::Roundtable:: The Ottoman Land Code in Bulgaria: Selective Interpretations

By Milena B. Methodieva

The Ottoman Imperial Land Code of 1858 was one of the major pieces of legislation produced during the Tanzimat (1839-1876), the period of sweeping reforms in the Ottoman Empire.[1] The Code, along with a series of supplementary regulations issued until the mid-1870s, aspired to provide comprehensive regulation of landholding throughout the empire. Although there are some debates about its goals, it can be said that the Code, along with its supplements, had the following broad characteristics: it essentially recognized the abstract individual as a legal subject; it extended the rights of transfer, sale, and inheritance of land; it recognized the existence of çiftlik estates; and while in principle it preserved the differences between private and public land, arguing that it regulated only the latter, in fact it often blurred the distinctions between these categories, and paved the way to de facto private land ownership.[2] Article 78 of the Code, for example, declared that if a person was in possession of and cultivated miri or waqf land for ten years then he had the right of possession over it.[3]

Bulgaria 1878: Treaty of San Stefano and the Congress of Berlin available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bulgaria-SanStefano_-(1878)-byTodorBozhinov.png (CC license).

The impact of the Land Code, however, extended beyond the end of Ottoman rule over a particular region. The 19th century was marked by vigorous reform endeavors in the Ottoman Empire. The Land Code itself was a product of these efforts. But the same period was also a time of upheaval among many non-Muslim communities, resulting in the gradual loss of Ottoman territories, particularly in the Balkans. The newly founded Balkan nation states were eager to sever their ties with the Ottoman Empire to the extent that their status allowed. Nevertheless, vestiges of the Ottoman legacy persisted for some time in many spheres,[4] including in the realm of landholding. This brief essay examines some aspects of the legacy of the Ottoman Land Code in a post-imperial context. It focuses on the case of Bulgaria in its first three formative decades as a modern state.

The modern Bulgarian state was established in the wake of the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. Its existence was officially proclaimed by the Treaty of Berlin (July 1878). According to the treaty, Bulgaria became an autonomous principality under Ottoman suzerainty ruled by a Christian government and a prince freely elected by the local population. In areas south of the Balkan Mountains, the treaty proclaimed the existence of Eastern Rumelia, an autonomous province under the direct political authority of the sultan but under the rule of a Christian governor.[5] In 1885, Bulgaria annexed Eastern Rumelia, and the former autonomous province turned into an integral part of Bulgaria.[6]

For the young Bulgarian state, land and agrarian relations were among the most pressing issues. The main goal was to provide individual Bulgarian peasants with adequate amount of land to support themselves. But at the same time there was another objective inherently linked to nation-building: ensuring that land previously owned by large Muslim landholders and Muslims who had fled passed into Bulgarian hands.[7] These aspirations reflected a widespread conviction that during the Ottoman period Bulgarians had been at a disadvantage when it came to landholding and agrarian labor. Many Bulgarian peasants eagerly anticipated that economic hardship and exploitation would cease with the end of Ottoman political domination.

The war, the change of political regime, and the flight of thousands of Muslims facilitated the realization of these goals by creating conditions for the transfer of significant amounts of land from Muslim into Bulgarian hands. In many cases the circumstances of such transfers were murky: there were hurried sales and outright seizures. In the chaotic environment many peasants and Bulgarian refugees from the Ottoman Empire took over lands of absentee Muslims. Others launched lawsuits against Muslim landowners claiming parts of their estates as compensation. The situation became even more critical when Muslim refugees began to return and found new occupants of their homes and properties.[8] The process of land transfer that unfolded from the Russo-Ottoman War through the first years of modern Bulgaria’s existence has been known in the historiography of modern Bulgaria as “agrarian coup” (agraren prevrat). The term reflects the understanding of these years as a watershed moment in two main ways. First, large chunks of land previously possessed by Muslims became the property of the Bulgarian state or Bulgarian peasants. And second, this process led to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in land ownership and agrarian relations.[9] It is impossible to provide a precise figure of the amount of land that changed hands during this time, but according to some estimates it was about 450,000 hectares.[10]

Although the questions of land and agrarian relations were crucial for the young Bulgarian state, Bulgarian legislators did not produce a comprehensive law to regulate them. This stands in contrast to other legislative efforts. There were major pieces of legislation concerning pivotal institutions of nation building, such as education and military conscription. Similarly, there were comprehensive laws concerning the judiciary, election procedures, and the press (interestingly, the first press law of 1881 was a modified version of the Ottoman one). When it came to land and agrarian relations, they were addressed in a series of laws concerning certain categories of land and land estates, labor relations, and ownership documents.

