A crisis of identity

ON 3 NOVEMBER 1839 in the Gülhane, or ‘Rose Bower’, in the outer gardens of Topkapı Palace, Sultan Abdülmecid promulgated what became known as the Gülhane Edict, which formally inaugurated the era known as the Tanzimat, or ‘Re-ordering’. Mahmud II’s reform programme had proceeded as circumstances allowed; the Gülhane Edict was a public pronouncement that the old ways had failed to fit the empire for the modern age, and also an unequivocal statement of the ideological framework that underlay the legal and administrative changes of the recent past and would guide those of the future. Although foisted on the population from the pinnacle of power, the Edict was a document by which the Sultan committed himself and his government to a contractual partnership with his subjects. It would affect them all, and all were expected to subscribe to its precepts. The new medium of the press conveyed the Edict to the literate – the text was printed in the official gazette, Takvîm-i vakâyi – and, more traditionally, provincial governors and sub-governors were instructed to arrange ceremonial readings in the public squares of the empire’s towns and cities.1

The Edict was proclaimed by Mustafa Reşid Pasha, the foreign minister, in the presence of the Sultan and an assemblage of statesmen, clerics and foreign ambassadors. Its preamble blamed the Ottoman Empire’s descent from greatness during the past 150 years on a failure to observe both the sacred and the sultanic law – a situation that could be remedied, it continued, by means of good administration founded on the principles of security of life, protection of honour and property, and new measures in the fields of taxation and military service: guarantees regarding security of life and property would encourage loyalty to the state; new sources of taxation were being sought to replace the income from tax-farms and the ‘accursed monopolies from which the domains had recently been liberated’;2 a fair system of taxation would be established and the uses to which this money would be put – the expenses of the army and navy demanding the largest share – would be regulated by law; military mobilization was to be regularized to distribute the burden equitably, and a limit of four to five years’ conscript service was set. For the first time these principles were to be applied to all Ottoman subjects, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The bribery that plagued the bureaucracy would be outlawed, and a penal code introduced to punish those derelict in observation of the laws, whomsoever they were, and in accordance with their rank. The concluding promise, to which all Ottoman subjects and friendly states were invited to bear witness, was of thoroughgoing administrative change. The Edict was firmly and explicitly couched in the language of Islamic law, and the laws which it would engender would not conflict with this, while this essentially religious character was symbolically confirmed when the Sultan swore to it in the Chamber of the Holy Mantle in the presence of high-ranking clerics and bureaucrats.3

It was customary for a new sultan to make a proclamation of his intention to rule justly, and Abdülmecid had done so on his accession four months earlier. It was unusual for that statement of intent to be so soon followed by another – and the timing was not coincidental. An unfortunate combination of domestic and external events – in particular, the threat posed by Mehmed Ali and the shifting strengths and interests of the Great Powers with respect to Ottoman affairs – found the empire on the defensive by the end of the 1830s despite Sultan Mahmud’s wide-ranging reforms. If the Baltalimanı commercial convention of 1838 was the price the Ottomans had to pay for British support in the settlement with Mehmed Ali, the proclamation of the Gülhane Edict was the cost of securing this self-interested support in the longer term. The Tanzimat had, in effect, been initiated by Mahmud during the last years of his reign, but Abdülmecid’s promulgation of the Gülhane Edict was a gesture intended to demonstrate to the European powers the sincerity of Ottoman intentions to modernize their state. The evidence it gave of a renewed vigour at the heart of the empire was calculated to impress upon the Powers the empire’s determination and capacity to participate on equal terms – inviting them to display good will in their support for Ottoman reform efforts – and at the same time to demonstrate a willingness to accommodate their often vociferously-expressed concerns about the welfare of the Sultan’s non-Muslim subjects.

Sultan Abdülmecid was only sixteen when he came to the throne, and the approach to reform embodied in the Gülhane Edict – so different from his father’s – is generally ascribed to the initiative of Reşid Pasha. A product of theological college, he had subsequently transferred to the civil bureaucracy and gained wide experience of the world of international politics. He had negotiated with both Mehmed Ali and his son İbrahim Pasha when their expansionist policies were threatening the empire, and had been ambassador in both Paris and London. During his time in London he had won British support for Ottoman resistance to Mehmed Ali, a success that initiated a pro-British outlook among the group of reformers closest to him.4

The prominence of Reşid Pasha as a conduit for the British influence subsequently manifested in Ottoman legislation has tended to overshadow the homegrown aspects of the Edict. Reşid Pasha had a hand in the drafting of the Edict, and members of the religious hierarchy were also prominent in its formulation, an involvement that seems to have precluded any sense of a need for a juridical opinion to sanction its proclamation and suggests that they saw no conflict with the precepts of Islamic law. The Sultan himself had grown up in an orthodox Islamic environment fostered by his tutors and his mother. In his accession proclamation he had not only referred to himself as ‘Commander of the Faithful and [God’s] Caliph on the face of the earth’ but had announced that no toleration would be shown towards those who did not pray five times a day, in keeping with their religious obligation. He wrote to his grand vezir: ‘The Caliphate has been passed on to us by inheritance and by right . . . it is our wish to see that the exalted [Islamic law] is applied in all matters’. Like his forebears, he was an adherent of a dervish order, in his case the Halidi branch of the Nakşibendi order, as were a number of his closest advisers. Unlike the Bektaşi, the Halidi, noted for the centrality of the sacred law in their teachings, found acceptance in conservative ruling circles; they benefited – as did the Nakşibendi and the Mevlevi – from the demise of the Bektaşi after 1826. In Damascus, at the site of the tomb of Sheikh Halid Baghdadi, the founder of the order, Abdülmecid had a mausoleum and dervish convent constructed in the early 1840s. His pronouncements and his acts were those of a pious man – in 1851 he ordered a mosque to be built in the Fatih district of Istanbul to house a second mantle of the Prophet Muhammad (the first being that kept in Topkapı Palace)5 – and one in whom an understanding of the need for continuing reform within the framework of Islamic law underlay the search for a more viable state expressed in the Gülhane Edict.6

Each reform effort in the history of the Ottoman Empire had provoked opposition, but where its containment had hitherto been a purely domestic issue, one consequence of the Gülhane Edict was to bring internal Ottoman tensions onto the international stage. By responding to outside pressure in the timing and tone of the Edict, the government laid the reform process open to foreign monitoring, and this tended to throw into relief the profound differences in outlook between Christian European and Islamic Ottoman culture. Debates about the nature and speed of change were complicated and the resolution of internal conflict became far more difficult as the demands of the European powers, which were often incompatible with one another, clamoured to be satisfied.

At first reading there was little remarkable in the Gülhane Edict’s statement of intent regarding a desire for better administration and a healthier state treasury. A new dimension, however, was the emphasis on law to provide the framework within which administrative reforms were to be carried out: this reflected a development of Mahmud’s aim that impersonal, rational decision-making should replace the unregulated application at whim of either sacred or sultanic writ. A general penal code passed into law in 1840; in the same year tax-farming was abolished, at least in theory: in practice, the intentions of the legislators could not fully be realized, and it was still flourishing in the early twentieth century.7 But the application of the Tanzimat was very uneven across the empire. Lack of personnel trained to carry out the reforms, inertia combined with an instinctive resistance to change imposed from above, an insolvent treasury, an underdeveloped infrastructure, a largely illiterate population, the problems of communicating the new values across far-flung and diverse lands – all these factors bedevilled the implementation of the reforms.

Explicit manipulation of the overlapping categories according to which Ottoman society had traditionally functioned, and of the rights and duties proper to and expected of each individual by virtue of his membership of a particular group, lay at the root of much of the unrest generated by the Gülhane Edict.8 The promise of equality for all before the law was not one to be easily assimilated in the Ottoman milieu, since Islam itself enshrines three significant inequalities: those of believer and unbeliever, master and slave, male and female.9 Inequality between believer and unbeliever set the terms of the fundamental structure of every Islamic society, and Ottoman society had in the past also been further defined by the now blurred distinction between the ruling class and the ruled – that is, between the tax-exempt and the taxed. Pragmatism and compromise were characteristic of many spheres of Ottoman activity, in that these distinctions were not always and every-refuwhere rigidly enforced, but public articulation of the principle of equality for all Ottoman subjects was too much for many to countenance with equanimity – particularly when an uncomfortable dimension of the new arrangements was that any failure or backsliding was sure to invite foreign recrimination.

The most obvious expression in Ottoman society of the inequality between Muslim and non-Muslim was the poll-tax paid by the latter. This particular distinction was not one that could be abolished at a stroke, but even the administrative changes made at this time required a juridical opinion from the Sheikhulislam.10 To bring the status of non-Muslims into line with that of Muslims – that is to say, to relieve non-Muslims of the requirement to pay a poll-tax – would have been to deprive the state of important revenues, as well as conflicting with the principle of the ‘second-class’ status of non-Muslims in a Muslim state, so ‘equality’ was effected, rather, by bringing the status of the Muslim population more in line with that of non-Muslims; Muslim and non-Muslim peasants alike were now required to pay a graduated tax, according to the value of their land-holding.11Some of the new regulations to centralize and regularize tax collection had in fact been laid down during the final year of Mahmud II’s reign; they were intended to remove the abuses which had blighted the lives of the subject population, but poorer Muslims were nevertheless unhappy with the imposition of a regular tax payable in cash where they had previously been liable for a number of different taxes, some of them payable in kind, as were certain other groups of Muslims who had long enjoyed special exemption from taxation in return for the performance of specific services for the state, and were now to be taxed instead.12

As was to be expected, Ottoman Christians and their European champions, who had eagerly looked forward to the removal of the social and financial disabilities which exemplified the second-class status of non-Muslims, interpreted the continuing existence of the poll-tax as being contrary to the Tanzimat promise of equality for all. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that like any state the Ottoman Empire needed tax revenues to be able to function, wherever the shortcomings of the Tanzimat were discussed in the European press, the unsatisfactory nature of its taxation system was the main preoccupation.13 As for the Jewish population of the empire, their complaints were less easily heard than were those of Christians, for there was no Great Power ready to intervene on their behalf in Ottoman domestic affairs – although in the 1830s Britain had sought recognition as the protector of Ottoman Jewry, to match Russia’s claims to protect Orthodox Christians and France’s in respect of Catholics, and had looked to settle Jews in Ottoman Palestine and Syria. Since their numbers were small and they were more widely dispersed than the Christian communities, the Ottoman authorities did not see Jews as a threat to the state. In an attempt to give the appearance of pluralism, however, the government had in 1835 for the first time appointed a leader of the Jewish community, counterpart in principle to the Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs. But this appointment sat uneasily with the reluctance of Judaism to recognize such an all-supreme figure: he was at first regarded with suspicion, and only gradually came to be accepted.14

During the 1830s a series of uprisings had taken place in the area of Niš, near the western Ottoman border with Serbia. The Serbian leader Miloš Obrenović refused to support the rebels, and skilfully worked instead to further administrative reform in partnership with the Ottoman authorities. In 1839 he abdicated, however, and his place as hereditary prince was soon taken by his sixteen-year-old son Michael. Two years later trouble broke out as tax reform began to be implemented: the land-holding class was Christian, the peasantry mixed Muslim and Christian, and all were unhappy not only with the new tax rates but with the fact that some taxes which had theoretically been abolished were still being demanded from them. The representations made by the Christian peasants of the Niš area to Michael Obrenović in that year bore scant trace of any yearning for independence, but simply sought improvement in the conditions under which they lived – ‘people are not revolting against the legitimate government of the Sultan, rather they want that the benevolent terms of the Gülhane Edict be faithfully and exactly carried out’, one such petition took care to note.15 Resistance coalesced along communal lines, however, and local Ottoman administrators called upon Albanian troops – Muslims – to quash the disturbances. They did so, violently, until Istanbul intervened. The religious overtones of the conflict were not lost on the champions of the Ottoman Orthodox: Russia protested and a commission was duly sent from Istanbul to determine what lay behind the incident. The Ottoman government was of the opinion that the Serbian leadership had instigated the disturbances, but fearing that such tax-related protests might spark further intercommunal unrest in what was a highly sensitive region, decided to pacify the Christians by ransoming those of their fellows seized by the Albanian irregulars, retrieving their stolen livestock and other moveable goods, and distributing money to those caught up in the violence; gradually, those who had fled made their way home.16

The event which most publicly demonstrated that reform, albeit incompletely and falteringly, was moving too far, too fast for most upper-echelon bureaucrats as well as for the people at large was Reşid Pasha’s dismissal from the post of foreign minister in March 1841, apparently as a result of bribes offered to his enemies by Mehmed Ali who saw him as responsible for the Convention for the Pacification of the Levant agreed the previous year.17 The government was in the hands of the conservative in outlook, and the cabinet decided unanimously that many newly-introduced measures should be countermanded18 – which only added to the confusion. A factor that contributed to Reşid Pasha’s downfall was clerical disapproval of his introduction of a commercial code based on the French model which owed nothing to the precepts of Islamic law: instead, it dealt with partnerships and bankruptcies and the like – and was soon suspended.

