Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II, yesterday and today
Ahead of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Athens in November 2017, Greek police detained nine people over a suspected plot by an outlawed far-leftist group to assassinate the Turkish leader. Police in the Greek capital reportedly found bomb-making equipment and weapons that Turkish Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) militants planned to use in a rocket attack on Erdoğan’s convoy.
News of the plot carried a whiff of the past. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries there was a spate of attacks on European heads of state. “Anarchists” and others targeted the symbols of repressive regimes, with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I, Belgium’s Leopold II, Spain’s Alfonso XIII all surviving serious assassination attempts. Russian Tsar Alexander I, French President Sadi Carnot, Italian King Umberto I, U.S. President William McKinley, Portuguese King Carlos I, and Greek King George I were all killed.
“To Kill a Sultan” is a stimulating volume of nine essays examining the incident. Edited by Houssine Alloul and Henk de Smaele of the University of Antwerp and Edhem Eldem of Boğaziçi University, it emerged from a conference in the Netherlands bringing together Turkish and European historians of the era. The focus is academic but the incident itself touches on issues that echo through the decades: International law, terrorism, diplomacy, imperialism, nationalism, mass media, Turkey-Europe relations.
Among the reasons why the incident resonated so much in Europe was the involvement of Edward Joris, a young Flemish man operating alongside the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Joris was arrested by the Ottoman authorities a week after the attempt and sentenced to death, stirring outrage in European public opinion. Petitions, press campaigns and rallies argued that Joris had struck a blow for liberty against a barbaric Oriental regime. Liberal opinion makers depicted Abdülhamid II as a bloodthirsty despot, the “Red Sultan” responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Armenians in Adana in the 1890s. As described by Northwestern University historian İpek Yosmaoğlu: “the mobilization in favor of Joris tended to harden the boundaries between West and East. Orientalist and racist stereotypes were often replicated and disseminated in order to frame the Ottoman as the opposite of a world where humanist values supposedly became ever more predominant.”
But to many of his own subjects too, Abdulhamid II represented the pinnacle of autocracy. He had suspended the first ever Ottoman constitution in February 1878, descending into grim absolutism in response to secessionist movements among the empire’s many minorities. He weaved a tangled web of spies and eavesdroppers from his secluded Yıldız Palace in Istanbul, imprisoning political activists and censoring newspapers. He once banned all references to large noses in political caricatures and writing because of his own disproportionate nose.
All this feels rather familiar today. Indeed, the figure of Abdülhamid II is among the most used and abused in contemporary Turkey, with an idealized image of him becoming revered among conservative Islamists. He is seen as the “Supreme Sultan,” the last proudly Islamic Ottoman leader standing up to the West and uniting the Muslim world. His reign is said to be a guide to historical currents that remain important today. “Payitaht,” a popular series on state broadcaster TRT, narrates the final years of Abdülhamid’s rule, depicting a pious sultan besieged by traitorous Zionists, freemasons and imperialists. Speaking at a public rally, President Erdoğan recently said young people should watch “Payitaht” to “understand our history” and “know what we once were.”
As Eldem writes in the epilogue to this volume, Ottoman history – not just the reign of Abdülhamid II – is plagued by crude ideological readings. “The Yıldız bombing of 1905 is certainly not the only case in Ottoman history that has received less scholarly attention than it has attracted politically motivated interest,” he suggests. “On the Turkish side, nationalism – in all its shades and variations – is particularly prone to corrupt the very essence of research by preempting and hijacking almost all existing discourses. On the Western front, Orientalism and its derivatives, however diluted, still play a major role in marginalizing and othering Ottoman history.”
It certainly must be demoralizing to be a serious scholar of Ottoman history these days. But while popular ideologues are focused on bulldozing all the subtleties and fascinating contradictions of that past, intricate volumes like “To Kill a Sultan” show that the craft of the historian remains valuable.