Millet system

Millet is a term for the confessional communities in the Ottoman Empire. It refers to the separate legal courts pertaining to "personal law" under which communities (Muslim Sharia, Christian Canon law and Jewish Halakha law abiding) were allowed to rule themselves under their own system. After the Ottoman Tanzimat (1839–76) reforms, the term was used for legally protected religious minority groups, similar to the way other countries use the word nation. The word Millet comes from the Arabic word millah (ملة) and literally means "nation". The Millet system of Islamic law has been called an early example of pre-modern religious pluralism.[1]


Template:Taxation in the Ottoman Empire sidebar The millet system has a long history in the Middle East, and is closely linked to Islamic rules on the treatment of non−Muslim minorities (dhimmi). The Ottoman term specifically refers to the separate legal courts pertaining to personal law under which minorities were allowed to rule themselves (in cases not involving any Muslim) with fairly little interference from the Ottoman government. The concept was used for the communities of the Church of the East under the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persia in the 4th century before establishment of the Ottoman Empire.[2]

People were bound to their millets by their religious affiliations (or their confessional communities), rather than their ethnic origins, according to the millet concept.[3] The head of a millet — most often a religious hierarch such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople or, in earlier times, the Patriarch of the East — reported directly to the Ottoman Sultan or the Sassanid king, respectively. The millets had a great deal of power — they set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes. All that was required was loyalty to the Empire. When a member of one millet committed a crime against a member of another, the law of the injured party applied, but the ruling Islamic majority being paramount, any dispute involving a Muslim fell under their sharia−based law.

Later, the perception of the millet concept was altered in the 19th century by the rise of nationalism within the Ottoman Empire.


After the decline of the Church of the East in the 14th century, until the 19th century (Reformation Era) beside the Muslim millet, the main millets were the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox.[4] Armenians formed more than one (actually three) millets under the Ottoman rule.[5] A wide array of other groups such as Catholics, Karaites and Samaritans was also represented.


Muslim communities prospered under the Ottoman Empire, as the Sultan was also the Caliph. Ottoman law did not recognize such notions as ethnicity or citizenship; thus, a Muslim of any ethnic background enjoyed precisely the same rights and privileges. It was claimed[by whom?] that under such conditions, Muslim Arabs came to view the empire as a revived Islamic empire. The Muslim millet united different populations regardless of ethnic and linguistic distinctions: Turkish, Arab, Kurdish, Albanian and speakers of Caucasian languages.[6] However, even if Caliphate played a significant role, the real existence of these feelings is questionable long before the Arab Revolt and the subsequent dissolution of the empire in the 20th century. By the 17th century, the Maghreb regencies were only nominally under Ottoman control and Egypt was almost independent by the beginning of the 19th century.

Creeds which were seen as deviant forms of the Caliphal dynasty's Sunni Islam – such as Shi'as, Alawis, Alevis and Yezidis – had no official status and were considered to be part of the Muslim millet; only the syncretic Druze of the Djebel Druze and Mount Lebanon enjoyed feudal−type autonomy. These groups were spread across the empire with significant minorities in most of the major cities. Autonomy for these groups was thus impossible to base on a territorial region.

Orthodox Christians

The Orthodox Christians were included in the Rum Millet (millet-i Rûm), or the "Roman nation" conquered by Islam but enjoying a certain autonomy. It was named after Greek ("Roman") subjects of the Ottoman Empire, but Orthodox Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Vlachs, Georgians, Arabs, Romanians and Serbs were all considered part of the same millet despite their differences in ethnicity and language and despite the fact that the religious hierarchy was Greek dominated.

The Ecumenical Patriarch was recognized as the highest religious and political leader (millet-bashi, or ethnarch) of all Orthodox subjects of the Sultan, though in certain periods some major powers, such as Russia (under the 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca), or Britain claimed the rights of protection over the Ottoman Empire's Orthodox subjects. The Peć Patriarchate and the Archbishopric of Ohrid which were autonomous Orthodox Churches under the tutelage of the Ecumenical Patriarch were taken over by the Greek Phanariotes during the 18th century, in 1766 and 1767 respectively.

