Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (The Ottoman Archives of the Prime Minister’s Office, hereafter “the Ottoman archives”) is the primary repository for state archival documents in Turkey related to the Ottoman Empire. As the only major archive of a pre-modern Muslim state, the archive contains a vast collection of unique documents pertaining to the administration of one of history’s largest empires. After more than a century in the center of the old city, the Ottoman archives were relocated in 2013 to the Kağıthane district of Istanbul.
In some ways, the origins of the Ottoman archives extend back as far as the origins of the early Ottoman polity. The present collection contains a few documents from the earliest period up to the reign of Sultan Süleyman in the sixteenth century, at which point the expanding differentiation in bureaucratic function facilitated increased document production. Contemporary scholars only have a general sense of how these records were maintained in the earlier periods, as, by the late eighteenth century, the archival collections were significantly reorganized along new lines, which in many cases have been maintained until today. The organization of these records as a modern archive began in 1847 with the establishment of Hazine-i Evrak. The original building was located on the grounds of the grand vezir’s offices in Gülhane and contained several main groups of documents: the records of the Imperial Council (Divan-i Hümayun) and the records of the grand vezir’s office (Bab-i Ali), as well as the records of the financial departments (Maliye) and cadastral surveys (tapu tahrir defteri). With the establishment of the Republic, the Hazine-i Evrak was transformed into Başvekalet Arşiv Umum Müdürlüğü (The General Directorate of the Prime Ministry) and eventually the Başbakanlık Arşiv Genel Müdürlüğu. During this period, the records of various nineteenth-century Ottoman offices and administrative authorities were added to the collections. Concurrent with these changes and additions, Turkish scholars took the first steps to classify and catalog the various collections beginning in the 1910s. These early efforts produced a number of classified collections (tasnif) which are still cited according to the name of the scholar who created the catalog. Today the work of cataloging the vast collection continues.
The collections of the Ottoman archives may be divided broadly between defters (bound notebooks) and evrak (loose papers), whether preserved individually or in larger files. The defters, of which approximately 300,000 are located within the archive, can be further divided between accounting reports—often of financial records or land surveys for tax assessment—and diplomatic records, which contain copies or summaries of outgoing orders and other communications. The evrak, of which approximately 150 million are preserved at the archive, range from original copies of imperial decrees to administrative reports and communications, and even odd notes of low-level bureaucrats.
The early efforts of Turkish scholars to classify the archives focused on organizing and arranging the evrak. Between 1918 and 1921, Ali Emiri sorted 180,361 documents in chronological order and cataloged them according to the reign of the sultan during which they were produced (coded “A.E.”). Shortly thereafter, İbnülemin Mahmud Kemal organized an additional 46, 467 documents according to twenty-three subjects, the largest groups of which concerned financial matters (12,201) and military affairs (8,227) (coded “İ.E.”). In the 1930s, Muallım Cevdet followed İbnülemin’s example and sorted 184,256 documents in sixteen subjects, including military (54,984), charitable foundation record (33,351), and internal affairs (17,468) (coded “C.”).
Since these early efforts, the archive’s staff has largely endeavored to sort and classify documents according to the departments and offices in which they were initially produced. In addition to this work, the archive staff formed a number of special categories which isolate documents according to type; most imperial writs (hatt-ı hümayun), decrees (irade), and charitable foundation records (vakıf) are cataloged in this way. Beginning with the reforms of the Tanzimat period, the breadth and depth of Ottoman administration increased exponentially. This bureaucratic development led to the creation of numerous central and provincial administrative authorities and offices all of which produced their own records.
The archive’s bound notebooks consist of three broad organizational categories. The first category pertains to the records of the Imperial Council (divan) and Grand Vezirate. Of these, the most significant type are the registers of important matters of state (mühimme defteri), which consist of 263 registers covering the period 961-1323/1553-1905, although large portions of the registers for the seventeenth century are no longer extant. These registers report a day-to-day summary of all outgoing correspondence issued from the Imperial Council. The second category of notebooks consists of the cadastral survey registers (tapu tahrir defteri), which contain the land and population surveys from most of the provinces and territories of the Empire. The collection includes approximately 1,153 separate registers, the earliest of which is a tımar register of a sancak in Albania completed in 835/1431. It should be noted that registers pertaining to Arabia, Egypt, and North Africa are not included among the Ottoman archive’s collections. The last category of notebooks contain information related to the financial administration of the empire and consists of registers on income and expenditures, including many salary registers of palace and state employees.
