The practice of surety or kefalet became a cornerstone of Ottoman social, economic, and administrative policies from the sixteenth century onwards in enforcing the principle of collective responsibility in many areas including taxation, prevention of crime, regulation of guilds, and public order in commercial as well as residential neighborhoods.1 In addition, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ottoman administrations utilized it as the primary mechanism of systematic policing, surveillance and social control. During the gradual transition from the so-called pre-modern to the modern state, kefalet remained in use despite its limited success, arguably as a sign of the ways in which the two types of governance shaped, rather than replaced one another.2

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as migration to Istanbul became a chronic challenge for the central administration, kefalet gained importance in novel ways. In this period, the ruling circles increasingly attributed the causes of crime, unrest and shortages in the city to a perceived increase in urban population, which was allegedly caused by migrants, especially unemployed single men while there is no clear evidence of a dramatic population increase in Istanbul during the eighteenth century.3 The association of crime and disorder with the presence of “unidentifiable” (mechūlu’l-ahvāl) men in the city resulted in new administrative measures aimed at collecting and keeping track of information that would make possible the efficient control and surveillance of Istanbul’s dynamic population.

Following the 1730 and 1740 revolts in Istanbul, immigrants became ever more associated with public disorder and crime, and the authorities increasingly perceived them collectively as a disruptive element in society. During and following this period, a number of sporadic inspections took place, however, they mostly targeted selected groups and places that were related to public disorder in the eyes of the ruling elite, such as public baths and bachelors’ inns. During the 1790s there was a renewed emphasis on the precariousness of the regulations and the need for social control. Sultan Selim III’s regulations regarding migration into the greater Istanbul area coincided with an incident at the Ayasofya mosque in December 1791. During the Friday prayer, an alleged mad man ranted some words of complaint and threw a musket ball directly at the sultan. The author of a palace journal described a ‘‘cleansing’’ (tathīr) operation following the incident that involved the arrest and expulsion of bachelors and immigrants from the city.4 In his history, the contemporary historian Edib Efendi discussed strict regulations that were ‘‘imposed in accordance with the New Order’’ which produced a number of inspection registers which were updated every six months.5

1- Istanbul (Clare Mayer, London, 1794) (Topkapı Palace Museum Library, no. YB 3497)

In accordance with the new regulations, Selim III ordered extensive inspections of the major commercial areas in the greater Istanbul area, including Eyüp, Üsküdar, and Galata. In his study of sultan Selim’s imperial decrees, Enver Ziya Karal mentions that a special team was put together for regular inspections during Selim’s reign, presumably referring to the inspections of the early 1790s.6 According to the Regulations for the Inspection of Istanbul (Nizam-ı Teftiş-i İstanbul), the main objective was to identify potential mischief makers including vagrants, unemployed an unemployable bachelors (serseri ve başıboş ve bekar), beggars, mendicant dervishes, idle students of religious seminaries and other people who did not have legitimate business in Istanbul according to government officials. To attain this objective the inspectors were given orders to target certain artisanal groups with which such people were likely to mix – porters, gardeners and itinerant vendors, boatmen, and Albanian bath attendants; and places where they commonly hung out or among which they could hide – bachelors’ quarters and inns, mosques, religious seminaries, dervish lodges and soup kitchens.7 The inspectors were given orders to enforce strict kefalet requirements and the rule was to allow only those who found jobs and reliable guarantors (kefil) to stay in the city. In other words, the purpose of the requirements was to make sure that those who stayed in the city became identifiable as parts of a recognized collective identity. The practice of kefalet provided the link that transformed the unidentifiable persons (mechūl) into a legally identifiable (ma‘lūm) category from the perspective of the administration, while it clearly marginalized those who failed to establish such connections.

The inspection registers of the Selimian era provide us with invaluable information about the composition of the city’s population and its occupations. With the exception of large state enterprises such as the imperial arsenal (Tophane) and the imperial navy yard (Tersane), marketplaces such as the Grand bazaar, taverns which were closed and banned in this period, partially recorded public baths and various workshops in inns, the registers cover the entire labor force in the larger Istanbul area, including the townships of Eyüp, Üsküdar and Galata, giving us detailed information regarding nearly 45,000 employers and employees. They contain information on different types of commercial shops and fruit/vegetable gardens, laborers such as boatmen and porters at the docks, students and residents of religious seminaries (madrasas), travelers and visitors in inns and bachelors’ quarters. They also provide names and titles of employers, number of employees in each workplace, information regarding migrant workers who constituted a majority of the labor force in certain areas and occupations, as well as janissary affiliations of employers and some employees. We are currently working on a detailed analysis of these registers.8

2- Sultan Selim III (Topkapı Palace Museum, no. 17-32)

In the context of Ottoman artisans and migrant workers, kefalet constituted the key mechanism for the survival of a newcomer to the city. Archival documents show that scores of migrants were expelled from the city as a result of the inspections, often on grounds of failing to provide a reliable kefil. Those who managed to connect with the multi-layered and fluid networks that often involved the Janissaries and the cities numerous coffeehouses, as well as ties to the community of coregionalists (hemşehri) had a much higher chance of finding shelter and employment in the city. In other words, “The successful migrant was a sponsored migrant.”9

3- The sword of Sultan Selim III (Topkapı Palace Museum)

However, despite the administration’s reliance on kefalet, Sultan Selim’s staff reported that, “… At the time of inspections they just come up with an excuse (to stay in the city) and a kefil; however, since the kefils are not held accountable after the inspection it has become customary among the public to stand surety for each other haphazardly and carelessly.”

