The most noticeable class division in Ottoman society was between the political-military (‘askeri) ruling class, representing the sultan’s authority, and tax-paying (re‘aya) subjects. The ‘askeri included soldiers, administrators, religious scholars, and anyone granted a tax exemption by the sultan in return for a certain service; the tax-paying subjects included peasants, artisans, and merchants. The wealthy Ottomans included high-ranking officials, administrators, and members of the ulaema (body of religious scholars), merchants who traded in luxury items such as silk textiles, and urban notables called eşraf or a‘yan. The poor included apprentices of artisans, the unemployed, beggars, and others considered the dregs of society. Numerous epithets indicated the status of the Ottoman subjects—such as agha and beğ for military administrators; mevlana, fakih, halife, molla, and efendi for members of the ulaema; el-hacc for merchants; üstad for master artisans; çelebi for distinguished members of the upper-class, including the sons of the ulema and merchants; and seyyid for the descendants of Prophet Muhammad. The state imposed clothing regulations that reinforced “gender, religious and social distinctions,” aiming to emphasize the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims and men over women.1 Women were primarily mothers, spouses, and housewives, which limited their visibility in the society; however, they were responsible for the significant domestic role of managing household economics (tedbir el-menzil).2 Ottoman authors who produced the equivalent of the mirror-for-princes literature framed these class divisions in terms of the paternalistic Persian “circle of justice” (daire-i ‘adalet), in which the sultan’s power rested on the military class, whose continuity rested on the treasury, the strength of which depended on the tax-paying subjects, whose permanence was contingent on (sultanic) justice.

Along these dividing lines, the sources of wealth were theoretically separate, generated either by government appointment (for the ‘askeri) or by private economic enterprise (for the re‘aya). While government appointments to administrative positions provided wealth and power to their holders, mainly through salaries, land grants, and control over various tax sources, retired administrators from Istanbul and the provinces often engaged in trade, thus maintaining their affluence.3 Wealth accumulated by officials during their time in office was subject to confiscation by the government.4

Boundaries were once believed to have existed between the ‘askeri and re‘aya during the classical period that limited the former’s access to income-producing activities. However, recent research has shown that these boundaries were quite uncertain5- a condition that is also evidenced by the commercial activities of imperial ministers (viziers) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.6 Another commercial outlet for the administration, albeit largely symbolic, was the sale of produce from the palace garden.7

1- Rewarding the commanders of units and foot soldiers with the robe of honor (İntizami)

Sources of wealth for government officials were not limited to the palace circles. The slave soldiers (janissaries), whose engagement in economic activities outside of their barracks was theoretically banned, are known to have rented shops from the Ayasofya Foundation in the fifteenth century.8 The extent to which janissaries engaged in crafts and trades during the classical period is not certain, but their involvement in the urban market grew in the following centuries.

From a broader perspective, the main sectors of the economy produced income of varying amounts and with varying limits and potentials for people engaged in agriculture, crafts, and commerce. This framework fits the economic principles of provisionism, traditionalism, fiscalism, and central economic administration.9 This economic system was closely associated with the designation of Istanbul as the new imperial capital. The provisioning of Istanbul was one of the main concerns of the Ottoman government, as it also meant providing for the palace. The ideal of the provisionist mentality came with its own perception and reception of wealth and poverty, with the aim of providing Ottoman subjects with plenty of goods, especially necessities, at affordable prices. Moreover, two traditions that seemingly still had an effect on Ottoman practices, fütüvvet (moderation taught to craftsmen) and ihtisab (implemented by the market-inspector or muhtesib) aimed to set limits on profits in some urban trades, especially in the production and sale of necessities and crucial services to the government. City residents who truly had the opportunity and the means to make a big profit were the merchants of luxury items, who were allowed to operate outside the jurisdiction of the muhtesib.10

2- Giving the people clothes as gifts (İntizami)

3- Women of Istanbul (İntizami)

4- Male and female Christians (İntizami)

Beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century, the military and fiscal transformation, and the concurrent adaptation of Ottoman institutions to this transformation, went hand in hand with early modernization. Janissaries became increasingly involved in crafts and market-oriented activities, and ecnebi re‘aya (not from devshirme or slave/kul origins) began to be admitted to military posts. Cemal Kafadar interpreted this change as the janissary corps’ transformation into a social class.11

Early-modern Istanbul witnessed the proliferation of public places such as bathhouses (hamam), fountains (çeşme), and most notably, coffeehouses (kahvehane), where a new urban identity became visible with its socialization trends and codes of cultural conduct.12 Coffeehouses of early-modern Istanbul have been described as the most popular public places for ordinary Ottomans from humble homes. The same coffeehouses also hosted affluent members of the elite, whose options for socializing had previously been limited to rather costly feasting in their homes. Miniatures show that men of different social classes took different seats in the coffeehouse, creating some segregation within this heterogeneous venue.13 Women were excluded from the coffeehouses, but socialized in bathhouses, which developed into places where coffee was served to women who spent long hours there.14 Seventeenth-century traveler Evliya Çelebi, in his own ornate style, produced a long list of Istanbul bathhouses with details on the various professional, ethnic, and religious groups, even beggars, that (supposedly exclusively) frequented them “Arablara Tahte’l-kal ‘a Hammamı; müftilere Müfti Hammamı; Taşçılara Silivrikapusı Hammamı; Yahudilere Çıfidkapusı Hammamı; dilencilere İstinye Hammamı…”.15

5- Men and women of Istanbul (The album of Sultan Ahmed I, Topkapı Palace Museum Library, no. B. 408)

Indicators of wealth included the consumption patterns of men and women, which can be deduced from the inheritance inventories of ordinary subjects (tereke registers) and post-mortem inventories of members of the administrative class, who were also subject to confiscation of their wealth (askeri kassam); housing patterns; and possession of clothing and jewelry.16 With the blurring of boundaries between ‘askeri and re‘aya, consumption patterns also changed over time. Although there is no consensus as to when this took place in Istanbul, the overall trend, according to Donald Quataert, began growing in the seventeenth century with coffee and tobacco consumption, continued to expand in the eighteenth century with imported Indian textiles and increased domestic production, and grew further in the nineteenth century with the immense increase in European imports and the continuation of local industrial production.17

6- A man writing petitions (arzuhalci) and residents of Istanbul in the yard of a mosque (Walter Gold, Doha, Orientalist Museum)

From the early imperial period, the houses of Istanbul’s ordinary residents were typically modest and functional, made of only partly timbered or wood.18 The people of Istanbul lived in neighborhoods (mahalles) that were not quite shaped by status and class differences yet but were grouped by ethnic or religious community, composed of members who were legally responsible for each other’s actions (müteselsilen kefil).19 Neighborhoods were legal, administrative, social, and economic units, with social aid mechanisms such as neighborhood funds used to defray common expenses and help the needy (mahalle avariz akçası vakfı).20 Greater Istanbul with its three suburbs (Eyüp, Galata, and Üsküdar) had varying local characteristics (some being ethnically heterogeneous and more commercial), and recent research suggests that wealthy and powerful administrators preferred to live near Topkapı Palace.

7- Ottoman scholars (Ulema) class (Vehbi)

The eighteenth century witnessed striking changes in elite consumption, the epitome of which was the tulip craze, hence the term Lale Devri, (Tulip Period), borrowed by Ahmed Refik (1881–1937) from the eighteenth-century poet Nedim. Increasing imports of luxury foods and objects for the home, a gradual move toward multiplicity and flexibility of clothing, the Sa‘dabad Palace of Kağıthane, and the construction of villas along the Golden Horn indicate a visible shift in consumption. The proliferation of villas along the seashore (sahilsarayı/sultanefendi sarayları) denotes a rise in the political power of princesses, as they, rather than their husbands, were in charge of their homes.21

8- In the festivities of 1720, Sultan Ahmed III, state officials, and people watching the demonstrations (<em>Surname-i Vehbi</em>, Topkapı Palace Museum, no. 3594)

