As the capital city of an empire, İstanbul offered even its youngest residents the opportunity to grow up in a rich and varied cultural and religious environment. The children that lived in this enormous city, with its unique vivacity, grew up having access to a spoil of riches. Children benefitted from both the educational foundations established by notable philanthropists from ruling circles and the city’s rich intellectual environment. Both these aspects contributed to the innovative atmosphere of the city. Istanbul not only offered these opportunities to its own children, but welcomed those who had come to the city from Anatolia and Rumelia. The story of these children’s lives, which is often overlooked in favor of considering the movements of adults from the same areas, is worth taking into consideration as it helps to construct a fuller picture of urban migration at the time. Moreover, it would not be right to create a sharp distinction between children who grew up in the city and those who came to it at a later age, even if Istanbul’s charm and opportunities afforded the former certain advantages. In particular, this is an important period in Islamic-Ottoman history in which laws concerning children and the life cycle ensured the creation of a shared perception and language concerning all the children and childhood of the State.

Ottoman society referred to children using the Arabic-derived term sağire’, meaning ‘juvenile.’ The use of the term sağire covers the whole of childhood, and was widely used with an extended vocabulary to define certain stages of childhood. The terms sabiye (meaning ‘infant’ or ‘juvenile’), oğlancık (meaning ‘boy’) and uşak (meaning ‘adolescent’) were used to describe the period when children are dependent on their mother; in other words, when children are mostly confined to domestic settings. The terms murahık/a, mümeyyiz-e (‘one that knows the difference between right and the wrong’), emred (‘still juvenile’), şabb-ı emred (‘an adolescent who resembles a juvenile’), oğlan (boy) and emred oğlan were used to emphasize the differences between boys and girls, with special attention being paid to enunciating important changes in the lives of boys; changes that prepared them for life outside of the home environment. These many distinctions were in keeping with Islamic law in regards to the classification of children. According to this tradition, childhood was divided into two stages. The first seven years after birth formed the gayrimümeyyiz part of childhood. This term refers to an age group in which children cannot tell the difference between truth and falsehood and in which they are neither physically nor mentally mature enough to take care of themselves. For this reason, it became very important that children were under female protection, especially their mothers, for the first few years of their lives. The years which followed the gayrimümeyyiz years were referred to as the mümeyyiz part of childhood. This was the stage in which children started to distinguish between truth and falsehood. At this stage of childhood, young people begin to make their own decisions and become adolescents; of course this takes into account differences in individual physical, sexual and mental growth.1

For Islamic jurists and the Ottoman jurists who followed them, the age group between 9 and 15 years of age marked the gradual transition from childhood to adolescence. According to commonly held views, a girl reached her physical maturity when her menstruation cycle began, and she would be considered a baliğa (meaning mature/feminine) when she turned nine. The minimum age limit for boys to be considered a baliğ was when they turned twelve. The maximum age limit for boys and girls to be considered adolescent was sixteen. According to numerous court records from Ottoman Istanbul, most of the time girls would be considered to have reached puberty between the ages of twelve and fourteen and boys between fourteen and fifteen.2

1- A collective circumcision ceremony of the children in the festivities of 1530 (<em>Şehinşahname</em>)

Islamic laws and rules regarding children hold an important place that cannot be disregarded. These laws were important in shaping both the lives of Istanbul’s children and their relationship to the world around them. On the other hand, certain issues regarding the historiography of children exist, and these issues should to be taken into consideration;3 in this context there are several points that should be emphasized. First of all, we should consider the social, religious and economic circumstances into which children in Ottoman Istanbul were born and grew up. For this reason, we should not examine the lives of Ottoman Istanbul’s children without due consideration of their religious, economic and social circumstances. Secondly, naturally the lives of Istanbul’s boys and girls followed different courses of physical development after the respective first stages of their childhood. Thirdly, we must consider how perceptions of children’s role in Istanbul’s social life have changed over the years. Consistency in perception and practice regarding the history of children in Ottoman İstanbul can be seen until the beginning of nineteenth century. However, the ‘modernization process’ not only affected all areas of communal life but also brought about changes in the lives of the city’s children. Of course, the existence of this change does not mean that perceptual consistency is not a historical concern.

