The Proper Order of Things
Language, Power, and Law in Ottoman Administrative Discourses
Heather L. Ferguson



The Structure of Empire and a Grammar of Rule

Gratitude for power is demonstrated by providing shelter and protection to the weak, and by redressing wrongs through the law of justice. . . . Gratitude for the paradisiacal gardens at your palace means to protect and shelter the subjects [re‘aya] who seek refuge under the shadow of sovereignty. . . . As the prophetic hadith said: “You [rulers] are all shepherds and are all responsible for those under your rule.”

—Tursun Bey, Tārī-i ebū’l-fet1

In 1652–53 Tarhuncu Ahmed Paşa, grand vizier to Mehmed IV (r. 1648–87), organized a systematic review of the Ottoman Empire’s account books. He gathered scribes of the finance office and head bureaucrats to identify indiscriminate spending and to work toward submitting an annual budget for the upcoming year.2 There was nothing particularly innovative about this consultative body or its objectives, as reforms in the imperial council during the era of Sultan Süleyman’s reign (1520–66) had moved toward interventionist accounting procedures. This effort, however, came amid a particularly discordant moment in the management of Ottoman imperial order and stability. Tarhuncu Ahmed Paşa’s demand for a fiscal reevaluation of palace resources joined a series of ventures undertaken by early modern statesmen to address global challenges to centralized states in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Price revolutions, climatic change, urbanization, internal rebellions, and demographic mobilization threatened to undermine the compartmentalized political and social order that had sustained composite empires and kingdoms. Vast increases in population across Eurasia beginning in the late 1400s had severely challenged agrarian institutions by the 1600s.3 Unforeseen monetary fluctuations due to imperialist ventures across the Atlantic interrupted customary modes of revenue-raising and encouraged greater mobility among the empire’s inhabitants.4 This mobility was armed, often literally, by new techniques of recruitment and rebellion. Combined, these factors necessitated a reinvention of legitimacy on the part of the Ottoman establishment, as power shifted in both form and content.5

Between 1589 and 1648, finance ministers, grand viziers, religious officials, military commanders, and two sultans lost their lives in an ongoing battle to define the nature and extent of sultanic power in the face of these challenges. Responding to the turmoil, political and intellectual elites suggested new theories of governance and agendas for reform. Outspoken religious preachers rallied urban populations against perceived corruptions in state affairs and social practice. Provincial governors formed armed militias and fomented support for their own regional powerhouses, daring to openly challenge imperial forces. And the bureaucracy expanding behind the walls of the dynasty’s Topkapı Palace engendered its own rival cohorts and interest groups capable of both selecting and strangling a sultan.

The outbreak of war with Venice over the island of Crete in 1645 further strained the dynasty’s coffers and contributed to the radicalization of political protest across the imperial domain. The battle for the Aegean would last until 1669, but the Venetian capture of Tenedos in 1646 and blockade of the Dardanelles in the following year squeezed the fortunes of dynastic order.6 Sultan İbrahim (r. 1640–48) had met a violent death when scarcities and heavy taxation aligned garrisoned soldiers in the capital, religious functionaries, and palace factions in yet another dramatic imperial shakeup. The sultan was first imprisoned and then, with a nod from his powerful mother and a religious edict from the head jurisconsult, strangled.7 Yet his death did not replenish the treasury. Regents of İbrahim’s son Mehmed IV, who was only six years old when he ascended to the sultanate, were unable to distribute the donative to the military defenders of the realm despite their necessary participation in the ongoing Cretan campaign. Nonsalaried cavalrymen, dependent on ritualized dispersions of funds and gifts to cement their livelihoods and their loyalty, led yet another uprising to secure more favorable financial reward. Like rebellions in the previous decades, agitants gathered in Istanbul’s Atmeydanı (Hippodrome), the traditional center for the dispersion of sultanic largesse and the site where soldiers and elites of the realm swore oaths of allegiance to their sovereign.8 Suppression of the revolt by garrisoned troops in the city highlighted escalating tensions between cavalry units (sipahi) supported by land grants and infantry soldiers (yeniçeri or janissaries) recompensed through salaries.

