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The reign of Abdulhamid H
The place occupied by 5‘uhan Ahdiilham'd H in law. Ottoman and
Turkish history is as important as it is controversial. As the
only reign in the late Ottoman period to be known by the oam?
of its sultan, the ’Hamidtan' period {1H7&-- 1908! stands out
among the othereras of the*, nineteenth- and twentieth-century
Turkish history. Opinions of Ahdiilhamid's legac y reveal a
striking degree of contradiction; some authors have criticised
rhe sultan tor being undemocratic’ and authoritarian, while
others have lionised him as 'democratic* and a builder of
consensus: he has been both vilified as the 'red suk«m” and
lauded as the Mast' or 'great sultan'. Debate over his place
in history continues today, especially in Turkey where it has
been the focus of a fascinating and ongoing re-evaluation.
Even the subsequent fate ofihe sultan's library at Yildue
palace became a subject of controversy, with staunch Kemaiisrs
attempting to disperse its collections so as to remove an
embarrassing monument to Ahdulhanud's memory’.1 Whether
Abdulhamid is vilified as a reactionary despot or lauded as a
key moderniser of the. Ottoman Empire and the last defender of
Islam from the encroachments of the West, his reign wax
crucial to many critical developments affecting Turkey and the
modem Middle Bast.
Given the importance of AbdOJhamid's reign, ir is hardly
surprising that a vast literature has developed around it.
Beginning while he was still on rhe throne, the stream of
writings has been joined by a number of other sources to
produce a veritable flood Much of the result, particularly
that produced after his downfall, has been quite negative m
its assessment. During the Second Constitutional or Young
Turk7 Period {1:00818), and especially the early decades of
rhe Turkish Republic, historians tended to be extremely
critical of his reign. an unsurprising stance given, that the
strident secularism of the era
1 Kcmai f 1 Karpas, The PttUtkmitn'-H cjhlam: Reconstructing
McntUy, Stale Faith. £>*»• mutritv in the Latr Ottoman Start
(Nw York: C.*Tfhrd University Press. jeo?k p. it*>.
The eeign ofAbdtiihamid 0
was amitheuea! to die perceived Hamidian posture. During the
1960s, scholars began to reconsider AbdiSlhamids reign. The
process of rehabilitation has in some eases veered into
advocacy as his legacy has been dairoed by Islamists who
nostalgicaDy favour the: recurn ofasultan-caliph in the
Islamic world and by proponents of the Islamist political
movement in Turkey. in the early 1990s when political Islamism
was on the rise, the name of Abdliihamid II would sometimes
appear on the walls of some conservative districts in Istanbul
next to campaign posters for the Islamist Refab (Welfare)
Party. The subsequent polemical appropriation of Abdtilhamid
underscores both his importance as a historical figure and his
continued relevance to historical and ideological change m
Turkey In this chapter, I place Abdulhamid's reign in the
context of both the historical development of the late Ottoman
Empire and the subsequent historiographical turns, but locus
mainly on the events and currents of the Hamidian era itself2
Abdiilhamid and the preceding Tanzimar era: continuation or
Histories of the Tanzimat era (*839-76} have tended to
emphasise the Western sources of emulation for Ottoman reforms
and the passive reception of Western influence. Recently,
historians have challenged this interpretation, focusing on
the indigenous desiderata of Ottoman officials during the crucial period in which major attempts were launched to overhaul
the Ortoman state arid place it on a rational administrative
footing.-’ Recent scholarship has credited Abdtilhamid with
continuing and in many cases actually implementing reforms
that had only been partially realised in the Tanzimat era. Yet
the Hamidian era nevertheless represented an important shift
away from a more hopeful and trusting attitude towards Western
interaction with the Ottoman state. As we shall see. given the
European powers' shift in approach towards the empire and the
changing demographic, economic and military circumstances of
the Ottoman territories, it is not surprising that Hamidian
policy differed from that pursued during the Tanzimat.
Abdulhamid's use of Islam and his attempts to raise the hopes
of Ottoman Muslims have been received with hostility by
Europeans and subsequent
2 Fim 3 thorough review of recent scholarship on the Mamnlam
period, see C>r,fcek, Modcrnne. tarih ve ideoiaji: II.
Abdtflharvud DOuenri tarih^iii^i Uz:erme bir
<iegsrien<linT)c', Tilrkiys Araiitrnutian Utfratiir Dcrgiti i.
t (aoo4>, pp. 7t~£0
3 See. for example. Bmrus Abu Manneh.Thc IsUimic
KooMofCtithanc'. Die. Wch isiawJ i4(j«wa), pp
3 9
historians. For the Great Powers, which had large Muslim
populations in their own empires, the Islamic dimension of
Abdulhamid's rule, incorporating both symbolic ami practical
manifestations, posed a direct challenge. For subsequent gener
ations of historians with nationalist and secularist perspectives, the Hamidian agenda was perhaps equally problematic, as
it contradicted their expectations that the empire would
naturally move to emulate Western practices when possible.
This critique was most acutely observed in the early years of
the Turkish Republic, when most things Ottoman were subjected
to a campaign of vilification,’ official Turkish
historiography dismissed Abduibamicfs reign as a period of
despotism (uriiufad}, dwelling on its secrecy, paranoia and
illiberaltem. ft ignored or de-emphasised other, positive
developments. such as a flourishing popular press, education
for both girls and boys, and a rapid increase in public
services, [n other words, the Hamidian era was largely seen as
an aberration, because it broke with the perceived spirit of
the Tarunmat. The Hamidian implementation of the Tanzimat
programme, albeit with an altered rationale that suited she
changed circumstances of the time, was only grudgingly
accepted and then sometimes only as a grotesque caricature.
The intriguing - maddening, to some - mixture of exogenous
models and indigenous desiderata sat uneasily with those for
whom late Ottoman society was one inevitably divided by an
unbridgeable chasm, referred to in the literature as cultural
dualism'. For this reason. Abdulhamid's reign, though fraught
with historiographical controversy, provides a fascinating
case study of the interplay of domestic and international
considerations in the modern era.
Background and early influences
Abdtilhamid was the product of a union typical of the Ottoman
palace. His father was Sultan Abdulmedd (r. 1839-61) and his
mother was Ttr-t M ujgan, the daughter of a Circassian
chieftain. His binh in Qiragan palace on iz September 1842 was
announced with five volleys of artillery, alerting the
population of Istanbul to the joyful news; seven days
ofceiebration were held and the lights of the city's mosques
were festively illuminated.4 Prince Ahdiilhamid's mother’s
death when he was eleven years old seems to have set him apart
in the life of the palace, encouraging both introspection and
the suspicion for which he was later to become infamous. He
was subsequently entrusted to another of his father's wives,
the childless Perestu. Also a Circassian, she devoted herself
4 S-'ranvtMs Gcnrgcon,
if: k.vtdmn athf?(sHj^-iso<t}{Paris:
Fayard. ioo.iK p. i<*.
The reign of Ahdlilhamid II
his upbringing, but it is likely that the lass of his mother,
his father's favouring of his more outgoing older brother
Murad and the environment of palace politics all encouraged
Abdiilhamids tendency towards reticence and secrecy: As a
young man he was apparently fhnd of drinking and female
company, but his personal physician reportedly warned him of
the adverse affects on his health and he thereafter only
consumed the occasional pre-prandial glass of champagne ro
settle his nerves,5 a habit that his subsequent partisans in
the Islamist camp naturally tend to ignore. However, his
religiosity seems to have been genuine, and appears to have
sustained him through die most trying of times. More
importantly, Islam and its history provided him with an
important political and social compass,
AbdCilhamid’s education was a mixture of influences,
reflecting the changing times of the nineteenth century. Like
all Ottoman princes, he received instruction from private
tutors in a variety of subjects that included such traditional
ones as Arabic, Persian, the Islamic sciences and Ottoman
history; but also French. He learned to play the piano and
developed a life-long penchant for Western classical music and
comic opera, eventually having his own theatre constructed in
Yildiz palace. By imperial tradition he. was to learn a trade:
he chose woodworking and progressed to an advanced level,
apparently finding it a restorative pastime amid the long
horn's he devoted to the affairs of state. While in internal
exile after his deposition he would have more ample
opportunities to practise his craft, and examples of HJS
handiwork can today be seen at Beylcrbcyi palacc, his last
More, important for subsequent political developments was
the interest the young Abdulhamid displayed in the
practicalities of the modern world. Although not a natural
scholar, he possessed an excellent memory and was curious
about finance, political economy and history. He sought out
informs* bon both from high-ranking Ottoman officials and from
a variety of personal contacts he cultivated outside palace
circles. He developed a long-term friendship with the
colourful Hungarianjew Arminius Vamb&ry, benefited from the
advice of his Greek physician Mavroyeni, and learned much from
his personal banker, a Galata Greek named Zarifi who set him
on his way to developing an extensive personal portfolio of
European securities over die course of his lifetime. fn this
respect, Abdulhamid's contacts reflected the integration over
the course of the nineteenth century of traditional Ottoman
economic actors with the financial and cultural networks that
were increasingly prominent in the
Kavpat. The PoiuicizaUfm <*?'isUm. p.
