Much is known about the impact of the fourteenth century Black Death, also known as the plague, on the social, economic and political life of Europe which decimated a third to two-thirds of its population. Despite a resurgence of modern interest in the Black Death, some Ottoman scholars have highlighted the lack of studies dealing with the Black Death in the early Ottoman period. Accounts of the plague’s impact on Ottoman society rely almost exclusively on European consular reports and European travellers’ accounts, as well as orientalist propaganda. I will begin by taking a brief look at the origins of the plague and then examine the Ottoman state’s response to a series of plagues across its territories over the course of some 600 years.
The Arrival of the Plague in Ottoman Territories
Scholars concur that the Black Death pandemic probably originated in the Eurasian steppe. From this region it is believed to have spread east with the Mongol invasions of the 13th century into Burma and Yunnan, where it became endemic among rodent populations. It first erupted in China in 1331 and made cyclical appearances there throughout the 14th century. Concurrently, it travelled westward arriving in the Crimea in 1346 and into Constantinople in 1347. From there it spread into the Balkans, Italy and the rest of Europe and the Middle East. From Damascus, the plague spread north into Anatolia.
Prevailing Views of Plague and Contagion
The idea that infectious diseases were caused by invisible germs did not develop until the late 19th century, toward the end of the Ottoman empire’s history. Before that time, the dominant disease theory attributed the cause of epidemic diseases to miasma which was the belief that foul odours contaminated the air and made people sick. This was a major factor in why social distancing practices were not generally observed. Instead, based on the prevailing theory of miasma, some people would temporarily move to areas where they could access cleaner air although this phenomenon was generally limited to elite members of society.
The way Ottoman society thought about plague changed over time. In the early period of Ottoman history, the plague was understood to be a divine decree, a portent of the apocalypse, and a result of social and moral transgression. Beginning in the late 16th century, the plague was no longer seen as an uncontrollable apocalyptic phenomenon that could not be proactively managed. Instead, it came to be seen as a disease resulting from natural causes (e.g., unhealthy cities), and something that could be controlled by the state. Outbreaks of plague in the Ottoman Empire spanned six centuries, and as a result, the population became more familiar with the disease over time and saw it as a recurrent, almost seasonal problem, seeking ways to protect themselves from it using a variety of different methods.
Ottoman Response to Plague in the Early Period
There were several cyclical plague occurrences throughout Ottoman history beginning with the Black Death pandemic in 1347 lasting until 1947 in modern Turkey. This recurrence of plague spanning some 600 years had a profound impact upon the way the Ottomans dealt with public health issues. It should be noted that the recurrence of plague in the region was largely a result of the rise and expansion of the Ottoman empire in respect of activities ranging from conquest to the establishment of new communication and trade networks. Plague in Europe also recurred again and again over centuries in the same places. In London, for example, there were at least seventeen outbreaks of plague between 1500 and the last outbreak – the so-called “Great Plague of London” – in 1665.
The early Ottomans frowned upon leaving a place once it had been infected but did not reconcile this behaviour with contagion in the early part of their history. Regardless of status and wealth, the early Ottoman Turks adhered to the Prophetic tradition of not entering a land which has succumbed to plague and not fleeing it if it occurs while you are there. For the 1428-29 outbreak in Bursa, it is recorded that many notables died during the outbreak. Christian residents of the Ottoman state may have displayed a different response.
The conquests of 1516 and 1517 marked a major turning point in Ottoman history not least in the doubling of the geographical size of the empire and of its population. These territorial acquisitions served as the main factor in facilitating the geographic spread of plague epidemics in Ottoman lands in the early modern era. There was a twofold effect of such conquest and expansion: on the one hand, there were more intensified outbreaks in regions already struck by plague as well as eruptions in regions hitherto unaffected by it. In the early 16th century, an increased number of treatises and fatwas on plagues embraced the concept of contagion and condoned flight from afflicted areas. The Ottoman state now became dramatically more proactive and several initiatives were set up.
As the empire expanded considerably in the 16th century, the Ottoman state developed new and more sophisticated networks of communication to enable a faster flow of information throughout the empire. This helped the centre (Istanbul), now much better informed of what was happening throughout its domains, to monitor needs and respond to them quickly. Examples from Salonica prove the point. When hit by plague in the summer of 1572, the woollen cloth weavers of Salonica petitioned for permission to leave the city because of the outbreak; this was granted by the central administration in Istanbul on the condition that they finish their weaving duties on time. The central administration sent another order during an especially virulent eruption of plague in 1576-7, which killed many in Salonica and reduced its workforce dramatically. Two years later, yet another order authorized only those who maintained looms outside the city to leave, in order to prevent delays in the weaving of woollen cloth. Istanbul was therefore closely involved in Salonica’s experience of plague on three occasions in approximately seven years. This involvement illustrates not only the centrality of Istanbul but the rapidity of the flow of information between the centre and the provinces.
