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Millet System


The term commonly used to describe the institutional framework governing relations between the Ottoman state and its large and varied non-Muslim population.

Although recent research has challenged both the systemic quality and the traditional origins of the arrangements under the millet system, the term, for want of a better one, remains in use.

FifteenSeventeenth Century

According to the traditional accounts, the Ottoman sultan. Mehmet II, upon his conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, granted extensive autonomy to the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian milletsthat is, religiously defined communities of the empirethrough, respectively, Gennadios Scholar-ios, the then-reigning patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church in the capital; Moses Capsali, a leading rabbi: and Joachim, a bishop of the Armenian church. They and their successors thereby became titular heads of their coreligionists throughout the land. The traditional accounts, furthermore, claim that the state did not deal with Christians and Jews as individuals, but only as members of their respective communities. Correspondingly, non-Muslims dealt with the state only through the titular heads of their community. Lastly, in matters of taxationspecifically the jizya, the poll tax required of non-Muslim heads of householdonce the state determined the amount, its apportionment between individuals was left to the community leader, who supervised its collection and was responsible for its payment. Subsequent research has challenged these claims by noting that they are in no way confirmed by contemporary Ottoman sources and that the non-Muslim chronicles on which they were based were compiled centuries after the events they claim to describe.

What the traditional story does accurately represent, however, is the Ottomans' relative indifference to (and to that degree, tolerance of) much of the activities of their non-Muslim subjects before the nineteenth century. They allowed them much autonomy, particularly in matters of religious observance, education, and personal status (birth, marriage, death and inheritance). The sphere of internal communal control, however, was far more limited than that claimed by the traditional accounts, and the opportunities for direct contact between the individual non-Muslim and the Ottoman Muslim state and society were far greater, extending even into the realm of personal status. Thus recent research in Ottoman records has revealed that Christians and Jews regularly had recourse to Muslim courts, in addition to their own courts, even in questions of divorce, inheritance, and other supposedly internal communal matters. Furthermore, the claim by the traditional accounts of hierarchical centralization under the patriarch or chief rabbi in Constantinople is contradicted by the abundant evidence of local arrangements, often under lay control, and often independent of the capital, as well as by the differing structural traditions of each community. Jewish communal organization, unlike that of the Orthodox church, was not pyramidal, and even the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople (unlike the bishop of Rome) was merely first among equals. As for the Armenian church, it had long been divided by competing centers of hierarchical authority. Certainly no empirewide fiscal administrative systems existed under the control of the so-called millets, and the term itself was not consistently used to designate the communities. Thus in the classical age of Ottoman rule, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were neither millets nor a millet system, although there was a considerable, but by no means absolute, degree of local communal autonomy. In this age, from time to time the clerical leaders in Constantinople did assert claims of empirewide authority, but they were rarely successful.

This complex Ottoman practice was by no means an innovation but reflected ancient Near Eastern and Islamic administrative practices (dhimma ), as well as contemporary reality and communal traditions. In the aftermath of war, conquest, and dynastic turmoil, religious institutions often were the only institutions to survive. Individuals were most comfortable identifying and organizing themselves according to religion, so the state, even a new one, had no interest in defying them.

EighteenthNineteenth Century

The situation began to change, however, late in the seventeenth century. The Ottoman state's indifference to its non-Muslim subjects diminished when the great powers made their status a stick with which to beat the Turks. As the empire became weaker, European rivals started to vigorously push claims for the protection of the rights and privileges of their coreligionists and other non-Muslims. The Hapsburgs protected the Catholics, particularly those strategically located in what is now Slovenia and Croatia. More aggressive were the Romanovs, who laid claim to the huge Orthodox population conveniently concentrated in provinces adjacent to Russia's frontier. The French asserted an interest in the welfare of the Catholics of the Levant, particularly those in Syria and Lebanon. The British, who had few coreligionists in the region, opposed the claims of their rivals while they protected the few Protestants there and, at times, the Jews. The process of protection was often the first stage of invasion and territorial annexation. The Ottomans proved too weak on the battlefield to confront these challenges directly, and so they were forced to respond with diplomatic maneuverings, administrative accommodation, and, ultimately, commitments to reform. This program for reform in the nineteenth century (the Tanzimat) formally defined and, to a large degree, created the millet system, as it has conventionally come to be understood. For the first time, an attempt was made to impose uniform administrative systems upon all non-Muslim communities throughout the empire. The attempt was consistent with a guiding element of the Tanzimat, the drive toward centralization of all spheres of governance.

The creation of the formal millet system and the consequent abandonment of local autonomy, noninterference, and flexibility, which were the hallmarks of the traditional nonsystem, forced the communities themselves and the Ottoman government to become increasingly embroiled in religious-diplomatic entanglements, which in turn were resolved by the creation of yet more millets. The religious imperialism of Catholic and Protestant missions, which sought to win souls from the indigenous Orthodox and Monophysite churches, as well as other, smaller, churches of the East, complicated the process further. Since these missions were fully supported by the Western powers (i.e., by France, the Hapsburgs, and Great Britain respectively), religious quarrels easily escalated into international crises. The pattern was repeated throughout the nineteenth century.

The Armenian community was the first to succumb to these difficulties. Catholic missions had been very successful in winning converts to Rome from among Monophysite Armenians. Accustomed to the formal hierarchical structure of the Roman church, Catholics repeatedly pressed to replace the traditional lack of system in the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims with a formalized set of institutions. During the late 1820s, they got their opportunity when the Ottomans, desperately in need of foreign support with which to resist the Greek revolt and a Russian invasion, acceded to French pressure to improve the conditions of these converts by establishing a Catholic millet, which was formally recognized in 1831. Since the Ottoman and Roman criteria and procedures for selecting the head of the millet were at odds, however, the millet itself became a source of tension. Furthermore, many important communities within the Ottoman Empire that supposedly came under the jurisdiction of this new institutionnotably the wealthy Armenian Catholics of Aleppo, the influential Melkite Catholics (converts from Eastern Orthodoxy), and the numerous Maronites of Mount Lebanoneither resented or ignored it. In 1848 the Melkites obtained their own millet status. In 1850 Protestants followed suit. Other millets were formed: the Bulgarian Uniates in 1861 and the Bulgarian exarchate in 1870. Despite the proliferation of these communal-religious structures, many of the oldest and most deeply rooted Christian churches in the Eastthe Copts (the indigenous Monophysite church in Egypt), the Jacobites (the indigenous Monophysite church in Syria), and the Nestorians (based in Iraq and southeastern Anatolia) never sought millet status.

The major communities of the empireGreek Orthodox, Armenian Gregorian, and Jewishnever sought formal millet status in the nineteenth century, since by accepted tradition (the complex historical reality notwithstanding), they had always had it. The reforms of this era nevertheless had a drastic effect upon them as well. The most far-reaching effect derived from the Reform Decree of 1856, which laid the foundation for formal constitutional arrangements reducing the power of the clergy and increasing lay influence. Although Ottoman leaders sponsored these changes in the hope that they might lead to a greater, supracommunal sense of Ottoman patriotic loyalty, the result was often the opposite. Lay leaders, stirred to political activity by the new opportunities that the constitutions now offered, devoted their energies to agitation on behalf of their communities, which increasingly defined themselves as nation-states in the making.

see also dhimma; jizya; tanzimat.


Braude, Benjamin, and Lewis, Bernard, eds. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. 2 vols. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982.

Davison, Roderic H. Reform in the Ottoman Empire, 18561876. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

benjamin braude

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