life of the empire 4 Me also showed a sustained interest m
modern forming and animal husbandry. As a prince he began the
kmg-term project of developing a parcel of land given to him
by hss father into a model mid profitable agricultural
enterprise/ Uninterested in romantic literature, he preferred
detective stories, and had an employee of the palace transire
them from foreign languages and read jo him in. rhe evenings
from behind a semen as he fell asleep. The trip he made ro
Europe in with his unde .Sultan Ahdlllam seems to have made a
very strong and generally positive impression cm rhe young
prince, bringing him face to face with signs of the modernity
that he strove to institute in the empire during his long
Abdtilhaniid I Is accession to power and the early years of
his reign* 1876-8
The problems facing the young suit an on his accession were
immense: a very dangerous situation existed in the Balkans,
with a number of rebellions opportunistically watched, if not
exacerbated or even instigated, by Russia; Britain, until
recently the counterweight to Russia in Ottoman eyes, was
essentially neutralised by rhe surge, of popular opinion
against ’the terrible 7‘urk'; the Ottoman treasury had
effectively declared bankruptcy the previous year: and the
circumstances of his own succession meant that AbdQlhamid had
every right to be wary of the senior officials of his own
government . It was hardly a promising srart, and few
observers would have been able to predict that within five
years the sultan would haw gathered into his hands the
instrument necessary for the longest reign of an Ottoman
'»«ltan since the seventeenth c entury.
Due to an extraordinary set of developments, Abdiilhamid
became the third sultan to reign dunng rhe year 1 H76. His
uncle Sultan Abdtilaziz, who had ruled since j8<5i, was forced
to abdicate in May of that year by a amp (Vctai carried out by
a constellation of high ranking Ottoman officials, including
Midhai Pasa (the chief advocate of constitutional and
parliamentary checks on sukanic authority in diis period),
military c-ffioet '*. including Minister of War Hiiseyin Avni
Psi^a. and the students of the religious schools, or urfim.
Abdidharold was apparently appalled by the prospect of n
sitting sultan being removed in this
6 Re$at Ksisaba, 'A 'ime ;-nd a |>U*:c for the mm'ifatt."
ssocsal charsgt: in the Ouotrwn fcjmpire during the "Long
Nineteenth Cenrury"’, in j Migdai ti ai. <;cds.). Penvr <uut
Spcitd FntKti: Dttmltuisicn >tnd Transjf>r*>bHimi H thr
Third XVarid {Cambridge. Cambrulge University Press. p. «‘M7 Exjgin f>cni2 Aicarii. ‘Ahdiilharwtf 11.184* joihv I'hc 3.1th
Ottoman sultan<r. ioo©»\ in Ksmal Qcek (ed >. IV Grtai
0«CT*d« Crnhxm^n (Ankara: YerH TikkSye, 2©oo>. vr*}. 1, p.
The reign of Abdulhamid II
way; in future he would be suspicious of any potential signs
of a rq^etirion at his own expense, and wary of the
involvement of the office of xhc ^cyhiiiisldin in particular *
The leaders of the coup replaced Abdliiazix with Murad V;
who had agreed to promulgate a constitution once installed as
sultan. However, owing to his deteriorating nervous condition,
which was not helped by the suicide in June ofhis predecessor,
Murad lasted only three months on the throne. As Murad's
incapacity for rule became apparent. Midhat Pa§a held
confidential, talks with AbdiUhairud. who stood next in the
Ottoman line of succession. Abdulhamtd agreed to the
constitution (and perhaps even left his interlocutor with the
impression that the future sultan was a supporter of die
liberal cause) but apparently rejected the idea that it be
guaranteed by the European powers, as Midhat ui^ed. Hie back-
and-forth nature of these discussions between Abdtilhamid and
Midhat afforded the opportunity for the future sultan to
change the draft constitution in ways that would prove
derisive. Abdulhamid later sent Midhat himself into internal
exile to the Hijas {where he was later murdered) by invoking
Article 113 on die grounds that Midhat was ’recognised as
dangerous to the safety of the state’.9
The fragility of Sultan Abdiilhamids position was further
emphasised by two failed amps d'etai: that occurred during the
first years ofhis reign. Many writers have accuscd AbdtSJhamid
of paranoia, bu 1 he had real cause for worry. The first and
most significant of the conspiracies against him was organised
by the Oskttdar Society under the leadership of the so-called
‘atrbaned revolutionary’ Ali Suavi.’° The society had
organised a demonstration outside Ciragstn palace aimed at
restoring the deposed sultan, Murad, who was effectively
imprisoned inside. The attempted coup failed and Ali Suavi was
killed when forces loyal to Abdtilhamid crushed the uprising.
Hie second conspiracy, that of the SkaJieri-Aziz Bey
committee, also intended to restore Murad to the throne. The
authorities detected die plot and apprehended most of its
members before they could launch it.“ Kegardless of the
efficacy of these two conspiracies, they reinforced young
Sultan Abdulhamid’s anxieties concerning the potential
weakness of his position.
* Karpai, cfhiam. p. i6i.
9 An tijtgUsh tratisliUjon ofsekvted articles of the Ottoman
cmwiturion of ran be. found in Rohen G. Laralen, The Emerg&ui
of £}»c Modem Muftik Eusu Sctrxied Retuling* (New York: Van
NostramJ RcmhoSU, 1070). pp. 9H10A.
10 Bernard Lewis, Tht Emergence of Modern Turkey, and edn.
(London: Oxford University Press, p. 17?.
ix Florian Riedler. 'Opposition to the Tan2Jm.1t State:
Conspiracy and Legitimacy in the Ottoman Empire, JS59-1S7K ,
Ph.D. thesis. University of London {2003).
But a far greater danger to his reign came in the form of
the war with Russia during die years; 187?-$. Referred to in
Ottoman history as the “93 War' because it was fought during
the year 12^3 in the Islamic calendar, this conflict was
devastating for the Ottoman Empire and instrumental in shaping
the subsequent course of the Hamidian era. To fully appreciate
both the causes and the subsequent impact of this war, it is
necessary to understand the confluence of forces at work. The
empire that Abdtilhamid inherited upon his accession was
effectively bankrupt. Unable to meet the full obligations of
its foreign debt in 1875, the Ottoman treasury was in dire
straits, leaving the state hostage to financial fortune, Thus
when agricultural failings of various kinds occurred in rhe
1870s, the empire's precarious fiscal solvency was directly
threatened Financial instability, together wiih the growing
nationalist sentiments across the empire, hel|x» explain the
appearance of provincial unrest in the middle of the decade.
While the proximate cause of most of these disturbances was
fiscal, matters soon, escalated, taking on. broader national
and international significance,
'Hie crisis that eventually produced the '93 War began in
such a way. When revolts broke out against Ottoman tax
collectors in Bosnia, Serbia and Bulgaria in 1875 and 1876,
the)- set in motion a series of actions and reactions chat
grew out of all proportion, due ro the emotive nature of the
revolts' religious and nationalist implications. Ottoman
public opinion and. crucially, the eventual intervention of
the European powers. Unfortunately for the Ottomans, the
international relations of the so-called Eastern Question
essentially, the issue of what to do with the Ottoman Empire
as it shrank - were constantly chang mg AJfter rhe Crimean War
and the Treary of Paris (1856), the Ottoman state had been
admitted into the European club and had received a guarantee
that Ottoman territorial integrity would be upheld in future.
That promise lasted only until the {£705, when a new alignment
of interests increasingly encouraged European powers to solve
the problems created by their varying imperial agendas at the
expense of the Ottoman Empire. For the Ottomans, the change
became apparent with rhe opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and
the decisive defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war of
1870. Britain was now increasingly interested in pursuing her
imperial ambitions via Egypt, which, allhough still officially
a part of the Ottoman Empire, was in practice almost a
separate entity since the rise of Mehmed Alt Pa?a earlier in
the century, Ihe defeat of France signalled the arrival of
Germany as an imperial power and induced a guarded
rapprochement between Britain and Russia. This alignment of
the Ottoman Hmptre *s erstwhile protector and the source of
her most formidable threat meant that Russia was to enjoy a
much freer hand to meddle in Ottoman
The reign of Abdttlhamid II
affairs. Indeed, the Ottomans could see the hand of Russia, at
work, inflaming the already volatile situation in the Balkans.
