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4 Ottoman Sultans Who Break Stereotypes

4 Ottoman Sultans Who Break Stereotypes

On the cover: portraits of Ottoman sultans; from left to right: Mahmud II, Abdul Mejid, Abdul Aziz, Murad V.

Not all the Turkish sultans of the nineteenth century were demoniacal despots like Selim I Yavuz [the Bloodthirsty] (1512—1520), or Abdul Hamid II “The Damned” (1876—1908). In fact, four of the five Turkish sultans of the nineteenth century were benevolent autocrats who sincerely wished to reform Turkey. They tried to democratize the system by giving equal rights to all the subjects of the empire, irrespective of race or religion, and attempted to improve the image of the “gehenna on earth” by giving it the semblance of a European state.

The fact that these progressive monarchs did not succeed, and that the sufferings of the Armenians in the eastern provinces continued undiminished throughout the nineteenth century, should not be blamed on the well-intentioned sultans of the nineteenth century. The sufferings and tribulations of the Armenian people sprang from other power centers in the system — the viziers, the pashas, the mayors, the governors, and especially the Muslim religious leaders, the imams and mullahs. These zealots advocated the killing or torturing of Christian dogs as part of their religious dogma, and they taught the Muslim masses to believe that the perpetrators of these acts would acquire beautiful virgins (houris) in heaven.

Sultan Mahmud II (1808—1839)

Tsar Nicholas I, who acceded to the Russian throne on December 26, 1825, called Turkey "the Sick Man of Europe.” His contemporary, Sultan Mahmud II, who ruled Turkey from 1808 to 1839, knew that Turkey was decadent and corrupt. He tried to Europeanize his country in imitation of Peter the Great of Russia. Up to that time he was the most open-minded and equitable sultan ever to accede to the Turkish throne. He presented his portrait to the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Order in Venice, as a sign of appreciation for their work. (The painting still hangs in one of the hallways of the monastery.)

As a first step in his plans of reformation, he destroyed the power of the yenicheris [new regiments] by massacring twenty thousand of them in June 1826.

The old Turks, the mullahs, and the dervishes began whispering to each other: “Who is this padishah [king] who wants to give equal rights to all his subjects, regardless of race or religion; who drinks wine; orders mustaches to be trimmed; is introducing European manners into our country; and has taken the giaours [infidels] of the Empire under his protection?”

Sultan Mahmud II

One day, as Mahmud II was crossing the bridge of Constantinople on horseback, a dervish dashed at the king, held his horse by the bridle, and exclaimed, “Giaour Padishah, aren’t you fed up with your dirty deeds? You will be accountable to Allah for your impious life. You are destroying Islam, and the curse of Allah will fall upon us all.”

The Sultan shrugged his shoulders and said, “He’s crazy!”

“Crazy?” retorted the enraged dervish, “I’m not crazy. You are crazy, giaour Patishah! God speaks through me. I must obey Him and confess the truth. As compensation, He has promised me the crown of martyrdom.”

The dervish was beheaded. Mahmud abolished the order of the dervishes and declared, “Whoever opposes the reforms will be punished.”

The sultan used the sword, the scaffold, and banishment, in order to implement the reforms, but to no avail. For thirty years the struggle continued between this one man and virtually the entire nation. In general the mentality of the people was not too different from that of the dervishes. Mahmud wanted to “cure” his corrupt country by implementing reforms, but he failed because of the Greek uprising, the Russo-Turkish war of 1828, and the predominantly conservative elements of the country, who were opposed to any change or reforms in the administrative setup.

Sultan Mahmud II was sincere in his aspirations to change the image of his country, but still he was not a man without reproach. He annihilated, almost to a man, the noted Armenian Duzian dynasty based on charges leveled by jealous parties and without proper investigation to determine the facts. The Duzians were enormously rich. They were in charge of the Turkish Royal Mint for about one hundred years. In addition to minting the gold and silver coins of the Ottoman Empire, the Duzians were the official jewelers and goldsmiths of the Turkish royalty and their families. One of the most prominent members of the Duzian dynasty was Hakop Chalabi [or Chelebi (a title of nobility)] Duz.

Sultan Abdul Mejid (1839—1861)

Sultan Mahmud II was succeeded by his son, Abdul Mejid, who was eighteen years old when he ascended the throne. The young Sultan, inspired by his father’s dreams of transforming Turkey into a modern European state, declared the Tanzimat [Reforms Decree] on November 3, 1839. With this new legislation, the sultan promised all the subjects of the empire security for life, honor, and property, regardless of the subjects’ nationality or religion. Discrimination between Muslims and Christians was forbidden.

