Thursday, October 10, 2013

Slavery during the Ottoman Empire Period

Slave Market Istanbul - Slavery during Ottoman Empire
Slave Market in Istanbul

Islam forbids Muslims to own and trade slaves. Unfortunately slavery still existed in the Muslim communities and Ottoman Empire was not an exception.

Istanbul - Capital city of the Ottoman Empire was the final destinations of many slaves. The slave market in Istanbul was located between two mosques Nuruosmaniye Mosque and Atik Ali Pasa Mosque. Today there are a lot of small stores in the same area. Ottoman slaves were predominantly white but later in the 19th century black slaves dominated the marketplace. This market in Nuruosmaniye was closed in 1846 but slave trade continued in other parts of the city including some hans in the Fatih district.

Some people suggest almost 20% of the Istanbul's population were slaves at one point. Even moderately affluent families were able to have at least one slave to help with house chores and gardening.

One of the most popular tasks for black male slaves was being the Eunuchs. Islam forbid castrations
which was in the exclusive domain of christian slave traders who performed the gory task in Africa before the slaves were ships to Muslims cities to be Eunuchs. 

Two Black Eunuchs tending the palace women
Descendants of the black slaves are not called Afro Turks. The history of Afro-Turks is murky and convoluted.  Most of them were the descendants of the African slaves during the Ottoman Empire period. Their roots in slavery are not too distant, considering that slave trade only ended in the beginning of 20th century in Turkey. After a decree issued in 1857 by Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid I, the slave trade was abolished, but he did not ban slavery altogether. 
The Ottoman Empire did not completely leave the freed slaves to face their destiny alone. Ottoman bureaucracy had a grand plan for them. Dusty Ottoman archives declare that the empire provided more than 1500 Afro-Turk families each with a house, furniture, two oxen, and some money. Property ownership was seen by the government as the key to making Afro-Turks feel welcome in the Turkish lands. The government wanted to anchor them to the land they toiled on for so long. Reparations was a way for the Ottoman Sultan to ask for forgiveness for the pain suffered by Afro-Turks’ ancestors.

Initially, homogenous “African” villages were established on land given by the government. Some chose to stay in the villages and kept their heritage - some moved to larger cities and slowly entered mixed marriages and assimilated into the general population. 

Afro-Turks originated from many different countries, including Niger, Egypt, Kenya and Sudan. Interestingly, the Embassy of Sudan even sent a representative to their biggest and most important annual celebration - the Calf Festival. In the Ottoman Empire, most of them lived in Western Anatolia, in Ayvalik in the Northern Aegean region, in Izmir or in a village near popular tourist destination called Bodrum in western Turkey.

Afro-Turks are now much more organized today than they were in previous decades. The African Solidarity and Cooperation Association (ASCA) was founded to preserve the community’s traditions and history. ASCA leadership is also very creative with the way it utilizes press coverage to their benefit. When President Obama visited Turkey in 2009, ASCA asked for an official meeting with Obama. While they did not succeed to meet Obama, they brought enough attention to their cause.

Turkish state-run television channel (TRT) recently produced a documentary about them. The Turkish Ministry of Culture supported an oral history project, “Voices of a Speechless Past,” with participation from the European Union. 

Unfortunately, Afro-Turks are not entirely happy with their current condition. They want a better future for themselves and want to preserve their identity. They demand better access to higher education and more employment opportunities. Given their relatively small numbers, I do not see a reason why Turkish government cannot provide them more opportunities given their fast growing economy.

When you visit Turkey on vacation and see a Turkish Speaking “African,” do not assume he or she is a tourist or a refugee. Remember the Afro-Turks…

Lachin Hatemi is a physician in Buffalo, New York. His interests include human rights, racial equality and interfaith dialogue. You can reach Lachin at 

No comments:

Post a Comment