Slavery and Abolition, Middle East

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Slavery and Abolition, Middle East

The history of enslavement and abolition in the Middle East after 1450 is in fact mainly a chapter in the history of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans rose to the status of a major regional power in the course of the fourteenth century, becoming a universal empire during the second half of the fifteenth century, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans took over the heartlands of the Middle East, Egypt, and Syria in 1517, wresting these areas from the weakened Mamluk sultanate. Having later expanded their rule into North Africa, Arabia, and the Horn of Africa, and also northward and eastward to the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Ottomans came to control the entire network that acquired and distributed unfree labor within the Eastern Mediterranean basin and its hinterland for four centuries.


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the main source of slaves in the Middle East was the series of wars that expanded the "abode of Islam" at the expense of the "abode of war," the territories ruled by non-Muslim sovereign powers. Prisoners of war were routinely reduced to slavery and employed in a variety of jobs, including agricultural, domestic, and other kinds of menial work. Although this practice continued into the nineteenth century, it became rare.

Consequently, because Ottoman expansion and large-scale conquests came to an end, importation from outside the Ottoman Empire and internal trade in already enslaved persons offered the main viable alternative. By the late eighteenth century, and until the demise of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the slave trade was virtually the only source of unfree labor in the sultan's realm. From the second half of the nineteenth century, attempts to suppress the traffic, influenced to a large extent by British pressure, gradually reduced the number of slaves forcibly entering the Ottoman Empire.

The emergence in 1923 of the Republic of Turkey out of the ashes of the empire brought along a major social transformation under President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938). With the collapse of the sultanate, its major institutions and practices also disappeared, including slavery. But in some of the successor states, especially in Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, enslavement persisted for much longer, sustained by tribal monarchies that clung to their old ways, protected by a stubborn willfulness to preserve a lifestyle and a tradition that became an anathema to modernity. Using their oil wealth and other strategic assets, rulers and elites colluded to hold on to slavery and shield it from the outside world well into the second half of the twentieth century.

Enslavement of humans by other humans was a universal phenomenon, not peculiar to any culture, not deriving from any specific set of shared social values. Thus, there was nothing exceptional in the fact that it existed also in Islamic, Ottoman, Arab, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean societies. Since biblical times, all monotheistic religions sanctioned slavery, though they did try to mitigate its harsh realities, and hardly any belief system was free from some form of bondage. Something in human nature made slavery possible everywhere, and it took major transformations in human thinking to get rid of it—and that too, barely a century and a half ago, an admittedly late stage in human history.

The Ottoman Empire, as one of the last great empires to survive into the modern period, inherited enslavement from its previous Islamic and non-Islamic predecessors, but developed its own version of it. The Ottoman brand was complex, with a variety of slave types, functions, countries of origin, cultural backgrounds, and modes of integration into society.


If during the earlier period of Ottoman history and up to the seventeenth century, the bulk of the enslaved population was recruited through conquest on the European and Black Sea frontiers, the majority of captured and enslaved persons in the following centuries came from Africa, with a small but significant minority originating in the Caucasus, mainly in Circassia and Georgia. Towards the end of the eighteenth and during the nineteenth centuries, Africans were being captured in the Sudan (the White and Blue Nile basins, Darfur, and Kordofan), Central Africa (mostly Waday, Bornu, and Bagirmi), and Ethiopia (mainly Galla, Sidamo, and Gurage provinces).

Africans were enslaved and forcibly transported along several historic trade routes crossing the Sahara Desert, then traversing the Mediterranean to reach Ottoman ports in the Balkans and the Middle East. Other major routes included the Nile Valley, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the network of pilgrimage roads leading to and from the holy cities in the Hejaz (a region along the Red Sea in present-day Saudi Arabia). From the Caucasus into the Ottoman Empire, enslaved people were being moved along the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean routes and the overland roads of Anatolia (part of present-day Turkey). This human commodity was being transported via the same network as nonhuman merchandise, often by the same caravans and boats.