Reform cost money, as Sultan Mahmud had discovered. His administration had resorted to debasement of the coinage, thereby provoking one of the most inflationary periods ever experienced in Ottoman history. The amount of silver in the widely-used coin known as the kuruş had not changed between 1789 and his accession in 1808, but during the 30 years of his reign it decreased by some 80 per cent; in gold coins the decrease in precious metal was below 20 per cent. Two periods of devaluation can be identified: between 1808 and 1822, and again between 1828 and 1831. The second, faster period encompassed both the Russian war of 1828–9 and the burden of the subsequent reparations payments imposed on the Ottomans. The suppression of the janissaries in 1826 having removed the group most vociferous in its opposition to debasement of the coinage, this second phase was largely successful, leaving the treasury in a better position to meet its obligations.19

But debasement alone could not provide an adequate solution to long-term financial needs, and the state was overly indebted to the money-brokers of Galata. In 1840 a hitherto untried financial instrument, paper money, was introduced. Although in character this was closer to treasury bonds – it was redeemable only after eight years, at an interest rate in the interim of 12.5 per cent per annum – circulated only in Istanbul, and was subject to counterfeiting, it gradually came to be accepted as a medium of exchange comparable to the coinage, as the government had intended, and was to some extent successful in augmenting treasury funds.20 In 1844 a bimetallic standard setting a fixed rate for the conversion of silver with gold was introduced: this also contributed to stabilizing the coinage. Like so many Ottoman innovations of these years, the inspiration came from Egypt.21

Soon after his dismissal in 1841 Reşid Pasha had returned to Paris as ambassador; he was recalled in 1845 and re-appointed foreign minister, and the following year he became grand vezir. His tenure, which lasted intermittently until his death in 1858, was long for the times, and reversed the downgrading the office had suffered during the reign of Mahmud II. It took the young Sultan Abdülmecid some time to establish his authority – the more so, from the problems attending the implementation of the Tanzimat – but with the respected Reşid Pasha at his side he gained the stature to proceed with the reform programme, which had fallen victim to the conservatives who had taken over in 1841.

One necessary administrative measure of the years of Reşid Pasha’s absence was the initiation in 1843 of a survey of the rural resources of the empire, with the aim of informing central government of the potential of the provinces. Following his reinstatement, far-reaching reforms were introduced in the fields of law and education in particular – commercial courts serving both Muslims and non-Muslims in 1847; in 1850 a revamped French-inspired commercial code to replace that which had contributed to Reşid Pasha’sdismissal nine years earlier; and the foundation of a ministry of education and of secular schools for boys aged between ten and fifteen.22 While this establishment of structures which were not anchored in Islamic mores was advantageous to modernization of the state in the long run, there were inevitable contradictions and conflicts with the still-functioning traditional system which were not easily resolved. Moreover, the innovations were few in number.

Despite reform, the pace of change in rural areas was slow. Landlords with large agricultural holdings did not disappear overnight but continued to order affairs largely to suit themselves, and found it easy to subvert the best intentions of the reformers. In its dynamics, an uprising in 1850 in Vidin, on the Danube, may be typical of other areas. The Muslim landlords here were angered by the abolition of the corvee, the system of forced labour imposed on the predominantly Christian peasants who tenanted their land. Outlawed in 1838, it had continued, de facto, along with other unremunerated and onerous services the peasants were called upon to perform. Armed peasant resistance prompted the landlords to petition the government: the government’s response was that corvee had indeed been abolished and the matter should be settled locally. However, the forum for resolution of such disputes was the local council, and since the very landlords who had mounted the petition formed a majority of its members, the issue was resolved in their favour and there was little change in the situation on the ground.23 Evidence suggests that the attitude of Russia and Serbia was one of caution to the point of restraint regarding events in Vidin, and that there was no question of the Vidin disturbances embodying a bid for Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire.24 It did appear, however, as though any optimism in Ottoman ruling circles that theTanzimat reformulation of state ideology would arrest agitation among the Christian minorities of the empire was likely to prove ill-founded.

Surprisingly, perhaps, even before Reşid Pasha’s return to the grand vezirate a faltering start had been made in implementing one of the most contentious propositions of the Gülhane Edict, but a key part of the Ottomans’ new programme of equality for all – the conscription of non-Muslims into the fighting forces of the empire. The Sheikhulislam gave the opinion that there was no canonical impediment to non-Muslims serving in the military and there was a compelling reason why they should do so – the empire needed troops, and, from a variety of causes, battlefield losses among them, the Muslim population was in relative decline. The cabinet wondered whether it might be better to employ non-Muslims only on land, and not in the confined quarters of a warship, where it was unlikely that they would mix easily with the Muslim sailors. Nevertheless, the necessary regulatory frame-work was in place by 1843, and conscription of Christians into the navy took place in 1845 and 1847 – even though the reformist party was not in power at the time. The government made efforts to rein in officials who treated the conscripts harshly, but the British complained nonetheless, and feared that the next step would be to take Christians into the army. No Christian sailors were recruited between 1848 and 1851; in 1851 many Macedonian Christians fled to the Peloponnese to avoid conscription into the navy, while Christians in Trabzon sought documents showing them to be under the protection of the local Greek and Russian consuls, even foreign passports. Concessions such as offering Christians conscripted into the navy work in the imperial dockyard rather than at sea failed to resolve the impasse at this time.25

Despite the many setbacks encountered in implementing the laws which derived from it, the Ottoman reformers who supported the precepts of the Gülhane Edict saw themselves as equal partners of the European powers in a new world order, an equality symbolized by participation in such events as the world fairs of the nineteenth century. The warmth of Ottoman–British relations, as notably exemplified by Reşid Pasha’s contacts with Stratford Canning – ambassador in Istanbul from 1825 to 1827, and again between 1842 and 1858 – doubtless encouraged the Ottomans to seize the opportunity to take part in the first of these, the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851 (they also participated in the World Fairs of 1855 and 1867 in Paris, 1862 in London and 1863 in Istanbul – and others later in the century). The purpose of participation, according to an official announcement, was to demonstrate the productivity of the Ottoman lands and the capabilities of the Ottoman people in the fields of agriculture, industry, and arts and crafts. Some 700 producers displayed their wares and a number, particularly from the quasi-independent provinces of Egypt and Tunis, were awarded prizes.26

The years from 1839 until the beginning of the hostilities leading up to the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 were ones of international peace for the empire as it eagerly embraced the outside world. The gradual introduction into the Ottoman lands of technical innovation in manufacturing and agriculture meant an increase in production for both the domestic and international markets. In the case of international trade, the rights won by foreign merchants to trade freely within the empire, and the ending of monopolies, made for a regime that was one of the most liberal in the world.27

Britain emerged as the foremost among the Great Powers during the 1840s as Russia was apparently forced onto the defensive with regard to the Ottoman Empire, but there were soon signs that Russia was actively seeking the partition of the empire, using the pretext of protecting its Orthodox Christian subjects as a means to destabilize it.28 Catholic and Orthodox rivalry in the Holy Sites of Palestine provided fruitful grounds for foreign intervention, as it had for centuries – the Franciscans having gained the upper hand in 1690 and had their position confirmed in 1740 following French support of the Ottomans in the Treaty of Belgrade, before losing it to the Russian-backed Orthodox in 1757.29 In the 1840s the issue blew up again as the question of the Holy Sites became an element in the wider rivalry between France and Russia. Russian pilgrims greatly outnumbered both their Ottoman co-religionists and Catholic pilgrims, and Tsar Nicholas I displayed an active interest in the Sites. The Ottoman government was harangued by Russia and France over the next few years as each sought to win international prestige and popular support at home by espousing the cause.

Another building of broad religious significance came into prominence during this period – the basilica-mosque of Ayasofya, the Hagia Sophia of Orthodox Byzantium. When Sultan Abdülmecid commissioned major restoration works in 1847 the building was in such an obvious state of disrepair that visitors to Istanbul dwelt on its neglected condition, both structurally and decoratively.30 Mahmud I, in the mid-eighteenth century, had been the last sultan to renovate Ayasofya. From the later eighteenth century, initially in response to their claims to religious authority over their co-religionists in the Crimea who came under Russian rule at this time, successive sultans began to emphasize their identity as the Caliph of Islam and Ayasofya took on a new role as the ‘symbolic seat of the Ottoman caliphate’, complete with a set of myths to account for this new interpretation.31 The restoration work commissioned in 1847 was entrusted to the Swiss Fossati brothers, who had been in Istanbul ever since arriving in 1837 to build the Russian Embassy; they had remained after its completion, building a wide range of structures, from country villas to government offices to Catholic churches. The Sultan had some concerns about clerical reaction to the project – but nevertheless paid several visits to Ayasofya during the course of the works. His order for the repairs was issued at a time when the most reactionary clerics were away from Istanbul on the pilgrimage to Mecca.32

Abdülmecid celebrated the completion of the Ayasofya repairs in 1849 by ordering the casting in Paris of a medal with his own cypher on one side and a depiction of the basilica-mosque on the other,33 achieving wide recognition for the building and enhancing its symbolic significance. It was a time, as the Ottomans understood very well, when it was necessary to play an active part in forging the image they presented to the outside world. Through his work on Ayasofya Abdülmecid was both addressing his domestic constituency and at the same time making a statement of goodwill to the Christian world in a language it understood. The Sultan’s attention to this particular monument in a city they coveted must have irritated the Russians quite as much as another move calculated to please the Ottomans’ British allies, the asylum offered to Polish and Hungarian refugees from the failed anti-absolutist revolutions of 1848, in which the Russia of the autocratic Nicholas I had interested itself. It was a gesture not without benefit to the Ottomans, for many of the refugees went into the military or the bureaucracy; some converted to Islam, but many retained their religion.

