The Ottoman approach to begging was based on Islamic values, which encourage helping the needy but discourage begging. The Ottomans, aiming to develop a system in which no one would be in need, developed a charitable organization that operated public kitchens, inns, and low-cost housing across the empire. Disabled people received financial support from the state treasury. This is documented in the salary record books of the poor (muhtacîn maaş defterleri) found in the Ottoman Archives. For example, Süleyman the Magnificent established a hostel (tavhane) for blind beggars and provided food for them in the public kitchens.
The earliest known documents on begging originated in the 16th century. An imperial decree dated 3 May 1567, sent to the qadi responsible for the area outside the walled city of Istanbul (haslarkadısı), stated that beggars in that area were different from the beggars in the city, and it was inappropriate for them to walk around the cemeteries. Statements in the imperial decree make it clear that beggars had also been mentioned in previous regulations.
Imperial decrees sent to the qadi of Istanbul on 6 July 1568 and 13 March 1576 ordered that people who were not old or ill and were able to work should not be allowed to beg, that those begging while disguised as a blind person, concubine, or slave should be sent from the city, and that people with the right to beg should be registered with the qadi administration. The same documents indicate that madrassa students could go to the villages to work as imams in the summers (cerre çıkmak), that young women were begging disguised as old women, and that the people responsible for supervising beggars sometimes accepted bribes to let people beg. The documents also dictated that military officers carrying out police duties should not prevent people from begging if they had the right to beg, and should not take bribes to let other people beg; that people who begged without authorization would be sentenced to hard labor; and that young women caught begging would be severely punished. Beggars were required to show their begging permits individually rather than collectively so as to prevent exploitation. Inspection and supervision of the beggars was the responsibility of a subaşı (commissioned officer) under the administration of the qadi. Police officers under the charge of the subaşı were assigned as dilenciler başbuğu (chieftain of the beggars) to protect the rights of the beggars and prevent anyone from treating them unjustly. Documents record that able-bodied people who begged were exiled. The goal was that people would be employed according to their skills and save themselves from the humiliation of begging.
Registers of people with begging permits were maintained by the qadi, and a copy was kept by the subaşı. A record book dated 14 July 1736 provides information on the nationalities, ages, duration of begging, and health conditions of the beggars around Istanbul and Galata. All 289 beggars recorded in the book were non-Muslims; they included religious functionaries such as priests and monks. The fact that there were no Muslims in these records demonstrates the social impact of zekat (obligatory alms) and sadaka (charity) as well as the Muslim stance against begging. This situation is also described in travel books written by foreigners visiting Istanbul.
A July 1793 proclamationedict ordered that non-Muslim beggars in Istanbul were to be taken to the hospitals of their respective religious communities to be cared for, the healthy ones were to be sent to their home countries, and thus people in the bazaars and markets would be saved from solicitation by beggars. To this end, three run-down hospitals in the Greek communities in Galata, Beyoğlu, and Yedikule were repaired at no cost to the communities, and sick beggars were cared for there. The same was true for the hospital of the Armenian community in Istanbul, Narlikapi.
Policies on begging changed beginning in the 18th century. Attempts were made to rehabilitate people by employing them and improving their condition, and the state began to help people who were not able to work, so that they would not need to beg. With these efforts, the state welfare policies directly addressed begging. However during the 19th century, the agricultural economy fell into crisis, and migration from the Balkans and the Caucasus significantly increased the population in Ottoman cities, especially Istanbul. Under these conditions of economic and financial crisis, it was impossible for the state to deal adequately with begging-related problems.
With the collapse of the economy and the loss of imperial lands, numerous unemployed people flocked into Istanbul during the Tanzimat Era. Records of the Dilenciler Müdürlüğü (Directorate of Beggars) and several other sources indicate that the number of beggars had increased remarkably compared to the classical period. The number of Muslim and non-Muslim permanent beggars increased to 2,700 in this period. At the beginning of the Tanzimat Period, the Seele Kethüdalığı (Chamberlain of Beggars) was founded to enforce the regulations on begging. Under this system, the beggars chose their own chiefsstewards. The exact date of the founding of this institution is not known, and the only known document related to it is one dated 15 May 1819 granting forgiveness to the beggar Chamberlain Yusuf, who was exiled to Bursa because of his inappropriate attitudes. This institution probably continued to exist until the founding of the Seele Müdürlüğü (Directorate of Beggars. The earliest document relating to this Directorate was dated 7 August 1834.
Istanbul, as the center of the Ottoman administration, was an attractive destination for beggars, unemployed people, and idlers. Therefore, the entrances and exits of the city were always kept under control and single rooms were inspected from time to time. People found wandering around the city without a guarantor were sent to their home countries. Those deported from Istanbul usually asked to be sent to Mecca or Medina. Some people entered Ottoman territory on the pretext of going on a pilgrimage and did not leave afterward; they constituted the majority of the beggars coming to Ottoman lands. This became a concern for the Ottoman state, known as “the issue of poor pilgrims” during the Second Constitution Period, and remained a problem for a long time.
People were also not allowed to go abroad to beg; poor people had to provide a guarantor to be granted a passport. This principle was decided on 6 December 1883 and reported to all the city administrations. People attempting to go abroad to beg were mostly members of non-Muslim communities.
The most significant initiative to reduce begging in the Ottoman Empire was the founding of the Darülaceze (Alms House) during the reign of Abdulhamid II; it began operations in 1896. The Darülaceze was planned as a fully equipped institution with hospitals, nurseries, orphanages, and an adârü’s-sa’y (employment agency) with workshops.
Article 64 of Darülaceze Talimatnâmesi (Regulation on the Alms House), enacted on 14 January 1914, stated, “Only the poor, ill, orphans, and people who are not able to work, living in Istanbul, will be accepted to Darülaceze and patients outside Istanbul will not be allowed into it”. Article 17 stated that beggars having parental guarantors would be delivered to their parents, and if they begged again, they would be taken under the supervision of the Darülaceze until they gave up begging.
Following the proclamation of the Second Constitution, as a result of varying and partially incorrect assessment of nationalities in the society, security issues and social disruption occurred and cases of fraud, theft, and robbery increased. Most of these problems were attributed to idlers from rural areas.
Article 1 of the Serseri Nizamnâmesi (Regulation on Idlers), confirmed and accepted by the Meclis-i Mebûsan (Chamber of Deputies), defined the word serseri (idler) to include people who were able to work but begged instead. Under Article 17, the punishment for encouraging children under the age of 15 to beg was a fine of 20 to 300 kuruş (piastres) and imprisonment for 24 hours to 15 days. The Tese’ülün Men’ine Dair Nizamnâme (Regulation Prohibiting Begging) entered into force in April 1890, and another regulation prohibiting begging was published in January 1896. It was thought that the establishment of acezehane (almshouse), darüssanayi (engineering schools), darüssay (art schools), gurebahane (orphanages), and sanayi mektebi (artisan schools) in several cities would reduce begging; but due to limited funding, the state was only able to establish a Darülaceze in Istanbul.
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