The cavalry units embodied an agrarian imperial ecology dependent on land as the nexus for social control, political alliance, and economic viability. As holders of land grants (timar), they administered taxation policies and were required to mobilize men and impedimenta for military campaigns. Janissaries, however, originally recruited through a human tax on non-Muslim populations (devşirme), had increasingly become part of a commercialized market economy, acting as real estate agents, coffee-shop owners, and investors. In administrative documents or in the various forms of history writing, commentaries, and reform manuals that proliferated along with the tempestuous movements of the day, neither cavalryman nor janissary adhered to the bounded social, political, and economic roles assigned to them by statesmen, bureaucrats, and intellectuals. But both administrative document and intellectual treatise constructed an idealized system of governance that assigned clear divisions between social groups and sought to remedy present concerns by reasserting foundational principles.

This book suggests that imperial efforts to create and shape a vision of provincial order were intimately linked to, and mutually defined by, the ability to wield influence through legal commands circulated in textual form. These commands were essential to extending centralized authority across vast distances. Thus, while military forces were obviously key to both regional control and expansionary campaigns, internal rebellions and external rivals were also managed through an elaborate reliance on textual edicts of sultanic authority. As such, circulating edicts created a web of textual authority that accompanied and legitimized the use of force. The web of sultanic edicts first created and then imposed a legal and social order, placed the diffuse inhabitants of the realm within intelligible categories used as the basis for both taxation and redress, and gradually articulated a claim to universal sovereignty aimed at subverting internal challengers and external rivals. The arguments contained here thus build on studies concerned with the relationship between empire and textuality and the mechanisms by which the circulation of documents characterized and, in the act of characterizing, produced a particular conception of sovereignty. This conceptual framework defined and supplemented imperial authority and was deployed in the midst of the varied crises Tarhuncu Ahmed Paşa sought to address.


1. Tursun Bey (d. after 1490) served as a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Ottoman chancery. His history, Tārī-i ebū’l-fet, is a key indicator of the evolving political understanding under Mehmed II and was written after the author’s retirement to Bursa in 1488. For a facsimile with English translation see Tursun Bey, The History of Mehmed the Conqueror; for a close analysis of the historical context and rhetorical features see İnan, “A Summary and Analysis of the Tārīh-i Ebü’l-Feth.” Tursun Bey’s extended discussion concerning the appropriate use of sovereign power and the varied lineages adopted by the Ottoman dynasts will be addressed later in this chapter, as well as in Chapters 2 and 6.

2. Biographical sketches of Tarhuncu Ahmed Paşa’s career as a palace administrator, governor, and ultimately grand vizier can be found in: Özvar, İslam ansiklopedisi, 20–22; Na‘ima, Tārā-i Na‘īmā, 1284–1475; Danişmend, İzahlı Osmanlı tarihi kronolojisi, 418. The head finance minister involved in the project was Zurnazen Mustafa Paşa.

3. I use Eurasia here to reference a broad interconnected geographical zone that avoids imposing continental language on the period or the region. Eurasia also has the advantage of sidestepping culturalist biases or anachronistic labels that divide Europe from Asia, the Middle East, or the Near East. For a pointed critique of the continental approach to global history and the problem of “Europe” as a designation, see Lewis and Wigen, The Myth of Continents, 35–37. Abu-Lughod presents an argument for interconnected world systems during the period in Before European Hegemony.

4. The classic text on the “seventeenth-century crisis” is Aston, Crisis in Europe. Geoffrey Parker addressed criticisms from global historians and incorporated environmental approaches to sociopolitical upheaval in Global Crisis. For comparative adaptations of the overall thesis see Goldstone, “East and West”; and Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion. Participants of an American Historical Review forum explored the usefulness of the concept for comparative studies of the early modern period; see Parker, “The General Crisis,” 1029–99. Even the AHR debate failed to address the Eurocentric bias of comparative models, however; see Murphey, “Continuity and Discontinuity,” 424; and Darling, Revenue-Raising and Legitimacy, 9–16.

5. The crisis appears within Ottoman historiography as a debate over the so-called price revolution of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; see Barkan, “The Price Revolution,” 3–28; Ortaylı, “Osmanlı impartorluğu’nda iktisadi ve sosyal değişim”; Pamuk, “The Price Revolution,” 69–89; and White, The Climate of Rebellion.

6. Setton, The Papacy and the Levant, 149–57.

7. Peirce, The Imperial Harem, 246–55; Börekçi, “İbrahim I”; Gökbilgin, “İbrāhīm,” 983.

8. Brummett, “Classifying Ottoman Mutiny,” 91–107.