Armenians (Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical)

Until the 19th century, there was a single Armenian millet which served all ethnic Armenians irrespective of whether they belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church or the Armenian Protestant Church (which was formed in the 19th century).[3] Only later did a separate Catholic millet emerge. Non-Armenians from churches which were theologically linked to the Armenian Church (by virtue of being non-Chalcedonians) were under the authority of the Armenian Patriarchate, although they maintained a separate hierarchy with their own Patriarchs. These groups included the Syriac Orthodox and the Copts.

Syriac Orthodox

The Syriac Orthodox started out under the Armenian patriarchate but petitioned the Sublime Porte for separate status, mainly as western contacts allowed them a voice of their own. Thus the Syriac Apostolic Church of Antioch and all the East (Jacobite, later changed to Syriac) received recognition as a separate community "millet" as did the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic and the melet of the Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian Church). The last was the most remote of the Churches in distance from the Porte (in Constantinople[7][8]).[9]


Under the Millet system the Jews were organized as a community on the basis of religion, alongside the other millets (e.g. Orthodox millet, Armenian millet, etc.). In the framework of the millet they had a considerable amount of administrative autonomy and were represented by the Hakham Bashi (Turkish: Hahambaşı حاخامباشی), who held broad powers to legislate, judge and enforce the laws among the Jews in the Ottoman Empire and often sat on the Sultan's divan.

The Ottoman Jews enjoyed similar privileges to those of the Orthodox. The city of Thessaloniki received a great influx of Jews in the 15th century and soon flourished economically to such an extent that, during the 18th century, it was the largest and possibly the most prosperous Jewish city in the world. By the early 20th century, Ottoman Jews – together with Armenian and Greeks - dominated commerce within the Empire.

The Jews, like the other millet communities of the Ottoman Empire, were still considered a people of the book and protected by the Sharia Law of Islam. However, while the Jews were not viewed in the eyes of the law to be on an equal playing field with Muslims, they were still treated relatively well at points during the Ottoman Empire. Norman Stillman explains that the prosperity of medieval Jews was closely tied to that of their Muslim governors. Stillman references the time between the 9th and 13th centuries in which Jewish culture blossomed as "medieval Islamic civilization was at its apogee."[10] > That is not to say that the Jews weren't persecuted during this time and that as the Empire declined in centuries to come the Jews’ condition did not worsen. However, given their rampant persecution in medieval Europe, many Jews looked favorably upon millet.

In the late 19th century such groups as the Bilu, a group of young Russian Jews who were pioneers of the Zionist resettlement of Palestine, proposed negotiating with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to allow a millet like settlement which would grant them autonomy yet not sovereignty. That is not to say that they sought to replace the old Jewish millet system, for they sought much greater independence, however, it is important to note that the Zionist movement did not reject the millet system in its beginning.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, Palestine came under the control of the British Empire who, decided to create the state of Israel. "The millet system that Israel adopted upon its independence was a highly pluralized and decentralized legal system under which the Ottoman and British imperial authorities granted juridical autonomy over matters of personal status (e.g., marriage, divorce, succession, maintenance and alimony) to eleven ethno-religious communities in Palestine."[11] The reasoning behind Israel's implementation of a such a system upon its religious and ethnic minorities remains unclear. From an ideological standpoint it is surprising that the Israeli government, a Jewish state, advocates a system of government modeled in many ways off the same millet system which once represented the oppression and persecution of Jews. Furthermore, this approach to the governance of their state has been met with a great deal of criticism by both those inside Israel and those in surrounding Arab countries.