The Ottoman Land Code[11] itself was neither repealed, nor reaffirmed. Many of its stipulations were implicitly accepted until the early 20th century, while some of its articles were selectively invoked. However, other provisions were dismantled. One notable feature is that certain categories of land identified in the Ottoman Land Code continued to exist in Bulgaria. Such examples included meras (pastures) and waqf lands. Of course, according to the Code the bulk of land in the empire was state-owned (miri). Landholders had only the right of possession over such land. But, as mentioned earlier, in practice such long-term possession differed little from private ownership. Bulgarian legislators understood the difference between ownership and possession that was an underlying feature of the Ottoman land regime. However, many of them interpreted the Land Code as de facto recognizing the right of private ownership over miri land for those who had cultivated it for a period of time. For example, such opinions were voiced during the discussions of the article on property rights in the project for a Bulgarian constitution in the first Bulgarian constituent assembly of 1879. A deputy remarked that with the Land Code the sultan had relinquished his right of supreme ownership over the land.[12]

After 1878 Bulgarian governments sought to continue the trend of formalizing the private ownership of land. A series of regulations concerning issues such as courts, mortgages, the sale of real estate completed with private or home-signed documents, and the alienation of private properties for state needs contributed to reaffirming and regulating the right of private ownership.[13] In 1892 a special law announced the substitution of Ottoman tapu documents with new title deeds within a period of ten years.[14] The latter legislation sought to bring about regularization of documentation, but it was also a step towards phasing out remnants of Ottoman influence over land ownership and asserting sovereignty in matters of landholding.

At the same time there were efforts to do away with certain practices and land categories that existed during the Ottoman period. As it happened, these lands were owned mostly by Muslims. The most vigorous initiatives concerned the gospodar and çiftlik lands. Gospodar lands were estates for which peasant cultivators paid taxes in money or in kind to their landholder (gospodar – literally “master”). They included two subcategories: the first were lands that the landholder gave to various peasants to cultivate, and the second, the so-called bashtina, were lands that were in hereditary peasant possession. Çiftliks were also mentioned and regulated by the Ottoman Land Code. These large estates were seen as the epitome of peasant exploitation and the breeding ground of perpetual economic dependence. Dismantling such landholdings that dominated in certain parts of the country was seen as a major step towards providing peasants with adequate land and improving their economic circumstances, as well as curbing the influence of large Muslim landholders. The laws of the gospodar and çiftlik lands (1880 and 1885) sought to do away with these kinds of estates, paving the way for peasants who had been cultivating them to become their owners. According to the two laws, peasants who lived on gospodar lands became the rightful owners of land that they had been cultivating and continued to cultivate. Peasants who had cultivated the same land within a certain çiftlik for ten years prior to 1880 also became their owners. The original çiftlik owners (chiftlik saybiya for çiftlik sahibi) could keep whatever was left of the estate after it was distributed to the cultivators. They were to receive compensation from the state treasury, while the peasants were expected to repay the value of the land to the Bulgarian state.[15]

Two other laws promulgated in 1880 and 1883 concerned the lands that had been allocated to Tatars and Circassians during the Ottoman period. Since these two Muslim groups were not allowed to return to Bulgaria, the lands that they had vacated were restored to their original owners.[16]

The tumultuous circumstances surrounding the process of land redistribution in the first years of Bulgaria’s existence, along with the drive to assert private ownership of land had broader economic, political, and international ramifications. And, as already mentioned, these developments were closely entangled with nation-building. The processes affected the interests of numerous Muslim landholders, many of whom had fled to areas under Ottoman control during the war. Thus, they were related to the pressing issue of Muslim refugees and their repatriation, Ottoman-Bulgarian relations, and European diplomacy. The enactment of the first law on the gospodar and çiftlik lands became a cause of bitter contention between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, precipitating a diplomatic crisis. In 1881, soon after its inauguration, diplomatic relations between the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria soured and then were severed for about a year.