Along with the extravagant and conspicuous elite consumption of the eighteenth century, Istanbul’s social and cultural fabric “opened up,” in Shirin Hamedeh’s words. The urban middle class became more visible in public spaces, such as picnic areas; social and professional mobility was reflected in consumption patterns that focused on sensory pleasure in the appreciation of architectural beauty.22 Rather than a trickle-down effect of elite consumption or the result of westernization, this “opening up” was a hybrid, flexible, and innovative trend that embraced old and new, local and foreign elements. The changing architectural tastes of this period are thus seen by Hamadeh as the precursors of Ottoman modernity.23

The consumption patterns of low- and middle- income subjects in this period have been studied based on the court records of the suburb of Eyüp. The wealthiest people in the villages were the janissaries, who engaged in a wide range of commercial activities, taking advantage of their tax exemption.24 Eyüp’s low- and middle-income villagers left behind cows, oxen, horses, bee hives, chickens, and land when they died. Some villagers depended mainly on usury, living off other people’s interest payments on their debts.25 Minimal, and mostly functional rather than decorative, bedding and textiles were found in their houses, but even the modest houses in the last quarter of the eighteenth century had kitchens (matbah), unlike their equivalents in the sixteenth century.26

Objects indicating slightly wealthier households were mirrors and clocks, and very rarely binoculars. Decorative glass objects, precious porcelain, jewelry, silver objects, valuable books, and concubines were rarely found in modest homes. Books were almost all owned by men. Retired janissaries’ inventories included pistols and swords. While fur was also recorded among the belongings, all kinds of clothing, home textiles, and bedding were usually worn out.27 In contrast, elite houses in this period contained numerous mirrors and imported clocks, though imported materials from the West did not always transform traditional practices in which they were used or westernize their users.28

It is somewhat difficult to discern clear indications of poverty from official Ottoman records. Court cases and registers of complaints (șikayet defterleri) provide some information on the poor. The social aid system within each neighborhood (mahalle) provided for the needy. Charitable foundations (waqf) gave funding for imarets (soup kitchens for poor).

9- Çorbacı with broom shaped plume, an officer of janissaries (Hörmann-Gemminger, Doha, Orientalist Museum)

Recent research has shed new light on the conditions and the meaning of food distribution in the Ottoman realm. People’s right to eat in imarets was based not only on their socio-economic status, but also on their institutional connections (as students of religious schools or as employees of charitable foundations) or their temporary status as travelers. Charity was framed primarily in terms of patron–client relationships rather than the recipient’s need.29 On a parallel note, the decorum of public kitchens is thought to have supported the Ottoman understanding of social order.30 Yet feeding people in imarets was only part of a larger picture that included food distribution to soldiers, imperial banquets and feasts, and controls on food prices due to concerns about provisioning Istanbul.31

10- A cavalryman (Hörmann-Gemminger, Doha, Orientalist Museum)

The nineteenth century was the final significant turning point as the reform edicts of 1839 and 1856 and the 1876 Constitution furthered centralization and westernization efforts. New policies aimed to establish the rule of law, justice, and equality for all subjects before the law. The abolition of the janissary corps in 1826, with their close connections to Istanbul’s guilds, and the 1838 Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Treaty strengthened the policies of economic liberalism that were already being established.32 Istanbul’s consumption patterns changed significantly during the same period. The division of residential neighborhoods along class and status lines culminated in the second half of the nineteenth century. Elite housing appeared west of Ayasofya and Laleli; Beyoğlu with its street lights became the modern face of Istanbul.33 Public fountains and clock towers were constructed. Popular fashions reflected increased life choices and social mobility, as Istanbul’s non-Muslims and foreigners set fashion trends.34 Chairs (sandalye along with the traditional iskemle) appeared in Istanbul’s houses, first among non-Muslims and then in the households of elite Muslim officials. Muslim households were slow to adopt silverware, which met with resistance until after the 1870s even in elite households.35 Playing musical instruments and going to the theater gained popularity among elite households. Sultan Mahmud II, imposing the fez as the headgear for all government employees, attempted to emphasize homogeneity rather than difference among his subjects, although Ottoman workers in some cases preferred their own dress codes.36

