Gaining the ear of the sultan at Divan-ı Hümayun

Gaining the ear of the sultan at Divan-ı Hümayun

Niki GAMM Hürriyet Daily News
Gaining the ear of the sultan at Divan-ı Hümayun The word “divan” is used in Turkish two main ways. One signifies a council or collection of advisers and the other a collection of poems. It can also mean the set of sofas on which the council members would sit. The word originated in Persian and then was taken into Arabic in the seventh century during the time of the Caliph Omar. It was used to denote the group of people who administered the lands conquered by the Arabs and the wealth obtained there.

Later, the term entered Turkish when Turkish tribes began penetrating the Middle East; the term was particular used to signify the councilors or advisers of the Seljuk Turks. So it is not surprising that the Ottoman Turks adopted the custom of having a divan or council of advisers although the first Ottoman rulers had no more than two.

The first Divan-ı Hümayun (imperial council) building, which was made of wood, was erected by Fatih Sultan Mehmed at Topkapı Palace before being expanded as the number of council members grew. The present building, which was constructed by Süleyman the Magnificent, was damaged in a destructive fire in the 17th century (1665) that destroyed much of the harem but was subsequently repaired. The exterior has inscriptions noting which sultan had ordered the restoration work.

The building consisted of three chambers. The first one, which was covered with a domed roof, was where the council met. The viziers would be seated on sofas that ran along the walls, on one of which was a grilled window. The grand vizier would take his place under this window as the representative of the sultan who could, if he wished, attend the council meetings unobserved. The valide sultan or queen mother also used this window to keep abreast of what was being discussed and decided. A curtain covered the grill opening. The walls of this chamber were covered with Kütahya tiles and a small brazier was located in the center of the floor to provide heat on cold days. From the ceiling hung a globe that ended in a tassel; this symbolized the earth and the sultan’s power.

The various secretaries who recorded the meetings were located in the second chamber and the third chamber contained the archives for the council. It was also the place where petitions would be submitted to the council and from where the answers would be returned or forwarded to the appropriate department for action.

At the beginning, meetings were held twice a week and later four times a week (Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) after morning prayers. If the sultan was on campaign, the council would travel with him. The grand vizier would pray at home before setting off with his entourage while the lesser viziers were required to pray at Hagia Sophia. They would then ride into the second courtyard of Topkapı Palace on horseback where they had to dismount and wait for the grand vizier. Only the sultan could ride into the third courtyard. After the grand vizier arrived, they would follow a strict set of rules that were laid down in the time of Fatih Sultan Mehmed. The group would be met by the Steward of the Doorkeepers (Kapıcılar Kahyası) who was the master of ceremonies for the imperial divan and lead them to the council chamber. He would also receive dignitaries such as ambassadors who would be met with great ceremony as they entered. He also carried messages from the grand vizier to the sultan. If the sultan, who was listening behind the grill, decided that he had heard enough of the council’s deliberations, he would knock against it or lift the curtain and the meeting would come to an abrupt end. The grand vizier would then gather up the various reports from the viziers and meet separately with the sultan at the Gate of Salutations where the latter would give his orders on whatever subject had been raised.

The members of the Divan-ı Hümayun, which was presided over by the grand vizier to whom the sultan had entrusted his seal of authority, included other viziers of lower rank, the two judges of Rumelia (the European side of the Ottoman Empire) and Anatolia and two treasurers during the reign of Fatih Sultan Mehmed. The council later expanded to take in four grades of vizier, the principal judge of Istanbul, the nişancı (the officer who affixed the sultan’s imperial monogram to decrees), the commander of the Janissary military corps, the lord high admiral and the minister of foreign affairs. The lord high admiral was included because of the great personal success of Hayreddin Barbarossa Paşa in the Mediterranean; however, his successors were far less talented and mostly did not even have maritime experience but undoubtedly knew their ways around palace intrigues. The şeyhülislam was not a member of the council although he might meet with the grand vizier on the sidelines. Appointments to the council were made by the sultan directly and there was no hierarchy up which one could travel to become grand vizier. Appointing new grand viziers and council members or reappointing previous ones depended on which court faction was able to persuade the sultan of its necessity. Defeat in war or slanderous accusations could result in dismissal, if not execution.

As the Ottoman Empire slowly crumbled

As the Ottomans began to perceive that their empire was no longer the glorious one it had been in the 16th century, treatises were written on what had to be done in order for it to reclaim that former glory. One advice was for the sultan to withdraw from participation in the government, leaving the reins of power in the hands of the grand vizier and the council. The historian Mehmed Raşid Efendi notes that at the beginning of the 18th century, council members met outside the council chamber, informally and presumably speaking more candidly than they might have inside the palace itself. During the 18th century, a separate building, known as the Porte or the Bab-ı Ali (Foreign Ministry), was constructed outside the palace grounds at the request of Nevşehirli Damad İbrahim Paşa although he did not live long enough to move into it. Although the sultans following the death of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1566 slowly withdrew from participating in the daily governance of the empire – with a few, short-lived exceptions – it was the relocation of the Foreign Ministry that openly showed how remote the sultan had become.