Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Monarch Profile: Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey

The reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II can be seen as the ‘last gasp’ of the traditional Ottoman Empire as it had existed for centuries. He was the last Turkish monarch to hold absolute power over his empire and his reign saw the shift in the Turkish position internationally which was to ultimately lead to the Ottoman Empire being on the losing side in the First World War, which finally brought about its downfall. Abdul Hamid II was born on September 21, 1842 at the Topkapi Palace in Constantinople (Istanbul). His father was Sultan Abdulmecid I who had nineteen wives and forty-three children. In keeping with Ottoman tradition, most of these wives were Europeans; Chechen, Georgian, Bosnian, Circassian or Abkhazian. The mother of Abdul Hamid II was a green-eyed, blonde haired Circassian named Tirimujgan Kadinefendi, however, her early death left the future sultan in the care of his father’s wife, Valide Sultan Rahime Perestu, who would be the last ‘empress-mother’ of the Ottoman Empire when Abdul Hamid II came to the throne. Blonde-haired as well, with blue eyes, she was originally a Christian from the Russian city of Sochi, also a Circassian, who had been adopted by Abdulmecid’s childless aunt and converted to Sunni Islam.

In his youth, Abdul Hamid had many talents, being an accomplished carpenter, a skilled translator and greatly inclined toward music. He was likely the greatest fan of opera among the ranks of all the Ottoman sultans. He was also more well traveled than most others, growing up at a time when the Ottoman Empire was trying to gain stronger relations with the “Great Powers” of Europe and he accompanied his uncle, Sultan Abdulaziz, to Paris, London, Vienna and other European cities in 1867. However, that same year was to see his life changed forever. At the time, his brother Sultan Murad V was on the throne but he had proven problematic. A Freemason, a Francophile and an advocate of constitutional government and democracy, his reign lasted less than a hundred days before he was overthrown and on August 31, 1876 Abdul Hamid II became the 34th Sultan and Padishah Emperor of the Ottoman Empire, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and 26th Caliph of Islam. Perhaps because of his travels and his love of opera, as well as the experience with his brother, reactionary elements feared he might be inclined to foreign innovations and the sort of reforms they did not want. This would certainly not prove to be the case.

That being said, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was willing to work with the “Young Ottomans” toward some measure of constitutional government. He could see that some sort of changes were needed as the Ottoman Empire was being left far behind by the other powers in industry and technological advancement. It was also a precarious time for the empire since the sympathy of the Christian empires that manifested itself in Britain and France aiding the Turks against Russia in the Crimean War had evaporated after the brutal suppression of a number of Christian uprisings in the Balkans. The pacification of Bulgaria had been particularly heinous with 58 villages burned, 5 monasteries destroyed and 15,000 Bulgarian civilians massacred. Imperial Russia was moving to take retribution for this and, this time around, none of the other European powers would be offering any help. The British were concerned about Russian expansion, but the actions of the Turks had made any assistance to them impossible. Constitutional talk was put on hold as the Russian Czar declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24, 1877.

It took only until February of 1878 for the war to come to an end as the Russians inflicting a massive and devastating defeat on the Turks. Romania, Serbia and Montenegro were conceded their independence, Bulgaria was given autonomy, Bosnia a lesser degree of local control and part of Armenia was handed over to Russia. Heavy war reparations were also paid to the Russians and Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in the aftermath of this disaster, suspended the newborn constitution and dissolved parliament after its first meeting, ruling on his own for the next thirty years. To make matters worse, in order to counter Russian expansion, the British began moving in on Turkish-ruled territory themselves, taking control of Cyprus and effectively Egypt-Sudan after chaos caused by the removal of the ruling khedive. Albania, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria all had border disputes and in 1897 war broke out with Greece over Crete. The Turks were victorious but, due to international intervention, Crete was lost for the Ottoman Empire and restored to the Greeks. Immediately after this an Arab revolt broke out in Syria which again resulted in humiliating concessions for the Turkish authorities.

During the settling of affairs in the Balkans, an international conference assembled in Berlin demanded that Ottoman authorities grant greater rights to minorities within the empire. Sultan Abdul Hamid II agreed to this as a matter of necessity in the crisis of the time but was reluctant to follow through with the promises made. He saw, not unrealistically, that such changes could result in the unraveling of the Ottoman Empire entirely. This first proved true with the subject population of Armenian Christians. When they demanded the rights that had been promised to them, Sultan Abdul Hamid II tried to thwart them by playing off the two minority groups against each other; the Kurds and the Armenians. The Kurdish forces unleashed havoc on the Armenians and the Armenians responded by forming revolutionary organizations but, seeing through the Kurds, aimed at the Sultan who was supporting them. In the effort to suppress these revolutionary forces, some 300,000 Armenians were massacred and the outraged west dubbed Abdul Hamid II the “Bloody Sultan”. It also resulted in an Armenian assassination attempt on the Sultan, however, a delay caused the car bomb to explode before he arrived and so he survived though 30 bystanders were killed and 54 wounded.

