For my final project, I chose to write about slavery in the Ottoman Empire. Slavery in the empire had a different meaning than what we as Westerners might imagine it to be, or what we picture when we imagine a slave. I for one know that I would typically imagine an impoverished, demeaned, poorly treated person likely of some color, whereas most Ottoman slaves were of Circassian decent and weren’t inferior. This brings us two key aspects of Ottoman slavery that are different from what we are used to: the first being that slaves were treated well and could obtain high positions of power, and the second being that slavery continued in the empire early into the 20th century, long after it was legally banned.
It’s estimated that roughly 1/5th of the entire empire was made up of slaves. Domestic slavery was not as common as military slavery, but both existed and both were treated justly. Slavery in the Islamic world was considered to be less degrading than slavery in the Christian world because slaves were given adequate living conditions and treatment in nearly all circumstances. Slaves had the right to be provided with clothing, food, shelter, and care under Islamic law. Slaves were even able to take their owner to court if they were in violation of the law. Many slaves were better off than the common-folk of the empire. Some people even preferred to have their children become slaves or would prefer for themselves to be slaves because they at least then would be guaranteed shelter, food, and medical care. Young Christian boys from Europe were gathered as part of the sultans “blood tax” and they were taken to the empire and converted to Islam. These boys would then become mostly janissaries and harem guards, which were positions of potentially high power. Slaves were also gathered from central Africa. The sultan ended up owning the highest number of slaves by a landslide, equating to roughly 1/5th of the overall slave population.
Slaves were sold at the Esir Pazari’s, or “slave markets” across the empire, the largest of which was located right near Topkapi Palace in the imperial neighborhood. Markets were an important edition to the trade system because prior to their existence, slaves would be sold in the streets alongside their dealers. They were on display for all of the empire to see and there were so many of them for sale at times that they would barricade the streets. The markets were invented when the sultan Mehmet II was travelling through the street and accidentally killed a female slave with a baby in her hand with his horse. He was distraught about the situation and decided that they needed a better system for housing and trading slaves. Slaves were sold through the markets during the 16th, 17th, and part of the 18th century until it was banned. Istanbul’s Esir Pazari was the busiest market in the empire, likely because of its location and size.
The market was behind a large wooden gate in which there were small wooden rooms that housed the slaves and covered terraces attached in which dealers would discuss purchases with customers. Customers would feel around at the slaves and inspect every inch of them, much like cattle, in order to ensure that they were making an effective purchase. The market was open during traditional business hours, opening up the gate at 8am and closing during the late afternoon except on Fridays when it wasn’t open to purchasers. Many dealers had other occupations so not all of them could be there all of the time. Prices of slaves varied depending on where they came from, what their skin color was, and how many were available at the time. Most middle class families were able to afford a domestic slave to do their household chores and it was not uncommon to see this practice. All domestic slaves were purchased through the market. For instance, a female would cost up to 1,500 akces each, depending on the circumstances. This was an affordable price for many, but still an expensive purchase.
The market was closed down officially in December of 1846 by the Sultan Abdulmecid because laws were being passed that banned the ownership of slaves, but the sale of slaves continued for another hundred and fifty years or so. The reason the trade continued for so long was likely because many slaves were not discontent with their situation. They weren’t being treated unfairly on the surface level. Another reason is that there wasn’t a proper system for punishing and enforcing the laws, and there were such a high number of slaves that the overall abolishment was difficult to achieve. It eventually fizzled out after years of gradual enforcement. The slave system brought hundreds of years of business, tourism, and wealth to the Ottoman Empire, and was an important facet of understanding the nature of the Ottoman’s. The fair treatment of the slaves, the location of the market in the imperial neighborhood, and the long-term existence of the exchange represent the just nature of its people.
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