Subdivisions of the Ottoman Empire

Subdivisions of the Ottoman Empire

The subdivisions of the Ottoman Empire were administrative divisions of the state organisation of the Ottoman Empire. Outside this system were various types of vassal and tributary states.

The beylerbey, or governor, of each province was appointed by the central government.[1] Sancaks were governed by sancakbeyis, selected from high military ranks by the central government.[1] Beylerbeyis had authority over all the sancakbeyis in a region.[1] Kaza was a subdivision of sancak and referred to the basic administrative district, governed by a kadı.[1]

It is considered extremely difficult to define the number and exact borders of Ottoman provinces and domains, as their borders were changed constantly.[2] Until the Tanzimat period, the borders of administrative units fluctuated, reflecting the changing strategies of the Ottomans, the emergence of new threats in the region, and the rise of powerful Ayans.[3] All the subdivisions were very unequal in regard of area and population, and the presence of numerous nomadic tribes contributed to the extreme variability of the population figures.[4]

In English, Ottoman subdivisions are seldom known by a myriad of Turkish terms (vilayet, eyalet, beylerbeylik, sancak, nahiye, kaza, etc.) which are often eschewed in favour of the English-language denomination (e.g. "province", "county", or "district") that is perceived to be the closest to the Turkish original.[5] These translations are rarely consistent between the works of different scholars, however.


Initial organization

The initial organization dates back to the Ottoman beginnings as a Seljuk vassal state (Uç Beyliği) in central Anatolia. The Ottoman Empire over the years became an amalgamation of pre-existing polities, the Anatolian beyliks, brought under the sway of the ruling House of Osman.

This extension was based on an already established administrative structure of the Seljuk system in which the hereditary rulers of these territories were known as beys. These beys (local leadership), which were not eliminated, continued to rule under the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultans. The term bey came to be applied not only to these former rulers but also to new governors appointed where the local leadership had been eliminated.

The Ottoman Empire was, at first, subdivided into the sovereign’s sanjak and other sanjaks entrusted to the Ottoman sultan’s sons. Sanjaks were governed by sanjak beyis, military governors who received a flag or standard – a "sanjak" (the literal meaning) – from the sultan.

As the Empire expanded into Europe, the need for an intermediate level of administration arose and, under the rule of Murad I (r. 1359-1389), a beylerbeyi or governor-general was appointed to oversee Rumelia, the European part of the empire. At the end of the fourteenth century, a beylerbeylik was also established for Anatolia, with his capital at Kütahya.[6] He was always considered inferior in rank to the beylerbeyi of Rumelia, since large areas nominally under his control were given to the ruler's sons.[6]

Following the establishment of beylerbeyliks, sanjaks became second-order administrative divisions, although they continued to be of the first order in certain circumstances such as newly conquered areas that had yet to be assigned a beylerbeyi. In addition to their duties as governors-general, beylerbeyis were the commanders of all troops in their province.

First-level administrative units

There were two main eras of administrative organisation. The first was the initial organisation that evolved with the rise of the Empire and the second was the organisation after extensive administrative reforms of 1864.


The Eyalet was the territory of office or a beylerbeyi, and was further subdivided in sanjaks.[7]


The Vilayets were introduced with the promulgation of the "Vilayet Law" (Turkish: Teskil-i Vilayet Nizamnamesi)[8] in 1864, as part of the administrative reforms that were being enacted throughout the empire.[9] Unlike the previous eyalet system, the 1864 law established a hierarchy of administrative units: the vilayet, liva/sanjak, kaza and village council, to which the 1871 Vilayet Law added the nabiye.[10] The 1864 law also specified the responsibilities of the governor (wali) of the vilayet and their councils.[10] At the same time, the law left to the governors vast scope for independent action as well as responsibility, as part of a system intended to achieve a large degree of efficiency in ruling the provinces.[9]

Lower-order administrative units

The provinces (eyalets) were divided into sanjaks (also called livas) governed by sanjakbeys and were further subdivided into timars (fiefs held by timariots), kadiluks (the area of responsibility of a judge, or Kadı)[11] and zeamets (also ziam; larger timars).

The Sanjak was governed just as a Vilayet on a smaller scale.[12] The Mutesarrif was appointed by Imperial decree, and represented the Vali, corresponding with the Government through him, except in some special circumstances where the Sanjak was independent, in which case the Mutesarrif corresponded directly with the Ministry of the Interior.[12]

Sanjak governors also served as military commanders of all of the timariot and zeamet-holding cavalrymen in their sanjak.[citation needed] Some provinces such as Egypt, Baghdad, Abyssinia, and Al-Hasa (the salyane provinces) were not subdivided into sanjaks and timars. The area governed by an Aga was often known as an Agaluk.[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Sacred Obligations, Precious Interests: Ottoman Grain Administration in Comparative Perspective (p. 12)
  2. ^ Southeastern Europe under Ottoman rule, 1354-1804 at Google Books By Peter F. Sugar
  3. ^ Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire at Google Books By Gábor Ágoston, Bruce Alan Masters
  4. ^ System of universal geography founded on the works of Malte-Brun and Balbi
  5. ^ Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire By Gábor Ágoston, Bruce Alan Masters
  6. ^ a b History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume 1 at Google Books By Stanford J. Shaw
  7. ^ Europe and the historical legacies in the Balkans at Google Books By Raymond Detrez, Barbara Segaert
  8. ^ Turkish public administration: from tradition to the modern age at Google Books By Hamit Palabiyik
  9. ^ a b Haifa in the late Ottoman period, 1864-1914: a Muslim town in transition at Google Books By Maḥmūd Yazbak
  10. ^ a b Governing property, making the modern state: law, administration and ... at Google Books By Martha Mundy, Richard Saumarez Smith
  11. ^ a b Malcolm, Noel (1994). Bosnia: A Short History. Macmillan. pp. 50. ISBN 0330412442. 
  12. ^ a b A handbook of Asia Minor Published 1919 by Naval staff, Intelligence dept. in London. Page 204

External links

Further reading

  • Colin Imber. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.)
  • Halil Inalcik. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600. Trans. Norman Itzkowitz and Colin Imber. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973.)
  • Paul Robert Magocsi. Historical Atlas of Central Europe. (2nd ed.) Seattle, WA, USA: Univ. of Washington Press, 2002)
  • Nouveau Larousse illustré, undated (early 20th century), passim (in French)
  • Donald Edgar Pitcher. An Historical Geography of the Ottoman Empire. (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1972.) (Includes 36 color maps)
  • Westermann, Großer Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (in German) (includes maps)

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