politics : culture : economics

Istanbul’s 17th century Christians, Jews and foreigners

In Judiciary, Ottoman history on November 24, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Every now and then, Turkey’s publishers manage to conjure up an unexpected gem. I chanced upon one of these on Monday: the first of ten volumes in a series detailing many of the 10,080 cases heard by two of Istanbul’s 16 courts during the 17th century.* While the remaining volumes in the series will focus on topics such as trusts, partnerships and credit markets, two of the topics covered in the first volume are likely to be of more immediate interest to many foreigners living in the city: ‘Communal Affairs of Christians and Jews’ and ‘Foreigners.’

In this post, I want to provide a flavour of the fascinating glimpse of centuries-ago Istanbul that the book provides, by sharing a few of its English summaries of the court cases it covers. (As well an English and Turkish summary of each case, the book contains a transliteration of the record kept by the judge—typically in Ottoman Turkish—in the court register.)

Istanbul in the 17th century had a population of 700,000. Of these inhabitants, 59 per cent were Muslim, 35 per cent were Christian and 6 per cent were Jewish. The court records suggest that the city’s population of foreigners was small, particularly in comparison with the much larger proportions in later centuries. Less than 1 per cent of the 10,080 cases covered involve a foreigner (most of whom, incidentally, were either English, French or Venetian). One consideration that weighs down on the number of foreigners mentioned in the court records is the fact that only non-Muslims were classified as foreign. Muslim subjects of other states were classified in the same way as the city’s indigenous Muslims.

* Social and Economic Life in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul: Glimpses from Court Records, vol 1, ed Timur Kuran


(1604; Galata) A group of Christian tavern owners in Galata sues Piri and Ali, two gate keepers working at the Balıkpazarı and Karaköy gates of the Galata walls. The tavern owners state that customarily the two gates are opened at the time of the morning prayer. Yet, Piri and Ali have been opening the doors earlier to allow some tavern owners to slip in. Once inside, these early entrants secretly purchase spirits from ships and take them to their taverns. Consequently, they sell in the taverns within the city walls more spirits than their allotted shares. Undermining the established equilibrium, they harm the business of the other tavern owners. The plaintiffs want Piri and Ali instructed to refrain from opening the gates before the designated time. The court tells Ali and Piri that they will be penalised if they open the gates earlier. Piri and Ali promise to obey the rules from now on. In conclusion, the court registers the testimony of the two sides.


(1618; Central Istanbul) The Christian notables of the caviar tradesmen are in court with Recep. The caviar tradesmen state that Himmet, appointed as their steward, is performing poorly. They want Recep appointed in his place. The court appoints Recep as the steward of the caviar tradesmen.


(1618; Central Istanbul) The Christian subjects of the Yeni Cami Waqf in Galata are being harassed by tax collectors when they travel through Istanbul. The Sultan sends this buyuruldu to the judge of Istanbul to request the protection of these subjects.


(1683; Galata) Avraham, communal leader of Ortaköy’s Jews, goes to court with a group of Jews. They state that some foreign Jews have established residence in their village. The villagers are worried that these foreign Jews might cause some trouble and then leave, in which case the local villagers will be held responsible. They have this decided jointly that both newcomers and currently settled foreigners should provide sureties as a condition for residing in their village. Finding the request of Ortaköy Jews necessary for the peace of the village, the court registers the agreement.


(1689; Galata) Some Christians from Beşiktaş, Kasimpaşa, Tophane and Galata go to court against Ali, the keeper of their vineyard in Beşiktaş. According to the plaintiffs, the defendant allowed others to graze their sheep and cattle in the vineyard. The plaintiffs present to the court a Sultanic order, an imperial decree, and a hujjet, all of which forbid the grazing of animals in the vineyard. The court examines the documents and then instructs Ali not to let animals into the vineyard.


(1689; Galata) The barkeeper Nikola had sold to some sailors beverages and bread. He claims that the buyers still owe him 90 kuruş. According to Nikola, the protected foreigner Kofar was he surety for this debt. Kofar denies that he provided suretyship. Now, Nikola sues Kofar for the debt and Kofar rejects his claim. Nikola fails to bring evidence to support his claim. The court asks Kofar to take an oath that he is not the surety. The defendant Kofar takes an oath, and the plaintiff Nikola thus loses the case.


(1689; Galata) Vidkat, a protected English merchant, rents some rooms of the Levent Farm from the farm’s steward Yorgaki for 9 kuruş a month. Vidkat paid Yorgaki 4.5 kuruş in advance. Yet, when Vidkat asks for the farm’s owner’s permission to use the rooms. his request is denied. Now, Vidkat wants his down payment returned. Yorgaki agrees to return the money.


(1690; Galata) A British captain named Esmit sues diver Mehmet through his legal agent Savic, another foreigner. According to Savic, his client Esmit landed his shop on a dock near Anadolu Hisarı, intending to unload the iron on the ship. However, by accident the iron fell into the sea. Esmit told diver Mehmet to keep the iron at sea for the time being. However, ignoring Esmit’s request, Mehmet brought the iron out of the water and claimed its ownership. The legal agent wants the iron back from Mehmet. The court asks Mehmet for his opinion. He denies their account. The court asks the legal agent Savic for evidence. He produces witnesses. Through their testimonies, he wins the case.


(1697; Central Istanbul) Two churches in Galata, which have been used by French priests, were destroyed in the 1695 fire. The French ambassador has sought the Porte’s permission to repair the churches. Experts conducted an investigation and questioned local Muslims to determine the original condition of the churches. This is an imperial order sent to the judge of Galata and vizier İbrahim Paşa specifying which parts of the churches are to be renovated and prohibiting interference with the restoration. It stipulates that the restoration should be based on the original plans of the churches.

  1. Thank you very much for the excerpts, I’d been (half-heartedly) looking for something like this.

  2. The series editor, Timur Kuran, has also just published another book, which looks potentially really interesting: “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.” The first chapter is online here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9273.pdf

  3. I know his name from the following which may also be interesting (more or less knowing how the phenomenon he talks about works I never bothered to try to acquire the book though): http://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?issueID=35&articleID=444

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