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Volume 40, Number 1January/February 1989

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Selling the Ottoman Empire

Written by Philip Mansel
Photographs courtesy of The British Library

Abdulhamid II, who reigned from 1876 to 1909, was the most controversial sultan in the history of the Ottoman Empire. His success in keeping the empire independent in the golden age of European imperialism has made some historians call him the last of the great sultans. But he ruled from seclusion in his palace at Yildiz, outside Constantinople, for 40 years in a style historians call paranoid and autocratic.

Although he dissolved parliament and suspended the Ottoman constitution, and forbade unwed men and women to go out together in public, Abdulhamid was dedicated to modernizing his empire. During his reign the postal service was started, city streets were paved and lit with gas, and the army was reorganized. Though he imposed severe censorship on his people and relied heavily on a secret police system, during his reign plagues became a phenomenon of the past, and schools were founded throughout the empire.

Abdulhamid's attitude to photography also reflected his dual personality.

Photography was one of the many European inventions which interested him. Indeed, the sultan loved photographs so much that he had a collection of 30,000 of them at Yildiz Palace. Some were in diamond-studded silver frames, but most were mounted in albums in the library, and he frequently consulted them. Among his favorite photographers were Ali Reza, chief photographer of the Ministry of War and the Academy of Engineering, and Abdullah Freres, an Armenian firm established at 452 Grande Rue de Pera, the main street of the "European" quarter of Constantinople, who had been "photographers to His Imperial Majesty the Sultan" since 1867.

But photographs were not simply an amusement for the sultan. More than any other ruler of his day, he used photography as a tool and a weapon. Photographers were sent around the empire, from Albania to Mesopotamia, so that the sultan - who rarely left his palace, let alone his capital - could see what his empire looked like. He also had photographs taken of government employees, so that he could study a man's features before receiving him in audience.

Some 35,000 of these photographs, in the form of glass plates, are today being catalogued and restored in Istanbul by the Research Center for Islamic History, Arts and Culture - whose offices are in the same Yildiz Palace inhabited by Sultan Abdulhamid a century ago.

Abdulhamid also used photography to sell to the outside world the image of the Ottoman Empire as a modern state. The Ottoman government had long been aware of its unfavorable image in the capitals and newspapers of western Europe. The ancient loathing probably dated back beyond the siege of Vienna in 1683 to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 - or even to the battle of Malazgirt in 1071; it had increased since the Ottomans' suppression of a revolt in Bulgaria in 1875 and 1876 which came to be known by the empire's critics as "the Bulgarian massacres." Abdulhamid was particularly sensitive to European opinion since, if his empire was to survive, he needed the support - though he detested the interference - of European powers. He frequently entertained visiting Europeans to dinner, and gave them decorations, to win favorable publicity.

In 1893, as part of his publicity campaign, he sent albums of photographs to the British, French, American and German governments. Fifty-one of these albums, with over 1800 photographs, are now in the Oriental Department of the British Library; 31 of them contain photographs taken by Abdullah Freres. They are magnificent green, red and gold volumes; some are so large, and burdened with so many thick, gilded pages and such heavily embossed covers that only a very strong person can lift them.

As a curator, Mohammed Isa Waley, writes, "The photographs appear to have been selected partly to illustrate and document the strenuous efforts made by the Sultan and his ministers to reform and modernize the institutions of the empire, and partly to record some of its scenic and architectural glories." Seventeen albums contain views of Constantinople and the former imperial capitals of Edirne and Bursa; 17 albums show military and naval establishments, 15 show civilian schools and colleges, and two show horses.

The photographs provide an overwhelmingly evocative picture of Constantinople in its last days of imperial glory, when servants rowed their mistresses by the Sweet Waters of Asia, and in the streets of Pera the latest fashions from Paris and Vienna could be seen beside the traditional costumes of the Balkans and the Caucasus. They reveal a concern for the past, recording architectural details of mosques and the costumes of dead sultans in glass-fronted cupboards in Topkapı Palace. Even Byzantine churches and Roman ruins were photographed for the Caliph of the Muslims.

Some of the most interesting albums show interiors in the palaces of the sultan, filled with elaborate potted plants, massive crystal chandeliers, preposterous pelments, European pictures, and towering porcelain vases given by the Kaiser. As the sultan no doubt intended, the interiors of his palaces are shown to be not very different from those inhabitated by his European fellow-monarchs.

In the other albums, however, we leave the monuments and palaces of Constantinople for a different, more political world. In these albums, instead of the picturesque images beloved of European tourists - traditional costumes, ruins and native women - we see the outward signs of modernization: schools, hospitals and soldiers at drill. The sultan was proud of his army reforms, and of the increase in the size and efficiency of the Ottoman army that was to enable it to defeat Greece with ease in 1897. There are innumerable photographs of regiments on parade, of ships' crews doing exercises, or the great display of the military might of the empire that took place every Friday when the sultan went to prayers at the mosque just outside Yildiz - the selamlik.

The army was so preeminent in the Ottoman Empire that the only factories shown are military factories: The sultan did not encourage the formation of Ottoman private enterprises. He was so frightened of electricity that it was banned except in embassies, hospitals, the Pera Palace Hotel and his own palace. However, there is a photograph of a very modern-looking "naval electricity factory."

The sultan was equally proud of his educational reforms. There are photographs of schools for girls, for the blind, for the Navy, the Army, and for the sons of tribal chiefs, and photographs of the famous Lycée Impérial de Galata-Seraï, the smartest school in the empire, situated on the Grande Rue de Pera. From Janina in the mountains of Greece to Baghdad in Mesopotamia, new schools were founded - and photographed. Although Abdulha-mid thought his position as Caliph of the Muslims even more important than that of Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and constantly reemphasized his religious role, all the schools are built in a variety of European styles, from neoclassical to neo-Gothic: As with his palaces, there is nothing Islamic about their appearance.

After looking at these albums, it is impossible to believe that the Ottoman Empire was completely reactionary, or that it did nothing for its subjects. It may have been "the sick man of Europe" politically, but it was the modernizer of the Middle East. Several future Arab leaders of importance were educated at Ottoman government schools. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire impressed its neighbors so much that when rulers in Bokhara, Yemen or Afghanistan wanted to modernize they turned to Constantinople for advice.

Nevertheless, the sultan's attempts to impress the West had little success. Particularly after the suppression of an Armenian revolt in 1894 and the Greco-Turkish war of 1897, he received increasingly unfavorable publicity. When he was deposed by the Young Turk revolutions of 1908 and 1909, the West rejoiced.

Abdulhamid's photographs provide an unforgettable picture of a half European, half Middle Eastern empire struggling for survival. However, there are surprising omissions. Although the Orient Express connected Constantinople with the other capitals of Europe after 1883, there are no photographs of trains in the albums. Human figures are carefully posed in rows in front of official buildings or in the photographers' studios, but they are absent from the city streets. Above all, there are no photographs of the sultan himself. Either out of fear that a pistol might be hidden in a camera, or because of religious scruples, this imperial devotee of photography excluded his own image from those that comprised his effort to improve the image of his empire.

Philip Mansel is a writer specializing in the history of European and Middle Eastern monarchies. His most recent book is Sultans in Splendor, published by Andre Deutsch in Britain and by the Vendome Press in the U.S.

This article appeared on pages 34-39 of the January/February 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1989 images.