The Multiple Functions of Gift-Giving in the Ottoman World at the time of Suleiman the Magnificent

An Ottoman vizier was being given his new gifts in the form of valuable clothes and a shining sword. This was not just an act of respect or courtesy after statesmen’s successes. It symbolized someone’s increasing or decreasing rank in the state hierarchy. Presenting black ‘kıyafet’s (clothes) meant that it is time for the execution of the guilty statesman.

The Respect for An Ambassador who portrayed ‘Turkish’ Ways of Life: Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

busbecq ile ilgili görsel sonucu
An engraving of Baron Busbecq by the painter Melchior Lorck

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq’s “the Turkish Letters” is a substantial document that presents important insights through the sixteenth century of the Ottoman world. Ferdinand I, the Habsburg Emperor, appoints Busbecq as the ambassador in Istanbul for some eight years to solve tensions between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. In the wake of his return to the Habsburg realm, he published his ambassadorial life in Istanbul in four letters. In this source, he portrayed a wide-scale panorama regarding a politically widening empire under Suleiman I. It can be said that even though Busbecq had many political objectives, he did not ignore the social and cultural elements of the Ottomans. One of these socio-cultural themes that Busbecq frequently displays in the Turkish Letters is the gift exchange between individuals and communities:

the Persian Ambassador had arrived, bringing with him a number of handsome presents carpets from famous looms, Babylonian tents, the inner sides of which were covered with colored tapestries, trappings and housings of exquisite workmanship, jeweled scimitars from Damascus, and shields most tastefully designed; but the chief present of all was a copy of the Koran, a gift highly prized among the Turks… (the Turkish Letters, London, 1881, p. 157)

During my stay at the camp, Albert de Wyss, a gentleman and a good scholar, arrived. If I am not mistaken, he is a native of Amersfort. He brought as presents from the Emperor to the Sultan some gilded cups and a clock of gkilful workmanship, which was mounted like a tower on the back of an elephant, and also some money for distribution among the Pashas. Solyman desired me to present these gifts to him in the camp, in the sight of the army, as a fresh proof to his subjects that he and the Emperor were firm friends. He was anxious that such an idea should prevail, and also that an impression should be produced, that no warlike movement on the part of the Christians was likely to take place. (the Turkish Letters,  London, 1881, page 297)

In the position of a wife, and assigned her a dowry, the giving and receiving of which constitutes a marriage amongst the Turks. (the Turkish Letters, London, 1881, page 112)

if the wife has a father of high rank, or has brought a larger dowry than usual, the husband promises on his part that he will take no con- cubine, but will keep to her alone…The only distinction be-tween the lawful wife and the concubine is, that the former has a dowry, while the slaves have none.

(page 229)

In that regard, the gift exchange between diverse sorts of groups is undeniably a prominent point. While ambassadors like Busbecq present their gifts to the sultan and the other viziers, young Muslim men give their wives various gifts as a crucial tradition to arrange marriages. This is because this exchange of objects did not just demonstrate making happier each other through presenting gifts. Indeed, that exchange structure serves a variety of goals in that society.

The Socio-political Aspects of Gift Exchange towards Other Polities: Diplomatic, Economic, and Symbolic Meanings of Gift Giving

melchior lorck ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Suleiman I (1520-1566),  who was given the title of “the Lawgiver”, gave immense importance to receiving and sending gifts in establishing diplomacy. Valuable presents were preserved in the Ottoman Palace (Topkapı) even like Chinese porcelain or Indian spices. The Sultan himself was a jeweler and so fond of making valuable rings. (by Melchior Lorck)

Frederic Hitzel who searches for the development of diplomatic gifts in the medieval and the Early Modern Ages and their evolution into new meanings states that gift-giving has been a vital part of diplomatic rituals since this was the first step to constituting harmony in relations. These gifts could alleviate to get for the support of viziers to open their embassies in Pera. Gifts also symbolized the power of a country and the desire for compromise. However, not presenting gifts was a humiliating manner in the court and ambassadors could be punished due to that reason. In the 18thcentury, gifts became the symbol of controlling Ottoman markets since after presenting gifts, the Ottomans imported them more and this caused the rise of foreign products in markets. Thus, gift exchange deteriorated the Ottoman economy in its last centuries. He also clarifies why the Habsburgs called their 30.000 ducats’ annual tribute as “Gifts to the Turks” (Türkenverehrung). This is because the term “gift” did not demonstrate any inferiority towards the Ottomans according to the Habsburgs’ mentality but shows a symbolic mutual gift-exchange although the reality is different. Moreover, his article supports some of its claims by using the contemporary ambassadors’ remarks of Busbecq. To exemplify, French ambassador D’Aramon said that “we were treated nicely since we presented our gifts”. However, another French ambassador (de Codignac) was warned by Rüstem Paşa due to not bring gifts. In brief, it can be said that gift-exchange in diplomatic treatment was highlighted not only by Busbecq but also by other ambassadors.

