It is not only historical events that play a fundamental role in the establishment and development of cities; political, social, cultural and economic factors also have an impact. Within the scope of all these factors cities constantly interact with their surroundings, while their population and its composition are the most important elements that direct this interaction. For this reason, from the day of its establishment the administration of Constantinople/Istanbul has always placed an emphasis on the population. As the seat of political power and intrigues, Istanbul set an example for a number of cities within the state’s borders from social, cultural and economic aspects; as such, it has always been given a great deal of attention. As Istanbul housed the symbols of the court and leadership, much attention was given to its development. For all these reasons the people living there or those who were to live there were always carefully chosen. Despite the fact that the city’s inhabitants were not necessarily homogeneously grouped, it possessed incredibly effective features of transformation and assimilation, influencing its inhabitants to form a unique cultural atmosphere. The city displayed these characteristics in almost every era, making its inhabitants feel that they were living in an “exceptional” city. Although the inhabitants of the city could recede into the texture of the neighborhood, outside this smaller environment they would find a common living environment in the marketplace, mosque, port or along the city walls. It was this common living space that established the rules in the city. These rules transformed the inhabitants of the city into “Istanbulites”, ensuring that the urban etiquette and life style were transmitted to the provinces.

There can be no doubt that among world cities, for example, Rome, London or Paris, Istanbul possesses the greatest number of “hallmarks”. Like the residents of the city, the historical adventure of Istanbul has had its highs and lows. Since the day of its establishment, the city has witnessed countless political events, the overthrow of sultans, popular rebellions, changes in physical appearance as a result of countless earthquakes and fires, the collapse of civilizations and the beginning of new eras. Suffering from invasions and betrayals, Istanbul became the symbol of hopes and aspirations, the cradle of dreams of world domination, a living example of wealth and brilliance. Its unique historical combination of features, such as its geographical position, types of institutions, development, political adventures, population and civilizational centers, resulted in Istanbul’s unique and exceptional position. For this reason, every aspect of the “exceptional” position of the city needs be taken into consideration. The population should also be included; however, Istanbul’s exceptional position presents a negative perspective in terms of demographic progress and population historiography. This is one of the unique characteristics of Istanbul. Regardless of being a center of empires, empires that required statistics on taxes, religion, development and defense were collected and numbers recorded, Istanbul was not included in such procedures. Thus, until the first quarter of the 19th century, when the first indications of modernization appeared, there has been a lack of data that helps us to understand the number of inhabitants in, visitors to or occupants of Istanbul. As a natural consequence of this deficiency, the vague nature, inaccurate estimates or inferences about the population makes it difficult for today’s researcher. Thus, data about Istanbul’s population before modernization has always been based on indirect information and thus can only be estimated. Fortunately, in the 19th century and afterwards, despite every kind of social and demographic dynamism, some direct calculations could be recorded and inventories were taken.

For all these reasons, while analyzing the demographic history of Istanbul, it is necessary to differentiate between sources and data according to the political periods. Thus, before the comparatively modern censuses of the 19th century, an estimation of the city’s population can be based on either the number of religious and civil structures, or sometimes on the number of people who have died from disease and famine or partial data concerning housing and taxation of certain groups. Owing to the lack of data, to find similar information, we can turn to reports by travelers who traveled through Istanbul. On the other hand, official documents concerning military attacks, defense, immigration, housing, deportation and exile, as well as security provisions within the city written by chroniclers might help in this effort. In this respect, the demographic history of Istanbul should be carried out with a multi-directional search of documents and by obtaining data that employs statistical methods. It is also necessary to determine the consistency of the acquired data and whether it is actually comparable or not.

In spite of all the problems regarding the methods and sources of Istanbul’s demographic history before the 19th century, it is possible to obtain some results. On the other hand, as in all fields, the creation of a chronological arrangement is compulsory for population. Putting everything else to one side, there are three main chronological periods for the city; Byzantine-Latin, Ottoman and Republican Periods. It is possible to make chronological classifications for each period according to subsidiary time periods. For example, the Byzantine Period can be divided into four sub-periods in terms of demographic progress. Four different sub-periods can also be mentioned for the Ottoman Period in terms of population dynamics. Likewise, three different sub-periods of time and a definite classification of demographic progress exist in the Republican Period. Naturally, it is necessary to take into account some turning points and sudden changes. The reader will be able to find the entire process of development and alteration, crises, sharp ruptures, continuous situations or phases of disengagement, causes and effects in the contents of the relevant section.

It seems possible, even if only in a limited fashion, that an evaluation of findings and information about the Byzantine and Ottoman periods can be made, that one can observe the main lines of the process as far back as the middle of the 4th century, that the division of the physical borders of the city, the very changeable appearance of the city, which is connected to the contemporaneous agenda and time, as well as the variable speed and frequency of the city population, can be followed. However, some of the factors that we encounter in the matter of researching the population include the fact that not only could this change clearly be carried out rapidly and suddenly due to the direct intervention of the political authority, but also the population of Istanbul was equally as changeable, being very active, and that while it was difficult to measure, at the same time any measurements made could quickly change, thus creating relativity. Due to all these limitations, other than sometimes exaggerated and or ambiguous estimates, it is only possible to make an analysis of very limited periods. In the following pages, all these processes will be examined in the relevant sections, taking into account a number of factors, such as drawbacks and estimates, internal and external dynamics that affected the population, in particular, immigration, emigration, and fires and famine which led to major crises.