By this time, the Turks had long burned their bridges with their former allies from the Crimean War and Russia was certainly no friendlier given what the Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire had endured. The French and British were outraged by Turkish actions and the Sultan was outraged by the French seizure of Tunisia and the British occupation of Egypt-Sudan. This resulted in Sultan Abdul Hamid II moving closer to Imperial Germany who was also not on the best terms with Britain, France and Russia. The Sultan also responded to increased internal unrest and the increasing dissatisfaction of the various non-Turkish ethnicities as well as the growing demand for reform by many of the educated Turks with repressive measures. A surveillance state, police state and all the usual trappings were established and carried out their duties zealously. Spies were everywhere, confiscations were common and summary arrests were a daily occurrence. Because of this, Abdul Hamid II is often viewed as a paranoid and oppressive tyrant even today.

However, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was a more complicated figure than that. He could see as well as anyone that the Ottoman Empire had been left behind by the other major powers. They were more stable, more prosperous, more militarily powerful and more technologically advanced. He wanted to revive the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire and so he did encourage greater education and more industrialization. Yet, this also went hand in hand with strictly limiting what could be taught to Ottoman students, what they could study and what they could read. To keep the empire together, the Sultan resorted to harsh repressive measures, particularly against Christian populations such as the Bulgarians. Yet, a long period of economic mismanagement also meant that the Sultan had no choice but to basically hand control over Ottoman finances to (Christian) foreign powers. His decisions laid the foundation for the progress Turkey was to make in the years to come, particularly with the German-backed spread of the railroad network. However, his fear of dissent also caused him to stagnate the navy which would have dire consequences in the future war with Italy over the provinces now known as Libya.

Eventually, the paranoia of Abdul Hamid II began creating the very enemies he feared. More and more officials and army officers resented the way they were constantly being spied on, the growing isolation of the country and the continuing loss of territories that had been conquered and under Ottoman rule for centuries. In 1908, in what became known as the “Young Turk Revolution”, Turkish army forces in Greece began marching on Constantinople. With no loyal forces on hand to stop them, the Sultan began furiously back-peddling. He reinstated the Constitution of 1876, recalled parliament, ordered a stop to spying on his subjects, censorship and even released political prisoners. The “Young Turks”, a group of reform-minded, more secular, Turkish nationalists, were given power and formed a cabinet. The era of absolute monarchy was over and constitutional monarchy was to prevail from that time on. However, Sultan Abdul Hamid II had not been genuine in his sudden conversion to the progressive cause and the following year organized loyalist elements to stage a counter-coup in order to restore the absolute monarchy. Unfortunately for him, this failed and Sultan Abdul Hamid II was deposed by the Young Turks and replaced by Sultan Mehmed V, a figurehead who was never able to be much more than a prisoner in his own palace. Originally sent to Salonica in Greece, when the Greeks took back the region he returned to Constantinople but remained under house arrest until his death on February 10, 1918.

It is worth noting that the Ottoman Empire, which had stood for centuries over the crossroads of three continents, swiftly collapsed under the administration of the Young Turks. However, it was largely under Abdul Hamid II that the stage was set for that downfall. The suppression of the Slavic Christians alienated the Great Powers of Europe so that, ultimately, only Germany and Austria-Hungary remained as supporters (Bulgaria was on the same side but obviously was not inclined to be helpful) and internal suppression led to the rise of the Young Turks. The loss of territory naturally prompted a desire to see the Ottoman Empire restored to its former size but this led to an overreaching in World War I that brought about the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its final dismemberment. Having lost the European provinces, during the war the Arabs finally rose up in revolt as well and the Ottoman Empire was doomed.


  1. Even i am turkish i say that this man is a complete jerk,i wish they had assassinated him before his death before he fu*ked up tke all country

  2. I feel like he could have been a really good Sultan. I want to like him, but I can't. I mean, he banned cars from the empire, which was an awful idea.

  3. Ma dude, wat u sayin? This man did everything in his poert to save his collapsing empire

  4. you guys dont know youre history!!this man may ALLAH bless his soul was a warrior and the muslims lived in peace during his reign.the young turks betrayed him and are crying up to today.what FOOLS!!!!


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