Derya Ocak’s thesis introduces the act of giving gifts as “a symbolic act” in diplomacy and “a transmitter” which symbolizes mostly authority and hierarchy in the 16th Ottoman and European world. She aims to show what sort of messages was transmitted with gift exchange in the example of the prince of Transylvania (Istvan Bathory) for five years. There are three main chapters that elucidate the forms of gift-giving between the two polities. Ocak begins with the overall situation of Transylvania and puts forward that Transylvania was the most privileged principality since it received the most valuable gifts from the sultans among other vassal states. In return for symbolic gifts of sultans like insignia and ‘Ahdname, the principality paid the gift of tribute in addition to other precious gifts. In this reciprocal relationship, the thesis ends by highlighting other cultural exchanges also became possible apart from gift-giving.

A medal from the 16th-century shows Ferdinand I the “Holy Roman” Emperor, which was denied by the Ottomans until 1606, and Suleiman I, Ottoman Sultan together.

Thus, sheds light on the forms and symbols of diplomatic gifts in different state structures. To illustrate, it contends that though both sides sometimes presented the same gifts to each other such as horses and fabrics, their inner meanings were different. While Ottoman gifts signified their universal superiority claims with firmans, Transylvanian gifts symbolized the acceptance of inferiority with their loyalty letters. Moreover, Habsburgs’ reacted to this custom in the same way. So, the Habsburgs tried to get Transylvania on their side by sending more precious gifts. Their partial success to provide temporary Transylvanian support was a prominent case since it displays the economic dimension of gift exchange.

In addition to the Transylvanian case, Julian Raby who mainly looks at the place of gift exchange in cementing Ottoman-Venetian relationships, mentions that the Venetians aimed to cultivate better relations and to assuage the anger in presenting their gifts to the “Turks”. In this respect, however; these gifts were far from a regulated structure, and finding differences between gifts and bribes was difficult. Raby also explains that gifts were repetitive and their meanings were different for the Ottomans and the Venetians. The Ottomans perceived Venetian gifts as proof of their powerful and global image. As for the Venetians, the gifts were a political apparatus that helped to achieve diplomatic goals. Due to the absence of annual tributes, Venetians had to present more gifts than the Habsburgs to realize their wishes in the Ottoman court. Raby concludes that gift exchange was a diplomatic juggling act between those two powers.

venice 1520 ile ilgili görsel sonucu
A Venetian bronze medal of Suleiman the Magnificient in 1520 when he took the throne. (from Metropolitan Museum of Art in Washington D.C.)                                     

And she vividly enlightens the political usage of reciprocal gifts in using the Venetian archival records. These records like letters and travel notes could not be restricted to bilateral political relations. Venetian ambassadors wrote also their ideas on the Ottoman bureaucracy and palatial life in the examples of Sokollo Mehmet Pasha and Nur Banu Sultan. These two figures after the reign of Suleiman I assisted the Venetian ambassadors to accept their requests in exchange for their valuable gifts including world maps, wall clocks, and purebred animals. So, gift exchange gained an administrative function in addition to signifying symbolic and economic value. Thus, the usage of Venetian testimonies greatly contributes to Busbecq’s reports to find and understand similarities and differences between the Venetian and the Habsburgs’ understanding of gift exchange.

Severi Bart explains that the Habsburgs and the Ottomans had to negotiate and provide bilateral peace after a long-lasting series of warfare. For this reason, diplomacy became a critical part of their representation in forming relationships. These two empires reflected their imperial ideologies through diplomatic channels. As “the emperor’s reputation defenders”, Habsburg diplomats opened embassies in Istanbul, conflicted during negotiations if emperors were humiliated by the Ottoman officials, and presented gifts.

Severi claims that presenting gifts was an “indispensable” and “beneficial” behavior to strengthen peace talks, establish good relations, and give an idea of the giver’s wealth and culture. He underlines that the Habsburgs preferred the term “gift” instead of “tribute” for taxes paid to the Ottomans. In this respect, the psychological aspect of gift exchange must be stressed.

To sum up, gifts were considered as a symbol of superiority in diplomatic channels as the Habsburg or French cases displayed, a form of tax in making the economic profit like in the Principality of Transylvania, and ultimately a way of self-representation in the form of exchanges within Venetian and Ottoman courts through Early Modern Europe’s socio-economic climate.

