Millet (Ottoman Empire)

In the Ottoman Empire, a millet was a separate legal court pertaining to "personal law" under which a confessional community (a group abiding by the laws of Muslim Sharia, Christian Canon law, or Jewish Halakha) was allowed to rule itself under its own laws. Despite frequently being referred to as a "system", before the nineteenth century the organization of what are now retrospectively called millets in the Ottoman Empire was far from systematic. Rather, non-Muslims were simply given a significant degree of autonomy within their own community, without an overarching structure for the 'millet' as a whole. The notion of distinct millets corresponding to different religious communities within the empire would not emerge until the eighteenth century.[1] Subsequently, the existence of the millet system was justified through numerous foundation myths linking it back to the time of Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451-81),[2] although it is now understood that no such system existed in the fifteenth century.[3] After the Ottoman Tanzimat (1839–76) reforms, the term was used for legally protected religious minority groups, similar to the way other countries use the word nation. The word millet comes from the Arabic word millah (ملة) and literally means "nation".[3] The millet system has been called an example of pre-modern religious pluralism.[4]


The millet system has a long history in the Middle East and is closely linked to Islamic rules on the treatment of non−Muslim minorities living under Islamic dominion (dhimmi). The Ottoman term specifically refers to the separate legal courts pertaining to personal law under which minorities were allowed to rule themselves (in cases not involving any Muslim) with fairly little interference from the Ottoman government. The concept was used even before the establishment of the Ottoman Empire for the communities of the Church of the East under the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persia in the 4th century.[5]

People were bound to their millets by their religious affiliations (or their confessional communities), rather than their ethnic origins, according to the millet concept.[6] The head of a millet – most often a religious hierarch such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople or, in earlier times, the Patriarch of the East – reported directly to the Ottoman Sultan or the Sassanid king, respectively. The millets had a great deal of power – they set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes. All that was required was loyalty to the Empire. When a member of one millet committed a crime against a member of another, the law of the injured party applied, but the ruling Islamic majority being paramount, any dispute involving a Muslim fell under their sharia−based law.

Later, the perception of the millet concept was altered in the 19th century by the rise of nationalism within the Ottoman Empire.


After the decline of the Assyrian Church of the East in the 14th century, until the 19th century (Reformation Era) beside the Muslim millet, the main millets were the Rum millet, Jewish, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox.[7] Each official within each community was in charge of tax collection, education, justice and religious affairs. By doing so, however, the Ottoman administration was simply tolerating these non-muslim communities. They were allowing them religious freedom in a way that kept them from resisting Ottoman rule. This kept these religious communities from prospering or being regarded as equals to Muslims. Social discrimination was just as significant during these times as many Jews were unable to serve within the Ottoman armed forces and were unable to join the Ottoman ruling elite. They were granted religious freedom, however, at a cost.[8] Armenians formed more than one (actually three) millets under the Ottoman rule.[9] A wide array of other groups such as Catholics, Karaites and Samaritans was also represented.

Map of prevailing religions in the territories of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Note that millets were not actually territorial.

Orthodox Christians

See also: Rum Millet and Phanariots

The Orthodox Christians were included in the Rum Millet (millet-i Rûm), or the "Roman nation" conquered by Islam but enjoying a certain autonomy. It was named after Roman ("Byzantine") subjects of the Ottoman Empire, but Orthodox Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Georgians, Arabs, Vlachs and Serbs were all considered part of the same millet despite their differences in ethnicity and language and despite the fact that the religious hierarchy was Greek dominated. Nevertheless, ethnonyms never disappeared and some form of ethnic identity was preserved as evident from a Sultan's Firman from 1680, that lists the ethnic groups on the Balkan lands as follows: Greeks (Rum), Albanians (Arnaut), Serbs (Sirf), Vlachs (Eflak) and Bulgarians (Bulgar).[10]

The Ecumenical Patriarch was recognized as the highest religious and political leader (millet-bashi, or ethnarch) of all Orthodox subjects of the Sultan, though in certain periods some major powers, such as Russia (under the 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca), or Britain claimed the rights of protection over the Ottoman Empire's Orthodox subjects. The Serbian Patriarchate and the Archbishopric of Ohrid which were autonomous Orthodox Churches under the tutelage of the Ecumenical Patriarch were taken over by the Greek Phanariotes during the 18th century, in 1766 and 1767 respectively.

