Primary Schools under the Ottomans

Primary schools have a long history in Islamic civilisation. Children were taught to memorise the entire Qur'an usually at primary school for example. Here is a look at how the primary schools under the Ottomans developed.

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Shah Sultan Primary School picture located at Eyup, Istanbul

This short article based on Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu's article "Ottoman Educational and Scholarly-Scientific Institutions", History of The Ottoman State and Society and Civilisation (Edited by E. Ihsanoglu), Istanbul 2002, Vol. II, pp. 361-512.

Elementary education and teaching in the Ottoman Empire were conducted in primary schools (sibyan mektepleri). These schools, established for the education of children, were a continuation of the schools known as küttâb in Islam. They were also referred to as dar al-talim, dar al-huffaz, tash maktab or just maktab (school).

The Classical Period

These primary schools were generally founded by elite ranked statesmen or sultans and located within mosque complexes (külliye), adjacent to a mosque or in a separate structure. Because they demanded little in terms of investment in finance and space they were to be found in every village, every neighbourhood and every district. In addition, depending upon the specifics of their charters, such schools might be coeducational or have separate buildings for girls and boys. Though the principles governing the workings of these schools, which were established and managed as waqfs, were laid out in their charters they shared many common approaches to education.

Children who reached the age of five would begin their education in these schools with a very lively ceremony known as âmin alayi or bed'-i besmele. As far as we can determine there were no acceptance or registration procedures for these schools. The children from all Muslim families had the right to attend the schools. The teachers were selected from among individuals who had some madrasa education or literate imams, muezzins, mosque caretakers and the like. In addition, if it had been so specified in the school charter, calligraphy instructors would be hired for writing classes.[1] In the coeducational or girls' schools, classes would be taught by knowledgeable and experienced female teachers who had reached a certain age and who had memorized the Qur'an.

It is not known whether or not the primary schools had formally prepared curricula. It is, however, possible to provide certain information about their classes based on the terms of their charters or on the basis of regulations laid down from time to time.[2] The overriding purpose of these schools was to teach reading and writing to children and to have them learn the basics of the Islamic religion and the Qur'an. As a result, an effort would be made to teach the children the alphabet, to instruct them in the Qur'an, to have them memorize certain suras, to teach them the basic principles of Islam, Qur'an recitation, penmanship and to instruct them in the four basic arithmetical procedures known as kara cümle. In addition, they would also be asked to read certain poetic dictionaries in Arabic and Persian (lügatlar) such as the Sübha-i Sibyan and Tuhfe-i Vehbî, which became classics during the eighteenth century in order to facilitate their learning. Though there are various views concerning the language of instruction of these primary schools, it is generally accepted that the native language of the students was used. Though no age for graduation is indicated, there was a requirement that every pupil read the Qur'an from cover to cover at least once in order to graduate.[3]

Primary Education and Primary Schools after the Tanzimat Period

Ragip Pasha Primary School picture located at Laleli, Istanbul

During the reign of Sultan Mahmûd II, thought was given for the first time to reform of civilian schools as well as those for the military. It was in this context that in 1824 the situation of the primary (sibyan) schools, which continued to function along classical Ottoman educational lines, was taken up for consideration. Mahmûd II issued an edict pertaining to "Primary Education" (Tâlim-i Sibyan) that same year which outlined the principles, which should govern young children's education. Accordingly it was recommended that children be sent to school rather than serving as apprentices and that, furthermore, they continue in school until they reached puberty. This edict, which only pertained to Istanbul, included certain sanctions. Because of the influence the madrasas had over the primary schools the administration of such schools was left to the office of the Shaykh al-Islam.[4]

In 1838 Sultan Mahmûd II undertook another improvement in the area of primary education. To that end, the General Council for Public Works (Meclis-i Umûr-i Nâfia) prepared a report, which Mahmûd approved with a few changes. The main purpose of the report was to bring about a reform of primary education. Among the articles of the report, perhaps the most important of them, was the one, which viewed the educational system as a whole and called for a harmonious interrelationship among all levels.

