Ottoman Archival Documents on the Shrines of Karbala, Najaf, and the Hejaz (1660s-1720s): Endowment Wars, the Spoils System, and Iranian Pilgrims

In: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Selim Güngörürler FWF Fellow, Institute of Iranian Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences

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This study introduces and publishes an array of Ottoman archival documents on the shrines of Ahl al-Bayt imams in Iraq, the endowments dedicated to these shrines, and the Shiite-Iranian pilgrims visiting these sites as well as the Kaaba and the shrine of Muhammad in the Hejaz. Focusing on the later seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, it discusses the political-economic function of Islamic endowments, interconfessional contacts resulting from pilgrimage by Shiites in Sunni territory, and the potential use of Ottoman archives to enrich our knowledge on trans-Ottoman themes.

1 Introduction

In the present paper I translate, transcribe, and reproduce a set of Ottoman archival documents on the Imamic shrines of Karbala and Najaf, their endowments, the rivalry between factions at the local, regional, and imperial level to control their funds as well as tenures, their visitation by Shiite Iranians, and likewise the pilgrimage of Shiite Iranians to Mecca and Medina. These writs span the time from the mid-seventeenth century up to the early eighteenth century, while further documents that come from the same archives but are not chosen for publication are also referenced in this study. The introduction, especially the observations and commentary that follow the background setting, thematically prunes out and refines the raw information found in these writs. The contrast between the thematic makeup of the introduction and the blocks of data found in the documents highlights how one can draw out from such sources a set of information that those who created and kept these writs did not have in focus. Therefore this introduction, notwithstanding its length, is not a conventional article laying out, unfolding, and wrapping up an argument, but rather a purposeful extract of the documents, and a case study more generally on the use of Ottoman archival material for new explorations in early modern history.

Taken together, these sources shed new light on how these shrines brought together individuals as well as institutions from the Iraqi countryside, from the provincial governorate at Baghdad, and from the imperial court in a contest for the control of the wealth redistributed through the endowments of these shrines in the form of sinecures. They likewise help us understand in which way the Ottomans oversaw Shiite-Iranian pilgrimage in the Empire, how the Safavid government regarded the shuttling of its subjects between Iran and Sunni Ottoman lands, what these visitations meant for the shrine towns, which regulations thereon came into being between the state and its appointees in provinces, to what extent these subject matters made it into the agenda of political diplomacy, and whether a ‘confessionalization’ can be seen in these contacts between Shiites and Sunnis.

When taken as a whole, these documents allow us to draw a number of significant inferences. The struggle for the control of Islamic endowments in general lay at the heart of these institutions insomuch that even the endowments for the shrines of the Imams of the House of Muhammad were entangled in the game of appropriating public wealth through lawful means for patrons to fund their clients in political rivalries between factions. These patron-client networks were built-in parts of the Ottoman Empire though, notwithstanding the clash between them, and as they were made up of state bureaus, their branches, and institutional communities, up the ladder each faction ended in one and the same imperial government. The Ottoman state had incorporated the shrine complexes of Ali b. Abi-Talib in Najaf and Husayn b. Ali in Karbala and their income streams into its imperial system as the Endowments of the Two Illustrious Martyria (اوقاف مشهدین شریفین). These shrines thus became embedded in a network of persons and writs that spanned the axes from Iraq to Hungary and from Anatolia to Arabia, and even stretched out to Egypt and across the border to Iran.

These shrines were popular pilgrimage sites for Muslims from home and abroad, including Shiites from Iran. The documents verify the argument—or rather the guess—advanced by historians that with the peace of 1639 there arose in Ottoman-Safavid relations a kind of territorialization in religious claims laid by these states,1 though this otherwise-ungrounded assumption comes out right only coincidentally. From the 1640s onward, in Ottoman-Safavid diplomacy and within the Ottoman government in its dealings with Shiite visitors from Iran, the talk of Shiism and Sunnism were neither brought up officially nor hinted at, even if the actors may have been mindful of sectarian disagreements and even when there were local outbreaks of sectarian strife. Besides, Ottoman Sunnism itself revered the saints over whose graves the aforesaid shrines had been raised—Imams of the House of Prophet Muhammad, above all Ali and Husayn—not for the sake of formality but out of its own devotion, though in a way other than that in Shiism. In Mecca, Medina, and on the road to the Hejaz, the Ottoman state ordered its appointees to treat the Iranian, that is Shiite, pilgrims the same as other Muslims, i.e. Sunnis. Although the Shiite-Sunni sectarian strife was by no means settled, Ottoman politicians shut their eyes to it in their contacts with Iran, and went so far as to end the role played by the Empire’s Sunni ʿulamaʾ in diplomatic dealings with the Safavids. The parties did not confessionalize their dialogue about the Shiite pilgrims coming from Iran into the Empire.

For administrative processes within the Empire such as petitioning, opening lawsuits, appealing to dignitaries, and enforcing formerly issued writs in such processes, the Ottoman state dealt with Iranian pilgrims as if they were its own subjects. Although it did not identify them as subjects of the Empire, it did not deem them as full aliens either. Iranian pilgrims in the Ottoman Empire were treated as non-subjects to whom the law of subjecthood applied, outside of taxing purposes. These Shiite Iranian pilgrims and the Safavid shahs’ gifts to shrines in Ottoman territory became topics of diplomacy only when the two states were cooperating against rebels in the field or holding talks on exceptional Safavid requests for Ottoman permission on sensitive projects. Besides, the inflow of wealth from Iran to the local economies of shrine towns within the Empire was remarkable enough for Ottoman officials to be mindful of the rises and drops in it.

