Like any great civilisation, the Ottoman Empire had clear social categories distinguishing the noble class from the general population. In the specific context of Ottoman society, there were four key groups worth noting
1. 'AL-REAYA' (GENERAL POPULACE)
The first and the lowest ranking group was comprised of the masses, those who were ruled and governed by the select few in political, military or judicial posts. The subjects of the Ottoman Empire were known as the Reaya or those who are led, the term itself comes from classical Arabic term for cattle or flock and by this it is understood that the lower classes, were subjects of the ruling classes. The Reaya is a broad category considering the fact that in all societies it is the subjects that outnumber those of authority, however under the Ottoman administration the Reaya were further classified by their religious identity under the Millet system.
For a very long time, the subjects of Ottoman rule were classified as separate communities based on the faith they practiced, the primary sub-categories were that of Muslims and Non-Muslim, more specifically the Dhimmi or Ahlul-Kitaab.
While Muslims were treaty as one community regardless of whether they were Turks, Arabs or of other ethnicities, within the Ahlul-Kitaab category there were two further sub-catgories, the Jews and the Christians. While these non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire were considered two distinct communities, within the Christian category there were four main ethnic sub-groups – that of the Greeks, the Armenians, the Assyrians and the Egyptian Copts.
Although the Ottoman administration ruled over all the Reaya with its own laws mostly derived from the Shariah, the Ahlul-Kitaab were also granted judicial discretion where certain religious judgement were concerned. The Jews could apply laws from the Torah and the Khalakah while Christians were allowed to apply Canonical laws among themselves. Additionally, Christian subjects had to pay Blood tax which was charged for each male child.
2. THE MILITARY ORDER
The Ottoman Empire was founded in Anatolia, approximately six hundred years after the advent of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula. At the helm of this new empire was a noble and courageous military commander and tribal leader known as Osman Ghazy, who according to legendary accounts – was informed in a magnificent dream that his rule and dynasty would spread throughout the land.
The second social class within the Ottoman Empire was comprised of the military and their commanders. This was perhaps one of the most over-subscribed classifications outside of the Reaya given the military might and history of the Ottomans.
Within this social class were several ranks, beginning with the least influential
· The Gazi was typically synonymous with the rank and file soldier, although over time it was also a title given to leading members of the military class.
· The Pasha, this title was reserved for senior or commanding officers within the Ottoman military.
· The Ağası signified a position of seniority occupied by the leading military chiefs and masters.
In addition to the aforementioned groups, perhaps the most prominent and feared group within the military circles were the Yanecari (Janissaries) also known as the New Soldiers.
The Janissary corps were originally created by Sultan Murad I as a private army who would be dedicated and loyal only to the Sultan in a time when rival leading families were vying with each other for power within the empire and placing such rivals within the main army could put the ruling Sultan at the risk of betrayal.
The Janissaries were actually impoverished male children enlisted (initially by force) from the Christian communities inhabiting the Balkan regions, once recruited these young boys would be converted to Islam and trained in military and administrative disciplines, many would graduate from the Janissary corps to work in key administrative posts while the others would serve the Sultan as part of his elite military guard. In time, Muslim families would pretend to be Christians in the hopes of getting their male children through the training program and Christian families would volunteer their sons for the services.
3. THE CLERGY
The third group within Ottoman society were the religious ranks, the Imams, teachers, judges and royal advisers. As with all empires built upon religious conquest, it was important for the Sultans to have the approval and complicity of the religious class – especially when waging war and passing certain laws.
The highest post occupied by the religious elites was that of the Grand Mufti also known as the Sheikhul Islam.
4. THE ASKERI (RULING CLASS)
Following his father’s death, Orhan rose to power and began his rule by conquering new cities, the first of such conquests being the city of Bursa which he won by building two castles on either side of the city and blockaded it, starving its inhabitants into submission after 12 years of resistance.
Following the victory, Orhan declared himself Sultan and made Bursa the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. Bursa enabled the Osmani dynasty to establish a seat of the government and to mark his dominion over the region, Sultan Orhan built schools and monuments. He even minted his own currency – the first to have done so in Ottoman history. By such efforts, Sultan Orhan had facilitated a cultural transition from the Bedouin life of his ancestors towards a more metropolitan life in Bursa.
Finally, the most influential and powerful group within Ottoman society were those within the Askeri category, these were the noblemen and leaders of the realm – the term itself encompasses military and religious titles but at the more senior end of the spectrum. Additionally, members of the Askeri included the administrative and governing groups – most notably the Divan also known as the Sublime Porte – a reference to the palace doors that concealed much of the important decision making activities that preoccupied the ruling classes.