Waste Disposal and Street Cleaning
The Ottomans were enterprising about improving cleanliness in cities even before they made the link between hygiene and contagion. They launched ad hoc cleaning operations in Istanbul soon after the 1453 conquest, and by the early 16th century they were regularly employing street cleaners who collected rubbish in receptacles and disposed of it in a central location. Similar cleaning systems were in operation in other cities. Roads were paved to make for easier cleaning.
Development of Health Services
From the beginning of Islamic history, the sick always had places to turn to for sleep, a warm meal or medical treatment. Aid was extensively delivered in mosques and many cities also had hospitals. The role and norms of hospitals was to remain largely unchanged until the Ottoman period. Nukhet Varlik remarks, “here we see the rise of public health and its administration by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, but many historians still imagine public health as a product of Western modernity, and as something that was ‘imported’ by Middle Eastern societies. This is simply not true. We see these institutions and practices fully in place in the sixteenth century, and they continued to serve Ottoman society for several centuries after that.” (Nukhet Varlik, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600). The response to plague by the Ottomans in the field of public health was to monitor, control and manage the health of its population. Ottoman physicians scientifically studied plague for important observations about its spread and to help develop methods of treatment.
The great scholar of medicine, Ibn Sina (980-1037) was the first to formulate a practice still in use today to prevent transmission of diseases. He suspected that some diseases were spread by microorganisms, and to prevent human to human contamination, he drew up the method of isolating people for 40 days. He called this method al-Arba’iniya (the forty). This strategy was adopted by the Venetians during their first encounter with plague. The term ‘quarantine’ derives from the Italian ‘quaranta giorni’, meaning 40 days. In 1838, the Ottomans signed a quarantine reform law and established a number of quarantine stations in port cities and other locations, and enforced disinfection procedures for individuals and goods at the checkpoints for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease epidemics.
Relocation of Businesses
The authorities relocated businesses such as tanneries and slaughterhouses outside the city walls because foul odours were believed to contaminate the air and make people sick.
Administrative and Tax Formalities
Despite the enormous pressure that plagues exerted on Ottoman bureaucracy, the latter tried to preserve a degree of normality during times of crisis. Inheritance was an important and complicated issue when whole families succumbed to the disease. The registration of deaths in judiciary records, for example, was still meticulously maintained in both cities and villages.
Plague outbreaks would often cause sudden and dramatic decreases in the population of a location either because the inhabitants died or fled. The disruption of economic activity was its natural consequence. The situation would result in a loss of revenue for individuals. The state would reduce tax rates for villages out of mercy for the remaining victims without enquiring about the fleeing people. A reduction in business rents was also part of the tax remissions which effectively became a form of disaster relief during plague outbreaks.
In normal times, a Muslim who died would be buried according to Islamic ritual which required washing, swathing, after which the body would be put on a bier and covered with shrouds. The expense of such preparations was usually met by the family. However, a severe outbreak of plague could kill several members of a family at one time, straining the financial resources of those who survived. For those that had arrived as travellers, or that died leaving no heirs, the public treasury took responsibility for the funeral. As plague deaths surged, the Ottoman state kept records of daily death tolls and provided services for the funeral industry.
The Ottoman authorities, anticipating spikes in the daily death tolls when plague was at its peak, began to build graveyards in preparation outside the city walls. The 17th century traveller, Jean de Thevenot observed, “they were usually situated along the important roads, so that passers-by could pray for the deceased”(The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant). The surface covered by the cemeteries was considerable because it was strictly forbidden to re-use a grave. Therefore, as later travellers noted, the surface covered by the cemeteries that surrounded Istanbul were larger than the city itself.
The aftermath of plague meant a depletion in the population. To maintain the economic stability of a region hit by plague as well as ensuring there was a sufficiently large population for defence, the Ottoman authorities repopulated Istanbul as well as other cities with inhabitants from other parts of the empire.
Maintaining Societal Normalcy
The European response to plague shared some similarities with the Ottoman response. European governments improved public hygiene and utilised quarantine stations at ports along with the quarantine of individuals and entire towns and cities becoming a popular measure. The stark difference to the Ottoman approach arose when European governments used the excuse of intervention to justify the expansion of state power used to monitor and control the public and those deemed undesirables, which usually meant the poor and sick. Across Europe, measures such as self-isolation and social distancing were ruthlessly enforced with punishment of death for violations. The Ottomans never enforced self-isolation and social distancing even when the idea of contagion became more popular in later history. Ottoman state intervention was implemented precisely in accordance with the limits of Islamic laws governing the control of society. The Ottoman implementation of quarantines had already met with enemies, some on religious grounds, so the idea of encouraging or enforcing self-isolation and social distancing would have been deemed a step too far in creating artificial barriers in society.
Ottoman society became familiar with plague after cycles of recurrence and eventually learned how to cope with them. The Ottoman state’s response to plague changed over time and became dramatically more sophisticated in the sixteenth century which resulted in the adoption of successful policies and protocols for dealing with plague which are still in use throughout the world to this day.
Edward W. Said, Orientalism
Gisele Marien, The Black Death in Early Ottoman Territories: 1347-1550
Nukhet Varlık, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600
Yaron Ayalon, Natural Disasters in the Ottoman Empire
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