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An Inquiry into Celali Unrest in Ottoman Anatolia: Preliminary Attempts to Draw an Explanatory Framework

Posted in Osmanlı İmparatorluğu, Tarih, Tarımsal Formasyonlar by Dead FM on Haziran 8, 2010

I. Introduction

The history of ‘prehistorical’ social formations is the history of crises[1]. The absolute and perpetual crisis of prehistorical economic formations is marked by long-term trends of relative economic ‘expansions’ and  successive periods of contractions. It is through the gaps and cracks, unfolded by the fracture lines of history on which historical waves of relative economic contractions appear to be, that social unrest sweeps over certain elements of the relevant social formation. However, by glancing through the aforementioned argument, one should not assume ‘a mechanistic relationship between economic change and political action without attending to the specific character of the society in question’[2]. It is in fact, as convincingly argued by Barkey, through the prism of two variables; the specific ‘social structure’ and the particular course of ‘state action’ that “account for both rebellions and lack of rebellions in the West and the non-West”[3]. Therefore, one ought to be careful when analysing the causal and qualitative framework of social action -in a manner that would leave enough room both for the agent and the structure to coexist in a relation of dialectic/two-fold determination and the relations of determination would be understood in a form that allows the determinant-determined association to oscillate between the status of absolute causality to conditioning and finally to that of ‘drawing the general outline’. More concretely and when applied to the case of Celali unrest, neither the effects of the population pressure of the 16th century alone, nor the specific course of the process of Ottoman state formation took, seem to be providing the analyst sufficient grounds to construct a sound explanatory framework. For instance; while the rapid increase in the rates of population growth in the 16th century seems to have ‘conditioned’ social unrest, it was eventually the inability of the village economy to absorb ‘surplus population’ that paved the way for a wave of migratory movements across Anatolia[4]. Moreover; although processes of state centralization had created the conditions for peasant unrest both in the late 16th, early 17th century France and the Ottoman Empire, it was through the particular form the centralization efforts had, that outlined the types of manifestation of social discomfort[5] in these countries -‘the tradition of all  dead generations’, indeed, ‘weighed like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ in each and every case of social action and ‘inaction’. This is, I believe why it is crucial to avoid the temptation of settling for crude mechanistic relations of causality.

Presenting an explanatory account of the Celali unrest is an ardous task not only because of the aforementioned methodological concerns one ought to bear. The subject matter is ever surrounded by haunting modern mythologies concerning the history of social movements. The veil of mystification regarding the political character of social unrest in Ottoman Anatolia is clearly fed by the almost ‘universal’ way in which banditry, as a premodern/early modern social phenomenon, has traditionally been conceptualized. In this view, the bandit is perceived as belonging basically to the same cluster of social types with the peasant; thus no analytical distinction is made between the two. The mythology of ‘social bandit[6] that operates in a Robin Hood-like manner within the confines of the rural economy’, has to be challenged in order to fully grasp both the social origins of banditry and the web of relations in which bandit groups/armies interacted with the peasantry and the central government. Without it, it would be all too easy to contextualize the Celalis within the framework of Eurasian peasant rebellions[7] and neglect the significance of a given group’s relations to the means of production and patterns of subsistence in defining the position of a social group within a social formation.

The term ‘social unrest’, as in the way in which utilized as a descriptive tool in this paper, attempts to provide an encompassing descriptional cover for a variety of social phenomena -considered to be, in this case, different manifestations of an underlying social ‘malaise’ -for lack of a better word. Though rebellion on the part of various social groups/classes seem to be the most ostentatious manifestation of this sort of a malaise, it shall be noted and will be argued that social unrest reveals itself on a spectrum of varying forms -ranging from rebellious acts that confront the elements of the given social formation directly, to, say, flight from land. The Celali movements -this historically specific manifestation of rural unrest, in this sense, will be dealt with within an overall causal framework that integrates the long-term demographic trends (which would help us grasp the question at hand within the overarching context of ‘a worldwide crisis of agrarian absolutist states’[8]) with economic and political currents that shaped the eventual course of Ottoman state and peasant action -which rises on the background and under the weight of the historically determined structural features of the social formation in question.

