Istanbul, long the capital of empires, has been among the most populous cities of the world since it was founded. In the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, it had the largest population of any Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or European city until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England and Europe. The population of the city was about 50,000 when it was conquered by Mehmed II in 1453. It is believed to have experienced a substantial population decline in the last years of the Byzantine Empire, but it did not take long to return to earlier population levels; the importance given to the new capital city, Ottoman administrators’ residence there, and its growth potential independent from the political authority were influential in this. By the mid-16th century, the city’s population reached the hundreds of thousands and included a variety of religious, cultural, and ethnic components. Istanbul families both contributed to the formation of this demographic structure and functioned in a social context substantially shaped by it. Thus they had greater variety than families in other parts of the Ottoman Empire.

The concept of the Istanbul family had a comprehensive frame, including family types such as the dynasty formed by the sultan and his imperial household, big houses such as the mansions housing senior state administrators, small families that migrated to the capital from different parts of the empire, Muslim families, which constituted a significant portion of Istanbul’s population, non-Muslim families shaped by different beliefs and cultures, and humble families of janissary corps veterans. It is possible to detect similarities as well as differences between these families in terms of religion, culture, politics, socioeconomic status, and other traits. Some people who study the Ottoman family emphasize the comparatively high number of similarities even in families they study under separate topics within the framework of millet system.1

Important topics in family history include marriage and the formation of the family, family life, family types, family relations, fertility, the structure and the size of the family, relations with the extended family, family law, and the breakup of families. Sociology and anthropology are the leading disciplines that study the family, as well as history. This study focuses on the historical dimensions of the Istanbul family—including fertility, the structure and size of the house, the prevalence of polygamy or monogamy, marriage experiences, bonds within the extended family, the roles of women and men in the family, and comparisons of families in different social contexts.

This is a productive area of study that will help us understand the present as well as the past. Demographic and cultural changes in Istanbul households in the second half of the 19th century set an example for other cities and helped shape the Turkish family structure of the Republic era. Transformations similar to those experienced in Western family structure with industrialization, such as small/nuclear family structure, low birth rate, and a rise in marriage age, appeared first in Ottoman Istanbul and other Islamic states, and similar processes occurred in other regions with a delay of 50 to 100 years, which makes the historical experience of Istanbul families more significant. The spread of the influence of Istanbul families to far-off places was not limited to the last period of the empire. Ottoman Istanbul was a cosmopolitan city throughout its history, and the institution of the family—which was represented, reproduced, and transferred by particularly distinguished environments and inhabitants to the next generations and environments—has always been important, as well as accommodating families from very different regions.

1- A wedding parade in Istanbul (Guer)

The most distinguished and remarkable family of the capital and the empire was the Ottoman dynasty from the conquest of Istanbul to 1924 when they were exiled. The Osmanoğulları, which took its place among the long-lasting dynasties of history, should be considered separately from the other families of the capital.

Marriage and Polygamy

As a start to the history of Istanbul families, we can specify the marriage practices, marriage strategies of individuals and groups, and relations established through marriage—in short, the fact of marriage. Marriage was considered the ideal state for adults; single people must have constituted a very small group in all eras. In 1907, when marriage practices started changing and the number of single people increased, nearly 2% of women and 5% of men stayed single in Istanbul.2 The number of widowed people who entered a second or third marriage after an earlier marriage ended due to death or divorce. Although the evidence is not adequate to determine the average marriage age except during the last period, we can assume that people married at a young age until the mid-19th century. Age at marriage began to rise for men and women at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1907, the average age at the first marriage approached 30 among Muslim men and rose to over 20 for women.

Wedding and marriage ceremonies had legal, religious, and cultural dimensions. These ceremonies enabled the establishment of families and meant legitimacy and approval for the newly established household. Marriage not only establishes a bond between a man and a woman; it also establishes relationships among whole families and lineages, in Istanbul as in every society.

The relationships of affinity established through marriage were commonly through in-group marriages. Social status naturally affected marriages and family structures, although vertical and horizontal mobility was accepted. Criteria such as social status, wealth, lifestyle, and cultural accumulation were fairly determinative in the marriage preferences of elite Istanbul families. Although little is known on the subject, this notion seems reasonable, based on some examples. The affinity relationships established later between notable ulama families provide an example. The information given regarding the owner of the inheritance and the father of his spouse in the inheritance of people from this group (particularly women) indicates the relationship established between two important families. For example, the father of Fatma Zehra Molla Hanım, who was the owner of the November-dated inheritance, was one of the previous sheikh al-Islams es-Seyyid Mehmed Molla Efendi, and the father of her husband, Mehmed Emin Molla Efendi, who served as the qadi of Mecca, was one of the sheikh al-islams as well (Veliyüddin Efendi).3 The marriage strategy of the Dürrîzades, an important family in 18th century Istanbul that included professors, kadıasker, and sheikh al-islams, favored establishment of relationships of affinity with leading ulama families such as the Paşmakçızades and Feyzullahzades.