Scattered data and reasonable extrapolations regarding the volume of the slave trade from Africa to the Ottoman Empire yield an estimated number of approximately 16,000 to 18,000 men and women who were being coerced into the empire per annum during much of the nineteenth century. The large majority of these were African women. It is estimated that the total volume of involuntary migration from Africa into Ottoman territories was from the Swahili coasts to the Ottoman Middle East and India—313,000; across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden—492,000; into Ottoman Egypt—362,000; and into Ottoman North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya)—350,000. Excluding the numbers going to India, a rough estimate of this mass population movement would amount to more than 1.3 million people. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the shrinking Atlantic traffic swelled the numbers of enslaved Africans coerced into both domestic African and Ottoman markets.

These figures should have resulted in a fairly noticeable African diaspora in Turkey and the successor states of the Middle East, North Africa, and even the Balkans. However, if one looks for persons of African descent in most of these regions, only scattered traces of them can be found. In Turkey, there are African agricultural communities in villages and towns in western Anatolia, with a larger concentration in areas around Izmir, as well as in the regions bordering the Mediterranean coastline. Even in the city of Izmir itself, where the largest African population in the Ottoman Empire lived at the end of the nineteenth century, an estimate of two thousand in the first half of the twentieth century is disputed as possibly too high.

Since Africans were considered as both Muslim and Ottoman (or later Turkish), they are statistically nonexistent in the official demographic records (e.g., yearbooks, directories, and statistically-compiled indexes). By comparison, in the post-Ottoman Levant (the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean), as in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and North Africa, one can find many more persons of African extraction among the various Bedouin tribes in desert areas and in settled villages bordering on them. In Egypt, Africans seem to have a larger presence than elsewhere in the Middle East.

The question is where have all the Africans gone to? One explanation is that many of the enslaved perished because they were not used to the colder weather, they suffered from contagious pulmonary diseases, and their life expectancy was quite low. An additional factor is that Islamic law and Ottoman social norm sanctioned concubinage and subsequent absorption into the host societies. An enslaved woman impregnated by her owner could not be sold, her offspring were considered free, and she herself would be freed upon the death of the owner. Thus, exogamy and the passing of several generations ensured not only the social absorption of free, mixed-race children, but also their visible disappearance from the observer's gaze.

In any event, by the end of the nineteenth century, the size of the enslaved population in the Ottoman Empire was around 5 percent, and slavers were a small, privileged minority, which scarcely reflected the experience of the majority. The overwhelming number of Ottoman families were monogamous, and did not own slaves nor employ free servants.


Enslaved persons in the Ottoman Empire performed a variety of tasks, with the majority being employed as domestic servants in elite households, mostly in urban areas. Others engaged in menial jobs as mine workers, pearl divers, and manufacturers of various goods, but a certain number did work as agricultural laborers. Agricultural slavery was common in the Ottoman Empire until the sixteenth century, when captives in wars were sent to till the land in large, cash-crop farms. But this practice disappeared with the breakup of large estates into smallhold farms, and the loss of manpower supplies due to the end of military expansion by the end of the seventeenth century. Agricultural slavery resurfaced in the second half of the nineteenth century in two separate cases that were the exception rather than the rule.

During the late 1850s and early 1860s, the Russians drove out large numbers of Circassians from the Caucasus. Allowed to enter the Ottoman Empire, these refugees were settled in villages in strategic areas of Anatolia and the Balkans. Circassian landlords brought with them their serfs, who were classified by Ottoman law as slaves. Thus, several tens of thousands—some estimates go as high as 150,000, or 10 percent of the entire Circassian refugee population—worked as unfree agricultural laborers in the sultan's domains.

Another case was the employment of enslaved Africans on cotton farms in Egypt during the 1860s. This was the result of peaking demand for Egyptian cotton owing to shortages on world markets created by the American Civil War (1861–1865).