1.1 Background

The “Sublime Thresholds” (عتبات عالیات), i.e. the shrines of Imams from the House of Muhammad in Iraq (Ali b. Abi-Talib in Najaf, Husayn b. Ali in Karbala, Musa al-Kazim b. Jafar as well as Muhammad al-Javad b. Ali in Baghdad’s Kazimiya, and Ali al-Hadi b. Muhammad as well as Hasan al-Askari b. Ali in Samarra) had long been focal points of Islamic ideology, sources of legitimacy, centers of wealth redistribution, and sites of pilgrimage. Abbasid caliphs were the first to construct the buildings that would grow into the later shrine complexes, especially of Ali in Najaf and Husayn in Karbala, and Buyid rulers furthered these early works. Then, the Seljukid and the Ilkhanid monarchies made additions, followed by a rebuilding by Tamerlane. The Safavids and especially the Ottoman state also contributed greatly in infrastructure and renovations. The religious devotion towards, ideological importance of, and the material investment in these shrines had a supra-sectarian character, drawing in the Shiites and the Sunnis alike, notwithstanding the difference between the Shiite and the Sunni understandings on the divinity of the Imams. Therefore, Safavid shah Ismail I’s canal digging project, for example, was picked up and expanded by the Ottoman emperors Suleiman I, Selim II, and Murad III in the sixteenth century. Likewise, in the seventeenth century, the additions made by the Safavid shahs Abbas I and Safi I were furthered under the Ottomans Murad IV, Mehmed IV, and later Ahmad III.2

The Ottoman state took seriously the safety of Ali’s and Husayn’s shrines, and of the pilgrims visiting them. Thus when, for example, a Bedouin uprising befell southern Iraq, it sent separate troops led by a governor from Anatolia to guard Najaf and Karbala only, besides the imperial army already fielded under the command of the governor-general.3 Misdeeds must have happened notwithstanding any policy or measures. But the few occasions when a source left behind a non-native, in disagreement with the more direct and better-informed domestic sources available, claims that the Ottomans oppressed Iraq’s Shiite dwellers or pilgrims coming from Iran,4 it should be taken with a grain of salt. Because in these cases, the wrongdoing “Turks” could indeed be some Bedouin tribes rising up against the Empire or against an official acting contrary to the center’s behest. Either way, the state recompensed the wronged and retaliated against the wrongdoer in the wake of such cases.5 Documents published and cited in the present paper further uphold this reading.

Donations by rulers and dignitaries to the shrines were mostly made from their tax-sourced wealth. The ground on which endowed buildings were constructed was also taken out of the public land. Especially during the period under discussion here, the villages, fees, tolls, businesses, and suchlike, which were endowed as income for the shrines and used among other purposes for assigning the non-service stipends to favored proteges, were likewise written off from the treasury and taxes of the state. Thus, for targeted payments, money was irrevocably allocated from public property and treasury income, instead of being endowed from individuals’ private wealth. Islamic law came to acknowledge this kind of write-off as valid, naming them unauthentic endowment (وقف غیر صحیح). So, sinecures dealt out through political favoritism were sourced from the wealth that the Empire as a whole—including both the ruling and the ruled—was to benefit from, rather than out of the pockets of those who made and received these allotments. Already by the mid-sixteenth century this phenomenon had become so widespread in the Empire’s Balkan-Anatolian core and its Arab lands that the monarch and the jurists had to tackle the losses to the treasury resulting from these permanent write-offs. Scarcely upheld was the principle of allotting such unauthentic endowments towards expenditures that otherwise had to be undertaken by the state treasury. Most of the public wealth that was endowed thus, as if it were private property, went into the pockets of those living off patronage networks.6 The documents examined in the present paper lay bare how the political power drew on endowments to give away state holdings, outwardly in the name of pious charity but indeed for funding gratuitous nepotism—a lawful means of misappropriation that has found application in Muslim polities since the Middle Ages.

In Mecca and Medina, the Ottoman monarch was responsible for ensuring the unhindered fulfillment of the hajj and for keeping the highways on which the pilgrims travelled to the Hejaz open and safe. The Ottoman state owed this to all Muslims notwithstanding what confession they believed in and where they came from. This obligation of course carried a danger, in that an unfriendly foreign polity could easily send in a spy under the guise of a pilgrim. The Empire thus had to balance its obligation on the one hand to enable pilgrimage by foreign subjects, including Shiite Iranians, and on the other to monitor and regulate their activities.7 The wardship of Mecca and Medina had much weight in the make-up of Ottoman legitimacy in the imperial period.8 Therefore, such side-effects of being the overlord of Islam’s holiest land had to be handled with care, without harming the distinction that came along with it. In taking the steps needed to uphold this dignity, manifold letters, orders, reports, and missions shuttled across southeastern Europe and the Middle East; between the state and its appointees, between the Ottoman monarch and the Safavid shah, between the Empire’s and Iran’s grand viziers, between the borderland governors of the two states and so on. The documents discussed in the present study make up only a small proportion of this archival paper trail.

It is well known that Shah Abbas I had urged his subjects to visit the Imamic shrines within Iran instead of going on pilgrimage to Iraq and Arabia under Ottoman lordship, so as to forestall the outflow of money, and that the Safavids however forsook this policy soon afterwards. Later shahs backed up these westbound trips abroad, and therefore let this undertaking drain considerable amounts of money out of Iran.9 The Safavid ʿulamaʾ in fact went so far as to write pilgrimage guidebooks to make Shiite Iranians better “informed of the virtues of visiting the [Sublime] Thresholds” in Ottoman Iraq, and therein heralded that at Judgement Day the Imams would plead for the heavenly salvation of those who had visited these shrines.10 Iranian grandees even made endowments to finance their proxies (نائب or وکیل) to visit these shrines in their name, while the royal Endowments of the Fourteen Immaculates (موقوفات چهارده معصوم) kept on sending the specified share of its Isfahan-sourced income to those from the offspring of Husayn who dwelt in Medina and were Shiites. Likewise, there among the outgoings of the Safavids’ new Endowments of the Royal Seminary (موقوفات مدرسه سلطانی) was the expenditures for Thresholds and Sanctuaries (عتبات و حرمین), i.e. Najaf, Karbala, Mecca, and Medina.11 The writs studied here also show how embedded the pilgrimage of Shiite Iranians had become in the economies of Imamic shrine towns of Ottoman Iraq by the mid-seventeenth century.