2- A wedding parade in Istanbul: The gifts going in the front is followed by the bride’s dowry. Bridal carriage goes in the back of the parade.

Another remarkable social group in terms of marriage strategy was the janissaries. The majority of women chosen by veteran janissaries as wives were slaves. The average age of veterans who chose a woman whose father’s name was listed as Abdullah in court records must have been high. Inheritance records indicate that such families were small; in many cases, at least half of the inheritance went to the state treasury.

3- The passage of a wedding parade from Sultanahmet Square (Motraye)

Until recently, it was widely believed, partly due to the strong influence of orientalist writings, that polygamy (teaddüd-i zevcât) was common among Muslim men in Ottoman society. Recent studies have, however, pointed out that this view was not based on quantitative data or reliable sources and was inaccurate. According to inheritance records, the primary historical sources on the Ottoman family, polygamy existed to a certain extent both in the capital and in other Ottoman cities. But the proportion of Muslim men who were married to more than one woman at the same time between the 15th and 19th centuries in various Ottoman cities—from Edirne to Damascus, Aleppo to Bursa, and Thessaloniki to Antep, as well as Istanbul—rarely exceeded 10%. The rate of monogamy among military men was 92.8%, according to a study of Istanbul qadi registers in the 17th century.4 The polygamy rate stayed unchanged for this group in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only 8.2% of Muslim men from the administrative class left more than one spouse as their heir when they died. Outside this class, there are only a few examples of ordinary Istanbul people who had polygamous families. Of 156 Muslim men who were married when they died and left inheritance records, only four (2.5%) were polygamous.5 According to the inheritance records, polygamous Istanbul Muslim men were in the minority. Although the proportion was low for every section of society, polygamy seems to have been more common among people with greater status and wealth.

3- The passage of a wedding parade from Sultanahmet Square (Motraye)

Sources for the second half of the 19th century have greater reliability, content richness, and scope. According to the court records that included information regarding families within the framework of examples recorded, population records that aimed to count the whole population, including women, and included important demographic and sociological data about families, indicated that monogamous families were dominant in Istanbul; 2.51% of married Muslim men were polygamous in 1885 and 2.16% in 1907.6

4- An Istanbul family (M. Fuad)

A late-19th-century observer noted:

Polygamy that is shaped by law and that requires patience and endurance in terms of mind is under some limitations in theory; these limitations are even stricter in practice. Today, we hardly ever encounter polygamy in the educated portion of Ottoman society; at least, it is too rare to be compared to the unofficial polygamy in the West.7

R. Mantran stated that polygamy was possible among the wealthy and pointed out the similarity between the modest families of the West and their Ottoman equivalents in the context of family life based on monogamy: “And the majority of Turks are actually monogamous, and they lead [a] family life that is not different from the modest Western families except [for] a few traditions.”8 The German reverend Schweigger, who was in Istanbul between 1578 and 1581, also thought that polygamy was not common among Turkish people.9

5- A family in Istanbul while having fun (Mery)

In addition to being monogamous, most Istanbul families were relatively small. Due to the scarcity of sources related to family structure, this observation should be used cautiously for the long period from the mid-15th century to the last quarter of the 19th century. Judging from the censuses of 1885 and 1907, which provided significant data on Istanbul households, the most common family type in Istanbul was the nuclear family, comprised of a husband, wife, and children.

Family Structure and Size

The average number of people in the families of the Ottoman era has been a primary focus of research. The concept of household size, a key concept in family history studies, makes it possible to assess the issue in a broad frame. Monogamy or polygamy, number of children, and the presence of family members other than spouses and children not only help determine family size but are important subjects of family history studies in their own right.

Historical sources give an inexact picture of family structure and size. Inheritance records provide comprehensive and relatively regular information over a long time span beginning in the empire. Therefore, almost all studies of Ottoman families have been based on them. Lists of heirs have been used in particular to examine family size.