Yuksel Sezgin, a professor of comparative politics at the City University of New York claims that "Israel has not attempted to put an end to the multiplicity of religious courts and unify them under a network of national courts, as Egypt did in 1955. Nor has it ever tried to abolish the religious personal status laws of various communities and enact a secular and uniform civil code in their place, as India did in the 1950s. Rather, it has maintained a modified form of old millet system in which religious courts of fourteen State-recognized communities, staffed with their very own communal judges who apply religious and customary laws of their own communities, are granted exclusive jurisdiction over matters of marriage and divorce and concurrent jurisdiction with the civil courts in regard to issues of maintenance and succession."[11] In other words Israel "utilized the old millet system in the nation-building process as an instrument of vertical segmentation and horizontal homogenization."[11]

The new notion Sezgin suggests of Israel's government as a "new millet" system should not be confused with the millet system of medieval Islam. Under the Ottoman millet system, for example, a Jew's word would always mean less than a Muslim's in a court of law; members of the millets were truly second class citizens whom were legally inferior to Muslims. Israel's "new millet" is more a practice of separate-but-equal in which all members of the state are equal but subject to different legal systems according to race and ethnicity. While the claim may be made that Israel's system lacks modernity, it is perhaps a step too far drawing a comparison between it and a medieval theocratic structure of government.

Roman Catholics

After the fall of Constantinople the only Latin Catholic group to be incorporated into the Sultan's domain were the Genoese who lived in the Byzantine capital. Over the next decades Turkish armies pushed into the Balkans, overrunning the Catholic population of Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Hungary. In the Orient, the 16th century saw the Maronites of Lebanon, the Latins of Palestine and most of the Greek islands, which once held Latin Catholic communities, come under Turkish rule. Papal response to the loss of these communities was initially a call to the crusade, but the response from the European Catholic monarchs was weak. French interest, however, lay in an alliance with the Turks against the Habsburgs. As a bonus, the Catholics of the Ottoman world received a protector at the Porte in the person of the French ambassador. In this way the Roman Catholic millet was established at the start of the Tanzimat reforms.[12]


Millets are recorded as early as the 4th century in the Persian Sassanid Empire, which was primarily Zoroastrian.[2][13] The early Christians there were forming the Church of the East (later known as the Nestorian Church after the Nestorian schism). The Church of the East's leader, the Catholicos or Patriarch of the East, was responsible to the Persian king for the Christians within the Empire. This system of maintaining the Christians as a protected religious community continued after the Islamic conquest of the Sassanids, and the community of Nestorian Christians flourished and was able to send missionaries far past the Empire's borders, reaching as far as China and India.

Ottoman establishment

In the Ottoman Empire, Christian Millets were instituted by Sultan Mehmet II after he had conquered Constantinople in 1453 and set himself to reorganise the Ottoman State as the conscious heir of the East Roman Empire. They are national corporations with written charters, often of an elaborate kind. Each of them is presided over by a Patriarch, who holds office at the discretion of the Government, but is elected by the community and is the recognised intermediary between the two, combining in his own person the headship of a voluntary "Rayah" association and the status of an Ottoman official. The special function thus assigned to the Patriarchates gives the Millets, as an institution, an ecclesiastical character(220); and the authority of the Patriarchates extends to the control of schools, and even to the administration of certain branches of civil law.

19th century (Reformation Era)

New millets were created in the 19th century for several Uniate and Protestant Christian communities, then for the separate Eastern Orthodox Bulgarian Church, recognized as a millet by an Ottoman firman in 1870 and excommunicated two years later by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate as adherents of phyletism (national or ethnic principle in church organization).[4] In the period before World War I there were seventeen millets within the Empire.

