Thursday, February 3, 2011

Monarch Profile: Sultan Selim III

Selim III was born in Constantinople on December 24, 1761 to Sultan Mustafa III and his Genoese consort (who had been captured by the Ottomans) Mihrisah. As he grew up he was known for his zeal and openness to innovation and reform. It was hoped that when he came to the throne of the Ottoman Empire he would usher in a new era of modernization and revitalization. In the tumultuous year of 1789 he succeeded his uncle Abdulhamid I as Sultan and Padishah of the Ottoman Empire, “shadow of God on earth”, Caliph of the Faithful and Servant of the Cities of Mecca, Medina, etc. He had more experience with foreigners than others in the Osman dynasty and was fully convinced of the need for reform but he was also unwilling to abandon what his predecessors had handed down to him and he continued the wars which had been raging against Austria and Russia since 1788 in the Balkans.

Despite Europe becoming focused on the outbreak of the French Revolution, the backward state of the Turkish military establishment meant that Selim III was obliged to make peace, surrendering the Crimea to Russia but regaining Belgrade from the Austrians at the conference table. During the respite he tried to institute the long hoped for reforms, such as in bureaucratic salaries to discourage corruption, extending education and hiring European instructors to train a new military corps in the latest tactics. However, Selim III was never able to concentrate fully on these efforts as conflict was almost constant. The French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Egypt, inflicting a number of humiliating defeats on the empire. To make matters worse, the oppression of Pasvan Oglu, Governor of Vidin, caused the Serbs to rise up in revolt under the leadership of “Black George” Petrovich. Massive Ottoman forces finally crushed the rebellion but the reinstatement of the former governor showed that the lesson had not been learned.

Adrianople also erupted in rebellion in 1804 and there was also growing trouble from a new religious movement founded by Abdul Wahhab which preached a more strict application of Islamic law, rejected all luxury, innovation, and the adoration of saints or even the Prophet Mohammed rather than God. This was the start of the Wahhabi movement many today are only too familiar with. Their rebellion began in Nejd and denounced the lavish lifestyle of the Sultans, what they perceived as a lack of faithfulness among the people and the introduction of European ideas into the empire. It is interesting to note that while atheist revolutionaries were making trouble in France and throughout Europe, in the Ottoman Empire it was religious fundamentalists who were doing the same but advocating a totally opposite direction. Many also opposed the reforms of the Selim III, having established themselves through the old way of doing business. In 1806 disputes over Wallachia, Moldavia and Bessarabia caused the Sultan to renew the war with Russia. Also, having patched things up with the French, the British and Russians began to worry about a renewed Franco-Turkish alliance and in 1807 the British sent a naval force to raid Constantinople, which the Turks managed to repel.

However, even while war with Russia was raging, as was far from uncommon sadly, there was a rebellion of the Janissaries, the household guard of the Sultan. For some time the Janissaries had lifted up sultans and torn them down as served their own interests and when Selim III began establishing his own corps of soldiers trained and led by Europeans who would be most loyal to him, the Janissaries saw this as a threat and rose up. Other elements opposed to the reform efforts of Selim III joined in and the rebellion soon spread. Despite his efforts to placate the Janissaries and back away from his previous modernization efforts, Selim III was deposed by the Janissaries and replaced with his nephew, Sultan Mustafa IV. Forces loyal to the deposed sultan tried to come to his aid but were too late as by the time they arrived Selim III had been murdered by the chief Black eunuch of the seraglio on July 28, 1808. Mustafa IV was deposed and later killed and Selim’s brother became sultan and worked to carry out his brother’s vision for the future.


  1. Sounds like the Ottoman Empire got its dream of being the next Rome. Just not as they imagined, it would seem.

  2. The word "Byzantine" does tend to come to mind. However, I've always found the reign of Selim III interesting because of his involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, the contrast between revolutions of "enlightenment" and atheism and those of fanatical religious belief and a rejection of innovation. I also thought it worth pointing out, since the Wahhabi sect is so troublesome today, to show their origins -making trouble for a Muslim emperor.

  3. As a Hungarian I would've fought on the side of our Habsburg Empire (Austrian Empire: only from 1804), but a Hungarian warrior can always respect a noble enemy; even after 150 years of Turkish rule.

    Too bad we couldn't hold on to Belgrade (Hungarian: Nándorfehérvár); it's one of my favourite cities.

  4. Yes, an interesting contrast, and how both have continued apace in their respective civilisations too.

    A very curious thought.

  5. The Wahhabis were bad but, on balance, their influence was fairly limited. It is the Westernisers who destroyed Turkey's empire and monarchy for they imagined that Turkey had something to learn from revolutionary countries like France. They mistook barbarism for a superior way of life.

    Mahmoud II, who succeeded Sultan Selim upon his death, is a case in point. He destroyed the Janissary establishment and then ended up granting independence to Greece. Need one say anything more?

    The Society of Union and Progress, was even more cackhanded. Its leaders overthrew the astute Sultan Abdulhamid II to set up a revolutionary government that espoused the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

    Thanks to their hard work, we have completely lost Africa and the Holy Land. What we have left of Europe is so small, it has been a joking matter for frog and kraut alike after Turkey applied to join the EU. That's not all, the entire oil belt of the Middle East is now outside our borders. And of course we are a republic. When one's country becomes a republic, one must adjust one's expectations accordingly.

  6. You're mixing the Wahhabis with the deobandis. Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab preached that nothing was to be worshipped other than God (because in those days saint-worship was quite common), and after his death his successors went about tearing up shrines and whatnot. But it is the Deobandis, and only the very extreme factions of them whcih are relatively few, that claim nothing can be adored except God. In general there's a big line between respect/love and worship in Islam: you only worship God (this is by the way common to all Muslim sects, it's only that certain groups interpret adoration as worship) but you can respect and love anything from God's creations and servants, including Prophet Muhammad and any decent human

  7. By the way I completely agree with dos360's comments regarding Mahmoud II's so-called modernization.

  8. Sultan Selim III was a very good musician. He was a Mawlawî and he played ney. (Ney is an Iranian religional instrument.)

    His composition:

    Bir Nev Civâne Dil Müpteladır (I've Been Addicted to a Young Girl) -

    Ey Gonca-i Nazîk (O My Gentle Bud!) -

    Suzîdilara Peşrev (Overture) -

    Turkish Classical Music has a lot of maqam. Maqam is special feature in Turkish/Ottoman Classical Music. There are more than 300 maqam. Every maqam is different. For example; "Kurdilihijazkar" maqam is fun, rhythmic and fast but "Huzzam" maqam is heavy, slow, quiet, and sad. Because cheerful songs are Kurdilihijazkâr but sad songs are Huzzam.


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