The Culture of the Ottoman Empire

A Scene from the Turkish Harem / Pera Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The Turks absorbed, adapted and modified the cultures of conquered lands and their peoples.

Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian


Turkish Blue Tiles / Photo by Khalid Mahmood, Wikimedia Commons

Ottoman culture evolved over several centuries as the ruling administration of the Turks absorbed, adapted and modified the cultures of conquered lands and their peoples. There was a strong influence from the customs and languages of Islamic societies, notably Arabic, while Persian culture had a significant contribution through the heavily Persianized Seljuq Turks, the Ottomans’ predecessors. Despite newer added amalgamations, the Ottoman dynasty, like their predecessors in the Sultanate of Rum and the Seljuk Empire, were thoroughly Persianised in their culture, language, habits and customs, and therefore, the empire has been described as a Persianate empire.”[1][2][3][4] Throughout its history, the Ottoman Empire had substantial subject populations of Orthodox subjects, Armenians, Jews and Assyrians, who were allowed a certain amount of autonomy under the confessional millet system of Ottoman government, and whose distinctive cultures enriched that of the Ottoman state.

As the Ottoman Empire expanded it assimilated the culture of numerous regions under its rule and beyond, being particularly influenced by Byzantium, the Arab culture of the Islamic Middle East, and the Persian culture of Iran.



A large number of Persian loanwords entered the literary language, and Persian metres and forms (such as those of Ghazal) were used.

By the 19th century and the era of Tanzimat reforms, the influence of Turkish folk literature, until then largely oral, began to appear in Turkish poetry, and there was increasing influence from the literature of Europe; there was a corresponding decline in classical court poetry. Tevfik Fikret, born in 1867, is often considered the founder of modern Turkish poetry.


Prior to the 19th century, Ottoman prose was exclusively non-fictional, and was much less highly developed than Ottoman poetry, in part because much of it followed the rules of the originally Arabic tradition of rhymed prose (Saj’). Nevertheless, a number of genres – the travelogue, the political treatise and biography – were current.

From the 19th century, the increasing influence of the European novel, and particularly that of the French novel, began to be felt. Şemsettin Sami’s Taaşuk-u Tal’at ve Fitnat, widely considered the first Turkish novel, was published in 1872; other notable Ottoman writers of prose were Ahmet Mithat and Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil.


Ottoman architecture was a synthesis of Iranian-influenced Seljuk architectural traditions, as seen in the buildings of Konya, Mamluk architecture, and Byzantine architecture; it reached its greatest development in the large public buildings, such as mosques and caravanserais, of the 16th century.

The most significant figure in the field, the 16th-century architect and engineer Mimar Sinan, was a Muslim convert of Armenian descent, having a background in the Janissaries. His most famous works were the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne and the Suleiman Mosque in Constantinople. One of his pupils, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, designed the early 17th century Blue Mosque, considered the last great building of classical Ottoman architecture.

Decorative Arts


File:Tugra Mahmuds II.gif
The stylized signature of Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire was written in an expressive calligraphy. It reads Mahmud Khan son of Abdülhamid is forever victorious.

Calligraphy had a prestigious status under the Ottomans, its traditions having been shaped by the work of Abbasid calligrapher Yaqut al-Musta’simi of Baghdad, whose influence had spread across the Islamic world, al-Musta’simi himself possibly being of Anatolian origin.

The Diwani script is a cursive and distinctively Ottoman style of Arabic calligraphy developed in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It was invented by Housam Roumi, reaching its greatest development under Süleyman I the Magnificent (1520–66). The highly decorative script was distinguished by its complexity of line and by the close juxtaposition of the letters within words. Other forms included the flowing, rounded Nashki script, invented by the 10th-century Abbasid calligrapher Ali Muhammad ibn Muqlah, and Ta’liq, based on the Persian Nastalīq style.

Noted Ottoman calligraphers include Seyyid Kasim Gubari, Şeyh Hamdullah, Ahmed Karahisari, and Hâfiz Osman.