As the crisis in the Balkans intensified a pattern emerged.
The specific 1 oca] issues, such as the collection of taxes,
were quickly forgotten as Russian arras and agents encouraged
fellow Slavs to rise up against die symbols of the Ottoman
state • or jn their absence, the local Muslim population.
Local troops and irregulars soon returned the favour and a
cycle of attack and counter attack began, increasing the
likelihood that small-scale violence would turn into something
much more widespread and difficult to control. At this point,
another dimension to the growing conflict •••■ that of
European public opinion - loomed into view. Perceptions of the
'Eastern Question' were quite volatile, especially when
inflamed by the rhetoric of politicians such as William Ewart
Gladstone, who used the occasion ofthe Bulgarian uprising of
1B76 to attack his British political adversary Benjamin
Disraeli, l lis pamphlet on 'the Bulgarian horrors', by which
he meant only Muslim violence against Christians (conveniently
ignoring rhe considerable Christian depredations against the
Muslim population), sold 200,000 copies within a month and
drastically reduced the British governments room for
Both the imperial agendas ofthe European powers and the
growing role of public opinion ensured that the Balkan crises
of die inid-i870s quickly became, to the discomfiture of
Istanbul* matters of international concern. For example, die
Bosnian crisis occasioned the meeting of the ‘three Kaisers'
(that is, the Russian, German and Austro Hungarian monarchs)
in Berlin and their production of the Andrassy note (December
1875), which demanded major changes in the way the. Ottoman
Empire governed its Balkan provinces. Although the sultan
reluctantly agreed, the lighting in the region continued.
Attention then shifted to Bulgaria, where the government moved
quickly against die rebels, producing the aforementioned
'Bulgarian horrors' and another international attempt to force
'reforms* on Istanbul.
In the mean rime, Abdtilhamid li rose to the Ottoman throne
and preparations lor an Ottoman constitution began. White the
unprecedented institution of constitutional rule stemmed from
the changing internal dynamics of the Ottoman Empire, its
announcement was timed with international objections in mind.
The Constantinople conference had been scheduled for December
of 1876 in onlcr for the European powers to decide the fate of
the Ottoman
r 1 Bxcerpfs of Gladstone * patr.phJer may bit fbtmd in Ndzan
pi^ek, '1*he battle fur Rntisb public opinion on Turkey and
the Eastern Question: two dcwruments. 587ft 1004'. in Cainmm
Micliad Amin. Benjamin C. Forma and 8. Frierson
(exls,), TferMafcra MuMfe East: A Si'urceboek far History
(Oxford; Oxford University Press. 2006), pp 40* Z7.
Balkans. On the opening day the Ottoman delegate announced
with some fanfare the promulgation of the Ottoman constitution
that, in Ottoman eyes, would obviate the need for European
involvement in Ottoman, aftairs, since all Ottoman subjects
were now equally protected under its provisions. This
announcement, of course, did not satisfy the European
delegates, who were in some instances quite hostile to the
Ottoman Empire. The conference broke up in early (877, with
Russia preparing fov war in order to continue its south ward
expansion and to reduce the Ottoman Empire's influence over
the tsarist empire's own Muslim minorities. Interestingly,
Abdtilhamid had argued for an Ottoman strategy of appeasement
and concession, buc the constitutionalists ignored his views
and adopted a decidedly uncompromising stance. The resulting
conflict was a disaster for the Ottoman state,
Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in April 1877.
having already signed in mid-January an agreement with
Austria-Hungary that would allow Russia freedom of movement in
rhe Balkans in exchange for Austro-Hungarian rule overBosnia
and Herzegovina. The war was fought on two fronts* with the
Russians attacking through the Balkans m the %ves? and into
Anatolia from the east. In the initial stages of the war the.
Russian armies met little resistance, and their rapid advance
was accompanied by a massive slaughter of the Muslim
population. Ottoman defences stiffened, especially at Plevna
and the $5pkapass (both in modern-day Bulgaria >, and to a
lesser extent at Kars and Erzurum in the east. But eventually
the Ottoman resistance cracked and Russian troops marched on
the Ottoman capital, now swollen with Muslim refugees,
reaching its outskirts by the end of February I«7K and leaving
in their wake what one historian has referred to as rivers of
Muslim blood'.w Meanwhile, in a sign of what was to come.
Abdtilhamid had dismissed the parliament after some of its
members criticised his conduct of the war.
Hite results of rhe war were extremely dangerous for the
Ottoman stare. Forced to sign a humiliating treaty at San
Stefano, the Ottoman Empire agreed inter nlia to the creation
of a very large and independent Bulgaria, which was a key
Russian aim; territorial gains for Montenegro, Serbia and
Greece in the Balkans and Russia in eastern Anatolia;
independence for Serbia. Montenegro and Romania; internal
reforms in various Ottoman areas, including Armenia; and a
massive financial indemnity to Russia. Far worse in human
terms was tine continuing exodus of Muslim refugees from lost
territory into the shrunken borders of the Ottoman Kmptre,
forcing the state ro use scarce funds to feed and shelter
them. There was a glimmer of a silver lining for Abdtilhamid
! S nfJt&tm* p. mS.
The reign. of Abdulhamid U
in that tbe lopsided terms of the treaty forced rhe other
European powers into action to limit the Russian gains. The
Treaty of Berlin of i#?8 returned some land to Istanbul and
trimmed rhe size of Bulgaria, and demonstrated to Abdulhamid
that limited progress could be made at the expense of Great
Power rivalries. But even this came at a high cost - the
empire agreed to international oversight of its foreign debt,
and Britain demanded Cyprus as the price for negotiating
better terms at Berlin. Above all, the empire had still lost
approximately 230,000 square kilometres of its territory and
between 5 and
6 million of its inhabitants. By far the most important lesson
the war imparted was the necessity of avoiding another such
conflict. In this task, Abdtijlhansid was largely successful
throughout the rest of his reign, with the sole exception of
die war with Creece in [$?/> which ended in a decisive Ottoman
victory, even though its benefits quickly evaporated due to
die involvement of the European powers m its aftermath.
Consolidation and rule, x$78-96
Coming hard on the heels of the chaotic year of Abdulhamid 11
's accession, the war with Russia exposed the alarming
weaknesses of the empire. But in addition to highlighting the
enormity of the task of rejuvenating the empire, the first few
years of Ahdiilhamid’s reign suggested some of the possible
solutions. His main objectives were preserving tbe peace;
developing a .strategic plan to cope with die threats
represented by the various interests ofthe Great Powers;
putting the empire's financial and military house in order;
restructuring the administrative capabilities ofthe Ottoman
government; and finding a means of achieving ‘ a sound and
practical basis of social solidarity' among the majority of
his subjects.'4 The >3 War left Abdulhamid II with a more
Asian and a more Muslim empire, demographic realities rhat
would affect the development of his policy in the years to
come. Not only were most of the empire's European provinces
lost, but the influx, of refugees ensured that the remaining
areas had a higher proportion of Muslims than had previously
been the case. Beyond his conviction that further warfare was
to be avoided, Abdtilhamid drew other lessons from the
conflict. First among them was an extreme wariness of the
motivations of the Great Powers. The empire’s Crimean War
allies Britain and France had abandoned dieir former policy of
working to uphold its territorial integrity and were now
helping themselves to its real estate. The British.
(4 D. A kadi, AWtilhaa»<is attempt to integrate. Arabs iatn
the Ottoman system',
in David Kushner (e<I V PnUstinn r« the Ottoman Period:
Politu:a!, Sixiel dn<i fic&tfmti I’ivrufinnutiion (Jerusalem:
Yud Izhak Bert Zv», p. 76.
showing a more focused interest on the Eastern Mediterranean
after the open ing of rhe Sue* € ami, cook Cyprus as a result
ofthe Berlin Treaty, and would soon use the pretext of the
Urabi upnsmg to occupy Bgypt in iB&x Prance, although
considerably weakened after rhe Pranco-Prussian War of 1870,
seized Tunisia in i$8t. AbdOlhamid saw this new turn of events
as a betrayal- Britain’s behaviour was a particularly bitter
pill ro swallow, as Ahdiilhamid had greatly admired rhe
English. In his memoirs the sulran expressed his version
of'per fidious Albion’; ‘Of all the Great Powers, the most to
be feared are the English This is because giving their word
has no value to them,'15 Only by playing the interests of one
power against another could rhe young sttltan hope to make
headway m the international arena, and then only marginally,
given the political, military and economic state of the
Abdulhamid also sought to buy time in which to implement an
ambitious raft of changes aimed at centralising and
regularising the control of the central government,
modernising the armed force*, educating sufficient numbers of
the population to ensure a well trained and loyal elite, and
generally ensuring that the empire was as up to date as
possible given the still-vast dimensions of its territory and
the paucity of its financial resources. Additionally
Abdiilhamid saw fhe attractiveness of pursuing a policy of
Islamic unity in the face of European encroachment.