1.2 Observations and Commentary: Political Stakes, Registration, Pilgrims, Diplomacy, and Sectarianism

Documents on the shrines of Karbala and Najaf do not speak of a rivalry between factions, and yet reading between the lines reveals a different picture: appointments to the administration of endowments and grants from endowment income were often motivated less by concerns for public welfare than by factional power struggles—and the endowments for the Imams of the House of Muhammad in Iraq in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were no exception. The Martyria Endowment was a field of contest between two political networks in the Ottoman Empire.

One of these two networks may be called the governorate faction, for when it held sway, the governor of Baghdad and the treasury of the Baghdad governorate oversaw the Endowment as the link between the Endowment’s holdings in the Iraqi countryside and the imperial auditing by the Chief Accountancy Chancery (باش محاسبه قلمی) in Constantinople. The Ottoman governor of Baghdad, installed by the imperial court, named the Endowment’s trustee (متولی) and was answerable for the Endowment’s financial bookkeeping. Within the other network, which may be called the palatials’ faction, the Chief Eunuch of the Imperial Harem (دارالسعاده آغاسی) ran the Endowment as its overseer (ناظر) and hence determined its appointments and allotted its wealth; the Endowment was given exemption and autonomy (مفروز القلم, مقطوع القدم, سربست) from the control of the treasury of the Baghdad governorate; and the Lesser Accountancy Chancery of Sanctuary Endowments (کوچک اوقاف قلمی / حرمین محاسبه سی قلمی) took on the auditing at the imperial finance department.12

Notwithstanding the posts and titles involved, the contest between these two networks for controlling the Endowment was not one between Baghdad and Constantinople, or between the central government and the province’s governorate. This is for several reasons. First, the governor of Baghdad was at the time no less a dignitary of the Imperial Court than the chief eunuch of the palace. These governors too had stemmed from within the palace and imperial service, and even after they had been appointed to so eminent a position as, say, viceroy of Iraq, the future of their political career continued to depend on the Imperial Court. Moreover, as governors of Baghdad they were at the same time non-resident viziers of the Imperial Council. So, even if the province of Baghdad was geographically at the edge of the Empire, the governorate of Baghdad was institutionally no less Ottoman than the monarch’s court.

Besides, both under governorate control and the palatials’ oversight, the hierarchy to which the Martyria Endowment was subordinated ended up in the grand vizier, which further rules out a center-periphery strife. Between former, incumbent, and potential trustees of the Endowment, a fight to secure the revocation of the investiture of one’s rivals and have oneself appointed instead (let us call these charter wars) likewise came down to the grand vizier’s edict (بیورولدی)—notwithstanding whether the aghas of the Harem or the pashas of Baghdad oversaw the Endowment.13

Instead of being a center-periphery rivalry, therefore, the conflict was rather between two networks that were both within the imperial establishment. Sayyids (the offspring of the House of Muhammad through Ali) who dwelled in Iraq and the officers of the court of the governor himself keenly sided with the governor of Baghdad to hold sway over the Martyria Endowment.14 As part of the rival faction, the Harem eunuchs and the Halberdiers’ Corps (بالطه جیلر / تبرداران) of the palace’s Outer Court (بیرون همایون) backed up the Chief Eunuch to oversee the Endowment—one should keep in mind that the chief eunuch was already the overseer of the Empire-wide endowments for the Two Sanctuaries, namely the Kaaba in Mecca and Muhammad’s shrine in Medina. Much as belonging to a corps, a pasha court, or a lineage carried weight in this strife within the imperial court for the control of the shrines of Ali and Husayn in Iraq, it was not the only determinant. The same strife as the one between these political networks could also break out as infighting among individuals within each of these networks.

What caused a group or individual to side with either the governor of Baghdad or the chief eunuch as candidate to run the Karbala and Najaf Martyria were patron-client ties, informed by considerations of how, where, and to whom the Endowment’s resources would be allotted. This network could be so wide and the wealth thus dealt out so great that parties to this relationship could keep on sticking together even after their terms at the Endowment would end. Under governorate control, the governor of Baghdad pocketed the fixed “oversight money (نظارت آقچه سی)” as well as the conventional “courtly fee (قاپو خرجی),” to be shared between himself and his chief of staff (کدخدا). A yearly “chancery fee” (قلمیه) of handsome amount was also paid from the Endowment’s income to the governor nominating the trustee—be it a local sayyid or a non-local person. The treasurer of Baghdad too collected a further “courtly fee.” Besides, the pasha of Baghdad’s majordomo (وکیل خرج), stand-in (متسلم), retinue officers, welcome officers (خوشآمد آغالری), sentry officers (قراغول آغالری), the magistrate (ضابط) of Hilla (a town to the south of Baghdad), and the chieftain of the House of Kasham (a local tribe) all took their separate shares from the Endowment’s income in cash as well as in kind. This, then, was the constituency of people who had an interest in supporting the governor of Baghdad’s wielding authority over the shrines in Karbala and Najaf. Under palatial oversight, the chief eunuch patronized his underlings and associates from within the palace court. A person of such affiliation would invest beforehand a handsome amount of money at the capital under the name of “rewards” (جوائز), which was a kind of investiture tax otherwise paid not before but after an appointment, and again “courtly fees,” so that he could secure appointment to the trusteeship of the Martyria Endowment by the master of the padishah’s harem. Once in Iraq, he first had to break even and then move into profit. Therefore the trustee named by the chief eunuch would sometimes withhold produce from the Endowment’s crop-fields, issue fines to those dwelling on the Endowment’s grounds, obtain personal gain from the holdings of the Endowment such as tax-farms, and sell the sinecures of the Endowment by auction.15

It made little difference to the state whether the Martyria of Ali and Husayn were subordinated to the Chief Accountancy Chancery through the governorate of Baghdad, or to the Lesser Accountancy Chancery through the chief eunuch’s oversight. Both hierarchies ended up fiscally in the imperial finance department (دفتردارلق) and in the State Registry’s (دفترخانه عامره) logs, and politically in the grand vizier’s edict, sometimes even the padishah’s handwrit (خط همایون), either way bringing forth an imperial charter (برات همایون). Which office of the imperial finance department audited the Endowment and which arm of the imperial court ran the Martyria made a difference in how the resources of this business in Iraq were steered and who benefited from them. But as for the state’s lordship rights, both alternatives amounted to the same thing.

