The Sultan and the Sultan

Faced with a vast, decaying empire, the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II ruled with an iron fist, curtailing press freedom, promoting Islam and severing ties with the West. His similarities with Turkey’s current president have not gone unnoticed.

William Armstrong | Published 08 Nov 2017
Demonstration in support of Erdoğan, Istanbul, 22 July 2016.

Demonstration in support of Erdoğan, Istanbul, 22 July 2016.

Turkey’s relationship with the West is in the middle of a slow-motion car crash. After years of tension, the country’s rift with its western allies has widened since an attempted military coup against the government of the country’s current premier, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016. Many in Turkey believe western intelligence agencies were behind the coup. Increasingly toxic relations with the US and the EU betray a deep mutual distrust, exacerbated by the continued presence of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen – publically blamed by Erdoğan for the coup – on US soil. Erdoğan is convinced that Turkey is in the midst of an epochal transformation and that a strong, decisive ‘New Turkey’ is rising from today’s chaotic international order.

All this is providing fertile ground for historical revisionism. Episodes and figures from the Ottoman and Republican past are being reinterpreted through the lens of Turkey’s febrile contemporary political landscape. In response to ethno-sectarian war across the southern borders in Syria and Iraq, threats from jihadists and Kurdish militants, coup attempts and an ongoing state of emergency, an emotionally satisfying reinterpretation of Ottoman and Turkish history is gathering pace. Increasingly, media coverage and popular culture portrays Turkey as a civilisational state that must play an assertive regional and global role. In this narrative one name is particularly prominent: the hard-line Sultan Abdülhamid II, one of the last Ottoman leaders, who reigned in the twilight of the Empire, from 1876 to 1909.

Sultan Abdulhamid II as the 'Sick Man of Europe'. Cover of 'Le Rire', May 1897. Chris Hellier/Alamy Stock Photo

Abdülhamid has long been venerated as ‘Ulu Hakan’ (the Supreme Sultan) by conservative ideologues within Turkey, but the reverence has reached fever pitch under Erdoğan. An idealised memory of Abdülhamid, which casts him as the last proudly Islamic Ottoman leader standing up to the West, has become part of the government’s narrative of civilisational ‘restoration’, in which Turkey is once again a great power that shapes history. Abdülhamid is often glorified as a symbolic precursor of Erdoğan – proof that historic forces are at play today. This is an implicit rebuke of Turkey’s traditional Republican view of history, established after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, which dismissed the Ottoman past as a kind of ‘dark age’, stifled by religion and tradition.

When Abdülhamid came to the throne in 1876, the Ottoman Empire had endured a long period of relative decline. Territories had been lost in the Balkans, nationalist movements were gathering momentum and industrial development had allowed rival European powers to make great strides forward. For years, the Empire had been trying to catch up. The ‘Tanzimat’ (literally ‘reorganisation’) edict announced by Abdülmecid I in 1839 aimed to reorganise the administration of the empire in line with the latest reforms in Europe, centralising and rationalising decision-making in a diverse imperial landscape. Yet while his predecessors had considered modernisation and westernisation as synonymous, Abdülhamid II was interested only in the former, seeing the latter as a threat to Ottoman unity and a betrayal of the Empire’s historic character. While rapacious European powers were keen to present themselves as guarantors of the rights of various Ottoman Christian communities, Abdülhamid stressed his state’s Islamic credentials and his own role as Caliph. According to the historian Jacob M. Landau, ‘Pan-Islam became the state policy in its attempt to safeguard the Empire from internal and external dangers.’


The Ottoman term for this emphasis on Islamic union was İttihad-ı İslam. Abdülhamid saw the promotion of Islamic unity within and without the Empire and the rolling back of westernisation as keys to Ottoman imperial renewal. His regime accelerated bureaucratisation, centralisation, improvements in transportation, communication, public schooling and public finances. Technological developments (such as the telegraph and the railway) extended the grasp of his autocracy through his network of spies. But Abdülhamid had little patience for the kind of reforms that would grant his Christian minorities more autonomy, as demanded by the European powers.