AbdGlhamid’s Islamic policy, sometimes referred to as 'Pan
lslamism’, was a two-sided phenomenon. On the oue hand, it was
a positive strategy aimed at the majority of his imperial
subjects a$ it sought to rake advantage ofthe new demographic
situation and to strengthen the cohesiveness of die empire's
Islamic base. On the other hand, it was also a negative or
threatening policy intended to remind the Euro pean powers,
France and Great Britain in particular, that the Ottoman
sultan caliph held considerable sway over many millions of
their overseas imperial subjects.
Before Abdulhamid II could turn his attention to the
enormous - and enor mnusiy expensive task of reorganising and
modernising his empire, he had to address its precarious
fiscal situation. The empire had faded to meet the payments on
its debt in i8?*> and agreed to international oversight of its
fin an rial obligations in future. The result was the Ottoman
Public Debt Admin istration (PDA;, established in 1:881. The
chicf beneficiaries of this creation were the holders of the
Ottoman debt, mostly foreigners who were repre sen ted on the
council - whereas the Ottoman government only had observer
r.5 Sultan AbcKUhamir. Sivitsihtmranm {is<anbui; Dergah. 1^X7)
{reprint of W74 Bmek r.dn.j,
pp. 517-S.
The reign of Abdtilhamid H
status. Worse, the terms of the PDA’s creation gave it the
right to roughly 30 per cent of imperial tax revenues - so
that the income from whole sectors and regions of the empire
were dedicated to paying off the. debt. Although the loss of
sovereignty inherent in the PDA was galling, the new dispensation wax not without some benefits for the Ottoman state. An
agreement had been reached without the intervention of the
European powers/* and the arrangement ensured that the empire
would continue to have ac cess to foreign capital and on more
favourable terms than had been available in the past. *’
Without this access, Abdulhamid's ambitious plans for large,
capital-hungry military and public works projects would have
been impossible- hi addition, the PDA hired and trained large
numbers of Ottoman subjects, a boon both to the economy and to
the accumulation of the latest financial knowledge available,
and a fitting parallel to the Hamidian efforts to
professionalise the civil bureaucracy.
Legislative and administrative changes
Abdtilhamid began the process of asserting his authority over
the bureaucracy by sending Midhat Pa§a into internal exile
during the crisis produced by the war with Russia. He also
used this opportunity to prorogue parliament, to suspend the
constitution, and to rid himself of other liberal opposition
leaders and high-ranking military officers on whom his rise to
power had depended. Over die course of the nineteenth century,
the Sublime Pone, the pyramidal governmental apparatus under
the grand veaar, had accumulated considerable power at die
expense of the sultan. Abdtilhamid reversed this trend through
two shrewd policies, both aimed at asserting the authority of
the palace over the Porte. The first was the major enhancement
of the bureaucratic structure of the palace itself. By
gradually expanding the office of the Mabeyn, literally the
‘in between', that part of the palace where the sultan
traditionally received visitors and ministers to the point
where it could virtually run the empire, the sulran pulled
power back into his own hands.’* Abdtilhamid 0 took the
business of ruling extremely seriously; he delegated little
arid the clerks of the /Vftiforyn testify to the impressive
work rate of the sukan who, fortified
Christopher Clay, Gahi for the Sultan: W««nt Blinkers «w4
i'Loadou 1-8. ‘fauns, 200a), p 55a.
17 Roger Owrn, TV A-li/Mfe BOM tn the VtMf Eomttmy, 1 *00-1914
(London; Methuen, 1981}, pp.
18 Carter V Findley, Buramamtic Reform in ike Ottoman Empire:
The Sublime Poru\ 1 /gi> 1 an (Princeton- Princeton
Unlvrrtfry Press, 1980}, pj>. tx? ff.
4 9
SKNJAMSft <, . f ORtN'A
with numerous cups of coffee, would often work late into the
night. especially during periods of crisis or when state
business was most intense.**
The second plank of Ahdiiihamid's strategy was to extend the
expanded authority of the palace over the workings of the
Portt\ He accomplished this task through careful attention to
the question of ministerial responsibility, which provoked
frequent clashes with his grand vezirs. conflicts that were
invariably decided in the sultan's favour.4* During his reign
Abdulhamid changed his grand vezir over twenty-five times, and
i? is dear that he frequently used these changcs as a way of
asserting his own authority over the bureaucratic
establishment <is well -AS a means of placating rhe various
powers, especially Britain, a factor Abdi'Uhamid confirmed in
his memoirs" Thetwo main incumbents of this office during this
period were Kii^uk Said Pa$a anti Kamil Pa$a, who together
served a total often times.*4 Abdulhamid wrote, somewhat
defensively, that all the fuss attributed to his changing the
top civil servant was misplaced, bur his subsequent statement
illuminated the true locus of power in the Hamidian state:
'because whether it is K&mil or Said, the real Grand Vizier is
the one who resides in V'lkbz and that is T * This statement
nicely captures die extent to which 1 iamidian rule combined
personal, parrimonial authority alongside the mechanisms of a
functioning, rational bureaucracy. In a similar vein, the text
of the Ottoman constitution, suspended since the '93 War,
continued to be published at the beginning of every official
Ottoman state yearbook isuhuimc).
Education: loyalty and manpower
Producing civil servants who were both capable and loyal was »
major preoccupation of the Hamidian government. Although the
government had made considerable efforts to create a state
education system in the Tansimat era, these plans had been
considerably more advanced than the situation on the ground.
After getting the empire s financial situation more or less
under control by the early iS&os, Abdulhamid U rurned his
attention to implementing
19 S, Ttmvir W»ni, 'Thi- Last CirroMidprs ai thr M-.beyn',
MiAttk&mern SteJki :,i. pp. !••*«>.
xa Kngin Denis'. Ak.jrh, Hrkuon ;>t>d Discord within rhe Onmmn
(>»v<'rnrrs<'m under Abdulhamkl H («8?Bpgazio Onivcrs-fati
Drrgtst ~ pp.
21 Abdiiihamlt, Siva*/p. >iB.
zn Brdimend Kuran, KticUfc SaUi (i^> rai4) as a Turkish Modena
, htifrnAUonal fottrnal ('fMitlJk Studies t ii-rc), pp n
AbdftihamU. Siytisihmratm. p. \t».
The reign of Abdtilhamid H
the plans for m empire-wide education system.14 Despite his
promotion of his Islamic policy, he chose not to cry to direct
the new educational changes through the religious hierarchy.
Partly as a result ofhis low opinion of the rank and file of
the wlcm# - he thought of them as 'excessively conservative'
and unfavourably compared them with those produced by al-Azhar
in Cairo ~ he never tried to ixamfbrm the mcdresc system into
a modern education system For that task he opted fo continue
along the lines of the educational reforms that he inherited
from the Tanzimat era, establishing a parallel but separate
system alongside that run by the religious establishment,
although he did place many of the nlotut in the educational
hierarchy. He gave particular attention to following the
Public Education Regulation of 1869, a French- inspired
blueprinr for creating a fully integrated imperial schooling
system. The ambitious nature of this plan was matched by the
keenness of the Hamid- tan government's approach to turning it
into reality, especially beginning in the early 1880s.
Photographs, governmental correspondence and statistics compiled in the Ottoman state yearbooks from this period all show
rhat the words of the 1869 legislation were being converted
into bricks and mortar during rhe Hamidian era.
But more interesting than the pace of Hamidian progress in
building an imperial infrastructure for education was the
overall conception of education, and the ways in which it was
delivered in these new buildings. Abdtilhamid II saw education
as a crucial battle-ground for the empire's future - and one
in which the Ottoman state - as in the military, commercial
and cultural fields - was badly behind. The sultan believed
rhat the aggressive presence of so many welt funded and wellorganised minority and foreign schools, esperiaHy chose run by
the seemingly ever stronger missionary movement, represented a
danger to the empire.** In particular, AbdOlhamtd thought that
these schools were turning young Ottoman boys - and,
increasingly, girls against their religion and their state.57 A
spirit of competition thus shaped. Hamidian education policy;
in tills respect it was similar to many contemporary education
strategies around the world that sought to adapt to the rapid
changes of rhe modern world by drawing on the religious and
national sources of past success, in che Ottoman version, the
imperial tradition and Islamic morality naturally played
Z4 Sd^iik Ak^in SorkL The McJcrni&ttwn oj'Puhiu Bduatibn in
gmjnir, ttijv
Autocracy and Discipline (Leiden: Brill, ioori: ttenjaoun C.
