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 earliest census reports from Turkey date from 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. It appears that these records generally count number of households or even of persons, but they recorded few names. This early system of population registration 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. The census laws of 1875 and 1884 established a system of civil registration, with the population registers kept at the local district [kaza] level, to update the census by adding new information about births, marriages, and deaths. Permanent registers were compiled in an initial census survey; thereafter vital information was added as births, marriages, and deaths occurred. An initial census survey was conducted throughout the empire in 1876-1878. This first survey is incomplete because of the Ottoman-Russian War. In 1881 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]. Another initial population survey was taken 1882-1885. Thereafter the registers were updated by adding new information about births, deaths, and migrations into and out of the district. Supplemental registration of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths were sometimes added to the register itself or sometimes compiled in separate registers. Separate registers were established for Muslims and for members of other religious communities. Another initial survey was done in 1903-1906. Thereafter new census surveys were periodically done to establish initial permanent registers and vital information was added as births, marriages, and deaths occurred.
- The first population register (1876-1881) listed only males.
- After 1882 the registers list the names of household members including children; sex; birth date; residence; age; religion; craft or occupation; marital status, marriage date; health; military status. If deceased, the register provides the death date or crosses out the name of the deceased.
For areas presently in Turkey the registers are in provincial (sancak) registration offices. For some regions no longer in Turkey, the registers are either centralized in an archive of the present country (e.g. Israel or Greece), or may be partially or completely in a Turkish archive, possibly the National Archives [Başbakanlık Arşivi] (also referred to as the Prime Ministry Archives) or the Sulaymaniye Library in İstanbul.Only a few lists of Armenians in Istanbul have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. The Library does have good examples of these registers from the Ottoman province of Palestine, now Israel (462 rolls).