The Importance of Gift Exchange in State Organization: Pişkeş and Other Applications of Gift Giving in the Ottoman Bureaucracy

Suraiya Faroqhi who investigates the multiple ways of presenting the sultans’ legitimacy and power in analyzing buildings, events, and ceremonies, argues that these gifting activities would be perceived as the emblematic of sultanic self-assertion. That brought about the rise of a common language based on gestures which made lines of communication between dissimilar polities possible despite political or linguistic barriers. Faroqhi debates how gifts in processions, ceremonies, and parades helped sultans to make their legitimacy more powerful. She particularly emphasizes gift-giving in such events and concludes that these activities constructed a common diplomatic sign language between states.

By presenting valuable and expensive gifts to other people, the Ottoman sultans also presented themselves as a glorious and a legitimate figure towards their subjects. Furthermore, the Ottoman elites used similar tactics for strengthening their self-representation against other dignitaries. In addition to that, Faroqhi’s consideration of gifts as a “common language” is a crucial point. And so, gifts were perceived as a communication builder between the state and its subjects.

quilting ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Safavid ambassadors, who represented the Shah of “Iran”, Tahmasb I, was presenting their gifts to the new Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, after Suleiman I’s death at the campaign of Zigetvar in 1566. Unlike Suleiman the Lawgiver, Selim II was widely criticized by Turkish historians as an unskillful leader. His Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Paşa’s influence controlled the Ottoman court during his time.                                                                                   Selim II’s time witnessed the Ottoman-Venetian wars again after a long time which resulted in a land victory [Cyprus] and a naval defeat [Lepanto]. Even though the Ottoman navy was demolished at Lepanto in 1571, the peace was in favor of the Ottomans because Cyprus was not the property of Venice anymore but the Ottomans who were the new owners of the crossroad island in the East Mediterranean.                                                                                                                                                    It is significant that despite these campaigns, Ottoman-Venetian gift traffic went on through the wishes of Sokollo and Selim II’s older son (Murad III)’s concubine Nur Banu Sultan who was also claimed the main rival of Sokollo by some historians.

    In this scholarly article, Reindl-Kiel explains the role and place of gift exchange in the Ottoman bureaucracy in analyzing the vivid lifestyle of Ottoman state officials in the Early Modern Period. Firstly, the article argues that frequently consuming luxury products in bureaucracy is unreasonable at first glance, but in reality; this was very meaningful because luxuries carried symbolic values. Luxury consumption would be situated better in looking for gift exchanges in the state hierarchy. This is because gift exchanges are at the center of this luxury-centered consumption habit. In this context, there are several “hediye defteri”s (gift registries) in the state archives which give detailed information about gift-giving activities. From that point, the article explains that gifts contributed to establishing webs between different layers of the state hierarchy. Apart from that, gifts were regarded ascurrency like money by the Ottoman elite circles. In the palace, this gifting was named as “pişkeş” which recorded and preserved in official registries with considerable attention.

She gives the statistical data of gift traffic in the Early Modern Period by using gift registries. By adding such records, gifts could be regarded as an instrument for showing hierarchy since the quality, type, and price of textiles change across officials. To illustrate, while high-ranking officials chose expensive gifts to be presented, lower ones bought cheaper textiles as modest gifts. Other than that, her article gives interpretations of foreign travelers about “pişkeş” gifts. Their standpoints demonstrate that gifts were considered a tool for gaining positions and a vehicle for making businesses in the Early Modern times. Their experiences can also be compared with Busbecq’s viewpoints to understand the implementation of gift-giving in emphasizing “pişkeş”.

In this bureaucratic arena, the functions of presents might be summarized into three main categories. They were a tool for gaining a position in the state, a vehicle for making businesses in different places, and an instrument of demonstrating hierarchy.

The Socio-cultural Prominence of Gift Exchange: The Complex Roles of Gift Giving in Different Layers of the Ottoman Society

marcel mauss the gift ile ilgili görsel sonucu
French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ masterpiece “The Gift”  [Le Don](1925) opened a great way in social sciences to understand the multiple aspects of gift exchanges within communities.

Arzu Karaslan examines the definition of family and analyzes the place of engagement in forming an Ottoman family in the Early Modern and Modern Periods. In these periods, not only religious orders but also local manners and customs are quite effective for making engagements. In “namzedlik”, which Şer’iyye registries’ term for “engagement”, gift exchanges are highly crucial. Especially, it is necessary to present mutual gifts in engagement ceremonies between families as a common traditional practice. After analyzing different sorts of gift exchanges during the engagement process, she explores the fundamental requirements and the maximum duration of “namzedlik”

Karaslan highlights the fundamental role of gift exchange in making Ottoman families. To exemplify, those gifts are not categorized into one single term. Rather, they take different names according to their functions like “ağırlık” (first gifting) and “harc-ı makul” (other gift-based expenditures). This might demonstrate the complex aspects of gift-giving in Ottoman society. Besides, that gifting is not mostly related to showing social status in the state hierarchy but a kind of psychological support to increase women’s business potential in their workings. This psychological side of gifts can help to elaborate on the multiple functions of gift exchanges.