Fortm. imperial CUstrmnt: hfam, the Stale and Eduditivn «»
tfu* Wf Othmutit Umpire (Oxford: Oxford Umveriary Prtrss,
2003.V j.5 Abddihamit,
p. {90.
i6 Fm tna, Imperial CUt&roem. chapter 1.
*7 *MOlh»rnit, Swm'lummiwi. p. 1S9.
a heavy role as (he srate attempted to use education to cement
loyalty and affinity in its young subjects.*8 la other words,
while rhe original source for the education system Abdtilhamid
inherited from the Tanziraat era was for eign in inspiration,
his government took, great strides to render it consonant with
Ottoman and Islamic traditions. Although the schools were open
to and attended by children of all confessional backgrounds,
the Hamidian establish ment thought of them, in contrast to
their minority and foreign counterparts, as 'Muslim' schools.
Members of the «tew/i were employed in a variety of roles in
die ostensibly secular' Ottoman state system, and the
curricula of these schools reflect considerable attention to
Islamic subjects.
In many ways, the educational apparatus that emerged was
rigid and at least as interested in controlling its students'
behaviour and discipline - their progress or lack, thereof was
monitored through the use of a sort of moral report card ■ as
the contents of their textbooks, which were carefully
inspected prior to publication. The rigidity and suspicion
inherent in the Hamtctiftn educational endeavour could produce
unwanted consequences. We know little about the reception of
rhe new schooling among the rank and file of its students, but
among the particular group that emerged as the core of the
Young Turk opposition movement, we can see the unintended
fruits of the Hamidian project. Bridling against the sterility
of the content of their school texts and increasingly
enervated by the contrast between the rhetoric of the regime
and the apparently unchecked decline in the power of the state
they were being groomed to serve, some sought refuge in the
radical thought of Western Europe, a factor that would
contribute directly to the revolution of 1908.
In its virtues and its shortcomings, rhe educational
endeavour of the Hamidian state was symptomatic of its larger
agenda. Broadly speaking, AhdiUhainid sought: to extend the
reach of the regime through various means, both tangible and
ideological, into the wider society, and to draw into its
orbit peoples and regions that had hitherto been treated with
benign neglect. On the most obvious level this outreach was
effected through the lines inherited from the preceding
Tanzimat era: the bureaucratic structure of the state was
greatly expanded. Thickening its administrative posture both
in the capital and the provinces allowed the state to reach
more dian merely those who would become its bureaucrats. The
Hamidian state also expanded in a variety of other areas,
enhancing or in some cases creating outright the apparatus for
transforming the relationship between the
iS Benjamin C. Forma. Islamic Moraiiry in Late Otroman
'',‘kaiiar'1 Schools', Inicrnattmal fcarmi if Middle iWf
Hnm-). pp.
The reign of Abdulhamid II
central government and its subjects -- increasingly being
treated like citizens2* ~ in the legal, medical fiscal,
military and census-caking fields, to name only a few, After
the loss of so much Balkan land in the war with Russia, the
exigencies of rhe state meant that new areas needed to be
brought under more direci rule by Istanbul. During the Hamidan
era wt can witness rhe new attention being paid to areas such
as Syria and Transjordan, which had previously received
marginal attention from Istanbul.*0 By building new schools,
including a spe cial school in Istanbul established for the
sons of tribal rulers* by cultivating close ties with
provincial notables and sufi shaykhs and by judicious
disbursements from his privy purse, Abdulhamid followed timehonoured means of political enticement. Interestingly, the
ambitious nature of Hamidian reform meant that, he and his
governmental apparatus had to rely on local participation,
initiative and, to a limited degree, autonomy, ail of which
had an ameliorating effect on the otherwise seemingly
relentless centralisation strategy ofthe late Ottoman state.
Complementing this rather utilitarian approach was one that
worked in the realm of symbolism and ideology and therefore
was, theoretically at least, not limited to the practical
mechanisms of power. By emphasising the reli gious dimension
of his position as sultan--caliph, Abdulhamid intended to take
advantage of die power of image and symbol through such means
as cer emony. architecture, the act of bestowing medals and
honours, visibly close relations with sufi orders, dedicatory
inscriptions, the sultan’s monogram and the language of
official pronouncements to his subjects, in as broad a manner
as possible.11 These attempts at 'image management' may seem
somewhat crude by today’s standards, but in a time when the
media for public com municatiorv were few, they represented an
efficient means of disseminating the official line and
asserting the sultan’s virtual presence across the empire,
likewise in the international arena, the sultan was keen to
have the empire represented at fairs, conferences and
conventions.” Meanwhile, he relied on photography and a
widespread network of informants to collect information
a* Se.lton Dcrin&ii, 'Tbe Invention ofTradfcum ts Public image
m ihe Late Ottoman Empire, 1606-1908'. Cemfardtim Smdiss in
Saactyami History <5 (»99J). p. 4.
$0 Hugerve I. Rngart, £remticr$ Stale is tkciMe Oaomm Bmfrin:;
Transprdan, f?j t 1 w /Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, (999I; Akarli, AbdttlhamMs attempt'
32 Eujtgcn? L. Ro#an, 'Aftret Mekrebt: AbdulhamiU's School for
ftonni journal rf Middle So# Studies a8 (X&X)\, pp. 8>- io7
Setim Drringit, Ths Wellprotectcd Domains: Uicatag/ and the
tzgitimatwH of Power f« thf Otfmnatt Kmmre, (Lnnvl^n: 1.8
Thoris, i<>7s)i? Zrynep £dik. Displaying tkz Oivntt; /trrfmcvtyjr af Islam
at Nmetmah-centery Fairs {Berkeley: University of California
Press. io%2): Dcriugil, HrdJ'JV<«<sr*»?
chap. 6.
J&tsNJAMIN i., V<>R'tNA
about what was happening mtm the empire, a necessity for a
sultan who rarely left: the confines ofhis palace.
The Armenian uprisings and war with Greece
White rhe rSHos afforded Abdtflhamid’s sultanate the
opportunity to concen- it are on implementing his domestic
programme of reorganisation and inform, rhe following decade
could not completely avoid the pattern of crisis rhat had so
searingiy marked the early years of the i faroidian reign. The
combination of internal ethnic conflict, agitation by
neighbouring states and pressure from the Great Powers
returned, first in the case of the Armenian uprisings of the
early to mid-i89«s, then in the conflict with Greece in 1S97.
and finally, much more decisively for the fate of the Hamidian
regime, in Macedonia during the first decade of the twentieth
century. The Armenian uprisings in the L&90S were, in many
ways a reprise of the Balkan crisis, m that they featured
local animosities inflected with religious and ethnic
tension*, resentment over tax collection, fissures within the
minority communities pitting the clergy and traditional
leadership against radical challengers, and the not
disinterested gaze of foreign powers. But there were also
crucial differences. The main contrast with the Balkan
situation was demographic. Whereas Muslims were in the
minority in important areas of Rumelia. in the provinces that
were to become inflamed in eastern Anatolia, the Armenian
population was much more diffusely settled. Constituting
between 6 and 8 per cent of the total Ottoman population,
Armenians were not a majority tn any province of the empire Of
the ‘six provinces’ of eastern Anatolia where, apart from
Istanbul, most Ottoman Armenians lived, in only one of them
did they comprise more than a quarter of the population,
according to Ottoman census figure.**4
The eventual radicalisatiem of a small but significant,
clement of the Armenian population along nationalist lines was
therefore predictably problematic. Autonomy or even
independence would entail a major demographic upheaval The
emergence of two Armenian activist organisations, the Huocbak
md the Dashnakfcsutiun (founded by Armenian exiles in Geneva
in. sMy and TshHst in i%90, respectively K and the adoption of
an extremely aggressive terrorist
pi Stanford | Shaw ,tnd Bzd Rural Shaw, Wiuwy <*f'the pieman
Empire me.kns Twkty. vol. U: VLefirrm,
j?j anti Republic.
The Km r« 'Hwrfecy, i Xa8-t <>;? fOmbrklgr:
Cambridge University Press, nr?), pp. a»o~j On du- population
statistics oftets Ottoman AnafoMa. jccjustfn McCarthy uwl
M»>u'nu'«: 7?tf /Vpatefon ry'Qtttnxw Amtoihf
at the HnH 1)f the B*npm> (New York: New York University
Press. snd Ks-mal H. Karpat. Othtmui Pt*?u\tHum,
lymogntfhicdful ^alGi<3rd<tcrutie,-i >
t frmtrtstty ofWtsaimin Press.