But the intriguing and analytically perplexing problem within Ottoman enslavement is that of military-administrative elite slavery. The men recruited to serve as the empire's generals, top ministers, provincial governors, and ranking bureaucrats were known as the sultan' household kul. They were levied as teenagers in Balkan villages according to certain criteria and entered into the Palace School, where they were trained to join the imperial elite. Legally, they were the sultan's slaves, but many of them attained powerful positions within the government, and enjoyed a lifestyle that one hardly would associate with the travails of the other types of slaves in the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere.

The corresponding female institution was elite harem servility. It was in the harem that the women and children of the sultan's household, and those of his elite members, lived. Contrary to Western perceptions of harem life, the women who ran those large and complex households were not mere sexual objects catering to the carnal pleasures of the sultan and his male elite members. Rather, the harem was a hub of political, social, cultural, and economic activity, where important decisions were being made by the sultan's mother and his wives, that were later negotiated with the leading men of the imperial court. Many, though not all, of the women in the harems were slaves bought in the Caucasus or the Balkans and educated in the palaces of the elite.

A small number of eunuchs served in the harems as intermediaries, facilitating contact between men and women in what was a gender-segregated environment. There were white and black eunuchs at the imperial palace, but during the seventeenth century, the corps of African eunuchs became dominant in court politics.

The question here is whether the kul-harem group of slaves should at all be subsumed under the category of Ottoman enslavement. Some leading Ottomanists have suggested alternative terms to describe the predicament of people in that group, feeling that they cannot properly be lumped together with domestic, menial, and agricultural slaves in Ottoman society. Thus, terms such as "the sultan's servants" or "servitors" were suggested, but since the privileges of these persons were of a temporary nature, they should be considered as essentially unfree. Kul-harem slaves were not allowed to bequeath their property nor their status to their offspring, and their wealth reverted to the treasury upon their death. The sultan not only controlled his enslaved servants' religious and cultural identity and their material assets, but also their right to life, which he could take if they were judged to have violated their bond of servitude. In fact, the status of elite slaves in the Ottoman Empire presents a true paradox at the heart of the Ottoman system—that is, that ordinary subjects enjoyed rights denied to those by whom they were governed, such as the right to immunity from the sultan's direct power over life and death.

Over the centuries of Ottoman imperial rule, certain aspects of kul servitude were gradually being mitigated in practice, especially during the major reforms of the nineteenth century, known as the Tanzimat. There was really no difference of kind between kul-harem slaves and other types of Ottoman slaves, although there certainly were differences of degree among them within the category of Ottoman slavery. It follows that the life-quality of enslaved people in the Ottoman Empire depended upon several criteria: (1) the task they performed (kul-harem, agricultural, domestic, or menial); (2) the status of the slaveholders whom they served (urban elite members, rural notables, smallhold cultivators, artisans, or merchants); (3) whether they were located in core or peripheral areas; (4) their type of habitat (whether urban, village, or nomad); and (5) their gender and ethnic background.

Thus, on the whole, enslaved domestic workers in urban elite households were better treated than enslaved people in other settings and predicaments. Slaves living farther from the core, on lower social strata, and in a less densely populated habitat, normally received better treatment, and the lives of enslaved Africans and enslaved women were usually harder.


Slavery in Islamic societies has been deemed to have been of a milder nature than the stereotyped model of enslavement in the American antebellum South. Especially in the Ottoman case, the near-absence of agricultural slavery and the mitigating circumstances of domestic service were seen as offering the enslaved a better life than elsewhere. The path to freedom and relative protection bestowed upon concubines was also regarded as extenuating the lot of enslaved women in Ottoman and Islamic societies.

It is true that not a few slaves were better cared for than many of the sultan's free subjects and would not have traded their position for the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of the free poor and other marginalized persons in society. However, even in domestic slavery situations, especially when women were concerned, it would be inappropriate to describe the slaves' experience of enslavement as "mild." The intimacy of home, family, or household did not guarantee good treatment, nor was concubinage always bliss. A gendered view of female enslavement brings out a much harsher picture of realities.