Among the uses of shrine endowments was the allotting of endowment wealth to build a patronage network between beneficiaries and the overseeing authority. The resources dealt out through Ali’s and Husayn’s endowments were great enough to give rise to local economies of their own in Najaf and Karbala, making the shrine, the town, and the surrounding countryside one and the same economic unit. To understand how central this was in the running of the Martyria, it is enough to look at how frequently free cash “stipends” (وظیفه), in-kind “allowances” (جرایه), and “holiday bonus” (عیدیه) for the titular positions of “beadsman” (دعاگو), “retiree” (تقاعد), “elder” (شیخ), sayyid, mulla, and to some extent “sweeper” (فراش), come up in transactions and logs of these shrine endowments.16

The term beadsman is the courtly name of a stipend-holder whose only function was to praise the patron(s), that is the governor or the chief eunuch, the grand vizier, and the monarch. So, beadsmanship was a symbolic conferral, a salary without any service for its recipients other than speaking up for the imperial court in the provinces, given to those whose non-opposition, owing to their potential influence, was worth securing with money, and to those who had won the favor of the monarch or one of his ministers. Having an imperial investiture of a post at the endowment made sure that the beadsmen would not have a hard time finding listeners. And being paid for this guaranteed that the beneficiary deemed being in good standing with the government the means of his livelihood rather than a burden on top of a day job. Bestowals of beadsmanship became overwhelmingly a way to reward in networks of favoritism, insomuch as to endanger the fulfillment of the original function of the funds from which these arbitrary conferrals were made.17 The retirees likewise were mostly the beadsmen who had become too old or sick to show up in public for propaganda, rather than pensioners who had formerly done real work for the Endowment. In other words, it was the norm that most “work” at shrine endowments amounted merely to the post-holder’s swaying the public opinion on behalf of his patron.

Moreover, whenever the holder of a stipend or allowance died or willingly gave up the position, the Endowment sinecure left behind was normally bestowed upon his son. This we see in the appointment logs noting that the holder had taken over the post “from the vacancy of his father” (عن محلول پدرش), typically upon the father’s death. If the holder wished to give up the sinecure while still alive, he then petitioned the imperial government saying that he “forsook” (فراغت) his stipend or allowance from the Martyria for his “biological son” (صلبی اوغلی) to take over. “Being the biological son of the deceased whose position became vacant” was deemed enough for the “biological son to be the entitled and rightful” replacement (فوت اولوب یری محلول اولماق ایله صلبی اوغلیمحل و مستحق اولمغین).18

On top of these job definitions and entitlements also came the exemption from some taxes for the sayyids dwelling in or near these shrine towns.19 So, the state, or the dignitaries of the state, not only created life-long ties of interest with local individuals but also turned provincial propagandism for the government, or for certain dignitaries, into a family trade that was handed down from father to son. Of course, what the state bestowed and what the Endowment’s stipendiary pocketed were funds otherwise meant for the public good. These allotments were marketed as being for the public good, whereas they were indeed a transfer of wealth from the state to a few individuals in an unspoken but well-understood deal. This deal can also be understood as a means to build lasting bonds between far-away townships and the imperial court, in this case between the Iraqi countryside and the Empire centered in southeastern Europe. The state cannot have failed to see the Ottomanizing drive that came along with such ties.

Depending on which bureau of the imperial finance department audited the Martyria Endowments (and hence the shrines, mosques, affiliated buildings, paid positions, income sources, and alms-giving to dwellers and visitors of Najaf and Karbala), any process or transaction was logged into either “Baghdad’s accounting register of the State Treasury (دفتر محاسبه خزینه عامره بغداد),” or the “accounting register of the illustrious Endowment of the Two illustrious Martyria (دفتر خزینه اوقاف شریف مشهدین شریفین),” both kept at Constantinople.20 Besides, a new imperial survey of income sources for the Province of Baghdad brought forth the “new survey register (یڭی تحریر دفتری),” which too logged the holdings, income, outgoings, and paid positions of the Endowment, and therefore served as another official reference for later processes. The State Treasury’s accounting register of the Endowment and the new survey register of the Baghdad Governorate were the two authoritative logs, which later decrees, petitions, applications, and annotations rested upon by giving the references “as per the register of” (بر موجب دفتر) and “is recorded and written in the register of” (دفترنده مسطور و مقیددر). The handover of the auditing from the Chief Accountancy Chancery to that of the Lesser Accountancy of Sanctuary Endowments likewise triggered a new specific survey of the endowments of Karbala and Najaf, for which the Imperial Court sent a surveyor and a palace Gatekeeper, and whose fulfillment brought forth a new survey register.21

The appointments not only of the Endowment’s “prayer-leaders” (امام جامع) and “preachers” (خطیب)22 but also its lower-ranking “sweepers” and “servants” (خدام) went through the official ladder starting from a village in Iraq and, passing through the provincial center, ended up wherever the Imperial Court then was, be it Constantinople, somewhere in the Balkans, or even Hungary.23 The transactions therefore involved offices, posts, and persons well beyond the pilgrims or the endowment personnel, and a geography much wider than the shrine towns. There were alternative procedures to run the processes, depending on whether the Imperial Court had the governor of Baghdad or the chief eunuch to oversee the Martyria. Either way, candidates would make known their willingness or rightfulness for positions to the official in charge.