The rdgn of Abdulhamid H
policy intended to catch the attention ofthe Western powers
ultimately prove*! disastrous. Following the strategy of
Bulgarian nationalists in the *$70$, the Armenian
revolutionaries frequently incited violence calculated to draw
Muslim reprisals and trigger international intervention. The
Ottoman government responded to this campaign by forming the
'Hainidiye" regiments of irregular Kurdish troops. The period
from 1890 to r893 featured cycles of attack and counterattack, hut not the kind of major atrocity that would have
galvanised overseas attention A turning point came in 1894,
when the Hamidiye units responded to a series of increasingly
more desperate provocations with a large- scale daughter of
Armenians at Sasun. The sultan seems to have misjudged the
ability of the Ottoman authorities to control the situation -
and the extent of Muslim anxiety concerning the Armenian
revolutionaries,45 Once events got out of hand it proved very
difficult, if not impossible, for Istanbul to restore order,
The unpredictable quality of the 1894-6 events in eastern
Anatolia, during which large numbers of Armenians were
slaughtered and many others left the empire against the
sultans will,36 stemmed in pari from the fact that the central
government had effectively armed Kurdish tribesmen who were
geographically remote from and almost completely impervious to
the discipline of a modern army, and in part from the
government’s policy of undermining the local notables so as to
appear as the champion of the. local Muslims,r It was in the
period of the Sasun incident that Abdulhamid H became known as
the ted sultan' and by other pejorative nicknames associated
with the sheddingof blood. Nevertheless, he was able to avoid
a major international crisis, in part by convincing rhe powers
that his provincial reforms required more time, and in part by
agreeing to a new programme of reforms.
The Hunchaks then pursued an even more desperare strategy.
Expanding the field of their activities to include the capital
in 1896, they took over the Ottoman Bank, planting bombs and
taking hostages A raiding parry set out for the Sublime Porte
and an attacker threw a bomb at the. sultan while he was on
his way to Friday prayers, missing him bur killing twenty of
his guard*. The Armenian activists produced a list of demands
and, tellingly, presented them to the Western embassies in the
capital. Among these demands were a ux amnesty for five years,
following which their tax assessments were to be reduced to
2,0 per cent of their current value; the appointment of
Christian governors in the eastern provinces; the
establishment of a Christian gendarmerie;
35 Stephen Duguid, The Politics of Unity; HamitUan Policy in
Basrern Anatolia'. Middle
£a.<tem Studies 9, a U973), pp. m3 II.
jb Oorjjeon,
H, p 305,
3? IHiguki 'Politics of Unity', p t^t.
and so forth. Abdulhamid II rejected the demands, but did
appoint a number of Christian governors md granted a general
amnesty. At this point the motives ofthe European powers
became apparent. Britain attempted to gain Russian approval
for the sending of a Royal Navy flotilla to Istanbul Russia,
fearing the rise in British influence that would result,
refused; Prance added her objections. Meanwhile, the Armenian
revolutionary organisations. having failed to gain the
international backing they were seeking, began to quarrel
among themselves and the issue effectively disappeared from
the international agenda until it was tragically resurrected
in a radically different form during the First World War. The
crisis had passed, but both sides felt aggrieved. The numbers
of Armenians who were killed or left the empire attests to
their suffering. As for Abdtflhamid. he had weathered the
storm but remained bitter at what he perceived to be a double
standard on the part ofthe Western powers. He wrote: 'The
Great Powers, do not want to know that the Armenians are
labels who Attack with sword and dynamite; and that we are the
owners of our own land; that they constantly upset us with the
Capitulations and other demands. I'he rights they bestow on
the Principality of Monaco they see as excessive for us.
Such was the combination of demography and nationalist
agitation in the Ottoman Empire during this period that no
sooner had the situation in eastern Anatolia reverted to calm
than another area flared up. 'This time die issue was Greek
nationalism and irredcmism aimed ar breaking areas with
substantial Greek populations away from the empire and uniting
rhem with Greece.. Although several parts ofthe empire were
targers for Greek nationalist agita tioti aimed at effecting
the revival of the Great Idea (McgtiH Idea) of a Greek empire,
it was the island of Crete where the conflict became
concentrated in the mid hue. r8<?os. When new Greek revolts
broke, out during 1895, at the height ofthe Armenian crisis.
AbdtJlhamid temporised, changing governors of the island. When
he appointed an ethnic Greek there were protests from the
Muslims, who comprised roughly 30 per cent ofthe islands
population. When he appointed a Muslim, his Greek subjects
were up in arms, demanding union with mainland Greece. The
task of maintaining Ottoman sovereignty over the island had
become nearly impossible given the intensity of the Greek
insurgents’ desire for union with Greece. During (896 the
cycle of violence reached an extremely volatile stage. In
early 1897 the Cretan rebels announced that the island would
be united with Greece and appealed tor help from Athens, which
duly obliged, sending an expeditionary force that landed on
the island.
ifi AKHiUwmii. Siyasikatu\um, p
The reign of Abduihsmid I!
This act provoked a response from the European powers.
Remarkably even- handed this time, they demanded a Greek
withdrawal and autonomy for Crete that meant: only rhe most
symbolic of Ottoman rule.* But the Greek government was swept
up in the fervid nationalism that was bang driven by an
organisation called the National Society (Ethniki Hetama)*
whose programme envisioned Crete as only one part of a larger
plan rhar included Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia, all under
Ottoman rule. The society's volunteers, Greek army officers
among them, massed along the Graeco-Otroman border in
Thessaly. The Athens government was forced to follow suit; by
February of 1:897 there were approximately 2.5.000 Greektroops
awaiting the signal for war. After some cross-border raids by
Greek volunteers in April the Ottoman government declared war
on 17 April4" The Graeco-Ottoman war was over in barely more
than a month. The superior Ottoman forces broke through the
Greek lines and continued to march south as defences crumbled.
Now the powers put pressure on both sides; the Greeks withdrew
their forces from Crete and the Ottomans halted their advance
before it reached even deeper into Greek territory. The
Ottomans were prevented from keeping she territory they had
won but were able to secure an indemnity from Athens.
Abdulhamid, initially reluctant to fight, nevertheless saw the
benefits of his position, despite the fact that his gains had
been snatched away under Great Power pressure and Crete would
now remain Ottoman in only nominal fashion. He had sent a
stern message to the various Balkan national groups agitating
to break away chunks of Ottoman territory Domestically, the.
prestige ofhis victory provided important counter-propaganda
against his domestic critics, in particular the emerging Young
Turk movement, to which we return shortly.
The period from t8<3*i to roughly 5905 can be seen as the.
high water mark of Abdiilhamid’s reign. Although he had failed
in avoiding war altogether, the conflict with Greece was
mercifully brief and the results, although greatly reduced by
European pressure, were not without advantages for the sultan,
who resurrected rhe title ofgazi, or fighter for the faith,
that he had asserted during the disastrous war ofhis earliest
regnal years. The long period of peace after 1878 had allowed
time for the implementation of Ac Hamidian reforms. This
progress was especially evident in the costly hut necessary'
military field, where, the relationship that Abdiilhamid
cultivated with Wilhelmine Germany, an import ant
counterbalance t o British and French influence, was bearing
fruit. Relations with provinces were largely under control,
thanks to the extension
Om'geon,U, p. stf*
SSNJAMtN ! • i
of telegraph and rail lines, llns use of technology had both a
practical and a symbolic side. The Hijaz railway, funded,
entirely by Muslim capita!, provided an important testimonial
to Ahdlilhatrud's commitment to the marriage of religion and
modernity/1 In 1900. when the empire celebrated the sultan's
jubilee with great fanfare, the state ofthe empire, in spite
of daunting obstacles, seemed remarkably buoyant.
Away from the state, extremely important changes were at
work in the Hamidian era. Everyday life, was changing, often
dramatically. This was especially true in die urban centres,
with the empires port cities displaying con siderable economic
expansion and a commensurate development in the social and
cultural spheres/* Advances in transport, mechanisation, the
increase in numbers and visibility of imported goods, popular
literacy and the participation of women in the economy and in
public life* all attest to the vibrancy of life in the
Hamidian era as the empire adapted to the rapid pace of change
associated globally with the late nineteenth century. The
liveliness ofthe literary field alone, In which important
works were being published and debates were being held on
language, the role of women in society, and the degree to
which Ottoman society should follow the West, all belie the
attention that observers paid to the prominence o/Hamidi&n
censorship in the political field. In die. realm of everyday
life we can see rhe extent to which Ottoman individuals
managed to accommodate rhe influences of the day whether
deris,ed from Bast or West/3 Nevertheless the period was far
from utopian; major economic, social and political problems
persisted and extremely serious difficulties for the state lay
Dissent and revolution. 1902- 8
AhdUlhamtds reign was ultimately brought to an end by the
convergence of two trends: the development of a growing
opposition movement both inside and outside, the empire, arid
rhe re-emergence of rhe Balkan problem, tins time centring on
the intractable situation in Macedonia. Actually, the first
signs of opposition to Abdfilhamid s reign were hardly
menacing. T he meet ing of a small group of students - it is
interesting in the light of the eventual
William O-.h'osnwskL 7he Itija:: k h,a;l<-wesvii1<»
liruvmiiv VirjginU,
4a Kasstbs, A time and <t pi.ure for the nons'uu: , pp. in fi.