11- Muslims and non-Muslims of Istanbul (The album of Sultan Ahmed I, TopkapıPalace Museum Library, no. B. 408)

The nineteenth century also witnessed long and destructive wars with high social and economic costs. To helpIn order to cope with these, new social aid institutions such as the darü’ş-şafaka, darü’l-eytam, and darü’l-aceze were established. Darü’ş-şafaka, among the first modern education institutions, was a free private boarding school for orphans. The Islamic Education Community (Cemiyyet-i Tedrisiyye-i İslamiyye) founded the school in 1873 based on a French model. Darü’ş-şafaka provided education for both male and female Muslim students.37 Darü’l-eytam were funds that managed the property inherited by orphans on their behalf; while they had existed in earlier centuries as well, they were amended in the nineteenth century and placed under a separate administration.38 Darülaceze was established in 1896 following a ban on begging, with the purpose of providing food, shelter, and health services to the destitute. It served men, women, and children with no ethnic or religious limits.39

12- Sultanahmet Square, the most important meeting place of the people of Istanbul (Flandin)

To conclude, early-imperial Istanbul reflected the traditional class distinction between the administrators and those they ruled, based on tax exemptions and sources of income; however, these differences were not as clear-cut as historians once believed. While government regulations such as dress codes emphasized rank, order, and the superiority of men over women and Muslims over non-Muslims, the late sixteenth century witnessed the beginning of a broad transformation that increasingly blurred boundaries between the rulers and the ruled. In the seventeenth century, major changes shaping early-modern Istanbul included increased numbers of public places and new venues for socializing, especially coffeehouses for men and bathhouses for women. The proliferation of coffeehouses was one of several new consumption trends that also reflected changes in social strata.

A shift toward consumerism and conspicuous elite spending appeared in the eighteenth century as the socio-cultural structure “opened up.” Members of the urban middle class became much more visible in public places, and their tastes gradually changed. The lives of Istanbul’s poorer residents, on the other hand, remained modest, aided by neighborhood organizations and charitable funds.

The nineteenth century brought westernization and modernization efforts that emphasized the equality of all subjects. Residential neighborhoods were divided according to status for the first time. Popular fashions emerged, led by foreigners and non-Muslim Ottomans. Wartime destruction created a need for new social aid mechanisms for orphans and the destitute. These services were extended to women and non-Muslims in accordance with the principle of equality of all Ottoman subjects before the law.


1 Donald Quataert, “Clothing Laws, State, and Society in the Ottoman Empire, 1720-1829,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 1997, vol. 29, p. 407.

2 Cemal Kafadar, “Women in Seljuk and Ottoman Society up to the Mid-19th Century,” 9000 Years of the Anatolian Woman: 29 November 1993-28 February 1994, Istanbul Topkapı Sarayı Museum. Istanbul: Turkish Republic Ministry of Culture, General Directorate of Monuments and Museums, 1993, p. 193.

3 Özer Ergenç, XVI. Yüzyılda Ankara ve Konya, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2012, pp. 172-182.

4 While confiscation was at first used as a punishment for embezzlement and corruption, routine investigations of the property of officials became common especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See Karl K. Barbir, “Bir Osmanlılık Emaresi: Osmanlı Görevlilerinin Mülklerinin Müsadere Edilmesi,” in Osmanlı Dünyasında Kimlik ve Kimlik Oluşumu: Norman Itzkowitz Armağanı, ed. Baki Tezcan and Karl K. Barbir, tr. by Zeynep Nevin Yelçe, Istanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi, 2011, pp. 169-170.