2- Demonstration of the children in the festivities of 1530 (<em>Hünername</em>)

Children, Family and Society

In Ottoman Istanbul, couples were typically expected to have a baby shortly after they got married. Having a child gained couples social repute, even if it simultaneously burdened them with extra responsibility. Idioms and phrases such as “an old mat is better than a woman without a son or a daughter” show that women who did not procreate often could be subjected to social pressure. However, these phrases do not prove that childless couples were disparaged. There were a number of couples who did not have any children. All the same, the birth of children caused great joy and celebrations, fuelled further if the baby happened to be a boy. The desire to give birth to a boy has long been a part of Ottoman folklore, visible in phrases such as “those that bear a baby boy take pride in yourselves, those that bear a baby girl despair”.4 Evliya Çelebi mentions a number of women who visited a popular excursion spot called Cankuyusu in Eyüp; it was thought that questions posed to the well here by curious visitors would be answered here, as if the well had the power of an oracle; most of the time these visitors were pregnant women who asked: “Am I carrying a boy?”5 However, it would be wrong to think that girls were not loved or that they were mistreated. The reason boys were so coveted lies in the fact that a boy meant that the continuation of family lineage was possible, while also providing economic reassurance. However, Istanbul’s girls often proved to be loyal caregivers for their aging parents and were valued in their own right.

Trying to keep newborn babies alive could often be a struggle, owing to the high death rates in pre-modern times. Out of the many dangers facing them, children were most affected by the plague, malnutrition and natural disasters. Disease was a common cause of death for children, regardless of their social or economic standing. As an example of this, we need only to look at the number of princes and princesses who died shortly after birth. A significant amount of children born in the palace used to die before their first birthdays. İlyas Agha, a member of the Enderun between 1812 and 1830, recorded a dramatic description of one such royal death as “the prince is leaving for heaven”.6 Ordinary families in Istanbul also frequently faced the death of their children.

This occurred so often that when making settlements certain divorced couples would often consider the possibility of their children dying before the ages of seven or eight;7 it was common for a family to suffer the grief of losing a child. Some families expressed their sentiments in the epitaphs on their children’s gravestones, aiming to communicate with future generations. Books written on the matter reminded Ottoman parents that they were required to have “the patience of Job” and that it was God who gave them their children, and He Who took them away.8 Following the deaths of children, elegies would be often written and delivered by their fathers, in which they displayed the sincerest examples of great sorrow and profound emotional devotion.9

3- A child and ladies watching the shows in the festivities of 1582 (<em>İntizami</em>)

In this period, doctors invested great efforts into finding cures for the diseases that caused such high mortality rates among the city’s children. The tradition of salting babies immediately after birth, for example, was the product of these efforts. The salting procedure was done not only to protect the baby, who had had no contact with the air inside the womb, from being harmed in its new environment, but also to increase the resilience of their bodies.10 Doctors who were aware of the importance of sterilization insisted that the babies be given breast-milk instead of other sustenance or types of milk, which ran a higher risk of spreading disease among newborn babies. In cases in which the mother could not care for the baby, wet nurses would be hired to feed the children. Outside of the palace and in notable families of Istanbul, however, a wet nurse would rarely be hired. The information that can be gleaned from court records in this subject is very limited. However, babies who could not be fed breast-milk from their mothers were welcomed by their neighbors and relatives who were breastfeeding their own children. Apart from any Islamic legal ramifications, the relationship formed between the baby and the wet nurse would also assist in forming emotional bases of mutual love and solidarity. 11

Traditions marking the passage of time held great significance in shaping childhood for children in Ottoman Istanbul. Occasions such as the fortieth day after birth, the emergence of a child’s first tooth, their first haircut, their first words and first steps were all monumental days, as was the more ceremonial circumcision process for boys; all these occasions brought neighbors together. A boy’s circumcision was one of the most important moments of his childhood; this generally occurred after the boy had reached the age of six or seven. The wealthier and more well-to-do families found that helping poorer families with the circumcisions of their boys proved to a rewarding charitable enterprise. Grandiose circumcision feasts of the rich, in which poorer kids were also frequently circumcised, proved to be worth documenting in detailed description. Boys were spoiled on the occasion of their circumcision, being taken on special excursions and being given presents, although the festivities were equally important for parents.12

Children occasionally grew up without one or both of their parents. Research shows that children whose father had passed away were recorded as sağir/e (juvenile).13 Included in this group of children are those whose parents had separated following divorce proceedings. Deaths and divorces, the care of children, their care and the protection of their property if any; all these subjects created a number of problems for children. Detailed arrangements included in Islamic law ensured that children and their rights were protected. In the absence of their fathers, the guardianship of children would first be given to the mother and then to close relatives, as long as both such people were judged to be honest and pious. These guardians were responsible for securing children’s rights and protecting them until they reached puberty. In particular, those who had large inheritances formed a clearly sensitive responsibility to protect them against abuse, and they were under the unofficial supervision of society. The phrase “If you want to be the âsi of Allah, be a guardian”14 reminds us of the importance of this matter.