The Ottoman tradition of painting miniatures, to illustrate manuscripts or used in dedicated albums, was heavily influenced by the Persian art form. A Greek academy of painters, the Nakkashane-i-Rum was established in the Topkapi Palace in the 15th century, while early in the following century a similar Persian academy, the Nakkashane-i-Irani, was added.

Carpet-Weaving and Textile Arts

Tile with Floral and Cloud-band Design, c. 1578, Iznik Tile, Ottoman Empire, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[5] / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

The art of carpet weaving was particularly significant in the Ottoman Empire, carpets having an immense importance both as decorative furnishings, rich in religious and other symbolism, and as a practical consideration, as it was customary to remove one’s shoes in living quarters.[6] The weaving of such carpets originated in the nomadic cultures of central Asia (carpets being an easily transportable form of furnishing), and was eventually spread to the settled societies of Anatolia. Turks used carpets, rugs and patterned kilims not just on the floors of a room, but also as a hanging on walls and doorways, where they provided additional insulation. They were also commonly donated to mosques, which often amassed large collections of them.[7]

17th-century Ottoman velvet cushion cover, with stylized carnation motifs. Floral motifs were common in Ottoman art / Wikimedia Commons

Hereke carpets were of particularly high status, being made of silk or a combination of silk and cotton, and intricately knotted. Other significant designs included “Palace”, “Yörük”, Ushak, and Milas or “Türkmen” carpets. “Yörük” and “Türkmen” represented more stylized designs, whereas naturalistic designs were prevalent in “Palace”.


The Ottoman Empire was noted for the quality of its gold- and silversmiths, and particularly for the jewelry they produced. Jewelry had particular importance as it was commonly given at weddings, as a gift that could be used as a form of savings.[8] Silver was the most common material used, with gold reserved for more high-status pieces; designs often displayed complex filigree work and incorporated Persian and Byzantine motifs. Developments in design reflected the tastes of the Ottoman court, with Persian Safavid art, for example, becoming an influence after the Ottoman defeat of Ismail I after the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514.[9] In the rural areas of the Empire, jewelry was simpler and often incorporated gold coins (the Ottoman altin), but the designs of Constantinople nevertheless spread throughout Ottoman territory and were reflected even in the metalwork of Egypt and North Africa.

Most jewelers and goldsmiths were Christian Armenians and Jews, but the interest of the Ottomans in the related art of watchmaking resulted in many European goldsmiths, watchmakers and gem engravers moving to Constantinople, where they worked in the foreigners’ quarter, Galata.[10]



Musicians and dancers entertain the crowds, from Surname-i Hümayun, 1720 / Wikimedia Commons

Apart from the music traditions of its constituent peoples, the Ottoman Empire evolved a distinct style of court music, Ottoman classical music. This was a principally vocal form, with instrumental accompaniment, built on makamlar, a set of melodic systems, with a corresponding set of rhythmic patterns called usul.

Another distinctive feature of Ottoman music were the mehterân, the military bands used by the Janissaries and in the retinues of high-ranking officials. These bands were the ancestors of modern military bands, as well as of the brass ensembles popular in traditional Balkan music.


Dancing was an important element of Ottoman culture, which incorporated the folkloric dancing traditions of many different countries and lands on three continents; from the Balkan peninsula and the Black Sea regions to the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa.

Dancing was also one of the most popular pastimes in the Harem of Topkapı Palace.

The female belly dancers, named Çengi, were mostly from the Roma community. Today, living in Istanbul’s Roma neighbourhoods like Sulukule, Kuştepe, Cennet and Kasımpaşa, they still dominate the traditional belly dancing and musical entertainment shows throughout the city’s traditional taverns.

There were also male dancers, named Köçek, who took part in the entertainment shows and celebrations, accompanied by circus acrobats, named Cambaz, performing difficult tricks, and other shows which attracted curiosity.