II. The Sixteenth-Century Transformation

Throughout a period spanning from the last years of the 16th to the early decades of the 17th century, the so-called Celali bandit units ravaged the Anatolian countryside; pillaging towns, illegally taxing peasants and urban dwellers and causing large-scale disruption in agricultural production. The massive scale of rural disorder during this period gave rise to a dramatic exodus of peasants from arable land either to large towns or marginal/uncultivated lands -unless, of course they did not join roving bandit groups themselves. In this section, I shall be discussing some features of the 16th century socio-economic transformation in the Ottoman realm which contributed to the formation of rural-provincial manifestations of social unrest; and attempt to position the subject matter within the framework of long-term demographic/economic trends in the history of the Ottoman Empire.

On the path introduced by Braudel[9] and in line with Cook’s thorough study of the Ottoman fiscal surveys, it would be fair to argue that the steady growth in population throughout the most part of the 16th century, was not accompanied by a proportionally equivalent growth regarding the cultivated lands and production output in Ottoman Anatolia. Leaving the question of whether this kind of an ‘over-population’ resulted with a phenomenon that might be considered  as ‘population pressure’ aside, it is clear that ‘in Asia Minor, overall population is estimated to have increased 50-70 percent between 1500 and 1570, while towns commonly showed increases of 200 percent or more’[10]. Ottoman Empire, thus witnessed a rather rapid deterioration in man/land ratios in favor of the former; the reaya çiftliks becoming more and more fragmented while productivy per capita decreased drastically. While the introduction of more lucrative cash crops, intensification of cultivation or a growth in pastoral activity would help the peasantry offset the aforementioned deterioration, Cook argues that although these inclinations in subsistence patterns are found in sources, they did not take place on a sufficient scale[11]. The dwindling of the size of the peasant family farm that is evident by the increasing number of smaller units of cultivation such as the half-size (nim çift) or peasants with very little land (bennak)[12], must have been one of the major factors contributing to large-scale levendization[13] (levend, being the landless vagrant peasant) throughout the latter part of the 16th century in Ottoman Anatolia[14]. As emphasized by Özel, the reactivation of plots of mezraa-type of temporarily cultivated lands and their gradual transformation into permanent settlements seem to be another indicator of the pressure both on the land and the resources[15]. Handled within the larger framework constituted by the concern of explaining the inexistence of peasant rebellions in the Ottoman Empire, Barkey, while emphasizing the same pattern of reactivation, argues that these periodic settlements functioned as a refugial alternative for peasants when conditions in villages grew difficult[16].

While the demographic pressure constitutes one of the major ‘push’ effects out of the rural economy; İnalcık and İslamoğlu-İnan emphasize the role of the ‘pull’ effects accompanying it. İslamoğlu-İnan, for instance, argues that “migration to towns was probably more a response to increased employment opportunities in towns than an outcome of the inability of the peasant economy to feed increased numbers”[17]. Pointing out the growing need of the state for firearm-bearing infantry units, İnalcık indicates that “the state’s demand for more and more mercenaries caused, first of all, peasant living under the most disadvantegous conditions to leave home and land”[18]. Although recruitment of members of the reaya class to the army was nothing new for the Ottomans; indeed, major transformations in warfare technology prompted the central army to recruit ever-growing numbers of peasants as musketeers –sekbans and sarıcas, from mid-16th century onwards[19]. The relaxation on the control of the manufacturing of firearms, accompanied by a quick decrease in prices of guns; partly as a result of peasants’ need of self-defence against roving bandit-mercenaries, partly a result of the prospects of pursuing a career in military corps, brought about growing ‘militarization’ in the Anatolian countryside. Yet attempting to provide an explanation for the mass influx of vagrant peasants into towns and their enrollment in military ranks, as done by İslamoğlu-İnan, by ‘preferences and choices’ of these levends seems rather problematic. These ‘prefereneces’ have to be contextualized within the general framework provided by overarching socio-economic transformations plaguing the fabric of Ottoman rural society from around the mid-16th century onwards. For instance, while avarız-exemption seems to be one of the main reasons why joining the sekban bölükleri seemed to be offering a viable alternative for many peasants, it is only through an appeal to the history of taxation in the Ottoman realm and a study of the increasing economic exploitation of the Anatolian peasantry in the late 16th century that we could grasp the essence of the very ‘preference’ which drove young peasants away from their homesteads.  A thorough analysis of the origins of the economic breakdown/contraction that manifested itself from the late decades of the 16th century onwards, would be beyond the scope of this short paper. Yet, for our purposes, refering to a few developments that shook the fiscal basis of the central administration and caused the gradual transformation of the land and taxation regimes in relation to the growing militarization of the Anatolian countryside and the exodus of peasants, would be helpful -since it was eventually the cycle of less income and ever-growing expenditures on the part of the treasury that triggered the transformation in the traditional provincial regime, which at the end, meant nothing but increased taxation/exploitation for the bulk of the Anatolian peasantry.