5- Children in the festivities of 1720 (Vehbi)

The relationship between the children and their parents, and indeed the responsibility of the parents towards their children were dependent on the stage of development of the child. Lawyers thought that children were in greatest need of their mothers, both emotionally and physically, in early childhoods. This was why women had the right to keep their children (boys to the age of seven, and girls to the age of nine) if they lost their spouses or were divorced. This was called the hıdâne right. The reason why girls were allowed to stay with their mothers for a longer period of time was due to the predominance of gender roles in Ottoman Istanbul. Alimony for children was paid either by the father or, in his absence, by other male relatives for a certain period of time. It was possible for the women to lose their hıdâne rights if they married a foreigner or overstepped publicly accepted social boundaries that had been put in place by the general public. However, women who remarried would occasionally be able to reach a consensus with their former husbands or with their male relatives in order to maintain custody of their children.15 The frequency of remarriage among both men and women led some of the city’s children to live with stepmothers or stepfathers. From today’s vantage point, it is not always possible to determine the nature or development of these domestic relationships. Certainly, there were children who were abused by their stepmothers or stepfathers, occasionally in the form of violence or sexual abuse. At the same time, it would not be just to label all stepmothers or stepfathers as bad, as many enjoyed great relationships with their stepchildren. In these cases, amity between stepparents and their stepchildren would begin at childhood and last a life time.16 For Istanbul children the real problem was not growing up in a family within a stepparent relationship. Children who had lost both of their natural parents, or especially those who had lost their fathers and could not rely on the support of extended families often found themselves in the streets begging for money. Some of these children were lucky enough to be welcomed into families which were well-to-do and able to take care of them.

6- A child visiting cemetery with his/her mother (Castellan)

The Education and Upbringing of Children

The Ottomans spoke about the education and upbringing of children with the word terbiye. This word, which has a depth of meaning, describes the knowledge, skills and good manners that children are required to embody in their communal lives. A strong belief in introducing and maintaining good manners and skills in children determined a child’s upbringing. Mothers were primarily responsible for their children’s early education. Women from wealthier families could often count on the help of foster mothers, wet nurses, and nannies. Children of all classes learned about religion, prayer and proper behavior either from their mothers or other relatives. Much of what was written at the time concerning the education and upbringing of children suggests moderation in all aspects.

At the ages of five or six, children would begin to attend school, a milestone that drew much concern from their parents. Istanbul was home to a great network of schools, each of which was easily reachable for neighborhood children throughout the city. Schools were typically situated within mosques, or in a detached room next to them. Some schools were located at intersections; these were often of two stories, with classrooms occupying the second floor. The spatial positions of schools within the neighborhood gave them a certain urban vivacity, and allowed nearby adults to maintain watchful eyes over the neighborhood children. The foundation and continued existence of these schools depended on generous contributions made by well-to-do benefactors, including members of the sultan’s family, and were operated independently, free from central governance. Schools that had strong financial support could serve hot meals to their students; students would also be presented with new clothes during religious festivals.17 Since attending school was not compulsory, questions regarding the exact age at which children began to attend school, or indeed the length of their total attendance, are open to debate. Certain evidence, for instance, shows that five to six year olds were educated with the twelve to thirteen year olds.18 On occasion there would be feasts and festivals in which students would be at the center of attention; these events brought joy and liveliness to the city. Both the entrance into and graduation from school were monumental events that often prompted neighborhood celebrations. In his characteristic style Evliya Çelebi noted that students on such occasions would wander around the city in brightly colored clothing and conical paper hats, carrying cymbals and tambourines in their hands while reciting poems and praying. In general, children were very grateful to the sultan. Children, who were identified with innocence, would be invited to pray, accompanied by their instructors, to mark the end of a war with victory, or for the safety of the waqf founders, or for leading statesmen.19 The ceremony of starting school was known as âmin alayı or bed-i besmele. The reasoning behind the first name was based on the fact that people used to say “Amin!” after reciting prayers or singing hymns, while the reasoning behind the second name was that the elifba cüzü (the booklet teaching how to read Qur’an) was the first thing taught to children.20 All of these activities ensured that the children took a step towards socialization and a transition into the adult world at an early age.