At times when the Martyria were under governorate control, the director of the institution was the “trustee of the Endowment of the Two illustrious Martyria”. For appointments under his watch, the trustee put forward the candidates with a “submission (عرض)” of his. This submission was sometimes laid before the governor of Baghdad, who then either rejected or installed the candidate by issuing his edict (بیورولدی), and submitted the matter further to the grand vizier for approval along with a “Baghdad Treasury certificate (بغداد خزینه سی تذکره سی).” Or the trustee could forward his submission to the grand vizier via a submission by the governor of Baghdad himself, without an edict or certificate alongside it. The trustee himself was also appointed through the same steps.24

When the Martyria were under the oversight of the palatials’ faction, by contrast, the directorship lay with the “inspector of the Two illustrious Sanctuaries (حرمین شریفین مفتشی)” of Mecca and Medina. This inspector, who managed the Empire-wide endowments for the Kaaba and Muhammad’s shrine, presented nominations for positions before the “overseer of the Two illustrious Sanctuaries (حرمین شریفین ناظری),” who was the Chief Eunuch of the Palace Harem. The appointment, including that of the Endowment’s trustee serving under the inspector, by the overseeing Chief Eunuch was then submitted to the grand vizier for approval. The trustee could give written submissions directly to the grand vizier if a decision by the overseer was not needed.25

Extraordinarily, even holders of any lower positions could skip the overseeing office and straightforwardly “petition” (عرضحال) the grand vizierate about, for example, the salary of the local chief of the House of Muhammad (نقیب الاشراف) or that of the sayyid-chieftain of Husayn’s shrine in Karbala, market fees, customs tolls, courtly dues, croplands, or workshops endowed to the Martyria. This could happen above all when the petitioner wanted the imperial court to override a decision made by the trustee or the inspector.26

Notwithstanding which faction controlled the Endowment of the Martyria, and even when an applicant bypassed his superiors in the hierarchy, all appointments and grants were in the end subject to the approval of the grand vizier. In general, the grand vizier’s chief of staff (صدارت کدخدا سی) referred an incoming petition or submission to the imperial minister of finance (دفتردار) for him to write an informed “notification” (اعلام), and once it came back, either to the Chief Accounting Bureau in the case of governorate’s control, or to the Lesser Accountancy Chancery of the Sanctuaries in the case of the palatials’ oversight, for a “marginal annotation” (درکنار) of what was written in the state logs about the incumbency of the said position at the Endowment to be copied out. Exceptionally, the minister of finance himself could start the process by writing a submission to the grand vizier about the Martyria of Najaf and Karbala.27 After the referral came back to the grand vizierate from the finance and accounting departments, the grand vizier approved or rejected the appointment by writing his own edict. When a matter was too sensitive or controversial, the grand vizier instead wrote a “summarization” (تلخیص) of the whole story for the monarch himself to have the final say. In that case, the monarch wrote his handwrit atop the summarization. The grand vizier then forwarded the monarch’s handwrit or his own edict, depending on by which command the matter was finalized, again to be logged into the relevant register and for an imperial charter to be issued to the appointee. Every finalized appointment, ranging in importance from the granting of a retirement pay to an Endowment stipend-holder to the more fundamental question of who should be made the trustee of the Endowment, was ultimately certified with an imperial charter of investiture. Among these items of correspondence were also conferrals of authority for officiating over Iranian pilgrims visiting the shrines.28

The documents bear witness that visitors from Iran could directly appeal to the Ottoman grand vizierate, signing their petitions collectively as the “pilgrims of ʿAjam (حجاج عجم),” as they were also called by the Ottoman state and the Safavid state. Alternatively, one or a few pilgrims from Iran could separately send petitions underwritten with their names and status as Iranian pilgrims. When claiming a right from Ottoman authorities, Iranian pilgrims cited prior imperial decrees (فرمان همایون) that were still in force, or asked for the issue of a new imperial decree addressed to their deputy as well as agha, so that they might have their right officially logged in writing ready for citation in some future instance.29 Both the deputy, whom the pilgrims chose from among themselves, and the agha, whom the Sublime Porte appointed upon the pilgrims, could “submit” matters straightforwardly to the grand vizier, if a settlement could not be reached with the judge and the governor of the province. Even the lower-ranking “packer” (عکام باشی) was appointed through these channels and the fulfillment of this appointment needed an imperial decree. The imperial government bestowed, not the post but, the title and “rank of master-gatekeeper of the Sublime Porte (درگاه عالی/معلی قپوجی باشیلغی پایه سی)” upon the Iranian deputy of the pilgrims, so as to set his standing within the Ottoman hierarchy. As a token of how significant the bestowal of this rank was, the deputy “petitioned (عرضحال)” the grand vizierate before receiving it, but wrote a “submission (عرض)” to the grand vizierate once he was made a court officer30 (the same differentiation was in place in appeals to the imperial government by the Empire’s subjects, who wrote petitions, and by Ottoman officials, who wrote submissions). Iranian pilgrims, sometimes through “their caretaker and legal deputy (امین و وکیل شرعیلری)” could even appeal directly to the imperial court for redress of their grievances.31 The fact that this channel was open to them, and that the imperial government accorded their deputies formal Ottoman titulature, hints that although Iranian pilgrims were not declared to be Ottoman subjects, they were not seen as foreigners either. Ottoman law applied to them almost unreservedly.

Likewise, Ottoman judges in the provinces heard and ruled on the cases between the Iranians themselves. Lawsuits between Iranian visitors and their former representatives were also settled by means of the Ottoman judiciary and logged into courthouse registers. Sometimes, Iranians already dwelling in the Empire could undermine the undertaking of the incoming pilgrims from Iran, for instance by swindling the caravan. Just as in complaints from Iranian pilgrims about Ottoman authorities, service providers, or subjects, such cases too were settled by the governor and the judge of the province or the county (سنجاق), not only in the borderlands of Erzurum, Kars, Van, Diyarbekir, and Baghdad but also in Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Gaza, and Ajlun, usually at the behest of an imperial decree. Ottoman judges not only heard the cases of Iranian pilgrims but also saw to the works on pilgrimage buildings: the imperial court had the judges examine and oversee the renewals done at these works. Judges likewise logged such projects on pilgrimage sites into their courthouse registers and issued judicial deeds on matters concerning pilgrimage at and endowment of the shrines.32 They thus functioned as notary public and official witness in the framework of these shrines frequented by Iranians. By this means they also wrote down the minutes of relevant sittings of the governor’s council and courthouse hearings, besides auditing shrine-related commissions in the field and registering the findings.