Although there is much scholarly contention on the reasons of the global inflationary wave in the latter part of the 16th century -which helped shape the economic policies of the Ottoman government and effected the purchasing power of rural and urban populations alike dramatically; it is clear the the Ottoman realm, now positioned outside the immediate frontiers of the newly developing Atlantic economy, was among the traditional agrarian absolutist regimes whose old provincial groups of prebendal origin and peasantry paid a bitter price due to rising prices and deterioration of the traditional land regime. Members of the tımar-holding provincial cavalry group, “squeezed between the millstone of set stipends and rising prices”[20] faced increasing difficulties in equipping themselves for campaigns. The devaluation of the coinage from the late-16th century onwards, seemed to have played a major role in shaping the course of this development. This; accompanied by the growing need on the part of the state for firearm-holding infantry units at the expense of the traditional cavalry, increasing competition for tımars, and the gradual shift in the manner in which the central state apparatus collected taxes; members of this prebendal group seem to have lost their military significance to the standing kapıkulu army in the capital (whose garrisons, from around the same period in question on; mostly as a result of the growing insecurity in peripheral zones, installed in most of the provincial cities as well[21]) and newly-recruites sekban units of peasant origin. The increasing monetization of the taxation regime due to dire need of cash for the treasury led to a slow yet steady development whereby former holdings whose customary taxes are collected through indirect/prebendal means were piecemally passed into the growing domain of tax-farming; and “two taxes, the cizye and avariz underwent drastic revamping so that more of these taxes could be collected[22]”. The prebendal incomes were either transformed into revenues collected through a system of contractual nature, or even when the prebendal land-taxation regime stood intact, the traditional groups of tımar-holders found it increasingly difficult to hold on to their assigned plots in the wake of growing competition. Barkey argues that, “cavalrymen experienced competition from men of lower rank as well as grandees from central officials.[23]” Thus; the growing importance of service in war with regard to new tımar assignments caused the emergence of a pattern whereby soldiers of ‘unknown social origin’ (i.e. sekbans of peasant origin)  were awarded with  tımars when they fought for the central army[24]. Moreover, high-ranking military officials of the center began to acquire tımars as well.

These patterns of transformation in the land-holding and taxation regimes are important for our purpose of understanding the great flight of peasants from arable lands of the Anatolian plain -constituting the main human source for bandit units. The traditional prebendal land and taxation system was, as reasons underlying it shown above, being piecemally dismantled in favor of; 1) a land regime in which the peasant either lost his titular rights on the arable plot against a ‘non-cultivator with legal control of the cultivator’s holding’[25] or experienced an actual-physical dispossession where he was driven out of his land, and 2) a taxation regime whereby the economic exploitation of the new tax collector who holds the rights of taxation for a short period of time on a contractual basis usually drained the peasants’ resources quite rapidly. Yet, although these large-scale shifts concerning the patterns of land-holding/taxation and certain ‘pull’ effects with regard to increasing ‘career opportunities’ in the service of the central army suffice for us to grasp why levendization occured on a scale this big; they do not account for the channels through which vagrant peasants were mobilized and turned into bandits. I shall now be dealing with the question of how these bandit units were formed.

III. The Mobilization

What constitutes the most striking characteristic of the rural social fabric during the period in question is, arguably, the constant flux in which masses of people with direct ties to land mobilized in armed units and shifted allegiances -from official service to the state as sekban units to legions of independent banditry; back and forth. It was within the context of this social flux where boundaries between ‘official robbery/over-exploitation’ and banditry got blurred; thus the ‘double burden’ of the Anatolian peasantry. Our main concern regarding the nature of this mobilization is closely related to a study of the channels through which the recruitment processes took place; since this sort of an investigation would enable us to uncover the political dimensions of the bandit movements in relation to bandit leaders’ social origins and the way they position themselves vis-a-vis the central government.