The Ottoman archives also contain a variety of overlapping collections from different archives. The vast majority of the bound registers of the Topkapı Palace Museum Archive are accessible in digital format at the Ottoman archives. The court records (sicillat) of every Ottoman city within the modern borders of Turkey, excluding Istanbul, are available at the archive. (Many of these are also available at İSAM) There are also numerous Ottoman documents from neighboring countries like Russia and Bulgaria. Finally, researchers can also access many of the twentieth-century Turkish Republic documents from the Başbakanlık Cumhuriyet Arşivi in digital format through the Ottoman archive site in Kağıthane, though this requires a separate registration.
For a detailed explanation of the archive’s collections, we suggest researchers consult Osmanlı Arşivi Rehberi, an electronic copy of which may be downloaded at Archive Directorate’s website (see below). The indispensable guide provides a nearly complete listing for most of the Ottoman archive’s collections.
Archive patrons conduct research in either the computer reading room (araştırma odası) or the document viewing room (inceleme odası). The computer reading room contains approximately seventy-five computer stations from which researchers may search for material using the archive’s catalog software. Any of the archive’s material that has been digitized is also accessible from these computer stations. In addition to the archive’s catalog software, the computer reading room also contains more than 1,100 printed volumes of the archive’s catalogs. If the desired material is not available in digital format, researchers may request to consult the original documents, which are made available for consultation in the viewing room. See Original Documents section below.
Catalogs and Searches: The collections of the Ottoman archives are incompletely cataloged in approximately 1,160 volumes. These volumes are organized according to the names of the collection (fon) and sub-collection (alt fon). Entries within each catalog contain a brief description of the document with date (if available). In addition to these volumes, researchers may search for material from any of the reading room’s seventy-five computer stations. The search tools available through the archive’s software enable patrons to pull up descriptions of any bound notebook (defter), folder (dosya), or file (gömlek) that has been digitally cataloged. Additionally, researchers can search for key terms included in any of the catalog descriptions of the archive’s collections. The Archives Directorate also has a separate searchable online catalog (see below) of the archives collections.
Researchers should exercise due diligence when using the archive’s computer catalog. A simple keyword search may return thousands of results for documents in the archives. Those researching pre-nineteenth century topics may be disappointed to find that there are very few documents for the early modern period whereas those researching modern topics may be fooled into thinking that that every relevant document is listed. The reality is that even for modern documents, much of the material is uncataloged. Researchers should use the printed catalogs available in the computer reading room in order to determine what part of the archive contains relevant material. They can then request folders (dosyalar) or defters for these sections and go through the documents or entries individually. Researchers focusing on earlier periods will have fewer loose documents (evrak) to consult and may have to rely primarily on defters. The majority of these defters have been digitized, although only superficially cataloged. Date (tarih) parameters on the search software will not return any defter results. Therefore, the relevant section of the archive must be selected and researchers should limit search criteria to key terms when looking for defters. In addition, for the early modern period, some of the catalogs for the earlier classified collections have not been transcribed and are only accessible through their pre-script reform published catalogs.
Digitized Documents: If the researcher identifies material that has been digitized, he or she may consult the digitized copy from the computer stations. Generally, these digital photographs have been taken from relatively legible black-and-white photocopies. In some instances, the digitized files consist of more recently produced digital photographs. If digitized copies of the material are illegible, researchers may ask the reading room staff for permission to consult the original documents.
Original Documents: Researchers may request permission to consult non-digitized original documents using the computer terminals in the reading room. Original documents are made available for consultation in the viewing room at regular intervals. Requests that are made before 9:15 in the morning will be fulfilled by 11:30. Requests made before 11:15 will be fulfilled by 13:30, while requests made before 13:30 will be fulfilled by 15:15. Unfortunately requests made after 13:30 on a given day will not be fulfilled until 13:30 the following day. Researchers may request up to four boxes (dosya), twenty-five individual files (gömlek/belge), or five defters. Researchers may keep original materials in a cabinet in the viewing room for up to one week.
Library: Within the viewing room, researchers may consult the archive’s library. The library contains around 15,000 volumes, approximately one-third of which are serial journals. The other 10,000 works include the most important reference materials researchers will need, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and a number of catalogs. The library’s catalog can be accessed through the archive’s website, although, as there is no internet access at on site, researchers will not have access to this catalog while working at the archive. Researchers may browse the library’s shelves or ask the staff to help locate particular volumes.
The Ottoman archives are currently open Monday-Friday 9:00 – 19:00 and Saturdays 9:00 – 17:00, excluding all official Turkish holidays. Although the archive is open until 19:00, researchers must receive their documents before 16:00 and are not allowed to photograph after 17:00. The last call to return documents is 16:00 Researchers may store documents overnight in one of the viewing room’s cabinet. If researchers wish to return the documents to the depot, they must turn them in to the staff before 16:00.
