadi’s office. Since the manner in which goods, especially those brought by foreign merchants, would be placed in the markets and the decision as to which tradesmen would distribute these goods to the consumers were realized in accordance with certain rules, it was important that precautions were taken to prevent tradesmen and merchants who might harm this system by acting outside the conventions. In this context, the orders and rescripts issued to the customs superintendent allowing him to do whatever was necessary in the customs were very important in ensuring order in the market. When we examine the contents of these orders and rescripts, we see that the main objective in protecting the established order among merchants was not merely to regulate the market prices, but also to prevent any falling off in tax revenues. Determination of prices by commercial elements that were outside the system and the subsequent loss of customers due to high prices would mean losses to the tradesmen within the system, and consequently, an immediate loss in tax revenues. In such urgent circumstances, the Sublime Porte not only issued emergency orders and instructions to the related officials about what should be done; they also tried to find solutions to the problems by appointing temporary personnel from within its own organization.

Istanbul’s need for grain, whether provided by merchants or by the state, was under the control of the sadaret kethüdası (steward to the grand vizier); the sadaret kethüdası was the highest official at the Sublime Porte both in importance and rank, being second only to the grand vizier. Over time, during peace time the state made the task of providing Istanbul’s grain needs the most important responsibility of the sadaret kethüdası; this task fell to his deputies during times of war. Officials who were sent to buy grain stocks would inform the sadaret kethüdası about everything they did. He was expected to provide solutions to any problems encountered. When the merchants brought grain stocks to Istanbul, they would first go to the Sublime Porte and inform the kethüda bey that the grain had arrived. After the grain had come to Istanbul, the working methods of officials who controlled and sold these stocks to the tradesmen, the organization of the sales, and the production of bread from the grain were all determined at the office of the sadaret kethüdası. Moreover, when transporting grain from the regions in which it was produced, particularly by ship, the captains or merchants who owned the ships that were hired out were summoned to the Sublime Porte; the conditions and prices of hire were determined in the kethüda’s office. Transportation was then carried out in accordance with these conditions. Moreover, the detailed register of grain consumed by the palace would also be sent to the Sublime Porte. The qadi of Istanbul, the defterdar (minister of finance), reisülküttab (minister of foreign affairs), gümrük emini (customs superintendents), and a few merchants who were knowledgeable about the fixed prices would meet in the office of the kethüda bey to inspect check that were in excess or in deficit. After this, the records would be included in the register at the chief treasurer’s office.

8- Sublime Porte at the end of the 19<sup>th</sup> century (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

The Sublime Porte would notify the Istanbul qadi and other qadis in the region, that is, the most important officials, about regulations and instructions related to merchants. If the regulation was related to financial transactions and responsibilities, this responsibility would also fall to the defterdar efendi. Qadis would deal with the social aspects of the regulations. However, in matters related to non-Muslims, orders and instructions would be addressed to the relevant religious leaders. For instance, the economic, social, and sometimes political consequences of immigration were important. When there was a great deal of immigration or illegal workers, the order in which the merchants operated would be negatively affected; moreover, such an influx of newcomers would lead to problems in housing and accommodation in the neighborhoods, and consequently the order of the city as a whole would be affected. The Sublime Porte would issue orders and inform the military bureaucracy about the movements of immigrants and illegal workers; it would also inform the qadi of Istanbul, due to his relation to the order and tradesmen in the city, and the leaders of Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minorities, due to their relationship with the minority communities. Naturally, although most of the regulations were considered to apply to the suriçi (the city within the walls) actually were also relevant to the regions of Istanbul outside the walls, the qadis of Eyüp, Galata and Üsküdar would also be informed of these orders and regulations.

9- The complaint notes addressing to Sultan Abdülhamid I about the negligence of administrators by mentioning the bad state of affairs in Russo-Turkish war which were left various parts of the city. (BOA HH, no. 1384/54819)


The Sublime Porte also operated as a high court for cases and complaints that came from all regions of the state. In this regard, it was also naturally the center for requests related to Istanbul and its neighborhood. Essentially, for Istanbul the courts of Eyüp, Galata and Üsküdar were the locations for the initial appeal. However, those who had resorted to these courts but felt that they had not received justice had the right to appeal to the Sublime Porte. In addition, there are examples of people who applied directly to this office, in the belief that they could attain their rights from the Sublime Porte. Due to the fact that the number of legal matters brought before the Sublime Porte increased over the century, it tried to respond by taking certain precautions. One of them was to assign the kazasker court or the Istanbul court to take on some cases. Kazasker were natural members of the councils that were held at the Sublime Porte. However, they continued to handle cases in their own courts on days when no council was held at the Sublime Porte. It can be understood from Istanbul’s ahkam sijils (court registers) that some cases were referred to the Istanbul Qadi Court, the authority of which was based within the city walls. Likewise, in order to lighten its work load, the Sublime Porte started a new procedure after the 18th century, subjecting some eligible cases from all over the country to a preliminary examination. This procedure was generalized step by step. Claimants requested imperial edicts to be issued concerning their rights; upon this application, after examining the petitions to determine whether or not they had been submitted in accordance with the procedures, officials would decide whether the case could be brought before the Sublime Porte.

