The Ottoman Empire’s No 2 man
The Grand Vizier receiving an ambassador at the Imperial Council. By Jean-Baptiste Van Mour.“We fetched our horses and waited until all the Sultan’s senior officials had ridden past on their fine horses. This was an extremely lovely spectacle. Grand Vizier Azem Ibrahim Pasha, in particular, was remarkable in all his grandness, accompanied by other dignitaries, no fewer than three rows deep. Wherever he looked, people bowed before him and showed deference to him as the second in command of the empire. He responded in a mild and dignified manner, with a slight inclination of the head.” [Quoted from Johan Raye’s travel notes in “Palais de Hollande in Istanbul” by Marlies Hoenkamp-Mazgon]
Of the 284 grand viziers that served as the “second in command” of the Ottoman Empire, fewer than half were Turkish, according to figures supplied by Muammer Yılmaz in his recent book “Maktül Osmanlı Sadrazamları.” The author goes on to give the following figures: 121 Turks, 22 Albanians, 10 Georgians, 10 Bosnians, six Abazians, five Circassians, three Rums (Greek), two Italians, two Herzegovinians, one Arabian, one Russian and one Bulgarian.
Origin of the post
The Ottomans, as they grew larger and expanded further in Anatolia, drew on the Seljuks of Konya and earlier Muslim states going back as far as the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258) for examples of how to establish their state administration. At the head of the state was the caliph or sultan and just beneath him was his deputy. Under the Ottoman Turks this person was called the vezir-i alem or the sadr-ı azam (sadrazam). The encyclopediast Pakalin notes that the two titles were in use at the same time and both indicate something similar to the highest dignitary. It’s tempting to suggest “prime minister,” but the translation of choice remains “grand vizier.” This official might at times be merely the executive arm of the ruler or he might have held the right to act in place of the ruler. This depended upon how active the monarch was.
The first Ottoman grand vizier is considered to have been Çandarlı Halil Paşa under Fatih Sultan Mehmed although members of this family had served the Ottoman rulers for four generations. Halil Paşa was the grand vizier throughout the conquest of Constantinople but was dismissed and executed the same year probably because Fatih Mehmed suspected him of treachery involving the Byzantines.
When the sultan next appointed a grand vizier, he chose someone who was from among the “kapı kulu,” or slave officials, rather than a free Muslim. This situation continued until Kanuni Sultan Süleyman (Suleiman the Magnificent), who wished to retire towards the end of his reign and delegated more and more authority to the grand vizier. Kanuni’s immediate successors were also more concerned with their personal interests than with governing the state and allowed the grand vizier more leeway in making his own decisions.
The grand vizier’s power
Gibb and Bowen in their book, “Islamic Society and the West,” describe the grand vizier’s duties as follows: “The Grand Vezir, though he was the Sultan’s ‘absolute representative,’ had no direct authority over two important institutions of state, namely, the Imperial Household and the ‘Learned Profession.’ But otherwise he was all-powerful, controlling all appointments both in the army and the administration. He was further required not only to manage the affairs of the army but also, if necessary, to command it in war, and to supervise the preservation of law and order in the capital. Moreover, he represented the Sultan as chief dispenser of justice.”
The person who was chosen to be the grand vizier was entrusted with the sultan’s seal, or mühür. Dismissal would be announced by asking for the return of the seal. Sultan Ahmed III’s seal is made of gold and is preserved at Topkapı Palace Museum; however, it’s interesting to note that Muammer Yılmaz describes the seal given to Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damad İbrahim Paşa as an emerald signet ring. Perhaps there was more than one type. Anyway, the seal was used not only for signing documents but also had to be used to “seal” a number of depositories and records.
As the absolute representative of the sultan, the grand vizier was also committed to maintaining various ceremonial practices. Anyone entering the presence of the sultan was obliged to kiss the hem of his robe or his sleeve. The same applied to anyone who approached the grand vizier. This apparently applied to certain members of the imperial household who were assigned to wait upon the pleasure of the grand vizier, even though he had no specific control over them.
Until 1654, the grand vizier maintained his position out of his own private house although that might be better described as a mansion or even a palace. It was highly unlikely that the sultan would appoint a man of scant means to the position. After all, the ruler would expect the grand vizier to be able to support his position and carry on a number of rather expensive traditions that had arisen over the years. One of these was providing feasts and entertainments during the month of Ramadan. Of course he would be expected to present valuable gifts to the sultan on special occasions. In 1654 Sultan Mehmed IV presented his grand vizier Derviş Mehmed Paşa with an official residence that became what we know as the Sublime Porte or Bab-ı Ali. It was large so that it could include that various bureaucrats and their staffs needed to run the empire.
Being grand vizier wasn’t a very secure position because it depended on the favor of the sultan. According to Yılmaz, 44 grand viziers were executed at the order of the sultan and 11 died during rebellions. When Damad Ali Paşa, for example, was disastrously defeated at the Battle of Petrovaradin in 1716, Sultan Ahmed III immediately sent orders for him to be executed even though the man was married to his daughter. Ali Paşa escaped execution because he was fortunate enough to have been killed during the battle. He was even proclaimed a martyr. On the other hand Damad İbrahim Paşa was given up to mob justice by the sultan in order to save his own life in 1730. How fickle a person with absolute power as a sultan can be.