7- Boys and girls in the 19<sup>th</sup> century (Ferriol)

The parents were able to be closely interested in what was being taught to the children thanks to the celebrations of starting school. Schools did not have standardized syllabuses. However, the aims of all schools were to teach their students the Qur’an, basic Islamic law, the performance of Islamic ritual prayers, and the life of Prophet Muhammad. Particularly eloquent teachers could add various stories, legends and epic tales to this list of typical topics. Reading and writing were taught in some schools, but this was only added to the syllabus following the Tanzimat period. There was no distinction made between boys and girls when it came to teaching basic religious knowledge. Girls and boys were thus allowed to continue in the same schools throughout most of their education. However, this differed significantly when it came to teaching various arts and skills. Those who were involved in children’s education insisted that boys had to be prepared for jobs and fields that could promise them sustenance in the future. On the other hand, girls were educated in regards to modesty and virtue, as well as in domestic skills; both were carried out with the intention that women could find a husband when they reached adolescence.21 The information we have on social life, sheds light on the areas of activities which started to differ, with suggestions for different areas of interest for boys and girls, after the first few years of childhood. There were, of course, other ways in which children were educated. Boys would follow their fathers outside of school, make friends, wander around, and often get into fights by the age of 5-6. On the other hand, girls would often play around the house, spending most of their time learning various crafts.

Many boys would be given as an apprentice to a tradesman when young. The edict of 1824, in which primary education was made compulsory in Istanbul, criticized those parents who sent their 5-6 year old children as apprentices for money rather them having them go to school.22 However, children did not go as apprentices just to earn money. In a social structure in which there were not many institutions that taught children skills, apprenticeships were instrumental. For this reason, large cities like Istanbul had significant numbers of apprentices, many of whom were children.

However, children did not spend the majority of their time in school or doing apprentice work. The Ottomans used to define childhood in large part with play. Children would play with the toys that were made in the region of Eyüp, where the shops of the toymakers were located. These toymakers often tried to decorate their shops as flamboyantly as possible to draw the attention of children. Evliya Çelebi noted that in an event organized in Istanbul in 1637, toymakers advertised their products by imitating passing children, saying things like “Nanny, I want that toy” or “I do not want that toy”.23 The city’s children were especially enthusiastic about Ramadan. During this period, story tellers would narrate the many stories and tales that had been passed down the family, while throughout out the month the children would spend more time in the street, playing games and pranks, outside, if the weather permitted.

8- A girl in Istanbul in the 17<sup>th</sup> century (Ferriol)

CONCLUSION: Transformation and Continuity in the Lives of Children

The Ottoman modernization process affected the life of children and thoughts on pedagogy in Istanbul before it affected children in other geographical areas of the Ottoman State. As opposed to relatively weak examples from the 19th century, this period saw many books written that discussed the topic of mental and intellectual development in children; pedagogic studies and children’s literature also emerged during this time period. These studies, in which ideas imported from the West, were discussed and reflected upon, addressed a state more concerned with parents and children. From this point on, modern schools were have influence in shaping the future ideas of children. The children of Istanbul were at the center of this development

9- A lady and her child in the cemetery (Preziosi)

However, the perception and practice of children in the Ottoman modernization process should not be seen as being divorced from the past. The Ottomans attempted to have the old and new continue, side by side. When explaining personal hygiene, for instance, teachers would still quote Prophet Muhammad “Cleanliness is from faith”, however, they emphasized the modern usage of handkerchiefs and soap as requisites of modern civilization. Thus, children became acquainted with the concept of “civilization” and its requirements. Likewise, teachers would express the value, necessity and beauty of studying and learning about science; this was achieved by utilizing children books from the past, which, for instance, compared fruit-bearing tress to non-fruit-bearing trees, as well as La Fontaine’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper”.24

In contrast to the transformative impact of the modernization process, the Ottomans still considered the boundaries of childhood in line with Islamic law, even up to the final days of the Ottoman State. The language of studies that were concerned with mutual rights and responsibilities between children and their parents was simplified so that the children could understand them better. However, literature that described these relationships stayed the same for centuries. The motives and heroes of the 16th century continued to address the children of Istanbul until the beginning of the 20th century. The description of children’s lives as transmitted by the Western travelers who came to visit in the final centuries of the Ottoman State were not very different to those who lived before them. As a result, the lives of Istanbul’s children, in the last centuries of the Ottoman State, should be studied in terms of continuity as well as transformation.