Reformulation into Ottomanism

Before the turn of the 19th century, the millets had a great deal of power — they set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes. Tanzimat reforms aimed to encourage Ottomanism among the secessionist subject nations and stop the rise of nationalist movements within the Ottoman Empire, but failed to succeed despite trying to integrate non−Muslims and non−Turks more thoroughly into the Ottoman society with new laws and regulations. With the Tanzimat era the regulation called "Regulation of the Armenian Nation" (Turkish: "Nizâmnâme−i Millet−i Ermeniyân") was introduced on March 29, 1863, over the Millet organization, which granted extensive privileges and autonomy concerning self−governance. The Armenian Nation, "Millet−i Ermeniyân", which is considered here, is the Armenian Orthodox Gregorian nation (millet) of that time. In a very short time, the Ottoman Empire passed another regulation over "Nizâmnâme−i Millet−i Ermeniyân" developed by the Patriarchate Assemblies of Armenians, which was named as the Islahat Fermânı (Firman of the Reforms). The "Firman of the Reforms" gave immense privileges to the Armenians, which formed a "governance in governance" to eliminate the aristocratic dominance of the Armenian nobles by development of the political strata in the society.[14] These two reforms, which were theoretically perfect examples of social change by law, brought serious stress over Ottoman political and administrative structure.

Effect of Protectorate of missions

The Ottoman System lost the mechanisms of its existence from the assignment of protection of citizen rights of their subjects to other states. People were not citizens of the Ottoman Empire anymore but of other states, due to the Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire to European powers, protecting the rights of their citizens within the Empire. The Russians became formal Protectors of Eastern Orthodox groups, the French of Roman Catholics and the British of Jews and other groups.

Russia and England competed for the Armenians; the Eastern Orthodox perceived American Protestants, who had over 100 missionaries established in Anatolia by World War I, as weakening their own teaching.

These religious activities, subsidized by the governments of western nations, were not devoid of political goals, such in the case of candlestick wars of 1847. Tension began among the Catholic and Orthodox monks in Palestine with France channeling resources to increase its influence in the region from 1840. Repairs to shrines were important for the sects as they were linked to the possession of keys to the temples. Notes were given by the protectorates, including the French, to the Ottoman capital about the governor; he was condemned as he had to defend the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by placing soldiers inside the temple because of the candlestick wars, eliminating the change of keys. Successive Ottoman governments had issued edicts granting primacy of access to different Christian groups which vied for control of Jerusalem's holy sites.[15]

Effect of nationalism

Under the original design, the multi-faced structure of the millet system was unified under the house of Osman. The rise of nationalism in Europe under the influence of the French revolution had extended to the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. Each millet became increasingly independent with the establishment of its own schools, churches, hospitals and other facilities. These activities effectively moved the Christian population outside the framework of the Ottoman political system.

The Ottoman millet system (citizenship) began to degrade with the continuous identification of the religious creed with ethnic nationality. The interaction of ideas of French revolution with the Ottoman Millet system created a breed of thought (a new form of personal identification) which turned the concept of nationalism synonymous with religion under the Ottoman flag. It was impossible to hold the system or prevent Clash of Civilizations when the Armenian national liberation movement expressed itself within the Armenian church. Patriarch Nerses Varjabedyan expresses his position on Ottoman Armenians to British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Salisbury on April 13, 1878.[16]

It is no longer possible for the Armenians and the Turks to live together. Only a Christian administration can provide the equality, justice and the freedom of conscience. A Christian administration should replace the Muslim administration. Armenia (Eastern Anatolia) and Kilikya, are the regions where the Christian administration should be founded... The Turkish Armenians want this... That is, a Christian administration is demanded in Turkish Armenia, as in Lebanon.[16]

Modern use

Today the millet system is still used at varying degrees in some post−Ottoman countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and Greece (for religious minorities). It is also in use in states like India, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh which observe the principle of separate personal courts and/or laws for every recognized religious community and reserved seats in the parliament.

In Egypt for instance, the application of family law – including marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody, inheritance and burial – is based on an individual's religious beliefs. In the practice of family law, the State recognizes only the three "heavenly religions": Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Muslim families are subject to the Personal Status Law, which draws on Sharia. Christian families are subject to canon law, and Jewish families are subject to Jewish law. In cases of family law disputes involving a marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man, the courts apply the Personal Status Law.[17]