In 1850, as president of the French Republic, Prince Louis-Napoleon renewed his claim to custody of the Holy Sites in a bid to gain the support of his country’s clerics. Protracted negotiations resulted in 1852 in the keys of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem being awarded to the Catholics. Their use was hedged around with restrictions intended to satisfy Russia, but early in 1853 an indignant Tsar discussed with the British ambassador to St Petersburg his plans for the partition of what he referred to for the first time as ‘the Sick Man of Europe’. Tsar Nicholas hoped to gain the Danubian Principalities, Bulgaria and Serbia, the British would have Egypt and Crete, and Istanbul would become a free port. There was little reaction from London, however, and taking this for tacit agreement, in late February 1853 a Russian envoy, Prince Alexander Menshikov, brought the Sultan an ultimatum demanding continuing Russian pre-eminence in the Holy Sites and recognition of Russia’s rights over Ottoman Orthodox subjects. The Tsar’s demands were rejected, and early in July Russian forces began to cross the river Prut into Moldavia. In September Britain and France sent four warships through the Dardanelles towards Istanbul, and after further fruitless diplomatic manoeuvring the Ottomans sent an army across the Danube on 27 October. Thus the opening moves in what became the Crimean War. It was not until March 1854 that war was formally declared, after Russian bombardment of the Ottoman fleet at Sinop in November of the preceding year brought Britain and France, ever-dubious about Russia’s intentions with regard to the Ottoman Empire, hastening to its aid. The Ottomans had found themselves allies in their struggle against their northern neighbour and the Crimean War had begun.34

Austria stood to be affected as much as the Ottoman Empire by Russia’s occupation of the Danubian Principalities, and played a role as mediator among the four Powers enmeshed in the war. In June 1854 the Russian troops were forced to withdraw, and Austrian troops arrived to take their place, according to the terms of a treaty with the Sultan who thereby transferred his sovereign rights in the Principalities to Austria for the duration of the war. Passage through the Principalities thus denied to the belligerents, the focus of the war shifted to the Crimea, where Britain and France saw an opportunity to destroy Russia’s fleet and naval installations, and put an end to the bitter wrangling over the ‘Straits Question’ for ever. The port city of Sevastopol was the three allies’ goal, but it was a year before they could finally reduce it in September 1855. By November Russian forces had advanced through the Caucasus to take the fortress of Kars in north-east Anatolia, while in December Austria threatened to enter the war on the allied side if Russia refused to sue for peace. Negotiations soon resulted in the Treaty of Paris of 30 March 1856.35

The Treaty of Paris recognized the Ottoman Empire as a member of equal standing with the other Powers of the Concert of Europe and, in guaranteeing its territorial integrity, seemed to signal that it would no longer be a victim of Russian – or any other – territorial designs. The Ottoman Empire had at last won the acceptance for which sultans had striven since the reign of Selim III. Russia had underestimated Britain’s influence in the region and its hopes of controlling the Black Sea were dashed: it was to be open for all to trade in, and none to militarize. The Principalities and Serbia were returned to nominal Ottoman sovereignty, and European guarantee.36 The apocalyptic language employed by Russia’s generals following the signing of the treaty – one wrote ‘it [is] impossible any longer to hide behind the curtain of official self-congratulation’ – was justified by the admission of its foreign minister Prince Alexander Gorchakov eleven years later that the Russian Empire had been in very real danger of collapse during the Crimean War.37

Reference was made in the Treaty of Paris to the so-called ‘Reform Edict’ which, promulgated by the Sultan on 18 February 1856, dwelt at length on matters relating to the Ottoman Empire’s non-Muslim population whose condition was of intense interest to the Powers. In this Edict, the vague undertakings of the Gülhane Edict were spelt out in full. Sultan Abdülmecid guaranteed his subjects freedom of religious observance and undertook that distinctions based on ‘religion, language or race’ should ‘be forever effaced from administrative protocol’. The door was opened for all creeds to enter the new civil and military schools, and to seek state employment, an area where Muslims had traditionally predominated. The Edict repeated the intention that direct tax collection should replace tax-farming. New legal procedures would guarantee a more even-handed application of justice. The Edict also promised efforts to modernize the infrastructure of the state by establishing banks and reforming the financial system, by improving communications, and by public works. In regard to these last, the Edict stated that means should be sought ‘to profit by the science, the art and the funds of Europe’.38 The right of foreign powers to intervene in Ottoman domestic matters was specifically rejected in the Treaty of Paris, but its possibility was implicit in every phrase of the Reform Edict.

The promised reforms appeared to be developments of the programme that had been under way since the latter years of the reign of Mahmud II, but they were announced under extreme pressure from and the strong influence of the empire’s European allies, whose determination to undermine Russia’s claims to protection of the Ottoman Orthodox – and the instability in the Balkans that might follow therefrom – they reveal. Reşid Pasha, who had been out of office since 1855 and played no part in the Edict’s formulation or in the Paris negotiations, was extremely vexed by it. He accepted the necessity for the empire to adapt to changing times, and the need to address the position of non-Muslims, but was critical of the notion that changes must be made all at once, and at the behest of foreign powers. What worried him most, however, was his apprehension that the Muslim population of the empire would feel it had been completely ignored in the Edict, and that this peremptory overturning of centuries of shared history would have repercussions in relations between Muslim and non-Muslim: he warned the government to be prepared to deal with what he saw as the inevitable tension.39

The terms of the Treaty of Paris may have freed the empire from the threat of Russia’s territorial ambitions, but outside pressure continued in another guise, as Britain pressed for compliance with the Sultan’s undertakings. The intellectual and statesman Ahmed Cevdet Pasha reported the reaction of many Muslims when the Edict was proclaimed: ‘Today we have lost the sacred, communal rights which our ancestors won with their blood. The Muslim community is the ruling community but it has been deprived of its sacred rights. This is a day of grief and sorrow for the Muslim people.’40 Although in theory both Edicts offered a better life for all Ottoman subjects, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, the perception of their effect was very different. The living conditions of ordinary Ottoman subjects of all creeds were hardly enviable, and resentment mounted among Muslims as non-Muslims pushing for their new-found ‘rights’ at every opportunity sought to make the most of the measures relating to their communities. The same administrative reforms that benefited the one seemed only to further oppress the other. In the months and years following the promulgation of the Reform Edict, riots and disturbances between Muslims and non-Muslims erupted across the empire; troops had to be sent in to restore order, and many were killed.41

One early sign of dissatisfaction with the reform process was the unrest that occurred in Istanbul in 1859. It united army officers and clerics, including devotees of the conformist Nakşibendi-Halidi sect42 – of which Sultan Abdülmecid was a member – against the legislative changes that affected them. Whether it was the intention of the conspirators to bring down the government or remove the Sultan is unclear. They were arrested and tried at the military school of Kuleli on the Bosporus after which the incident is named, and were exiled or imprisoned at the direction of Grand Vezir Mehmed Emin Ali Pasha.43

The promises in the 1856 Edict regarding freedom of religious observance for all Ottoman subjects included the assertion that ‘no one shall be compelled to change their religion’.44 Unlike Christianity in its various forms, Islam has seldom gone out of its way to proselytize, and the Ottoman attitude to conversion always tended to non-intervention – attributed by some to the fact that, prior to the Tanzimat reforms, a significant non-Muslim population was necessary for the poll-tax revenues it brought the treasury. Even apostasy from Islam to another of the ‘religions of the book’ – Christianity or Judaism – was generally tolerated at this time, as long as it had not been forced upon the individual. Official Ottoman wrath was reserved instead for Sunni Muslims who inclined towards Shia beliefs – a similar attitude to that of Nicholas I’s Russia, which disdained ‘Old Believers’, who like adherents of Shiism in the Ottoman Empire were labelled ‘schismatics’ and persecuted.45 The principle of equality of all before the law first promulgated in the Gülhane Edict upset the Ottoman state’s traditional composure in these matters, however, and foreign intervention in cases of conversion and apostasy in the succeeding years undoubtedly contributed to the defensive tone of the explicit statements regarding religion embodied in the Reform Edict of 1856.46

One result of the 1856 Edict was that Christian missionaries became more active in the empire. The rights of all confessional groups to open their own schools became a dangerous weapon in the hands of these messengers of the western Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, and a cause of concern to the Orthodox of the empire as well as to Muslims. Catholic proselytizing among the Ottoman Orthodox – whether of the Greek, Armenian or Syrian rite – had long been a cause of concern, as repeated references in early eighteenth-century imperial edicts to the ‘turning’ of Orthodox Armenians from their customary rites attest.47 An anti-Protestant backlash among the Orthodox of the Balkans in the 1840s had led the Protestants to concentrate their efforts further east, where their activities and their scarcely-concealed belief in the inherent inferiority of the eastern Churches – whom the missionaries sought to introduce to ‘a higher and more perfect development of Christianity’ – had for some years sorely vexe the Maronite and Armenian patriarchs.48 Their activity was also of concern to the Ottoman authorities, for after 1856 they felt free to convert Muslims as well as other Christians, and saw every objection of their Ottoman hosts as a violation of the undertakings given in the Edict.49 After the proclamation of the Gülhane Edict in 1839 the realization began to dawn that Muslims might convert to Christianity, and after 1856 the possibility became a reality: faced with the potential loss of Muslim souls to Christianity, to add to those lost in battle defending the empire, the government was forced to forsake its earlier pragmatism and assert a ‘policy’ that conversion was not permitted. Many Muslim converts to Christianity, moreover, sought the protection of one or other foreign power. Notwithstanding the Great Powers’ attempts to influence the Sultan by taking official cognizance of the response to every case of conversion, the Ottomans preserved their dignity and their right of sovereignty in their domains by introducing procedures to be followed by those who would convert to Islam, and the authorities were pragmatic when objections were raised concerning whether the act was voluntary or coerced. In cases where individuals left Islam for Christianity, they could be arrested and punished. The Ottomans’ posture in all cases of conversion and apostasy was that it was their concern, and not the concern of outsiders.50

The issue of conscription became a matter of urgency when the losses of the Crimean War resulted in a severe shortage of military manpower. In this time of crisis Ottoman Christian community leaders set aside their objections and offered their firm support to the war effort – in October 1853, even before the formal declaration of hostilities, the Armenian community declared its members prepared to serve ‘even in the army’ – while Britain and France, as allies aware of the need for manpower to fight the Russians and happy to see the consequent abandonment of the poll-tax, abandoned their scruples and welcomed Christian conscription. In 1855, however, during the war, thousands of potential Christian conscripts fled the Niš area for neighbouring Serbia, and the policy had to be modified to exclude the Ottoman borderlands. Once the war was over, official recognition of how unwelcome the requirement that all must serve in the army was to Muslim and non-Muslim alike led to a compromise. Provision had already been made for particular cases in which individual non-Muslims would be permitted to send a substitute in their place; the 1856 Edict specifically admitted substitution as a general principle, and provided for the purchase of exemption. Thus the poll-tax, abolished by the Gülhane Edict, in effect continued to be collected, but under a new name – as an exemption tax which relieved eligible non-Muslims of the duty of military service.51 Muslim honour was thereby satisfied by the maintenance of a distinction between themselves and their inferiors, and non-Muslims were not forced to share a burden they found distasteful, however logically it formed part of the price of equality. It was blatant casuistry, of course, but as well as being acceptable to those directly concerned it enabled the Ottoman state to collect revenues which in the guise of a poll-tax had attracted western objections on the score of inequality, but which the state could not afford to lose.

Reşid Pasha was proved right in his expressions of concern about the Reform Edict. With the best will in the world, there was no way the multi-confessional, geographically incoherent and economically backward Ottoman Empire, whose institutions and legal framework had evolved to accommodate the demands of its own particular culture and concerns, could hope to implement within any short space of time promises exacted by foreign powers under conditions of extreme pressure.

The mantle of Reşid Pasha had passed to Mehmed Emin Ali Pasha, known simply as Ali Pasha, and Keçecizade (‘Son of the Felter’) Fuad Pasha, who held the offices of grand vezir and foreign minister by turns from the middle years of the century. Apart from an interval of 46 months, one or other was grand vezir continuously between May 1855 and September 1871. With their coterie, they monopolized executive power. In 1856, Ali Pasha was grand vezir, Fuad Pasha the Sultan’s foreign minister.

