The Sultan who gave the world the Lale Devri
Sultan Ahmed III picnicking with attendants by Vanmour.30/31 December 1673. The place was Hacıoğlupazarı, a not very large trading town in today’s Bulgaria that at the time was serving as the headquarters of the Ottoman army and the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed IV. Mah-Pare Ummatullah (Emetullah) Rabi’a Gul-Nus, a Greek from Crete who was such a favorite of the sultan’s that he brought her along with him on campaigns, gave birth to a second son who was named Ahmed. The Ottoman army had suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Khotyn the previous month and the weather must have been atrocious, since the young concubine’s carriage got stuck in the mud and had to be dug out.
Ahmed apparently was a healthy child and undoubtedly benefited from spending much of his childhood in Edirne, because his father preferred living there. Hunting was Mehmed IV’s favorite pastime and there were abundant opportunities in the vicinity. The palace at Edirne was more spread out than at Topkapı and, likely, protocol was less taxing. Ahmed would have had a traditional education that included religion, history, the Arabic/Persian languages and all of the skills that were thought necessary for a young Ottoman prince, even though he had a brother (Mustafa II) who was nine years older than he and was to succeed to the throne. The tradition of murdering one’s brothers lest they get fancy ideas of taking over one’s throne was in abeyance, although, if there was any lingering paranoia, Ahmed never showed it. He was 22 when Mustafa became sultan. He inherited his father’s love of hunting and undoubtedly was a skilled archer. He trained under and became known as a master calligrapher learning six styles of writing from calligrapher Hafiz Osman and the talik script from Veliyuddin Efendi. His interest in art and architecture must have also developed at the same time.
In 1703, Mustafa II was deposed in a revolt called the Edirne Event and Ahmed put on the throne to replace him. It must have been a scary time when a division of the Janissaries rebelled in Istanbul; they were joined by civilians and marched on Edirne. When Mustafa II realized he didn’t have sufficient backing to defeat the rebels, he resigned in favor of Ahmed.
The first years of the new sultan’s reign were spent in eliminating the rebels who had thought they could impose their will on him as they had on his brother. During that time, he concentrated on internal affairs, having moved the court back to Istanbul. He had a mosque completed in his mother’s name in Üsküdar. His first real taste of international affairs came when Swedish King Charles XII sought refuge in Ottoman territory after he was defeated by the Russians. It drew the Ottoman Empire into a war with Russia that ended with the latter’s defeat and the Treaty of Pruth in 1711. The following year, he went to Edirne to lead an army against the Russians who had failed to meet their treaty obligations, but this was abandoned when the British and Dutch were able to arrange a new treaty.
Sultan Ahmed III by Vanmour.
Ahmed must have then returned to Istanbul, for the chronicler Mehmed Raşid writes that prior to the campaign to recapture the Morea in southern Greece, meetings were held in the palace in Eyüp belonging to Ahmed’s mother in 1715. The sultan accompanied the army that left that year as far as Edirne, because he and the court were there for the next two and a half to three years. Only after the significant defeat inflicted on the Ottomans at Petrovaradin in 1716, the loss of Belgrade the following year and the Treaty of Pasarofca in 1718, did peace return to the Ottoman Empire with the exception of the Iranian Wars. By this time Nevşehirli İbrahim Paşa had been married to Ahmed’s daughter Fatma and was made grand vizier. The entire court returned to Istanbul in 1718 and apparently didn’t return to Edirne during Ahmed’s lifetime. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who saw the sultan in Edirne in 1717, described him as follows: “The sultan appeared to us a handsome man of about forty, with something, however, severe in his countenance, and his eyes very full and black. He happened to stop under the window where he stood, and (I suppose being told who we were) looked upon us very attentively, so that we had full leisure to consider him.”
The return of Sultan Ahmed III and his court to Istanbul has been taken as the beginning of the Lale Devri (Tulip Period), a term that wasn’t applied to this 12-year period (1718-1730) until 1918, although he became interested in tulips earlier. As his interest in tulips increased, he had a tulip garden planted in front of the palace’s privy audience hall and equipped it with crystal chandeliers for lighting. That he could leave most of the work of governing to his son-in-law Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Paşa probably suited his temperament quite well. We know he loved garden parties and conversational evenings. He read widely and he himself composed poetry, as did many other members of his court.
His interest in architecture led him to build the beautiful fountain that is right outside the imperial gate leading into the first courtyard of Topkapı Palace. Within the walls of the palace, he had the library that bears his name erected, wielding the pickaxe his grandfather had used in laying the foundation for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque to lay the foundation here. And then of course there was the fabled Sadabad, an imperial village constructed in 1722 in 60 days on the north bank of the Golden Horn. It consisted of a palace, a harem section with hamams, kiosks, mansions and gardens where the Kağıthane Stream ran through the area. Music, poetry recitations, contests, entertainment on the Golden Horn, tulips and even turtles walking through the gardens with candles on their backs to illuminate the night – all within sight of the people of Istanbul who weren’t invited. Ahmed III had a deep friendship with İbrahim Paşa, who clearly relieved him of many of the burdens of governing. The sultan undoubtedly took a strong interest in supporting İbrahim’s interests, such as setting up the first printing press for books in Ottoman Turkish, factories to produce tiles and paper, a fire department and ambassadorial embassies to European countries and Iran, whose members were instructed to describe what they saw in addition to their diplomatic duties.
The people of Istanbul were less than enchanted with what they perceived to be huge expenditures laid out for the entertainment of the court. In 1730 they found a leader in a Janissary named Patrona Halil. Within a short period of time, Patrona Halil was able to gather a sizeable group of rebels and laid siege to Topkapı Palace. Ahmed had to sacrifice his friend İbrahim Paşa in order to save his own life, but it still cost him his throne. The Lale Devri ended and we hear nothing more of Ahmed III, kept in close confinement until his death in 1736.