The word mehter referred to several connotations which included some functions unrelated to music such as setting up a tent. The Imperial Mehterhane was an organization which consisted of musicians as well as senior servants such as internal mehters (Mehter-i Enderun) and tentmaker mehters. For musicians who probably joined the organization lastly, Evliya Çelebi (d. 1611-ö. 1682) mostly used the term of mehter musicians. Mehter musicians who became a member of the organization of the imperial Mehterhane in the 16th century were divided into two groups: official and unofficial mehter musicians. As a part of the kapıkulu system, official mehter musicians served the palace and high-level Ottoman officials.1 Therefore, it is possible to claim that official mehter musicians were professional paid musicians of the state. Evliya Çelebi states that these musicians played music three times a day, mentioning the music they played prior to morning ezan (call to prayer) and following night ezan at Yedikule, Istanbul and the Demirkapı building built within the palace by Fatih Sultan Mehmed. Çelebi adds that some similar music was performed in thirteen towns of Istanbul that has famous towers such as the Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower) and Kız Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower). Moreover, it is known that there was a group of unofficial mehter musicians who were affiliated to mehterbaşı (head of the band) and who lived as a crowd in small towns surrounding Istanbul, even though they did not represent the Ottoman Empire officially.2 Official and unofficial mehter musicians eventually became well-known both in Istanbul and all across the empire and managed to overshadow other mehters. Particularly in Istanbul during the seventeenth century and the early 18th century, it can be seen that the word mehter was transformed into a comprehensive term used for all kinds of music groups or musicians. As a result, it can be observed that, when compared to the today’s narrow meaning of it, the word was used in a much broader sense in the Ottoman literature and daily life during this period. The fact that mehter music is represented almost only by some groups formed by the state or various municipalities today and that it engaged in janissaries and march which is a European form of music is a result of a period which started in 1911 and included the revival of mehter music under the sorrowful and compelling conditions of the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Having deeply influenced the European marching band music and classical Western music, and indirectly affected jazz big bands in America, it is an important Ottoman music tradition which features a kind of polyphony with rich and colorful repertory of the official mehter musicians and zurnas and trumpets.


1 Bands which played the official mehter music had spesific outdoor instruments: Zurna, boru, nekkare, davul, cymbal and kös. Today, bands performing mehter music in Turkey feature a group of singers (hanende) who carry long poles with bells making percussive sounds when moved. The hanendes are called çevganî today. The historical findings in hand point an existed group of hanendes, showing that this instrument should be seperated from other instruments that bands used before 1826. For a more comprehensive study, see Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, Çalıcı Mehterler, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2011, pp. 13-14. N

1- Mehter (Vehbİ)

2 A group of researches including Walter Feldman claims that unofficial musician mehters used instruments such as zurna, nekkare, mıskal, daire, çalpara and santur after having examined several miniatures and depictions (see Walter Feldman, Music of the Ottoman Court: Makam, Composition and the Early Ottoman Instrumental Repertoire, Berlin: VWB-Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 1996, p. 108). As a matter of fact, when mıskal, santur and çalpara that were not used in the twentieth century are excluded from the abovementioned instruments, the rest would be zurna, nekkare and daire that were used for ortaoyunus (the Ottoman eulogy shows) whose outdoor bands can be thought to be related to unofficial mehters.

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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