The report largely puts forth proposals of a general nature rather than ones with a specific focus. Accordingly, certain instructions of an advisory nature were made with regard to matters such as required attendance, the system of classes, the opening of boarding schools for orphans and the monitoring of teachers. Leaving the administration of the schools to the office of the Shaykh al-Islam, however, constituted a barrier to the realization of the desired changes.

Sultan Abdülmecîd began the first efforts at primary school reform during the Tanzimat period in 1845. The imperial edict proclaimed at that time called for an end to ignorance and an improvement of public comportment in the country. In 1845 the Provisional Council prepared a report which in sum called for the reorganization of the existing primary schools. The report included articles pertaining, among other things, to first initiating the reforms at the local school level, providing instructions to the teachers in the existing schools for each of the classes they were teaching, only having licensed persons employed as teachers, and the initiation of a system of graded classes and examinations. The Public Education Council (Meclis-i Maârif-i Umûmî) began putting these decisions into effect and established a Ministry of Public Schools (Mekâtib-i Umûmiye Nezâreti) to implement the measures in the schools and to monitor the situation.

A new era began with respect to the reform of the primary schools in 1847 with a directive prepared by the Ministry of Public Schools meant to be a guide for teachers. According to the directive, the course of education was to be four years with the primary schools providing the foundation for the middle schools. Turkish was to be emphasized, education nationalized, blackboards and pens and pen cases were to be used, and attendance was to be made mandatory.[5] These decisions were, however, for a variety of reasons, never implemented and the primary schools continued offering education in the old style. In 1857, with the founding of the Ministry of Education (Maârif Nezâreti), the reform of primary schools was once again taken up, but nothing was done in this respect before 1863. Istanbul was selected as a pilot area and the decisions of 1846 were put into effect. In the meantime some new ideas were in the air, such as the state paying the salaries of teachers and the provision of free primary education. The Commission on Muslim Primary Schools (Mekâtib-i Sibyan-i Müslime Komisyonu) established in 1864 prepared a ten-point set of regulations for the primary schools. The regulations provided for the following innovations: the inclusion of penmanship, civics (mâlûmât-i nâfia), geography and arithmetic among the lessons offered. However, this set of regulations was also not put into effect.[6]

Kuyucu Murad Pasha Primary School picture located at Eyup, Istanbul

The reform of the entire educational system, and in that sense the primary school system, had to wait until the Public Education Regulations (Maârif-i Umûmiye Nizamnâmesi) of 1869. The sections of the regulations which pertain to primary schools can be divided into four headings: prescriptions of a general nature, those pertaining to classes and examinations, those concerning teachers and those pertaining to financial matters. The prescriptions of a general nature in the regulations included such things as that at least one primary school should be opened in each neighbourhood or village offering a four-year education, that boys be required to attend school between the ages of six and ten and girls between seven and eleven and that if there were two schools in one neighbourhood, one should be allocated to boys, the other to girls. Among the prescriptions pertaining to classes and examinations in the regulations is one, which prescribes a required curriculum and indicates that such a curriculum may only be changed with the permission of the Ministry. That provision also states that examinations should be given in the presence of the village or neighbourhood council of elders. Teachers were required to be Ottoman subjects and Men's Normal School (Dâr al-muallimîn) graduates. The income of these primary schools would come from wakif sources, local levies (avâriz parasi), estates of those leaving no heirs, Ramazan alms (fitre), alms (zekât) and monies gained from sales of the skins of animals which had been sacrificed.

The reform of primary (sibyan) schools based on the Regulations of 1869 and the opening of newly reorganized schools called ibtidâî (elementary) schools began in 1870. This effort targeted the entire empire, not just Istanbul. As part of this enterprise, books were prepared for the new elementary schools that were quite different both in terms of format and content from than those which had been in use to date. The primary schools continued to provide a traditional sort of education. In order to put into practice and experiment a little with the newly prepared curriculum, an elementary school was opened up in 1872 at the Nuruosmâniye Mosque. The implementation of the Regulations of 1869 began in Rumelia some time after that. Two important points are notable from a set of instructions also published in the same year. The first of these pertains to the attempt to turn over the administration of the primary schools to the local neighbourhood populace. The second concerns the effort to establish a commission to prepare a guidebook for teachers at the primary schools. Such things were not however put into practice until the time of Sultan Abdülhamîd II.

