As in many other matters, radical changes in the Ottoman Empire’s taxing practice dates back to the Tanzimat (Reorganization) Era. With the Tanzimat, it was intended to centralise income and expense administration; and in the regions where this practice was applied, civil taxes were lifted and new taxes started to be imposed pursuant to the new principals.
Taxing properties and incomes in a modern sense is also a matter that first came up during the Tanzimat Era. In this sense, assets such as estates and lands that people owned began to be registered. With this practice that first started in 1840, the assigned tax collectors went to the regions where the Tanzimat began to be implemented and determined the populations, estates and incomes in villages and quarters and carried out tax apportionment and distribution works.
With the Tanzimat, tax privileges and exemptions were sought to be lifted. However, Istanbul kept its various tax exemptions, which arose from its status as the capital city. Therefore, neither the distribution tax, nor the taxes based on registration could be imposed in Istanbul. This situation both deprived the treasury of important sources of income, and caused unrest and reactions among the public.
Namık Kemal found this to be against the principles of equality of the Tanzimat. According to a calculation he made on his own, he stated that the tax burden Istanbul was exempted from was 9.143.340 lira according to the 1864 budget and remarked that the treasury was deprived of such an income. According to Namık Kemal, Istanbul was also better off than Anatolia with regards to its ability to pay, and it could pay the taxes imposed on it easily. Namık Kemal acknowledges that there were various objections regarding the tax and tries to answer them. Some of the objections in question were rather significant in that they were also identified in the foreign reports of the period. For example, the fact that the foreigners did not have the right to property and thus cannot pay taxes, and the disturbance of such new taxes would cause among the Istanbulites (the rich ones) were important points of objection.
With a regulation that was made at the time, Namık Kemal’s abovementioned article was published, the right to property was granted to foreigners in 1868 and registration began again in Istanbul. As can be deducted, this was not the first registration in Istanbul for imposing taxes. The first registration, which was limited to Galata and Pera regions, was made in 1858 by keeping in mind the urban planning and zoning goals alongside taxing. After this registration, which fell on the years when the Altıncı Daire-i Belediye (Sixth Municipality; the first modern municipality-like organization in the Ottoman Empire) was founded, it was aimed to tax 2 % of the income obtained from the estate in the region. The targeted incomes here were evaluated in terms of financing the municipality instead of the central income.
However, the collected amount of this tax, which began to be collected in 1860, was much lower than what was originally targeted. Problems such as the guidance of the bankers in municipal council towards getting loans for the financing of the municipality, and the efforts of the foreign ambassadors for their citizens’ exemption show the reasons behind this failure.
Another registration was planned for several regions of Istanbul in 1864. However, the amount of accrued tax after this registration was an estimated, i.e. guessed, amount instead of an amount calculated through the registration.
Until after 1870, the taxes aimed to be collected in Constantinople were mostly for the financing of municipal expenditures. However, the taxes started to be registered among the central budget incomes with the 1874 registration. In the budget of 1874-1875, they were recorded as “Dersaadet Tax” among the tax income items, which were defined as “Dersaadet property tax and patent revenues etc”.
The established tax rates as of 1874 were as follows: 4 % property and 4 % rental income tax from Constantinople, Bilad-ı Selase (Eyüp, Galata and Üsküdar) and other connected areas. It was decided to exempt the people who were not able to pay them from assets tax.
These rates differed from year to year. In 1880-1881 fiscal year, it was decided to tax at the following rates: 4 % over the value of planted areas, 8 % over the value of the land which did not pay tithe tax, 4 % over the value of houses whose values did not exceed 20.000 kuruş and in which there was a resident, 8 % from the houses, work places and income producing property whose values exceeded 20.000 kuruş. In the 1887-1888 fiscal year, an increase of 2 % was made on rental income tax and the increased budget deficit was given as the reason behind this increase.
The tax rate was increased in 1914 and in 1919 at the rates of 8 %-30 % and 50 % respectively, but the biggest increase was in 1923 when the rates of property tax were tripled for residences and sextupled for workplaces.
Collecting taxes had a different importance. Until 1886, collection was made in three instalments and without a tax collector involved. After 1886, the job of tax collecting was assigned to the tax collector groups who worked under the gendarmerie officers. Several measures were taken to make sure that the taxes were paid in due time. The people who did not pay their taxes in due time were sent notifications. After three notifications, an official statement would be made through imam, muhtar (head of village or quarter) or police, and if the payment was still not made, the assets of the taxpayer would be confiscated to the exclusion of an amount sufficient for the taxpayer to maintain his life and profession.
Even though there was a system for monitoring unpaid taxes, the desired rates of tax collecting could not be reached and the outstanding tax kept on increasing. As a consequence, the job of tax collecting was handed over to the Department of Finance in 1888. The job of assessing property values was left to municipality and it was decided that the objections of the taxpayers would be taken care of by Meclis-i Maliye (the Council of the Finance Department).
The Ministry for Finance made some observations regarding the low tax collection after the job of collecting taxes were taken over from şehremanet (municipality). Not determining the property values accurately was the primary problem. The property values of the poor people were recorded as higher than they actually were and the property values of the rich people were recorded as lower than they actually were; and taxes were imposed even over the values of burnt buildings. Property owners could not make payments with salary checks or bonds that were not written on their names. The inspections that should have been carried out regarding the registrations were not performed and the buildings which were damaged due to reasons like fire etc. were taxed over their original values. According to the Ministry for Finance, the most significant reasons behind the outstanding taxes were these matters.
This is because the incomes from property tax and rental income tax belonged to the central treasury, municipality constantly demanded allotments from the taxes collected from its region in order to cover its need of cash. Upon these demands, 10 % of the 1886-1887 “Dersaadet tax” incomes were allocated to the municipality and one year later, this rate was increased to 15 %. It was stipulated that these incomes would be spent on cleaning services. However, it is questionable how much of this allotment was useful for the municipality. It was decided that for the years 1896-1897 and 1897-1898, the allocated amounts would be transferred to the treasury and on the other hand, specified amounts of the outstanding taxes would be transferred in deposit to the municipal services. The highest tax increase was made in 1923. With yet another regulation made in the same year, it was decided that 8 % of the “Dersaadet tax” income would be given to the municipality.
The dersaadet tax is just one of the links of the radical changes that began to be implemented with the Tanzimat such as modern taxing principles and centralisation of the treasury incomes. Constantinople being the capital city, its long-standing tax privileges, the fact that there were a lot of foreigners residing in Constantinople and that they had significant immunities from taxation as a result of the capitulations (treaties) and that they did not have the right to property all posed significant obstacles for implementing a property tax in Constantinople. Both the public and the foreign experts have mentioned this subject since the 1860s; however it was not until 1870s that it could finally be implemented. From that date forward, the problems continued in relation with the implementation part of the tax and the tax continued to be implemented until the proclamation of the Turkish Republic.
Akar, Şevket Kamil, “İstanbul’da Emlâk ve Akâr Vergisi Uygulaması: Dersaadet Vergisi”, Türkler, ed. Hasan Celal Güzel et al., Ankara: Yeni Türkiye Yayınları, 2002, vol. 14, pp. 351-358.
Kaya, Alp Yücel and Yücel Terzibaşoğlu, “Tahrir’den Kadastro’ya: 1874 İstanbul Emlak Tahriri ve Vergisi: ‘Kadastro Tabir Olunur Tahrir-i Emlâk’”, TT, no. 9 (2009), pp. 9-59.
Şener, Abdüllatif, Tanzimat Dönemi Osmanlı Vergi Sistemi, Istanbul: İşaret Yayınları, 1990.