Armenians (Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical)

Until the 19th century, there was a single Armenian millet which served all ethnic Armenians irrespective of whether they belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church or the Armenian Protestant Church (which was formed in the 19th century).[6] Only later did a separate Catholic millet emerge. Non-Armenians from churches which were theologically linked to the Armenian Church (by virtue of being non-Chalcedonians) were under the authority of the Armenian Patriarchate, although they maintained a separate hierarchy with their own Patriarchs. These groups included the Syriac Orthodox and the Copts.

Syriac Christians

Syriac Catholics

The Syriac Catholic community was recognized as its own millet in 1829.


The Chaldean (Catholic Nestorian) community was recognized as its own millet in 1846.

Syriac Orthodox

The Syriac Orthodox community in the Ottoman Empire was for long not recognized as its own millet, but part of the Armenian millet (under the Armenian Patriarch). Then, during the Tanzimat reforms (1839–78), the Syriac Orthodox were granted independent status with the recognition of their own millet in 1873.[11]


Under the millet system the Jews were organized as a community on the basis of religion, alongside the other millets (e.g. Orthodox millet, Armenian millet, etc.). In the framework of the millet they had a considerable amount of administrative autonomy and were represented by the Hakham Bashi (Turkish: Hahambaşı حاخامباشی), who held broad powers to legislate, judge and enforce the laws among the Jews in the Ottoman Empire and often sat on the Sultan's divan.

The Ottoman Jews enjoyed similar privileges to those of the Orthodox. The city of Thessaloniki received a great influx of Jews in the 15th century and soon flourished economically to such an extent that, during the 18th century, it was the largest and possibly the most prosperous Jewish city in the world.

The Jews, like the other millet communities of the Ottoman Empire, were still considered a people of the book and protected by the Sharia Law of Islam. However, while the Jews were not viewed in the eyes of the law to be on an equal playing field with Muslims, they were still treated relatively well at points during the Ottoman Empire. Norman Stillman explains that the prosperity of medieval Jews was closely tied to that of their Muslim governors. Stillman references the time between the 9th and 13th centuries in which Jewish culture blossomed as "medieval Islamic civilization was at its apogee."[12] Given their rampant persecution in medieval Europe, many Jews looked favorably upon millet.

In the late 19th century such groups as the Bilu, a group of young Russian Jews who were pioneers of the Zionist resettlement of Palestine, proposed negotiating with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to allow a millet like settlement which would allow them greater independence.

Roman Catholics

After the fall of Constantinople the only Latin Catholic group to be incorporated into the Sultan's domain were the Genoese who lived in the Byzantine capital. Over the next decades Turkish armies pushed into the Balkans, overrunning the Catholic population of Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Hungary. In the Orient, the 16th century saw the Maronites of Lebanon, the Latins of Palestine and most of the Greek islands, which once held Latin Catholic communities, come under Turkish rule. Papal response to the loss of these communities was initially a call to the crusade, but the response from the European Catholic monarchs was weak. French interest, however, lay in an alliance with the Turks against the Habsburgs. As a bonus, the Catholics of the Ottoman world received a protector at the Porte in the person of the French ambassador. In this way the Roman Catholic millet was established at the start of the Tanzimat reforms.[13]


Millets are recorded as early as the 4th century in the Persian Sassanid Empire, which was primarily Zoroastrian.[5][14] The early Christians there were forming the Church of the East (later known as the Nestorian Church after the Nestorian schism). The Church of the East's leader, the Catholicos or Patriarch of the East, was responsible to the Persian king for the Christians within the Empire. This system of maintaining the Christians as a protected religious community continued after the Islamic conquest of the Sassanids, and the community of Nestorian Christians flourished and was able to send missionaries far past the Empire's borders, reaching as far as China and India.

19th century (Reformation Era)

New millets were created in the 19th century for several Uniate and Protestant Christian communities, then for the separate Eastern Orthodox Bulgarian Church, recognized as a Bulgar Millet by an Ottoman firman in 1870 and excommunicated two years later by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate as adherents of phyletism (national or ethnic principle in church organization).[7] In the period before World War I there were seventeen millets within the Empire.