Sultan Abdul Mejid had a special affection towards the Armenians. He allowed them to write a National Constitution which would have regulated Armenian internal and religious life in the country. The Constitution, originally consisting of 150 articles, was prepared by the Armenian intellectuals — Grigor Odian, Servichen (Serovbe Vichenian), G. Balian, Nahapet Rousinian — and a few bishops. 

Sultan Abdul Mejid 

The Armenian bourgeois class including the amiras, the chalabist and the effendis [all titles of nobility] and the clergy in general opposed the constitution. They found it too “liberal.” Actually they were apprehensive of the fact that the Armenian National Constitution would curtail their privileges as a bourgeois class.

The government establishment, which was opposed to any legislation favoring the Christians, did not approve of the constitution either. A new committee, consisting of fourteen civilians and five clergymen, worked out a new constitution comprising 99 articles (instead of 150).

Mikayel Nalbandian (the revolutionary poet) joked: “The Armenian National Constitution was circumcised.” The Grand Vizier of the Turkish government said with sarcasm: “It’s a square wheel that won’t turn.” The Belgian Rolin Jackmens wrote: “This document contained everything except an article that would prevent the Kurds from stealing the cattle of the Armenian peasants, forbid the Kurdish begs from raping Armenian girls, and prevent the tax collectors from collecting the same tax two or three times from the Armenian villagers.” After lots of amendments the Armenian National Constitution was finally approved by the government on March 15, 1863.

The title page of the Armenian National Constitution

Sultan Abdul Mejid was a humble and mild-mannered monarch. He assigned two grand viziers to run the affairs of the state while he, a pleasure-seeking young sovereign, led an extravagant life. He spent most of his time enjoying the delights of his harem and drinking arak [a Middle-Eastern liquor]. He died at the age of thirty-nine.

Sultan Abdul Aziz (1861—1876)

Abdul Mejid was succeeded by his brother Abdul Aziz, who was thirty-two years old when he inherited the throne. The Old Turkish Party, which vehemently opposed reforms or Europeanization of the country, hoped that Abdul Aziz would turn the clock backwards by refusing to grant equal rights to the Christian rayas. They were soon frustrated to learn that the new sultan was as enthusiastic about reforms as his predecessors.

Sultan Abdul Aziz

Abdul Aziz, another pleasure-seeking monarch, spent most of his fifteen-year reign with his four official wives and thirteen hundred concubines. (According to another source, Abdul Aziz had “nine hundred wives.”). Although he found time to discuss reforms with his ministers, he failed to enact them because of the aforementioned opposition. The mufti, the grand-vizier, and the minister of war could not reconcile themselves to the fact that the sultan considered his subjects equal and meant to treat them that way. These three men conspired against the sultan and overthrew him on May 29, 1876. Five days later Abdul Aziz was found dead in the palace.

More than any other group, the Armenians mourned the assassination of this liberal-minded monarch.

Sultan Murad V (1876—1876)

Avni Pasha, leader of the conspirators against Sultan Abdul Aziz, sought out Murad, heir to the throne, to tell him that he was to be the next sultan. Avni was surprised to find the eldest son of Abdul Aziz hiding in the corner of a room, trembling with fear due to the military movements and turmoil outside the palace. His father’s assassins greeted him by saying, “Long live our king!”

The new monarch was a carbon copy of his father in regard to reforms, Europeanizing the country, and granting equal rights to all his subjects, irrespective of race or religion.

Sultan Murad V

The day Murad V ascended the throne at age thirty-seven he declared: “We will rule this land guided by the ideas of freedom.” He assigned Zia Bey, leader of the Young Turks, to be his prime minister.

Murad was the fourth sultan in a row to try to change the old order in Turkey, granting equal rights to the Christian rayas. The Old Turks could take it no longer. Plotting against Murad began immediately. He was deposed on August 31, 1876, after ruling about three months. The pretext for his removal was: “He is mentally slow.” He was placed under house arrest and confined to Chraghan Palace the rest of his life.

Murad V was the last sultan who was interested in reforms. The reactionary Old Turks finally found their ideal ruler in the person of Abdul Hamid II, Murad’s younger brother.

With Murad V out of the way, Abdul Hamid II was ushered in as the Sultan of Turkey. He became a notorious tyrant, the scourge of the Armenian nation.

Author: Antranig Chalabian, a medical illustrator, cartographer and historian, an author of several volumes on Armenian history.


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