There is ample evidence to show that, regardless of the alleged "mildness" of Ottoman slave experiences, bondage was a condition most enslaved people tried to extricate themselves from. Many went to a great deal of trouble, took enormous risks, and fought against heavy odds to achieve freedom. In that, enslaved Ottoman subjects were not different from enslaved persons in any other society, and their efforts deserve to be recognized and appreciated.

Throughout Ottoman history, enslaved persons would abscond from abusive slavers, or commit acts classified as criminal by the state, in order to achieve freedom or register protest. But they also tried to work within the system to ameliorate their conditions. The latter occurred much more often during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the reforming Ottoman state was assuming the role of protector vis-à-vis the enslaved population of the empire, while at the same time attempting not to raise conservative opposition to its emancipatory moves.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, absconding was becoming a legitimate way of getting out of enslavement in most societies under Ottoman rule. The Tanzimat state was increasingly siding with the enslaved and gradually abandoning its long-standing policy of supporting slaveholders' property rights. Its growing interference in the slaveholder-enslaved relationship benefited the weaker partner in that relationship, and many of the enslaved learned how to use the various means and opportunities made available to them by the state. The government also fully realized that once freed, ex-slaves were vulnerable and in need of protection—that is, of placement in a new job and of reattachment and patronage.

But absconding and assertion of freedom before the courts and government agencies were not the only types of action to which the enslaved resorted in their attempts to change their predicament. Some of these alternative actions were criminalized by the Ottoman state because the governing elite saw them as threatening to the existing order. Admittedly, the choices made by those enslaved Africans and Circassians who committed crimes were not always intended to achieve freedom, though not a few certainly were.

Another way of resisting enslavement in the Ottoman Empire was a cultural one. By retaining African and Circassian cultural components, enslaved persons served their spiritual and emotional needs and challenged the dominant culture of the slavers. Thus, for example, the trance and healing cult of Zar-Bori was carried by enslaved Africans into Ottoman territories and helped them cope with the tough realities of displacement and oppression.


To better understand enslavement in Ottoman and other societies, it needs to be viewed as a relationship between human beings, rather than as an institution with nameless and faceless structures. Enslaved persons were part and parcel of the network of social patronage that made up Ottoman society. Slaves were attached to a patron household regardless of the job they performed, and that attachment gave them social and economic protection and an identity as household members. Thus, after being brutally snatched out of their homes, successful attachment to the slaver's family was key to their absorption into the community at which they arrived. Resale to another slaveholder threatened that attachment, as did manumission, which despite its attraction to the enslaved, also raised fear of known and unknown vulnerabilities. This inevitably constrained the slaves' choice of action, such as when considering the consequences of insubordination, absconding, or mounting a challenge to criminalized and noncriminalized norms of conduct. Therefore, when they did resort to actions of this type, they had to be strongly motivated to achieve liberation.

It is therefore important to note the complexity of the phenomenon of slavery in general, and that of Ottoman enslavement in particular. As we strive to understand the social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances in which enslavement was widespread and universally acceptable in historic societies, we also should not hesitate to condemn it as reprehensible, regardless of where and by whom it was practiced. Understanding why enslavement was so natural in so many societies does not lead to condoning it. Ottomans and non-Ottomans alike had a choice in this matter regardless of sociocultural conventions: they could decide not to own slaves, and those who elected to use unfree labor could also choose not to mistreat their slaves, and—according to common Ottoman practice—manumit them after a reasonable period of service, commonly deemed in the empire as between seven and ten years. In addition, the enslaved had a measure of choice too, although theirs was much more constrained and involved greater risks and sacrifice.

see also Empire, Ottoman; North Africa; Slave Trade, Indian Ocean.


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