Meddah (One-Person Show)

Meddah performing at a coffeehouse / Wikimedia Commons

The meddah or story teller played in front of a small group of viewers, such as a coffeehouse audience. The play was generally about a single topic, the meddah playing different characters, and was usually introduced by drawing attention to the moral contained in the story. The meddah would use props such as an umbrella, a handkerchief, or different headwear, to signal a change of character, and was skilled at manipulating his voice and imitating different dialects. There was no time limitation on the shows; a good meddah had the skill to adjust the story depending on interaction with the audience.

Meddahs were generally traveling artists whose route took them from one large city to another, such along the towns of the spice road; the tradition supposedly goes back to Homer’s time. The methods of meddahs were the same as the methods of the itinerant storytellers who related Greek epics such as the Iliad and Odyssey, even though the main stories were now Ferhat ile Şirin or Layla and Majnun. The repertoires of the meddahs also included true stories, modified depending on the audience, artist and political situation.

The Istanbul meddahs were known to integrate musical instruments into their stories: this was a main difference between them and the East Anatolian Dengbejin.

In 2008 the art of the meddahs was relisted in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Karagöz (Shadow Play)

Shadow Play: Hacivat (left) and Karagöz (right) / Wikimedia Commons

The Turkish shadow theatre, also known as Karagöz (“Black-Eyed”) after one of its main characters, is descended from the Oriental Shadow theatre. Today, scholars generally consider the technique of a single puppeteer creating voices for a dialogue, narrating a story, and possibly even singing, all while manipulating puppets, to be an Indonesian invention.

Median (Open-Stage Show)

Median, 1933 / Wikimedia Commons

In the Ottoman Empire, theatre in the western sense began to be performed after the Tanzimat era (Sağlam 1999). The first Turkish play “Şair Evlenmesi” (The marriage of the poet) was written by İbrahim Şinasi in 1859. It was a comedy inspired by Moliere’s plays. Used to being entertained by traditional folk theatre and village shows, the Turkish people’s favourite genre of western theatre was the comedy.

Scenario, UCC


The Jewish Gymnastics Club of Constantinople, founded in 1895, was the first of Istanbul’s sports clubs, soon followed by Kurtuluş Sports Club founded in 1896 by Ottoman Greeks.[11] The opening of these athletic clubs symbolized a general growth in sports and sports culture in Istanbul at the time. In the coming years, Beşiktaş Gymnastics Club, the Galatasaray Sports Club, and the Fenerbahçe Sports Club — Istanbul’s “big three” — were founded.[12] Exercise, as well as football and gymnastics were commonplace among the primarily affluent members of these clubs. In contrast to the fairly exclusive “big three”, Vefa Sports Club, established after the progressive Young Turk revolution in 1908, served as an amateur sports and football club of the people.[12]

The turn of the twentieth century saw clubs spring up throughout Istanbul to appeal to many niches of young men, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.[13] Almost all athletic clubs were ethnically and religiously homogeneous, however they all shared a focus on physicality.[14] Furthermore, the function of these institutions expanded beyond sports, as they taught young men proper hygiene, dress, and posture, in addition to serving as environments for male discourse and socializing.[13]

The development of athletic clubs enabled the rise of team sports in Istanbul — principally football — serving as contrasts to the more traditional Ottoman sports of oil wrestling and archery.[15] For instance, upon its opening in 1905, Galatasaray functioned exclusively as a football club.[16] This shift toward team competition represented a general modernization of sports in Istanbul, a modernization that can also be seen, for example, in the Beşiktaş Gymnastics Club as traditional Turkish wrestling embraced new mat technology.[17]

Athletic clubs revolutionized sports reporting in the Ottoman Empire, as publications began to cover club games.[18] Futbol, written in Ottoman Turkish and initially released in 1910, served as Istanbul’s first sports magazine, principally following club football matches.[19]