Aside from the relaxation on the control of the manufacturing of firearms -which was briefly mentioned in the section above, Barkey argues that militarization of the countryside “was in large part the result of growth in the retinues of regional power holders[26]”. In line with the relative political decentralization which marked the era, more and more, the size of the military retinues of provincial power holders came to be considered as political assets. Thus; it was not only the efforts of the central government that brought about the militarization of the countryside but, within the context of growing competition for offices in the Ottoman realm, the growth of personal retinues of local power holders contributed significantly to the same process. Increasingly, peasants who constituted a large pool of human source, were enlisted by these powerful elites. Vagrant peasants easily attached themselves to the service of some official and served him until he fell out of favor with the government[27]. Another factor contributing to the mobilization of mercenary units along the lines of bandit movements throughout the period in question was, of course, the temporary demobilization of recruited sekban units after and between the campaigns -a measure taken to contain state expenditure. When the mercenary companies were dissolved after each specific campaign, they in fact remained organized around their leaders and therefore kept their units intact[28]. The companies, after being demobilized, either joined the retinue of a provincial official or sold their services to a former disgruntled official who sought, after all, nothing but readmission into the ranks of the Ottoman administrative apparatus. While some bandit groups remained primarily localized to a single province; others engaged the Ottoman armies dispatched from the center in several provinces –especially the activities of Karayazıcı and Deli Hasan are remarkable in terms of their ability to spread from Amasya all the way to Urfa[29].  Yet; perhaps aside from the case of the Canbolad family of Kilis, not a  single Celali leader (who, most probably was an ex-state-official anyway) sought to confront neither the ideological legitimacy of the Ottoman state directly nor aimed at establishing a wholly autonomous rule. Their so-called ‘rebellions’ were intended merely to carve out some space and regain priviliges for themselves and their immediate clients within the administrative framework of the system.


[1] I use the term, ‘prehistory/prehistorical’ in the specific way in which it was utilized by Karl Marx time and again; as in: “The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.” -‘Preface’ to  A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works in One Volume (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1968) p. 183

[2] M. A. Cook, Population Pressure in Rural Anatolia, 1450-1600 (London, 1972), p. 34

[3] Karen Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats (Ithaca, 1997), p.232

[4] “One need not after all go further than sixteenth-century England for an example of a country which, though infested by ‘swarms of poor loose and wandering people… miserable to themselves, dangerous to the state’ experienced nothing very similar to the Celali risings.” Cook, Population Pressure in Rural Anatolia, 1450-1600, p. 34

[5] Karen Barkey, “Rebellious Alliances: The State and Peasant Unrest in Early Seventeenth-Century France and the Ottoman Empire”, American Sociological Review 56 (1991): 700

[6] Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats, p. 178

[7] “Kısacası Osmanlı’nın Anadolu üzerindeki baskısı üzerine Anadolu halkı tek bir kitle olarak tepki göstermiş, ancak Osmanlı Devleti yöneticilerinin bu baskıyı ayaklanmanın birtakım önderleri üzerinden kaldırmaları ve onları yeniden kendi içlerine almaları karşısında, ayaklanma, önce amacını yitirmiş ve daha sonra da başarısızlıkla sonuçlanmıştır. (…) Şurası bir gerçektir ki, bu eylemler, Osmanlı Devleti’nin Anadolu’da geçerli kıldığı düzene karşı olduğuna göre, ayaklanan kitlenin, bu düzenle çatışan halk olduğu da açıktır. Bu nedenle, bu eylem bir Anadolu Türk hareketidir.” Çetin Yetkin, Türk Halk Hareketleri ve Devrimler, (Istanbul, 1984), p. 150-151

[8] Jack Goldstone, “East and West in the Seventeenth Century: Political Crises in Stuart England, Ottoman Turkey and Ming China”, Comparitive Studies in Society and History 30 (1988): 104