5 Cemal Kafadar, “Yeniçeriler ve Osmanlı Döneminde İstanbul’un Ayaktakımı: Yok Yere mi Asiydiler?” in Osmanlı Dünyasında Kimlik ve Kimlik Oluşumu: Norman Itzkowitz Armağanı, ed.Edited by Baki Tezcan and Karl K. Barbir, transLated by Zeynep Nevin Yelçe, Istanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi, 2011, p. 135-162.

6 Cemal Kafadar, “A Death in Venice (1575): Anatolian Muslim Merchants Trading in the Serenissima”, Journal of Turkish Studies, 1986, vol. 10, pp. 191-217.

7 Gülru Necipoğlu, Architecture, Ceremonial and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991, p. 176.

8 Cemal Kafadar, “Yeniçeri Nizamının Bozulması Üzerine,” in Kim Var imiş Biz Burada Yoğ iken, Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2009, p. 33; Halil İnalcık. “II. Mehmed’in İstanbul’un Rum Ahalisi ve Şehrin Bizans Dönemi Binaları Hakkındaki Politikası,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1969-70, vol. 23/24, p. 245 cited by Kafadar in “Yeniçeri Nizamının Bozulması Üzerine”.

9 Mehmet Genç, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Devlet ve Ekonomi, Istanbul: Ötüken Neşriyat, 2000.

10 For an extensive study of commerce in Egypt, see Nelly Hanna, Making Big Money in 1600, The Life and Times of Isma‘il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

11 Kafadar, “Yeniçeriler ve Osmanlı Döneminde İstanbul’un Ayaktakımı: Yok Yere mi Asiydiler?”, p. 139. See also Eunjeoung Yi, Guild Dynamics in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul: Fluidity and Leverage. Leiden: Brill, 2004, p. 133, 139. Baki Tezcan construed the broader socio-political transformation of the early-modern period as the expansion of the “Ottoman political nation” toward a “collective political identity.” Baki Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire, Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World, New York: Cambridge University, 2010, p. 234.

12 Kafadar, “Yeniçeriler ve Osmanlı Döneminde İstanbul’un Ayaktakımı: Yok Yere mi Asiydiler?”, p. 142.

13 Sema Akyazıcı Özkoçak, “Kamusal Alanın Üretim Sürecinde Erken Modern İstanbul Kahvehaneleri,” in Osmanlı Kahvehaneleri: Mekan, Sosyalleşme, İktidar, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2009, pp. 26, 33, 35. Also Cemal Kafadar, “Turkish Coffeehouse Culture,” (Unpublished Lecture), Turkish Cultural Foundation, Istanbul, January 5, 2010.

14 Özkoçak, “Kamusal Alanın Üretim Sürecinde Erken Modern İstanbul Kahvehaneleri,” pp. 26-27.

15 Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnamesi: I. Kitap, prepared by Orhan Şahik Gökyay, Istanbul: Yapı ve Kredi Bankası, 1996, (96 b, 97 a, 97b), p. 136-37, 38.

16 Suraiya Faroqhi, Stories of Ottoman Men and Women, Establishing Status, Establishing Control, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 2002.

17 Donald Quataert (ed.), Consumption and the History of the Ottoman Empire 1550-1922: An Introduction, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000, pp. 10-11.

18 Suraiya Faroqhi and Christoph Neumann (ed.), The Illuminated Table, The Prosperous House: Food and Shelter in Ottoman Material Culture, Würzburg: Ergon in Kommission, 2003. Comparative studies have shown the same pattern in other Ottoman urban centers. On Salonica, see Meropi Anastassiadou, Salonique, 1830-1912 Une ville ottomane à l’àge des Réformes, Leiden: Brill, 1997.

19 İlber Ortaylı, Osmanlı Toplumunda Aile, Istanbul: Pan Yayıncılık, 2000, pp. 21-33; Cem Behar, A Neighborhood in Ottoman Istanbul, Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2003, pp.1-7.

20 Özer Ergenç, XVI. Yüzyılda Ankara ve Konya, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2012, p. 205.

21 Suraiya Faroqhi, Osmanlı Kültürü ve Gündelik Yaşam, tr. Elif Kılıç. Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2011, p. 148.

