Istanbul has been a center of migration throughout its history. In parallel with political developments affecting the demographic structure of the city, the population of Istanbul, excluding the last years of the Byzantium period, the post-conquest period, and a short period following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, has continuously increased, surpassing the rate of natural increase (birth rate minus death rate) primarily due to migration. Most migration was not voluntary. Examples of forced migration include the transfer to Istanbul of devshirme (young Christian men, mostly from the Balkans, recruited for the Janissary army)1 in the 14th through 17th centuries, and of families from various parts of the empire, brought in to raise the city’s dramatically low population in the post-conquest period. The settlement in Istanbul of thousands of Jews forced to leave Spain at the end of the 15th century, and Muslims leaving the Balkans as the empire contracted in the second half of the 19th century, can be considered semi-forced migration.2

Apart from these exceptions, migration to Istanbul was basically the personal choice of all migrants beyond economic or political reasons. As the capital of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire, and functioning as an economic and political center even during the Republican period when it was no longer the capital, Istanbul emerged as a place of shelter, livelihoods, and employment for people fleeing political turmoil in rural areas, wars, and financial difficulties.

During the Ottoman period, migration to Istanbul occurred despite efforts by the state to discourage it. One of the most frequently used methods to prevent migration to Istanbul was the practice of surety. To be allowed to migrate to Istanbul, people had to prove that there were Istanbul residents prepared to serve as their guarantors, and those who had already migrated or were living in the city were compelled to give guarantees during periodic censuses and controls. Those who were unable to avoid these controls or to find guarantors were sent back to their hometowns. In the mid-19th century, the practice of surety was replaced with a system requiring a mürur tezkiresi (certificate of transit or internal passport). Under this system, anyone wishing to visit Istanbul temporarily or move there permanently had to inform the authorities in their hometown about the purpose of the move and the identity of their guarantors. The number of 17th-century archival records documenting state efforts to prevent migration to Istanbul demonstrate both the state’s concern about this issue and its failure to prevent migration. State opposition to migration was based on economic concerns, such as decreasing rural tax revenues and subsistence problems associated with Istanbul’s increasing population, but also on political concerns. To the authorities, single migrants were disrupters of neighborhood life and potential criminals, but (in Istanbul as in a number of large European cities) they were also necessary for the daily cycle of production and consumption—a dilemma that was undoubtedly one of the most important challenges faced by early-modern political authorities.

State efforts to prevent migration, and even more importantly the fact that migrants had to leave their familiar lives and embark on a difficult and often confusing path, promoted solidarity and the formation of a common identity among migrants and inhabitants. In sociological terms, family, kinship, tribe, community, religion, and ethnicity can all contribute significantly to such a common identity. Nevertheless, in the light of available data, it is possible to assert that the most widespread common identity and solidarity pattern in Ottoman and Republican Istanbul was based on geographical origin. This was called hemşehrilik (sharing the same hometown).

1- A Levend (a handsome, strong youth) (Costumes L’Empire Turc)

Reliable data on migration and hemşehrilik in the Ottoman Empire exist in archival documents, most of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Migration to Istanbul increased to an unprecedented extent in the 18th century, and in parallel with the deepening economic and political crises, it began to be defined as a serious social problem by Ottoman political authorities. As a result of this concern, detailed records and counts were kept on the working population and migrants in Istanbul.

2- An Albanian (Costumes L’Empire Turc)

One of the early enumerations was a 1752 register of the bathhouses (hamams) of Istanbul,3 which was prepared to identify Albanians and remove them from Istanbul, since the main actor behind the 1730 Patrona Halil Rebellion was an Albanian hamam attendant and many Albanians were employed in hamams. According to this register, migrants constituted 90% of the 2,400 employees working in the 177 hamams of Istanbul at the time. Of these migrants, 70% came from Rumelia. 38% of Rumelian migrants were from Avlonya (Vlorë), and 24% from Istarova (Pogradec). Smaller numbers of migrants came from cities that are near each other in what is now southern Albania, including Görice (Korçë), Opar, Berat, Elbasan, and Permedi (Përmet). In other words, two-thirds of hamam attendants in Istanbul in the mid-18th century came from a few geographically close cities.4 The connection of this region with Istanbul hamams probably dates back to earlier periods. For example, Evliya Çelebi, visiting the city of Berat in 1670, noted that members of the peasant population of the city migrated to Istanbul and worked in hamams.5

3- An Egyptian (left) and Turkish woman (Thomas Shaw)

4- An Albanian in his local attires (Miller)

A series of esnaf kefalet defteri (artisan surety registers) prepared in the 1790s enable comprehensive observations not only about hamams but also about migration and hemşehri relations in the entire working population of Istanbul.6 Encompassing nearly 45,000 people employed in shops, gardens, and docks in Istanbul, many entries label inhabitants as local or indicate their hometown. The records reveal that 55% of those working in stores and gardens and 77% of those working as boatmen or porters were migrants.

