Ottoman population statistics were developed to satisfy pressing administrative and military needs. By the 1800s the need for accurate population data became vitally important to the Empire leading to the development of censuses, and eventually to the adoption of a permanent system of population registration. The first effort began in 1829 but was not completed until 1831. This listing was similar to a census. The “census” consisted of the registration of the male population of each district [kaza] by a committee. Thereafter, annual updates of population figures were obtained by cumulatively adding births and subtracting deaths as these were registered in each district. The population registration system established in 1829 functioned fairly regularly until the 1850s after which the system began to deteriorate and break down.
In 1867 the Turkish Council of State assumed jurisdiction over all population matters. Nevertheless, the system languished until 1881 when headcounts and population registration were amalgamated into a single system of record keeping called the population register [nüfus defter in Turkish]. This was somewhat like a system of civil registration, with population registers kept at the local district [kaza] level by the population bureau [sicil-i nüfus], to update the census by adding new information about births, deaths, and migrations into and out of the district. Separate registers were established for Muslims and for members of other religious communities. Periodic initial permanent registers were compiled in an initial census survey; thereafter vital information was added as births, marriages, and deaths occurred. Initial census surveys were conducted throughout the Ottoman Empire in 1881-1883, and again in 1903-1906. Supplemental registration of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths were sometimes added to the census/population register itself or sometimes compiled in separate registers.
The purpose for population registration before 1881 was to levy taxes on non-Muslims and to identify Muslims for conscription. Only males were registered. After 1881 the count was conducted to establish population figures for a variety of social and political reasons. All individuals were counted in both the census and the population registers after that date.
Ottoman initial censuses exist from 1831, (possibly 1844), 1881, 1885, 1894, and 1906. It is not known whether this form of registration continued after Albania’s independence in 1912. Since Albanian civil registration did not begin until 1929, it can be presumed that records like population registers may exist as late as that time.
- Before 1881 the registers listed only males and had separate categories for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Gypsies. The registers for Muslims included the name, birth year, birth date of those moving in from elsewhere, height, complexion, eye color, occupation, geographic origin, date of death or departure if moved, and other dates with regard to military service. It is assumed the military information is missing from the registers for non-Muslims. Certain registers apparently include widows who were heads of households. The earliest listing may not have included specific names but would have included number of households for each village, unmarried mature males, brief physical descriptions and estimates of the value of crop yields and income from livestock. Also listed were contributions to the military forces.
- After 1881 the registers listed all family members; sex; birth date; residence; age; religion; craft or occupation; marital status, marriage date; health; military status. Children’s names were added as births occurred. The names of the deceased persons are crossed out with a death date noted.
These records, if they have been preserved, are probably kept at the Central State Archives of Albania in Tiranë or at population offices in each district. Some (especially the pre-1881 material) may be in the Ottoman Archives at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. None of these records have been acquired by the Family History Library.
The early censuses cover less than 30% of the actual population. Censuses before 1881 did not register women, orphans, Christians below the age of puberty, persons mentally or physically incapacitated, high ranking officials, and others who were not obligated to pay personal taxes or do military service. Population coverage improved to an estimated 75 to 80% with the 1881 census and subsequent population registration which included women and children. Isolated tribes would likely be under-reported due to difficulties in communication with some areas, and the resistance of some groups to being registered. In all time periods the number of immigrants and emigrants was not properly reflected in the records.
The early registers could be used by researchers to quickly identify the male portion of families and the later registers could be used to do the same for the whole family. Although the value of these records is great, their usage is somewhat limited because they are written in Ottoman Turkish using the Arabic script which is archaic and difficult to read.
It is not known to what extent these records have been preserved. It is likely that many of the original documents are lost, particularly those of the 1831 census. Turkish sources indicate that few original records remain for the 1881 census but whether records still exist in Albania needs to be investigated. In Turkey, the originals of subsequent records still exist in district offices there. It is therefore likely that the situation is similar in Albania.