In one exceptional practice, though, the Ottoman state differentiated Iranian visitors from imperial subjects. The pilgrims in the Iranian caravan that used the Iraqi road had to hire escort troops from the governor of Basra to protect them from Bedouin onslaughts while going to and coming back from the Hejaz. The reason for this was that they could not bring guards from Iran into Ottoman territory, and as they were not imperial subjects, the Ottoman officials’ protecting specifically them counted as extra service. In return for this, the Iranian subjects at the caravan had to pay an additional fee, whereas the Shiite Ottoman subjects who had joined the Iranian caravan while it passed through Iraq did not pay this fee, as the Ottoman authorities were already responsible for taking care of them.33

Though the Safavid state did not have a permanent diplomatic mission in the Ottoman Empire, the pilgrims coming from Iran did not need one to deal with the imperial government or its provincial officials either. The Sublime Porte readily dealt with the Iranian pilgrims as a corporate body to which the Empire’s law applied. Any special, extra-territorial, or international status that Iranian pilgrims may have had in Ottoman lands was not represented by the Safavid State. They were rather subject to the Ottoman judiciary system that rested upon a blending of the monarchic law, sharia courthouse regulations, and decrees. The same is true for the provincial judges’ functioning as notary public in matters on the pilgrimage shrines much visited by Iranians as well. These findings call for further studies on the law of subjecthood, extraterritoriality, and neighboring polities in the early modern Islamdom. However, one must beware of potential pitfalls when looking for connections between the information presented here from pre-modernity and the concepts of nationality, extraterritoriality, and alienage from modern times.34 In early modernity, there was subjecthood rather than citizenship or nationality for persons, and a legally unequal hierarchy rather than a principle of equality for independent polities. Besides, some non-subjects could well have a hybrid status, which may be called non-alien outsiders and which could arise from not only laws or treaties of exception but also unwritten conventions and unspoken understandings.

It passes as conventional knowledge that the policy of the Ottoman state towards pilgrims coming from Iran was to let them in but have them link up with the main caravan, which travelled over Syria, instead of taking the Iraqi road.35 While this may have been the Ottomans’ initial course of action in the mid-sixteenth century, by the mid-seventeenth century this was no longer the case. By that date, the Empire was permitting Iranian pilgrims to use the Iraqi road, and appointed for this highway a third pilgrimage commander, like those of the Syrian and the Egyptian roads. Many documents indeed show that the Ottomans even encouraged the Iranians to visit the Imamic shrines in Iraq. Through stipends, gifts, buildings, oversight, endowments, administration, and visitation by dignitaries, the Ottoman state invested in the upkeep of Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Baghdad within the network of the holy spots of the Empire next to Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

Whereas the pilgrims’ contacts with Ottoman subjects, authorities, and the administration of the pilgrimage caravan were matters subject to imperial law, the larger question of whether or not to authorise the dispatch of pilgrim caravans from from Iran to the Ottoman Empire was still a business of diplomacy. For example, the Safavid court in Isfahan and the Ottoman governorate of Baghdad together appointed the “pilgrimage commander” (امیر حج) of the Iranian caravan that travelled over the Iraqi road. The two sides also worked together on the early organization of a forthcoming convoy. This, as much as being a subject-matter of the highest level of Ottoman-Safavid diplomacy between the padishah, the shah, and their grand viziers, concerned at least as much the borderland governors of, above all, Erzurum and Baghdad, who dealt not only with their cross-border Safavid counterparts but also directly with the shah’s prime minister.36

In Iran, both the pilgrims as a whole and individual dignitaries, including vassal princes, had to get the shah’s permission before setting out westwards.37 The shah’s own officials, such as the royal superintendent, the chief of household staff, or the privy armor-bearer, and other prominent figures, such the grand vizier’s son, could also join the pilgrimage caravan,38 but did so in a private capacity, without any acknowledged authority over the pilgrims while in Ottoman territory. The last word on the Iranian caravan’s setting out toward Ottoman lands belonged of course to the shah, for the undertaking was more than just a civilian journey abroad and it bore diplomatic as well as political significance.

Another Iranian caravan, which came in from Yerevan and linked up with the imperial convoy in Damascus by faring over the Erzurum road, was led by an officer bearing an imperial charter. This leader dealt not only with the Ottoman court and governors but also with the Safavid governor of Yerevan/Chuqursaʾd, and through him did the said borderland governors of Iran and the Empire exchange letters, vouchers, etc.39

For the local economies of Karbala and Najaf, the inflow of Iranian pilgrims to and through Iraq was remarkable. One can liken this to the Indian pilgrims in the early modern Hejaz, where the local establishment saw them and the Mughal court as “milk cows,” and took care to keep up the yearly inflow of pilgrims (who spent well and were taxed heavily), royal donations, gifts, alms, and other kinds of charity.40 An unusual drop in the number of Iranians visiting in a given year would lead to a notable fall in earnings of the Martyria Endowment from some of its income items such as tax farms (مقاطعات), the inn, the sale of rosaries and of shrouds, and the estates (بیت المال) of those Iranians who bequeathed their wealth to these shrines. On top of these came the “vows” (نذورات) in cash and in objects made of gold or silver, not only from actual Iranian visitors but also from individuals in Iran, even the shah himself, who did not come themselves but sent their alms, and the revenues from burying dead Iranians into graves next to the shrines. Neither vows nor burial revenues nor estates seem to have depended on how many Iranians came in a given year, because the aforesaid money and corpses were mostly shipped from Iran, without the need for the donor to visit or for the bequeather to die while in Ottoman Iraq.41 Among the countless bodies thus brought from Iran to Karbala or Najaf for burial, because these people had bequeathed their wealth to the Martyrdom Endowment and their bodies to the graves at the shrines of Ali or Husayn, could be well-off commoners, elite non-officials, and royal officers, as high as a grand vizier of Iran dying while in office.42

