Harun Yeni

Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellow (2010-2011)
Ph.D. candidate, History, Bilkent University

The expansion in the Balkans started in the very early phases of the Ottoman state. Beginning with the conquests in Gallipoli, the conquests advanced in a short period of time towards the other parts of Thrace, and into the Balkans. The Sol-Kol region, the ancient Via Egnatia was one of the main directions of the Ottoman movement. The Ottomans’ military movements were in three directions: Sol-kol, Orta-kol, and Sağ-kol (kol = wing). With major commanders leading, they were moving in three directions almost simultaneously, which is the reason why the routes were named as such. It would enable them to move faster and on a wider region during conquest periods. Together with the conquests, there occurred a continuous process of settlement including various elements of society. As a result, the existing population increased and new settlements came out both in the rural and the urban areas. In other words, the demographic structure of the region adopted a new shape with the arrival of the Ottomans.

The conquest of this region occurred from 1360s to 1380s. Yet, we do not have documentation of the demography and settlement from these first years of the Ottoman existence in the region. For this reason, the first phase of the Ottoman presence in the region cannot be evaluated in terms demography. However, it is known that the region was not densely populated during the last periods of the Byzantine and Serbian dominations. It had already become almost a no-man’s land due to the Catalan campaigns and the internal strife. Besides, in the early 14th century, the Black Death swept this route, as well. Assuming the movement of the Ottomans could have become another source of unease and caused slight increase in depopulation, it can be easily understood what kind of a demographic situation of the Ottomans faced during and following the conquest.

The 15th century allows us to speculate more accurately on the demography of the region. It is because we have tax surveys (tahrirs) remaining from this period. The earliest record is a summary-type (icmâl) survey dated 1445. The other tahrirs from the 15th century are dated 1464 and 1478, both of which are detailed (mufassâl) registers. It should be noted that these registers do not cover the whole western Thrace region. A close look at these registers gives the impression that they were compiled for a transitory period. In other words, to speak about the region in question, they seem to be compiled with many missing settlements of the administrative units they cover. Such a picture becomes clearer when we have a look at the first register of the 16th century. In this register, there are many villages in a specific administrative unit (kazâ). The important detail here is the fact that these newly registered villages are mostly old settlements, which were already there when the Ottomans arrived. It can be said that the registration of the settlement units for taxation was not complete in the 15th century in this region. For this reason, a general comparison and evaluation would not be reliable. However, the registers of the 15th century can still be employed for demographic research if the recorded settlement units are evaluated on a peer-to-peer scale. In other words, due to the method of tax registration in the Ottoman state, they are still reliable sources on a specific scale. Having considered these terms, we can say that a gradual demographic increase is observed from the 14th century onwards. The main reason behind such an increase may be the stabilization of the political environment in the region (Pax-Ottomana). First of all, it was no longer a battlefield, unlike the early 14th century. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman expansion was still a phenomenon in the Balkans and neighboring Central and Eastern Europe. Yet, western Thrace was now a part of the core lands of the state. It was not an uc (frontier) anymore. The stabilization prepared the suitable setting for the demographic elements to operate within its inner dynamics.

The same can be said to be valid for the Turkish population of the region, yet from the second part of the 15th century onwards. It is because the region was still attracting population from Anatolia in the 15th century. Although demographics cannot be determined precisely, some entries in the registers stating the origin of the settlers in the period can be found. Through these records, we can see that there are still a significant number of newcomers from Anatolia.

To express the nature of the Turkish presence in the region more accurately, the initial movements must be mentioned first. Simultaneously with its conquest, Thrace and the Balkans became centers of concentration in terms of demographic movements. The first explicit entry about the movement of Turkish groups to Rumelia is in the time of Orhan Gâzi. In the chronicle of Âşıkpaşazâde, Tevârih-i Âl-i Osman, şehzâde (prince) Süleyman Paşa informs his father Orhan that there is a need for Muslim settlers in the newly conquered lands in Gallipoli. This record is dated 1356-57 (Figure 1). In another entry, Âşıkpaşazâde mentions the deportation of some nomadic groups to Serres, to the southern slopes of the Rhodopes in the highlands of the western Thrace. For the following periods, examples and records of such movements are also observed.