A cursory examination of these registers suggests that different religious communities specialized in different occupations. Register entries for occupations with a substantial number of workers indicate that a large majority of grocers and garden workers were Rum (Orthodox Greek), bakers and potters were Armenian, and people working in coffee shops, barber shops, and hamams were Muslim. Barbers, leather dealers, toy makers, ironsmiths, and tinsmiths were generally Muslim, while Greeks worked as coarse-wool weavers, makersdiary workers, candle makers, and furriers, Armenians as locksmiths, tailors, and tobacco dealers, and Jews as silk dealers, doctors, and tinsmiths. Some occupations were practiced by members of more than one community. For example, Muslims and Jews worked as herbalists; Greeks and Jews ran taverns; Greeks, Armenians, and Muslims worked as cooks; and Muslims, Jews, and Greeks worked as butchers and greengrocers. Shop owners and their journeymen and apprentices generally belonged to the same religious community. This was especially true of small businesses such as grocery stores, tobacco shops, barbershops, and coffee shops; in businesses with more than five or six employees, such as bakeries, hamams, pottery factories, and slaughterhouses, owners and workers often belonged to different religious communities.

5- A Greek woman with her child (Miller)

6- A Syrian Arab (Miller)

An exclusive focus on ethnic and religious divisions of labor would, however, ignore other potential ties among Ottoman artisans that could have played a major role in shaping the choice of occupation and use of labor. In this respect, hemşehrilik ties are worth special mention. Considering the vast territories of the empire and high rates of immigration at the end of the 18th century, it is remarkable that migrants to Istanbul came from a limited number of places—mainly (1) the central Balkans and Macedonia, (2) west of the Black Sea, and (3) the central and western parts of eastern Anatolia. This pattern was no doubt related to the structure of the migration chain connecting emigrant-sending places to Istanbul. Hemşehrilik ties were the strongest connection between earlier and more recent migrants to Istanbul. The registers indicate that the most decisive aspect of migration was the fact that migrants not only had the same occupation as their hemşehris but also worked at the same location. It was rare for masters, journeymen, apprentices, or even boatmen or porters from different hometowns to work at the same place. This pattern provides insight into the relations between employers and employees. Considering the fact that a significant number of workers also slept in the workplace, it is conceivable that business owners hired fellow townsmen and paid them low wages but provided them with shelter.

7- A Turk in fur robe (Miller)

To illustrate, in the approximately 500 grocery stores in Istanbul, while the majority of owners and employees were Rum, most of their hometowns were in Grebene (Grevena) and Agrafa in the Balkans and İncesu in central Anatolia. Migrants from Grevena worked, apart from grocery stores, only in gardens, especially those along the Bosphorus. Even more strikingly, almost all migrants from Agrafa who settled on the Bosphorus, but none of those who settled in the Haliç (Golden Horn), worked as grocers. This suggests that immigrants’ choices of occupation and settlement area were not arbitrary or coincidental. Rather, the connections they built with their hemşehris either before or after their arrival in Istanbul had the greatest influence on these choices. This network of relations explains the absence of grocers from Agrafa and the plentitude of grocers from Grebene in the Haliç, and the small number of grocers and great number of gardeners from Grebene on the Bosphorus.

8- A Tatar (Miller)

Not only grocers but also most gardeners were Rum. Almost all gardeners working as tenants in nearly 550 gardens owned by Ottoman elites were migrants, and the emigration percentages indicate that they arrived in Istanbul from neighboring Albanian and Macedonian regions, such as Përmet, Ohri (Ohrid), Grevena, Manastır (Monastir), Avlonya (Vlorë), and Yanya (Ioannina). Nearly all of those who arrived from Ohrid, 95% of those from Përmet, and more than half of those from Monastir did not work in any other occupation except gardening.

Approximately 75% of Istanbul’s 100 bakeries and mills were run by Armenians, and almost the entire labor force in these businesses was composed of migrants. A considerable number of bakery and mill workers were Armenian; Muslims also had a substantial presence. All workers, whether Armenian or Muslim, migrated from geographically proximate towns such as Ağın, Karahisar, Kuruçay, Erzurum, Sivas, and Divriği, which suggests that hemşehri ties were stronger than religious affiliations.

Most employees of Muslim hamam owners in the mid-18th century were Muslims who had migrated from one of several cities in southern Albania. By the end of the century, state efforts to ward off hamam employees of Albanian origin must have been successful, since people emigrating from Anatolia were employed in hamams as well. Whether Muslim or Armenian, a large majority of Anatolian migrants came from Sivas.