Ä°lgili resim
A Senegalese slave from Melchior Lorck. These slaves could not be wives but concubines (cariye) until their owner’s decision for freedom. For Busbecq, if a woman is received a dowry [çeyiz, a set of gifts still common among Modern Turkey’s women and mehir, a pre-requisite Islamic gift for marriage] for arranging the marriage by a man, it is unnecessary to claim her “slavery”. In other cases, when the slave-owner freed his slaves, he also gave some presents to them as a traditional symbol of liberty. There are also other sorts of gifts in making the Ottoman family in the Early Modern Era.

Sevda Önal focuses on a general overview of Ottoman gift exchange by using literary products. At the center, she pays attention that gifts were primarily communication equipment in the Ottoman realm both on personal, social, and institutional grounds. Önal also expresses that gifting was a psychological motive between persons in weddings and circumcision. However, these ceremonies also had a social function by connecting relationships. Specifically, gift-giving was intensive in state-held rituals and official celebrations. Ottoman poets portrayed these parades in their works by hoping to take more gifts from state officials. At the social level, gifts demonstrated magnificence toward the sultan’s subjects whether urban elites or peasants. They institutionally served as peacemakers between the Ottomans and their rivals.

Her article illustrates its ideas and supports its arguments with the testimonies of various Ottoman poets. For example, I will consider gifting as a connection provider for the Sublime Porte’s assistance in taking such couples into account. Furthermore, literary works are one of the most effective sources to determine the types of gifting in this respect. The writers underlined what gifts they and other rural and urban people received with their specific names. In this regard, those gifts were called differently because this was a mark of givers’ and receivers’ social status at that time.


It can be finally ended that gifts were treated as the communication builder between the state and its subjects, a critical marriage arranger in the formation of the Ottoman family, and a connection provider in the artistic and literary circle during the time when Suleiman the Magnificient and his descendants were governing a large area stretching from “famous gates” of Vienna to the hot deserts of Arabia and a multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-populous society as their subjects.


Faroqhi, Suraiya.”Presenting the Sultans’ Power, Glory, and Piety: A Comparative Perspective” in Another Mirror for Princes: The Public Image of the Ottoman Sultans and its Reception, by Suraiya Faroqhi, 53-85. The Isis Press. 2009.

Hitzel, Frederic. “Diplomatik Armağanlar: Osmanlı İmparatorluğu ile Batı Avrupa Ülkeleri Arasında Modern Çağ’da Yapılan Kültürel Değiş Tokuş” (Diplomatic Gifts: Cultural Transformation between the Ottoman Empire and the Western European Countries) in Harp ve Sulh: Avrupa ve Osmanlılar (War and Peace: Europe and the Ottomans), edited by Dejanirah Couto, 243-257. Istanbul: Kitap Publications, 2017.

Karaslan, Arzu. “Osmanlı Toplumunda Ailenin Teşekkülünde İlk Adım: Namzedlik” (The First Step towards Family Foundation in the Ottoman Society: Engagement), Batman University Journal of Life Sciences; Volume 5, Number 2. Batman University Publications. (2015): 186-197.

Raby, Julian. “The Serennissima and the Sublime Porte: Art in the Art of Diplomacy (1453-1600)” in Venice and the Islamic World (828-1797), edited by Stefano Carboni, 90-119. Yale University Press, 2007.

Reindl-Kiel, Hedda. “Osmanlı Yöneticileri, Lüks Tüketimi ve Hediyeleşme (Ottoman Officials, Luxury Consumption and Gifts)” in Isam Papers: Ottoman Thought, Ethics, Law, Philosophy-Kalam, edited by Seyfi Kenan, 137-151. İstanbul: Isam Press, 2013.

Severi, Bart. “Representation and Self-Consciousness in 16th Century Habsburg Diplomacy in the Ottoman Empire” in Das Osmanische Reich und die Habsburgermonarchie, edited by Martin Scheutz and Marlene Kurz, 281-294. Vienna: Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung, 2004.

Ocak, Derya. “Gift and Purpose: Diplomatic Gift Exchange between the Ottomans and Transylvania during the Reign of Istvan Bathory (1571-1576)”. Master’s thesis, Central European University, 2016.

Önal, Sevda. “Edebi Metinlere Yansıyan Yönüyle Osmanlı Toplumunda Hediyeleşme” (Gift Giving in the Ottoman Society with its Reflective Aspect in Literary Texts), Atatürk University Journal of Graduate School of Social Sciences Volume 11. (2008): 103-113.

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