Growth in sports related readership coincided with a growing sports spectating culture in Istanbul. 1905 saw the creation of the Constantinople Association Football League, which organized soccer matches among athletic clubs, while also providing entertainment for thousands of spectators.[20] Completed in 1909, with the blessing of Sultan Abdülhamid II, the Union Club provided the first reliable stadium in which thousands of Istanbul spectators could gather to watch sports.[21] Contrary to the strict homosocial exclusivity of many clubs, the Union Club allowed women to spectate athletic competitions.[22] With this rise in spectatorship, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe in particular, became recognized as the city’s preeminent clubs.[23] While heavily connected to football, the Union Club hosted a plethora events organized by a variety of Istanbul athletic clubs, including races, gymnastics, and more. For example, in 1911, the Union Club was the site of the first Armenian Olympics.[24]

In the past century, many of these clubs have only continued to gain popularity. Now under the Republic of Turkey, the Süper Lig represents the region’s most popular football league, and Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe are the league’s most popular teams.

Ottoman Turkish Cuisine

Coffee delight at the Harem / Pera Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The cuisine of Ottoman Turkey can be divided between that of the Ottoman court itself, which was a highly sophisticated and elaborate fusion of many of the culinary traditions found in the Empire, and the regional cuisines of the peasantry and of the Empire’s minorities, which were influenced by the produce of their respective areas. Rice, for example, was a staple of high-status cookery (Imperial cooks were hired according to the skill they displayed in cooking it) but would have been regarded as a luxury item through most of Anatolia, where bread was the staple grain food.


  1. Özgündenli, O. “Persian Manuscripts in Ottoman and Modern Turkish Libraries”Encyclopaedia Iranica(online ed.).
  2. “Persian in service of the state: the role of Persophone historical writing in the development of an Ottoman imperial aesthetic”, Studies on Persianate Societies2, 2004, pp. 145–63
  3. “Historiography. xi. Persian Historiography in the Ottoman Empire”. Encyclopaedia Iranica. 12, fasc. 4. 2004. pp. 403–11.
  4. Walter, F. “7: The Departure of Turkey from the ‘Persianate’ Musical Sphere”. Music of the Ottoman court.
  5. “Tile with Floral and Cloud-band Design”.
  6. Foroqhi, S. Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire, I. B. Tauris, 2005, p. 152
  7. Foroqhi, p.153
  8. Foroqhi, p.108
  9. Newman, A. (ed) Society and Culture in the Early Modern Middle East, BRILL, 2003, p.177
  10. Göçek, F. East encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century, OUP, 1987, p.106
  11. Murat Cihan Yildiz, “Strengthening Male Bodies and Building Robust Communities: Physical Culture in the Late Ottoman Empire” (Phd Dissertation, UCLA, 2015), April 2014, 1,76 , accessed March 1, 2018,
  12. Ibid, 2.
  13. Ibid, 26.
  14. Ibid, 70.
  15. Ibid, 58.
  16. Ibid, 103.
  17. Krawietz, Birgit. The Sportification and Heritagisation of Traditional Turkish Oil Wrestling. The International Journal of the History of Sport, volume 29, issue 15. October 2012. Pg 2149.
  18. Ibid, Yildiz, 160-161.
  19. Ibid, 154.
  20. Ibid, 211.
  21. Ibid, 213.
  22. Ibid, 214-215.
  23. Ali Sami, “Galatasaray Kulübünün Tarihçesi,” İdman (May 28, 1913), p. 9; Mehmet Nasuhi, “Fenerbahçe Spor Kulübü Tarihçesi,” İdman (June 28, 1913), pp. 46-47.
  24. Ibid, Yildiz, 227.
  25. SciDev.Net. “Lessons from the Ottoman Empire” Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  26. Gökçek, Mustafa (2001). “Centralization During the Era of Mahmud II”Journal of Ottoman Studies. XXI: 250.
  27. “Tile with Floral and Cloud-band Design”.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.16.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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