Tombstone layout
The new Ottoman tombstone which reflects the changes discussed on this page. (photo: Nuray Yilmaz)

Sixteenth-century Ottoman tombstones marked a change in funerary practice in the Empire. By now tombstones were beginning to appear as social markers where they were not only starting to be more prominent in structure, but there were also headgears of different turbans, decoration of the body of the tombstones with motifs, as well as providing more information about the deceased. The first mentioned change is said to be an indication of the pre-Islamic Turkic traditions. This carving of headgears displayed the social status and thus class of the deceased. Motifs were almost always reserved for women. With the exclusion of the palace women who had mausoleums next to their husbands, women didn’t hold social status through occupation. Perhaps it was because of this reason that women tombstones were fashioned in flower motifs.

The change in the content and the language of the inscriptions of the tombstones changed radically.  First, the use of language changed from Arabic to Ottoman Turkish. Ottoman Turkish varies greatly from modern-day Turkish. However, Ottoman Turkish itself can be divided into three different structures:

  1. Fasih Türkçe, the eloquent Turkish, was strictest form. It was used poets and administration;
  2. Orta Türkçe, the middle Turkish, was used by elites and merchants;
  3. Kaba Türkçe, the rough Turkish, was the form of Ottoman Turkish used by the lower classes.

Additionally, Ottoman Turkish has seen language transformation multiple times. In total, it was transformed three times in three eras.

  1. Eski Osmanlı Türkçesi, the old Ottoman Turkish, was the first version of the language. It was used from the beginning of the Empire (14thcentury) and lasted until the 16th It is regarded as fragment of Ancient Anatolian Turkish and Turkic. This is also the version of Turkic language which the Seljuk and Beyliks in Anatolia had used before the arrival of the Ottomans.
  2. Orta Osmanlı Türkçesi, the middle Ottoman Turkish which is also knowns as the Classical Ottoman Turkish. This is the fasih/eloquent Turkish used in poetry and in the administration. This form lasted from 16thto 18th
  3. Yeni Osmanlı Türkçesi, the new Ottoman Turkish, came to be during the Tanzimat (the reform era) from the 18thto the 20th such transition is credited to the Westernization of the Ottoman. Additionally, it is from this period and in this form of the Turkish language where we find the most archives written in.

Tombstones change in content may perhaps be one of the key elements in Ottoman identity. It is perhaps most appreciated by historians, archaeologists and scholars alike, for it assists in distinguishing between genders and the occupation of each person held during their lifetime. Instead of bearing religious verses in Arabic, tombstones transformed into biographies of the dead. They became more detailed and descriptive. The new content now displayed who the person was, patronage, family links, and occupation and social status. Thus, tombs can be said to have transformed into social symbols of the dead.

Below are videos of two different cemeteries (Sultan Mahmud II and Eyup Sultan) with distinct gravestones. Both located in Istanbul, Turkey but are of different time periods. One can visually explore the different tombstones and mausoleums from these videos.




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identity of the dead in Ottoman turkey

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