Reformulation into Ottomanism

Before the turn of the 19th century, the millets had a great deal of power – they set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes. Tanzimat reforms aimed to encourage Ottomanism among the secessionist subject nations and stop the rise of nationalist movements within the Ottoman Empire, but failed to succeed despite trying to integrate non-Muslims and non-Turks more thoroughly into the Ottoman society with new laws and regulations. With the Tanzimat era the regulation called "Regulation of the Armenian Nation" (Turkish: "Nizâmnâme−i Millet−i Ermeniyân") was introduced on 29 March 1863, over the Millet organization, which granted extensive privileges and autonomy concerning self−governance. The Armenian Nation, "Millet−i Ermeniyân", which is considered here, is the Armenian Orthodox Gregorian nation (millet) of that time. In a very short time, the Ottoman Empire passed another regulation over "Nizâmnâme−i Millet−i Ermeniyân" developed by the Patriarchate Assemblies of Armenians, which was named as the Islahat Fermânı (Firman of the Reforms). The "Firman of the Reforms" gave immense privileges to the Armenians, which formed a "governance in governance" to eliminate the aristocratic dominance of the Armenian nobles by development of the political strata in the society.[15] These two reforms, which were theoretically perfect examples of social change by law, brought serious stress over Ottoman political and administrative structure.

Effect of Protectorate of missions

The Ottoman System lost the mechanisms of its existence from the assignment of protection of citizen rights of their subjects to other states. People were not citizens of the Ottoman Empire anymore but of other states, due to the Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire to European powers, protecting the rights of their citizens within the Empire. The Russians became formal Protectors of Eastern Orthodox groups, the French of Roman Catholics and the British of Jews and other groups.

Russia and England competed for the Armenians; the Eastern Orthodox perceived American Protestants, who had over 100 missionaries established in Anatolia by World War I, as weakening their own teaching.

These religious activities, subsidized by the governments of western nations, were not devoid of political goals, such in the case of candlestick wars of 1847, which eventually led in 1854[16] to the Crimean War.[17] Tension began among the Catholic and Orthodox monks in Palestine with France channeling resources to increase its influence in the region from 1840. Repairs to shrines were important for the sects as they were linked to the possession of keys to the temples. Notes were given by the protectorates, including the French, to the Ottoman capital about the governor; he was condemned as he had to defend the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by placing soldiers inside the temple because of the candlestick wars, eliminating the change of keys.[17] Successive Ottoman governments had issued edicts granting primacy of access to different Christian groups which vied for control of Jerusalem's holy sites.[18]

Effect of nationalism

Under the original design, the multi-faced structure of the millet system was unified under the house of Osman. The rise of nationalism in Europe under the influence of the French revolution had extended to the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. Each millet became increasingly independent with the establishment of its own schools, churches, hospitals and other facilities. These activities effectively moved the Christian population outside the framework of the Ottoman political system.

The Ottoman millet system (citizenship) began to degrade with the continuous identification of the religious creed with ethnic nationality. The interaction of ideas of French revolution with the Ottoman Millet system created a breed of thought (a new form of personal identification) which turned the concept of nationalism synonymous with religion under the Ottoman flag. It was impossible to hold the system or prevent Clash of Civilizations when the Armenian national liberation movement expressed itself within the Armenian church. Patriarch Nerses Varjabedyan expresses his position on Ottoman Armenians to British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Salisbury on 13 April 1878.[19]

It is no longer possible for the Armenians and the Turks to live together. Only a Christian administration can provide the equality, justice and the freedom of conscience. A Christian administration should replace the Muslim administration. Armenia (Eastern Anatolia) and Kilikya, are the regions where the Christian administration should be founded... The Turkish Armenians want this... That is, a Christian administration is demanded in Turkish Armenia, as in Lebanon.[19]

Modern use

Today the millet system is still used at varying degrees in some post-Ottoman countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and Greece (for religious minorities). It is also in use in states like India, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh which observe the principle of separate personal courts and/or laws for every recognized religious community and reserved seats in the parliament.

In Egypt for instance, the application of family law – including marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody, inheritance and burial – is based on an individual's religious beliefs. In the practice of family law, the State recognizes only the three "heavenly religions": Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Muslim families are subject to the Personal Status Law, which draws on Sharia. Christian families are subject to canon law, and Jewish families are subject to Jewish law. In cases of family law disputes involving a marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man, the courts apply the Personal Status Law.[20]

Israel, too, keeps a system based on the Ottoman-derived Millet, in which personal status is based on a person's belonging to a religious community. The state of Israel – on the basis of laws inherited from Ottoman times and retained both under British rule and by independent Israel – reserves the right to recognise some communities but not others. Thus, Orthodox Judaism is officially recognised in Israel, while Reform Rabbis and Conservative Rabbis are not recognised and cannot perform marriages. Israel recognised the Druze as a separate community, which the Ottomans and British had not – due mainly to political considerations. Also, the state of Israel reserves the right to determine to which community a person belongs, and officially register him or her accordingly – even when the person concerned objects to being part of a religious community (e.g., staunch atheists of Jewish origin are registered as members of the Jewish religious community, a practice derived ultimately from the fact that the Ottoman Millet ultimately designated a person's ethnicity more than a person's beliefs).