The sultan’s recommendation was as follows:

“Irregular, periodic inspections are not working. I issued numerous decrees, (it is your job to) put them to work. The key is appointment of staff… You must find someone who will regularly work with the people, who will not take bribes and will keep at it!”10

4- Sultan Selim III’s imperial edict dated 1804 about researching the population
    of Istanbul in writing, sending the vagrant out of the city, and appointing special
    officers for this duty (BOA HH, 254/14435)

The date of this imperial decree overlaps with the period in which Behiç Efendi prepared his Sevanihü’l-Levayih, possibly while serving in the Imperial Council. It is quite likely, therefore, that this document in fact echoed the same concerns he raised in his work many of which became institutionalized following the Tanzimat era.11

In the post-1826 period, these detailed inspection registers were followed by a variety of population counts that served different purposes, such as the bostancıbaşı, temettüat (revenue), havadis (spy reports), and tahaffuz (public health) journals. These administrative measures require us to think about the Ottoman empire as one that was increasingly becoming a “statistical” state or power, along with its contemporaries in Europe during the same period, and to go beyond mechanistic models of borrowing that focus primarily on military reform and European embassies in our discussions of Ottoman “modernity”. The practice of kefalet continued to form the basis of surveillance and social control policies of the Ottoman administrations throughout the nineteenth century, with limited to no success during times of social upheaval. Nalan Turna’s analysis of the 1821 Greek uprising and the abolition of the Janissary Corps in 1826 demonstrates the gradual shift in the application of the principle of kefalet from personal to impersonal relations.12 After 1826, new institutions such as the Ministry of the Marketplace (İhtisab Nezareti) replaced the janissary networks that had previously provided reliable kefils with new requirements, such as official travel documents (mürur tezkeresi) to prevent migration.13 However, many people including the elite and artisans continued to rely on personal relations to justify employing migrants and in order to be able to circumvent government regulation.14




1 Abdullah Saydam, “Osmanlılarda Kefalet Usulü,” Tarih ve Toplum, 1997, nr. 164, pp. 4-12.

2 Nalan Turna, “Pandemonium and Order: Suretyship, Surveillence, and Taxation in Early Nineteenth-Century Istanbul,” New Perspectives on Turkey, 2008, no. 39, pp. 167-189.

3 Betül Başaran, “The 1829 Census and the Population of Istanbul during the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries,” Studies on Istanbul and Beyond: The Freely Papers, vol. I, ed.ited by Robert G. Ousterhout, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum Publications, 2007.

4 İsmail Hakkı Uzunçarşılı, “III. Selim Zamanında Yazılmış Dış Ruznamesinden 1206/1791 ve 1207/1792 Senelerine Ait Vekayi,” Belleten, 1973, vol. 37, no. 148, pp. 615-616 (pp. 607-662).

5 Mehmet Emin Edib (Efendi), Târih, Istanbul University Library Ktp., TY, no. 3220, f. 158-159.

6 Enver Ziya Karal, Selim III’ün Hatt-ı Hümayunları, Nizam-ı Cedid 1789-1807, 2nd edition, Ankara: TTK, 1988.

7 BOA, Mühimme Defteri no. 198, 5; Ahmed Vasıf, Târih-i Vāsıf Ahmed Efendi, (H. 1203-1209/M. 1788-1794), Ktp.,Istanbul University Library, TY, no. 5980, vol. II, f. 135a-b.

8 Cengiz Kırlı and Betül Başaran, “18. Yüzyıl Sonlarında Osmanlı Esnafı” Osmanlı’dan Cumhuriyet’e Esnaf ve Ticaret, edited by. Fatmagül Demirel, İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2012pp. 7-20.

9 Madeline Zilfi, Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010p. 3.

10 BOA, Hatt-i Hümayun, 14435 (H. 1218). Emphasis in this document is on the need to establish permanent appointments for inspectors to better implement the regulations.

11 Kemal Beydilli, “Küçük Kaynarca’dan Tanzimât’a Islâhât Düşünceleri,” İlmî Araştırmalar Dergisi, 1999, vol. 8, pp. 42-56 (pp. 25-64).

12 Turna, “Pandemonium and Order.”

13 Musa Çadırcı, “Tanzimat Döneminde Çıkarılan Men’-i Mürur ve Pasaport Nizamnameleri,” Belgeler, 1993, vol. 15, nr. 19, pp. 169-181.

14 Cengiz Kırlı, “A Profile of the Labor Force in Early Nineteenth-Century Istanbul,” International Labor and Working-Class History, 2001, nr. 60, pp. 125-140; idem, “Devlet ve İstatistik: Esnaf Kefalet Defterleri Işığında III Selim İktidar,” Nizām-ı Kadīm’den Nizām-ı Cedīd’e III. Selim ve Dönemi (Selim III and his Era from Ancien Regime to New Order), ed.ited by Seyfi Kenan, Istanbul: ISAM Yayınları, 2010pp. 183-212.

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.