10- The qadi of Istanbul (Mehmed Arif)

The Sublime Porte had other functions which it had inherited from the Divan-ı Hümayun in matters such as hearing cases of the state or retrials of the same. However, at the Istanbul courts and other courts in the region a different and stricter control mechanism existed. Even though this control appeared to be that of inspecting court verdicts, in reality it entailed inspecting the courts. In accordance with this, the obtainment of fermans from the Sublime Porte, giving permission for cases handled at the Istanbul Qadi Court and other courts within the suriçi, was necessary.

As the official in charge appointed by the Sublime Porte, the çavuşbaşı (sergeant halberdiers) would step in such procedures. The çavuşbaşı became one of the three most important officials of the Sublime Porte in the period after Divan-ı hümayun. He would have a summary of the cases that were to be presented before the grand vizier prepared by the tezkerecis (clerks of official memoranda) and present them to the grand vizier, thus expediting the procedure. The çavuşbaşı had the authority to refer petitions about every kind of case, inquiry, crime or commercial disagreement that was submitted to him to the relevant court. Since the çavuşbaşı’s sahh (mark) would give the petition the characteristic of an edict, any petition carrying this had to be dealt with, no matter which court it had been referred to; in addition, a decree had to be issued at the end of the court session. When the petition was returned to the Sublime Porte, accompanied by the court decree, it would be handed to the çavuşbaşı and the phrase mucebince amel (let it be done as required) would be written on it by the tezkereci efendi. After all these procedures had been completed, the petition awaited the grand vizier’s decision; after this the petition would be implemented. It was the çavuşbaşı who was responsible for the implementation and enforcement of any verdict. The divan çavuş would usually be employed in this respect.

At the end of the court procedure, the qadis were required to send the decree concerning their cases to the Sublime Porte. Since referrals were made from the Sublime Porte, in order to be able to keep track of cases, it was necessary for the decree to be sent on to the Porte. On the other hand, the problems experienced at times when this procedure was not strictly applied make it easier to understand why the Sublime Porte chose such an application. In some cases, those who were convicted, in particular, those who were punished by being confined in a fortress, or sentenced to long-term hard labor, or exile, complained that they had been wronged in the court and unjustly sentenced. When the cases were investigated, it could be observed that personal enmity on the part of certain individuals had influenced the court and thus an incorrect verdict had been given. With this practice it could be understood if the case was being implemented correctly or not or whether it was being conducted for some ulterior motif; thus at times, the qadis would sometimes be warned to behave in a sensitive manner. Thus, the courts of Istanbul were, in a way, procedurally held to account .

Another justice related issue with which the Sublime Porte was concerned was the operation and execution of the courts. In some cases that were considered sensitive, the parties would be brought to the court by the divan çavuş, who operated under the orders of the çavuşbaşı. The main duty of these guards was to maintain order in the court and to ensure that the verdicts given were carried out. However, the state did not limit their functions to the Sublime Porte. Istanbul and surrounding areas benefited from their service. In special cases, the divan çavuş were employed as court ushers. They could also be employed if the court’s own security personnel was not adequate or in prominent cases. They were guaranteed a share of the fees that such courts charged for their services.

A separate topic that also needs to be examined is the weekly councils of the Istanbul qadis; these councils dealt with issues ranging from court security to its problems the court had in delivering the relevant opinions and instructions of the Sublime Porte. There were Wednesday councils held under the leadership of the grand vizier at the Sublime Porte; only the Istanbul qadi and the qadis of Eyüp, Galata, and Üsküdar, what was known as the Bilad-ı Selase, attended these councils. One day a week the Sublime Porte council would be held. While the implementations, problems and suggestions related to Istanbul and these three districts would be discussed during the council, cases which were under their jurisdiction but which were not being handled by them would be discussed, and then transferred to the attention of the council. Thus, even though the Sublime Porte was the highest court in the country, the overwhelming status was more that of the highest court in Istanbul and neighboring regions. When we consider that an important part of municipal matters was under the responsibility of the qadis, it is possible to conclude that, in fact, the Wednesday councils enabled important issues from Istanbul and surroundings areas, issues related to infrastructure, merchants, social order and urban development, to be brought to the attention of the Sublime Porte.

After the Tanzimat period, the size of Istanbul, from the point of view of trade, land and population, was effective in the central government taking over some responsibilities. In Istanbul, issues related to the development of the city, the renovation of the infrastructure, investments for its improvement and decisions taken about housing required special regulations and city planning. Most industrial investments were dealt with by the Nafia Nezareti (Ministry of Public Works). These were carried out to make Istanbul more than just merely a large producer and consumer of goods, rather turning it into a city which could satisfy at least part of its needs from its own industrial institutions. We know that the Şehremaneti (prefecture or city council), which had been established for the administration of Istanbul, worked in cooperation with the ministries in many works, while leaving the problem in some matters entirely to the institutions of the state. At the beginning of the 19th century, enacting state and municipal laws for Istanbul that were different from those applicable in other cities was considered unnecessary; rather, from this time on the need to rule the entire country under one law was emphasized. With this decision, the privileges that had been specific to Istanbul were to be spread throughout the country, thus raising standards.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.