45 Paul IXiroom, 'Said Bey The everyday Ufij of act Istanbul
tf>wr«»nan at the be^mnirt# of rhe t.wpfttiech century', in
AH?m Hourani <-> a!. -t-iisA The Mrdmt Mi-Mh' $•<*.<!• A
Raukr (Berkeley: Untvmiiv of California Pres:;, pp.
The reign of Abdtilhamid H
Turkish nationalist bent of the YoungTurk movement to note
chat all involved were non-Turkish Muslims - at the imperial
medical school in *889 must not have seemed especially
portentous at the time. But the opposition movement that began
there mushroomed into a network of individuals and groups who
shared an antipathy to the Hamidian regime and sought ro bring
if down. The "Young Turk’ movement was in reality m umbrella
category that included a vast spectrum of groups with very
disparate agendas and origins,44 ITie main instrument of the
opposition movement became the Committee of Union and Progress
(GUP),, although its name and composition changed several
times along rhe way. A brief overview of several of the
protagonists involved provides a sense of the diversity of the
social backgrounds and intellectual currents represented. In
many respects the chief ideologue of the CUP was Ahmed R?za
Bey. A graduate of the Franco-Ottoman secondary school
ofGalatasaray, Ahmed Rjxa was sent to Paris ro study
agriculture. Heavily influenced by positivist, Darwinist and
atheist ideas in vogue in the French capital, he began to
publish the journal Mcqvtrti in both French and Turkish. The
tide drew on the concept of consultation derived from Islamic
political history but was intended to convey the sense of the
constitution that the opposition movement demanded; the
subtitle bore the positivist credo of'Order and Progress'
finti- zam ve. terakki’). Another major figure was 'Mtzana*
Murad Bey, so named because he was the publisher of the
journal Mizan (The Balance). Educated in die Caucasus and
Russia, he came to Istanbul as a young mail and worked for the
PDA. taught at the School of Civil Administration, wrote both
fiction and non-fiction, and espoused a combination of
liberalism and Islamic solidarity When his journal fell foul
of the Hamidian regime he went into exile, first in Egypt and
then in France, where he quarrelled with Ahmed Rjza.
Charismatic and popular. Murad's return to official employment
in Istanbul in 1897 tn the aftermath of Abdtilhamid s victory
over Greece was a considerable blow to rhe opposition
A third dimension of the opposition is represented by
sSabahaddin, an Ottoman prince who espoused a liberal agenda
rooted in decentralisation and private initiative and thus at
odds with the dirigistc agenda of Ahmed Riza and the dominant
faction of the CUP. Interested in an alliance with Britain and
more accommodating to the various Armenian groups favouring
autonomy, Princc Sabahaddin's faction eventually lost out when
the movement split during fractious meetings in Paris in 19021
it would return to play an important
44 On 1 he Young Turk movement, see M. HsmiogUt. 7V Yowif
Turk.* in OppaxHion (New York; Oxford University Press, i^i
and M.
Hanioglu. Prepsmim far a
RwfHtfcni; 77n" YpungTvrki, 1903-1.CMew York: Oxford
University Press, ax>i).
but: again losing role In the politics of the Second
Constitutional Period. The fate of the movement: took a
decisive turn when it was joined by a new type of opposition
figure, the young Ottoman military and civilian officers
serving in Macedonia Witnesses to the tactics ofthe Macedonian
gangs, these young officers espoused a more aggressive and
hands-on style. Thereafter the CUP could no longer be accused
of being merely a glorified debating society. Men such as
Enver, Cental and Mehmed Talat had their hands on the levers
of power, in some cases literally Talar was the chief Ottoman
telegraph official in the important dty of Salonica. In it>o6
they sent represent stives to Europe to liaise closely with
Ahmed Riza’s faction of rhe CUP and agreed to reestablish
their own group, previously known as rhe Ottoman Freedom
Society as its domestic branch, and to establish a network of
branches inside Ottoman territory, effect ively taking over
the CUP the following year.
Deposition, counterrevolution and internal exile. 1909-18
With this activist group caking control ofthe CUP organisation
and the. worsening situation in Macedonia, events moved
swiftly. Discontent among the Ottoman army was already
apparenr, but the main source of concern was the escalating
situation m Macedonia. In the mew time. Britain and Russia
were moving towards a rapprochement inspired by their mutual
anxieties over the rise of Germany. In June 1908 King Edward
VII and Tsar Nicholas I! met at Reval on the Baltic to resolve
their differences, among them the situation in the Balkans.
They discussed a plan for foreign control that would leave
Abdulhamid with only nominal control over his most important
Balkan territories. When word of this arrangement, accompanied
by rumours of the planned dismemberment of the empire as a
whole, reached Salonica, the CUP officers swung into action.
Fearing that the sultan would bow to international pressure
and perhaps aware that his agents were on the verge of
discovering their organisation, Knver and others took to the
hills demanding the restoration of rhe Ottoman constitution.
Abdulhamid U responded by sending a delegation of officers and
a contingent of Anatolian troops to instore order, but one of
the key officers was killed and many of the troops refused to
fight. Abdiilhamid, seeing the weakness of his position,
agreed to restore the constitution and to reconvene parliament
after a pe riod of thirty years of abeyance. The Constitu
tional Revolution had arrived, and with it a new era in
Ottoman and Turkish politics. Abdtilhamid remained on the
rhrouc bur his power was now seriously curtailed. In the
aftermath of a briefly successful counter-revolurion in
The reign of' AbdOlhamid U
the name of the $eriat led by ulema, religious students and
soldiers in April 1009, the CUP forced the sultan to abdicate
even though he seems to have studiously avoided any role in
die counter-coup. He was bundled into a train ami sent off to
Saioraca. where he would remain under guard with his family
until the city was on the verge of falling to Greece during
the Balkan wars, f ie was then brought the capital
where he remained in BeySerbeyi palace on die Asian shore of
the Bosphorus.
AbdtSlhamiddied there m February tsn*. when the Great War
and the empire itself were in their final stages. His body was
taken in a formal procession before the large crowd that had
gathered, many with tears in their eyes, to pay their respects
to the last Ottoman sultan who had ruled with absolute power.
He was buried in a tiirbc (mausoleum) on the centra! Divan
Yolu in old Istanbul alongside that of his mother, his
grandfather Mahmud II, his uncle Abdiilaziz and several other
members of the Ottoman royal family. His tomb, a modernised
nineteenth century version of the traditional imperial resting
place for sultans, looks out over a modern tramway and the
cacophonous mixture of East and West that is todays Istanbul in many ways a fitting scenc for a man so instrumental in
propelling the Ottoman Empire into the modern world.
6 • The Crisis of 1873-78 and its Aftermath
The Young Ottomans returned to Istanbul motivated by an
astonishingly naive belief that with the deaths of Fuat Pasha
(in 1869) and All Pasha (in 1871), the obstacles to democratic
reform would disappear. They soon found out that, quite to the
contrary, the death of All Pasha was the first stage in a
development that in the course of a few years would lead to a
crisis of unprecedented proportions in the empire.
A number of developments coincided to cause this crisis.
Internationally the empire’s position had begun to change even
before Ali Pasha’s death. The opening of the Suez Canal in
1869 meant that Egypt, rather than the empire, became the
focus of interest for the main liberal powers, France and
Britain. The clear and unexpected defeat of France by Prussia
in the war of 1S70-71 meant a change in the balance of power
in Europe; France, the power most closely associated with the
Ottoman reformers since the Crimean War, was in temporary
eclipse. This in itself strengthened the hand of the partisans
of the authoritarian and conservative powers (most of all
Russia) in Istanbul. At the same time, the sultan, who had
already shown signs of impatience at the way Fuat and All kept
him out of the conduct of public affairs, used All’s death to
exercise power himself something for which he was by now illsuited because of his increasingly idiosyncratic behaviour and
emerging megalomania. One way he tried to exercise control was
by not letting any official become entrenched in his post,
shuffling them around at a frantic pace. The sultan’s righthand man in 1871-72 and 1875-76 was Malunut Nedim Pasha, who
went to extraordinaiy lengths in seeking the sultan s favour
and who was so openly in the pay of the Russian embassy that
he earned himself the nickname ‘Nedimoff.1 Nedim Pasha had no
expenence of Europe nor did he know a European language and
was thus ill equipped to lead the empire in times of crisis.