The management of the Iranian pilgrims in the Empire sometimes became a subject of what one could call Ottoman internal diplomacy, between the imperial court and vassal princes. In the monarch’s writs to the princes of Mecca, a letter in form but a decree in content, it was stressed that with the shah of Iran peace was in force, which the prince also had to abide by, and owing to which the Iranian pilgrims were not to be burdened with unlawful exactions in the Hejaz. These decree-like letters never brought up the sectarian identity of the Iranian pilgrims, whom, just as the rest of the Muslims, the prince of Mecca was to take good care of.43 The Safavid court itself could also ask for “God’s shadow, the monarch of Islam and the Muslims” (ظل اللّٰه, پادشاه اسلام, سلطان الاسلام و المسلمین) of the “Caliphate” (خلافة), that is the Ottoman ruler, to command the prince of Mecca and the pashas of other provinces that they not charge the “pilgrims of Ajam” more than the conventional amounts for fees, and about almost any matter that concerned the Iranian pilgrim caravan and its officer.44 Safavid shahs also corresponded with the princes of Mecca in formal exchanges of courtesy, though not through missions but by means of travelling pilgrims.45 The Safavid court must have resorted to Constantinople’s sway over the Hejaz when an issue relating to pilgrims could not be settled through these letters of courtesy to Mecca.

The Safavids’ showing such reverence to the Ottomans was in line with the overall course of the diplomacy between the two states in the later seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, in which the Safavids were acknowledging the Ottoman monarch’s universal caliphate, exchanging prayers with the Ottomans for sharing heavenly remuneration, and defining the relationship between the two courts in a Quranic framework. In the same vein, the Islamic ulama became stripped of their role in Ottoman-Safavid diplomacy so that their doctrinal positions not undermine the rapprochement, while politicians and bureaucrats took it upon themselves to utter in diplomatic dealings the Quran and Muhammad’s hadith in a way that backed up, rather than hindered, the growing friendship. As a matter of course, between the Ottoman and the Safavid states, there was no longer the talk of doctrine, orthodoxy, or sectarianism.46

The Safavid monarchy also drew on its diplomacy with the Sublime Porte to facilitate its access, albeit indirect and limited, to the Imams’ shrines and the Martyria Endowment in Iraq throughout the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries. The shah’s low-key request, presented by his ambassador to the Ottoman court, for the padishah’s authorisation as a one-off to renew the sarcophagi of Imams Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari in Samarra was granted and enacted as an imperial decree.47

Likewise, the Iranian grand vizier’s request, forwarded in his letter, for one-off authorisation to set up the new Safavid-made sarcophagi of Imams Musa al-Kazim and Muhammad al-Taqi near Baghdad was granted through the Ottoman grand vizier’s answer and enacted as imperial decrees. On the other hand, the bold request that the shah’s functionaries be henceforward authorized to renovate, donate to, and deal out alms at Iraq’s Imamic shrines, without showing a license to provincial officials or applying for a new license from the imperial court each time, was categorically rejected.48

Lastly, the Iranian grand vizier asked, through his letter and in the name of the shah, for the Ottoman monarch’s permission to dig a water canal from the eastern Euphrates to Ali’s shrine-town of Najaf. Along with this came Safavid attempts at two faits accomplis: first, Isfahan sent to Karbala an “amir” to work there side by side with the Ottoman trustee of the Martyria, to bring the Safavid endowments’ money from Iran and spend it towards the Martyria, and to deal out the shah’s donations there for all to see, and wanted to have the Ottoman monarchy make room for this Safavid-installed co-trustee. Next, the shah’s armor-bearer brought to Medina a bejewelled pastille (مرصع شمامه) as a gift from the shah but the officials there did not let him set it up within Muhammad’s sepulcher on the grounds that imperial authorisation was lacking. The grand vizier of Iran asked for the Sublime Porte’s licence for this initiative too.49 The Ottoman grand vizier, remarking that nothing could be put or raised in Medina without the padishah’s permission, accepted the gift itself but forbade the shah’s armor-bearer to set it up on site, handing the matter with an imperial decree over to the padishah’s pilgrimage superintendent instead. The shah’s afore-mentioned digging open a river canal to Najaf, on the other hand, was rejected not only categorically but also with sarcasm for even daring to ask of such a thing.50

Documents from manifold genres all agree on one thing: they do not bear the marks of any Shiite-Sunni feud that may have been there in the minds or lives of those involved in these operations. (Remarkably, this seems to have been the case even at times when a sectarian strife broke out, such as when the Ottoman-subject Shiite dwellers of Karbala openly worked to thwart the functioning of the Martyria Endowment’s trustee installed by the Sunni state, to the extent that even the Shiites coming from Iran deemed the Shiite Karbala dwellers’ behavior against imperial appointees unduly hostile51). If anything, the authorities of the officially Sunni empire and the pilgrims coming from the officially Shiite Iran fostered a shared, if not the same, veneration for the Imams whose shrines had become pilgrimage spots.