22 Shirine Hamadeh, The City’s Pleasures. Istanbul in the Eighteenth Century, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2008, p. 4, 14.

23 Hamadeh, The City’s Pleasures. Istanbul in the Eighteenth Century, p. 8.

24 Halil İnalcık, “Eyüp Sicillerinde Toprak Köy ve Köylü,” Eyüp’te Sosyal Yașam, ed. Tülay Artan, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1998, p. 11. This observation by Halil İnalcık is in conformity with his findings based on the inheritance registers of fifteenth-century Bursa, according to which the wealthiest residents of Bursa were members of the political-military class, and not merchants and textile producers, even in this town renowned for interregional and international trade. See also Cenk Reyhan, Osmanlı’da Kapitalizmin Kökenleri, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2008, pp. 218-219.

25 İnalcık, “Eyüp Sicillerinde Toprak Köy ve Köylü,” pp. 13-14.

26 Fatih Bozkurt, “Tereke Defterleri ve Osmanlı Maddi Kültüründe Değişim (1785-1875 İstanbul Örneği)” (Ph.D. Dissertation), Sakarya University, 2011, p. 245.

27 Tülay Artan, “Orta Halliliğin Aynası,” Eyüp’te Sosyal Yașam, ed. Tülay Artan, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1998, pp. 51-60.

28 For example, English plates and pots (Ingilizkari and Saksonyakari) were sometimes used while dining, in the traditional way, on the floor—Bozkurt, “Tereke Defterleri ve Osmanlı Maddi Kültüründe Değişim”, p. 384.

29 Nina Ergin, Christoph K. Neumann and Amy Singer (ed.), Feeding People, Feeding Power. Imarets in the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 2007, pp. 15-16.

30 Christoph K. Neumann developed this point based on Gülru Necipoğlu’s conceptualization of “architectural decorum.” Nina Ergin, Christoph K. Neumann and Amy Singer (ed.), Feeding People, Feeding Power. Imarets in the Ottoman Empire, p. 286. Gülru Necipoğlu, The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire. London: Reaktion Books, 2005. pp. 71-129, 506-520.

31 Christoph K. Neumann, “Remarks on the Symbolism of Ottoman Imarets,” Feeding People, Feeding Power. Imarets in the Ottoman Empire, ed. Nina Ergin, Christoph K. Neumann and Amy Singer, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 2007, p. 279.

32 Donald Quataert, “The Age of Reforms 1812-1914,” in An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1914, ed. Halil İnalcık and Donald Quataert, New York, NY,: Cambridge University Press,1994, pp. 763-764.

33 Faroqhi, Stories of Ottoman Men and Women. Establishing Status, p. 54.

34 Charlotte Jirousek, “The Transition to Mass Fashion System Dress in the Later Ottoman Empire” in Consumption and the History of the Ottoman Empire 1550-1922: An Introduction, ed. Donald Quataert, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000, p. 227.

35 Bozkurt, “Tereke Defterleri ve Osmanlı Maddi Kültüründe Değişim”, pp. 345-346.

36 Quataert, “Clothing Laws, State, and Society in the Ottoman Empire,” pp. 420-421.

37 Aylin Koç, “Öksüz ve Yetim Çocuklar İçin Kurulmuş Bir Eğitim Kurumu: Darüşşafaka”, in Savaş Çocukları: Öksüzler ve Yetimler, ed. Emine Gürsoy Naskali and Aylin Koç, İstanbul: Umut Kağıtçılık, 2003, pp. 183, 185, 192.

38 Tahsin Özcan, “Osmanlı Toplumunda Yetimlerin Himayesi ve Eytam Sandıkları”, İstanbul Universitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi, 2006, vol. 14, p. 110.

39 Reşat Ekrem Koçu, Darülaceze (1895-1974), Istanbul: Darülacezeye Yardım Derneği, 1974.

This article was originally written in English for History of Istanbul and published in a digitalized form in 2019; and its Turkish translation was published in 2015.