Economic causes and political effects
The crisis that developed in the. 1870s was economic as much
as it was
(or became) political. A combination of drought and floods led
to a catastrophic famine in Anatolia in 1873 and 1874. This
caused the killing-off of livestock and a depopulation of the
rural areas through death and migration to the towns. Apart
from human misery, the result was a fall in tax income, which
the government tried to compensate for by raising taxes on the
surviving population, thus contributing to its misery. As had
become its practice since the Crimean War, it also looked to
the European markets to provide it with loam, blit they were
not forthcoming. A crash on the international stock exchanges
in 1873, which marked the beginning of the ‘Great Depression’
in the European economy and which lasted until 1896,2 made it
impossible for dubious debtors like the Ottoman Empire to
raise money. As a result, die empire could no longer pay the
interest on older loans and had to default on its debt, which
by now stood at £200 million.3
With the increased pressure of taxation, the unrest in the
empire’s Balkan provinces (which had not been affected by the
famine) escalated into a full-scale rebellion of the Christian
peasants, first in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and from April 1876
also in Bulgaria, When Ottoman troops suppressed the
rebellion, killing 12,000 to 15,000 Bulgarians,4 a shock wave
swept through Europe, which virtually ignored the large- scale
killings of Muslims by Christians that were also part of the
picture. Especially in England, where Gladstone’s Liberal
opposition used the ‘Bulgarian Massacres’ as propaganda
against the Conservative government of Disraeli (which was
accused of being pro-Turkish and thus an accessory to the
killings), the Turkophile atmosphere, which had prevailed
since before the Crimean War, disappeared.
Russia and Austria-Hungary had been involved in intensive
discussions on the ‘Eastern Question* since late 1875. Austria
still regarded the survival ofthe Ottoman Empire as a vital
interest. Besides, its military authorities strongly advocated
the occupation of Bosnia- Herzegovina in case Ottoman control
there faltered. In Russia, on the other hand, pan-Slav
solidarity with the southern Slavs was now widespread and the
Russian ambassador in Istanbul, Ignatiev, was an ardent
supporter of the movement. The Russian-Austrian discussions
resulted in the ‘Andrassy note5 (called after the Austrian
Foreign Minister) of 30 December 1875. This was a set of
proposals for far- reaching reforms in Bosma-Herzegovina under
foreign supervision. The Porte accepted it in February, but
the rebels refused to give up their fight, A short armistice
in April was soon breached.
The constitutional revolution
In this ominous political and financial chaos, a group of
Ottoman politicians, including the provincial reformer
Mithat Pasha (now minister without portfolio), the Minister of
War, Hiiseym Avni Pasha, the director of the military academy,
Suleyman Pasha*, and the fayhnllslam Hayrullah Efendi, carried
out a coup d’etat, deposing Sultan Abdiilaziz on 30 May 1876.
In his place, Crown Prince Murat, who was close to the Young
Ottomans and who had been in touch with Mithat Pasha through
Namik Kemal and Ziya Pasha, came to the throne as Sultan Murat
Befoie his accession, Murat had promised to promulgate a
constitution as soon as possible, and it seemed as if the
Young Ottoman programme (constitution and parliament) would
now be implemented in full. Namik Kemal and Ziya Pasha were
appointed as palace secretaries. Once on the throne, however,
Murat listened to Grand Vizier Ru^tii Pasha, who urged
caution. Instead of a concrete promise of a constitution, as
advocated by Mithat Pasha and the Young Ottomans, only a vague
statement on reforms was included m the HatN Humayun (imperial
decree) after Murat's accession.
On 5 June 1876 ex-Sultan Abdiilaziz committed suicide, Then,
on 15 June, a Circassian army captain called Hasan, motivated
by personal grievances, shot and killed Hiiseym Avni Pasha,
Minister of Foreign Affairs Re.jit Pasha and several others
during a cabinet meeting. This changed the balance of power in
favour of the more radical reformers On 15 July the first
meeting of the new Grand Council decided to proclaim a
constitution. This could not be earned through, however,
because of the rapidly deteriorating mental state of Sultan
Murat, who was by now an alcoholic, had shown signs of
extreme nervousness when he was taken from the palace on the
night of 30 May to take the oath of allegiance from the high
dignitaries of state at the Porte (he was convinced that he
was being taken to his execution).5 The suicide ofhis uncle
and the murder of several members ofhis cabinet seem to have
led to a severe nervous breakdown. After having the sultan
examined by Ottoman and foreign medical experts, the cabinet
had to conclude that he was unfit to rule. It first tried to
get his younger brother, Hamit Efendi, to act as regent, but
when he refused had no choice but to depose Murat and replace
him with Hamit, who ascended the throne as Abdiilhamit II on 1
September 1876. Murat was taken to
the Qiragan palace on the Bosphorus, where he lived in
captivity for nearly 30 years.
The Bulgarian crisis escalates: war with Russia
Meanwhile, the situation in the Balkans had gone from bad to
Serbia had declared war on the empire on 30 June 1876 but,
faced with
the superior strength of the Ottoman army, it had to sue for
an armistice by September. By this time, however, pan-Slav
feeling m Russia had reached a fever pitch. Disappointed in
Serbia, the Russian pan-Slavists now concentrated on the
Bulgarians and the Russian government put pressure on Istanbul
to introduce wide-ranging reforms and virtual autonomy in the
areas inhabited by Bulgarians, tlireafening war if its demands
were not met. Britain now tried to defuse the growing crisis
by proposing an international conference on the Balkans. When
the conference met for the first time, in Istanbul on 23
December 1876. the delegates were startled by the Ottoman
delegate's announcement that a constitution had now been
promulgated. It was based primarily on the Belgian
constitution of 1831, but a number of its articles (or
omissions) gave it a more authoritarian character and left the
sultan important prerogatives, winch he was later to use to
the detriment of the constitutional government. The
authoritarian traits of the constitution were modelled after
the Prussian constitution of 1850.
The promulgation of the constitution, from the Ottoman
standpoint, made all discussions of reforms in the Christian
areas of the empire superfluous, since all subjects were now
granted constitutional rights. The Porte rejected all further
proposals by the powers. As a result the conference failed and
on 24 April 1877 Russia declared war, having first bought
Austria’s neutrality by agreeing to its occupation of Bosnia
and Herzegovina. At first the Russian armies met little
resistance, but then they were unexpectedly checked at Plevna
in Bulgaria, where the Ottomans withstood a number of Russian
assaults from May until December.
When the Russians finally broke tlirough it meant the end of
effective Ottoman resistance and, by the end of February, the
Russians were at San Stefano (modern Ye$iikoy). only 12
kilometres outside Istanbul. On 3 March 1878 a peace treaty
was signed there, which was an unmitigated disaster for the
Ottomans. It included the creation of a large autonomous
Bulgarian state between the Aegean and the Black Sea. enormous
territorial gains for Montenegro (which became three times its
prewar size) and smaller ones for Serbia. Serbia, Montenegro
and Romania became independent. Far-reaching reforms were to
be carried through in Thessalia and Epirus. In Asia, Batum,
Kars, Ardahan and Dogubeyazit were ceded to Russia and reforms
were to be introduced in Armenia. Furthermore, the new
Bulgarian state was to remain under Russian occupation for two
years. Obviously, it remained under Russian influence even
after that period.
The signing of the treaty produced the shock effect needed
to prod the other European powers, notably Austria and
Britain, into action, not
because of any sympathy for the Ottomans, but because Russian
domination of the Balkans and Asia Minor was unacceptable if
the European balance of power was to remain in force. Pressure
and sabre-rattling on the part of Austria and Britain led to
the holding of a conference in Berlin in June 1878, to find an
acceptable solution to the ‘Eastern crisis as the ‘Eastern
Question’ had now become. It was to be the last in the series
of great conferences attended by all the major European
powers, which had started in Vienna in 1814. Needless to say,
the influence of the Balkan peoples and governments at the
conference was negligible.
The end result of the conference, the Treaty of Berlin,
mitigated, but did not nullify, the provisions of San Stefano.
Romania, Serbia and Montenegro still gained their
independence, but the territorial gains of the latter two were
much reduced. An autonomous Bulgaria was created, but it was
much smaller than originally envisaged and it was split in two
along the Balkan mountain ridge, the southern pan remaining an
Ottoman province under a special regime with a Christian
governor. In Asia, most of Russia’s acquisitions, including
the port of Batum, remained in place. Moreover, both Austria
and Britain had exacted a price for their intervention Austria now occupied Bosnia- Herzegovina (which teelinically
remained part of the Ottoman Empire) and Britain did the same
with Cyprus. The sultan had no choice but to acquiesce.