A vilayet (Turkish pronunciation: [vilaːˈjet]; French: vilaïet or vilayet[note 1]) was a first-order administrative division, or province of the later Ottoman Empire, introduced with the promulgation of the Vilayet Law (Turkish: Teşkil-i Vilayet Nizamnamesi) of 21 January 1867. The reform was part of the ongoing Tanzimat administrative reforms that were being enacted throughout the empire, and enshrined in the Ottoman Reform Edict of 1856. The reform was at first implemented experimentally in the Danube Vilayet, specially formed in 1864 and headed by the leading reformist Midhat Pasha. The reform was gradually implemented, and not until 1884 was it applied to the entirety of the Empire's provinces.
The term vilayet is derived from the Arabic word wilayah or wilaya (ولاية). While in Arabic, the word wilaya is used to denote a province or region or district without any specific administrative connotation, the Ottomans used it to denote a specific administrative division.
The Ottoman Empire had already begun to modernize its administration and regularize its provinces (eyalets) in the 1840s, but the Vilayet Law extended this to the entire Ottoman territory, with a regularized hierarchy of administrative units: the province or vilayet, headed by a vali, was subdivided into sub-provinces or counties (sanjak or liva) under a mütesarrif, further into districts (kaza ) under a kaimakam, into communes (nahiye) under a müdir, and into city quarters or villages (kariye).
The vali was appointed by the Sultan and acted as his representative in the vilayet and hence as the supreme head of the administration, holding the executive power over all the executive branches, with the only exception of the military. He was however the head of the police. His administration comprised secretaries in charge of finances (defterdar), correspondence and archives (mektubci), dealings with foreigners, public works, agriculture and commerce, nominated by the respective ministers in Istanbul. The defterdar for instance answered directly to the finance minister. Along with the chief justice (mufettiş-i hukkam-i Şeri'a), the top officials formed the vilayet's executive council. In addition, there was an elected provincial council of four members, two Muslims and two non-Muslims. The governor of the chief sanjak (merkez sanjak), where the vilayet's capital was located, deputized for the vali in the latter's absence. Alternatively, M. Krikorian writes that the role of replacing the vali when absent or incapacitated fell to his assistant, the muavin, and when none existed, to the defterdar.
A similar structure was replicated in the lower hierarchical levels, with executive and advisory councils drawn from the local administrators and—following long-established practice—the heads of the millets, the various local religious communities.
The mutasarrif was also appointed by the Sultan, and acted as chief-administrator of a sanjak and head of that county's council (the idare meclisi), the public works board (nafia) and the education system (maarif). A deputy judge (naib), chief accountant (muhasebeci) and head of the secretariat (tahrirat müdürü) completed the sanjak's top administration.
In similar manner, the kaymakam headed the administration the kaza's council, as well as its public works board, assisted by a deputy judge, a chief accountant (mal müdürü), and the head clerk (tahrirat kâtibi).
The müdür was appointed by the vali, but answered to his immediate superior, the kaymakam. His attributions included tax collection, executing the court sentences, and at times had to mediate disputes and pacify the locals.
A muhtar, meaning "head man", headed a city quarter or village and was chosen by its inhabitants, but had to be confirmed by the kaymakam of his kaza. An ihtiyar meclisi, "council of elders", assisted him.
Vilayets, sanjaks and autonomies, circa 1876:
Vilayets and independent sanjaks in 1917:
For administrative purposes the immediate possessions of the sultan are divided into vilayets (provinces), which are again subdivided into sanjaks or mutessarifliks (arrondissements), these into kazas (cantons), and the kazas into nahies (parishes or communes). A vali or governor-general, nominated by the sultan, stands at the head of the vilayet, and on him are directly dependent the kaimakams, mutassarifs, deftardars and other administrators of the minor divisions. All these officials unite in their own persons the judicial and executive functions, under the "Law of the Vilayets", which made its appearance in 1861, and purported, and was really intended by its framers, to confer on the provinces a large measure of self-government, in which both Mussulmans and non-Mussulmans should take part. It really, however, had the effect of centralizing the whole power of the country more absolutely than ever in the sultan's hands, since the Valis were wholly in his undisputed power, while the ex officio official members of the local councils secured a perpetual Mussulman majority.
Vilayets of Europe in 1870
Vilayets in 1877
Vilayets of Europe in 1893
Vilayets of Asia in 1897
Vilayets of Asia in 1909
Vilayets of Europe in 1910
Vilayets of Asia in 1911