Prostitution, they claim, is the oldest profession in the world, but when it comes to Ottoman times very little is known – not just because little research has been done on it.
While marriage, divorce, slavery and adultery are extensively regulated in Ottoman customary law and Muslim law, the sharia, prostitution is not. Moreover, researchers are inclined to complain that cases cited in Ottoman records are often not specific enough to determine whether a complaint of “immorality” actually involves prostitution.
One of the first times we hear about prostitutes is in the last years of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent reign (r. 1522-1566). The incident occurred one day in 1565, according to Refik Ahmet Sevengil’s “Istanbul Nas?l E?leniyordu.” The locals in a district called Sultangir got together and went to the local kad? (judge) and complained about five women who were residents of the area.
The five women whose names were Arap Fati, Narin, Giritli Nefise, Kamer -who was also known as Atl? Ases – and Balatl? Yumni. The complaint was that these women were openly engaged in prostitution. Of the five women, only Arap Fati refused to appear before the judge when summoned. It was decided that the houses of these women would be sold and the women expelled from the city.
When the imam (prayer leader) came to Arap Fati’s house, she cursed the imam, the kad? and sharia law and it was determined that she had let strangers (men who were not her father, husband or brother) into her house. Her anger arose over the fact that she had had the same situation occur to her in a different area of Istanbul and, as her husband was a Janissary and therefore out on one of the many military campaigns, she had turned to prostitution to survive. Needless to say, her house was sold and she was remanded to prison until her husband returned.
Crime and punishment
Prostitution wasn’t confined to one place at this time, but could be seen throughout Istanbul. Just two years after the anecdote cited above, Sultan Selim II (r. 1566 -1574) issued a decree calling for an investigation into prostitution and immorality in the city and the registration of all concerned and their punishment; prostitutes were to be imprisoned. Obviously, the call to stamp out prostitution was not very successful because it was too easy to bribe the related officials into looking the other way.
Marinos Sariyannis in “Prostitution in Ottoman Istanbul, Late Sixteenth – Early Eighteenth Century” comments that the law seems to have been rather vague leading many jurists in the 16th century to consider prostitution legal but pandering was a crime. The Ottomans preferred to exact fines from the women who were performing a kind of “adultery” and this seems to have suited the prostitutes as well because they had no hesitation in going to the kad? to demand that she be paid for her services.
The author also cites the instance of the governor of Damascus in the 18th century who gave up on decrees and punishments and instead demanded a monthly payment from each prostitute. In 1703, Edirne was apparently filled with “adulterous women and the basest of men” and once again officials were commanded to go from neighborhood to neighborhood registering everybody.