Israel, too, keeps a system based on the Ottoman-derived Millet, in which personal status is based on a person's belonging to a religious community. The state of Israel — on the basis of laws inherited from Ottoman times and retained both under British rule and by independent Israel — reserves the right to recognise some communities but not others. Thus, Orthodox Judaism is officially recognised in Israel, while Reform Rabbis and Conservative Rabbis are not recognised and cannot perform marriages. Israel recognised the Druze as a separate community, which the Ottomans and British had not — due mainly to political considerations. Also, the state of Israel reserves the right to determine to which community a person belongs, and officially register him or her accordingly — even when the person concerned objects to being part of a religious community (e.g., staunch atheists of Jewish origin are registered as members of the Jewish religious community, a practice derived ultimately from the fact that the Ottoman Millet ultimately designated a person's ethnicity more than a person's beliefs).

Israeli secularists such as Shulamit Aloni and Uri Avnery often protested and called for abolition of this Ottoman remnant, and its replacement by a system modeled on that of the United States where religious affiliation is considered a person's private business in which the state should not interfere. However, all such proposals have been defeated.

Greece recognizes only a Muslim minority, and no ethnic or national minorities, such as Turks, Pomaks or Slavo-Macedonians. This is the result of the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations of 1923 and of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1924, when the old millet categories were used for the forced population exchanges (reciprocal ethnic cleansing) of the Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey (except from Istanbul,and the isles of Gokcheada and Bozcaada) and Muslims from Greece (except from Western Thrace), as well as for the protection of the two remaining recognized minorities, the "Muslims of Western Thrace" (Turks, Pomaks and Roms) and the "Greek Orthodox of Istanbul".

Current meaning of the word

Today, the term "millet" means the word "people" in Turkish. It also retains its use as a religious and ethnic classification; it can also be used as a slang to classify people belonging to a particular group (not necessarily religious or ethnic), such as dolmuşçu milleti ("those who belong to the commercial minivan taxi drivers group") or kadın milleti ("all women").

See also



  • Ottoman empire site, German full original version

Further reading

  • Benjamin Braude und Bernard Lewis (ed.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vol., New York und London 1982.
  • Josef Matuz, Das Osmanische Reich. Grundlinien seiner Geschichte, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1985.
  • Bernard Lewis, Die Juden in der islamischen Welt. Vom frühen Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert, München: Beck, 1987, passim.
  • Dimitris Stamatopoulos, “From Millets to Minorities in the 19th – Century Ottoman Empire: an Ambiguous Modernization”, in S. G. Ellis, G. Hálfadanarson, A.K. Isaacs (επιμ.), Citizenship in Historical Perspective, Pisa: Edizioni Plus – Pisa University Press, 2006, 253-273