Both men were products of the translation bureau, a government office set up in the wake of Greek independence. Hitherto Ottoman Greeks had acted as translators in essential government business, but the Greek uprisings of 1821 marked the end of this pre-eminence: many signed up to fight for independence, others were hunted down as traitors, and there were few translators to be found in Istanbul. By the 1830s – the beginning of the era of close foreign involvement in Ottoman internal affairs – the new translation bureau was functioning, staffed almost exclusively by Muslims. This expanding office nourished the talents of many young bureaucrats who later in the century were among those who most eagerly promoted reform. The translators’ work, which was mostly diplomatic, gave them a window on the world denied to their colleagues in other branches of government.52 The direction in which the careers of Ali and Fuad led distanced them from tacit acceptance of the values of traditional society; the rational values of the ideal bureaucrat with which they became imbued inclined them to the view that good government would resolve the problems that preoccupied the Powers who held the empire in thrall. They acknowledged the importance of religion as a ‘cultural anchor’, but thought the benefits of education and commerce would diminish its role in society.53

The pace of new legislation grew hectic. A long section of the 1856 Edict concerned internal reforms in the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities: many people within each had long wanted to lessen clerical control and reduce opportunities for corruption among the clergy, and although change did not come without further prompting from the Ottoman authorities, greater representation of lay members in the internal affairs of the communities was eventually the result.54 Other reforms inspired by the Edict were concerned with improvements to infrastructure: the survey of the empire’s rural resources initiated in 1843 resulted in the publication in 1858 of an agrarian code which dealt with such matters as private property in the countryside, tax relief on the income from certain crops such as tobacco and cotton whose cultivation was to be encouraged, and the improvement of communications in rural areas. The maritime code of 1863 typified others that rationalized existing laws providing, like the commercial code, a legal framework for a range of new activities hitherto alien to customary Ottoman practice. In 1868 the council of state – which had taken over the legislative functions of the supreme council of justice set up under Mahmud II – established five commissions, for domestic and military affairs, finance, justice, public works and commerce and agriculture, and education. Non-Muslims were represented on these, as were provincial delegates and business interests. At a time when the empire was being pressured by the Powers into reforming its economic and commercial infrastructure, its leading statesmen were prepared to embrace the process whole-heartedly as a means of preserving the empire and making it modern. As Ali Pasha noted in the political testament he wrote in 1871 for Sultan Abdülmecid’s successor, Abdülaziz,

We had to establish stronger relations with Europe. It was essential to identify Europe’s material interests with our own. Only then could the integrity of the Empire become a reality rather than a diplomatic fiction. In making the European states interested directly and materially in the conservation and defence of the country, we entered into many partnerships necessary for the regeneration of the Empire and the development of its riches.55

Implementation of the moves towards reform of provincial administration prefigured in the 1839 Gülhane Edict had been slow. The individual most closely identified with provincial reform was the statesman Midhat Pasha, who subsequently won a special place in Ottoman history as the ‘father’ of the constitution promulgated in 1876. Midhat had held appointments on various of the commissions and councils of the early Tanzimat years, but in 1855 his presentation to the then grand vezir Reşid Pasha of his ideas on provincial reform set the future course of his career. Between 1855 and the introduction of new provincial regulations in 1864 he served (from 1861 to 1864) as governor of the province of Niš on the Serbian border. Here his vocation was revealed, for he proved both imaginative and efficient; his first-hand experience of the problems of life on the periphery of the empire provided the inspiration for the law he drafted with Grand Vezir Fuad Pasha.56

The testing-ground for the law of 1864 was to be the newly-created Danube province – a ‘super-province’ formed from the three smaller provinces of Niš, Vidin and Silistra – and Midhat Pasha was appointed its governor. He embarked on an ambitious public works programme, improving security, starting factories, and creating agricultural credit cooperatives which enabled peasants to borrow at low rates of interest. The latter, in particular, was a radical measure at a time when such institutions hardly existed in Europe, and their records show that they served Muslims and non-Muslims equally. Midhat Pasha also set up local administrative councils to which members were elected and on which all religious groups were represented – although Muslims were usually in the majority. The first official provincial newspaper in the empire, named Tuna (‘Danube’) after the province, was started in 1865; it was bilingual – in Ottoman and Bulgarian – and published official decrees, Midhat’s speeches to the provincial assembly, and gave detailed accounts of reforms both present and envisaged.57 Midhat Pasha encountered opposition from all sides, however, when he tried to set up mixed Muslim and non-Muslim schools. The Bulgarian-language press of Istanbul was generally appreciative of his administration, until wariness of the rising tide of Bulgarian nationalism prompted him to resort to repressive measures for which he was strongly criticized locally.58 In 1867 he was recalled to Istanbul to consult on proposals for a number of new laws, but he fell out with Ali Pasha (who was then grand vezir) and was sent as governor to the province of Baghdad where he spent five years attempting to introduce reforms like those he had embarked upon in the Danube province. In 1870 Sultan Abdülaziz, who had succeeded his brother Abdülmecid in 1861, appointed Midhat Pasha grand vezir, but he held the office only briefly because his open criticism of existing government practices and personnel and his single-minded pursuit of his own vision of reform soon made him powerful enemies.59

Concessions to non-Muslims and the manipulation in their favour of the distinctions between them and Muslims signally failed to bear the anticipated fruit of strengthening their loyalty to the Ottoman state by encouraging them to see themselves as Ottomans first, and only secondly as Christians or Jews. Nor did the new regulations governing provincial administration satisfy them. The Cretans, for example, made their desire for union with Greece abundantly clear in periodic uprisings, most notably that of 1866–8, while clashes in Serbia in 1862 between the Ottoman garrison of the border fortress of Belgrade and the local townsfolk eventually brought about a withdrawal of Ottoman troops in 1867. For centuries this strategic stronghold had loomed large in the Ottoman psyche but Ali Pasha, ever the pragmatist, saw this retreat as the concession of an enclave that was a cause of constant difficulty and expense.60

It was not only in the Balkans that sectarian strife brought bloody consequences. Antagonism between Maronite and Druze in Lebanon which had been manifest at the time of İbrahim Pasha’s withdrawal from Syria in 1840 flared again in 1860, leaving thousands dead. Although the regime subsequently introduced by the central government inaugurated a long period of peace and to that extent was a success, the manner of quelling the disturbances was harsh.61

During Mahmud II’s reign the government had been unable to extend its reach into Cilicia in south-east Anatolia, where the most prominent of the local dynasties, the Küçükalioğulları and the Kozanoğulları, continued to defy central authority until mid-century, jealously seeking to maintain a measure of independence. The Küçükalioğulları had resisted the forces of the royalist Çandaroğulları, sent to subdue them early in the century, but were temporarily beaten by the troops of the governor of Adana in 1817. Situated as they were at the point where the Ottoman and Egyptian spheres of influence intersected, the local tribes were, as in earlier times, able to defy both. Profiting from the confusions inherent in the struggle of Mehmed Ali Pasha and İbrahim Pasha against the Sultan, they had extended their territorial control and engaged with impunity in the banditry which was their main financial support – the plundering of caravans, in particular the richly-laden pilgrimage caravans from Istanbul to Mecca. Abdülmecid’s recognition in 1840 of Mehmed Ali as hereditary governor of Egypt led to a cessation of hostilities in the region, and once İbrahim Pasha had left Syria, Cilicia experienced a period of benign neglect by the Ottoman government. By 1865, however, the prevailing spirit of reform and the notion that good governance would solve the problems besetting the empire required the establishment of central control in this lawless region; the government’s strategy was one of conciliation – but the threat of violence implicit in the presence of a large, specially-commissioned force meant that its aims were achieved with a minimum of confrontation. Anti-governmental activity and tax-evasion were pardoned, and tribal lords, execrated as bandits and outlaws before the campaign, were now brought into the Ottoman fold. Some were exiled to Istanbul, others were appointed to administrative posts in distant corners of the empire. Their followers saw the benefits of compliance, even where it meant accepting a sedentary life.62 Over the centuries the Ottomans were remarkably consistent in their policy of preferring to incorporate or reincorporate provincial troublemakers into the ‘establishment’, only employing the iron fist where there was no sign of compromise in the errant party.

Ottoman pragmatism was similarly apparent in another issue that struck at the very roots of the Islamic canon. While the poll-tax had been dealt with by transmuting it into a payment for exemption from military service, and equality between the sexes was of concern neither to the Tanzimatreformers nor to their European mentors, the third of the canonical inequalities, that between master and slave, became a burning topic at a time when the emancipation of slaves was high on the British agenda. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 (following the example of Denmark and the United States), and slavery in 1833; in 1840 the recently-founded British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society declared universal abolition of the slave trade and slavery one of its main objectives. But slavery simply could not be abolished in the Ottoman Empire, in view of its canonical status: it remained legal until the end of the empire and in the matter of reform, the issue of slavery serves to illustrate what was culturally feasible, and what was not.

The solution arrived at by the Ottomans was more or less adequate to placate foreign interests but proved unacceptable to many at home. The first step towards restricting the activities of those engaged in the slave trade was the closure in 1846 of the centuries-old Istanbul slave market, apparently on the orders of Sultan Abdülmecid, and for reasons that are not entirely clear – nevertheless, the British could not fail to be delighted. Measures were taken in 1847 to suppress the black slave trade in the Persian Gulf, and in Tripoli in North Africa in 1849, and against the trafficking of white slaves from Georgia and Circassia during the Crimean War – under British pressure, and with the intention, on the Ottoman side, of ‘disrupt[ing] the flow of slaves to the empire as little as possible’.63 When news of these moves reached Jiddah, an uproar ensued. Fearing that the lucrative black slave trade would soon be outlawed, some merchants addressed themselves to the Sharif of Mecca and to leading clerics, maintaining that the reforms were contrary to Islamic law. The head of the Mecca clerical establishment delivered a juridical opinion excoriating this and other Tanzimat reforms which he considered contrary to sacred law, and holy war was declared against the ‘Turks’, who were pronounced to be ‘polytheists’ and ‘apostates’: ‘battle must be joined with them and their supporters; those who are with us will go to heaven, and those who are with them to hell; their blood will be spilt in vain, and their goods are legitimate booty’.64 The Ottoman government reacted vigorously to suppress this outburst and prevent further deterioration of a tense situation.65

The Hijaz protesters’ worst fears were realized in 1857, when a general prohibition on the black slave trade came into force. During the discussions leading up to this, the Ottoman cabinet decided that since the Circassians were ‘brought into civilization from barbarism’ and, by virtue of their good fortune in entering the Ottoman world, moved from ‘poverty and need’ to ‘welfare and happiness’, the trade in Circassian slaves was not comparable with the trade in black slaves. The ban on the black slave trade satisfied the British, who turned a blind eye to the continuing Circassian slave trade at this time. In order to pacify the Hijaz, the general ban on the trade in black slaves was not implemented there; in the regions where it was introduced it was not successful, and had to be reiterated in 1877 and again thereafter.66

