This year, the number of foreign researchers visiting the archives has already exceeded 600. The majority of scholars come from Japan and the US and they are trying to find the source of the six-century-long Ottoman peace. Most of them think that Ottoman success is highly bound to its system of justice, which is hidden in court registers.
Most researchers do know the details of the archival settlement and have the knowledge of Ottoman Turkish along with Arabic. The most popular subjects are the ethics of Ottoman bureaucracy, divorce and inheritance cases. Japanese academic Jun Akiba, who wrote a book on Ottoman qadis (Islamic judges) and the judicial system, has worked in the archive for a long time. Like Akiba, most researchers research their thesis topic based on the Court Register Archives.
Archivist Ayhan Işık noted that top researchers come to visit and conduct their research in Ottoman archives, but their names are not revealed in line with archive policy. He claimed that many countries take the Ottoman judiciary example into consideration when they compose new texts of laws, for which the preliminary studies are largely conducted in the archives.
Inheritance cases in Ottoman records
Archives are crucial for modern-day courts as well. There are still ongoing cases on inheritance disputes which require archival documentation from the pre-republican era. A considerable number of people inherit large fortunes from their Ottoman ancestors based on the archival data and documentation. Ottomans recorded the deceased individuals’ wealth in great detail, particularly that of bureaucrats. These records were written by employees called kassam, who recorded every small detail, even including the value and number of books, pots, kitchen utensils and clothes. After the clarification of pricing and total value, a civil servant called a dellal sold the assets and taxed them before distribution of the wealth to the inheritors. Along with these less important forms of property, some notable bureaucrats also left vineyards, gardens, kiosks and hamams. If the deceased did not have an inheritor, his or her property was transferred to waqfs, philanthropic Islamic foundation endowments.
Işık underlined that today hundreds of people discover the identity of their deceased relatives and open cases against the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM), which is a republican entity established to govern all Ottoman waqfs under a single office. Several ongoing court cases deal with major legacies which might be worth trillions. The archivist underlined that those cases opened in Eyüp and Üsküdar mostly relate to the Ottoman archives, adding that in İstanbul alone there used to be 70,000 waqfs. “Courts use the archival documents particularly for inheritance cases. Sometimes, a tiny detail such as a stamp on the document, or the cachet of a qadi may be enough to illuminate the case. With the number of the stamp, or qadi’s cachet, we find the document and then send the translation to the court. On the other hand some documents are extremely old and illegible, which may cause related cases to last years,” said the archivist. The greatest apprehension of archivists is documental forgeries; to eliminate such risks a digital platform is seen as a must.
One other popular issue regarding Ottoman archives is the overwhelming number of queries meant to find a family lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. Hundreds of people apply to archives with documents from their grandparents in order to learn whether they are descendants of the Prophet. “Every month, from all over Anatolia there are about 400 people who apply to the archives to check whether they are part of the prophet’s family (seyyid) or not. Those who learn that they are not can hardly believe it. From abroad as well, lots of people come for the same reason, particularly Saudis,” said Işık.
In Saudi Arabia, Arab descendants of the Prophet still receive a salary; that’s why many people from Arab countries turn to the archives. A considerable number of Turks who confuse diplomas given to members of a Sufi order (tarikat) with the Ottoman document distributed to descendants of the Prophet -- known as “siyadet hücceti” -- place archivists in a difficult position.
Işık underlined that the siyadet hücceti has to have a sultan’s seal and be granted by the bureaucrat who is responsible for the Prophet’s descendants, known as the “nakib-ul-eşraf.” Ottomans only allowed those descendants to wear green headgear in public, and checked the granted documentation in public places. This is because grandchildren of the Prophet did not have to pay tax and they were also salaried. Sometimes, Ottoman salary and tax receipts might have been enough to prove lineage.
1 mln documents will be digitized in August
Işık indicated that there are merely 11 archivists in their office who have to work intensely. He added that it is difficult to serve both international and national researchers with this limited number of staff. Since they aim to serve academics with more extensive equipment and data and to eliminate the risk of court documents being damaged or altered by malicious people, they plan to digitize 1 million documents from their archives. By around mid-August archives will be serving researchers on a digital platform. Digitization is being done with funding from the İstanbul Provincial Administration, which will serve people from all around the globe without requiring them to pay a visit to the archives. Researchers will be able to access archival material with just the document numbers, either through email or CDs sent via expedited mail.