Regal audiences for Ottoman and foreign ambassadors
'Dutch Ambassador Cornelis Calkeon received by Sultan Ahmed III,' by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour.For the Ottomans, the concept of ambassador as someone who was stationed in a foreign country where he represented his own country was late in coming. Nor was diplomatic immunity a concept that was honored 100 percent of the time. Certainly there were plenty of examples starting from the 17th century when the first European ambassadors applied for residency in Istanbul. Prior to that, embassies came for specific reasons and left when they had accomplished their goals or finally realized that they couldn’t.
The first Ottoman mission occurred in 1417. It was sent to Venice to convey a maritime treaty signed in 1416 between Venice and the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed I (r. 1413-1421). The name of the person in charge is unknown and the record of it is not dated but it represents the first maritime treaty to regulate trade between the two countries. Over the ensuing centuries, embassies were sent to numerous countries in the Balkans, North Africa and Iran, many of them to announce the death of one sultan and the accession of another. It wasn’t until 1792 that the Ottomans posted an ambassador to a foreign country who would stay and represent the empire, in this case to England.
Of all the ambassadors that the Ottomans dispatched until 1792, only one really stood out – Yirmisekiz Mehmed Çelebi. (Yirmisekiz is Turkish for the number 28 and refers to the number of the Janissary battalion to which he had served before becoming a bureaucrat in the Ottoman treasury.) He was selected to be the ambassador to Paris by Sultan Ahmed III at the behest of his grand vizier, Nevşehirli Damad İbrahim Paşa. His appointment had the blessings of the French ambassador of the time, the Marquis de Bonnac whose support paved the way for a warm welcome when he finally reached Paris.
Yirmisekiz Mehmed Çelebi has fortunately left a report on the time he spent there and his description was probably filled out by his son, Yirmisekizzade Mehmed Sait Paşa, who accompanied him as his personal aide. The Turkish group was met at Toulon, when it arrived, by a military ceremony, a mounted tour of a park and a military band playing marches. When he reached Paris in March 1721, he was met by a marshal (one of the highest ranking military officials in France. It isn’t clear which one since there were several at the time) and a military regiment. His entry was more like a parade and people lined the route he took out of curiosity about the Turks.
Yirmisekiz Mehmet Çelebi presenting his credentials to
King Louis XV.
Gifts were exchanged as was usual as part of such embassies. It doesn’t seem that there were any specific gifts but generally included Turkish handiwork such as embroideries, silk cloth, furs and bottles of rose water according to Taha Toros in an introduction to Şevket Rado’s book, “Yirmisekiz Mehmet Çelebi’nin Fransa Seyahatnamesi.” In return, the French king presented carpets, velvet and silk cloth, pistols, a hunting rifle, a mirror and clock.
The purpose of Yirmisekiz Mehmed Çelebi’s mission had been to conclude an alliance with the French but he failed. However, he brought back ideas which were probably more important in the long run. These included the idea of a printing press (realized by the ambassador’s son a few years after their return) and gardening concepts that led to the famous grounds of Saadabad on the shores of the Golden Horn.
It may be that the recommendation of the French ambassador sufficiently greased the palms of the French aristocracy that extensive gift giving was unnecessary. Certainly Yirmisekiz Mehmed Çelebi makes no mention of it. But the shoe seems to be on the opposite foot when it came to foreign ambassadors in the Ottoman Empire. For example, Baron Wencelas Wratislaw of the Austrian Empire who wrote his memoires in 1599 refers to several Ottoman officials to whom he presented gifts of money, silver items and highly decorated clocks as he worked his way up the hierarchy in order to obtain an audience with the sultan. He never speaks of obtaining gifts in return.
In the mid-17th century we know that the Swedish diplomat Claes Ralamb was unable to persuade Sultan Mehmed IV to join his country in an alliance against Russia, having made a bad impression by not having brought precious gifts. He went away in the end without even being accorded a final audience with the grand vizier although that was customary.
On the day on which the Austrian ambassador was to present his credentials to the sultan, Wratislaw writes that he and his entourage were taken by a Janissary escort to Topkapı Palace. There the group passed through the first two courtyards; they seem to have been particularly struck by the large number of Janissaries and servants in them who managed to be extraordinarily silent. The gifts that were to be presented to the sultan were handed over to Janissaries appointed for that task and these included silver ewers, plates, pails and a variety of clocks. They would be held up outside the Audience Chamber so that the sultan could see them. When the ambassadors were led into the Audience Chamber, their hands were held, as was the custom ever since Sultan Murat I had been assassinated in 1389 by a person who had requested an audience with him. There they presented their letters of credential and kissed the sultan’s hand.
Following the audience, the group was served a meal in which the ambassadors and higher ranking members were served in a separate room with tables and chairs. The rest of their entourage had to make do with a separate but quite sumptuous repast on carpets spread on the ground – meats, soup, rice and “salads of small, and, to us, unusual and disagreeable herbs.”
A similar description of such an audience in 1824 has been given by Swedish ambassador Carl Gustaf Löwenhelm. In fact where accounts of such audiences can be found they follow a similar pattern, although some details may be different. One of these is the presentation of valuable caftans by the grand vizier prior to the audience or just after, how large the Janissary escort was and how long the ambassador might be made to wait before seeing the sultan. This shouldn’t be too surprising in that the Ottomans had a book of protocol originally laid down by Fatih Sultan Mehmed and it was only rarely amended.