Russia tightened its grip on the Caucasus following the Crimean War and there was a significant movement of Muslim Circassians into Ottoman territory as much of the indigenous population was systematically expelled and forced across the Black Sea to the ports of north Anatolia and the Balkan ports of Constanţa and Varna. Apart from the problem the authorities faced in accommodating hundreds of thousands of immigrants, there was the delicate matter that many were slaves. Although the Ottomans had resisted British pressure to prevent the Circassian slave trade, the arrival on Ottoman soil of those already enslaved presented a problem of a different sort. It was estimated that about a quarter of the 600,000-plus immigrant Circassians were of slave status; most of these were involved in agricultural slavery, which was little practised by the Ottomans. When they reached Ottoman territory many of the slaves demanded their freedom, but their owners resisted. The authorities were unprepared for the violence that ensued and public order was threatened. The issue was a sensitive one, for the immigrant communities as well as for the guardians of the sacred law, and the authorities moved cautiously, setting up a refugee commission in 1860. This dealt with three main issues: the settlement of and allocation of land to the refugees; the resolution of disputes between masters and slaves; and the sale as slaves of weaker Circassians by their more powerful countrymen. By bringing such matters before the refugee commission as well as before the courts, the government was able to bring arguments to bear which had nothing to do with the Islamic law which was traditionally applied in such cases. In 1867 a clear policy on slavery among the Circassian immigrants was formulated, based on the principle that the Circassian slaves deserved to be free on two counts: the Tanzimat reforms had extended freedom to all Ottoman subjects, and the enslavement of free-born Muslims was canonically unacceptable. In practice this meant, not immediate manumission of the Circassian agricultural slaves, but their gradual emancipation, and compensation for their masters with awards of vacant state land. The implementation of this policy was far from consistent, but in the long term it was broadly successful. One of the most obvious anomalies was that immigrant Circassian girls continued to become slaves in the harems of those able to afford them – a practice the Ottomans did not consider to be slavery at all.67

Traditionally Ottoman statesmen and judges had demonstrated flexibility in the execution of Islamic law; rarely were the canonically-prescribed penalties exacted in full in criminal cases, and rarely was a compromise position not achievable in other matters that fell within its purview. The eventual banning of the slave trade, rather than of slavery itself, was such an instance, as was the adjudication of punishments for conversion and apostasy without recourse to the full panoply of doctrinal rigour. In the nineteenth century, however, this customary inclination to compromise on points of Islamic law alienated many whom the government hoped to win over to the cause of reform, as Ottoman Muslims became increasingly concerned at the way the European-inspired programme of change appeared to be undermining their religious and cultural identity. At the same time, reform went at too slow a pace to satisfy the Powers, and in particular too slowly for Ottoman non-Muslims in the Balkans, some of whom had already tasted the heady elixir of national self-determination.

The Islamic ordering of society which regarded non-Muslims as legally different from the Muslim population contained within it the seeds of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, although it was the intervention of outside forces prepared to emphasize this ‘separateness’ that caused the logic of the arrangement to work itself out. For centuries many Orthodox Christians had prized the freedom to practise their religion by and large guaranteed under the Ottoman Empire, and had displayed little inclination to subject themselves to the often less tolerant rulers of the Latin West, but this era had ended even before the nineteenth century, in large part as a result of the appearance of an Orthodox power – Russia – on the world stage. Nevertheless, Greece was the only region of the Ottoman Empire that achieved full independence before the Tanzimat – albeit that the Greek state of that time was small, and much of the territory of modern Greece remained an integral part of the Ottoman domains throughout the nineteenth century. In an age of poor communications and low literacy most Ottoman Christians remained indifferent as to the identity of their sovereign and had little idea of the world beyond the locality in which they lived.

Ottoman relations with the outside world had since the earliest times been defined by the special privileges commonly known as ‘capitulations’ granted to friendly foreign states by successive sultans. Initially these were diplomatic and commercial concessions intended to secure reciprocal political advantage and ensure the abundance of scarce but essential goods in the Ottoman market-place. By the eighteenth century the fiction that foreigners were the supplicants in these arrangements was being routinely exposed, in the way they were seen to use their diplomatic and commercial muscle to introduce clauses serving their own interests and quite alien to the original spirit of the capitulations, which the Ottoman government was often forced to accept.

Throughout the course of the eighteenth century an increasing number of non-Muslim Ottomans managed to acquire the extra-territorial privileges afforded by the capitulations to the diplomats and merchants of friendly foreign states living and working in the empire, even though by the terms of the capitulatory agreements of the late seventeenth century the only Ottoman subjects entitled to such a protected status, which included freedom from taxation and other burdens imposed by the state, were the interpreters who served foreign consulates and embassies. By degrees, foreign protection came to be extended to other Ottoman subjects working for foreign states – who were usually non-Muslims because the work demanded linguistic capabilities few Muslims were likely to have had the opportunity to acquire. On this topic the most detailed studies have been made of the situation in Syria, and in Aleppo in particular: here the British were initially circumspect, but France, for instance, fully cognizant of the advantages to be wrung from the capitulatory system, had habitually offered protection to numbers of Ottoman Orthodox converts to Catholicism from early in the seventeenth century.68 As the empire’s bargaining power declined, abuses of these privileges became more flagrant.

It is not easy to determine exactly how many Ottoman subjects availed themselves of the opportunity to enjoy foreign protection, but statistics seem to suggest a significant loss of confidence in the empire among its non-Muslim subjects. Austria, for instance, is said to have had 260,000 protégés in Moldavia and Wallachia by the end of the eighteenth century,69 while the estimate that 120,000 Ottoman Greeks had benefited from Russian protection by 180870 may not be an exaggeration. Those seeking foreign protection usually came from the upper echelons of society: not only was the state deprived of their taxes, but the fact that they had the ear of foreign diplomats called into question their loyalty to the sultan. Selim III and Mahmud II were well aware of the problem, and each introduced measures intended to limit the number of foreign protégés. Ottoman Muslims ceased to have a dominant share in the empire’s commerce from the eighteenth century, when trade with the East had declined as that with the West grew;71 for Ottoman non-Muslims integrated into the long-distance diplomatic and commercial networks of the time, and especially for those who had foreign protection, it was easy to leave the empire and make a life elsewhere – and many did.

In the nineteenth century the economic position of Muslims was thus relatively weak in comparison with that of non-Muslims, who could reap substantial rewards from international trade or as middlemen between western and Ottoman commercial interests. When it came to the political stage, however, it was as true as it always had been that non-Muslims had less chance of success than Muslims – although it was open to anyone to convert to Islam and thus gain access, and there were exceptions. Both groups were frustrated, Muslims because their control of domestic trade could never win them the riches non-Muslim Ottomans could acquire from their links with international commerce, and non-Muslims because they were excluded from real power and had no outlet for the political ambitions fostered by their commercial success.72 These respective specializations served to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims that only added to the differences implicit in the separate and inferior status customarily accorded to non-Muslims in a Muslim state.

The Tanzimat reforms clearly exacerbated the growing rift between Muslim and non-Muslim and contributed to the disaffection of both communities. It did not take much for non-Muslims to imagine that they might be better off outside the Ottoman state, and the readiness of foreign powers to champion their cause made this dream seem realizable. Contrary to the reformers’ intentions, measures aimed at ‘good government’ were in some respects counter-productive, because permitting a measure of autonomy to the provinces militated against the centralization Mahmud II had tried to enforce, and in regions where non-Muslims predominated gave added momentum to their hopes of a future existence elsewhere. The example of Greece demonstrated that such hopes could become reality.

The intractable problems thrown into relief by the Tanzimat were evident to the statesmen of the time, but the solutions they proposed were inadequate. In the political testament he wrote for Sultan Abdülaziz, Ali Pasha observed:

The [unequal] privileges enjoyed by different communities arise from inequalities in their obligations. This is a grave inconvenience. The Muslims are absorbed almost entirely in the service of government. Other people devote themselves to professions which bring wealth. In this way the latter establish an effective and fatal superiority over Your Majesty’s Muslim subjects. In addition [only the Muslims serve in the army]. Under these circumstances the Muslim population, which decreases at a frightening rate, will be quickly absorbed and become nothing more than a tiny minority, growing weaker day by day . . . What is a man good for when he returns to his village after spending the most vigorous part of his life in the army barracks or camps? . . . The Muslims must, like the Christians, devote themselves to [commercial] agriculture, trade, industry and crafts. Labour is the only durable capital. Let us put ourselves to work, Sire, that is the only way to safety for us. There is still time to liberate the Muslim population from obligations which benefit the Christians . . . Let the Christians furnish soldiers, officers and government functionaries in proportion to their numbers.73

Evidence of the deleterious effects of unequal conscription, and of the introduction of western concepts of private property with the enactment of the land law of 1858, soon became visible. In the 1860s, for instance, British reports noted that Muslims were losing their land to Christians who had the money to buy it74 – and, moreover, were not absent at the front but safe at home.

Unlike many European monarchs, Ottoman sultans had never travelled far from the empire’s capital except at the head of an army. In 1863, shortly after İbrahim Pasha’s son İsmail came to power as hereditary governor of Egypt, Sultan Abdülaziz visited the province in peacetime, with the intention of impressing on İsmail that he should rein in his ambition75 (but to little effect: only three years later İsmail secured an edict sanctioning succession by primogeniture in his line, in place of the seniority principle which had prevailed hitherto. He also won another concession that had eluded Mehmed Ali and İbrahim Pasha, the right to conclude treaties on his own account and to raise loans; his new title of khedive signified his enhanced status, superior to that of other provincial governors of the empire.76 Khedive İsmail proved a jealous guardian of the tentative progress towards independence initiated by Mehmed Ali, and like his grandfather’s, İsmail’s rivalry with his sovereign continued unabated). Abdülaziz was clearly influenced by his visit to Egypt, for when he came home he decorated his new palace at Beylerbeyi on the Bosporus in an eclectic style drawing on Moorish, oriental and faux-Mamluk elements he must have seen in Cairo. It was an exuberant antidote to the interminable gloom of his brother’s palace at Dolmabahçe, and the North African influence persisted in the decoration of the Çırağan Palace, completed for him in 1871.

If Ottoman sultans rarely left their capital except at the head of an army, still less did they travel outside the borders of the empire. Abdülaziz undertook the first and last overseas visit by an Ottoman sultan in 1867, when he spent six weeks in France at the invitation of Napoleon III to attend the Paris Exhibition, then went on to London for eleven days as the guest of Queen Victoria, visiting military installations, parliament, and institutions such as the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal College of Surgeons; he went home by way of Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary.77Khedive İsmail was at the Paris Exhibition too, and was accorded an equally splendid reception. It was obvious to Abdülaziz that he was in danger of being upstaged. Indeed, İsmail was more familiar with Europe than the Sultan, having studied in Paris between 1846 and 1848, and undertaken a diplomatic mission there in 1855.78 Like Abdülaziz, İsmail too wished to demonstrate that his domains were rapidly modernizing, and to strengthen ties with France; his efforts paid off, for the next year France made a substantial loan to Egypt.79

In 1859 work had begun on the Suez canal. Opened in 1869, the canal redirected the focus of British and French interest away from the Istanbul-centred Ottoman Empire to the possibilities now opening up beyond the Near East. It also gave the Ottomans easier access to the Yemen, where from mid-century they had been prosecuting an unpopular war intended to subjugate this former province.80 The canal project brought Khedive İsmail considerable prestige, and its opening was the occasion of lavish pomp and circumstance. This time Europe visited the Orient – and was thoroughly impressed. The all-expenses-paid, three-week-long celebrations encompassed ceremonies, feasts and entertainments both during the progress of the many visitors – the procession of ships down the canal was led by Empress Eugénie in the French imperial yacht – and in the lavish setting of the newly-built town of Isma’iliya.81 Khedive İsmail’s ostentation provoked the Sultan’s open displeasure, and only sumptuous gifts secured a reconfirmation of the privileges bestowed on him.82

The years from the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s were a time of great prosperity as Egypt enjoyed a cotton boom when the American Civil War caused US cotton to disappear from the world market, and Khedive İsmail invested heavily in railways as well as the canal and other public works. The collapse of the boom meant debt for Khedive and peasant alike, and Egypt resorted to extensive borrowing – encouraged by her western partners – which by 1875 had brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy.83