Iskender Pasha Primary School picture located at Eyup, Istanbul

During the reign of Sultan Abdülhamîd II the question of primary education was given a place in the Constitution (Kanûn-i Esâsî) of 1876. An article in the Constitution makes primary education mandatory: "All Ottoman youth shall be required to complete the first stage of the educational system and the steps and details with regard to this shall be spelled out in special regulations." In 1879 a Bureau of Primary Schools (Mekâtib-i Sibyâniye Dâiresi) was established and was divided into two departments, one dealing with the "Mekâtib-i Sibyâniye" (Primary Schools) which offered a traditional primary school education and the other responsible for the "Mekâtib-i Iptidâiye" (Elementary Schools) during that period. In 1882 the Minister of Education tried to do away with this dichotomous system by placing his weight behind the elementary (iptidâî) schools and eventually the primary (sibyan) schools were transformed into elementary schools. By 1909 many of the primary schools had come to adopt the new style curriculum. The accomplishments in the areas of primary schooling and education during the reign of Abdülhamîd can be summarized as follows. An elementary educational organizational structure was constructed for the obligatory primary school system in both the capital and in the provinces as an administrative measure. Elementary schools were opened and proliferated. The new type of education was introduced into the primary schools. Priority was given to primary education in places where there was a dense Muslim population. The attempt was made to secure contributions from the public in the area of education. Normal schools were opened in the provinces in order to train teachers. Decisions taken in this area were systematically implemented. In addition, a large number of elementary schools were opened in Istanbul during that period. Corporal punishment and other severe forms of punishment were forbidden in the schools. An effort was made to spread education to the provinces. However, the poor financial situation of the country made it difficult to fully realize these ambitions.[7]

In order to understand the intense activity during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamîd II in the field of education one can undertake a statistical analysis of elementary schools, both those already existing and those offering the new type of education, in various provinces of the Ottoman Empire between 1905 and 1906. Accordingly, there were 355 state and nine private elementary schools in Istanbul, the capital, twelve of these boys schools, seventeen for girls and 326 of them mixed. The situation for Anatolian cities was as follows. In Aydin there were a total 1379 schools, 669 of which were for boys, 92 for girls and 698 were mixed. In Kastamonu there were a total of 855, 52 of which were for boys, 23 for girls and 780 mixed. In Trabzon there were a total of 526 schools, 82 of which were for boys, one for girls and 443 were mixed. In Bursa there were a total of 56 state schools, 43 for boys, seven for girls and six mixed, and a total of 1406 private schools, 1208 of which were for boys, seven for girls with 191 mixed. In addition, in Anatolia, Canakkale had more than 400 elementary schools, Ankara, Diyarbakir, Konya, Sivas and Izmit more than 200 and Erzurum more than 100. We observe the same density in the Balkans. For example, there were more than 500 schools in Kosovo and Manastir, more than 200 in Edirne, and more than 100 in Iskodra and Yanya. In the Aegean islands there were a total of 68 elementary schools, thirteen of them for boys, eight for girls and 47 mixed. We observe the same intense process of elementary school construction in the Ottoman Arab provinces. For example, there were more than 300 schools in Jerusalem, more than 200 in Beirut, and more than 100 in Aleppo.[8]


[1] F. R. Unat, Türkiye Egitim Sisteminin Gelismesine Tarihi Bir Bakis (Ankara, 1964), 6-7.

[2] B. Kodaman, Abdülhamid Devri Egitim Sistemi, 2d ed. (Ankara, 1991), 58-60.

[3] For primary schools see ibid, 58-66; I. Bozdemir, "Osmanli Sibyan Mekteplerinde Egitim ve Ögretim" (Master Thesis, Istanbul University, Social Sciences Institute, Istanbul, 1991).

[4] F. R. Unat, Türkiye Egitim Sisteminin, 8.

[5] B. Kodaman, Abdülhamid Devri, 59-60.

[6] Ibid., 63-65.

[7] Ibid., 65-90.

[8] Ibid., 89-90.

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