Plural of the Arabic word ayn, meaning notable person.
The term ayan was used in the Ottoman Empire to refer to a variety of elites, particularly landed notables in either cities or the countryside. Ayan were usually tax farmers from merchant, ulama, or Janis-sary families, although their origins differed in various regions of the empire. In the provinces of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the ayan were typically Mamluks or local Ottoman officials like governors. In eastern Anatolia, they were called derebeys, or valley lords affiliated with dominant clans.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many provincial ayan amassed personal armies and control of local finances, challenging the influence of the central state. Particularly in the European provinces, the ayan were able to gain power in the late eighteenth century because they supplied crucial military support to the sultan in the several wars against Russia. Their power was formalized when the sultan granted them official status (ayanlik) as representatives of the people to the government in exchange for their support.
In the early nineteenth century, the ayan openly rebelled against the central state in the Serbian revolt (1803–1805) and in their refusal in the Balkans to cooperate in conscription to Selim III's new army, the Nizam-i Cedit. In 1807, ayan from the European provinces cooperated with opponents of reform to overthrow Selim. An attempt to negotiate a truce between Constantinople and provincial notables produced in 1808 the ineffective and largely ignored Sened-i Ittifak (Pact of Alliance). Mahmud II devoted the latter part of his reign to undermining the autonomy of the ayan and enlarging central power, reforms continued in the Tanzimat era.
see also anatolia; mamluks; ottoman empire; tanzimat; ulama.
Karpat, Kemal H. "The Land Regime, Social Structure, and Modernization in the Ottoman Empire." In The Beginnings of Modernization in the Middle East: The Nineteenth Century, ed. by William R. Polk and Richard L. Chambers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.