İsmail was not the only one of Mehmed Ali’s line to give Abdülaziz and his advisers cause for anxiety, nor was Abdülaziz the only one vexed by İsmail. The Khedive’s younger brother Mustafa Fazıl Pasha was a senior Ottoman bureaucrat, and Sultan Abdülaziz’s bestowal of the hereditary title to Egypt on İsmail’s direct descendants confounded Mustafa Fazıl’s hopes of succession. The dynastic struggle between the brothers was played out in Istanbul where Mustafa Fazıl, when finance minister in 1863–4, alienated Grand Vezir Fuad Pasha and became persona non grata in governing circles. In 1866 he left Istanbul for Paris, where he played a leading part in the émigré opposition, bankrolling their activities and condemning the Ottoman government in open letters to the Sultan.84

Like his grandfather, Ismail had ambitions to expand his domains south-wards. The departure of European slave traders from the Upper Nile region, in part as a result of İsmail’s anti-slavery campaign, left a vacuum which he hoped to fill. In the wake of international acclaim for his programme of modernization in Egypt, British agents working on his behalf made efforts between 1869 and 1885 to bring this area under Egyptian administration, but local resistance compelled his expeditionary forces to withdraw. The Mahdist revolt of 1881, which occurred two years after İsmail’s deposition by the Sultan at the insistence of France and Britain, saw the Egyptian army annihilated, and eventually forced Egypt to relinquish its territories in the African interior – in parts of what are today Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia – where İsmail had been intent on building his own empire.85

A curious footnote to the rivalry between Khedive İsmail and Abdülaziz is the story of the bronze equestrian statue cast for the Sultan in 1872. There had, apparently, been projects – and even designs – for non-figural monuments to be erected in Istanbul to commemorate the Gülhane and Reform Edicts, but neither had been realized. On his visits to London and Paris in 1867 Abdülaziz must have seen the public statuary in these capitals, as well as the sculptures gracing the various pavilions at the Paris Exhibition, which İsmail also attended. On his return İsmail had commissioned a large equestrian statue of his father İbrahim Pasha, which still stands in Cairo’s Azbakiyya Square, İbrahim’s finger pointing menacingly to the north-west. Even before the statue of İbrahim was erected in Cairo in 1872, news of the commission and a description of the statue were published in the Istanbul press in 1868, and in 1869 Sultan Abdülaziz commissioned the English sculptor Charles Fuller, who was visiting the capital, to sculpt his bust. His mother objected, however, and Fuller continued his work furtively, watching Abdülaziz when he appeared in public, and the Sultan co-operated by passing by Fuller’s workshop as if by chance, so that the artist could more accurately mould his likeness. Fuller was so pleased with the result that he decided to make a half-life-size bronze equestrian statue instead of the modest bust, and had the Sultan’s favourite horse measured; his client was also gratified, and he ordered the statue to be cast in bronze. The casting was done in Munich; but when the boat carrying the statue reached the Bosporus the Sultan’s mother had the offending object thrown overboard. It was rescued, however, and set up in the palace at Beylerbeyi where bulls and deer and other beasts commissioned around this time roam the gardens. But the Sultan was upstaged yet again by the Khedive: not only was the statue of İbrahim life-size and on very public display, but even as Fuller was working in Istanbul İsmail commissioned a second massive equestrain statue, of Mehmed Ali, which was unveiled in Alexandria in 1873.86

Sultan Abdülaziz’s rivalry with Khedive İsmail over monumental equestrian statues apart, he also showed himself to be thoroughly in tune with the crowned heads of Europe: even before Sultan Abdülhamid made the Ottoman heartland at Söğüt a shrine to Osman I and his warriors, Abdülaziz had already ‘invented’ an Ottoman dynastic tradition appropriate to the times. All monarchs revel in the bestowing and receiving of orders and decorations, and the Ottomans had adopted western forms as soon as changes from traditional costume early in the nineteenth century rendered the breast flat, providing a surface on which to pin them. Abdülmecid had created his own order, the Mecidi, but Abdülaziz named his the Osmani. His intentions were plain: the reverse of the decoration bore an image of drums and crossed banners, and the date 699 of the Islamic calendar (1299–1300 CE), with the clear implication that this was the date of the foundation of the Ottoman Empire. In April 1862 the Sultan travelled to Bursa to lay a particularly richly-bejewelled version of the Osmani Order, First Class, on the sarcophagus of his illustrious ancestor, the eponymous founder of the dynasty. This gesture symbolized his desire to demonstrate to his fellow monarchs that the Ottoman house, like their own, had a long history whose beginnings were not lost in the mists of time, but traceable to a precise and seminal moment of origin.87

With the emergence in 1865 of a secret society known as the Patriotic Alliance – a small and amorphous but influential group of dissenters whose members later came to be called the ‘Young Ottomans’ – the Ottoman state experienced something new, the first stirrings of a politics of ideas which would gradually be transformed into action in the public arena. Unlike the protesters of past times – such as the disgruntled pashas of seventeenth-century Anatolia, or janissaries throughout the ages, or vulgar populists like Patrona Halil and Kabakçı Mustafa – these men were intellectuals, and several had served in the translation bureau. What united such very different personalities as the poet and journalist Namık Kemal, Khedive İsmail’s brother Mustafa Fazıl Pasha, the journalistsŞinasi Bey and Ali Suavi, and the poet Ziya Bey (later Pasha), to name only a few of the leading Young Ottomans, was the desire to define a patriotic Ottoman identity as a counterpart to the national identities which they saw emerging in Europe. Divided as they were over the most basic questions of a common programme and inconsistent as was their political theory, the Young Ottomans were of one mind in regarding Islam as the essential framework within which reform must take place.88

As they pursued their efforts to blur the distinctions which divided society along traditional lines, the reforming statesmen of the 1856 generation had also seen the desirability of a new basis for loyalty to the empire: Ali Pasha, for instance, realized that if the empire could not satisfy the needs of its population – and here he had in mind the non-Muslims in particular – they would seek an alternative.89 Like that envisaged by the Young Ottomans, the basis for patriotism that he and his colleagues came to suppose might resolve the tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects of the sultan was European in inspiration, and came to be known as ‘Ottomanism’: it too was an attempt to supersede ethnic and religious loyalties with allegiance to the state based on equal citizenship90 – but its emphasis was rather different, and to the Young Ottomans these statesmen seemed to be jettisoning much of the Islamic component of the Ottoman state and to be over-eager to appease the Great Powers by making concessions to Ottoman Christians.

The Young Ottomans maintained that ‘Ottomanism’ could not guarantee the integrity of the empire, and that Ali Pasha’s recipe of enlightened despotism and good government was not sufficient to arrest the separatist tendencies of the Christian population. As the most appropriate form of government they proposed instead a participatory constitutional liberalism, but rather than taking it over as a product of the European Enlightenment they sought to root it within Islam, vehemently emphasizing the continuing and essential validity of Islam as the basis of Ottoman political culture. The new medium of the press was the forum in which the Young Ottomans publicized their ideas and expressed their criticism of the government and the European powers alike, and the price of their boldness was censorship and exile. Fuad Pasha died in 1869, and following the death of Ali Pasha in 1871, the exiles were free to return to Istanbul.91

The value the Young Ottomans placed on Islamic ideology gave renewed prominence to the clerical establishment, whose influence had to some extent been eroded. Earlier in the century high-ranking clerics had been compliant partners in the reform measures of Selim III, and in 1826 had allowed Mahmud II to co-opt them in the suppression of the janissaries and the formation of his new army. However, in the same year, the pious foundations which contributed to the support of the clerical establishment were brought together under the aegis of a new ministry, and further bureaucratization followed in the latter part of Mahmud’s reign with the establishment of a separate office of the sheikhulislam in 1837 which restricted this official’s purview to matters with a religious component.92 Furthermore, the effect of the new law codes introduced as the century progressed – the penal code of 1840 and the commercial code of 1850, for instance, and in particular the civil code for which preparations began in 1868 – was to limit the remit of Islamic law to matters of family, inheritance and marriage. With regard to education, the other sphere in which the clerical establishment had a traditional monopoly, an alternative to the theological colleges had first been established in the eighteenth century with the technically-oriented vocational schools intended to provide trained personnel for the army and navy. During the nineteenth century the number and range of such schools continued to widen: would-be bureaucrats were turned out by the mixed Muslim and non-Muslim civil service school founded in 1859, and by the lycée of Galatasaray – which was also mixed – founded in 1868 on the site of a school that had trained pages for the palace since the sixteenth century.93

This was education for the few, however: initially it was not the intention of the Tanzimat reformers to educate the masses. A small number of ordinary people benefited from the few schools established after 1839 to bridge the years between primary school and entry into the professional schools, but it was only in 1869 that a programme of general education intended to ‘mould [subjects] into citizens’94 was introduced. The 1869 regulations, though not successfully applied until after the accession of Abdülhamid II in 1876, introduced a system of primary, secondary and further education that seemed to narrow yet further the functions of the clerics.95 Nevertheless, the shortage of qualified personnel to implement the Tanzimat reforms, in conjuction with the fact that few reforms were aimed at the clerical establishment per se, meant that clerics continued to hold legal posts at all levels and were able to maintain their position as educators in the traditional system. There was also a place for them in the parallel modernizing system, teaching such subjects as religion, law, and the Arabic and Ottoman languages. As long as they retained a presence in government, and reform could be accommodated under the umbrella of Islam, clerics were prepared to take part in the process of modernization – and there was markedly less opposition to reform in the nineteenth century than there had been in earlier centuries, when far less significant innovations were in question.96

The work on the new Ottoman civil code continued for some years. Its architect, the intellectual, statesman and historian Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, was both high-ranking cleric and Tanzimat reformer. Poised to achieve the pinnacle of the clerical career as sheikhulislam, he was denied this office by his rivals and in 1866, in his forties, was forced to transfer to the bureaucracy, where his long immersion in Islamic law and culture served as a solid foundation for his continuing contribution to the re-ordering of Ottoman government. Reform as he understood it was a process that enabled Islam to incorporate western scientific and technical concepts.97 This was a goal which had inspired reformers in the past – the difference now, in the nineteenth century, was that the need for directed change was widely accepted in ruling circles. Ahmed Cevdet’s essentially conservative programme had much to recommend it to those who saw the dangers of an unconsidered imitation of western ways. But the dilemma remained: how much westernization, and of what sort?

Ahmed Cevdet Pasha was a protégé of Reşid Pasha, and his work was informed by the familiarity with western ideas and mores this association brought him. There had been talk of adopting the French civil code, but those critics who saw it as too alien an importation won the debate: the new civil code was to be based on the familiar principles of Islamic law. Where the new civil code differed from Islamic law as previously applied was in its enactment as a law of the state: it therefore applied to all subjects, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.98 Non-Muslims were, in fact, no strangers to Islamic courts: they had always had their own courts, but had often preferred to use the Islamic courts if they anticipated a more favourable judgement – such as in cases of inheritance where Islamic law provided for fixed shares of the deceased’s estate to pass to specific descendants, rather than allowing division of an estate at the whim of the deceased. The drafters of the civil code took the corpus of Islamic jurisprudence and fashioned it into 1,851 articles presented in an ordered and accessible format; the new code altered the implementation of Islamic law by codifying provisions to eliminate rulings based on individual interpretation and commentary. The drafters’ characterization of Islamic law as ‘an ocean without shores’ was an eloquent statement of the scope of their task, for the corpus that had served the Ottomans for so long had come to seem amorphous and unfathomable, and out of keeping with the spirit of modernization blowing through government circles.99Yet not everybody found Ahmed Cevdet Pasha’s painstaking efforts convincing: in 1870 the conservative sheikhulislam Hasan Fehmi Efendi succeeded, albeit for a brief time, in bringing the project within the ambit of his own department of government and obtaining Ahmed Cevdet Pasha’s dismissal, and his obdurate opposition to the importation of any western cultural values reflected the views of others of his profession at this time.