When he first became sultan, Abdülhamid had appeared to be an enlightened reformer. He supported the Ottoman constitution, written by the Young Ottomans – a society of Turkish intellectuals who sought reform – and promulgated in 1876, giving the empire its first experience of constitutional democracy (including a limited electoral franchise and steps to further check the sultan’s authority). The next year he opened the first session of an elected Ottoman parliament. But the experience of ruling a vast, decaying empire hardened him into an absolutist. After the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-78, in which the Ottoman Empire lost territories in the Caucasus and the Balkans, Abdülhamid suspended parliament. He became convinced that he needed to rule with a stronger hand to protect it from further dismemberment, saying ‘I now understand that it is not possible to move the peoples whom God has placed under my protection by any means other than force.’ The German ambassador, Marschall von Biberstein, reflected admiringly on the sultan’s calculations. ‘Abdül Hamid has understood that He has to establish His authority in the Empire firmly and unwaveringly,’ von Biberstein wrote in a report to Berlin. ‘Developing and maintaining this country is only possible with an autocratic regime … [The empire] can only be held together with an iron hand.’

Abdul-Hamid II, is represented as being left to fight it out with his insurgent Provinces, the European Powers 'keeping the ring' and abstaining from interference. English cartoon, 1876.

Abdülhamid’s regime soon became a byword for despotism. In Europe he was decried as the ‘Red Sultan’ after his regime carried out pogroms against Christian Armenians in the 1890s. Targeted by assassination attempts and threatened by nationalist secessionist movements among the Empire’s myriad minorities, Abdülhamid became increasingly paranoid. He retreated behind the walls of Istanbul’s secluded Yıldız Palace, where he weaved a tangled web of spies and eavesdroppers. He was ultimately overthrown amid widespread military disgruntlement in 1909, a year after the ‘Young Turk’ revolution pledged a return to constitutional rule. In The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 (2015), Eugene Rogan describes the Empire under Abdülhamid II as a police state: ‘Political activists were imprisoned and exiled, newspapers and magazines were heavily censored, and citizens looked over their shoulders before speaking, fearful of the ubiquitous spies working for the government.’


The parallels with Turkey’s mercurial president Erdoğan seem obvious. After he came to office as head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and prime minister in 2003, Erdoğan was lauded in the West as a moderate Muslim reformer, praised for raising the country’s democratic standards and advancing its economy. But his international reputation has since deteriorated badly. Authoritarianism, rent-seeking and demagoguery mark his era. Religious conservatism motivates social policy and the theory of evolution was recently removed from high-school syllabuses. The state administration is subject to the whims of capricious one-man rule. A cult of personality is in full swing, with Erdoğan embodying the frustrations, hopes and grievances of Turkey’s conservative masses, bound by a powerful sense of shared identity.

In April 2017, over 51 per cent of voters approved an executive presidential system granting Erdoğan truly sultanic powers. This indicates that at least half the country is firmly behind him, but the president cuts an increasingly isolated figure. Surrounded by sycophants in his 1,100-room palace in the capital Ankara, he remains charismatic but is intoxicated by outlandish conspiracy theories. His lawyers have opened hundreds of cases against citizens accused of ‘insulting’ him, including cartoonists and satirists. This also recalls Abdülhamid, who once banned all references to large noses in political caricatures and writings because of his own disproportionate nose.

 Artist Kaya Mar with satirical painting 'Erdoğan, the Turkish Sun King', London, 1 May 2014.

The massive infrastructure megaprojects that define Erdoğan’s rule also echo the age of Abdülhamid, under whom construction of the 1,464-kilometre Hejaz Railway began. The railway was to connect Istanbul and Mecca but, curtailed by the First World War, ended up extending only from Damascus to Medina. Abdülhamid oversaw a number of similar projects, including the Baghdad Railway, which was intended to connect Baghdad with Berlin via Istanbul. The idea of an underwater tunnel connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul is also believed to have been first proposed by Abdülhamid over 100 years ago: on its opening in 2013 the ‘Marmaray’ metro tunnel was touted as fulfilling his ‘century-old dream’. The high regard the current regime has for Abdülhamid is reflected in the rumour that he is among the leading candidates for the official name of Istanbul’s under-construction third airport, planned to be the world’s largest after opening in 2018. Such megaprojects define today’s Turkey, combining lucrative business opportunities for loyalists with grandiose designs – some of which have been described as neo-Ottoman – that apparently elevate the country to its rightful place among great nations.