However, these records cannot satisfactorily answer all questions about the family. One limitation that has not often been discussed by researchers is the fact that these records did not specify whether heirs belonged to the same household and thus cannot give a complete picture of household structure and size. For instance, they are silent about big houses accommodating multiple families. Apart from this, they are relatively useful sources on nuclear family structure. However, inheritance records could also make a family look like a nuclear family when it is not. They are legal texts and can give important information about the family within their scope. They were the most valuable sources on the family until more advanced population records began to be kept in the last quarter of the 19th century.

The inheritance records (which listed legal heirs but did not state whether they lived under the same roof or not) make it clear that the size of Istanbul families, which were commonly monogamous, was determined by the number of their children, and the size of the household would be determined by adding the parents to the number of the children. The average number of children per family in Istanbul in the 17th century was 2.18; this rose to 2.5 between 1785 and 1875. Both numbers are low; the birth rate of women was probably higher. Lady Montagu, who was in Istanbul in 1717–1718, stated that the fertility rate in Ottoman society was high, that most of the women she knew had 12 or 13 children, and that half of these children died of the plague or other reasons.

Because inheritance records listed only heirs (people who were still alive) and child deaths were common, they are not a good source on fertility rates. More importantly, inheritance records did not include information about Ottoman families within the context of examples recorded. A significant portion of the inheritance records were apparently written as a result of the death of young parents who left behind young children. Clearly, families who were not biologically mature or whose growth was incomplete were not representative, in terms of numbers of children, of society as a whole. The average numbers of children per family in different Ottoman cities between the 16th and 19th centuries are very similar. Small family structure has been emphasized by researchers as the most important demographic feature of Ottoman society.

6- Children and their mothers while waiting a boat on Tophane shores (Halaire, Topkapı Palace Museum)

Court and population records, particularly inheritance records, exist for non-Muslim people in Istanbul as well. However, these families have not been the focus of academic research except for the 1785–1875 period. For this period, the number of children in Muslim and non-Muslim families can be compared using data from inheritance records; the comparison is significant because it is based on similar types of records. Non-Muslims had substantially more children than Muslims in this period, on average three and two children, respectively. The number of children in the inheritance records of women and men changed with a similar ratio in favor of men.10

7- Istanbul ladies (Preziosi)

More information on Istanbul families came to light with population records that counted the population on the basis of households along with detailed demographic data. The fertility rate was 3.5 in 1885 and 3.88 in 1907, but by 1945, it had fallen to 2.41. This can be explained by the radical changes experienced by families, women, and children.11 Population records are particularly useful for studies on family structure, which are not possible for earlier periods because of the more limited data. The size of Istanbul families, which varied depending on socioeconomic status and the breadwinner’s profession, ranged from 4.1 to 5.7 in 1907. The households of senior public officials were the largest. Both multiple- and extended-family structures were common in this social class, and the mansion type family model was shaped. Female slaves also increased the size of households defined as mansion style families. Most (53%) of the households of artisans and craftsmen were nuclear families. Nuclear families are said to have been common among elite people and other public officials as well.

Divorce, Death and Marriage

Ali Rıza Bey described Istanbul of the 13th the 19th century, including the lifestyle of the common people, including marital and family conflicts. He described a poor woman who filed for divorce and asked for alimony.12 That story took place during the last period of Ottoman Istanbul, but similar stories could be found in earlier centuries. The majority of divorce suits preserved in court records were initiated by women. For Muslim women, divorce meant giving up some financial benefits.13

Divorce was allowed under certain circumstances in Orthodox Christianity, which had stricter rules regarding marriage and divorce than Judaism and Islam. Roman Catholicism strictly forbid divorce.14 Christian residents of the capital, primarily Greek and Armenian Orthodox, may well have had lower divorce rates than Muslims. Divorce practices among Christians in Istanbul were very similar to those of Muslims. A Greek or Armenian woman would consult the ecclesiastical court and separate from her husband through official methods. Nearly 60 divorce records in the court registry in Üsküdar in the first half of the 18th century give us an idea about how often Christians used the Muslim courts to pursue divorce.15

Although divorce was an option, most marriages ended with the death of one of one spouse. Epidemics, the inadequacy of preventive medicine, living standards, wars, and natural disasters were the main factors that shaped the demographic structure. The deaths of children and young parents were fairly common, and average life expectancy was shorter than it is now. A child’s death, while it no doubt caused great grief, did not affect the continuity of family life. The death of a mother or a father, on the other hand, ended the existing family and marriage structure. Some widowed people, particularly women, remained single, while others married again. Records include indirect information regarding men and women who married for the second or the third time. The population records of the last period contain regular data about Istanbulians who married again. Records indicate that 21.9% of Muslim women in Istanbul married two or more times in 1906–1940.16

A complicated family structure could result from a marriage that took place after a divorce or a spouse’s death; it can be assumed that these were relatively common. Sources are silent about how half-siblinghood and step-parenthood affected family life and relations.