Until the Tanzimat reforms became embedded in the institutions of government and their full effect became apparent, Islam was an integral, organic facet of both public and private life. The creeping Tanzimat restriction on the administrative role of the clerical establishment brought the raison d’être of the clerics into question, and in so doing heightened the emphasis placed on their religious role. Islam, according to a modern writer, ‘had stopped being something that was lived and not questioned. Secularizing reforms had made Islam become more “Islamic” . . . This postulated cultural core was now considered as important and as characteristically Islamic as the ritual side of Islam.’100 As the old order passed and people came to realize what had been lost during the Tanzimatdecades, they felt themselves stranded in unfamiliar terrain where their cultural values no longer had their former currency101 – not the least of the factors contributing to this sense of disorientation was the pace at which their physical environment was being transformed, as the Industrial Revolution impinged upon their lives in diverse ways. What the Young Ottomans sought to emphasize and preserve was the Islamic ‘core’ at the heart of Ottoman culture.

The imperial capital to which the Young Ottoman exiles returned after Ali Pasha’s death was not the liberal haven they had hoped to find. Ali and Fuad had kept the Sultan isolated, exercising power on his behalf: in 1863, soon after his accession, they and the group of vezirs around them had tendered their resignations when Abdülaziz would not allow them to introduce the financial measures they deemed necessary to balance the budget, a battle of wills that led briefly to a change of grand vezir before first Fuad and then Ali was reinstated.102 Their monopoly of power left no obvious successor to the highest offices of state, however, and with these two men gone Abdülaziz reclaimed his role as the arbiter of state affairs, supported by his new grand vezir Mahmud Nedim Pasha, long an advocate of sultanic absolutism. Mahmud Nedim had in common with the Young Ottomans an insistence on the Islamic character of the Ottoman state, but there the similarity ended.103

Despite Fuad Pasha and Ali Pasha’s best efforts, by 1871 the finances of the Ottoman Empire were in ruins. Banks were first established in the empire from the 1840s as trade with Europe grew following the commercial conventions of the late 1830s, and during the Crimean War the Ottoman government resorted for the first time to foreign loans. The costs involved in implementing reforms, restructuring the economy, and servicing the loans were high – and debt mounted inexorably. Sultan Abdülaziz’s reign was notable particularly for his attention to the Ottoman fleet; he intended it to be the equal of those of France and Britain, and by the end of his reign in 1876 it comprised 20 battleships, 4 ships of the line, 5 frigates, 7 corvettes and 43 cargo ships. The first short stretches of rail track – in the İzmir area and between Cernavoda on the Danube and Constanţa on the Black Sea coast – had been laid during the reign of Abdülmecid; Abdülaziz expanded the network, awarding an Austrian company the concession for a proposed Istanbul–Paris line – of which the section from Istanbul to Sofia opened in 1873, as did a line connecting Istanbul and İzmit. Internal communications were further strengthened with the improvement and building of roads in Rumeli, Anatolia and Syria; merchant shipping transported goods along the lengthy coasts of the empire, and on the great rivers such as the Tigris and the Euphrates; and the telegraph system, first used during the Crimean War, was subsequently expanded to reach deep into the provinces.104 With this rapidly developing communications network the agricultural crops and minerals so eagerly sought by European merchants could easily be brought from their source for transport onwards to the capitalist economies of the industrial West.

Under the impact of the Tanzimat and with the exposure of the Ottomans as never before to the rest of the world and to the transformations that were affecting it, the Ottoman sense of identity was being undermined as old certainties were called into question. The sense of foreboding felt throughout Muslim society – from the Young Ottoman intellectuals and the clerical establishment to the peasants whose lot was not in any way improved by what appeared to them to be unwarranted concessions to their non-Muslim fellows – was fed by the deepening financial crisis, exacerbated by an international stock market crash in 1873 which made it impossible for the Ottoman government to raise further external loans. Floods and drought brought famine across Anatolia – and the deaths that followed in their wake deprived the treasury of tax revenues. In 1875 the government announced that it could not meet its debt repayments, and declared a moratorium.105

The outcome of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 saw France defeated and Britain left alone to champion the preservation of the Ottoman Empire and, in particular, the neutrality of the Straits. Russia seized its chance and, citing violations of the Treaty of Paris of 1856, achieved the abrogation of those clauses that had prevented Russian warships from entering the Black Sea. The conservative Powers were now in the ascendant: in 1872 the emperors of Austria-Hungary and Russia travelled to Berlin to honour the first emperor of Germany, at which time these three absolutist states reached an informal understanding interpreted elsewhere in Europe as a gesture against the rising tide of liberalism. But in the Balkans the interests of two of these three powers were in conflict: while Russia dreamed of bringing all Slavs under her influence, not excluding those in Austria-Hungary, Austria-Hungary was fearful of nationalist agitation among these same populations. Since the Crimean War Austria had faced this dilemma – whether to align herself with France and Britain whose liberalism implied self-determination for minorities, or with Russia, whose size and Orthodoxy threatened to overshadow her and whip up Slav agitation.

The troubles of flood, drought and famine that beset rural Anatolia in the early 1870s had their effect in the towns and cities of the Balkans, where the drop in tax revenues from the stricken areas to the east of Istanbul due to the collapse of their agricultural economy led to increased taxation to compensate. In July 1875 an uprising against the increased taxation broke out in the Ottoman border province of Herzegovina, and soon spread to neighbouring Bosnia, which was of immediate concern to Austria-Hungary. Russia and Austria-Hungary intervened diplomatically, proposing a number of administrative reforms in these two provinces, but although Sultan Abdülaziz was forced to accept that reforms must be made this failed to stem the unrest, merely demonstrating to his subjects yet again that the Ottoman sultan was unable to stand up to outside pressure.106

The profound cultural dislocation and humiliation being experienced by the majority of Ottoman Muslims found expression at this juncture in strident criticism of the government for its appeasement of foreign powers. In March 1876 there appeared in Istanbul a clandestinely-published pamphlet entitled ‘Manifesto for Muslim Patriots’ calling for a representative, consultative assembly; it is likely that Midhat Pasha, who had become one of the foremost advocates of constitutional reform, had a hand in it.107

Among the theological students who were the ‘Muslim Patriots’ in question the demands of the Young Ottomans for a constitution had found an audience, as during the early days of May thousands of them massed on the streets of Istanbul, like discontented janissaries and artisans before them. They held impassioned meetings in the main mosques, criticizing the government and clamouring for the dismissal of the pro-Russian grand vezir Mahmud Nedim Pasha and Sheikhulislam Hasan Fehmi Efendi. The palace acceded to their demands – after some hesitation – but this did not calm the agitation, and the Sultan himself was maligned. In an effort to stop the spread of news and rumour which was inflaming the situation he ordered the imposition of press censorship and the suspension of telegraphic communication, to no avail: at the end of a month during which the tension in Istanbul threatened an outbreak of violence at any moment, Sultan Abdülaziz was deposed.108

Several leading state officials were complicit in the plot to remove Abdülaziz; those most closely involved were the conservative minister of war Hüseyin Avni Pasha, the president of the military council Redif Pasha, and the director of the military academy Süleyman Hüsnü Pasha. The frustration and apprehension felt at the centre of power were palpable, and Hüseyin Avni expressed one area of concern in conversation with Süleyman Hüsnü when the possibility of removing Abdülaziz was broached:

The rumour that Mahmud Nedim Pasha will again become Grand Vezir is gaining strength. There is no doubt that the country will suffer the oppression and invasion of Russia. Sultan Abdül Aziz is a Russophile. The signs of collapse and peril in state affairs strike the eye.109

In his subsequent account of these events and of his part in them, from which this quotation comes, Süleyman Hüsnü Pasha related that Hasan Fehmi Efendi’s successor as sheikhulislam, Hayrullah Efendi, had a dream he interpreted as divine sanction for the deposition, expressing his concern that the plotters should not later be accused of having carried out an illegitimate act. The dream allowed Hayrullah Efendi to issue a favourable juridical ruling for Abdülaziz’s deposition, and this enabled Süleyman Hüsnü to assert that ‘our objective will be quite legal and easily accomplished in a manner that will not permit of attack’.110

The coup d’état was carefully planned. Abdülaziz was at the waterside palace of Dolmabahçe, as was the next-in-line, Abdülmecid’s eldest son Murad: the problem for the conspirators was how to bring Prince Murad out from his quarters, so that he could be proclaimed sultan, without arousing suspicion. Before daybreak on 30 May, Süleyman Hüsnü Pasha and his military escort entered the palace to find Prince Murad – who had been kept abreast of the deposition plans – waiting for them; they concealed him in a carriage and took him to a caique, which crossed the water to Sirkeci, from where he continued in another carriage to the war ministry in the Bayezid quarter of the city (the building now houses the rector’s office of Istanbul University). Here the oath of allegiance was sworn by Grand Vezir Mehmet Rüştü Pasha, Hüseyin Avni Pasha, Hayrullah Efendi, Midhat Pasha, and a number of other statesmen including ‘Abd al-Muttalib, the Sharif of Mecca. Next, it was necessary to remove Abdülaziz from Dolmabahçe before Sultan Murad returned. Under cover of darkness the palace was surrounded by troops on the landward side, and a naval cordon held the Bosporus: cannon fired from these vessels according to the conspirators’ carefully co-ordinated plans woke Abdülaziz, and news of his deposition was brought to him. He and his household, including his two eldest sons, his mother and his under-chamberlain Fahri Bey, were put in caiques and ferried in the pouring rain to the shore below Topkapı Palace, where a mean carriage and a pack-animal waited to convey the party to its new quarters in the palace.111 Meanwhile, Sultan Murad V crossed the water back to Dolmabahçe.112

The conspirators were indeed lucky that their actions were not discovered. Just before he left the palace, Murad sent a note to his brother Abdülhamid saying: ‘They are taking me away and I do not know how or why. I entrust my children and household first to God and secondly to you’; the terrified Abdülhamid feared a similar attempt on his own life and called for weapons to be brought so that he could defend himself. This ruse succeeded but Murad’s departure from Dolmabahçe with Süleyman Hüsnü Pasha and his men was observed by Sultan Abdülaziz’s servants from the windows of the palace; they assumed, however, that the prince was being taken away because he had committed a crime for which they expected that he would be banished or executed.113

With a new sultan came expectations that a new era was about to begin. As Süleyman Hüsnü Pasha recounted in his memoir, on the very day of Murad’s accession, Midhat Pasha – at the time minister without portfolio – presented to his colleagues a draft accession speech he had prepared, by which Murad V would proclaim his promise of constitutional rule and ministerial responsibility. The opposition of the Grand Vezir and Hüseyin Avni Pasha to so bold a change in the direction of the state resulted in the final version containing only vague references to this sensitive issue, however, and heated exchanges between leading statesmen who subsequently met to discuss the future left the way ahead no clearer than it had been before the deposition of Abdülaziz.114

Still more dramatic events were to come. Abdülaziz did not like Topkapı Palace, and four days after his arrival there he and his immediate household were moved to Feriye Palace, on the Bosporus shore north of Çırağan Palace (his rejection of Sultan Murad’s offer of Beylerbeyi pleased Hüseyin Avni Pasha, who considered it too hard to police).115 Ahmed Cevdet Pasha noted wryly in his memoirs that the apartments in which Abdülaziz lodged had been built by him for Murad and were constructed as stoutly as a fortress, as though the deposed sultan had prepared a prison for himself; and he saw further irony in the fact that having lavished so much money on his passion of building up a modern fleet, Abdülaziz should have found himself under naval blockade.116 But even on the Bosporus life was intolerable. In his intimate account of his master’s humiliation, Fahri Bey described how those guarding the former sultan taunted him, and denied him and his household even the bare essentials of life such as clean drinking water.117 Within a few days Abdülaziz was found dead, and suicide was the unanimous verdict of the nineteen eminent physicians who examined the corpse.118