Almost all of those who migrated from Kalifer (Kalofer) were involved in aba (cloak) making, whereas more than half of those who migrated from Sakız (Chios) worked as lemon sellers. A considerable number of those who came from Kayseri performed jobs such as lumbering, stone cutting, and nail making.

9- Greek and Armenian women (M. Fuad)

Hemşehri solidarity was one of the most determinant factors for workers on Istanbul’s docks, in particular porters and boatmen. In addition to job preferences, hemşehri relations formed at a local level served as the main determinant factor for porters and boatmen, nearly all of whom were unskilled workers. To illustrate, all 87 back porters (arka hamalı) at the docks of Ahırkapı, seven of the eight horse porters (at hamalı), and 30 of 92 registered boatmen were migrants from Kemah. Of the 51 back porters at the docks of Büyük and Vezir in Bahçekapı, 31 were from Ürgüp, and 10 of these porters were from Çankırı; nearly all 71 back porters at the Eminönü Hasır docks came from Çankırı and Divriği; 63 of the 74 back porters at the docks of Çatladıkapı were from Erzincan or Kemah. A great majority of porters at the docks of Kereste in Odunkapısı migrated from Sivas, whereas most of the boatmen at the docks of Tulumba came from Kırili in Konya. More than half of the 122 back porters at the docks of Kumkapı and all of the lumberjacks were from Harput; a large majority of porters and boatmen at the docks of Samatya were from Sivas and Kastamonu, respectively; 39 of the 52 back porters at the docks of Davutpaşa came from Arapkir, and 11 were from Divriği, which is near Arapkir; 25 of the 27 back porters at the docks of Cibali came from Sivas; 70 of the 131 back porters at the docks of Unkapanı came from Tokat; 48 of these and half the boatmen were from Kastamonu and Erzincan, respectively; 54 of the 59 back porters at the docks of Balat came from Çankırı or Sivas. The situation was similar outside the Istanbul city walls. All 22 back porters at the Eyüp Defterdar docks were from Sivas and Divriği, and most of the horse porters came from Ağın; almost all mavnacıs (barge workers) in Hasköy came from Van or Kemah, and more than half of the sakas (water carriers) were from Erzurum or Karahisar; the majority of porters at the docks of Tophane came from Kuruçay; all porters at the docks of Çavuşbaşı in Tophane came from Sivas. Horse porters at the docks of Fındıklı came from Erzurum or Kuruçay; 37 of the 48 back porters and 39 of the 120 boatmen at the docks of Beşiktaş were from Sivas and Taşköprü in Kastamonu, respectively. All 15 porters at Beyoğlu Firuzağa came from Ağın; 16 of 20 yedekçi (towing workers), who helped boats pass Akıntıburnu in Arnavutköy, were from Karahisar, and four of these were from Boyabat; all 10 manure boatmen at the docks of Büyükdere came from Boyabat; nearly all the porters at the docks of Üsküdar were from Tosya in Kastamonu, a significant majority of boatmen were from Çankırı-Çerkeş, and a relative number from Abana in Kastamonu; 31 of the 52 sırık hamals (porters using poles) at the docks of Ayazma came from Kastamonu, and 12 of these came from Sivas; 26 of 29 merkepçis (porters using donkeys) at the docks of Çöplük came from Kayseri; 12 of 14 gardening boatmen at Anadolu Kavağı came from Filibe (Plovdiv) or Tırnovo (Tarnovo); a large majority of the fishermen at the docks of İncirköyü came from the geographically proximate towns of Kızanlık (Kazanlak) and Plovdiv.

10- A Bosnian man (Miller)

All of the instances above demonstrate that rather than an emigrant’s individual decision, it was the hemşehri relationship that served as the determinant factor for migration to Istanbul’s fiercely competitive labor market. These ties not only determined occupational specialization but also played a key role in defining artisans’ identities and affiliations. In other words, since an emigrant’s occupation was almost always acquired following migration rather than at the place of origin, it was determined to a significant extent without recourse to the individual’s preferences. Patterns of occupational specialization did not remain steady over the years, and changes in these could determine the occupations of later emigrants. For instance, emigrants from Ağın, who, at the end of the 18th century, were generally bakers and to a lesser extent butchers, become mostly butchers by the mid-19th century.7 Emigrants from Arapkir, Ağın, and Divriği, largely settled in the Kasap İlyas neighborhood in Davutpaşa, took up different occupations; unlike at the end of the 18th century, in the 19th century they began to work as manav küfecisis (grocery porters) or as civil servants, which was a new occupation in this period. 8

Hemşehri ties affected people’s choices of occupation and neighborhood in Istanbul to a remarkable extent. These ties existed even in the Janissary Corps at the beginning of the 19th century;9 for instance, members of the 25th regiment (cemaat) were from Erzurum and Van, while those of the 56th regiment were mostly from Gerede.