All archive patrons must obtain a valid archive identification card before using any of the archive’s resources. These ID cards are issued upon the staff’s verification of an applicant’s eligibility and completion of a short form, which details a researcher’s contact information and research subject. All Turkish citizens are eligible to access the archives upon presentation of their national identification card. Non-Turkish citizens are eligible to receive an ID upon presentation of their passports with a valid visa or residency permit (ikamet tezkiresi). Identification cards are valid for the entire term of a foreigner’s legal residence in Turkey (as established through the visa or residency permit). Technically researchers are only permitted to request material related to their research subject as described in their application form, although in practical terms there are few restrictions on what materials a researcher may access once he or she has obtained an identification card.
It is quite difficult to conduct research at the Ottoman archives without a decent ability to read and speak Turkish. While the archive’s staff are helpful, most of them only speak Turkish; Fuat Bey, who speaks Arabic as well, is an exception in this regard. Another member of the archive staff also speaks Bosnian. More importantly all catalogs and the computer search system are in Turkish. We advise researchers who do not speak Turkish to ask a Turkish-speaking friend or researcher for help in the archive.
As the archive is located in a newly opened building, it is fully wheelchair accessible.
Transportation and Food
The Ottoman archives are located in the Sadabad neighborhood of Kağıthane municipality. This new archives building, officially opened in June 2013, is less accessible from many parts of Istanbul than the old archive site in Gülhane. The new archive facility is spacious and well organized, but its placement in Sadabad limits its accessibility via public transportation to a handful of bus lines. Travelers coming from Taksim may reach the archives using bus line 48T (Hamidiye Mah.-Taksim) which departs from Taksim. We advise travelers who plan to take this line to depart before 9:30. After this time the frequency of this line diminishes significantly. The fastest way for researchers coming from the Anatolian side to reach the archive is via the Metrobus with a transfer to the 49 or 49N at the Taşıtlar bus stop located next to the Mecidiyeköy Metrobus stop. Both of these bus lines also pass through the middle of Şişli. There are also minibuses that frequently pass the archives, often going to Şişli, 4. Levent, Topkapı (the neighborhood, not the palace), and other locations.
The new location of the archives is also largely devoid of food options. Researchers will find lunch offered in the archive’s cafeteria (yemekhane) between 12:00-13:00. The lunch, offered to all of the employees of the archive administration, costs 5 TL for visitors and consists of a soup, main dish, and side dish. Although the lunch is healthy and sufficient, vegetarians and people with other dietary restrictions may have trouble with the cafeteria’s offerings on most days. In addition to the cafeteria, there is also a cafe in the lobby of the main research building. In addition to coffee and tea, researchers will find a variety of packaged snacks, as well as a few baked goods in the morning (simit and poğaca).
Reproduction Requests and Costs
As of September 2013, copies of digitized and original documents may be obtained for 25 kuruş per pose. Maps, photographs, and other special archival material cost 4.50 TL. There are no limits on the amount of material a researcher may request, although attempts to request entire defters are often rejected. Copies of digitized material may be made directly from a researcher’s account at any of the computer terminals in the reading room. Researchers may request that the archive staff produce a digital copy of original material or they may use their own cameras to take photographs. In either case, researchers need to complete a reproduction request form in the viewing room. Digital copies provided by the archive are given on compact disc. Researchers pay for copies of digitized or original material at the counter of archive’s small bookstore in the lobby. The archive only accepts cash and can provide receipts. Researchers can only request reproductions of archive material by coming to the archive in person.
While the majority of the archives’ collections have been relocated from Gülhane and are now available at the new Sadabad location, there are a number of collections which, as of 10 October 2013, are not available to researchers: Bab-ı Defteri (D.), Evkaf Nezareti (EV.), Hazine-i Hassa (HH.), Mabeyn-i Hümayun (MB.), Maliye Nezareti (ML.), Ticaret Nezareti (T.), and the first 200 dossiers of Bab-ı Ali Evrak Odası (BEO.).
Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri Genel Müdürlüğü
Osmanlı Arşivi Daire Başkanlığı
İmrahor Cad. Sadabad Mevkii Kağıthane/İSTANBUL
Tel: +90 212 314 90 00 / Fax: +90 212 314 90 25
Resources and Links
The website of the BOA may not be accessible from outside of Turkey. This will affect many of the links we provide in this article.
Searchable online catalog of the archive (This catalog is said to provide incomplete results and is not as useful as the one on the archive’s computers.)
For a digital copy of Osmanlı Arşivi Rehberi, see item 108 here.
10 October 2013
Cite this: Christopher Markiewicz and Nir Shafir, “The Ottoman State Archives”, HAZİNE, 10 October 2013, http://hazine.info/2013/10/10/basbakanlik-arsivi/