For hundreds of years, the Ottoman Empire reigned over parts of modern-day Europe, Asia, and Africa. Well into the 1900s, the empire kept records about its subjects that may help you trace your ancestors who lived in the Balkans, Asia Minor, and other regions ruled by the Ottomans.
Reach of the Ottoman Empire
Around the year 1300, Turkish ruler Osman I founded a dynasty that grew into the powerful Ottoman Empire. Gradually the empire expanded outward from Anatolia, where the continents of Asia and Europe meet.
At its height, the Ottoman Empire stretched to the northern coasts of Africa, into the Arabian Peninsula, west to the Caspian Sea, and over most of southeastern Europe. This far-reaching empire ruled diverse groups of people on three different continents, their languages and cultures varying greatly.
After 600 years, with the conclusion of World War I, the Ottoman Empire finally fell. Its former territory includes areas of the modern Balkan countries, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Armenia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia.
If your family lived in any of these areas, it’s possible the government of the Ottoman Empire created records that can help you build your family tree.
Records of the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire created enormous quantities of records to document its subjects—particularly men, for purposes of taxation and military service. Unfortunately, very few of these records are accessible online, and most are written in Ottoman Turkish, a complex language no longer in use today. That said, there are records that can help those who really want to discover their ancestors who were Ottoman Empire subjects.
The most genealogically valuable and inclusive records for the 1800s and early 1900s are censuses and personal identification documents. A partial census of the Ottoman Empire was conducted in the 1830s but doesn’t have much value for family historians. An 1876 census only numbered men. But beginning in 1882, entire households were documented, including women, though men and paternal lines were still documented more fully. Nuclear family relationships were specified. Read more about Ottoman-era censuses.
Between the mid-1800s and 1918, the empire created personal identification cards, or population certificates, for each subject. Written in Ottoman Turkish, they generally include the individual’s name, birth date, birthplace, and father’s name.
Since the Ottoman Empire no longer exists, its historical records are not kept at one central archive. Turkey does maintain Ottoman-era censuses at provincial registrations, and some may be in other Turkish archives, including the Ottoman State Archives in Istanbul. Other countries may have records pertaining to their regions in their own archives. Personal identification certificates may be in private family collections or in archives. The Turkish government now offers a website for searching ancestral civil registrations, including Ottoman-era documents.
Additional records may be available about your relatives, including title deeds (land distribution records), civil servant registries, and tax registers that may date back to the 1400s. Some records may be segregated by religion, as the empire sometimes distinguished between its Muslim and non-Muslim residents. Learn more about Ottoman-era genealogical records in this video presentation.
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