1 M. Akif Aydın, “Çocuk”, DİA, VIII, 361-363.

2 Yahya Araz, 16. Yüzyıldan 19. Yüzyıl Başlarına Osmanlı Toplumunda Çocuk Olmak, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2013, pp. 87-98.

3 Colin Heywood, Baba Bana Top At! Batı’da Çocukluğun Tarihi, tr. Esin Hoşsucu, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2003, pp. 7-15.

4 Şinâsi, Durûb-ı Emsâl-i Osmâniyye, prepared by Ebüzziyâ Mehmed Tevfik, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Ebüzziya, 1302, p. 98.

5 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, prepared by Orhan Şaik Gökyay, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 169-170.

6 Hülya Tezcan, Osmanlı Sarayının Çocukları, Istanbul: Aygaz, 2006, p. 82; Hızır İlyas, Tarih-i Enderun: Letaif-i Enderun, prepared by Cahit Kayra, Istanbul: Güneş Yayınları, 1987, p. 62.

7 Istanbul Mufti’s Office, Şer‘iyye Sicilleri (Court Records) Archives, Galata Şer‘iyye Sicilleri (GŞS), no. 494, ff. 33a, ruling no. 5 (18 November 1788).

8 Sufizâde Hasan Hulûsi, Mecmâu’l-âdâb, Istanbul: Şirket-i Sahafiye-i Osmaniye, 1307, pp. 121-122.

9 Mustafa İsen, Acıyı Bal Eylemek: Türk Edebiyatında Mersiye, Ankara: Akçağ Yayınları, 1994, pp. 116-122, 455.

10 Eşref b. Muhammed, Hazâinü’s-saâdât :1460/h. 864, prepared by Bedi N. Şehsuvaroğlu, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1961, pp. 11-13.

11 Araz, Osmanlı Toplumunda Çocuk Olmak, pp. 48-51.

12 Stephan Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü 1577-1578, tr. Türkis Noyan, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2007, vol. 2, pp. 679-680.

13 Ömer Demirel, Adnan Gürbüz and Muhittin Tuş, “Osmanlılarda Ailenin Demografik Yapısı”, Sosyo-Kültürel Değişme Sürecinde Türk Ailesi, Ankara: Başbakanlık Aile Araştırma Kurumu, 1992, vol. 1, pp. 105-106.

14 Şinâsi, Durûb-ı Emsâl, p. 62.

15 Araz, Osmanlı Toplumunda Çocuk Olmak, pp. 56-59.

16 Araz, Osmanlı Toplumunda Çocuk Olmak, pp. 66-76.

17 Süleymaniye Vakfiyesi, prepared by Kemâl Edîb Kürkçüoğlu, Ankara: Vakıflar Umum Müdürlüğü, 1962, pp. 42-43; Osman Ergin, Türkiye Maarif Tarihi, Istanbul: Eser Neşriyat, 1977, vol. 1-2, pp. 87-88.

18 Araz, Osmanlı Toplumunda Çocuk Olmak, pp. 114-115.

19 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 1, p. 226; Ahmed Refik Altınay, Hicrî On Birinci Asırda İstanbul Hayatı (1000-1100), Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 1988, p. 18.

20 Musahipzade Celâl, Eski İstanbul Yaşayışı, Istanbul: Türkiye Yayınevi, 1946, pp. 29-31.

21 Tezcan, Osmanlı Sarayının Çocukları, pp. 191-209.

22 Mahmud Cevad, Maârif-i Umûmiyye Nezâreti Tarihçe-i Teşkîlât ve İcrââtı, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1338, pp. 1-3.

23 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, vol. 1, p. 300.

24 Edhem İbrahim Paşa, Terbiyetü’l-etfâl, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1293, pp. 27-29; Mustafa Hâmi, Vezâif-i Etfâl, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1288, p. 9, 12-13.

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

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