  • Henry Blount, A Voyage into the Levant (1636), Amsterdam 1977. Originally titled: A Voyage into the Levant. A Briefe Relation of a Journey. Lately performed by Master H.B. Gentleman, from England by the way of Venice, into Dalmatia, Sclavonia, Bosnah, Hungary, Macedonia, Thessaly, Thrace, Rhodes and Egypt, unto Gran Cairo: With particular observations concerning the moderne condition of the Turkes, and other people under that Empire. London, 1636.
  • Michael Ursinus, Zur Diskussion um „millet“ im Osmanischen Reich, in: Südost−Forschungen 48 (1989), pp. 195–207
  • Nicola Melis, “Il concetto di ğihād”, in P. Manduchi (a cura di), Dalla penna al mouse. Gli strumenti di diffusione del concetto di gihad, Angeli, Milano 2006, pp. 23–54.
  • Nicola Melis, “Lo statuto giuridico degli ebrei dell’Impero Ottomano”, in M. Contu – N. Melis - G. Pinna (a cura di), Ebraismo e rapporti con le culture del Mediterraneo nei secoli XVIII-XX, Giuntina, Firenze 2003.
  • Nicola Melis, Trattato sulla guerra. Il Kitāb al-ğihād di Molla Hüsrev, Aipsa, Cagliari 2002.Benjamin Braude und Bernard Lewis (ed.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vol., New York und London 1982.
  • Irwin Cemil Schick, Osmanlılar, Azınlıklar ve Yahudiler [Osmanen, Minoritäten und Juden], in: Tarih ve Toplum 29 (Mayıs 1986), 34–42.
  • Elizabeth A. Zachariadou, Co−Existence and Religion, in: Archivum Ottomanicum 15 (1997), 119–29.
  • Bat Yeór, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam, Cranbury, NJ, 1985.
  • Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues, Christians and Jews under Islam, translated by Judy Mabro, London−New York 1997.
  • Karl Binswanger, Untersuchungen zum Status der Nichtmuslime im Osmanischen Reich des 16. Jahrhunderts mit einer Neudefinition des Begriffes "Dhimma", München 1977.
  • Yavuz Ercan, Osmanlı Yönetiminde Gayrimüslimler. Kuruluştan Tanzimat´a kadar Sosyal, Ekonomik ve Hukuki Durumları [Die Nichtmuslime in der osmanischen Verwaltung. Soziale, wirtschaftliche und rechtliche Lage von der Gründung bis zur Tanzimat], Ankara 2001.
  • Paret, Rudi: Toleranz und Intoleranz im Islam, in: Saeculum 21 (1970), 344–65.
  • Bilal Eryılmaz, Osmanlı Devletinde Gayrimüslim Teb´anın Yönetimi [Die Verwaltung der nichtmuslimischen Untertanen im Osmanischen Reich], İstanbul 1990, pp. 215–18.
  • Fikret Adanır, Der Zerfall des Osmanischen Reiches, in: Das Ende der Weltreiche: von den Persern bis zur Sowjetunion, hrsg. von Alexander Demant, München 1997, S. 108–28.
  • Ramsaur, Ernest Edmondson Jr., The Young Turks. Prelude to the Revolution of 1908, 2. ed., İstanbul 1982, pp. 40–1, Anm. 30: ”Meşveret”, Paris, 3. Dezember 1895.
  • Fikret Adanır, Die Makedonische Frage, ihre Entstehung und Entwicklung bis 1908, Wiesbaden 1979, p. 93.
  • Johannes Lepsius, & others (ed.), Die Große Politik der europäischen Kabinette 1871–1914. Sammlung der diplomatischen Akten des Auswärtigen Amtes, Berlin 1923–29, vol. 18, Teil I, p. 169.
  • Fatma Müge Göçek, Burjuvazinin Yükselişi, İmparatorluğun Çöküşü. Osmanlı Batılılaşması ve Toplumsal Değişme [Rise of the Bourgeoisie, decline of the empires. Ottoman westernisation and social change], Ankara 1999, pp. 307–09
  • Çağlar Keyder, Bureaucracy and Bourgeoisie: Reform and Revolution in the Age of Imperialism, in: Review, XI, 2, Spring 1988, pp. 151–65.
  • Roderic H. Davison, Turkish Attitudes Concerning Christian−Muslim Equality in the Nineteenth Century, in: American Historical Review 59 (1953−54), pp. 844–864.
  • Bernard Lewis, Der Untergang des Morgenlandes. Warum die islamische Welt ihre Vormacht verlor, Bonn 2002, p. 99.
  • Bernard Lewis, Stern, Kreuz und Halbmond. 2000 Jahre Geschichte des Nahen Ostens, München, Zürich 1995, p. 302.
  • Ortaylı, İlber. Son İmparatorluk Osmanlı (The Last Empire: Ottoman Empire), İstanbul, Timaş Yayınları (Timaş Press), 2006. ISBN 975-263-490-7
  • Ortaylı, İlber. Osmanlı Barışı (Ottoman Peace), İstanbul, Timaş Yayınları (Timaş Press), 2007. ISBN 978-975-263-516-6
  • Dimitri Kitsikis, Türk-Yunan İmparatorluğu. Arabölge gerçeği ışığında Osmanlı tarihine bakış,(The Turco-Greek Empire. A study of Ottoman history from the point of view of the Intermediate Region) İstanbul, İletişim, 1996. ISBN 975-470-504-6

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