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Fatma Sel Turhan: 18. Yüzyıl Osmanlı'da Savaş Esirleri. [Prisoners of War in the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century], Istanbul: Vadi 2018, 324 S., ISBN 9-786-0558-3082-3, TRL 48,00
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Rezension von:
Gül Şen
Universität Heidelberg / Universität Bonn
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Stephan Conermann
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Gül Şen: Rezension von: Fatma Sel Turhan: 18. Yüzyıl Osmanlı'da Savaş Esirleri. [Prisoners of War in the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century], Istanbul: Vadi 2018, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 9 [15.09.2022], URL:

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Fatma Sel Turhan: 18. Yüzyıl Osmanlı'da Savaş Esirleri

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Ottoman-Russian and Ottoman-Habsburg relations in the eighteenth century have been the subject of a number of studies. Among the more recent contributions, Victor Taki's excellent study presented a cultural history of Ottoman-Russian relations [1], while Will Smiley has dealt with the international law of wartime captivity in the context of the Russian-Ottoman wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. [2] The author of the monographic study under review, 18. Yüzyıl Osmanlı'da Savaş Esirleri [Prisoners of War in the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century], is Fatma Sel Turhan, a Turkish historian who specializes in the history of Bosnia and other provinces of the Ottoman Empire in southeast Europe. In her book, she focuses on the practices of wartime captivity in the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and Tsarist Russia in the eighteenth century. She examines the phenomenon in its various dimensions, asking, among other questions, how prisoners of war were distributed, transferred, and eventually released, by analyzing the relevant paragraphs in several peace treaties.

The book is divided chronologically into five parts comprising five to six chapters each. Five of the parts begin with a short overview of the historical background of the treaty discussed in that part before examining the process of exchanging prisoners of war and pointing out the peculiarities of each treaty's regulations. Drawing on the still small number of studies on prisoners of war in the early modern period, Sel Turhan surveys earlier developments in legal regulations and introduces readers to her principal sources, produced in the central administrative offices of the Imperial Council and the department of the grand vizier. Much attention is given to terminology. On the Ottoman side, Sel Turhan focuses on the key term esir, which was used not only for prisoners of war specifically but also for enslaved people in general, both in government documents and in sharia regulations. She shows that a special tax imposed on the labor of prisoners of war, called pencik, played a crucial role in shaping the treatment of wartime captives in politics, logistics, and the economy. One fifth of the captives were recruited as forced labor (so-called miri esir) for state institutions, while the others were distributed as unpaid workers among those who had participated in the war. However, the recipients had to pay the pencik tax on this benefit. Most of the forced labor was employed at the Imperial Naval Arsenal in Istanbul, both in rowing the galleys and in other forms of hard labor. [3]

The first part of the book, entitled "The Ottomans' Prisoners of War from Karlowitz to the Treaty of Belgrade", deals with the treatment of captives and captivity in a number of peace treaties that the Ottoman Empire signed with the Habsburg and Russian Empires in the first half of the eighteenth century. Although the Ottomans' previous contractual agreements (ʿahdnāmes) with Venice already prescribed certain practices with regard to prisoners of war, the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) introduced new regulations to ensure that captives left behind after a prisoner exchange could still be released through their embassies. Prisoners of war in this period were kept in different locations depending on their status: high-ranking prisoners were interned in the Seven Towers (Yedikule) or the Naval Arsenal, whereas other captives were sold to private households. The difficulty lay not in the release of captives confined in the state facilities but in securing the release of those held by private slave owners (I am using the term "slave" since through the act of sale the prisoners became slaves, legally speaking). The payment of ransoms directly to the slave holders by both Austrian and Ottoman state authorities facilitated the process of the prisoners' release. The Ottomans signed a similar treaty with Venice and Poland, upholding and supplementing the regulations of the old ʿahdnāmes. According to the treaty, raiding parties were forbidden to take captives along the border with the Kingdom of Poland, and the Tatar chiefdoms and the Crimean khan were informed of this new imperial order. Captives who had converted to Islam were excepted from prisoner exchanges. Any fugitive captives were to be identified and caught by the Janissaries and delivered to their owners. According to another regulation released prisoners bearing documentation of their release were to have access to proper overnight accommodation on their way home, and they should have an armed escort to ensure that they not be harmed. In sum, a serious effort on the part of the state to facilitate the speedy release of prisoners of war was evident. In subsequent treaties with the Habsburgs (Passarowitz 1718 and Belgrade 1739), these regulations were maintained, with occasional supplements on specific points. Interestingly, a commercial treaty signed between the Ottomans and the Kingdom of Sicily in 1740, which sought to safeguard prosperous trade relations between the two Mediterranean powers, also contained provisions for the exchange of captives. A letter written by Ottoman captives in Sicily (dated 1740) is evidence of the agency of such prisoners, who were able to address a petition to the Ottoman sultan, asking him for their ransom. These treaties, for the first time, laid down the formalities of prisoner exchange, the rights and obligations of private owners of captives, and fixed prices to be paid by state authorities to ransom prisoners held by the opposing side.

