Provisionism: Ottoman Case

a)  Provisioning Istanbul

The state was most seriously concerned with the provisioning of the basic needs of the population. The ultimate aim of this policy was to avoid the starvation of the masses throughout the domains of the sultan. In this framework, importation of foodstuffs to Istanbul, which was one of the largest cities in the world at the  end of the l6th century with almost a million inhabitants was a matter of utmost concern for all the governments. Consequently, the provisioning of Istanbul has been very well documented and thoroughly studied (Barkan, 1942: 326-40 and 1975; Gücer, 1964, Greenwood, 1988; Murphey, 1988).

A select group of powerful merchants specialised in the importation of foodstuffs were organised into a special guild-like structure. These major merchants who were granted special privileges and status were known as the “kapan tuccarlari”, i.e., kapan merchants. There were at least three kapans in Istanbul. These were: Istanbul Bal kapani, i.e., the honey market (with 19 merchants); Galata Ya° kapan, the butter market (with 11 merchants) and kapani dakik, the flour market (with 17 merchants). Thus, altogether there were 47 powerful kapan tüccars active in Istanbul in this period (Cizakca, forthcoming).

These merchants were granted oligopsony privileges in “Eflak”, Wallachia, in modern Romania and parts of Moldova  (Cevdet Belediye; 1888). They were granted the sole right of purchase and no other merchant or person would be allowed to purchase grain in the territory. Furthermore, ships belonging to the kapan merchants were granted priority in loading and unloading other ships. On their part, the merchants were not to transport their merchandise to any destination other than Istanbul (Bostan, say 1-6).

Once this grain from the northern shores of the Black Sea arrived in Istanbul, top institutional priority was given to the needs of the charitably endowed hospices, imaretler. Some of the larger hospices of Istanbul distributed each day several thousand  loaves of bread and meals for several hundred people. Fatih’s bequest provided for the feeding of more than 1,000 persons everyday. The three great hospices of Istanbul alone, Fatih, Suleymaniye and Bayezid, consumed a thousand tons of grain a year (Murphey, 1988:251; Barkan, 1975:10).

b) Provisioning the Holy Cities

In addition to Istanbul which sucked bulk of the grain supply of the Black Sea region, there were other regions that had to be supplied with grains from afar. Foremost among them was the Hijaz. The holy cities of Islam which were visited by hundreds of thousands of believers every year were totally deficient in food (Farooqi, 1990:63-64). Most of the sultans had established their own anqaf and assigned the revenue of the villages in waqf territories for the provisioning of the holy cities. The state also organised on yearly basis huge caravans and appointed desert tribes to safeguard these. Large amounts of specie were paid to these tribes which constituted their only income and allowed these peoples to survive in the harsh desert conditions. Raymond has estimated that towards the end of the 18th century the state spent about 12,500,000 paras annually to pay these bedouins and the soldiers who accompanied the caravans (Raymond, 1985:47).

If it was not for the Egyptian grain surplus the pilgrimage itself would have been endangered, not because of an external threat, but due to the shortage of food. But this surplus Egyptian grain still had to be transported to the holy cities. Thanks to the discovery   by Colin Heywood of three registers belonging to a former of Egypt, Abdi Pasha, we are well informed about the magnitude of this transport activity (Heywood, 1988). These registers inform us that the transport of grain was carried through a combination of private, state and waqf initiative. Suez was the crucial centre of supply for the holy cities for which some 200 grain ships were maintained by the captain of the port during the 16th and 17th centuries (Shaw, 1962:137). The amount of wheat shipped by the state to the population of Makkah and Madinah for the period 1082-55 was as follows:



Total No. of


Amount of Wheat  Shipped (ardebs)

For Makkah

For Madinah






















Source: Heywood, 1988:170.

Since an Egyptian ardeb was not a standard unit of weight and varied in size between 90 and 198 litres (Inalcik, 1994:989) it is difficult to calculate the exact amount of wheat sent by the state. Taking the arithmetic average of the amount of wheat shipped annually (36,522 ardebs) and assuming that an ardeb weighed about 144 litres, we may estimate that the state sent roughly about 5,000 tons of wheat from Egypt to the holy cities annually. To this we must add the amount of wheat shipped by the auqaf. So called Desise-i Kubra waqf sent annually about 2,000 tons, the Desise-i Mehemmediye sent 1,500 tons and the Muradiye waqf sent in addition to a variety of foodstuffs also about 400    tons (Heywood, 1988:172). Moreover, these amounts must be considered as a mere minimum for we have no idea of    knowing if the registers studied by Heywood were complete.  This  food  was  consumed  in the  holy  cities by the residents, the pilgrims and the poor. Farooqi informs us that in the year 1503, 30,000 poor were fed during the pilgrimage (1990:64).

c) Maximum Price Policy (the Narh)

In addition to the free food provided by the auqaf and the imarets, the poor and the urban populations in general were also supported by a vigorous policy of price controls. The judiciary and the institution of ehtisab were put in charge of prices. It was even decreed occasionally that the prices for certain foodstuffs would not to be allowed to rise. Moreover, the kapan merchants had to commit themselves to report to the authorities if any one of their colleagues exceeded the administered price, the “narh”.

The degree to which these merchants were controlled by the state is revealed by a document dated 1803 which indicated that the state appointed an official “nazir” to supervise the merchants (IKS.80/40a). More specifically, the purpose of this appointment was stated to have been the following: To protect the public from the exploitation of the merchants, to ensure a steady and abundant supply of food to the markets of Istanbul, and to maintain the “narh” price.

The administered price policy, narh, did not remain limited to grains only and was extended to meat as well. The Balkans, Romania and Moldova sent annually between 600,000 to 1,800,000 sheep to Istanbul in the period 1550 to 1800 (Greenwood. 1988:19). The state was once again committed to provisioning the consumers in the great cities with cheap meat. Supplying the cities with meat at narh prices implied that, ceteris paribus, meat had to be bought at less than competitive prices at the source. Thus narh prices in Istanbul meant that even lower prices had to prevail in the meat-producing areas. This situation, on the other hand, would naturally have most adverse affects on the total production. Thus, it was necessary to buy the sheep at market prices in the producing regions and sell them in Istanbul at less than what it cost. This necessity to subsidise the meat prices led to the initiation of the celeb system.

The celebkesan were a select group of individuals who were assigned the task of provisioning Istanbul with meat at a loss! The minimum requirement for assigning someone as celeb was that he should have amassed at least 200,000 akces usually through dubious means such as usury, etc. The state took extraordinary measures to ensure that it did not commit zulm in this process: The informant and the person to be appointed as celeb were brought together at the court and the former had to give his testimony in the latter’s presence (Greenwood, 1988:85). If the celeb made an official complaint and stated that he had no financial means for this task the courts were usually lenient.

Despite the sincere concern of the state not to oppress the population, the system did expand throughout the 16th century and many well-to-do persons not necessarily involved in usurious transactions were recruited as celebs. Greenwood has informed us that merchants, clothiers even artisans were recruited.

It goes without saying that recruitment of a well-to-do person as a celeb was a serious violation of property rights. For, such recruitment almost always led to financial ruin. A well-to-do person could at any time be recruited into the celebkesan and lose his hard-earned wealth. Ordinary citizens who happened to do well in business desperately needed an institution which would protect their wealth. Such an institution existed and was known as the waqf system. This system was as old as Islam itself, and it is no wonder that a special Ottoman version of it, the cash waqfs, expanded so dramatically during the l6th century when the property rights were so drastically violated. Since the classical waqfs based upon real estate is well known, we will concentrate here on the cash waqfs.


Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission.
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