chapter  3
16 Pages

The law of the land: Colin Imber

The economy of the Ottoman empire rested on peasant labour, and, in an area extending from the western Balkan peninsula to eastern Anatolia and into Syria and northern Iraq, the typical peasant tenement – or çift – was a farm worked usually, but not inevitably, by a single family. Most tenements belonged to a timar (fief), and it was the fief-holders who controlled the peasants’ access to the land. Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, most fief-holders were sipahis (cavalrymen), who held their fiefs in return for army service, but fiefs also supported vezirs, governors and other servants of the sultan during their time in office. From the seventeenth century, fiefs increasingly went to tax farmers and, in the eighteenth, following the introduction of lifetime tax farms in , came to resemble private estates. However, neither peasant nor fief-holder owned the land: only what was above the land – trees, vines and buildings – could be held as private property. The issue was not who owned the land,1 but who owned the revenues from it. Private proprietors owned the taxes from their estates as property which they bequeathed to their heirs; fief-holders owned the taxes from the fief for the period of their tenure.