State efforts to prevent migration to Istanbul using the surety system or mürur tezkiresi ceased by the 20th century, and transportation improved. Particularly in the 1950s, Turkey experienced a tremendous increase in migration as the country industrialized and job opportunities expanded and diversified. However, migrants to Istanbul in Republican Turkey experienced difficulties and hardships similar to those of the Ottoman period. Without the formal and informal social networks that connected their home region to Istanbul, it would not have been possible for migrants to meet basic needs such as employment and housing. For this reason, hemşehri ties still played an indispensible role.

There are many examples of the way the urban production system of the 17th century—which was built on hemşehri solidarity and under which workers provided cheap labor, loyalty, and trust in exchange for surety, work, and a place to live—continued in 20th-century Turkey. A study of labor in Kağıthane district in Istanbul at the beginning of the 1970s noted that a majority of employees in factories with fewer than 50 employees were hemşehris of the factory owners.10

Studies of job seeking and the demographic features of squatters and new neighborhoods formed as a result of rapid urbanization have identified not only the facilitating impact of hemşehri solidarity on migration to Istanbul but also its consolidating effect on hemşehri ties. A myriad of settlements emerged as a result of chain migrations to Istanbul in the 1950s, and these places were named after the migrants’ city or region of origin. This demonstrates the continuing and intensified urbanization trend since the Ottoman era. Moving together into new neighborhoods in Istanbul established through hemşehri ties, these new migrants demanded services from local and central authorities and were able to present themselves as organized interest groups based on a common hemşehri identity rather than as detached and alienated individuals.11 At least 15 mayors voted into office during the 2007 municipal elections were born in one of the 10 cities that sent the most migrants to Istanbul, demonstrating the continuing impact of hemşehri ties on politics.12

Today, 10% of the associations active throughout Turkey are hemşehri associations. In 2007, approximately half of the 7,384 existing hemşehri associations were located in the city that receives the most migration, Istanbul.13 Today, unlike 200 years ago when it received migrants from only a few regions, Istanbul welcomes immigrants from all over Turkey. However, chain migration and old hemşehri ties continue to bring forward the most migrant-sending Anatolian cities. For example, approximately 79% of hemşehri electorates were not registered in Istanbul, and nearly 40% of these were made up of migrants from 10 cities.14 Sivas and Kastamonu were the two cities with the highest rates of migration to Istanbul, as they were at the end of the 18th century, which suggests the stability of chain migration based on hemşehri ties.


1 Translator’s note: “Devshirme System [Gravure],” in Children and Youth in History, Item #464, (accessed July 18, 2014).

2 Cem Behar, A Neighborhood in Ottoman Istanbul: Fruit Vendors and Civil Servants in the Kasap İlyas Mahalle, Albany: State University of New York, 2003, p. 95.

3 Nina Ergin, “The Albanian Tellāk Connection: Labor Migration to the Hamams of Eighteenth-Century Istanbul Based on the 1752 İstanbul Hamāmları Defteri”, Turcica, 2012, vol. 43, pp. 231-256.

4 Ergin, “The Albanian Tellāk Connection”, p. 246.

5 Ergin, “The Albanian Tellāk Connection”, p. 247.

6 For a general introduction to these registers and their catalogue numbers in the archives, see Cengiz Kırlı and Betül Başaran, “18. Yüzyıl Sonlarında Osmanlı Esnafı”, Osmanlı’dan Cumhuriyet’e Esnaf ve Ticaret, ed. Fatmagül Demirel, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2012, pp. 7-20.

7 Zeki Arıkan, “Tanzimat Döneminde Eğin Yöresinden İstanbul’a Göçler”, Tanzimat’ın 150. Yıldönümü Uluslararası Sempozyumu, Bildiriler, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1994, pp. 467-481.

8 Behar, A Neighborhood in Ottoman Istanbul, pp. 113-120.

9 Câbî Ömer Efendi, Tarih, ed. Mehmet Ali Beyhan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1992, p. 440, 502.

10 Alan Dubetsky, “Kinship, Primordial Ties, and Factory Organization in Turkey: An Anthropological View”, IJMES, 1976, vol. 7, issue 3, pp. 433-451.

11 Ayşe Güneş-Ayata, “Gecekondularda Kimlik Sorunu, Dayanışma Örüntüleri ve Hemşehrilik”, Toplum ve Bilim, 1990-1991, issue 51-52, p. 89.

12 Nail Yılmaz, Hemşehri Kimliği: Kastamonulular Örneği, Istanbul: Beta, 2008, pp. 42-43.

13 Yılmaz, Hemşehri Kimliği, p. 34.

14 Yılmaz, Hemşehri Kimliği, p. 41.

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