In conclusion, this work has discussed the Istanbul family during the Ottoman period, which is a very broad research area. The cosmopolitan city identity was reflected in the structure of the families of Istanbul as well, and enabled the existence of different family types that cannot be compared to those of other cities. Mansion type families formed by the most distinguished households of Istanbul have been one of the leading family types of both the capital and the empire, sociologically and culturally, throughout history. Changes and transformations experienced by Istanbul households shaped the Turkish family structure of the Republic era. This study will contribute to the understanding of family structure not only in the past but also in modern-day Turkey.


1 İlber Ortaylı, Osmanlı Toplumunda Aile, Istanbul: Pan Yayıncılık, 2000, p. 6.

2 Alan Duben and Cem Behar, İstanbul Haneleri: Evlilik, Aile ve Doğurganlık: 1880-1940, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1996, s. 138.

3 Fatma Zehra Molla Hanım’ın terekesi için see. Şer‘iyye Sicilleri Arşivi, Kısmet-i Askeriye Mahkemesi, no. 530, fol. 22b-23b.

4 Said Öztürk, “Tereke Defterlerine Göre XVII. Asırda İstanbul’da Aile Nüfusu, Servet Yapısı ve Dağılımı”, İstanbul Araştırmaları, 1997, no. 3, p. 31.

5 Fatih Bozkurt, “Tereke Defterleri ve Osmanlı Demografi Araştırmaları”, TD, 2012, no. 54, p. 95 ff.

6 Duben and Behar, İstanbul Haneleri, pp. 161-162.

7 Murad Efendi, Türkiye Manzaraları, tr. Alev Sunata Kırım, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2007, p. 212.

8 Robert Mantran, XVI. ve XVII. Yüzyılda İstanbul’da Gündelik Hayat, tr. Mehmet Ali Kılıçbay, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 1991, p. 155.

9 Salomon Schweigger, Sultanlar Kentine Yolculuk: 1578-1581, ed. H. Stein, tr. S. Türkis Noyan, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2004, p. 210.

10 Bozkurt, “Tereke Defterleri”, pp. 100-101.

11 Duben and Behar, İstanbul Haneleri, p. 175 ff.

12 Balıkhâne Nâzırı Ali Rıza Bey, Eski Zamanlarda İstanbul Hayatı, ed. Ali Şükrü Çoruk, Istanbul: Kitabevi, 2001, p. 9-11. Alimony cases had to be related to the alimony demanded for children, as divorced women gave up some financial rights with the termination of the marriage. Mothers were generally given custody of the children. Fathers were responsible for child support, but, judging by the frequency of child-support lawsuits initiated by women, they appear to have frequently ignored this duty.

13 The types of divorce in Ottoman society where Islamic law was applied were divorce of a wife by her husband (talak), official divorce (muhalaa), and separation (tefrik). In talak-style divorces, husbands took on significant financial responsibilities, including the dowry they had promised at the time of the marriage and alimony. Tefrik was granted by a judge for legal reasons. According to Ottoman court records, talak was uncommon and tefrik even more so. Muhalaa, the most common type of Ottoman divorce, was based on a mutual legal agreement between the parties and was usually requested by women and approved by men. In many muhalaa cases, women relinquished their dowry and alimony, and children accepted additional financial responsibilities, such as paying for the care of their father. On Ottoman family law, see also Mehmed Akif Aydın, İslâm-Osmanlı Aile Hukuku, Istanbul: Marmara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Vakfı (İFAV), 1985.

14 The two traits brought by Christianity to the European family structure are considered to be regulations regarding divorce and baptism parenthood. See Jack Goody, Avrupa’da Aile: Bir Tarihsel-Antropolojik Deneme, tr. Serpil Arısoy, Istanbul: Literatür Yayınları, 2004, p.13.

15 I thank Nevzat Erkan for kindly sharing his research notes on this topic.

16 Duben and Behar, İstanbul Haneleri, pp. 142.

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