At a meeting of ministers at the house of Midhat Pasha on 15 June an army officer whose late sister had been one of Abdülaziz’s concubines burst in and shot both Hüseyin Avni Pasha and the foreign minister, Mehmed Raşid Pasha. The officer, Çerkes (‘Circassian’) Hasan, had been aide-de-camp to Abdülaziz’s eldest son, Prince Yusuf İzzeddin, and the accession of Murad destroyed his hopes that Yusuf would ever become sultan.119 So rattled were Ottoman statesmen by this insolent murder that they and their families took to carrying a revolver or dagger wherever they went. Çerkes Hasan was strung up in a tree in Bayezid Square.120

With Hüseyin Avni Pasha removed from the scene, those who favoured the introduction of a liberal constitution were in the ascendant, their cause championed by Midhat Pasha. Although his intellectual background was very different from theirs and the relations between them were at times uneasy, Midhat Pasha shared with the Young Ottomans the conviction that a constitutional assembly was an essential component of reform; he also maintained that the deposition of Abdülaziz as a precursor to constitutional reform was in accordance with the popular will.121 But the new sultan seemed incapable of action: the circumstances of his sudden elevation to the sultanate under armed escort, followed by the shock of the untimely deaths of Abdülaziz and two of his ministers, had apparently left him mentally paralysed. The realization began to dawn on his statesmen that he was quite unsuited to rule over the empire at this time of crisis.122

Sultan Murad V occupied the throne for only three months before the advice of doctors who diagnosed him as unfit to rule and a juridical opinion legitimizing the removal of a sultan who was insane paved the way for his deposition. As a contemporary jingle put it, ‘In [year] ’93 [of the Islamic calendar] he was padişah of the world for 93 days; [then,] Sultan Murad the disappointed went into retirement’. In the years before he found himself caught up in the political turmoil of the Ottoman succession, his mental health had not been in question. He had led the unfettered life of any European heir-apparent, travelling to Egypt and Europe with Abdülaziz in the 1860s, and taking part in the fashionable salon life of Istanbul where he met intellectuals, society belles and visiting foreigners alike. He loved music and was an accomplished composer, as well as a woodworker and furniture-maker. In the early 1870s, when Young Ottoman intellectuals returned from Paris on the death of Ali Pasha, Murad had lent an eager ear to one of their leading thinkers, Namık Kemal.* On 31 August 1876 Murad’s brother took his place, as Sultan Abdülhamid II; Murad was kept under house arrest in the Çırağan Palace.


During these very months, and in part as a consequence of these very events, the Ottomans were in danger of losing the support of the one ally on whom they had counted since the beginning of the century. Britain, so long regarded as a true friend of the empire, put her faith in the post-Crimean War settlement as the best hope of restraining Russian expansionism. But Ottoman state bankruptcy, nationalist uprisings and the speedy deposition of two sultans could only reinforce the opinion of critics of Britain’s long-standing policy that it was time for that policy to change. Britain’s relations with the Ottoman Empire had of course never been purely disinterested; what finally tilted the balance was the indignation of British public opinion at news of the violent suppression in April 1876 of a Bulgarian popular uprising in the Plovdiv area, midway between Edirne and Sofia, by irregular forces of Circassians who had been displaced from the Muslim states of the Caucasus after 1864 following Russian seizure of their homeland, and settled near Plovdiv by the Ottomans. The massacres of Christians in the Plovdiv area were indeed greater than any that had gone before, but the number of dead in the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’, as they were referred to in the contemporary British press and thereafter, was exaggerated with the connivance of Russia’s ambassador in Istanbul, Count Nikolai Ignatiev – and Gladstone added his voice to the outcry, without pausing to consider the historical circumstances which had brought the Circassians to the Balkans. As one modern historian reminds us,

[The Circassians] must have developed a distrust, perhaps hatred, of Christians because of their experiences in the Caucasian wars and their forced exile from their homeland. Circassians had also been subjected to torture and other atrocities by Bulgarians fighting in Serbia and Bosnia. To them the enemy was easily identified. The Russians, whom they had long known and hated, and the Bulgarians must have appeared little different from one another.123

Not for the first time, the agitated British and other Europeans ignored the inconvenient fact that there were also many Muslims dead at the hands of the rebels.124

The massacres provoked particular outrage in Russia. For all its militant posturing with regard to Ottoman Orthodox Christians and Ottoman Slavs, Russia had until now hesitated to champion nationalist causes lest they encourage its own significant non-Russian populations to seek an independent future125 – but when Serbian and Montenegrin troops crossed into Bulgaria from the west in July 1876 and were defeated by Ottoman forces, Russia mobilized for war. Britain now saw little utility in continuing to prop up the Ottoman Empire, and intervened to organize a conference of the Powers to settle the matter. The proposals put forward by this conference would have had the effect of confining Ottoman rule in Europe to Albania, the north Aegean coast and eastern Thrace; the Ottoman government rejected them and made peace with Serbia, even as the Powers were paring down their demands to a vaguely-expressed hope for reforms in Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia refused to demobilize and, following her declaration of war on 24 April 1877, the region was plunged into a conflict during the course of which Russian troops advanced through Ottoman territory to Edirne – meeting strong resistance only at the fortress of Pleven, in northern Bulgaria – while in the east her forces advanced towards Erzurum. The war ended on 31 January 1878 with an armistice concluded at Edirne. Since the end of the Crimean War the Ottomans had enjoyed almost twenty years of international peace; the renewed struggle with Russia was to cost them dear.

Neither Austria nor Britain was prepared to concede Russia’s success; a few days after the Russian–Ottoman armistice a British fleet moved to anchor off the Princes’ Islands off Istanbul, prompting the Russian army in the Balkans to advance to the seaside town of Yeşilköy (San Stefano), close by the modern city’s main airport, with orders to occupy the capital if the British ships moved into the Bosporus. War between Britain and Russia threatened – but was avoided. The terms Russia imposed on the Ottomans in the Treaty of San Stefano were severe: Bulgaria – stretching from the Black Sea to the Aegean – was to be autonomous, as were Bosnia and Herzegovina; Romania (the state founded in 1861 comprising the former Ottoman vassal states of Wallachia and Moldavia), Serbia and Montenegro would all receive Ottoman territory and be independent; while in the east the provinces of Kars, Ardahan, Batum and Doğubayezid would become Russian. Greece was particularly alarmed at Russia’s unilateralist stance since Macedonia and other regions considered ‘Greek’, rather than Slav, were included in the new Bulgaria Russia sought to create; and Britain and Austria registered their anger. Diplomatic necessity was on the side of the objectors, however, because the far-reaching territorial reorganization in the Balkans envisaged by Russia was so radical a modification of the Treaty of Paris that it required consultation with the signatories to that treaty. The terms Russia dictated to the Ottomans at San Stefano were diluted to some extent at the Congress held in Berlin between 13 June and 13 July 1878, attended by representatives of Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Italy and France; the Congress resulted in the Treaty of Berlin, which effectively marked the end of centuries of Ottoman sovereignty in the Balkans.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin Bulgaria was partitioned three ways: Russian influence was assured in the newly-autonomous northern section, a semi-autonomous province of Eastern Rumeli was created in the central region, and the southern part remained under Ottoman rule. Russia also acquired southern Bessarabia, together with Batum, Kars and Ardahan. Russia might have been able to overcome the Ottoman army as a result of the improvements in armaments and military administration, and the widening of military service introduced since the Crimean War, but was not powerful enough to withstand pressure from Britain and Austria. In yielding to them in Berlin Russia has been said by modern historians to have lost the peace.126 Nevertheless, Russia managed to impose a war indemnity on the Ottomans, amounting to 802.5 million French Francs, in lieu of territory it had won and then withdrawn from under the terms of the treaty. Russia had no investments in the empire and therefore no share in the Ottoman debt, and saw the indemnity as an opportunity to share in the financial rewards enjoyed by the other Powers at the expense of its erstwhile foe. By claiming that Russia had a first call on any available funds successive Russian ambassadors were able to counter investment projects of rival Powers and of the Ottoman government itself, which might have brought some prosperity to the empire.127

Austria-Hungary was not itself involved in the war of 1877–8, but the stability of the Balkans required that it receive gains to balance those of Russia, and it was accordingly awarded Bosnia and Herzegovina. The independence of Serbia, Romania and Montenegro was formally recognized at Berlin but, as was perhaps inevitable, the way in which their boundaries were determined left these states dissatisfied. Before the Congress met in Berlin the Sultan had relinquished control of Cyprus to Britain in exchange for an annual payment and a vaguely-worded promise concerning military assistance against future Russian aggression in eastern Anatolia – and for fear that the British would not otherwise support the Ottomans at Berlin.128 Britain thus acquired a Near Eastern ‘forward base’ from which to counteract any potential threat to the Ottoman Empire from Russia in the east – for Russia, its territorial ambitions in the Balkans curbed, now shifted its strategic focus to Central Asia, and the fate of the Ottoman Empire became linked more closely than ever before to the security of British routes to India.

The war of 1877–8 and the Treaty of Berlin that ended it hastened the culmination of a process begun with the defeats suffered by the Ottomans at the hands of the Habsburgs in the last years of the seventeenth century: the empire lost more than a third of its territory, and much of its non-Muslim population. The only significant remaining non-Muslim communities, the Greeks and Armenians, were less clearly concentrated than the Serbs, Bulgarians and others, and did not apparently present the same threat of further geographical separatism. Nevertheless, the Ottoman pledge of reform in the Armenian provinces of east and north-east Anatolia, discussed with the British in negotiations over the Cyprus Convention and included in the Treaty of Berlin following Armenian lobbying of European statesmen, boded ill for the future, although reform was a mere shadow of the independence or autonomy some had sought.129 Many Ottoman Greeks had benefited economically from the reforming edicts of 1839 and 1856, but there were those nevertheless who deserted the empire for independent Greece. Some who did so found life in their ‘homeland’ less satisfying than what they had left behind – Athens at independence was a provincial town in ruins, with nothing to offer sophisticated Ottoman Greeks comparable with the culture and financial rewards of such cities as Istanbul, Thessalonica and İzmir – and they later returned.130

Austria-Hungary’s occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Treaty of Berlin was not altogether satisfactory; it proved to be a liability for Vienna, upsetting the delicate internal equilibrium of the Habsburg Empire by bringing under Austrian administration a population that was largely Serb and Orthodox, and therefore susceptible to the blandishments of Russia’s new creed of pan-Slavism. Hungary’s experience since 1867 in attempting to ‘Magyarize’ its own Slav population made its leaders uneasy at the prospect of accepting political and administrative control over still more. Not only that, the many Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina also now came under Vienna’s control – the Ottoman headache of competing nationalisms had spread to Austria-Hungary.131 Austria-Hungary was now, like the Ottoman Empire, a state of diverse nationalities and religions; and, again like the Ottoman Empire, too weak to resist Russia, with which it was allied. Britain’s loss of patience with the Ottomans was in part a response to the fact that following the Treaty of Berlin there was little Ottoman Balkan territory left to be protected against Russian or Austrian designs. Now, the conundrum for all the Powers with interests in the region was how to find a new framework to ensure the stability of the often less than viable independent or semi-autonomous Balkan states that succeeded the Ottoman Empire.

* When Murad came to the throne Namık Kemal returned from three years’ internal exile on Cyprus, occasioned by the rapturous reception accorded to The Fatherland, a play he had written about the Muslim and Turkish peoples’ embrace of the concept of patriotism – a notion that Abdülaziz found too threatening, especially when the audience began to call for Murad (Sakaoğlu, art. Murad V, İst. Ansik. 5.510–12).

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