Israeli secularists such as Shulamit Aloni and Uri Avnery often protested and called for abolition of this Ottoman remnant, and its replacement by a system modeled on that of the United States where religious affiliation is considered a person's private business in which the state should not interfere. However, all such proposals have been defeated.

Greece recognizes only a Muslim minority, and no ethnic or national minorities, such as Turks, Pomaks or Slavo-Macedonians. This is the result of the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations of 1923 and of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1924, when the old millet categories were used for the forced population exchanges (reciprocal ethnic cleansing) of the Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey (except from Istanbul, and the isles of Gökçeada and Bozcaada) and Muslims from Greece (except from Western Thrace), as well as for the protection of the two remaining recognized minorities, the "Muslims of Western Thrace" (Turks, Pomaks and Roms) and the "Greek Orthodox of Istanbul".

Current meaning of the word

Today, the word "millet" means "nation" or "people" in Turkish, e.g. Türk milleti ("Turkish nation"), İngiliz milleti ("English nation"), etc. It also retains its use as a religious and ethnic classification; it can also be used as a slang to classify people belonging to a particular group (not necessarily religious or ethnic), such as dolmuşçu milleti ("minivan taxi drivers people") or kadın milleti ("women folk").

See also


  1. Masters, Bruce (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 61–2. ISBN 0-521-80333-0.
  2. Braude, Benjamin (1982). "Foundation Myths of the Millet System". In Braude, Benjamin; Bernard Lewis. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. 1. New York: Holmes & Meier. pp. 69–90. ISBN 0841905193.
  3. 1 2 Masters, Bruce (2009). "Millet". In Ágoston, Gábor; Bruce Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. pp. 383–4.
  4. Sachedina, Abdulaziz Abdulhussein (2001). The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. Oxford University Press. pp. 96–97. ISBN 0-19-513991-7. The millet system in the Muslim world provided the pre-modern paradigm of a religiously pluralistic society by granting each religious community an official status and a substantial measure of self-government.
  5. 1 2 Wigram, William Anger (2004). An introduction to the history of the Armenian Church. Gorgias Press. ISBN 978-1-59333-103-0.
  6. 1 2 Ortaylı, İlber (2006), Son İmparatorluk Osmanlı [The Last Empire: Ottoman Empire] (in Turkish), İstanbul: Timaş Yayınları (Timaş Press), pp. 87–89, ISBN 975-263-490-7.
  7. 1 2 Stanford J. Shaw, "Dynamics of Ottoman Society and administration", in "History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey"
  8. Cleveland, William (2013). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. p. 45. ISBN 0813340489.
  9. Ortaylı, İlber. "Osmanlı Barışı (Ottoman Peace)", İstanbul: Timaş Yayınları (Timaş Press), 2007, p. 148. ISBN 978-975-263-516-6 (Turkish).
  10. История на българите. Късно средновековие и Възраждане, том 2, Георги Бакалов, TRUD Publishers, 2004, ISBN 9545284676, стр. 23. (Bg.)
  11. Taylor, William (2014). Narratives of Identity: The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of England 1895-1914. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 84–87. ISBN 978-1-4438-6946-1.
  12. Stillman, Norman A. Myth, Countermyth, and Distortion.
  13. Religion and the Politics of Ident, Ger Duijzings, C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2000, ISBN 1-85065-431-X, p. 28.
  14. Montgomery, Robert (2002). The lopsided spread of Christianity. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-275-97361-2.
  15. Ortayli, Ilber (1985), Tanzimattan Cumhuriyete Yerel Yönetim Gelenegi (in Turkish), Istanbul, p. 73.
  16. The Crimean War Begins
  17. 1 2 Don Peretz, The Middle East Today, 6th Edition (1994) ISBN 978-0275945763, p. 87: "At Christmas in 1847, Latin and Greek monks in Bethlehem battled with candlesticks and crosses over the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. To prevent Christian from killing Christian, the Ottoman governor, a Muslim, had to post sixty armed soldiers inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre."
  18. Mr.S.J. Kuruvilla, M. Phil, "Arab Nationalism and Christianity in the Levant" (PDF).
  19. 1 2 F.O. 424/70, No. 134/I zikr., Bilal N. ªimsir, British Documents on Ottoman Armenians 1856–1880), Vol. I, Ankara 19R2, p. 173. Document No. 69.
  20. Egypt – International Religious Freedom Report by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, USA: State Department, 2001.


Further reading

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