[9] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York, 1972),  p. 591-606

[10] Jack Goldstone, East and West in the Seventeenth Century: Political Crises in Stuart England, Ottoman Turkey and Ming China, p. 106

[11] Cook, Population Pressure in Rural Anatolia, 1450-1600, p. 13-14

[12] Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats, p. 110

[13] Halil İnalcık, “Military and Fiscal Transformation in the Ottoman Empire, 1600-1700”, Archivum Ottomanicum 6 (1980): 285

[14] “In the western Anatolian district of Lazıkkiye (Denizli) between the 1520s and the 1570s, for example, we see an extraordinary increase (%159.59) in the number of households holding the minimum amount of land, while the proportion of those holding a full farmstead or half a farmstead decreased significantly (to %51.1 and %30,05, respectively)” Oktay Özel, “Population Changes in Ottoman Anatolia during the 16th and 17th Centuries: The ‘Demographic Crisis’ Reconsidered”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 36 (2004): 187

[15] Özel, Ibid., p. 187

[16] Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats, p. 114

[17] Huri İslamoğlu-İnan, State and Peasant in the Ottoman Empire (Leiden, 1994), p. 156

[18] İnalcık, Military and Fiscal Transformation in the Ottoman Empire, 1600-1700, p. 287

[19] “During the long period of war in 1593-1606, reports sent by the Ottoman commanders from the battlefront to the government indicated that the Ottoman forces, especially the sipahi cavalry armed with the conventional weapons of bow and arrow, lance, sword and shield, proved ineffectual against the Austrian musketeers. In their reports, the commanders urged that paid soldiers, equipped with firearms be recruited and sent immediately to the battlefront. Impelled by the urgency, the Ottoman government first rapidly increased the number of Janissaries, the standing infantry corps: from 13,000 in the 1550s, they grew to 38,000 in the 1600s. Next,  the government recruited peasants equipped with firearms as mercenaries from among the reaya and sent them to the Austrian front.” İnalcık, Ibid., p. 288-289

[20] Jack Goldstone, East and West in the Seventeenth Century: Political Crises in Stuart England, Ottoman Turkey and Ming China, p. 111

[21] İnalcık, Military and Fiscal Transformation in the Ottoman Empire, 1600-1700, p. 290

[22] Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats, p. 72

[23] Barkey, Ibid., p. 66

[24] The Battle of Mezö-keresztes in 1596 provides us an interesting example of the overarching patterns of transformation in the land-holding regime. Barkey’s commentary on it, which is very much different from that of William J. Griswold’s, sheds some light on the issue: “When at the end of the war, after his victory against the Habsburg army, Grand Vizier Çağalazade Sinan Pasha gathered his army, he declared all mising cavalrymen deserters (firaris) and carried out a policy of dispossession and confiscation of their land and priviliges. Many timar and zeamet holders were named in the Registers of Deserters (Firari Defteri) prepared at the time. The actions of the grand vizier are revealing. In light of previous losses at the beginning of the war at Mezö-keresztes, the grand vizier understood the need for changes in the makeup of the Ottoman army. Therefore, dismissing those who deserted, appropriating their wealth, and redirecting it were among the first measures considered by the state vis-a-vis the timar holders.” Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats, p. 70; “The deserters were expelled from the army and took their revernge by fighting the empire, its people and its government. The deserters at the Battle of Mezö-keresztes are not important for this particular reason, but rather because their desertion signals a new period of state consolidation in Ottoman history. (…) Their dismissal provided state officials the possibility of saving resources to reward new and fresh blood better able to fight wars. There is no doubt that this event set loose many discontented cavalrymen, who took to roamin the Anatolian plains.” Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats, p. 204

[25] Bruce McGowan, Economic Life in Ottoman Empire, Taxation, Trade and the Struggle for Land, 1600-1800 (Cambridge, 1981), p.62

[26] Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats, p. 164

[27] Barkey, Ibid., p. 165

[28] Barkey, Ibid., p. 198

[29] “One bandit army, that of Deli Hasan, for example, moved from Sepedlü north to Sivas, Tokat, Amasya, Çorum, and west to Ankara, then Kütahya in western Anatolia and just south to Afyonkarahisar, defeating Ottoman armies sent to crush them.” Barkey, Ibid., p. 198-199

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