Figure 1. The passage about the conversation between şehzade Süleyman and Orhan Bey in Aşıkpaşazade' s chronicle.


As a policy, the Ottoman state was both encouraging and forcing the flow towards the European part of the state. It was seen as necessary both to establish the government in the newly conquered lands permanently and to utilize the existing financial potency more efficiently. “Şenlendirmek” (to enliven) was the term used for settling to an empty land and cultivating there.

As it was valid for the other parts in the Rumelia, the settlement of the Turkish people in the western Thrace occurred with variety. City-dwellers, artisans (Figure 2), villagers, groups whom we can call as pre-modern industrial workers (those who worked in salt production, mines, rice cultivation, which were under state monopoly and required specialization), and nomadic groups were the main ones we can name.

Figure 2. A record of tax-payers with their professions from a tahrir dated 1464. It reads; Ali-hayyat (tailor) , Yusuf-saraç (leather worker), Hamza-papuçcð (shoemaker)


The nomadic groups were one of the initial and most crucial components in the demographic change of the western Thrace, and of the Balkans. It should be clarified that most of these nomadic groups had a transhumance type of living. In other words, they were semi-nomads in nature, moving between pastures and lowlands in accordance with the season. They were called yürüks, and they were included in many aspects of the society. In Rumelia, a significant number of them were recorded as members of military class, askerî. They were organized as small groups (ocaks) consisting of 25-30 hearths (hanes), and employed in turns during the campaigns. Their identification as military class should not lead us to think that they were all soldiers. Although some were included in the combatant elements, they were considered much more for auxiliary forces in general. Their labels as military meant a lot more for finance because it would give them exemption from a certain number of taxes and fees.

We can identify 6 certain yürük groups through the registers compiled for these military yürüks in Rumelia. They are “Naldöken yürükleri”, “Tanrıdağı (Karagöz) yürükleri” (Figure 3), “Selanik yürükleri”, “Ofçabolu yürükleri”, “Vize yürükleri” and “Kocacık yürükleri”. Apart from these, there were also two more groups organized under their own administrator in the regions of Yanbolu and Kesriye. In total, they were estimated to amount around 50.000 hearths in the 16th century including the non-military records as well. Tanrıdağı – or Karagöz – yürüks were mainly extensive in western Thrace, although they could be found in the yürük registers (defters) of other regions around. Having this fact in consideration, it is reasonable to evaluate the yürük defters periodically within themselves. Otherwise, it would lead to unhealthy results for the demography of the region because of having specific yürük groups being recorded in other regions in time (Figure 4).

Figure 3. The initial part of a 'kanunname' (code of law) of Tanrıdağı yürükleri from 16th century.

Figure 4. The population groups in the western Thrace in early 16th century in Ö. L. Barkan's population map of the Ottoman Balkans


The yürüks were recorded in the detailed land surveys, as well. However, these surveys do not include all of those in military class. They tend to cover the ordinary nomads instead of listing the ones with military affliation. Within this sphere, they are more suitable sources for evaluation of the nomads in the Ottoman demographic history. The nomadic population is especially important in terms of determining the settled Turkish population and its trend in time, due to the fact that nomadism as a sociological term suggests and evokes sedentarization. In this aspect, the changes in the nomadic population and the change in their way of living affect the demographic structure. As for Anatolia, it is noted that the general population increase ratio in the 16th century was two times higher for the settled than the nomads. Such a noteworthy difference suggests a process of sedentarization as a highly possible explanation. As another determinant, the increase in the grain production among the registered nomads is claimed to be a leading clue for sedentarization.

For western Thrace, an evaluation within this sphere has not been conducted yet. Having considered the existence of a significant number of Turkish population, both sedentary and nomad, from the 14th century onwards, it is of crucial importance to determine this mutual relationship within the demographic structure of the region (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Drama, Kavala and Yenice-i Karasu regions in an Ottoman map dated 1899.

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