Erdoğan’s supporters see the decline in his reputation abroad as part of a shady international plot to halt this forward march. Conspiratorial thinking runs rampant. For them, the supposed campaign against Erdoğan evokes the assassination attempts and alleged schemes played against Abdülhamid. Orhan Osmanoğlu, a fourth-generation descendent of Abdülhamid, claims that Turkey is today witnessing a ‘repetition of history’: ‘Meddling foreigners now call our president a dictator, just as they used to call Abdülhamid the “Red Sultan”.’ Speaking in early 2014 after prosecutors made explosive corruption allegations targeting officials close to Erdoğan, former deputy prime minister Emrullah İşler pointed a finger at foreign powers:

Sultan Abdülhamid was also called despotic, oppressive and censorious. International forces and local proxies joined together in opposition to him. We see the same scenario repeated today. The local and international gangs were successful against Abdülhamid but today the Turkish nation will win. Our nation is aware of the games being played.

Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman compared last year’s coup attempt to the dethroning of Abdülhamid in 1909: ‘They wanted to do the same as they did when they overthrew Abdülhamid, but this time they couldn’t succeed.’

Such myth-making is further fuelled by a popular TV series that returned for a second season on state broadcaster TRT in September. Payitaht (The Last Sultan) recounts the final years of Abdülhamid II’s reign, depicting a pious sultan confronted by scheming Zionists, Freemasons, liberals and rapacious Europeans. The programme presents Abdülhamid as the last proud leader of the Islamic world, standing firm against infidels aiming to sow discord within the Ottoman domains. Erdoğan seems to be a keen viewer, commenting that Payitaht highlights parallels between Abdülhamid and himself. ‘The same schemes are carried out today in exactly the same manner,’ he said in an interview. ‘The West’s moves against us are the same. Only the era and the actors are different.’ Strangely enough, Ankara remains a candidate to join the EU, despite opportunistically using the rise of the far right in Europe to rhetorically blast the EU as morally bankrupt and racist.


Ironically, Erdoğan’s devoted admirers and bitter opponents will agree that a comparison with Abdülhamid is apt. While critics view the late sultan as a reactionary despot, sympathisers consider him the last strong and authentic Islamic leader before the tragic collapse of the Ottoman state. Similar interpretations of Erdoğan exist within Turkey today. Many of Erdoğan’s supporters rally behind him as a strongman, resurrecting the spirit of a once-mighty empire and reinvigorating national self-esteem, free of limits imposed by the West. While commenting on Payitaht, Nilhan Osmanoğlu, a fifth-generation descendent of Abdülhamid, recently expressed a common post-imperial longing in Turkey: ‘When we look at the confusion in the Middle East … we see how well the Ottomans administered this part of the world.’ Abdülhamid is the focus of a flattering, Islamicised vision of history, in which the contradictions of an extraordinarily diverse land empire – a kaleidoscope of religious communities across Europe, Asia and Africa – are flattened out.

Of course, today’s caricatured image of Abdülhamid obscures a more complex reality. ‘People are looking back at Abdülhamid II’s time through the lens of what they believe today’s Turkey should be like,’ Ottoman historian Ryan Gingeras told me: ‘There’s an awful lot of cherry picking going on. There is an impression of Abdülhamid’s empire as being the embodiment of consensus in the Islamic world, with Turkey as its leader. There’s a tendency to overemphasise the agency, importance and strength of the Ottoman state at this time. Abdülhamid is seen as a proactive, central and visionary leader, while the Ottoman Empire is seen as being key to international politics. But by the end of the 19th century it was essentially a marginal and weakened state, especially during the latter stages of Abdülhamid’s reign. The idea that he had the kind of control that people attribute to him now doesn’t jibe with reality.’

Fantastical or not, the kind of revisionism underway in Turkey mirrors trends occurring in many other countries. Putin’s Russia, Trump’s America and Brexit Britain are exhibiting how populist nationalism is highly susceptible to misleading historical re-examination. In the white-hot context of contemporary Turkish politics, the simplistic ‘rediscovery’ of Abdülhamid – a sultan who oversaw the decline of his empire with draconian, paranoid rule – is an illuminating example of a global tendency.

William Armstrong is a writer and editor at the Hurriyet Daily News, based in Istanbul. He also presents the Turkey Book Talk podcast.