Within the hierarchy of this social group were the following ranks, again from least influential to most influential
· Nisanci: These were court calligraphers and those who sealed the Sultan’s documents, literacy and accuracy was their mark of distinction from the general public and the typical court calligrapher could spend years studying the scripts and techniques of more senior scribes before being elected into the ranks of court Nisanci.
· Wali: The Wali or Guardian was in fact a title describing the regional governors elected by the Sultan to administer to local governances across the empire, such elected officials had considerable autonomy and power at varying points in Ottoman history.
· Beylerbey: Also known as a Bey was a more senior ranking governor elected to administer the conquered regions.
· Khedive: A level above the Bey was the Khedive, a Viceroy to the Ottoman Sultan assigned to govern on behalf of the empire in distant territories. The most famous Khedive was Muhammad Ali Pasha, who was granted authority over Egypt.
· kadıasker / Qadi: This was the judiciary post assigned to a Judge be it in military or civic circles. The Judge had significant influence and power.
· Şeyhülislam: As explained, this was a religious post of the highest rank – one that was equivalent to a Pope or a Chief Rabbi. The Shaikhul Islam was the most senior religious authority in the land and could potentially even contest laws passed by the Sultan if they were deemed not admissible by the Shariah.
· Reis ül-Küttab: This was the rank of Chief Scribe.
· Defterdar: The rank of Finance minister.
· Viziers: These were Ministers of various administrative roles, their highest ranking member was the Grand Vizier – a post somewhat comparable to the Priministerial role of modern governments.
· Şehzade: This was the second most powerful and influential role after that of the Sultan. The Sehzade or Prince was the natural successor to the ruling Sultan and potentially the next ruler.
· Sultan / Caliph: Finally, at the very top of the Ottoman social hierarchy was the Sultan, a title derived from the Arabic term for Authority. The Sultan was the earthly representative and vicegerent of God. Later on in Ottoman history this title evolved to include the title of Caliph, which has a more religious undertone and legitimacy.
Another social groups within the Sultan’s household was the oft romanticised and intriguing world of the Sultanate of women.
This limited and restricted group was in effect a private Harem whose primary function was to provide the Sultan with male heirs to the throne. The hierarchy and order of the Harem was very well governed in order to safeguard the integrity of Ottoman royal lineage. At the very lowest level of importance were the concubines.
Slaves / concubines: These were young virgin girls who were captured, purchased or brought into the Harem as potential mates for the Sultan. They would be educated and prepared for the purpose of bearing a male child by the Sultan. The concubines were not wives of the Sultan and he could have as many as he wanted, unlike his wives who could not exceed 4 at a time. Once a concubine conceived of a male child, she would no longer be a mate to the Sultan – this is to ensure that each woman had only one son by the Sultan. The women were not permitted to have intercourse with any other male before or after sleeping with the Sultan, to the effect where they were guarded by royal Eunuchs at all times. Which brings us onto the next category.
Harem Ağası: This was the Chief Eunuch in charge of guarding the Harem, the Eunuch chief was typically a black officer. Having been castrated from childhood, the Eunuchs were totally incapable of impregnating or copulating with women in general.
Haseki: Once the female slave had delivered a child, more specifically a male child – for the Sultan, she rose in rank and was admitted to the level of potential royalty should her son inherit the crown later on. On very rare instances, the Haseki even got married to the Sultan, however this was against protocol and not very common.
Valide Sultana (Queen Mother): At the highest level of the Harem was the Sultan’s own mother who would select which of the Concubines the Sultan would copulate with each night, she was in effect a selective agent whose role was to prepare the subsequent generation of Ottoman leaders. The Valide Sultana had tremendous influence and power within the Ottoman administrative realm as she was virtually responsible for selecting the next Sultan.
So there we have it, a concise and informative insight into Ottoman social hierarchy and order.
This presentation is by no means an exhaustive list of the various groups and social circles within the Ottoman empire however it covers the more prominent classifications.
· Social Structure Of Ottoman Empire, Political Organization, March 11th 2016, Serhat Engül, https://istanbulclues.com/social-structure-of-ottoman-empire/
· Chapter 2, "Ottoman Social and State Structure," of Dr. Peter Sugar's Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354 - 1804. https://www.thoughtco.com/social-structure-of-the-ottoman-empire-195766