In the context of the general parameters and methodological discussions about this subject, Kemal Karpat makes observations about Ottoman demographic history, stating that in general the social structure and population of the Middle East and Islamic countries are not discussed within a historical or conceptual frame,1 and the existing limited number of studies are far from a historical, political or conceptual framework. Thus, the primary drawback when evaluating Middle Eastern societies and populations is a lack of concepts and theories for evaluating the socio-historical experiences within their own value system. Earlier studies on the population of Ottoman society focused on the non-Muslim elements in the Balkans and Anatolia and these are full of “exaggerated and distorted statistics that support the land demands of a potential state” (p. 41). In the presence of all this exaggerated and distorted data, the land census, tax or military service censuses carried out by the state and any conclusions must be carefully checked and confirmed. On this matter, the accuracy of the Ottoman bureaucracy is extremely remarkable, with the registers being highly reliable. These significant difficulties can be overcome by using such statistical data. Census methods were developed according to the unique census approach of the Ottomans. For example, in this context, while hane (çift hanesi, avarız hanesi) is a term that comes to the fore directly in an economic context, in the records that belong to the first half of the 19th century the hane is a concept that applies to families, referring to households. The 19th century population census should be carefully evaluated according to the purposes and types of recording; population increases and decreases, as well as the fertility rate should all be taken into consideration.

According to Ilhan Tekeli, who examines the approach and methods of the 19th century population of Istanbul from a different aspect, it is better to discuss and interpret the issue within the framework of the “modernization” paradigm.2 In addition to this, it is necessary to take the distinctive dynamics of Turkish modernization into consideration. Originally, Tekeli’s general approach did not exclude internal dynamics, but discussed additional occurrences at an upper level structure and relations. Moreover, he emphasizes that in the pre-modern period, international relations must be taken into consideration. However, in the process that occurred from the middle of the 16th century on, an approach that is conceived directly from modernity would be deficient. Internal dynamics must be taken into consideration, particularly when discussing social structure and population in the early modern period. After the conquest, the state tried to increase the population of Istanbul with immigration and incentives; however from the mid-16th century, the population was at such a level that intervention was no longer necessary. In other words, from the second half of the 16th century, without any need for state pressure, support or encouragement, the population of Istanbul entered “spontaneously”3 into a process of growth in parallel with global developments. In this “spontaneous” growth, the effects of internal dynamics and migration to the city essentially came to the fore. Studies on “urbanization” and population growth in every region in Turkey4 between 1520 and 1590 demonstrate this. The population growth in Istanbul was above the “normal” levels of growth in other cities. The young and bachelor population “migration” to Istanbul, due to problems in obtaining work in various parts of Anatolia and the Balkans, in search of a better life, or for military service, or working in crafts or trade all had a first degree effect. In this movement, factors such as high population growth throughout the Mediterranean basin in the 16th century and, parallel with this, the resolute growth of the agriculturally based “classical” social order and the resulting tax system and control mechanisms (Timar) were all influential. Moreover, continuous wars, worries about security, immigration, increase in trade volume, the price revolution in Europe and in parallel with this, economic acceleration, as well as the increasing effect of intermediary mechanisms on town-urban relations and finally direct interference by the state (such as housing policy) all had an impact on the situation.5 From the end of the 16th century, the attempts by the Ottoman State to interfere with the rapid immigration to the capital city were ineffective6 and the population growth of Istanbul was greater than that in other cities. By the end of the 17th century, the population of the already “crowded” city reached a great level, in contrast to what Mantran estimated.7 The non-Muslim population apparently played a greater role in this growth.

In order to follow all the processes and discussions about both the Byzantine and Ottoman periods of Istanbul and to examine the existing structures, basic topics, such as the causes and effects of the growth and fall in population, the ethnic, religious, social and administrative strata of the population, the inter-relation between these strata and the city, the roles of internal and external migration on horizontal mobility and finally the dynamic structure of the population are broadly analyzed in the following chapters on demography. Indeed, the following graph has been prepared in order to obtain a holistic view of the growth and decrease in population, following Istanbul’s population from the 400s to the Republican Period. Thus, it is possible to have a clear understanding of the progress of Istanbul’s population according to periods of growth and decline. As the analysis of the data in the table about the entire population is presented in the relevant chapters, this explanation suffices.


1 Kemal Karpat, Osmanlı Nüfusu (1830-1914): Demografik ve Sosyal Özellikleri, tr. Bahar Tırnakçı, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2003, p. 40.

2 İlhan Tekeli, Modernizm, Modernite ve Türkiye’nin Kent Planlama Tarihi, Istanbul Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları 2009, pp. 191-196.

3 Münir Aktepe, “XVIII. Asrın ilk yarısında İstanbul’un Nüfusu Meselesine Dair Bazı Vesikalar”, TD, 1958, vol. 9, no. 13, pp. 1-2.

4 Leila Erder, Suraiya Faroqhi, “The Development of the Anatolian Urban Network during the Sixteenth Century”, Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, 1980, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 287-290; Also see: Suraiya Faroqhi, Osmanlı’da Kentler ve Kentliler, translated by Neyyir Kalaycıoğlu, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1993, pp. 16-18.

5 Yunus Koç, “Osmanlıda Toplumsal Dinamizmden Celali İsyanlarına Giden Yol ya da İki Belgeye Tek Yorum”, Bilig: Türk Dünyası Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, 2005, no. 35, pp. 231-245.

6 Robert Mantran, 17. Yüzyılın İkinci Yarısında İstanbul, tr. M. A. Kılıçbay and E. Özcan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1990, vol. 1, p. 50.

7 Mantran, 17. Yüzyılın İkinci Yarısında İstanbul, p. 48.

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