Representatives of the Sunni empire called the shrines of Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and in Shiism his only rightful successor by God) in Najaf and that of Husayn (Ali’s second son as well as second successor) in Karbala the Two illustrious Martyria. These two saints almost never come up in the documents without the titles and honors that, while also acknowledged in Sunnism, makes up the credo in Shiism: “his Holiness Imam Ali / Husayn” (حضرت امام علی / حسین). Another way of paying the same respect was, for instance, calling them the “pure-lineaged and evidently-righteous Imams who bestow honor upon the earth of Baghdad” (شرف بخش خاک بغداد اولان ائمه پاک نژاد باهر الرشاد) in an imperial decree to Baghdad’s governor and judge for them to take good care of the Iranian pilgrims visiting the shrines.52

There is likewise not even one utterance of or hint at sects, Shiism/Sunnism, unbelief, heresy, or sin towards the Shiite Iranian pilgrims or Safavid officials, let alone for the House of Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, their offspring, or followers. The Empire acknowledged the otherwise Shiite pilgrims only in that they “circumambulated the sacred House of God” (طواف بیت اللّٰه الحرام) and “performed the obligatory Pilgrimage and visited the honorable Martyria and the blessed Sepulchers” (اسقاط/اداء فریضه حجزیارت مشاهد مشرفه و مراقد متبرکه). The visitors themselves were likewise called “salvation-faring / joyful pilgrims” (حجاج فلاح منهاج / ذو الابتهاج), and in documents about pilgrimage, the overall name “Muslims” encompassed, among others, the Shiite pilgrims from Iran too.53 It was not odd at all for Ottoman governors and finance ministers of Baghdad to donate handsome amounts of money and material to the Karbala and Najaf endowments, and renew its buildings, from their own pockets.54

This does not necessarily all mean, of course, that in the period under discussion there happened no strife between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. But even if sectarian disagreements still existed, they seem to have mattered little to the Sunni states’ politicians or bureaucrats, or the Shiite pilgrims’ spokesmen in their dealings with one another. Each side was in all likelihood well aware of the deep-rooted rift between the Shiite and the Sunni beliefs, but deemed it not so important as to be brought up in governmental writs, or at least they deemed it wise not to do so with an eye to mutual political interests. Either way, the non-clergy members of the Shiite and the Sunni establishments could easily play down their differences when dealing with one another even in a religious business. That the ulama seems to have been wholly left out of the Shiite-Sunni pilgrimage organization, on which they neither had a say nor were consulted, also hints at a prioritization of practicality over doctrinal niceties.

On the other hand, this reverence by a Sunni establishment towards those whom Shiism regarded as its own pillars should not be mistaken as a hidden sympathy by Ottoman/Turkish Sunnism towards Twelver Shiism. Many scholars give in to this misreading,55 which arises from a rather modern trend of failing to acknowledge the unbridgeable difference between Qızılbashism and Shiism. For the Ottomans (i.e. in the Anatolian-Balkan tradition of Sunnism, and still in today’s Turkey), venerating the Imams of the House of Muhammad, highlighting the rightful caliphates of Ali and Hasan, exalting Imam Husayn, deeming Imam Jafar as-Sadiq an authority for his jurisprudence work, and acknowledging the Umayyad-Abbasid oppression of the Imams, to the extent of having Ali’s legendary sword Zulfiqar on the banners of Court Corps (قپو قوللری) and the Imperial Admiral (قپودان دریا / قپودان پاشا), did not breach the tenets of Sunnism, hint at a leaning towards Shiism, or even cloud the distinctions between sects.56

The Ottoman state seems to have dealt with the Shiite pilgrims from Iran in keeping with its general policy of not officially acknowledging non-Sunni groups as corporate communities but treating them “as if they were Sunnis” without explicitly identifying them as such. The Ottoman state’s Sunnitization drive and the parallel sharpening of confessional identities within society had begun before the rise of the Safavid polity, and they went on after the end of the Ottoman-Safavid conflict.57 Even if one accepts that the Ottoman Empire went through a “confessionalization” akin to, albeit not the same as the one that unfolded in the German lands from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth,58 the documents examined here strongly suggest that sectarian issues were taken off the agenda of the peacetime contacts between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran.

The Ottoman state’s main, and perhaps only, concern about the incoming Shiite pilgrims from Iran was that they were not to mingle with the local Shiite dwellers of the places they visited or passed from. To forestall any such interaction, they went to the length of investing to improve the quality of lodging provided in shrine towns, thus to disincline pilgrims from staying elsewhere. Otherwise, the Ottoman state does not seem to have been bothered by donations from Shiite Iranian sources and income stemming from the visiting Shiite Iranians for the Karbala and Najaf endowments. Instead of forbidding them, the Ottoman state chose to overshadow such donations by spending even greater sources in donating to and building up Ali’s and Husayn’s shrines.59


I am grateful to the three Jesho reviewers for their insightful comments and constructive criticism. This research was funded in whole by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) [P 32696-G]. For the purpose of open access, the author has applied a Cc By public copyright licence to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising from this submission.

2 Text Edition


Document 1 (İe. Ev. 6/675)

submission, marginalia, and edict

[I: submission]

To the ground of the Court orbited by the sky and the Audience of heavenly might, submission by this powerless servant is as follows

Your servant Sayyid Zayd, who currently is the trustee of the endowment of the Illustrious Martyria located at Baghdad, is the initiator of this submission of servitude. All of the former as well as direct stipendiaries [of the endowment] are satisfied with and thankful to him; [he] strives to build up the aforesaid endowment; he is the current holder of the aforesaid trusteeship. The request to reconfirm [his trusteeship] and to bestow a sublimely glorious, illustrious Charter upon his hand is submitted to the Stately Court. Nonetheless, the decree is of the justice-titled Gate.

Your servant Ibrahim

[II: referral by the grand vizier’s chief of staff]

Its Place [In The Records] Shall Be Seen.

[III: retrieved records annotated on the margin]

In accordance with the Treasury register:

The trusteeship of Imam Husayn his Holiness, may God be pleased with him, in the province of Baghdad, held by Sayyid Zayd, in accordance with the petition by Sayyid Abbas the overseer of the aforesaid endowment, note for charter given on 30 July 1665, and with the copy of the imperial tenure issued on July 26 of the same year.

That the aforesaid trusteeship is assigned on the afore-mentioned person is written in the register. Decree is Yours, my blissful and eminent Sire.

On 22 May 1667</