The second part of the book, "Captives taken during the Ottoman-Russian War of 1736-1739", deals with the first of the three major wars between the Ottomans and the Russians in the eighteenth century. Although the two empires had previously signed the treaties of the Pruth and Edirne, Poland-Lithuania remained a major subject of dispute. For the subject of the book under review, this war is of particular interest, as both sides captured a large number of prisoners during this conflict. Accordingly, the Treaty of Belgrade (1739) contains extremely detailed regulations for the exchange of captives taken during this war as well as previous wars. For the release of Russian captives, the permanent Russian embassy in Istanbul played a major role, as did the French embassy, which acted as a mediator in the peace negotiations. As Sel Turhan demonstrates, the archival documents show that for the Ottoman authorities redeeming the largest possible number of Ottoman captives was as important as the prevention of Russia's expansion to the Black Sea, and this goal induced them to make efforts to release as many Russian captives as possible in return. Although the majority of the Russian prisoners were held by the state, a considerable number had entered a new form of dependency as slaves in private households with a variety of religious affiliations. The documents reveal that the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Jewish communities were involved in documenting, releasing, and sending home prisoners held by members of these communities across the Ottoman territories. Additionally, Russian officials dispatched from St. Petersburg to secure the release of prisoners held by the Ottomans were granted freedom to do their job without interference from local authorities. There is evidence of logistical preparations for the transportation of released Russian subjects by ship, such as a supply list of provisions for the voyage from the Bosporus to the region of Azov, which would have taken five or six weeks. A document dated 1741 mentions 720 Russian prisoners who were transported to Russia and another 120 captives who were still awaiting transport home. In the same year, a group of 107 Ottoman subjects (of whom sixty-three were women) heading from Russia back to Ottoman territory, were transported by bullock cart instead of by ship to the border between Russia and Ottoman Moldavia - a choice obviously made by the Russian officials who accompanied the group. In contrast to the wealth of documents showing how the Ottoman authorities implemented the process of prisoner exchange, Sel Turhan admits that documentary evidence on the practices of the Russian side is very rare, since the Russian authorities often refused exchanges under a variety of pretexts. A few extant documents, however, show that former Russian prisoners going from the Ottoman Empire back to Russia by whatever means were awarded a small amount of money.

The third part of the book, which has been published separately as a journal article [4], provides interesting information on the situation of prisoners taken during the Ottoman-Russian war of 1768-1774. The state authorities regulated the distribution of a large number of Russian captives (possibly several thousands; the documents do not provide an exact number), including men, women, and children, to private owners who included Muslims, Greeks, Armenians, and Jewish Ottomans. The Peace Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) stipulated the exchange of prisoners of war, and to ensure the smooth operation of the exchange, the Sublime Porte was ready to pay 100 aspers to release each Russian, Polish, and Kazakh captive from their private holders. However, there were also Wallachians, Moldavians, Peloponnesians, Georgians, and natives of the Aegean Islands held as captives, and in response to objections to their policy of selectivity, the Ottoman authorities did occasionally ransom members of these latter groups, too, for the same amount. Although there are few documents in the Ottoman archives on the Ottoman captives taken by the Russians, Sel Turhan makes good use of the sparse evidence that is available to sketch the distribution and locations of these prisoners and to shed light on their agency as, for instance, authors of petitions seeking their release and repatriation.

The fourth part of the book, titled "Captives taken during the Ottoman-Austrian War of 1788-1791", is the only one devoted to the practice of war captivity in the eighteenth-century Ottoman-Austrian context. The main dispute following the aftermath of this war arose from the fact that the Treaty of Sistova (1791), which ended the war, decreed that the exchange of prisoners had to take place within two months, but the Ottomans failed to meet the deadline. The Austrian captives had first been gathered in Ruse and Vidin and then distributed widely across the empire. As in other wars, the private holders of captive slaves were Muslim, Armenian, Jewish, or Greek Orthodox; they belonged to a variety of social groups and resided in the countryside as well as in the cities. Although no precise number is documented, Sel Turhan estimates that this process involved thousands of Austrian captives between the ages of four and sixty.

The fifth and last part, "The Ottoman-Russian War of 1787-1792", examines the fate of the exceedingly high number of both military and civilian Ottoman prisoners taken by the Russians; their large number was due to the fact that the military operations mostly took place in recently occupied Ottoman territory. The Treaty of Jassy 1792 stipulated that Ottoman officials be sent to Russia to effect the prisoners' release. These officials' biggest challenge was to identify and gather the captives, who were widely dispersed over the vast territory of the Russian Empire.

The overall picture that emerges from Sel Turhan's book is that whereas it was a relatively easy matter for the Ottoman authorities to implement the exchange of prisoners kept in state institutions such as fortresses, prisons, or vessels of the Naval Arsenal), they faced major problems in liberating captives enslaved as servants in the private households of Muslim or non-Muslim Ottoman subjects. In these cases, the state attempted to solve the problem by readily paying ransoms from the state treasury. In exploring this complex issue, Fatma Sel Turhan has made effective use of the available archival sources and the literature on the subject. A particular achievement is the foundational work she has done to locate these sources and to make their contents accessible for further research. This remarkable effort balances the fact that, for the most part, she has contented herself with the mere recounting of events and documents, leaving aside any deeper analysis of the changing legal nature of war captivity in the eighteenth century or a comparative view on the phenomenon in other regions of Europe. All in all, I would strongly recommend this study to scholars working on military and diplomatic history in the early modern period.


[1] Victor Taki: Tsar and Sultan. Russian Encounters with the Ottoman Empire, London 2016.

[2] Will Smiley: From Slaves to Prisoners of War. The Ottoman Empire, Russia, and International Law, Oxford 2018.

[3] For further information on maritime forced labor, see Gül Şen: Galley Slaves and Agency. The Driving Force of the Ottoman Fleet, in: Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire, ed. by Stephan Conermann / Gül Şen, Göttingen 2020, 131-163.

[4] Fatma Sel Turhan: Captives of the Ottoman-Russian War 1768-1774, in: International Journal of Turkologia 13, no. 25 (2018), 5-36.

Gül Şen