Amidst this crisis Bulgarians readily deployed some of the stipulations of the Ottoman Land Code. Perhaps, they reasoned, the Ottomans could not object to invoking one of their own major pieces of legislation. In this complicated case the Code was used to facilitate the transfer of land from Muslims to Bulgarians or the Bulgarian state, as a diplomatic leverage, and to assert political sovereignty. Several Bulgarian and Ottoman documents provide insights into this episode. In November 1881 the Sofia district court issued a circular, reaffirmed by the Council of Ministers, in which it called for the implementation of articles 57, 68, 72, and 130 of the Ottoman Land Code with regards to the estates of absentee Muslim landowners.[17] All these articles, save the last one, essentially declared that if the landowner of a particular piece of land was absent or missing, and he had not cultivated it for three years, the land was considered empty (mahlul), so it became the property of the state, in this case the Bulgarian state. Article 130 aimed to prevent the formation of new çiftliks. But this decision did not come as a complete surprise. Apparently, there had already been some discussions and popular calls for using the provisions of the Ottoman Land Code for lands unclaimed by their Muslim landholders, suggesting broader knowledge of its provisions, as well as awareness of how they could be used as a way of changing the status and owners of such lands.[18] Thus, the court circular presented absentee Muslim landowners, who had fled over the course of the war, with a very short notice to claim their lands. The breakup of diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire meant that there were serious obstacles to the return of landowners and the repatriation of Muslim refugees: they could not go back to claim or cultivate their properties. In the circumstances, subletting them to third parties was also complicated. Thus, the properties of absentee landowners were at risk of being lost for good.

The decision of the court provoked an outcry among the Ottomans and a flurry of diplomatic activity. The Ottomans objected to the law, seeing it as a deliberate breach of the rights of Muslim landowners and a Bulgarian attempt to trespass its vassal status. But it was also regarded as a violation of the Treaty of Berlin, which guaranteed the rights of Muslim landowners who chose to reside elsewhere, ostensibly the Ottoman Empire, to retain their estates in Bulgaria. They approached various European powers to protest and appeal for mediation.[19] Following Great Power intervention that underscored the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin, the crisis was resolved, and Ottoman-Bulgarian relations were restored. But in the fall of 1882 the Bulgarian authorities still procrastinated with rescinding the decision of the Sofia court keeping the Ottoman authorities in a state of unease and prolonging the anxieties of the refugees.[20] As a result of another diplomatic round the Bulgarian authorities extended the term for reclaiming land until early 1883.[21] When this deadline passed, they invoked once again the provisions of the Land Code concerning uncultivated lands of absentee landowners. Only this time there was a further cautionary notice about Muslims who were leaving the Bulgarian Principality in another wave of emigration.[22] The term for claiming land was subsequently extended further to 1885 after which any remaining unclaimed lands became the property of the Bulgarian state.[23]

Many of the provisions of the Land Code, just like other aspects of the Ottoman legacy, continued to have some influence in the years of transition from empire to nation-state in Bulgaria. Its regulations provided a framework of landholding with which many Bulgarians were familiar. The Code was neither expressly reaffirmed, nor repealed. Some of its provisions were dismantled or tacitly disregarded, while others were selectively interpreted and invoked in various contexts. The efforts to use the Code or repeal some of its provisions were part of several interconnected processes, such as the shaping of landholding and agrarian relations, nation-building, and asserting political and economic sovereignty. Ultimately, these processes contributed to the making of the modern Bulgarian state.


[1] For the original Ottoman Turkish version of the Land Code see Düstur (İstanbul: Matbaa-i Amire, 1291-99), vol. 1, 165-200. For an English translation see The Ottoman Land Code, trans. F. Ongley (London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1892).

[2] For detailed discussion of the Ottoman Land Code and its most significant directions of intervention see E. Attila Aytekin, “Agrarian Relations, Property, and Law: An Analysis of the Land Code of 1858 in the Ottoman Empire,” Middle Eastern Studies 6, no. 45 (2009): 935-51. For other cases see also Roger Owen, ed., New Perspectives on Property and Land in the Middle East (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[3] Ottoman Land Code, art. 78. However, the provisions of the article were not applicable to mahlul land. In this case the cultivator needed to pay for such land to obtain a tapu.

[4] For an examination of aspects of the Ottoman imperial legacy see Maria Todorova, “The Ottoman Legacy in the Balkans,” in Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East, ed. Carl Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 45-77.

[5] For the text of the Berlin Treaty see Edward Hertslet, Map of Europe by Treaty (London: Harrison and sons, 1891), vol. 4, 2759-99.

[6] For an overview of the history of Bulgaria in the period until 1908 with a focus on Muslim experiences and reform efforts see Milena B. Methodieva, Between Empire and Nation: Muslim Reform in the Balkans (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).

[7] For an effort to reexamine critically these questions see Anna Mirkova, Muslim Land, Christian Labor: Transforming Ottoman Imperial Subjects into Bulgarian National Citizens, 1878-1939 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2017). For a recent attempt to re-evaluate and compare land property in Bulgaria during the Ottoman and post-Ottoman period see Pencho D. Penchev and Hristiyan Atanasov, “From an Empire to Nation State: Land Property and its Guarantee in the Balkans. The Case of Bulgaria,” Bulgarian Historical Review nos. 1-2 (2022): 3–35.

[8] For a discussion of these events see Mirkova, Muslim Land, Christian Labor, 59-93, and also Goran Todorov, “Urezhdaneto na agrarnia i bezhanskia vupros v Kniazhestvo Bulgaria v purvite godoni sled Osvobozhdenieto (1879-1881),” Istoricheski pregled 17, no. 1 (1961): 27-52.

[9] For some examples of such historiography see Goran Todorov, “Politikata na bulgarskite burzhoazni pravitelstva po agrarnia i bezhanskia vupros sled durzhavnia prevrat ot 1881 (1881-1886),” Istoricheski pregled, 17, no. 2 (1961): 3-32; Lyuben Berov, “Promeni v razpredelenieto na pozemlenata sobstevnost prez pǔrvite dve desetiletia sled Osvobozhdenieto,” Izvestia na instituta za istoria 27 (1984): 224-73.

[10] For an estimate see Tseno Petrov, Agrarnite reformi v Bulgaria, 1880-1944 (Sofia: Izdatesltvo na Bulgarskata Akademia na Naukite, 1975), 41.

[11] In Bulgarian referred to with terms such as “zakonut za zemlite.”

[12] Dnevnitsi na purvoto uchreditelno narodno subranie v Turnovo, 2nd ed. (Sofia: Knigopechatnitsa Yanko Kovachev, 1890), 154.

[13] Penchev and Atanasov, “From an Empire,”; Tseno Petrov, Agrarnite reformi, 26-27.

[14] “Pravilnik za prilaganeto na zakona za zamenyavanie na Turskite dokumenti za parvo na sobstvenost s krepostni aktove,” Durzhaven vestnik no. 91, April 29, 1892.

[15] “Zakon za podobrenie sustoyanieto na zemledelcheskoto naselenie po gospodarskite i chiftlikski zemi,” Durzhaven vestnink no. 93, December 17, 1880; “Zakon za gospodarskite i chiflikski zemi,” Durzhaven vestnik no. 11, February 5, 1885.

[16] “Zakon za cherkezkite i tatarski zemi,” Durzhaven vestnink no. 95, December 23, 1880; “Zakon za cherkezkite i tatarskite zemi,” Durzhaven vestnink no. 23, March 1, 1883.

[17] Tsentralen Durzhaven Arhiv (Central State Archive, Bulgaria) (henceforth TsDA), f. 284k, op. 1, a. e. 76.

[18] For such calls in certain periodicals see Todorov, “Politikata na bulgarskite burzhoazni pravitelstva,” 7; see also Osmanlı Arşivi – Türkiye (Ottoman archives – Turkiye) (henceforth OA), Y.A.HUS 167/73.

[19] For protests to Germany see for example OA, Y.HUS. 169/33.

[20] OA, HR.SFR.04 323/120.

[21] For efforts to draw British mediation see OA, HR.SFR.3 281/46.

[22] TsDA, f. 176k, op. 1, a. e. 143.

[23] TsDA, f. 371k, op. 1, a. e. 51.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Milena Methodieva, The Ottoman Land Code in Bulgaria: Selective Interpretations, Islamic Law Blog (Feb. 13, 2024), https://islamiclaw.blog/2024/02/13/roundtable-the-ottoman-land-code-in-bulgaria-selective-interpretations/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Milena Methodieva, “The Ottoman Land Code in Bulgaria: Selective Interpretations,” Islamic Law Blog, February 13, 2024, https://islamiclaw.blog/2024/02/13/roundtable-the-ottoman-land-code-in-bulgaria-selective-interpretations/)

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